Thursday, August 29, 2013

Play a Different Game

The world tells a story about how things work in our world that is accepted as true.  This story has been told for millennia, and is part of the worldview of many different cultures.  It asserts that to defeat a bad guy with an army you need a good guy with an army.  In ancient days, in which human events were tied to the actions of the good, the story is understood this way: to defeat a bad god with an army you need a good god with an army.  But you always need an army.  A bad god with an army is better than a good god without one.  Recently we have heard it put this way: the way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun.  This is just accepted truth, and it is reflected in comic books, movies (Star Wars), Westerns, and even fairy tales and fables.  But it’s an old, old story that goes back to the days of the Babylonian Empire and beyond.  The Babylonians had a creation story that reflected this belief.  In it, the world is created by an act of violence, and that says it all: the world is by nature a violent place, and to defeat evil good people must be willing to be as violent if not more than the bad people.  That’s the way the game is played.
Genesis 1 tells a different story of creation.  It asserts that there is actually a different way to play the game, which is not to play in the first place.  Genesis 1 asserts that there is a different kind of God who created a different kind of world and plays a different kind of game.
Genesis 1 asserts that there is a good God, but he doesn’t need an army.
The Genesis creation story starts with an assertion that it is God—Elohim, not the Babylonian god Marduk—who created the world.  When he started, the earth was a dark, formless mass, covered with water and a wind whipping about uncontrolled.  Some claim to see a place of chaos, of violence even, but I'm not so sure.  It’s just uninhabitable.  Nothing in creation can be used for life.
Then God begins to form the earth.  There is no battle, no fight, no struggle against a mighty foe.  He speaks, he separates, he forms—all words lacking in strife.  He places the stars in the heavens.  At the end of each day, as the sun goes down, he declares that it is good.
Not perfect, mind you.  Often people think that the condition of the world at creation was flawless perfection, but that is a concept imposed on the text from our heritage of Greek philosophy.  It’s not a Hebrew concept.  The problem with perfection is that there is no place to go but down.  If there is any change it is a change from perfection to imperfection.  And there is change in God’s creation, reflected in the fact that after each day he declares that it is good, and then at the end of the sixth day he declares that it is very good.  There is change, but it’s change for the good, and that, Genesis declares, is how the world is—ever changing, with perhaps an infinite capacity to get better.  Or worse.  But neither is inevitable.
You can have a perfect world, or you can have a world that changes, but you can’t have both.  In a perfect world, the Fall is inevitable.
God created a good world that became very good and has the potential to become very, very good.
The Genesis creation story asserts that the world is fundamentally a good place, a place of peace, a place where life flourishes.  It is a place where violence and death are intrusions.  They are out of place in this world.  They don’t fit.
To underscore this, in Genesis 1 there is no eating of meat.
God said, "See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.  And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food." And it was so.  (Genesis 1:29-30, NRSV)
Every created thing is a vegetarian.  Can you imagine a vegetarian lion?  Genesis 1 can.  In other words, nothing has to die in order for something else to live. There is absolutely no violence in creation.  This is the world God created.
What kind of God creates a world without violence?  What kind of God creates a world of peace, a world that makes room for life, a world of seemingly endless potential?  It’s obvious: this creator God is a God of peace, a God who makes room for life, a God with an infinite capacity for good.  The world God creates is a reflection of the God who created it, as are humans who are created in His image.  We are to be people of peace who refuse to play the game the world insists we play.  To do otherwise is to deny God’s image in us.

