Moore, Oklahoma

Oklahoma_Moore_TornadoI was thinking a lot last night about this most recent tragedy to befall the innocent. We had Sandy Hook, and Boston, and West, and now Moore. And those of us “winter Christians,” who tend to struggle with the problems we see in the world around us – this is our time. The summer Christians who perhaps tend to downplay suffering and tragedy must sit up and take notice, and for once, everyone is on the same page. Our page.

But I’m also a person who in the past year has learned that not only do I love the physical world around me, but that it’s OK for me to love it. And not only that, God loves it, too. He loved it so much, he took on flesh and allowed himself to experience the physical world for himself – or at least as much as he could. He even suffered and died so that he could restore it to himself. For whatever reason, God loves the world and the people in it that much.

So I recoiled a bit as I heard some of the same old reactions to the Moore tornado that we hear after every tragedy – reactions that sound uncomfortably close to the lyrics from some classic hymns: “Just a few more weary days, and then I’ll fly away.” Or, “This world is not my home; I’m just a-passing through.”

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Before the First Day of Creation

ImageIn the great debate between creationism and evolution, one of the biggest stumbling blocks is the notion that God created the world in seven days with the power of his word, which would preclude a billions-year-long process of evolution.

This notion seems to come from two misunderstandings – 1, how the key text of Genesis 1 actually describes creation, and 2, how creation narratives work in ancient texts like the Old Testament. Clearing up these misunderstandings could help creationists come to grips with evolution – in fact, I would argue the creation texts of the Old Testament fit the world described by science quite well. There is, in fact, much less contradiction between the Bible and science than many assume.

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Boston

boston_public_libraryI returned from Boston yesterday; my week was mostly a business trip, but I made sure to carve out some time for sightseeing. Boston has long been my favorite city, and it did not disappoint last week.

One of my new favorite places is the Boston Public Library, with its arching ceilings and omnipresent murals – and, above all, its cavernous study room, complete with dozens upon dozens of green-shaded lamps. If ever a monument has been built to the notion of learning, expanded horizons and the acquisition and beneficial use of knowledge, this is it.

I went to the library Thursday. Across Copley Square, workers were finishing up construction of the grandstand at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. And, of course, across the street from both the library and the grandstand, two bombs exploded during Monday’s marathon.

So many people I encountered in Boston, natives and tourists alike, were friendly, kind, helpful and – perhaps I was projecting a bit – seemingly thrilled to be in one of the world’s great cities. It’s hard to imagine how twisted by darkness one must be to experience what I experienced this weekend and remain committed to turning it into tragedy.

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Hell, Doubt and Easter

Well, once again I violated the cardinal rule of blogging by disappearing for a week. Sorry about that. I was out of town, and then it was a holiday weekend, and there you go.

To make it up to you, here are a couple of Easter-related things that caught my eye this week, and some comments I had on them:

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Jed Bartlet’s Job Moment

bartletOne of the themes on this blog lately has been the propriety – or not – of railing against God in times of distress. I tend to (surprise!) take a liberal view on this topic, that God not only can handle our complaints and frustrations but wants us to bring them to him. He made us to be emotional beings, and stifling our emotions is neither healthy nor productive.

Many Christians disagree, and I confess it’s difficult to listen when someone truly “goes off” on God – as happens in the Season 2 finale of The West Wing, which my wife and I are working through on Netflix.

Below the jump, I’ll post the speech in its entirety; most Christians, I suspect, will wince multiple times. You might even be offended. But the question we need to ask is this: Are we offended because God is, or are we offended because we have been taught to be?

[This paragraph contains spoilers] The speech occurs in the National Cathedral, after a funeral for President Jeb Bartlet’s longtime assistant, Mrs. Landingham, who had died in a car wreck. The death occurred after a string of crises and tragedies – including an assassination attempt that nearly killed his deputy chief of staff, Josh Lyman – that, let’s be honest, serve to make the show interesting, but would lead a normal person to consider whether she had been singled out to play Job in some sort of modern-day heavenly remake. [End spoilers]

Bartlett asks the Secret Service to close the cathedral so he can spend some time alone, and after some unnecessarily loud and echoey door slamming to let us know the cathedral has been closed, Bartlett begins walking up the aisle toward the vestibule.

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When God Abuses

images-2Does the Old Testament portray God as abusive?

In our Old Testament Theology class, we must give two presentations about the topics covered over a given week’s reading in our textbook, Walter Brueggemann’s Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony. Dispute. Advocacy. My first presentation was on the topic of Yahweh as hidden, abusive and inconsistent. The next week’s assignment was covering the topic of Yahweh as unresponsive, unreliable and unjust.

These are Brueggemann’s categories, and they end up being pretty redundant. The same verses used for describing Yahweh has hidden are equally applicable for describing him as unresponsive, and vice versa. Further, his hiddenness and unresponsiveness clearly make him unreliable, as does his inconsistency. In which case, Brueggemann could have saved a lot of space and simply focused on Yahweh as abusive, unreliable and unjust. But to the extent Yahweh is unreliable and unjust, doesn’t this also make him abusive?

I’d argue yes. In fact, I’d argue the primary counter-testimony of Israel in the Old Testament, whether the authors intended this or not, is that Yahweh is abusive. Abuse is God’s defining action in the texts that push back against the central portrayal of God as loving, just, merciful parent and partner.

There are a number of reasons why I argue this.

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The Time Jeremiah Accused God of Raping Him

250px-Jeremiah_lamentingThere’s been some discussion ever since my post about the Christian rock group P.O.D.’s use of the f-word in a song about appropriate means of addressing God. I’ve argued that God does not want nor expect us to hold back from letting him see the full range of our emotion in a time of crisis or tragedy, and if that range includes full-throated anger, so be it. Others, tending to emphasize God’s holiness, believe that there is a baseline of reverence that should be kept in place, no matter what.

