Thought Provoking Thursday – The Bible Part 2 – Questions

So, I was listening to an atheist the other day expound the virtues of rational thought.  Though important to feed your mind and soul with stuff that strengthens your faith, I also believe that we need to listen to those who do not share our point of view.  I found myself smiling as he did what many atheists do when making comparisons with their purely rational stance.  He attributed certain beliefs to all those who profess faith in Jesus.  As if we all believe the same thing!  In my experience, we followers of Jesus have nothing like a common set of beliefs, and if I were to set out to discredit us, I would question the myriad of doctrinal differences that seem to exist!  For goodness sake, we can’t even agree on whether it is OK to drink alcohol or not!

I am going to ask a number of questions and hope that this stimulates some thought and debate on why there are so many inconsistencies in the way we view that wonderful collection of books we call the Bible.

First of all, why do I hear constant references to the Bible as ‘The Word of God’, when in the first chapter of John, it is almost universally accepted that referring to the ‘Word’, he is talking about Jesus and not a large leather bound book?  Even If we accept the ‘Word of God’ maxim, which words did he intend to be more important than others?  We have elevated certain statements and created binding doctrine and yet ignore any number of statements spoken by the same person, or at best explain them away as a cultural blip on the scriptural landscape.  I think of the words of Paul in Romans.  On the one hand in chapter 3 he declares that no man will be declared righteous by observing the law, and yet in the previous chapter, he maintains that only those who obey the law will be righteous.  A complete contradiction.

In one statement to Timothy, Paul extolls the universal benefit of the scriptures, a much quoted verse to support the supremacy of the bible.  I happen to believe in the inspiration he talks about.  But what do I do with the contradictory statements that women should be silent in the churches and yet should wear head covering when praying?  Back in the old testament book of Leviticus, the main verse used to condemn homosexuality is accompanied by statements that propose the death sentence for those who curse their father and mother and also outlaw blended cloth or different crops being planted in the same field.  I will attempt to address the subject of homosexuality in a future blog, but for the time being, the dearth of biblical condemnation is at least challenging.

Is the account of the beginning of the universe a literal account or a poetic picture examined through the limited lens of knowledge at the time?  Does it matter that an old testament author seemed to regard the earth as flat?  What do we do with the overwhelming support for slavery argued in previous centuries based on words that teach how slaves should be treated or how they should behave?  How can Christians advocate going to war when Jesus clearly calls on us to ‘love our enemies’?  Why can’t we agree on whether alcohol is delicious or of the devil?  Why is there such a concentration on hell and eternal damnation when there seems to be so little said on the subject by Jesus himself?  Why can’t those of us who profess to follow Jesus agree on the big stuff and let the trivial fade into obscurity?

Truthfully, I have struggled with these questions.  One of our biggest mistakes is to unwittingly behave as if God himself is contained within the scriptures.  A friend of mine once said that many Christians seem to imagine that the white horse in Revelation 19 would be ridden by a large leather bound book rather than Jesus himself.  To my mind, the nature of God must far outstretch the boundaries of a library of books.  At this point in my journey, I believe in the inspiration behind the words but equally in the fallibility of the humans who wrote them.  I garner truth for my life in the broad message of love and fulfillment, but shy away from the absolutes of this verse or that.  I choose to receive revelation through more than just this library of books, and try to stay open to input from nature, art, relationships and the very experiences that life throws my way.  Am I leaving too much open ended?  I feel a sense of freedom to focus on the love that seems so central to Jesus’ message.  But perhaps I am too simplistic.  Let me know, I would love to hear.


Topical Tuesday – A People of Color.