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Bible as Narrative, Pt. 2

The tendency in Western culture to privilege historical truth over literary truth—or any other kind of truth, for that matter—has made us, if not blind to the literary structure of the Old Testament, at the very least it has caused us to regard the structure as unimportant, subject to change if need be.
But the Ancients weren’t subject to the values, worldview, and mindsets of Western culture.  They had their own values, worldview and mindsets.  They were great story tellers and story writers, and the ancient Israelites were not any less so.  They loved story, and they understood the power of narraitve to get to truth that is greater than just the facts of what happened.
The Hebrew Bible in fact accentuates the narrative structure of this story of the Old Testament.  It is organized in three sections: the Torah (Law), the Nevi’im (Prophets) and the Ketuvim (Writings).  (The Hebrew word for the entire collection is Tanakh, which is derived from the first letter in the names of the three sections.)  The Nevi’im is divided into two sections, the Former Prophets (Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings) and Latter Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve Minor Prophets).  So if you read the Old Testament in the order that the Hebrews put it you have a narrative flow beginning with Genesis and going all the way through Kings.  (Chronicles is placed at the very end, for reasons I can’t go into here.)  And how does this narrative end?  With the Babylonian Exile.
Before exploring the significance of that, we need to note that by keeping the Latter Prophets with the rest of the narrative, the Tanakh maintains the focus on the Exile and its powerful imprint on the people, for the Exile is the central event of the Latter Prophets.  They warn the people it’s going to happen if they don’t change, and/or remind them why it did happen, and point toward a hope of restoration for those who return to the Lord.
In approaching the Old Testament from a narrative standpoint, one must understand the concept of characters.  Characters in a story are different than historical figures in a history.   While David and Moses and Saul and others are historical people, in the Old Testament they are also literary characters, and we must treat them as such.  Among the things this means is that our primary focus can’t be, “What were they like?” as it would be in a biography, but rather, “What do they represent?  How do their words and actions move the plot forward, contribute to the theme, teach me about the world or about myself?”  These are literary questions, and they must be brought to bear on every major character and some of the minor ones as well.
One of the aspects of narrative is character development.  Characters learn, they change, they grow—or refuse to grow, suffering the consequences.  Character development may not have been as prominent in the literature of the ancient world as it is in the modern novel, but it was not unknown.  Not all the characters in the Bible change and develop, but when they do we need to pay attention and treat not treat it as incidental to the plot.  David, for instance, changes.  He starts out as a young boy, full of the Lord’s favor, honest, faithful, and courageous.  After he becomes king his life takes on a tragic downward spiral, ending as a pitiful old man whose own son leads a rebellion against him before being killed at the hands of David’s army.  David is much like Shakespeare’s King Lear in many respects, and the reader is challenged to learn from the tragedy of his life.
So, to the original question: what is the organizing principle of the Bible?  It is my contention that the Old Testament was edited and organized in such a way as to answer the Exilic and post-Exilic question, “How did we, the covenant people of God, end up like this, and what happens next?”  The Old Testament story answers the first question, but can only anticipate the answer to the second, which comes in the person of Jesus.
In narrative terms you can look at the Bible this way:

Part 1: Prologue—The Problem (Genesis 1-11)
Part 2: How We Got Here
  Chapter 1: The Solution (The Calling of Abram and the People 
        of Israel)
  Chapter 2: Refugees, Deliverance, and Entering (Exodus—Joshua)
  Chapter 3: We Want a King (Samuel)
  Chapter 4:  It All Comes Crashing Down (Kings)
  Chapter 5: The Prophetic Explanation
  Chapter 6: The Wait
Part 3: The Climax: The Thirty-Year Incarnation of Jesus
Part 4: Epilogue: The Ongoing Incarnation of Jesus in the Church

