Monday, June 24, 2013

What Is the Clear Teaching of Scripture?

         In response to a posting on Bryan Berghoef’s excellent “Tomorrow’s Theology, Today’s Task” ( at his blog

         Language is a slippery thing. Where once we spoke (or more often wrote) about the perspicuity of scripture (of which more later), we now speak of the clear teaching of scripture. The historical link between these two concepts is relatively easy to trace. "The clear teaching of scripture," is a phrase that sounds, well . . . more perspicuous than perspicuity!

         I fear, however, that the phrase has no settled, agreed upon meaning that can serve as the basis for a discussion. In part it is because the phrase "the clear teaching of scripture," is most often a polemical one, used in arguments (say about Adam and Eve, or about homosexuality) to strongly suggest that the person who doesn't agree with you is rejecting some essential teaching of Christianity. And for most Christians (unfortunately) when you start talking about rejecting those teachings, you’re intimating things about heaven and hell.

         The phrase is also difficult to pin down because of the influence that Fundamentalist ideas about the literal meaning of scripture have had on the Evangelical psyche. That is, Fundamentalists speak as if Biblical interpretation is easy, because all you have to do is read the Bible for its propositions, as if it was a textbook or science report or newspaper. Many scholars have pointed out that Fundamentalism, probably in reaction to the rationality and linearity of the scientific method that was wreaking havoc on traditional Christian belief in the nineteenth century, adopted the same sort of methodology for themselves when it came to theology--turning it into a science so they could examine its propositions. So Hank Hart (with many others) writes, "To counteract the rational infallibility of scientific propositions, Christians responded with the (equally rational) infallibility of revealed propositions. But a focus on [rationalistic] propositions was common to both sides." Hart is pointing out that the whole Fundamentalist/Evangelical hermeneutic is based on a synthetic theological framework that has less to do the two-thousand-year-long discussion in the church about Biblical interpretation than it has to do with the unconscious and unhelpful adoption of Enlightenment rationalism as the lens through which scripture is understood.

         Third, another aspect of this Enlightenment thinking, following especially after Thomas Reid and the Common Sense school of thought is the presupposition (not very Calvinist, actually, in that it doesn't give much play to human’s depraved natures) that "all humans possessed, by nature, a common set of capacities--both epistemological and ethical--through which they could grasp the basic realities of nature and morality." Which gets back to where I started—anybody with a little common sense can figure it out. It adds up to a joyless, narrow, literalistic hermeneutic that is all about facts and truths that one is supposed to get if only one would read the Bible as if it were a junior high primer on matters of faith.

         So I just don't like the phrase "The clear teaching of scripture." It has too much baggage that isn't rooted in deep-church tradition. 

         Is the word perspicuity any better? I'm not sure. Historically, the phrase is used in our tradition to mean that the heart of the gospel's message (note—not everything by a long shot) can be understood by anyone--with the help of the Holy Spirit. The trouble is, for practical purposes, the heart of that message in the Christian Reformed Church (for example) turns out to be three creeds and three more confessions covering things as obtuse as the ubiquity of Jesus at the Lord's Supper (which, though it is found in the Heidelberg Catechism isn't something that even Calvinists can agree on) the nature of the atonement (using Anselm's late substitutionary model as its main peg), reprobation and so on. So much for a generous orthodoxy!

         Perspicuity--the notion that regular folk don't need the (Roman) church to interpret the scripture for them because they can do it for themselves--has ironically become imprisoned by the church's insistance on wide and deep confessional subscription. The confessions are long laundry lists of what people in certain denomination must believe, whether or not it seems obvious to those people based on their own study of scripture. Ironically, most Protestants can't agree on much of what is in the Confessions--baptism, election, the role of the Spirit, the nature of Jesus' presence at the Lord's Table, and so on.

         The problem, then, is that in a Christian world where most people can't agree on very much, we nevertheless try to multiply what adherents of particular denominations must believe to be in good standing. And this is doubly difficult when the real reasons most people belong to churches has nothing to do with their teachings, but with their tribalism or community (two sides of a single coin). My own view is that we ought to go light on confessional demands, and focus on community—on loving each other as Christ loved us. Rather than being collections of people who speak as if we know what God means, we ought to mean to follow Jesus in community. Even when we're not sure about much else.

