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Guest post: Thirty seconds of silence, take two

Today I am privileged to have the amazing Daisy Rain Martin guest posting for me.  We met online by chance, through writing for ProvoketiveShe is a talented writer and all-around fascinating woman.  I hope her words speak to your heart the way they do to mine.

By D. Gayo [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

I Was Silent for a Whole Thirty Seconds

A few months ago, I wrote a smokin’ article for Provoketive e-magazine that addressed the slew of anti-public school trash talk that followed the Newtown tragedy in the name of Jesus. You can read it at your own risk here: (That last paragraph was a doozy, let me tell you…)

http://provoketive.com/2012/12/17/thirty-seconds-of-silence/

I got mixed reviews, to say the least. Many people understood my angst, but others, whom I love and cherish and would never hurt to save my life, were less inspired. Insulted would be closer.

I’m not looking to rehash the argument of the public school system being to blame for our societal ills. Public schools have never inhibited a student’s freedom to pray freely and it is not the Great Satan. I don’t need to take that discussion further with people who will never see it any other way. I do believe, however, that the discussion that followed on that thread was amazing and begged some great questions:

What’s a girl to do when she sees that a portion of the church adheres to paradigms that she knows in her knower aren’t true? What’s a girl to do when it feels to her that the church has taken that collective paradigm and seemingly created a mini “subculture” of thought which makes her feel as if she’s in the wrong if she pushes up against it? What’s a girl to do when she’s accused of being (let’s see… how many have I heard?) insensitive to the Holy Spirit, deceived by the father of lies, shaped by the world, or just straight up simple-minded. I have questioned those subgroups and voiced my opinions, sending the saints screaming into their prayer closets on my behalf, while I scratch my head and try to shake it off. I’d love some wisdom on this.

But you know what? I’m also falling in love with the church again. I see Christ’s body acting with patience and compassion all the time. I was Episcopalian for a day and fed the homeless a beautiful meal (which they do all the time—it wasn’t just a one-day shot) with some beautiful friends. A lady in my church is starting a support group for people who have been abused and just can’t seem to love themselves no matter what. She has a cure! I speak at churches whose members just can’t seem to hug me tightly enough when I tell them my story. They even let me sell my book with the f-word in it! Sweet, conservative, God-lovin’ folks who have read the book—all the words—still put their hands on my cheeks and say, “Bless you, child. You went through so much, and we can see that God has brought you from a mighty long way.”

I wasn’t expecting that.

I’ve underestimated the church. I’ve overestimated the church. When is it ever going to feel ‘jussssst right’?

Carlo Carretto captured my quandary when he wrote, “How baffling you are, oh Church, and yet how I love you! How you have made me suffer, and yet how much I owe you! I would like to see you destroyed, and yet I need your presence. You have given me so much scandal and yet you have made me understand what sanctity is. I have seen nothing in the world more devoted to obscurity, more compromised, more false, and yet I have touched nothing more pure, more generous, more beautiful. How often I have wanted to shut the doors of my soul in your face, and how often I have prayed to die in the safety of your arms. No, I cannot free myself from you, because I am you, though not completely. And besides, where would I go?”

Indeed. Where would I go?

About the author (from her web site):

Daisy HeadshotThe juxtaposition that is Daisy Rain Martin stems from being born and raised in a show business family in the bright lights of Las Vegas while trying to navigate her way out of an abusive, ultra-conservative, religious home. [read more about Daisy here]

 


You can find her books here and here, and you can read her blog here.

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Please join me tomorrow when I will be reviewing Daisy’s book Juxtaposed.  Full disclosure: She sent me a (signed!) copy late last fall, but it was not in exchange for a review–favorable or otherwise.  I read the book over the winter holidays, and I decided that the review and her guest post would fit together nicely.

Undefining God

My apologies for my bad case of Blog Neglect in the last several days.  Life happened.  I have hope that things are a bit more settled now, in the aftermath of family visits and kid birthdays.

Tony Jones has issued a Challenge to Progressive Theo-Bloggers, and, like it or not, I fit most of the criteria.  I’m squeaking in before the deadline, offering my thoughts on God.  Warning: Contains things my liberal and conservative friends alike may find displeasing.