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Bible as Narrative, Pt. 1

Here’s a question I'll bet you haven’t given much thought to—what is the organizing principle of the Bible? (I just won that bet, didn’t I?  Although I realize it’s kind of a Bible-nerdy thing to ask in the first place.)  It’s clear that both testaments have been organized by someone, and if someone gave thought to the organization to the various writings then there has to be an organizing principle—some guide, decided beforehand, that dictated the order of the books.  In the New Testament, that organization is pretty clear.  Start with the gospels, which are chronologically followed by Acts, then the epistles attributed to Paul, starting with the longest and ending with the shortest, then the non-Pauline epistles, again going from longest (Hebrews) to shortest (Jude), and concluding everything with the Apocalypse of John.  A different organizing principle could have been used; for instance, a purely chronological one, in which case Mark would probably be the first of the gospels (but still later than some of Paul’s letters).  It would also have made sense to put Luke last in the four gospels so that it could be followed immediately by Acts, which was written by Luke as a companion to his gospel.  But a different organizing principle was used, hence we have the order we have today.  There is really nothing special about the organizing principle of the New Testament; it could have been ordered differently without much, if any, loss, and perhaps with some gain.
At first glance, the organizing principle of the Old Testament appears much the same.  The Christian Bible starts with Genesis—in the beginning—followed by the other four books that make up the Hebrew Torah or Law, then the historical books in chronological order  (chronological order of the events recorded, which may or not be the chronological order in which the books were composed)—Joshua, Judges, Ruth, Samuel, Kings and Chronicles.  Then the books that the Hebrew Bible calls the ketuvim or Writings are grouped together—Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs (or Song of Solomon), followed by the Major Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, and Daniel) and concluding with the twelve Minor Prophets.  It’s an organizing principle, but it’s not deemed to be very important.  Other than tradition and personal preference there really wouldn’t be much reason to object if one were to arrange them differently, and in fact various Christian groups put them in slightly different orders and even include some additional writings.  Whatever organizing principle these groups have used, it is clear that they don’t see any kind of narrative structure to the books of the Old Testament.  If you were to ask the average Christian what story the Old Testament is telling, I imagine most would scratch their heads and look at you funny.  If pressed to give an answer they would probably say that the Old Testament is the story of Israel’s unfaithfulness and God’s faithfulness, or the futility of trying to earn salvation through the Law, or something along those lines.  These are really more thematic statements than plotlines, however.
But most Christians consider the Old Testament a history of the Israelite nation from creation to post-exilic repatriation, and talk of plot and thematic statements really don’t have a place when telling history.  When telling history, what happened, when, where and by whom are what’s important.  The question of why can be suspect.  Historians can describe the events that led to another event, in the way that Dred Scott and John Brown and the Missouri Compromise are all events leading up to the American Civil War; but to look for larger meanings, deeper meanings, theological meanings—these kinds of why answers are left for the theologians, the philosophers, the sociologists—and the artists, particularly the poets and writers.
But I contend that the Old Testament, while certainly dealing with historical events, is a literary work.  By this I don’t merely mean that it is skillfully written, sometimes beautifully written; I mean that the Old Testament bears the marks of careful craftsmanship, of creativity, of an artful organization.  It does not just have a theme, it has a plot.  It isn’t just a collection of stories, it is telling a story, with all the features we expect to see in great stories—characters, conflict, complications, protagonists, antagonists, etc.
It is an historical story, but it is primarily a theological and moral story.  It takes what most certainly happened in Israelite history and seeks to explain why it happened.
And, as I said before, why is not the question of the objective historian, it is the question of the subjective theologian, ethicist, and prophet.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

No Ordinary Rebel

I’ve not yet had a chance to read Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, Reza Aslan’s bestselling book, but I have seen and read numerous interviews in which he talks about his book and his conclusions about the historical Jesus.  As a result I am going to reserve comment on his book for now and simply react to what I’ve heard him say.
Aslan is spot-on in his assertion that Jesus’ crucifixion by the Romans tells us a lot about who Jesus was.  Crucifixion was a punishment reserved for the enemies of Rome—for traitors, revolutionaries, and those who claimed to be king over against Caesar’s assertion of sovereignty.  The two “thieves” crucified with Jesus were actually called “bandits,” a term reserved for those who revolted against Rome.  Aslan isn’t breaking any new ground here; many New Testament scholars have been saying this for years, though it has taken some time for this message to reach a popular audience.  Both the Romans and the Temple cult correctly assessed that Jesus was a threat to their positions of power.  Jesus was indeed a revolutionary.
Aslan is also accurate in noting that Jesus’ revolution was against the rich and powerful on behalf of the poor, the powerless, and the disenfranchised.  In this respect Jesus was self-consciously carrying on the tradition of the prophets, especially Isaiah, who condemned the ruling elite of Israel for their mistreatment of the poor.
Aslan seems to believe, however, that to be a revolutionary in 1st century Judea meant that you were part of the Zealot movement that advocated the violent overthrow of Rome.  For the most part that was true, but that would have made Jesus no different than any of the other rebels who rose up and claimed to be—or were proclaimed by others to be—the messiah.  It would have made Jesus no different than the other two rebels who were crucified beside him.  It wouldn’t even have singled him out as a martyr along the lines of Martin Luther King, Jr. or Gandhi; he would have been just one more failed messiah in a long line of failed messiahs before and after his death.
Aslan believes that it was Jesus’ disciples who turned him into a larger-than-life figure, and they did so by neutering his rebel identity, making him a gentle teacher about love rather than a fiery preacher of revolution.  In this Aslan is so close to the truth of Jesus’ identity, yet so far.   He makes the common mistake of thinking that Jesus could be either a revolutionary or a teacher of loving one’s enemies, but not both, but that is precisely Jesus’ genius as well as his distinctiveness.  His was a revolution of love, not the warm and fuzzy kum-ba-yah kind of love that avoids confronting injustice, but the hard, courageous, and dangerous kind of love that confronts the principalities and powers of Rome and Temple but eschews violence as a means of achieving justice.  The issue wasn’t revolution vs. love, but violent revolution vs. a non-violent revolution of sacrifice, service, and self-giving.
There were many Jewish martyrs who bravely picked up a sword and fought a losing battle against a superior foe.  What makes Jesus different is that he refused to pick up a sword, yet went up against the religious and imperial powers anyway.  He ended up just as dead as those with a sword, but there’s a difference.  When you pick up a sword and die, you’ve just proven to be a weaker version of that which you’ve rebelled against.  But you really aren’t any different.  Jesus was different, and his willingness to confront injustice without a sword proved that he was different from Rome, the Temple cult, and the violent Zealots.  He wasn’t your ordinary rebel.
Jesus without a sword proved to be more powerful than any Zealot with a sword—or cross-wielding Caesar, for that matter.  The resurrection vindicated Jesus’ way and showed that a revolution of hard, courageous love is more powerful than any army.  It is in fact the most powerful force in God’s creation.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Who's Poor?

