The God who Flees

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Richard Beck the other day posted this incredible painting by Luc Olivier Merson, Rest on the Flight to Egypt (1879). Joseph is sacked out on the desert floor with the donkey grazing nearby, while Mary uses the now-famous Sphinx to prop herself up with her baby – the only source of light – in her arms. Her feet dangle off the edge of the Sphinx, whose nose, you’ll notice, is still intact.

What I like most is how it properly contextualizes the recent blogosphere debates over the historicity of the flight to Egypt. Because we don’t need to say the scene portrayed in this evocative painting probably didn’t actually happen. That’s not the point.

Likewise, as someone who enjoys getting behind the text of scripture to learn the actual history – Did this happen? Could it have? What really happened? How did the text come to say what it does? – it’s a useful reminder that no matter how the text got to the point where we have it, it’s what we have. In the end, after all of the historical criticism and analysis, we must arrive at the position of Walter Brueggemann, Brevard Childs and others: What we have is from what we must learn.

So the flight to Egypt may have happened, as Tony Jones and any biblical literalist argues. It may not have happened, as James McGrath, myself and any revisionist liberal argue. But in the end, what can we learn from the story, which is what we’ve got?

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Did the Massacre of the Innocents Really Happen?

innocentThere’s been something of a debate happening in at least one corner of the theoblogosphere over Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents, the incident described in Matthew 2 as Herod’s attempt to kill the presumed usurper the Magi had called “King of the Jews.”

James McGrath started it with a post titled, “Why I’m Glad the Infancy Narrative Isn’t Literally True,” in which he argued God’s warning of Mary and Joseph to flee while letting all of the other baby boys be slaughtered was an act of heinous injustice that besmirches the character of God – were it true, which it isn’t. He argues it isn’t true because Luke – nor any other ancient source – does not corroborate it, and it seems to be set up so that Matthew can cite the fulfillment of Hosea 11:1.

Tony Jones responded with “Herod Really Did Massacre the Innocents,” in which he rebukes McGrath’s seeming attempts to write off pieces of scripture with which he is uncomfortable and says he’s glad the Bible contains this narrative because it matches the horror and injustice of “real life.”

McGrath responded, correctly, that Jones didn’t actually address any of McGrath’s historical critiques of the passage but determined its authenticity based solely on theological considerations, which is not exactly the way you want to be determining the historicity of anything.

After all of that, Brian LePort stepped in with a couple of points. On the historicity of the passage, LePort argues:

Personally, I don’t find these points to be as devastating a critique as McGrath, especially since (1) the actions fit the Herod we know from other sources; (2) I think scholars often invert Matthew’s exegetical approach depicting him as having read Scripture in order to find events to narrate whereas the peculiarity of Matthew’s exegesis leads me to think he had existent traditions through which he read the text connecting events to Scripture. In other words, I think Matthew had a tradition that Herod killed the children while seeking Jesus and this [led] him to read Scripture to see if there was any “foretelling” of such an event.

He also doesn’t see anything terribly troubling about God stepping in to warn the most theologically important family in world history of impending demise: “If God intervened to stop all evil, it would be the eschaton!” He seems to be agreeing with Jones here; the passage is no more troubling than the Newtown, Conn., massacre – which is to say, no more troubling than the problem of evil existing in the first place.

I’ll leave the theology to these more able minds, though I tend to agree with LePort’s take on this – but I’m leery of simply dismissing McGrath’s theodicical (is that a word?) concerns, as well.

But I feel there’s a middle ground to be had on the historical elements, something neither McGrath nor LePort brings up.

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The Trouble with Literalism

250px-Saint_Augustine_by_Philippe_de_ChampaigneThe problem with a strictly literal approach to the Bible, as people from Christian Smith to Rachel Held Evans have argued, is that it sets up a false dichotomy in which the literalist gets to decide what is worth taking literally and what is not. It allows the literalist to set the rules of a complex game in which she can only win and anyone else must surely lose. By ignoring the assumptions implicit in all of our approaches to the ancient texts of the Bible, the literalist can claim superiority through a “truer” reading of the Bible than those who take more critical approaches.

This isn’t new, nor is it groundbreaking. We all believe the way we read the Bible is the right way to read it. That’s why we read it that way! The hard part is understanding that others who read it differently may not be reading it wrongly. Although this is tough for me – it means acknowledging that, yes, no matter how unlikely I think that is, biblical literalists may be reading scripture correctly – but it seems especially difficult for the literalists, whose reading of the text essentially forces them to consider all other approaches not just misguided but influenced by Satan and potentially damnable. Kind of makes a conversation difficult.

But we do all have assumptions, and no one takes the Bible literally. Our assumptions play a foundational role in how we approach that text. I mention this because I’ve posted my paper for this semester, and it looks at the assumptions underlying one of the most transformative doctrines developed by one of history’s greatest theologians. I wanted to see where the doctrine of original sin came from, and I found that it really comes from Galen – or, more accurate, the biological-sexual assumptions propagated by ancient Greek doctors and philosophers. Augustine didn’t know that, or at least he didn’t acknowledge it. He cited passages like Romans 5 and Psalm 50:7, but more often he cited, albeit indirectly and apparently unknowingly, Aristotle and Galen.

Let me give an example.

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Twenty

jesus-teachingFor all of the mass shootings that have plagued our country over the past 30 years – and even moreso in the past 15 – why does this one in Connecticut, the eighth of 2012, hit so hard? Because of one number. Twenty. The number of children age 7 and under killed in a simply incomprehensible attack.

Like many of you, I thought about those 20 (and the eight adults who died trying to protect them) in church yesterday. We opened the service with Joy to the World and its lyrics, “Joy to the world! The Lord is come!” and “Joy to the earth! The Savior reigns!” Does he?