But those folks need to deal with Jeremiah’s striking broadside against Yahweh in Jeremiah 20. The problem is most of our translators are wary to describe exactly what the prophet is accusing God of doing when he laments ever having accepted Yahweh’s call. The key verse is v.7. Here it is from an array of common translations (I’ve grouped ones that translate the bolded words the same:

Wycliffe:

(O) Lord, thou deceivedest me, and I am deceived; thou were stronger than I, and thou haddest the mastery; I am made into scorn all day. All men bemock me,

Geneva, KJV, RSV, ESV:

O Lord, thou hast deceived me, and I was deceived; thou art stronger than I, and hast prevailed: I am in derision daily, every one mocketh me.

For since I spake, I cried out, I cried violence and spoil; because the word of the Lordwas made a reproach unto me, and a derision, daily.

NASB:

O Lord, You have deceived me and I was deceived;
You have overcome me and prevailed.
I have become a laughingstock all day long;
Everyone mocks me.

NIV ’84/TNIV/NIV ’11:

O Lord, you deceived me, and I was deceived (footnotes include “persuaded” in both cases);
you overpowered me and prevailed.
I am ridiculed all day long;
everyone mocks me.

NLT:

O Lord, you misled me,
and I allowed myself to be misled.
You are stronger than I am,
and you overpowered me.
Now I am mocked every day;
everyone laughs at me.

CEV:

You tricked me, Lord,
and I was really fooled.
You are stronger than I am,
and you have defeated me.
People never stop sneering
and insulting me.

The Message:

You pushed me into this, God, and I let you do it.
You were too much for me.
And now I’m a public joke.
They all poke fun at me.

CEB:

Lord, you enticed me, and I was taken in.
You were too strong for me, and you prevailed.
Now I’m laughed at all the time;
everyone mocks me.

I think you get the idea. Kudos to the older translations. In this case, the KJV/RSV family use the stronger word, “deceived,” while more modern translators seem uncomfortable with the notion that God could deceive someone and so change it a little – the NIV adds a more anodyne verb in the footnotes, and the New Living Translation and the Message even seem to blame Jeremiah, although that sense is not at all in the original, which simply repeats the same verb.

But that verb has a context that goes even beyond “deceived.”

This was first pointed out by Abraham J. Heschel, in his 1962 book The Prophets. The verb patah is found elsewhere in the Old Testament. For example:

When a man seduces a young woman who isn’t engaged to be married yet and he sleeps with her, he must marry her and pay the bride-price for her. (Exodus 22:16)

The rulers of the Philistines confronted her and said to her, “Seduce him and find out what gives him such great strength and what we can do to overpower him, so that we can tie him up and make him weak. Then we’ll each pay you eleven hundred pieces of silver.” (Judges 16:5)

If my heart has been drawn to a woman
and I have lurked at my neighbor’s door, (Job 31:9)

Therefore, I will charm her,
and bring her into the desert,
and speak tenderly to her heart. (Hosea 2:16)

while she’s a virgin,
that she not be seduced
and become pregnant
while still living at home;
when she’s married,
that she not go straying;
or having married,
that she not be infertile. (Sirach 42:10)

The typical context of patah is sexual, which makes the rest of the verse far darker:

Lord, you seduced me, and I was seduced.
You were too strong for me, and you prevailed.

The image of overpowering that follows seduction is less rhetorical and more physical. The image seems to be far closer to rape than any mere contest of wills. Indeed, this is exactly what Heschel argues, noting the second verb, hazak, usually translated “stronger” in Jeremiah 20:7, is also used elsewhere in a sexual context:

But if the man met up with the engaged woman in a field, grabbing her and having sex with her there, only the man will die. (Deuteronomy 22:25)

So the Levite grabbed his secondary wife and sent her outside to them. They raped her and abused her all night long until morning. They finally let her go as dawn was breaking. (Judges 19:25)

When she served him the food, he grabbed her and said, “Come have sex with me, my sister.”

So Heschel argues, “The words used by Jeremiah to describe the impact of God upon his life are identical with the terms for seduction and rape in the legal terminology of the Bible. (113)”

The overall impression is one of shame and embarrassment, especially given the mockery Jeremiah subsequently describes. Walter Baumgartner in Jeremiah’s Poems of Lament says the seduction language is only “a weak allusion” but when combined with the stronger language of the subsequent line, which he says is taken from wrestling, it is clear the prophet has “half willingly, half under coercion, placed himself in Yahweh’s service. … But now, like a girl stranded in shame, … he reaps nothing but scorn and derision” (74).

Needless to say, Heschel’s argument, while adopted by some, has also been opposed by others.

Continue reading The Time Jeremiah Accused God of Raping Him

Evil: Always the Problem

ehrmangodsproblemMy wife pointed out a hole in the eschatology outlined last week in my review of N.T. Wright’s How God Became King. Namely, if Christians are called to make things better, to prepare the world for the arrival of the kingdom of God, which was inaugurated by the ministry and death of Jesus and proven by his resurrection – in other words, if God is currently king of the world to which he will return and physically rule at the end of time as we know it – then why does the world suck so much?

In other words, theodicy. Evil is the problem with this system.

But here’s the thing: Evil is the problem with every system.

Believe God is an all-powerful judge, waiting to destroy the world with fire and brimstone after rapturing his true followers to heaven? Believe God is the sympathizer-in-chief, stooping to identify personally with the grieving, the wounded, the outcast? Believe God is radically loving and gracious, to the extent that each and every person eventually will be welcomed into his presence?

Good for you. None of it explains the existence of evil.

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The God who Flees

flight into egypt xx~001

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.

Continue reading Did the Massacre of the Innocents Really Happen?