We met a lot of friendly people in the little village of Gales Point in Belize, not the least of whom was Jay.  Each morning we would cross Southern Lagoon in a boat and disembark in Jay’s backyard, and he would usually be there to greet us with a big smile.  He would pose for pictures with his two pet coatimundi (a relative of the raccoon), answer questions and talk to us for as long as we wanted, which unfortunately wasn’t very long as we had to move on to our work site.  I wish I had had more time to learn his story, and in subsequent trips I will make sure to di so, but what I know has caused me to do a lot of thinking—and re-thinking.
Jay is an American, and as far as I could see the only Caucasian in the entire village.  He met his wife, Myrtle, who is a native of Gales Point, in the U.S., and they married in the late 90’s and have a young son.  Two years ago they left the United States and moved to Gales Point.
I understand it when a family wants to live close to the family home of one or the other’s spouse.  People in the United States do it all the time.  They are even willing to make some sacrifices in terms of career advancement or long commutes in order to live in a familiar area close to parents and grandparents.
But Gales Point would seem to be the kind of place from which people would seek to escape.  It is remote, bug-ridden, and run-down.  There are no real jobs to be had in the village, and the poverty is striking.  The homes are smaller than many of our living rooms, and many are barely fit to be inhabited.  They have electricity that is provided by a single wire running on the ground from the road to the house, and in spite of the heat it was rare to see even a fan running inside.
I could go on, but you get the picture.  And yet, here was a guy—college educated even!—who willingly and happily moved there, and not as a missionary seeking to help these unfortunate people, but as a person who found something in the village worth embracing in spite of the poverty.  Jay and his family don’t really live any better than anyone else in the village, yet he is clearly happy.
As is Myrtle.  She “escaped” Gales Point, lived in the United States, and then chose to come back.  She and Jay chose to raise their son in Gales Point instead of the U.S.
I wasn’t able to explore this with them, so I can only speculate, but this is what I observed.  For one thing, all of us on the mission team noticed that in spite of their material poverty the locals didn’t seem depressed, angry, or even simply resigned to their plight.  They in fact seemed as happy as anybody you and I know and happier than some.
Jay said that in the mornings they just open up their doors and let the kids go, and that was evident.  Children of all ages were running around everywhere, but it’s not that no one took care of them, it’s that everyone  took care of them.  Adults didn’t feel like they could only correct their own children, they all shared that responsibility, teenagers included.  One of the villagers is Manny, an older guy with few teeth who is what some would call “simple.”  We were told his story by another villager, Brendan: as a boy Manny drowned in a hurricane and though he survived he was mentally impaired.  He was cared for by his grandparents, but now all his family is gone.  “So the village takes care of him, we all take care of him,” Brendan said.  We also learned that most villagers don’t worry about where their next meal comes from, but those that do, the everyone takes care of.  They make sure no one goes hungry.
The people of Gales Point are rich in true, authentic community.  They pay a high price in terms of material things to have it, but for Jay and his wife it’s a price they gladly pay.  We pay a price for the wealth and mobility we enjoy, and that price is the kind of community we saw in Belize.
And I'm no longer sure who is truly in poverty.