Monday, April 29, 2013

What Is God Actually Saying to You?

“What is God actually saying to you?”

When I read that question in a blog ( Ben Sternke recently, I thought it must be a trick question. We all know, after all, that the Bible is God’s “Word.” So if we want to know what God is actually saying—as compared to what we wish God was saying or what people would like God to be saying—well, then we probably should read the Bible.

Now, I know that not everyone agrees on how, exactly, the Bible is God’s Word, or what it actually means. Good people in different faith traditions have different ideas. A Fundamentalist Christian will probably say that the Bible is God’s inerrant, all-but-dictated-from-heaven exact Word. A mainline Christian in the Barthian tradition might say the Bible mysteriously becomes God’s Word when God decides it will. There are many more possibilities. In general, however, they share the view that the Bible is, in some manner, God’s Word.

So I think that if we want to know what God is actually saying, we should read the Bible.

What God is actually saying in the Bible is complicated, of course. For many of us, reading the Bible is just plain boring. We can’t attend to it very long. But beyond the trouble we have reading, the Bible is hard to interpret, too. It was written thousands of years ago, in a different language, by people who didn’t have phones or bikinis or even sewers. It is almost as if the Bible comes at us from a different universe. I find it remarkable that, once translated, most of us get its central themes. Still, interpreting what God actually says in the Bible is hard. Maybe that is the least we can expect from a God that some of our theological heroes have described as ineffable, transcendent, and incomprehensible.

There is another class of difficulties we all struggle with when we read the Bible for what God is actually saying. These are very personal and sensitive. But the truth is, we all tend to read into the Bible what we want to hear: that it is for gays or against them, that it insists on silence for women or inspires them to be preachers, that God is against all violence or selectively in favor of some violence. We’ve all been raised in communities that shape how we read the Bible. None of us come to it without presuppositions or prejudices that influence what we hear. Our hearts have scary, devious, cavernous depths that shape what we think (and even what we hear).

But still, as hard as it is to overcome these personal biases, when someone asks me what God is actually saying, I respond with, “well, here’s the Bible. It is God’s Word.”

Anyway, I saw this blog, recently, and its title was, “What Is God Actually Saying to You?” by Ben Sternke. I thought it had to be a trick question because all Christians know that in some manner, shape, or form, the Bible is God’s Word.

But no. Sternke writes that if you want to hear God’s Word, you need to engage in a nine-step process of observation, reflection and discussion. You must pause and quiet your heart and slow down your body. You need to pray and spend a minute simply listening. You should imagine what Jesus would say if he had an arm around you. You need to write down phrases and words that you see. You need to feel that God has spoken to you. You need to check it out with others. That’s what God is actually saying. And then you need to respond with an action.

But not a word in this blog about the Word.

Excuse my rant, but this is really dangerous stuff. God routinized. Here God is subject to our administrative and procedural initiatives in order to achieve our own wishful ends. But worst of all, God saying whatever we think we hear God saying—which is probably what we wish he or she was saying. A hermeneutic of “I feel,” and “my gut tells me,” rather than one of study, and exegesis, and comparing scripture to scripture, and checking what other wise Christians over the past 2000 years have said about this or that text. A method for hearing God that is perfectly aligned with the relativistic and individualistic religious longings of twentieth-century America. A subjective and self-centered approach to truth by people blissfully unaware that such an approach  is even possible. God’s Word determined by the vagaries and whims of my all too often unruly unconscious. An exchange of the Word in scripture for a few words imagined in the course of a little sit-down meditation. A recipe for churning out people so sure that they know what God is saying privately to them that they stop listening to the hard things he actually says in the Bible.

Of course, I’m pretty sure Sternke probably values the Bible highly. And I know that he thinks it wise to check with others to “see if they have anything to add.” I also understand that the notion that we can personally hear God has popped up over and over in Christianity, in people as diverse as Montanus (and Prisca and Maximilla) to Joseph Smith to some modern Pentecostals. Sternke will surely say that I’ve missed his own larger context (which I know nothing about) and put his blog in the worst possible light.

Maybe so. But hearing what God is actually saying in the Bible is hard enough without giving people the idea that they can hear God on their own, at will, according to a schedule that suits them, with a little disciplined attentiveness. It isn’t that I’m against meditation or slowing down or reflection—it is just that I prefer to meditate on the Word of God rather than meditate on purportedly divine words from beyond the ether.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Bible Becomes the Word

When I was a little boy, I lost my shoelaces. Regularly.

I wore desert boots back then—gray suede shoes that got their name from their color, I guess. In spite of their name, desert boots were actually very cool. And fashion being what it is, you can bet that one day soon they will be cool again.

Desert boots had only three rows of shoelace eyelets. The shoelaces were round and short and hard to tie. That was a problem for me because I had fine motor deficiencies as a kid. Nothing serious, but it meant I couldn’t hit the ball, catch it very often, and write or print neatly. And I couldn’t tie a nice bowknot either—especially with the short, round laces of my desert boots. Unfortunately, because the boots were cut too high to slip in and out of without retying, I couldn’t resort to granny knots either. I had to use a regular bowknot. That meant that my laces kept coming undone and, often, that I lost my laces altogether.