I don’t know if you caught the story last year that made the news for a couple of weeks concerning Benedict Cumberbatch and his remarks concerning ‘Colored People’?  Yes, yesterday was MLK day in the US, so I am being somewhat predictable with my topic this Tuesday!  Back to my opening.  What was remarkable about this piece of news and the remarkable attention drawn to it were two things.  First of all, Mr Cumberbatch was taken to task over his use of the words ‘Colored People’ rather than the politically correct ‘People of Color’.  Secondly, and perhaps more substantially, he was seeking to make a point in defense of actors of color (if that is the appropriate nomenclature – OK, right up front, I apologize if I use an inappropriate phrase as I tread on dangerous ground here as a white caucasian).  My question is, despite papering the cracks with politically correct speech, do we still have substantial holes under the wallpaper?

We can point to some headline grabbing events that suggest some progress has been made in the realm of civil rights.  Perhaps the most notable among these is the election of an African American President in the US.  The slim majority of voters who made up the national vote certainly suggests a shift in attitude.  However, there are still too many incidents and weighty statistics that suggest we have a long way to go.  The beating of Rodney King and subsequent racial tensions, and more recently the Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown shootings only highlight some disturbing statistics.  For instance, approximately 100 unarmed African Americans were shot by police in 2015 alone.  This figure represents 5 times the number of unarmed white people who were shot in the same period. (see Police Violence Statistics).

Perhaps more seriously, the rate of incarceration of the black community is hugely disproportionate.  According to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics, 13.6% of the population are black (including hispanic black), whilst 39.4% of the prison population were non-hispanic black.  “Our prison population, in fact, is now the biggest in the history of human civilization. There are more people in the United States either on parole or in jail today (around 6 million total) than there ever were at any time in Stalin’s gulags. For what it’s worth, there are also more black men in jail right now than there were in slavery at its peak.”
Matt Taibbi, The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap.  Of course, there are a lot of reasons for this, including levels of poverty amongst the black population, geographic bias limiting opportunities for education and many more that I have not had the time to research.  My feeling is that this represents a significant indictment on our treatment of ethnic minorities and particularly the black community.  The injustice Mr Taibbi speaks about also stands in stark contrast to the complete absence of criminal convictions of those who prosecuted massive fraud in the lead up to the banking crisis of 2008.  The majority of these offenders were white by the way.

Now, I understand that it takes time for underlying attitudes to shift and perhaps even longer for actual conditions to improve.  The changing nomenclature promoted by political correctness unfortunately seems to be no more effective than putting lipstick on a pig.  The fact that so much was made of the specific words used by Mr Cumberbatch rather than the real desire to improve the lot of the black artist shows how far removed we have become from the more important issue of underlying attitude.

Just because we passed laws in the 1960’s outlawing segregation and the persecution of people of color in the US, this no more removes underlying racism than speed signs seem to stop motorists speeding on our roads.  One only has to listen to the current crop of Republican presidential hopefuls on the fate of immigrants and/or our muslim population to know we still have a problem.  As politicians, they believe and are probably right in thinking they are appealing to a large number of the electorate.   So why do we still have what looks like a long journey ahead to change the nature of this story?

First of all, as with any conflict of ideas and opinion, it is really important to understand those we might disagree with.  Not only that, we should also examine our own hearts and minds to discover just how out of step we might be with what we say is our position on this.  Reluctantly I admit that on occasion, much to my discredit, I have caught myself in less than progressive thoughts on this issue.  Those of us who profess faith in Jesus can surely agree that he represents an all encompassing and unmitigated support of all races, creeds and backgrounds.  I think some of us would be shocked at just how far removed Jesus himself may have been from the white, blue eyed, blond haired image so often portrayed.   However, it was not so long ago that slavery and then segregation were argued as biblical by many representing our faith.  I wonder at how much these beliefs still color the patterns of thought in our current day and age.

Perhaps the most prescient influence on our underlying attitudes has to do with a fear of what we don’t understand.  I had the wonderful opportunity to visit South Africa, on two occasions, at the height of the Apartheid era and what struck me so powerfully was the underlying fear of the consequences of allowing the black majority to gain any standing in the country.  A mass exodus of white citizens of South Africa including many Christians highlighted the uncertainty and fear for the future when Nelson Mandela was eventually released and came to power.  I had to work hard not to judge and to put myself in the shoes of these people and understand their concerns.