My earliest memory of having any interest in God is from around age eight.  My mother, an avid quilter, had a sewing room in our partially finished basement.  I used to love to sit down there with her, amid the bins full of fabric, thread, batting and stuffing (yes, there’s a difference, apparently), buttons, binding, and all manner of other quilting supplies.  We had a book shelf in the room, and I would quietly read while my mother marked, measured, and made the sewing machine whir.  Honestly, if there was a more spiritual place for a little girl, I can’t think of one.

Occasionally, I would talk to Mom while we were down there.  Unless she was marking something delicate, she never seemed to mind light conversation.  That basement room was a place I felt safe exposing the deepest questions of my heart.  On one of those occasions, I asked Mom,

Who is God?

My mother, not a particularly religious woman, gave me some answer about God being everywhere and in everything.  It fell pretty flat for me.  It didn’t make sense.  In fact, I remember being sort of angry, because I felt she hadn’t answered the question.  In my eight-year-old mind, God was a who, not a where or a what.

When I was first introduced to Christianity as a teen, something immediately clicked for me.  At last!  People like me, who understood God as a Someone rather than a Something.  I suppose that’s why it didn’t take me long to jump on board in the church; after all, in evangelical Christian faith, everyone knows who God is.  At long last, six years after my first query, I had an answer.

Here’s the part some of my more liberal Christian friends may find distasteful: I still believe that answer.  I still believe that God is the Trinity, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  I still believe that God is revealed to people through faith, through the Bible, and through the prompting of the Spirit.

But (and here’s where the most conservative of my friends will likely cringe) I also believe God is much, much more than that.  A common sermon illustration on the Trinity is that it is like water, ice, and steam—all the same thing, but all still H2O (this is one of my least favorite analogies, by the way, but bear with me here for a sec).  Yet “water” is much more to us than its molecular composition.  Water is for drinking, cleaning, bathing, swimming, growing crops.  Its meaning in our lives is so much deeper than what it’s made of or its properties or what it does.

That is what God is.

God is not merely the Someone we talk about in the context of the Trinity.  God is not only the creator of the universe and the author of all life.  God is . . . more.  Just more.

Long ago, I stopped trying to figure out who God is and started trying to experience God more fully.  I found out that some people take this to mean that we have to feel something during prayer or singing or listening to a sermon.  Personally, I have rarely had that happen.  Sure, I love those things.  But I don’t feel moved in the Spirit while doing them.  I’ve discovered that I meet with God in a vastly different way.

Love him or hate him, this video of Bill Hybels describes where I find God:

I find God—I feel deeply, deeply moved—in the things that wreck me.  In the things that shake me to my core, that make me sit up and say, “That cannot happen any more.  I will not take it.”  Because I believe with all my heart that this is where God lives.  This is where God works.  This is where God moves.  God exists in the places of our hearts where we are utterly, completely wrecked.  I believe we know God fully through that.  Because when we are spiritually destroyed by injustice, it’s not enough to shake our heads and say, “The world sure is going to Hell in a handbasket.”  The pain we see is what wrecks God, too.  The call is for us to become more Christ-like by doing something about it.

I doubt I’ve answered the million-dollar question of who God is.  I don’t think it’s answerable.  I don’t think we can do any more than live to experience God every day.  Where do you find God?  Where do you see God working in your life?

So, what’s purity about, anyway?

After my post last week, a friend retweeted it like so:

I liked her question.  I do think it’s important, something we should consider carefully as people of faith.  I don’t think I could fully answer it just yet, but I have an idea where we might start.

First, I don’t think that purity is merely a state of dress/undress, specific expression of sexuality, or internal thought.  It’s not about adhering to a set of rules about where the line of premarital physical expression lies.  It’s not about how much skin is or isn’t showing in public.  It’s not about avoiding anything that might cause arousal.  While those may all be ways that an individual person expresses purity, they aren’t actually purity in and of themselves.

Part of the reason why those rules and behaviors can’t define purity is that for many of them, there are further questions.  For example, is a couple who were intimate before the wedding, but then got married, still “impure” now?  Is a person who was raped “impure”?  Is it “impure” to wear a bathing suit, since more skin is showing than in pants and a shirt?  Do the same rules apply to men and women?  Is a hormone-fueled erection in math class “impure,” or only if it was caused by “lust”?  And how might “lust” be defined, anyway?  Leaving aside the question of whether homosexuality itself is sin, if one thinks it isn’t, then are partners “impure” if they are in a long-term relationship in a state where marriage isn’t legally possible?