         Of course, institutions need rules. They are voluntary associations, so if you can't agree with their teachings you can leave (I did). 

         My bottom line on perpspicuity? Honestly, I think scripture is a lot more obscure and difficult than most people give it credit for. And I wish we could own up to that. From translation to the presuppositions of the interpreter, from the strangeness of antiquity to our own radically different worldviews, from the variety of theologies and points of view one finds in scripture itself to the rich resource that modern science has become—there are a hundred and one reasons for finding scripture hard to understand. It takes a lot of study of scripture (which very few people do anymore), a lot of wide reading of all the various opinions out there and in the history of the living Catholic Church, and a lot of humility to come to "best guesses," about the meaning and import of even the most commonly written about themes in scripture. That's why there are huge tomes on hermeneutics, or "The Kingdom," or "Paul," out there. Huge tomes that often come to radically different conclusions. Do we go with Augustine’s allegorical method, borrowed from Tychonius the Donatist, as described in his "Christian Doctrine?" I doubt it--though I do like one thing he says (earlier) there. “Whoever finds a lesson [in scripture] useful to the building of charity, even though he has not said what the author may be shown to have intended in that place, has not been deceived, nor is he lying in any way."

         To me, Augustine was right. The heart of scripture is about the building of charity in gratitude for God’s charity. But you may disagree!

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Man of Steel. Superman as a Barometer of Our Anxiety

         Humans have long struggled with anxiety about everything out of their control. You can sense that anxiety in the Psalm we just read. It begins with the famous words, "I lift up my eyes to the hills--from where will my help come?"

          This Psalm, you see, was for Jewish pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem through dangerous enemy territory. As they travelled, they looked up to the hills with great fear. High alters to Baal, the god of lightning and thunder, dotted those hills—along with enemy Canaanites. Travelling under the shadows of those hills, the pilgrims feared Baal’s dark power, and worried that Canaanites would fall upon them to rape, pillage and kill. They lifted their eyes to the hills and in those circumstances, wondered where their help would come from.

         That’s how it still is, for much of the human race. The world is a dangerous place—whether merely crossing a street in car-friendly Toronto, or dodging a sniper’s bullets in Aleppo, or waiting for test results from the Odette cancer center, most of us know the worm of anxiety. And the movie Man of Steal is an unwitting barometer to that anxiety.

         First, however, a short tangent. Warner Brothers Studio claims this Superman movie is actually about Jesus Christ. At least, that’s what Warner Brothers says in their nine-page sermon outline that goes with this  specially-prepared movie trailer.

         Did you catch the parallels? Superman is sent to Earth, and his father predicts he'll be a god to us. Superman is described as an outcast, as despised and rejected, just as Isaiah described the coming Messiah. At age 33, Superman—like Jesus at the same age—sacrifices himself to save the human race. Humans will stumble and fall, we’re told, but he will lift us up to the sun, as if on eagle’s wings I guess. In the movie Superman hangs over the world with his arms spread out as if on a cross. And, of course, after great suffering, Superman defeats demonic General Zod and saves the world.

         These parallels are so obvious they’re also artless. The movie adds up to a banal commercialization of Jesus’ death that mimics the commercialization of Jesus’ birth at Christmas. The movie is devoid of mystery, allusion, and poetry. But it does have lots of flag-waving, bible thumping, apple-pie—and violent—moralism. Superman, after-all, is an all-American Jesus.

         What I found far more interesting than the Jesus parallels was how this movie inadvertently plays on our society’s widespread feelings of anxiety and helplessness and resolves those feelings through an apocalyptic war in the heavens.

         Actually, this is a common theme in contemporary movies. Star Wars was a battle between demonic Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker. Then there is the Star Trek franchise, Spawn, Hellboy, the Justice League, Iron Man, the Transformers, a Middle Earth that needed saving, several zombie invasions, including Brad Pitt's World War Z playing at a theatre near you now. What these movies all share in common is a world in deep crisis, where evil is going to reign supreme. But these movies are also about a moment where, after battles in the heavens and sometimes even at the gates of hell, good ultimately prevails over evil thanks to surprising heroes: Luke and the force, Frodo with his wizard Gandalf, Spock with his cold calculation, Harry Potter and his wands and spells, Katniss Everdean and her bow, and so on.

