Saturday, March 5, 2011

Reading Scripture


If there's a heaven, Gandhi is there, I guaranty you!
by Charlie Leck

This morning's blog is motivated by an article I read in yesterday's New York Times by Eric Kirkholm (Pastor's Stirs Wrath with His Views on Old Questions). It was an interesting and a quite sad story about 40 year old Pastor Rob Bell, the spiritual leader of a pretty conservative protestant church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It's a congregation of over 10,000 members.

Pastor Bell has a book coming out very soon that is stirring up all kinds of hell-fire's heat even though it hasn't yet been released. It seems the promotional materials about the book are enough to get a lot of Bible thumping, saved and sanctimonious Christians angry. When I read about this wrath I have a strange reaction that causes me to both laugh and want to throw up.

You might be able to tell that I'm not a literalist when it comes to reading scripture. You'll learn more about this a little later.

The book by Pastor Bell will be published by HarperOne. The publisher, of course, likes all the advanced publicity and the huge interest in the book. The publication date has been moved up to March 15 and I'll bet the number to be printed has also increased. Of the book, the publisher has this to say...
"Fans flock to his Facebook page, his NOOMA videos have been viewed by millions, and his Sunday sermons are attended by 10,000 parishioners—with a downloadable podcast reaching 50,000 more. An electrifying, unconventional pastor whom Timemagazine calls “a singular rock star in the church world,” Rob Bell is the most vibrant, central religious leader of the millennial generation. Now, in Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, Bell addresses one of the most controversial issues of faith—the afterlife—arguing that a loving God would never sentence human souls to eternal suffering. With searing insight, Bell puts hell on trial, and his message is decidedly optimistic—eternal life doesn’t start when we die; it starts right now. And ultimately, Love Wins."
Now, most of us would say quite calmly, "What's so controversial or bad about that!" Yet it's just that paragraph that has caused all the stir.

Try this little Google search: "blogs about rob bell book" and look at the hits -- hit after hit, one blog after another condemning the book before it's even released!

All this marks me as a blogger who is way behind the curve ball. (Ooh, that brings back bad memories of my baseball days.)

One of the interesting little questions that Pastor Bell is asking has to do with the non-Christian Mahatma Gandhi. Bell wonders how such a man of love, kindness and good deeds could ever be denied access to heaven. The pastor's thesis appears to be that heaven is not exclusively for Christians who have had a salvation experience.

In a Forest Gump moment of inspiration, here's all I've got to say about that: Lord, if heaven is reserved only for those fundamentalist, Bible-thumping, judgmental and hypocritical Christians, please excuse me and send me in the other direction. After spending most of my life in Minnesota, I could stand the heat!

One of those Bible thumping pastors here in Minneapolis, the righteous Reverend John Piper, of the Bethlehem Baptist Church thinks Pastor Bell is a goner. Last week, according to the Times, he wrote: "Farewell Rob Bell!"

It's pretty hard to believe that Pastor Bell could be finished because he's achieved such fame and has done so much in his own Mars Hill Bible Church. In addition to the thousands of members, Bell's clever and captivating videos sell by the tens of thousands. When the pastor makes an appearance in some of the nation's big music venues, he draws sold-out crowds of young people. [Here's one of his videos you can watch: Five Ways to Find God in Everyday Life.]

Well, having watched that video, I can tell you that it's not exactly (or nearly) my cup of tea, though the man doesn't sound like a crazy fundamentalist! I wrote about encounters with Christ a couple of times on this blog and neither was anything like that. [If you're interested in my take, you can look at the blogs Meeting a Really Big Celebrity (Nov 2007) or A Catholic's Rage (Oct 2007)].

I guess the fact that Pastor Bell doesn't sound like like a crazy Christian fundamentalist may be what makes him so attractive to today's young people. The Pastor wants to give them ideas that make sense in light of today's world and today's realities and he understands that scripture can speak to these young people if it's approached and read properly.

"False doctrine," it's called by Justin Taylor, of a conservative Christian publishing house in Wheaton, Illinois.

Erik Raymond, who writes the blog, Ordinary Pastor, also takes Pastor Bell to the wood shed. Raymond is unhappy because Bell doesn't emphasize enough the most important work of Jesus -- saving we who accept Christ as our Lord and Saviour and also the saving work of Jesus in dying for us on the cross. Raymond is also angry at Bell for being too flippant about the Virgin Mary and dismissing conversation about her as non-essential. Come on, Pastor Raymond, you too are missing the essential gift that Jesus gave us; that is, a real way to encounter the reality of God by finding him through our love of our fellow-man. "He who loves his fellow man, knows and loves God," if you'll allow me to paraphrase and condense those things that Jesus said about the subject and that John returns to and emphasizes in his epistles.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr., the President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Lexington, Kentucky, said that Pastor Bell "was at best toying with heresy." Come on, Mr. Mohler, wake up and enjoy the world and God's living presence in it. You're missing out on a real epiphany by losing yourself in the complex world of ancient scripture. Jesus, himself, would be mighty disappointed with you missing out on indubitable encounters with a real and exciting God.