Another problem with the set of rules is that they have to be defined very specifically and may vary from person to person.  For example, one woman I know is a very attractive person.  She wears clothes that flatter her and that feel good to her.  Her blouses are often cut lower than something I would wear, but she never looks immodest to me.  I suppose there are very strict people who might not like the way she dresses, but most people would not take issue.  Yet I’ve seen lists of “appropriate” clothing that would exclude most of what she wears, because there is too much bare skin exposed.  On the other hand, I’ve seen people wearing more clothes than she does who definitely have an air of overt sexuality about them.  There is clearly something about the underlying attitude that contributes to immodesty.

I think the clothing issue bothers me more than just about anything else.  I’ve heard guys say that girls and women should show “respect” for men by not dressing in certain ways.  Personally, I believe that if your respect for another human being starts with what you’re wearing, you’re coming at it from an entirely wrong angle.  This is true about purity and modesty in other ways, too.  The rules aren’t the launchpad for the respect.

While I don’t have a concrete, clear definition for either purity or modesty, I do think that the place to begin is long before the rules on how to get it right.  Respect for others doesn’t come from thinking about how we can keep each other “pure.”  It starts with thinking about others as real people, people who have opinions, ideas, feelings, needs, interests, beliefs.  Respect involves treating other people how we want to be treated and placing them above ourselves.

If we see others as being whole, three-dimensional people, it becomes easier to show respect.  It becomes easier to believe that the way to get others to take an interest in us is not through flaunting our bodies or sexuality, but through taking an interest in who they are as people.  It becomes easier to avoid things that objectify people for our own pleasure when we see them as complete beings.  It becomes easier to respect our partners in our intimate relationships by mutual love and care.

It’s not the Purity Manual for Impure Christians, a set of rigid rules and lines we mustn’t cross, that will keep us on the right path.  It’s seeing each and every other person as uniquely made in the image of God and treating them accordingly.  Come to think of it, that system would work pretty well for all sorts of things: Gossip, rudeness, disrespect for authority, lying, bullying, poor management of money, ignoring the poor and needy, and so on.

Huh.  Maybe that’s what Jesus had in mind, after all.

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.

Why I’m not a fundamentalist

There is a somewhat negative connotation to the word “fundamentalist” (in my opinion, with good reason and a measure of accuracy).  But the kind of black-and-white thinking associated with fundamentalism is actually present in the majority of conservative Christianity (“evangelical” or not) to at least some extent.  Most churches teach a variation on exactly the same theme.  The sad part about it is that this theme isn’t “ancient.”  It isn’t a Jewish theme, and it isn’t even present in the oldest forms of Christianity.  Not the way it’s taught now, anyway.  This excerpt sums it up nicely:

The overarching story of fundamentalism, based on a highly literal and selective interpretation of the story of the Bible itself, goes something like this: God created the world; man was created good; Adam and Eve sinned; man was corrupted, and came under God’s condemnation, specifically the judgment of eternal punishment, i.e. hell; God sent Jesus to take the punishment for us; if we become (properly born-again) Christians, we will go to heaven and be saved from hell. It is a story about good versus evil, God versus Satan. It is a story in which the world is a battleground between the two.

When you become a fundamentalist Christian, typically by being “born again”, you become a part of that story. A distant and alien story about God and a group of people thousands of years ago becomes the story of how you yourself, two millennia after the cross, crossed over onto the right path and became destined for heaven.

You will join a community where the big story will be told over and over again, whether explicitly or implicitly, in the songs you sing, the sermons you hear, the conversations you have, the language you use and the rituals in which you participate. Present-day fundamentalists may well see themselves as part of a story about how society is getting worse and worse as standards decline and the ungodly have their wicked way, a story about how people have overcome by resisting this decline and how you too can overcome. Within the big story are smaller stories, whether hypothetical or attached to actual events, about how accepting this, that and the other is the beginning of the slippery slope into heresy and apostasy.