You might think it irrational, disturbing or worse, but I believe we will never achieve progress in these divisive areas without a recognition of what motivates those with whom we disagree.  In my opinion, just as in the realm of the positive, there are spiritual forces at work here, particularly when it comes to fear that appears irrational.  But pursuing understanding and engaging with those we disagree with is the only way to allow open dialogue and mutual understanding that can lead to a shift in attitude.  Some argue that many amongst the black population are just as racist in attitude towards the white population,  but again, the history of oppression and segregation and lack of opportunity has led to understandable suspicion and fear.  It seems to me that Jesus would have shone a light on the fear, suspicion and division in order to dispel those things that divide and, through reconciliation, the alarming statistics above might just change over time.  It may not seem like we can achieve much on our own, but searching our own deeper seated attitudes, reaching out to those we disagree with and bridging the gap between us and those we do not understand may just shift the balance a little more in the right direction.

Sunday Sermon – I Must Confess….

“No old woman!  You are accused of heresy on 3 counts.  Heresy by thought, heresy by word, heresy by deed and heresy by action, 4 counts.  Do you confess?”  (Monty Python).  No one expects the Spanish Inquisition, but most of us don’t need the Inquisition to remind us of our failings and shortcomings.

Following on from last week’s post about judging, I felt a natural progression to today’s subject ‘Confession’.  Whilst I am not talking about sitting in a dark wooden closet with a faceless priest on the other side of a screen, the Catholic church have certainly latched on to something with the act of Confession.  I am not an expert on the efficacy of saying multiple Hail Mary’s, but the bible is certainly supportive of the practice of confessing or sharing our ‘sins’.

“Make this your common practice: Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you can live together whole and healed” (The Message).

First of all, I find the word ‘sin’ has a lot of baggage with those who have been put off the message of Jesus. There is too much emphasis on sinners and going to hell, on which I have some big questions, but I’ll leave that for a Thursday post.  Sin is a really short word used in scripture for all the ways we have messed up our lives or the lives of others, usually because we put self first.  The sad thing about the impact of these messes we create is the impact they have on our own lives.  According to this verse, in the book of James, the impact of confessing or sharing these messed up things is to enable us to live together ‘whole and healed’.

It is no accident that the secular world of psychology puts huge emphasis on encouraging people to share their deepest secrets and hidden fears, shame and guilt among other things.  It would seem that James was on to something important when he exhorted his readers to get it out in the open.  But why would this simple practice have the ability to make us ‘whole’ and ‘healed’?  And what prevents us from eagerly sharing everything to garner these powerful results?  This is obviously no magic formula, but there appears to be a lot of evidence in both religious and secular circles that there is much to be gained.

I don’t know about you, but I find it so much easier to talk about others’ faults and failings than my own.  Time and again I find myself sitting on messed up stuff that I would rather take to the grave than tell anyone about.  OK, I haven’t robbed a bank recently, nor have I let down the neighbor’s car tires.  But there are hidden attitudes, feelings, unhealthy thoughts that, frankly I would be ashamed to share with most of you.  I don’t need the Spanish inquisition to tell me what makes me feel bad, but I might need them to get it out of me!

The thing that stops me sharing is the very thing I shared last week about the judgment culture we have created that causes me to worry about what you think about me.  If I fear that you will reject me, think worse of me, or perhaps even share my hidden failings with others, then I will simply keep these things to myself.  When I went through a particularly dark period in my life and almost destroyed everything good that had happened to me, I found the relief and healing that James talks about.   It didn’t happen overnight, and it was not an easy road to travel, but involving others in my shame and guilt was a key to restoration.