"God once used a donkey to make his will known!" That was one of the reactions of Mark Galli, an editor of the publication, Christianity Today. Hey, I like that!

[End Part One of Today's Blog! Go no further unless you want to read my ideas about how to read scripture!]

Part 2: How to read scripture!
Let's begin with this: There are two ways to read scripture. (1) You can reading it for the pure enjoyment of it, for inspiration, or as a devotional. Or (2), you can read it exegetically (from the Greek word exégēsis (meaning to interpret or explain). I studied for awhile under some extraordinary biblical scholars -- Paul Hammer (PhD from Yale) in New Testament studies, Arthur Merrill (PhD from Harvard) and Allan MacAlaster (PhD from Boston University), both in Old Testament studies . It wasn't easy work, but I enjoyed their lectures and their ideas. Doctor Hammer particularly interested me because of his work with the German theologian, Karl Barth. Hammer and Merrill co-authored a neat little book called Biblical Witness and the World (you can find it on Amazon or ABE). Hammer liked to talk often about understanding scripture from the Sitz im Leben concept; that is from the place in life of the one who was writing.

Sitz im Leben
Scripture gets misunderstood so often, I think, because the reader doesn't understand the reasons for the original recording of the words, the stories, the accounts that are written from the real life setting of the one who wrote those accounts; that is, from the place in life of the accounts.

I reject the idea that scripture is divinely written. Those who argue that it was have no basis for the thesis -- no evidence. When they try to posit the argument, they simply point back to scripture and say things like, "Because the Bible says it is!" Well, that's circular reasoning in a nut shell, isn't it?

Myth versus Fact and not Myth versus Truth
I'm quite certain that ancient scriptures of the Old Testament were oral accounts before they were written down. In other words, they were stories with which ancient, old story-tellers dazzled their audiences. Such story-telling was a part of the traditions and culture of the lands of the Old Testament -- now Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabian, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine. Walter Brueggeman, a very famous and brilliant Old Testament scholar, spends a great deal of time on a study of the lands of the Old Testament in order to more fully understand the meaning of those scriptures. He's wrote a number of fine books, but one of them is actually called The Land.

What happened in those lands? What were the practices of the people? What were their habits? Their entertainment? Their beliefs?

God did not just one day reach down into the lives of these people and, with a zap, inspire them to write the stories of creation and coexistence with their creator. The stories that make up Old Testament scripture are the stories of the people of these lands and they were told over and over again among them. And, eventually, when it was possible to do so technically, they were written down by scholars (or men of wisdom and ability).

It is important to remember that these stories were not fact! That doesn't mean they aren't true. It means that they are not literally factual in the scientific or evidentury sense. Myths are not like that, but as the Greeks most famously knew, they point to a truth even much greater than the stories themselves. One of the best examples of stories like this is the one of Jonah and the Whale. It misses the point if one begins to examine that as a story of fact rather than as a great myth that points to some extraordinary truths.

And so it is that "in the beginning God..." That, we who believe, is an enormous truth. Do not worry about factualness or about trying to prove each point, point-by-point. Concentrate on the greater truth and build your faith on that!
"God created the heavens and the earth, and the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, 'Let there be light,' and there was light!"
Oh, my! How spectacular!

Try to explain it scientifically and you will fail utterly. Yet, you can build a faith around it and proclaim that you believe that man is not alone; for "in the beginning there was God" also.

The following is in the introduction of Genesis in The New Oxford Annotated Bible...
"The primary purpose of the book, however, is not to present straightforward history but to tell the dramatic story of God's dealings with the world and, in particular, to interpret Israel's special role in God's purpose." [italics are mine]
Scripture means so much more and is so much more powerful when not looked at literally. Who needs it to be literal? Only those meek of faith and insecure in their commitment to the God who was there in the beginning and shall be there at the end. Amen! And, Amen!"

Now that one understands that, then one can turn to the primary purpose of reading scripture; that is, for inspiration and guidance and for moments of devotion.
"But David said to Saul, 'Your servant used to keep sheep for his father; and whenever a lion or a bear came, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after it and struck it down, rescuing the lamb from its mouth; and if it turned against me, I would catch it by the jaw, strike it down, and kill it.... The Lord, who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine.' So Saul said to David, 'Go, and may the Lord be with you!'"



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1 comment:

  1. Interesting blog. I studied Old Testament History at Concordia College in St. Paul and it is fascinating. I am glad we are not to judge, it is way over my head. I did find also that the main message is love. If there is nothing else one comes away with from reading Old or New Testaments than that main message, then they have got it. That is the main point. The way that message comes to us does not remain in scripture - it should be alive and around us in our daily lives. Thanks, Charlie. Lynn