As in all good stories, there is a cast of characters, of heroes and villains. The world is divided up unambiguously into Believers and Unbelievers, the Saved and the Unsaved. The Believers are faithful, Bible-believing, valiant defenders of eternal truth, heavenbound. Unbelievers are godless, blinded, hellbound. There are the Liberals, pretend Christians, attackers of the truth, rebellious against God. Everyone falls into one category or another. Fundamentalism presents a very black-and-white world. And if all this looks like a caricature of fundamentalism, perhaps that’s because the fundamentalist worldview is a caricature of the world itself?  -from Why Leaving Fundamentalism Hurts, by David L. Rattigan

Right now, a lot of people are reading this and thinking, “Exactly.  What’s wrong with that?”  Let me explain.

The problem with this kind of either/or mentality is that it ignores stark reality and lived experience.  Lumping all people into the binary categories of “saved = good” and “unsaved = bad” turns a blind eye to the fact that a lot of people exist outside those labels.  The assumption seems to be that the rest of the world is going down, but we real, true Christians aren’t going with it.  And if you’re not for us, you’re against us (a faulty paraphrase of Jesus’ actual words).  Which might be true.

Except that it isn’t.

This dichotomy ignores the Christians who spend a good chunk of time posting rude, ignorant things on social media sites.  It pays no attention to the pastors who spew hate from the pulpit.  It allows people to appear to be “good” Christians by attending every Sunday, wearing the correct modest clothing, and avoiding the Big Evil Things that No One Should Ever Do (like swearing, getting drunk, having premarital sex, and being gay) while simultaneously failing to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and imprisoned.  You know why?  Because they can claim the slogan, “I’m not perfect, just forgiven.”

Meanwhile, the Cops and Robbers theme successfully pretends that there are no decent people outside of Christian faith.  It pays no heed to the atheists who have strong moral convictions; the people of other religions who have deep, abiding, personal faith; the thousands of gay people who love Jesus with all their hearts, souls, minds, and wills.  It assumes that “the world” is the way it is because of people who aren’t Real True Christians™.

This, right here, is why I’m not a fundamentalist.  I don’t really think I consider myself a liberal Christian either.  I tend to think that “liberal Christian” is the term for someone who operates on the same basic assumptions as a fundamentalist but has a different set of beliefs regarding what constitutes sinful behaviors.  For example, a liberal Christian may still believe that sin is deserving of punishment or consequences, but would not agree that premarital sex falls in the category of sin.  I often think it’s just a cover for “I can be a Christian and still largely do what I want, as long as it doesn’t appear to be hurting anyone.”  (For the record, I don’t think all liberal Christians act this way, but it describes the majority of what I’ve seen.)

I don’t fit that description.

I don’t know how to categorize myself.  Maybe I don’t need a label at all, outside “Christian.”  I don’t need to define the kind of Christian I am.  Being neither here nor there makes me feel uncomfortable among both conservative and liberal Christians, but perhaps that’s okay.  It might even be exactly what Jesus intended.  When we become comfortable, we stop following Jesus and begin to coast.  We become obedient to humans and ideas rather than God.

Dear Lord, may I never grow complacent.  Amen.

Faith under fire: how do you handle criticism?

Author and blogger Rachel Held Evans offers this excellent advice for dealing with online criticism.  These tips have application beyond the realm of blogs, though.  Far too often I hear Christians complaining that there is too much criticism, that what non-Christians say about us is offensive, and that we’re “under attack” for our faith.

I can understand this feeling.  I used to share it.  Every time I heard someone say anything against my religion, I would bristle.  I would think to myself, That person is wrong.  We’re not really like that.  That person must have been hurt by the church to have such a negative opinion of my beliefs.  I know God loves that person, but it’s too bad that person has utterly rejected that love.  I would silently defend myself, feel disappointed about what had been said, and judge the other person’s motives or understanding.

These days, instead of feeling defensive or hurt, I tend to look at things a little differently.  Even on this blog, I’ve been accused of being “too critical.”  Rather than complaining that you don’t like what I’ve said, or what someone else has said, here are some things to try:

1. Tell the other person you need time to consider their criticism before you answer.  That’s a fair response, especially if the discussion is becoming emotionally strained.  If the other person is a friend, he or she will respect your need for space.  If not, then there’s no need to engage further.

