7 Revelations About Revelation

People sometimes look at me a little funny when I tell them my favorite book of the Bible was when I was growing up was Revelation.

Yes, that Revelation. The one with the beasts and fire and blood and war.

Here’s the thing. In the Plymouth Brethren tradition in which I was raised, the worship time includes a lot of dead space – stretches of silence while everyone waits for a man, believing he is led by the Spirit, to rise and offer a scripture or a hymn for us all to sing or a prayer.

And when you’re only allowed a Bible with you to fill those interminable spaces, you go to the most action-packed book of the canon, the one that is literally apocalyptic.

Unfortunately, when Revelation is your favorite book and you grow up in the religious tradition begun by the man who literally invented the rapture-tribulation interpretation that forms the basis for much of the way people view Revelation today, your view of the book – and consequently your view of God can get a little dark.

So when the opportunity arose to teach a class on Revelation at my church – well, OK, I’m a member of the adult education committee, so maybe I carved out an opportunity for myself – I jumped at it. What better way to understand a misunderstood book than by having to explain it to others?

I expected the class to be fun. I expected to learn something. I didn’t expect to finish it with the feeling that Revelation is once again my favorite book.

So how did that happen? How can a 10-week class so thoroughly redeem a book that scares so many people?

1369659Well, since Revelation is filled with sevens – seven churches, seven seals, seven trumpets, seven bowls – here are seven, um, revelations that came from the class, mostly courtesy of the excellent “textbook” we used: Revelation and the End of All Things by Craig Koester.

  1. We all know Revelation, whether we realize it or not.
  2. Revelation never intended its message to be hidden from its audience.
  3. Revelation constantly subverts readers’ expectations.
  4. Rather than a linear story, Revelation is cyclical.
  5. The judgments are real, but so are the promises bookending them.
  6. We all fight the Beast.
  7. God’s grace is beyond what you can imagine.

Continue reading 7 Revelations About Revelation

On the United Methodist Church’s Decision

Noah’s flood might have required 40 days to drown the world, but the Methodist General Conference of 1844 nearly matched it, with the tide of slavery washing over the denomination and leaving it shattered after 41 days of acrimonious debate.

For decades, the question of slavery festered within the body of the nation’s largest denomination; by 1844, only one American organization was larger than the Methodist Episcopal Church: the federal government itself.

And like the government, Methodists were paralyzed by their divisions over the ownership of human beings. Initially one of the strongest anti-slavery voices in American Christianity – inheriting the convictions of its founder, John Wesley – Methodism in the South, like all of southern Christianity, had become increasingly tolerant, even supportive, of the institution as it became increasingly vital to the regional economy.

Northern bishops, however, became increasingly convinced of slavery’s evil, following in the tradition of evangelist Francis Asbury, who relied more on natural law than the Bible when he argued that “every perfection [God] possesses must be opposed to a practice contrary to every moral idea which can influence the human mind.” Likewise, slavery was “totally opposite to the whole spirit of the gospel.”

Methodist slaveholders took a different approach: using the plain text of the Bible – especially the Old Testament, which provided justification not only for slavery but also for the enslavement of Africans, descendants of the cursed son of Noah, according to a literal reading of Genesis.

Further, proslavery Methodists – again, like southern Christians as a whole – pointed to the several places in the New Testament where Paul sets out conditions of a master-servant relationship. It would be unscriptural, these slaveholders argued, to go beyond the plain, literal text of scripture.

As one southern Methodist bishop put it, there existed “no warrant from apostolic precept or example” to upend this relationship, and to do so would “go beyond the [biblical] charter and transcend the bounds of our commission.”

When Bishop James Andrew of Georgia inherited a slave through his wife – and with no way to easily free him under state law – abolition-minded northern Methodists were outraged. Andrew proposed resigning, but fellow southerners insisted he stay and fight. After 41 bitter days, the General Conference of 1844 requested his resignation – and within a year the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, was born.

Reunification would not occur for nearly a century.

History does not repeat itself, the saying goes, but often it rhymes. History rhymed pretty clearly last week.