         These movie battles mirror our own real-life battles. Except that, unlike Superman, we can’t save Syria or Iraq. Unlike Gandalf, we can’t harness the deep magic we need to defeat “the man” in Mordor. Unlike Captain Planet, we cannot create subways galore and tame traffic while also eliminating plastic bags and lowering taxes. As General Zog says of the politicians of his day, “these lawmakers with their endless debates, have led Krypton”—he means earth—“to ruin!” And so the worm of anxiety gnaws at us.

         Realizing we can’t change the system, some of us, especially those of us who benefit materially from the status quo, which is to say most of us—just go along for the ride. What else is there to do? We read the Globe or Star, we vote for the Liberals federally and the Conservatives locally, or maybe the other way around, we save like crazy for retirement, and we hardly dare think about what it is like to be a Palestinian in Ramallah or an endangered Cross River Gorilla in Nigeria. For us, these three remain: denial, anxiety, and the status quo. But the deadliest of these is the status quo.

         But there is an even darker reality.

         Somalis are starving in the Horn of Africa. Palestinians can’t get to their fields—or have just had their fields taken away from them, and can’t find work in Gaza—they feel that anxiety and powerlessness way more than we do. And a certain class of disenfranchised kids is turning to Nazi groups like the Heritage Front or the Skinheads or Aryan Nations. And all of these people—the Somalis and Palestinians and Heritage Front types—all of these people are worrying themselves to death too. In fact, the list of dispossessed people in the world is long. And some of them want to turn our movies about apocalyptic battles in the sky into real battles in our streets. At their deadliest, these hopeless people become our terrorists, who think that if they take down the World Trade Center, or deface synagogues, or blow up buildings in Oklahoma City—that if they do these things they can ignite a race war or a holy war or a civil war that will finally destroy the status quo forever . . . or they will die trying.

         Listen. We are all go to these apocalyptic movies where the future hangs by a thread. We are all on a pilgrimage to our own hoped for Jerusalems—retirement, a cottage, and the top of the ladder. And as we lift up our eyes to the places of power, we wonder who is for us and who is against us. We are either in denial, or we admit that we are relatively powerless and therefore afraid. And we understand that even so—our anxiety is nothing compared to the worries and fears of the world’s truly dispossessed. So as we lift our eyes to these scary hills, from “where will we get our help?” Warp drive? Superman? Aslan? The Force?

         The Psalmist’s answer, of course, was, “My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth. He will not let your foot be moved. He who keeps you will neither slumber nor sleep.” This answer is not a theological promise that none of us will ever suffer loss. God knows, the Psalms are full of enemies and snares, death and darkness. No—this Psalm is almost a prayer. As such, it is a recognition that since we are not in control, like soldiers in foxholes, we best turn to God and then hope for the best.

         But this Psalm only barely touches on Israel’s larger response to anxiety. There is much more to Israel’s story—especially for those of us who have some wealth, who have some power, who have some influence in the world or in our corporation or our law firm or NGO—not a few of us in a congregation like this one. In fact, the rest of Israel’s tradition tells us that when we pray to God for help, God doesn’t expect us to merely wait for Jesus or the next superhero to show up. No, when we pray to God asking for help, God answers us with these words from the prophet Micah:

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God?

         It is, in the end, a sort of “think global, act local” answer. Not completely satisfying, but better than just worrying. Not a sure bet, but something to shoot for if you have a bit of influence with your friends or in your field or family. Of course, we all know we can’t save the world by ourselves. But if we do as God asks—do justice, while loving kindness, and remaining humble; if we strive to live as Jesus really lived, not fighting battles in the heavens but turning the other cheek and loving the least and the last; if we do strive after these Biblical ideals in even the difficult corners of our lives, then perhaps working together as a church or nation or as friends, we can yet accomplish more good in the real world than Superman ever accomplished for his fictional planet.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Get Married or Move In?

            A few months ago I put a sermon suggestion box in the narthex. One person suggested that I answer this question in a sermon. “Is marriage a better choice than moving in together? And why?”