2. Honor common ground and keep it holy.  Just because you often disagree with your friend or a blogger you like to read doesn’t mean that’s all there is to your relationship.  I have friends of other religions and of no religion.  More often than not, we choose not to let those differences get in the way of love and respect.  Instead, we find ways to spend time together.  When the touchy subject of faith comes up, we look for places of agreement.  One dear friend and I have talked often of how to instill morals and values in our children.  I’m a Christian and she’s an atheist, but it doesn’t change that we both want to raise respectful, honest children.  There are lots of values on which we both agree, so we offer support in those things.

3. Don’t feed into traps and faith-baiting.  No one has the right to offer you advice or opinions just because you both exist on Planet Earth.  If someone is constantly nagging you to “prove” your religion, beliefs, doctrine, or whatever, you don’t need to answer.  Some people really are just jerks.  Put some space between you and that person, and leave them alone.  There is nothing wrong with saying, “I don’t care to discuss this with you anymore.”  Recently, I had to end a conversation because someone was continuing to press me about being a LGBT ally.  But instead of being respectful, the person kept using slurs and hate language.  After explaining that her words were abusive, I let her know that I would not be continuing the discussion.  After several more attempts to get my attention and failing, she gave up.

4. Take the high road.  So what if the other person is being rude?  No need to respond in kind.  “They will know you are Christians by your love” applies here.

5. Apologize.  And when you don’t do the above, say you’re sorry.

6. Don’t assume that agreeing with you means you’ve converted someone; don’t assume disagreement means you’ve lost them.  Just because someone has determined that you’re not “that” kind of Christian means that he or she suddenly wants to start coming to your church or wants to “ask Jesus into his/her heart.”  So you proved not all Christians are bigoted arseholes.  Awesome!  But don’t expect that means you’re on the verge of creating your own backyard tent revival.  Similarly, just because your friend has a hard time swallowing the idea that some dude put polar bears on a boat in the desert means he/she wants nothing to do with Jesus.  Don’t push, just be a friend.

7. Determine if there is any substance to the criticism.  I’m going to call this the single most important item on the list, and I’m going to spend the bulk of my time on it.  One reason that so many people are so put out with the church these days is the failure of many Christians to accept responsibility.  There are a lot of us out here, standing up to institutionalized Christianity.  We are writing, drawing, singing, and speaking.  We are putting ourselves out there on social media.  We’re asking—no, demanding—change.  Many people have left churches, some have left the Church, because we don’t always feel heard.  When we criticize, it’s because change is so desperately needed.  But we’re often met with rejection and told that we’re “too harsh.”  Before lashing out at those who are calling Christians out, there are some things to keep in mind.

It’s a lot easier to feel angry and defensive if deep down you know it’s true.  I find this happens a lot whenever people point out common mistakes Christians tend to commit in debate.  Some examples: Using the Bible as proof that the Bible is true; claiming that everything in Christianity is new and unique (God in human form, virgin birth, deity dying to save some or all of creation) when it is historically not; using personal experience to “prove” the existence of God.  When someone questions any of these, the first reaction from far too many Christians is open hostility.  Sorry, but that’s neither going to win an argument nor develop relationships.

A corollary to this is the idea that it hurts more when there’s some truth in it.  When someone argues against Christianity by claiming that the real truth is that we were created by an alien race and that our true purpose is to develop space travel in order to conquer the surrounding planets for the good of the Supreme Alien Ruler, it’s fairly easy to dismiss it.  It’s easy to think that person is probably crazy, or else wants us to think he or she is.  We don’t find that offensive, because it doesn’t even make sense.  But when someone pokes holes in some of our dearly held beliefs, it’s harder to ignore.  This is natural.  It’s easier to get angry than to acknowledge that there is at least some truth in the argument.  But rather than fighting, it might help to examine the claims and address them.  Even if they turn out to be entirely true, part of being a person of faith is to understand what these things mean in larger context.  The stories of Jesus dying for the sins of all humanity is a very different story from the death of Krishna.