We followed that up with Sing to the King, which states: “Satan is vanquished, and Jesus is king!” Is he?

Next was O Come All Ye Faithful, which follows up its title lyrics with, “Joyful and triumphant.” Are we?

It was a bold move to speak the hope, faith and expectation of Jesus’ reign during a weekend when any sign of it seemed so scarce. And, for me at least, it was a needed one. Advent is about acknowledging the wrongness of this world while also declaring the hope we have of its future rightness. In a weekend where the former was so clear, I’m thankful for our church leadership’s call to focus on the latter.

I’ve written a lot about theodicy on this blog (there’s a whole tag devoted to it, if you’re interested), so I’m turning the rest of this space over to folks who worked through this much more eloquently than I could.

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A Lesson for the Church from the Horse and His Cousin, the Boy

“My good Horse,” said the Hermit, who had approached them unnoticed because his bare feet made so little noise on that sweet, dewy grass. “My good Horse, you’ve lost nothing but your self-respect. No, no, cousin. Do not put back your ears and shake your main at me. If you are really so humbled as you sounded a minute ago, you must learn to listen to sense. You’re not quite the Horse you had come to think, from living among poor dumb horses. Of course you were braver and cleverer than them. You could hardly help being that. It doesn’t follow that you’ll be anyone very special in Narnia. But as long as you know you’re nobody very special, you’ll be a very decent sort of Horse, on the whole, and taking one thing with another.

“And now, if you and my other four-footed cousin will come round to the kitchen door we’ll see about the other half of that mash.”

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My oldest daughter and I continue reading through the Chronicles of Narnia. We’re in Book 5 (not Book 3, as the abominable new numbering system would have it), The Horse and His Boy. I’ve read each of these books many times, but there’s always something new to notice. This time I noticed the strange way in which the hermit of the Southern March addresses the talking horses Bree and Hwin: Cousins.

I notice this because, earlier, I’m sure I always took this as a squishy “brotherhood of life” kind of term, or one that signified the extraordinary closeness between humans and talking animals in Narnia and Archenland. But now, having made my peace with evolution as the method with which God chose to create the world and humanity, that phrase takes on a new light. Indeed, we know C.S. Lewis himself accepted evolution and did not think that a particularly big deal theologically speaking: “I don’t mind whether God made man out of earth or whether ‘earth’ merely means ‘previous millennia of ancestral organisms.’ If the fossils make it probable that man’s physical ancestor’s ‘evolved,’ no matter.”

But I don’t mean to make this a big post about C.S. Lewis and evolution, merely to note that when Lewis has one of his human characters – arguably the wisest one in the book – refer to horses as “my cousins,” he is perhaps giving us a way to look at the world and life around us. Indeed, how would we treat our planet and our fellow inhabitants on it if we thought of them as part of our family and not merchandise or product to be consumed?

Our family tree does not just include our own family members, but every person on the planet, plus hundreds of thousands of years of hominids, plus millions upon millions of animal species, some of whom are closer relatives than others but all of whom are our cousins.

In the same way, our church family tree includes far more than we perhaps acknowledge. One of the eye-opening things about the Christian History class I just finished is how closely related all of us who claim Jesus as Lord truly are. It’s easy enough as a New Testament restorationist, two significant movements (the Reformation and the Restoration) removed from the Catholic Church, to belittle the doctrines that branch of the faith still holds dear – things like transubstantiation or indulgences or purgatory or the assumption and perpetual virginity of Mary. They’re so illogical! They’re crazy! There’s not even a hint of them in the Bible!

Yet not so much if you follow the evolutionary patterns of the church’s first 1,300 years – and, further, not so removed from us.

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What Does it Mean to Celebrate Immanuel?

prayer1Tony Jones has issued another call for progressive theological bloggers to join in a conversation about the nature of God. He’s calling it #progGod, and last time I talked a little bit about the human inability to fully grasp who God is – including but certainly not limited to those humans who recorded their thoughts about God in the texts that now are called the Bible.

This time I want to revisit a post I wrote almost exactly one year ago. Liam, the son of some friends of mine and the focus of several posts on this blog, had just died, and it led to a lot of questioning. The post references a coworker whose son had brain cancer. That was Rex, who just died last month. He and Liam were diagnosed at nearly the same time, and died within a year of each other – despite countless prayers lifted up by thousands of people, many of them children.

That post from last year seems just as relevant today as it did back then, as we celebrate the miracle of God-with-us, the incarnation.

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Waiting with Advent

AdventA lot of people have said a lot of great things about Advent, and I’m hesitant to add my voice. It seems this season on the liturgical calendar has been getting more of its due lately than it did when I was growing up. That’s undoubtedly a good thing; if there’s any one thing we need as 21st-century Americans, it’s a season to focus more on waiting and less on consumption, materialism and consumerism. The broader culture could use for Advent and less Christmas – or at least what Christmas has become.

The church could use it, too, because Advent focuses on the fact that we are in exile, awaiting the Savior of this world to set things right, just as God’s people were 2,000 years ago (plus a few). The American church doesn’t do lament very well, and Advent is a way to bring up, point out, even live within the fact that for many people, this holiday season will be filled with pain, grief, loneliness and heartache. As our preacher said yesterday morning, “Advent says there’s something missing in the world, and you can’t put a bow on it.”

So after saying I was hesitant to add my voice, I’ve written two paragraphs. Nevertheless, I prefer in this case to let those who have written far more poignant things take the lead. Specifically, a few hymn writers who get just right the notion of Advent and what incarnation means when light breaks through the darkness.

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