Monday, January 25, 2010

The Conversation

In my previous post about the Bible I referred to the realization that as I read scripture, I am listening in on other peoples conversations with God. Mulling over that further, I see that the most worthwhile time of my life is in my own conversation with my Father. Is this rank (and insidious) individualism on my part? But I am, as are most of you, if you'll admit it, an individualist at heart, and I must just deal with it and be what I am.

The Conversation starts with birth. I am put into the world as a new (or pre-existent; it matters not) soul, unaware of any prior contact with my creator, and what I know, I know by observation of others, especially family members. I am taken to church, I told Bible stories, I am led to pray. (This is my story-- there are many who haven't had the same advantages.)

Somewhere along the line I realize that it's not just all one sided. God didn't just speak way back when and now we speak forever into the void as a response. Rather we talk now and he listens, and then he talks and we listen. Or at least that would be the ideal. What's sometimes closer to the truth is we rant and he listens and then he whispers sense to us and we shut him out. The disconnect in the conversation would seem to be our tendency to do the 'la la la I can't hear you' thing. That is why there's a need for the Bible. And a need for the larger Church. Whatever faults there are in the Church and whatever difficulties in the way some people approach the Bible, the alternative lack of either or both is unacceptable. We need reminders, we need to listen in, to be invited to listen in on the other conversations going on around us. God gets through, so to speak, with at least some of the people, much of the time. And the spill over from those conversations, we can't do without. (Even my cherished individualism will fail me at times!)

But as time goes on and I learn not to shut him out, some of what he says and some of what I say to him is private. This is a special moment for anyone to reach. The idea of sharing a unique and special secret with the God of All the Universe is intoxicating beyond belief. If you need an upgrade in your self-image, try living here. If God values you and considers you trustworthy with his secrets, nothing can trump that, if you truly believe it.

Anyhow, this is my pilgrimage, and every so often, I promise that I will move out of my ornery space and just show up as a pilgrim...

Saturday, January 23, 2010

What is the Bible?

A friend of mine has encouraged me to have a look at the teachings of Andrew Wommack. And so I had a look at the website. I wasn't particularly thrilled. Oh, I like his attitude as a netizen, -- most of his material is right out there to read. You don't have to buy all his teachings to get an idea of what his message is. It's his message I have some difficulty with. It's not that new as an idea -- it's somewhat what I grew up with. But I can't really stomach some of it any more.

It's his theory of the Bible that bugs me. Take this from the currently featured article -- "A Sure Foundation"

A true revelation of God’s Word is the single most important element of a victorious Christian life. The Word of God often refers to itself as a seed...
Okay, why is this a problem? First of all I take issue with the superimposition of the phrase "The Word of God" over what is really meant, which is the Bible. Why is this a problem? Because it defeats any thought process we might have when we read the Bible. If something is "the Word of God," then we better not think about it at all-- straight ahead obedience is all that is in order. But that does not work when it comes to the Bible; as Christians, there are are parts that we obey and others we clearly don't. There's a clearly established thought process that has gone before us to highlight that which is relevant and background that which is not. That process is not over and must continue. But if we persist in using religious titles like this our necessary critical judgement is emasculated.

Secondly, (actually firstly, but I really needed to make the earlier point first so that what I say now makes sense) how can any Christian make the Bible, or the revelation thereof, "the single most important element" of his life? I thought Christ was supposed to have that place. No? Or maybe we should try to be known as word-of-god-ians. But it is not to be borne. Everything in the Bible is subservient to knowing Jesus, and even the Bible must be the same. So, boom! there goes the main premise of Wommack's article. But there's one thing more. And it's probably the thing that sparked this response in the first place.

So thirdly, the phrase "the word of God often refers to itself as a seed" is a problem. What it assumes is a book that is somehow self aware across all the diverse and time divided writings contained there in, a book that somehow exists in a plane above itself, so that discrete words and phrases spoken to specific people for specific purposes in specific situation, all somehow suddenly lose their meaning in the new emergent larger context. And many people seem to believe that about the Bible. Problem is, it can't be true.

Why not? Let's start with an argument I found in the a book by Peter Kreeft regarding Catholicism (very likely it was Catholic Christianity but I don't have the book on hand right now so I can't check.) He successfully attacks the sola scriptura position of the post-reformation protestants and demonstrates (sufficient to my mind) that if you are going to take that view, you have to actually accept sola ecclesia because it was the "ecclesia" (i.e. the Catholic Church) that brought you the "scriptura." You can't take the fruit of a poison tree and arbitrarily declare it good while condemning the tree. I'm not going to examine sola vs. sola just now. What I am going to say is that it was the church acting in an authority given it by Jesus, who chose the books of the Bible. It was not the books of the Bible somehow assembling themselves mystically in the heavens and appearing to us as "THE WORD OF GOD."