My mother, who was in almost every respect longsuffering and patient, finally lost patience with me on this score. She warned me not to lose any more laces—or else. Or else what? Or else I’d have to retrace my steps from home to the bus stop until I found my missing laces. Given that I had probably lost my laces at school and could probably never retrace my meandering route I took from the bus stop to home anyhow, the command to find the laces was about as hopeless a command as any a parent has ever given a child. Still, what could I do? Mom commanded, and so instead of watching “Leave It to Beaver,” I searched in vain for shoelaces.

But somehow, between those searches, I also learned to tie my shoes. Smart mom. She knew what she was doing.

I was reminded of that story while writing this week’s sermon. Isn’t that how it is with Scripture too? We search Scripture because we’re looking for something we’re pretty sure has to be there. And we search scripture because we’re told to do it by pastors, parents, and friends.

And then, somehow, even when we don’t find the specific thing we’re looking for, something wonderful may find us. Good news. The Bible becomes the Word.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

A New New Testament

Hidden away on the back pages of many newspapers this past month was a story about a new book entitled A New New Testament by Robert Tausig. Tausig and a team of scholars compiled a ten ancient religious gospels and epistles written in the early days of Christianity that offer an alternative perspective than the one found in the Bible. Reading these texts, says Tausig, will give you a fuller idea of the religious milieu in which Christianity was founded. These texts, which the church ultimately decided should not be part of the New Testament, have names like “The Gospel of Thomas,” and “The Acts of Paul and Thecla.”

The publication of A New New Testament is controversial with some Christians because of the implicit suggestion that the New Testament is incomplete. I don’t think that is what Tausig and his scholars are really saying. These additional ten texts do, however, shed a lot of light on the competing movements and opinions that existed in and around the early church. So they make for interesting reading.

These texts—and there are many, many more that might have been chosen—are often called gnostic gospels. Gnosticism wasn’t the same as Christianity, but was heavily influenced by it. What I find most interesting about Gnosticism is not how it is similar to Christianity, but how it was different. It is a difference that illuminates.

Gnostics were very spiritual people. In fact, they were pretty sure that all things spiritual were really great, especially compared to all things material—including human bodies. Gnostics thought that the body’s feelings and passions prevented people from thinking holy, spiritual thoughts. In fact, many Gnostics described their bodies as prisons in which their spiritual selves were locked up. And what their spiritual selves, their souls, really wanted was freedom from the body so that they could be reunited with the great big spirit in the sky.

It is hard for us to imagine life this way. As long as we’re healthy, we love our bodies, exercise them, diet, dress them up, romp in bed with them, play in them—and we think this is all great! But the ancient world was a place without aspirin or antibiotics, a place where life was often short, brutish, attended by poverty and hardship. Life in bodies was often hard and people longed for something better. They thought they might find it in spiritual release. Gnosticism promised people the secret wisdom (“gnosis” is the ancient Greek word for wisdom) that would help their souls escape the horrors of life in the body for real life in the spirit realm.

Gnosticism was too complex and diverse a religious movement to easily generalize about it. But much of the wisdom that they were focused on had to do with religious rules and regulations, habits and disciplines that focused on beating the body and its passions into submission, so that the body wouldn’t get in the way of the true spiritual self.

This means Gnostics were usually ascetic. They emphasized eating less, having less sex, meditation rather than exercise and worship and rituals rather than working and partying. In their places of worship they heard sermons about the secret passwords and rituals their spirits would need, once their bodies died, to join the great big spirit in the sky.

The New Testament warns against gnostic spirituality. Perhaps the best known such passage is in Colossians 2, where Paul warns Christians not to “let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths.” He tells Christians not to submit to such “self-abasement,” or to people who say, “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch.” Paul says such regulations as well as severe treatment of the body might have the appearance of wisdom—there is the Greek word “gnosis,”—but they are of no real value for Christians.

Why does Paul reject this kind of religion? Well because neither he, nor Christians in general, believe that life in the flesh means exile for the soul.

Ultimately the message of Christianity is that the body and its appetites are God-given gifts to be nurtured and enjoyed. According to the creation myth, God created Adam and Eve naked and not ashamed. Bodies are good! The Old Testament “Song of Songs” is a celebration of a good romp in bed with your beloved and enjoying this bodily pleasure as a divine gift. The story of Easter is that Jesus’ body was resurrected because a spirit without a body is missing something. And Paul taught that we are saved by grace rather than by secret wisdom about how to beat the body into submission.

I would say any religion that tries to make a good bottle of wine or beautiful painted nails or a feast with friends inherently evil is merely a gnostic-like misunderstanding of Christianity. Everything—Paul means all material things, in another tirade against Gnosticism from First Timothy—“everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, provided it is received with thanksgiving.”

Religion that promotes a set of rules and regulations that always says “No!” to the body in order to promote one’s spiritual side isn’t what the Bible is about. True spiritual life is always life in the body. So long as we use our life in the body to love our neighbors, to pursue justice and mercy and the good for others that Jesus sought to demonstrate in his bodily life, we ought to enjoy our bodies as a divine gift.

So, by all means, pick up a copy A New New Testament or some other gnostic gospels. And allow yourself to be fascinated by how Christianity offers a very different perspective on the relation of body and soul.