            As I thought about the question, I realized that I had to address a more basic issue, first. So while I’ll get back to which is better—marriage or living together—before the end of this blog entry, I want to start with that more basic issue. What is the valuable, precious thing that we shoot for when we enter into a couple relationship?

            That precious thing is “attachment.”

            “Attachment” isn’t a word you find in the Bible. But the Bible has many stories that recognize the importance of attachment, including the one we read today, from Genesis.

            God says, after creating this human person, Adam, that it wasn’t good for Adam to be alone—unattached, so to speak. So what does God do? Well, he brings all the animals of creation to Adam. Maybe, thinks God, one of the animals will help Adam with his loneliness. But, says the writer of Genesis, none of the animals turns out to be a suitable helper for Adam. Adam was still alone.

            So next, according to the story--a lovely, true myth, actually--God puts Adam to sleep, takes out one of Adam’s ribs, makes a woman out it, and brings her to Adam. Maybe the woman can help Adam with his loneliness.

            And what does Adam say when he sees Eve? Well, listen. He says this woman is, “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” He immediately feels completely and absolutely attached to her. In fact, Adam and Eve are so tight with each other, so into each other that it is as if the two of them share the same body. That is why the writer of Genesis says that when a man leaves his father and mother, he is “united,” to his partner, and they become one flesh—words that are used several times in the New Testament to describe marriage.

            Now here is an important truth behind all this Biblical language about attachment. Humans have evolved to need other humans.

            Consider children. They are born absolutely helpless. When my youngest son David was born, at home, I saw, first hand, how quickly he embraced his mother. Having spent nine months in her womb he seemed, in those first few moments, to reach for her with all his soul and mind--and especially his eyes and mouth. Being outside the womb was an incredible adventure for him, but one that he could cope with only by keeping the connection with his one safe place, his mother, physically and visually alive.

             No wonder. Babies are born absolutely dependent. For years they can't feed or protect themselves. They can't move about and don't understand their environment. If it is cold, they freeze. Unless they are fed, they'll starve. Although babies don't understand any of this about themselves, their brain comes equipped to seek whatever they need from their caregivers. In short order, the baby extends his or her search for comfort and connection from just the mother to a small group of people: father, siblings, perhaps a godparent or babysitter.

One more example of attachment. We’ve all also seen this need in young children, too. Imagine a little girl exploring a slide on the playground, for example. Dad is sitting on a bench a few yards away. The little girl, even after successfully negotiating the slide once, with dad's help, constantly keeps an eye on dad to make sure that he remains close and available in case of trouble. The little girl wants to make sure dad is available to her, and feels more comfortable—more adventurous, even—so long as she knows his protective embrace is just a step away.

When babies or children don’t get that loving, emotionally rich bond—when parents are absent due to neglect, or an accident, or terrible long-term illness—many, many studies have shown that children often suffer lifelong consequences. They may become apathetic or have behavioral problems. Such children have a harder time connecting to others as adults, and with being empathetic.

As humans, we never lose this need to be attached to others. When we lose someone we’re attached to it is a tragedy and we’re injured. Think, for example, of Jesus on the cross. One of the saddest aspects of that death were the words he screamed out to his father, his abba, just before he died: "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?" Jesus' loss of his attachment to God was at the heart of his suffering. But we all have Adam’s need and Jesus’ need: for attachment, for people who will be safe harbors for us, for people who will have our backs no matter what, for people who, in the swift and raging river of time, will for us immoveable, dependable rocks we can safely stand on.

            And a couple’s relationship, at its best, thrives to the degree that this sort of deep, emotional, attachment is real and dependable.

            By the way, there is a great book on attachment I’m going to suggest that all of you who are in a committed relationship buy. It’s a bestseller called Hold Me Tight, by Canadian therapist Sue Johnson. Hold Me Tight is easily the most readable and best book on attachment available.

            But now, having explained, in a few words, the biological and spiritual basis of attachment, I need, finally, to get back to the question I started with. Get married or move in?