Now, I am not talking about willfully wronging others and then using confession as a get out of jail free card.  Nor am I advocating the kind of confession that implicates the one listening in some proposed fault of theirs,  “I need to confess my resentment towards you for the way you have treated me!”  A step in our being made whole could very well involve forgiveness, but the simple act of confession should, in itself, open the door to breaking the hold of some of the most powerful negative influences.  At times, we can all be held hostage by the effect of guilt over what we have done to others, shame over the poor choices we make.  We harbor resentments, blame, hurt and crippling anxieties.  I am still learning how to do this myself, still affected way too much by what others might think, but I urge you to join with me in taking the plunge and find that person, or persons with whom you can open this door to healing and wholeness.


Thought Provoking Thursday – The Bible, Fact or Fiction?

OK, Thursdays is for provoking thought!  In other words, I might say some things that you find controversial or at least a make you think!  Hopefully, today’s title is a good start!

First of all, let me be really clear.  I am a follower of Jesus Christ because that is how I encountered God.  The bible has been truly inspirational in my quest for knowledge and as a guide to living a better life and creating a more meaningful story.  My question is;  just how do we view this famous piece of literature and why are their so many different interpretations as to what it purports to say?  Was the universe created in a literal six days simply by God speaking it into being?  Is the writer of Ecclesiastes’ invitation to ‘Eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we die’ an exhortation to guide us in our daily living?  Why do we not insist on women being silent in church, or demand they wear head covering in all public gatherings?  And why do some believe that the locusts of Revelation 9 are really Apache attack helicopters described the best way John knew how?  Why does it matter?

First of all, a slice of history.  In the 16th century, a rather seismic event took place in christendom known as ‘The Reformation’.  You may recall Martin Luther and the advent of Protestantism emerging as a reaction to the state of disarray that existed in the Catholic Church at the time with warring popes, indulgences and theological schisms.  One of the key outcomes of this movement was a transference from papal based to bible based authority.  This is also what led to the bible being made available to the masses and a whole new church movement.  The protestant movement also gave rise to denominational splits as never seen before as the ‘authority’ of the bible was interpreted in hundreds if not thousands of different ways.  And herein lies the problem.

The bible is, in fact, not so much a book as a library of books.  These books cover many genres of literature, styles of writing, languages and purposes.  There is the poetry of the creation account, the visions of Revelation often referencing the prophetic writings of the Old Testament.  There are the songs of Psalms and the wisdom of Proverbs, the stories of Jesus and the doctrinal teachings of Paul.  Diverse cultures, races and very different ages influence the way in which these writings are presented and all of them need re-evaluating against what we now know in this scientific age.

Let us take the creation account.  At the time of writing, there was no knowledge of evolutionary theory, relativity, quantum theory and hey, as far as they knew, the earth was flat and the sun popped up in the East and went to sleep in the west.  I have no problem personally with the idea that science is merely man’s quest to uncover the mysteries behind the creation of the universe, nor do I struggle with the contemporary writer’s poetic depiction, but I believe it is beyond me to give you any idea of what actually happened back then when none of us were around.  I’m also OK if God made a big bang when he did it, but frankly it doesn’t matter to me.  One thing is for certain, the world as we know it today is very real and very wonderful to behold.

In many of the books of law in the Old testament there are injunctions to put to death those who sow different crops in the same field or create garments from different materials.  Surely we are not meant to continue these practices in civilized 21st century society.  When we move on to accounts of the life of Jesus himself we find that much of what Jesus says is fiction.  What you say, heresy!  But step back a minute.  Jesus told stories, parables…fiction to illustrate truth.  And this is where I think we have strayed from the intention of this marvelous collection of writings.

In many ways, we have treated as fact what is meant to lead us to truth.  Because this library is full of metaphor, parable, allegory, poetry, prophecy, vision, law and history, this is not a book of facts but an inspired guide to uncovering truth.  This truth, in some ways, will never be completely found, as God cannot be confined to the pages of a library of books.  This truth can be seen from multiple different perspectives and often in conflicting expressions.  My mistake so often has been to imagine that my  interpretation of selective portions proves that my way is ‘the right way’.  One of the most powerful causes of my own disillusionment with church has been our tendency to become more and more splintered around issues that are not central to the overall message of the Bible.  Perhaps we can all agree that the inspired message of this library of scripture is that God loves us and wants to have a relationship with us.  Every one of us is entitled to a unique experience just as in any relationship.  We would do well not to dictate to others what that relationship should look like but allow the inspired words we read to change our own story for the good of the world around us.