Continue reading On the United Methodist Church’s Decision

Scriptural Perspicuity: Summary and Next Steps

Image result for bible stock imageLast part of the thrilling trilogy! Part 1 | Part 2

So returning to our original questions, it seems to me we answer them this way:

  1. How do we define scriptural perspicuity?

Very carefully! But basically that the Bible is clear enough about the basics of the gospel that any person of reasonable intelligence can understand them without mediation from an authority figure.

  1. Does the Bible claim perspicuity for itself?

I don’t think so. Parts of it claim a high level of authority for other parts of it, but none of it seems to claim perspicuity as we’ve defined it, and parts seem to expect the very mediation we define as antithetical to perspicuity.

  1. Has the church affirmed perspicuity?

It depends on the church. For 1,500 years, the church generally did not – and the largest Christian group, the Catholic Church, does not. Without researching it, I’d guess the Orthodox Church does not either. Perspicuity is strictly a Protestant doctrine, first articulated in its clearest form by Martin Luther 500 years ago.

  1. What have been the fruits of perspicuity?

Division, division and more division. Perspicuity, which relies inherently on the clarity of the text, is undermined by its own results, which show significant and vehement disagreement about the text by people whom perspicuity has taught to believe are simply seeing what is clearly there (which means others who don’t see that must be deluded by Satan or acting in bad faith).

Given those responses, I can only conclude that perspicuity is a failure as a doctrine. It is not supported by the Bible itself, relatively speaking does not have a long history of church affirmation, and where introduced leads to results that fatally undermine its own premise.

So now what?

Continue reading Scriptural Perspicuity: Summary and Next Steps

A Brief Review: ‘Texts of Terror’ by Phyllis Trible

Image result for texts of terror phyllis tribleQuick, name the absolute worst parts of the Bible.

Chances are, you thought of one of these four stories [TW]:

The rape and dismemberment of the concubine in Judges, the rape of Tamar by her half-brother, the sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter in order to fulfill a vow he made to God, and the use, abuse and expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael.

These stories – all of them describing violence against women without overt condemnation by either God or the narrator(s) – are what Phyllis Trible calls “texts of terror.”

Somewhat surprisingly, she analyzes these passages not to explain them away or redeem them with a pro-woman retelling, but to simply sit with them, to understand the fully the depth and breadth of the horror these passages inflict on the characters – and therefore on us, the readers who cannot help but sympathize with them.

In so doing, Trible hopes to memorialize them. These four women – two of them nameless, one of them voiceless, all of them utterly vulnerable to the whims and lusts of powerful men – do not get preached from pulpits, featured in liturgies or adhered to flannelgraphs. Yet they are essential parts of the Judeo-Christian tradition. If nothing else, they personify, as Trible expertly highlights, the qualities of the “suffering servant” in Second Isaiah’s famous prophecies.

Although originally referring to Israel, Christians, taking cues from the gospels, have appropriated the “suffering servant” of Isaiah 53 to describe Jesus – “a man of sorrows acquainted with grief,” “as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth,” etc. Trible moves in the opposite direction, identifying these four women as suffering servants, and given the longstanding Christian confession of Jesus as the sufferer, implicitly identifying them as Christ figures.

Most poignantly, Trible makes this association explicit in her analysis of the concubine in Gibeah. Echoing the more famous tale of Lot in Sodom (do these stories reflect a single event buried deep in Israel’s memory and adjusted as needed for different contexts? I’d say it’s likely, but that’s not Trible’s concern here), the concubine and her master spend the night in an old man’s home, where men of the city arrive and demand the male guest be given to them to rape. The man offers the concubine instead, and she is raped and tortured until morning (and potentially killed, although Trible points out the text seems to indicate the concubine’s master actually murders her once they arrive back to his home in Ephraim). Trible describes the key moment this way: “Truly the hour is at hand, and the woman is betrayed into the hands of sinners.”