We also tend to be defensive when we’re insecure.  Remember the guy with the Arctic Sand Bears (a.k.a. Noah) from #6 above?  When we ourselves don’t have much of an idea how to reconcile reality with Scripture, we tend to pretend that one or the other doesn’t have any real meaning.  In that case, it’s important to examine the questions non-Christians raise.  This isn’t so that we can have some snappy answer prepared for the next time.  It’s so that we can have an understanding in our own minds.  It also helps us filter out distractors.  Whether or not there were non-indigenous animals on the ark is a lot less important a lesson than whether or not we should heed God’s call in our lives regardless of who will mock us.

There you have it.  I hope you’ll be able to apply at least some of this next time you find yourself at the receiving end of criticism for your Christian faith.

Who’s In Charge?

One of the problems we create with the statement, “the Bible says it, that settles it” is confusion over when we need to rethink Scripture at face value.

It’s a lot easier to take a Bible verse and state authoritatively that the question has been answered.  But it gets murky sometimes.  When Jesus says that the only reason for divorce is marital infidelity, what do we do when one spouse is abusing the other?  For many people, that’s been addressed by convincing people to stay in those relationships to avoid sin.  Other churches have broadened the definition of “unfaithfulness” to include abuse, as it is not remaining faithful to the promise to love, honor, and cherish.

I would agree that no one should stay in an abusive relationship, and that it is not sinful to leave.  But I also don’t take everything in Scripture at its simplest interpretation.  For those churches that claim Biblical literalism, they have no choice but to admit that they are selectively interpreting Scripture.

A good example of this problem is authority, as instructed in the Bible.  The text is full of exhortations to keep our place in the chain of command and submit to those above us:

Children to parents: “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you.” (Exodus 20:12)
Slaves to masters: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord.” (Colossians 3:22)
People to spiritual leaders: “Take special note of anyone who does not obey our instruction in this letter. Do not associate with them, in order that they may feel ashamed.” (2 Thessalonians 3:14)
Citizens to government: “Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.” (Romans 13:5)
Wives to husbands: “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord.” (Ephesians 5:22)

The problem is, those verses have been misused.  I’m not even talking about their use by abusive parents and spouses, corrupt government officials, slaveholders, or deranged cult leaders.  I mean the rest of us have misunderstood and have used those verses to lock our fellow humans into unhealthy relationships.

I had a college roommate who took the verses on slave obedience so literally that she extended them to their natural conclusion.  She told me at one point that she believed that slaves who escaped via the Underground Railroad had condemned themselves to Hell unless they repented and returned to their owners.  (If that doesn’t make you several kinds of horrified, I don’t know what will.)  The irony was that she wasn’t white.

Most of us would (hopefully) not agree with her conclusions.  Nor would we mount a case for blind obedience to Jim Jones or Adolf Hitler.  (Again, putting my hope in reasonable people here.)  We might even relent in the case of a woman being beaten by her husband (although I’ve heard enough people try to make a case for reconciliation there, too).  The majority of us would not encourage children to unquestioningly submit to a parents who are molesting them.  So why would we make statements which imply that we must obey authority regardless?

It doesn’t seem as though Scripture is particularly nuanced on this point.  Each point of obedience is balanced with an equally strong call to those in authority.  Parents should not lord it over their children, husbands should love their wives, masters should treat slaves fairly, and leaders should be of good character.  The problem is, we are never told what we should do if those in power fail to uphold their end.  We’re not given the option to rebel if it seems harsh, unfair, or wrong.  In fact, there isn’t even any condemnation for the vile institution of slavery at all.

Whether we want to admit it or not, we are already choosing which parts of Scripture we want to take as an all-or-nothing proposition.  We’ve already determined that even though it never says it in Scripture, there are times when disobedience is righteous, healthy, and desirable.  But we pretend that doesn’t exist.  If we don’t face it head-on, then we can hide from the fact that we take Scripture a lot less literally than we’ve let on.

Why not embrace that?  We have a choice here.  We can admit that life is much more messy and complicated (something Jesus understood well), or we can continue to insist that the Bible is God’s version of an Owner’s Manual for us.  Many of us have already moved on from a black-and-white vision for our lives.  It’s time the church acknowledged it too.

It’s Like, Literally…

If there was any question before, let me put it to rest: I despise the word literally.  In most cases, it’s either used incorrectly or it’s unnecessary.  But that’s not what I’m going to talk about here.  Um, literally.