            Well, first, don’t forget that according to the story of Adam and Eve, they were deeply attached without a wedding—though I am not sure who they would have invited, should they have wanted one! But actually, what is true for Adam and Eve is mostly true all through the Bible. While we know that people were married because the Bible describes people as husbands and wives—we know just about nothing about how people became married. Jesus went to a wedding reception where there wasn’t enough wine, but what happened at the wedding ceremony itself isn’t known. Maybe, back then, they just moved in with each other. At some periods of Israel’s life, this was almost certainly how it was done. What I mean to say is that the Bible doesn’t prescribe that church weddings or civil registrations are how marriages have to be done. It is the idea of marriage or union that matters, not how it comes to be.

            Second, if you are looking at a life partnership, making a promise to your partner that the partnership is exclusive, that it is for life, that it is unconditional—making such promises are good for attachment. Making promises cultivated deeper attachment. And of course, promises are what make a marriage ceremony a marriage ceremony.

            Two people could do their wedding on a beach instead of a church; they could do their wedding dressed in bathing trunks rather than tuxes and gowns; they could do the wedding during lunchtime at work rather than at two o’clock on Saturday—as long as those two people make their promises to each other, it is a wedding.

            So while I’d never say that living together is wrong—I’d add that making promises is beautiful, and great strategy for nurturing attachment.

            Of course, you could make those promises in private, and many people do. There is nothing wrong with that. But making promises in public increases the weight and visibility of the promise. Making promises in public holds you accountable to the whole community of your family and friends for keeping those promises. And, making promises in public also offers, both before and after, a great opportunity to celebrate those attachment promises with friends and family.

            Finally, beware of one danger of “just” moving in. Moving in without promises—whether public or private—moving in without making a commitment to each other, moving in to see if it will work—all these things make it much more likely that you will be moving in for just a little while. Recent research, reported on in the NYT for example, makes it abundantly clear that when two people drift into a live-in relationship—because it's cheaper, because they are staying over more often—when two people drift into a live-in relationship without the benefit of promises their relationship is less likely to last and less likely to develop strong attachment than a live-in relationship or marriage where the commitment that goes with making promises is front and center.

            So, get married or move in? Both can be great. But which ever you choose, remember that if you’re looking for long-term, loving attachment, making promises is a great strategy.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Why Get Married, Anyway? (I Don't Know)

We all know that the Bible, while recognizing the institution of marriage, says nothing substantial about how one becomes married. Jesus went to a seven-day wedding celebration, but we don’t know what the ceremony itself looked like. The bible doesn’t prescribe specific kinds of civil or religious ceremonies. We don’t know what promises brides made to bridegrooms, or visa versa. We can be sure that the presuppositions of those entering into marriage were more sexist than we'd be comfortable with. The law of levirate marriage, for example, which required the brother of a deceased man to marry his sister-in-law should she be childless, sounds like legalized rape to us moderns—even if it was meant to protect the widow back then. I mean, what if they hated each other? And it is interesting how some people take the Old Testament’s condemnation of homosexuality seriously, but not the levirate law about marriage--which, after all, touches on one of the cornerstone institutions in their view of the world. And then there is the Apostle Paul, who suggested that single people never get married, since Jesus was coming back any time now! Well, who is listening to Paul now?

The Bible doesn’t have much to say about the institution of marriage. Does what we think of a common law marriage now count as marriage in the Biblical sense, for example? What if people can’t afford to get married? What do we make of David's or Abraham's multiple marriages or couplings or whatever you call them? 

We can know something of the qualities that a marriage should have by the sort of things God’s prophets say about Israel acting like an unfaithful spouse. We can know something about the qualities a marriage should have by extrapolating from the Genesis story about Adam and Eve. Though not a story about marriage, per se, it does suggest that attachment (to use a contemporary marriage-therapy buzz-word) is a positive quality—most of us want other people in our lives who will be “bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh."

So why this musing about marriage? Well, basically, this coming Sunday I am preaching on the theme, “Ever Thought of Getting Married?” I’m preaching on this theme in a context where marriage (as culturally defined, today) is definitely not thought of as something the Bible demands. People live together and no one thinks anything of it. Nor do I--morally, that is. But in this context, why might something like marriage as we understand it today be advisable or user-friendly or wise or beneficial or fun for today’s young people?

Help! Let me know, please!