Another reason why it can't be true is that there is no clear prophetic reference in the Bible, especially in the Gospels, where you'd expect it if it was so important to Jesus' church that he would build, to the present day existence of the Bible. Something like "After me a book will be formed which..." But there's nothing like that. You'd expect that if "a true revelation of the [Bible]" was so "important," Jesus would point us in that direction. There are lots of references to the books we now call the Old Testament, that many teachers, not caring what damage they do the text they claim to defend, have extended to cover the whole collection. But you cannot really make the case from the Bible for the Bible.

For the Bible is a collection of writings, a library that has come down to us from our spiritual forefathers in ancient times. It was gathered and canonized by authorities we respect (although some of us do feel free to disagree with those same authorities on other points... more in later posts I'm sure.) and we are thankful for the resource it is. It does not speak with only one voice. It speaks in a chorus. And to my mind acquires much more authority thereby. Some voices we must listen to closer than others. Jesus' voice must be the clearest, or we are lost.

Why do I read the Bible? Knowing that what I seek is more caught than taught, as the saying goes. I read it that I may somehow catch what Jesus, Paul, Peter, James, Luke had. I read and listen to their voices so that I might actually know (grok: see below) them, because it was them, not their mere words, that was the temple of the Holy Spirit in their time and I want to be such a temple, now. I do not ignore direct commands, but I recognise that much in the Bible is a conversation I am listening in on and I need to take what I hear to God to see how it applies to me.

So to say it positively, thereby to negate what I take as an insidious first premise of Wommack's article: A true revelation of Jesus is the single most important element of a victorious Christian life. The rest of his article is an interesting read, and there'd be lots of stuff to discuss there, but this is a blog post and I don't really have time to go into all that...

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Ekklesia and Gerousia

As the basis for the following post, I lean heavily on Sailing the Wine Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter by Thomas Cahill. The book is one of a series which he calls the "Hinges of History" which I recommend to anyone who cares about how the world (mostly the 'western' part) has become what it is. The Irish, the Jews, Jesus, the Greeks, and the Middle Ages, are each scrutinized for their contribution in fascinating detail, each in a separate book.

In Sailing Cahill paints an illuminating contrast between two Greek cities, Athens and Sparta. Athens was ruled by a raucous direct democracy, a town hall meeting which met over forty times a year, which achieved quorum only if at least 6,000 (yes, that's three zeroes) of the citizens were present, but typically were attended by about 10,000 voters. A these meetings, magistrates and war leaders were elected, and laws passed, all in the most noisy, rollicking manner. Culturally, the city flourished. Education, Philosophy etc. Drama as we know it has its origins in Athens. (you get the picture. It's a bit rosy, but it will do for a blog)

Sparta on the other hand was ruled by a council of old men. Citizens, by long custom, had 'better things to do' than participate in the running of the City. The 'privileged' classes (er, the males of the privileged classes) dedicated their austere and colourless lives to military training/service from age 12 all the way to age 60. The helots, i.e. the less privileged half of Sparta, lived in a state of serfdom, feeding the elite and getting stick for it. (every year the council would actually declare ritual war on the helots to forestall any potential revolt by killing off the likely leaders.)

These two forms of government each have a name, Sparta's council was called the gerousia. When Athens gathered together for participatory rule, it was ekklesia. On exposing that bit of historical etymology, Cahill points out the irony that, the original Greek term for what we call church, ekklesia (and could be the word Jesus himself chose... although it's a fair bet that Jesus taught in Aramaic, not Greek, so we don't know that for sure) would have drifted so far from what New Testament Greeks would have understood it to really mean, into something more like gerousia.

Now Cahill is writing from the point of view of an American liberal Catholic, so church for him is more gerousiac than it ever has been for me and he seems to be in despair at the end of the last book The Mysteries of the Middle Ages. (Thomas if you ever read this, there are more options than Catholicism!) But the question remains. Jesus said "I will build my ekklesia." (If he said it in Aramaic instead, then the gospel writers, chose 'ekklesia' by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, so whatever he actually said is somewhat moot. The powerful sense of it's original usage still stands.) How can we be so far from that now, and still use the same term -- or the word translated from it, that is church?

There are some functional answers such as they are-- and they are incomplete. One of them has to do with the tutelary nature of the church. In any church one always expects to see a number of the uninitiate, the ones who simply need to be taught what we are about-- ones who need to be guided. I think that was far more the case in the early church, and by constant custom and need for guidance, the permanence of that guidance was simply assumed and the clergy was born. Another force I see pulling us away from an Athenian ekklesia experience, is laziness. We don't want to be bothered with running the church. We lose some ownership thereby, I think. Also there is the need for creating a safe environment for the wounded, the weak and the children. Control becomes a goal.

These are not pernicious forces -- they are merely human. But that doesn't mean we can't inject some of the original meaning back into church and participate again...