Nope, today it’s all about Biblical literalism.  Now, I’m sure this is going to land me in hot water with more than a few people.  But I’m laying it on the line.  I suppose it’s on my mind because I had to teach a bunch of 5- and 6-year-olds a literal interpretation of Job.

While I take Job very seriously, I don’t take it as strictly factual information.  It’s a great story, but there are a lot of problems with it.  Allow me to list some of them:

-God makes a bet with Satan
-God gives Satan free rein in this guy’s life for the sole purpose of finding out whether he will stay faithful
-Job gets better than a fairytale ending

I don’t know about you, but I’m not fully at ease with the idea that the Creator of the Universe likes to play games with our souls.  If indeed God loves us, that’s not much of a way to show it.  Speaking only for myself here, I don’t do that to my kids.  I have no reason to think that God treats us worse than we treat our own children, especially since Jesus says just the opposite.  I’m inclined to trust Jesus on this one.

My next problem is the idea that bad things are just the work of the Devil.  That’s quite a stretch.  And again, that sounds like Cosmic Forces playing games with tiny little humans as pawns.  That really doesn’t sound much like the God featured in the rest of the Bible, nor the one we encourage people to trust.  We arrest humans who do that to their kids.  Just sayin’.

Finally, that better-than-it-was ending is just kind of…crap.  It reads like a tack-on, something someone threw in there so that we wouldn’t get all depressed reading about poor Job.  It’s also pretty misleading.  God lets Satan screw with us to prove a point, then makes it all better by replacing everything?  Yeah.  Right.

Now, that’s all based on a literal, historical reading of the text.  It’s what one gets with the idea that Job was a real person and every event laid out in the book is factual exactly as it is written.  In other words, it’s the belief that God did indeed make a bet with Satan over the soul of a human being.  I think there are much better readings, which leave it as poetry, allegory, and a sort of morality play.  When taken as a whole, rather than individual fact bites, it’s clear that there is a larger purpose to the story.

I always leave discussions on Biblical literalism feeling at least a small amount of rage under the surface.  I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard the words, “It’s literal unless it’s obvious it’s not or the text says it’s not.”  Well, that sure clears things up.  What one person believes to be “obvious” may not be to someone else.  A good deal of that is left to interpretation.  This is, of course, why some people take the Bible’s account of creation strictly at face value, and others see it as more poetic and nuanced.

This problem occurs in several well-known Bible stories: Adam and Eve, Noah, and Jonah, to name a few.  I think that one reason people feel so attached to literalism is that there is this fear that if we can’t believe in the Ark, we won’t believe in Jesus.  This is not at all true.  But what happens is that there are incredible stretches of the imagination in order to plug the holes left by literal interpretation.

For example, Noah takes two of every animal (and seven pairs of some) on the Ark.  Does that include polar bears, raccoons, and kangaroos, none of which are native to the Ancient Near East?  If Noah included those exotic animals, how did they get there?  How did they migrate their entire populations to the regions in which they now dwell?  Did those species arise later?  If so, then why is evolution false, or did God just magic them out of thin air?  The phrase “doesn’t bear close inspection” does not apply here.  Inquiring minds want to know: How does this all fit together?  To say it isn’t important brushes aside very real problems that must be addressed if one insists on taking everything as historical fact.

If, on the other hand, we take those stories not as absolute truth that must be defended but as insights into the nature of our relationship with God, we can have a much more generous approach to the text.  Instead of asking, “Well, what about…?” we can ask, “What does this mean?”  We can lay aside petty concerns about fact versus fiction in favor of developing understanding of God’s character and ours.  It doesn’t matter if the story happened just as the text suggests, because we’re concentrating on the key points—God wants us to trust and follow, even when it’s scary or strange, and that marvelous things happen when we do.

So getting back to Job, it seems as though a more responsible way to read the text is not to insist on literal interpretation, but to concentrate on meaning.  Some good things to come out of the text:

-Just because we experience bad things, it doesn’t mean we displeased God
-We don’t understand everything God does, but we can trust that God cares for us
-Eventually, all things will be made right (even if not in this lifetime)

Now, those are lessons I can get behind.