Trible’s insight and deft handling of the texts make Texts of Terror a swift and insightful read – I’d almost call it a joy, but the subject matter makes that an impossibility. She refuses to get bogged down in questions of authorship, redaction or historical criticism, all things I enjoy getting bogged down in, but which would serve to distract from the women at the center of Trible’s focus. Her goal is to dig as deep as possible into the texts as they are, under the assumption that the text we have is there for a reason, no matter how it got that way.

Therefore, Trible points out patterns and structures of the original Hebrew that have become invisible under the layers of translation and interpretation that have accumulated over the millennia. Some of these are brilliant and beautiful; others feel like more of a stretch. But all of them are fascinating and demand careful consideration. Almost uniformly, Trible ends up highlighting how the original text mercilessly marginalizes and degrades these women.

But that’s the point: Trible is “telling sad stories,” as she puts it in her introduction. That they are sad does not mean they are worthless. Indeed, sad stories often tell us more about ourselves than happy ones. They force us to wrestle with the world as the world is, with God as God is, and with the Bible as the Bible is – not as we wish those things would be. For wrestling with them, we hopefully emerge stronger, with greater insight on what it means to be a “suffering servant” in whom we should see the life and work of Jesus.

Published 34 years ago in 1984, Texts of Terror remains a vitally important work, one that should be on the bookshelf of every preacher, every counselor and every church leader. In a day where many women are finding their voices for the first time, we would all do well to return to Trible’s classic, in which she helps four ancient women cry, “Me, too!”

The Irony of Scriptural Perspicuity

Part 2 of a series on the perspicuity of scripture. Part 1 dealt with defining “perspicuity” and discussing what the Bible says about itself. Today’s post deals with church history and the results of this belief.

What does the church say?

Image result for martin lutherWell, that depends on the church!

But really, just as the Bible was written in a time of few educated elites and many illiterate followers, so too did understanding the scriptures require centuries of mediation through educated church leaders.

Of course, those circumstances changed practically overnight with the invention of the printing press and the printing of the Bible in common vernacular, followed by Martin Luther’s revolution that fragmented the Western church.

Because Luther rightly objected to excesses and abuses perpetrated by a church that had grown secretive and corrupt, the notion that church leaders could be trusted to appropriately mediate the scriptures to their congregants took a severe blow. Why should we assume these greedy, mendacious priests are accurately synthesizing biblical precepts when they are using their positions to enrich themselves and maintain their temporal power?

Thus Luther, in On the Bondage of the Will, laid out for the first time an argument for the  comprehensive perspicuity of the Bible:

But, if many things still remain abstruse to many, this does not arise from obscurity in the Scriptures, but from their own blindness or want of understanding, who do not go the way to see the all-perfect clearness of the truth. … With the same rashness any one may cover his own eyes, or go from the light into the dark and hide himself, and then blame the day and the sun for being obscure. Let, therefore, wretched men cease to impute, with blasphemous perverseness, the darkness and obscurity of their own heart to the all-clear Scriptures of God. … The Scripture simply confesses the Trinity of God, the humanity of Christ, and the unpardonable sin. There is nothing here of obscurity or ambiguity. 

That last sentence seems more than a touch unintentionally ironic; the Bible of course nowhere confesses the Trinity as such, and what Christian hasn’t spent a long time wondering what exactly is “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” (the one unpardonable sin, according to Jesus)? In a lengthy defense of the Bible’s clarity, Luther cites a case in which a key Christian doctrine must be inferred from the text and a notorious example of an unclear and troubling statement from Jesus himself.

So it took roughly 1,500 years and the Protestant Reformation for the church to include any prominent or official doctrine of scriptural perspicuity. Which doesn’t mean it’s not true – just that we should recognize this was a significant departure from the historical understanding of the church, one that we should therefore treat with caution.

What are the effects?

One way to test a relatively new doctrine is to assess how it changes the church itself. To “judge it by its fruit,” so to speak.

What is the fruit of this doctrine, this idea that the Bible is so clear that anyone, including children, can read it and understand the basics of the gospel?