Sunday, January 10, 2010

A New Entry in Christian Vocabulary

OK, here's where I play the part of the compleat geek. There's a word which originated in a science fiction work (Robert Heinlein's Stranger in A Strange Land) that has been achieving wider and wider usage aided by this medium, the world wide web, that English speaking Christians would be well advised to start adopting. It's not a pretty word but it encompasses something we just haven't got in the English language. That word is "grok."

wikipedia describes grok like this

To grok (pronounced /ˈɡrɒk/) is to share the same reality or line of thinking with another physical or conceptual entity. Author Robert A. Heinlein coined the term in his best-selling 1961 book Stranger in a Strange Land. In Heinlein's view, grokking is the intermingling of intelligence that necessarily affects both the observer and the observed. From the novel:
Grok means to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes a part of the observed—to merge, blend, intermarry, lose identity in group experience. It means almost everything that we mean by religion, philosophy, and science—and it means as little to us (because of our Earthly assumptions) as color means to a blind man.
Yup. There's something missing in our concept of knowledge (as in "Do you know God?") that this word could definitely fill. For years we've pussyfooting around with the dichotomy between heart-knowledge and head-knowledge and still, both of them elude us. The closest thing in English, is the word 'get' as in "Do you get it?" but even that doesn't describe the true 'Holy Grail' of our quest. Do you grok God the Father? Do you grok Jesus? Do you grok the Holy Spirit? (Nuff Said)

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Arbitraries of the New Testament

Who decided the book order of the New Testament? I ask the question belligerently. The information is out there, I'm sure. But I don't care about that. Maybe I should say, 'What idiot decided...?' but that would be too strong. At any rate there are some very unfortunate consequences of the popular book order of the New Testament.

The most humorous, I think, is the placement of Revelation at the end so that by inference, the warning at the end of Revelation not to alter the book somehow extends to the whole bible. Very convenient, very appealing to the literalists among us. Similar to Paul's advice to Timothy, advising him to go ahead and use the Old Testament, "All scripture is inspired by God..." and the way that is extended into the New Testament. Absolutely, you shouldn't alter any of the bible and yes, the New Testament is inspired, but to use those passages to support those worthy propositions is perhaps kind of shortsighted.

But that's by the by. The thing that galls me the most about New Testament book order is that the epistles follow the gospels. This has the strange and twisted effect of letting Paul have the last word over Jesus. What? Well, think about it. Progressive revelation. Great hermeneutical concept. We gaze on earlier parts of the bible through the lens of later parts. Well it may have failed us in this case... because of the book order. For one thing, most of the epistles were likely to be written before most of the gospels, so although the events of the gospels are before the missionary events that bring about the need for the epistles, some of the material in the gospels could actually be a corrective to stuff in the epistles. But by ordering the books as we do, we could be subverting that purpose.

Take for example, the seeds of patriarchal, and authoritarian hierarchy littered through Paul's letters. It's a theme he loves to play. "Timothy, my son" ... "I became your father," and other similar phrases. Also, the references to the elders (many of which he had put in place) being "worthy of double honor" There's lots of stuff like it. But hold on, what happened to Jesus' earnest command not call anyone "father" and not be like the rabbis and their seats of honor and regalia, not to lord it over each other, etc. etc? Every time Jesus refers to any hierarchy he squashes it flat. Frequently. (the most stunning to my mind is the laundry list of things gained and lost in the kingdom -- the one in Mark loudly omits fathers as something that you receive back in the kingdom - Mark 10:29,30) But since Paul is 'after' Jesus, we think, "oh well Jesus can't really have been serious about that after all..."

There's no problem with Paul saying these things. His worldview is likely one of patriarchal authority, and he's going to speak from inside his worldview. We all do. But I think he needed correction from the source of all righteous correction, Jesus. And the Gospel writers, writing at the same or later time, inspired by the Holy Spirit, recalling the words of Jesus, brought it. But through history, through ignorance (not the lack of knowledge, but the ignoring what Jesus actually said) we have followed Paul rather than obeyed Jesus. My NIV study bible, normally such a good resource, as a footnote to the famous "call no man father" passage in Matthew, dismisses it with "Obviously, we shouldn't take this literally..." Balance, shmalance. To put it in the most loaded religious language (and even that has its uses) How can we take the words of the Son of God and 'balance' them against the practises of his servant (Paul) or the whole church hierarchy that followed? And all this (maybe) because the ordering of the books of the New Testament.

OK I'm not against leaders in the church. People function better when directed in some way in some circumstances -- but in my view they function far better as they take ownership of the church they call theirs. What I am against is pedestalia. The tendency of some people to prostrate themselves before other people is just plain wrong (the whole teaching on covering comes in here somewhere.) The tendency of others to arrogate themselves on spiritual grounds is plain wrong. And if Paul had a skewed idea of authority (as I think he did) then the idea that we are locked into one form of church government ("that's the way Paul did it") is questionable. At any rate this is where this pilgrim is right now...