In conclusion, and answer to my own question, the Bible is neither fact nor fiction, but an inspired reference library for the pursuit of the God of love.

Topical Tuesday – We Are All In the Same Boat

I have just fixed signs to the windows of our coffee houses in DFW declaring that a ‘No Open Carry’ zone is in operation when you enter.  For me, this rather pacifist oriented Englishman, the return of the OK Corral to Texas (Open Carrying of guns is now legal) is perplexing and raises some disturbing potential scenarios.  Couple this with the almost simultaneous Executive Order of the current US President to introduce stricter background checks for gun owners and you might wonder where all this is going!

I believe the issues behind the whole gun control debate are deeper seated than whether guns should be openly available or not.  I believe that there is a point of tension that exists around the protection of individual freedom and the protection of the community as a whole.  For many, the idea of imposing rules that limit accessibility to firearms is just the thin end of the government wedge that will ultimately lead to government control and abuse of power.  I get that, I really do.  There are plenty of examples of nations where individual freedoms are so curtailed that basic human rights such as freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the ability to criticize the government are all but a chimera.  But on the other hand, the freedom to pursue our own individual lifestyle has to be weighed against the reality that we live in community.

The outrage and exasperation expressed by those who oppose the President’s executive order to impose slightly greater background checks has to be motivated by this underlying fear, as it is otherwise a major overreaction, given the limited change this order will make.  The motivation for stricter laws in this case comes from a very real desire to protect the wider community from the small minority of people who should not have access to firearms. It also stems from a desire to curb approximately 30,000 deaths a year in the US from those firearms.  It is very similar to the laws already in place that prohibit drunk driving, speeding and other automobile related offenses.  I don’t think anyone is proposing we should allow people under the age of 16 to be let loose on the road or indeed those who are old enough, without some form of ‘background check’ and test as to their suitability to drive.  Motor vehicles have the potential to be extremely dangerous in the wrong hands, so too with guns.

The underlying issue comes up time and again as the tension between individual and community freedoms is tested by each new advance.  In my own native country, the use of cell phones while driving is outlawed entirely except in hands free mode.  In Texas, we still rely on the goodwill and good sense of our fellow motorists not to text while driving.  Official statistics suggest that texting makes an accident 23 times more likely!  How many of us would argue that imposing a legal sanction for doing this would be a good idea.  And yet, there is resistance to every threat to individual freedom that must surely come from an inherent fear that the government is in a process of removing those very freedoms!

So, in essence, this boils down to a clash of 2 competing ideologies that can be summed up as follows.  ‘Every Man for Him/Herself’ or ‘We are All In the Same Boat’.  I am a big believer in the preservation of individual freedoms….provided they don’t impinge on or threaten other members of the community.  I am a supporter of a government at local or national level that seeks to protect the rights and freedoms of those who live in the community and particularly those who are in greater need of protection.  I am not in favor of government control that takes away my ability to influence a change in that government or if it begins to abuse its power.

I believe it is sensible to create laws that protect us from drunk drivers, second hand smoke, irresponsible gun owners; the list could be long.  On the other hand, I don’t think the ability to purchase raw milk or have water without fluoride added has any detrimental effect on those around me.  Why do we baulk so readily at sensible measures proposed to protect us from the dangerous few?   And yet, we pass laws that prevent us making individual choices that have no real impact on the community at large such as the purchase of raw milk or cannabis?  Whether it be fear or corporate influences, I long for the sensible application of laws that release me to enjoy my basic freedoms and yet protect the community as a whole.  After all, We are All in the Same Boat!