Namely, massive division on a scale never previously seen in the church. Perhaps the ultimate irony of the doctrine of perspicuity is that it has led to the creation of literally thousands of schisms among people who felt the Bible was so clear on a certain point that they could no longer worship in good conscience with those who believed otherwise. There are easily more than 1,000 – perhaps as many as 2,000 – Protestant denominations worldwide. There are easily thousands more intracongregational and -denominational splits that have led to much heartache and bitterness.

It is no coincidence that these splits have become more common since Enlightenment modernism, with its democratic and egalitarian assumptions. There is obviously nothing wrong with those assumptions per se; they were and remain vital to the liberation of oppressed people around the globe. But when applied to the Bible, they have led to a largely unexamined embrace of the notion that anyone can and should open it without any guidance and understand the gospel – and, on the flip side, an unexamined hostility to the notion that ministers or scholars should play any significant role in mediating the text to others with less training.

Yet if we look at two traditions that have most radically adopted the democratic ethos of modernist egalitarianism (well, for men, anyway) – the Plymouth Brethren and the Stone-Campbell Movement – they are perhaps the two most schismatic groups in church history.

Both movements were born through the notion of unifying fractious denominations around the basis of just doing what the Bible says, following its plain teachings in the establishment and organization of congregations and worship, relying heavily on the “pattern” established in Acts.

Yet within 50 years of their establishment, both movements experienced massive splits – the Brethren between “exclusive” and “inclusive” camps, the Stone-Campbell Movement between the instrumental, largely northern Disciples of Christ and the a cappella, largely southern Churches of Christ. While the former eventually became a formal mainline denomination – the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) – the southern branch became increasingly fractious, with congregations dividing over increasingly trivial matters – down to how many cups to use in communion. Likewise, a chart of Plymouth Brethren splits and reunifications is like trying to trace strands of spaghetti cooked in a bowl.

What does it tell us about the alleged perspicuity of scripture that those who hold most strongly to it are the most likely to disagree so vehemently about what it says that they cannot remain in fellowship with each other?

Perhaps it tells us that the Bible is not so perspicuous, after all.

Part 3 will conclude with some potentially disconnected thoughts about scripture and how we should view it given the challenges it poses to the doctrine of perspicuity.

Grant Us Wisdom, Grant Us Courage

Image result for harry emerson fosdickHarry Emerson Fosdick’s words, which were part of the lectionary last Sunday, remain vital and needed 82 years after they were written:

God of grace and God of glory,
On Thy people pour Thy power.
Crown Thine ancient church’s story,
Bring her bud to glorious flower.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
For the facing of this hour,
For the facing of this hour.

Lo! the hosts of evil ’round us,
Scorn Thy Christ, assail His ways.
From the fears that long have bound us,
Free our hearts to faith and praise.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
For the living of these days,
For the living of these days.

Cure Thy children’s warring madness,
Bend our pride to Thy control.
Shame our wanton selfish gladness,
Rich in things and poor in soul.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
Lest we miss Thy kingdom’s goal,
Lest we miss Thy kingdom’s goal.

Save us from weak resignation,
To the evils we deplore.
Let the search for Thy salvation,
Be our glory evermore.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
Serving Thee whom we adore,
Serving Thee whom we adore.

“Save us from weak resignation,” indeed.

On Confirmation in the Episcopal Church

542429_115537645244031_1405666807_nSo, obviously, I’m a history nerd. Which is why the most meaningful thing about being confirmed today was the laying on of hands by David Reed, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of West Texas. That’s not a super comfortable thing for me – touching was not a part of the religious tradition in which I was raised – but sometimes the best things are those that push us out of our comfort zones.

The principle of apostolic succession was a big deal in early Christianity, and it remains a big deal today, especially in liturgical traditions like the Episcopal Church. When a priest is ordained, the bishop lays hands on her or him. That bishop was ordained and received blessing from hands from a previous bishop, and so it goes back, hands upon shoulders or heads, all the way back to the earliest church leaders – apostles like Paul, Junia and other women and men who shepherded a small Jewish sect that insisted the savior of the world had come, and that his kingdom would set to right in a new heaven and a new earth all that had gone wrong.

Continue reading On Confirmation in the Episcopal Church