Narrative

The Bible (Part 1): Tool of Violence or Liberation…or Both?

Holy-Bible-by-Steve-Snodgrass-Accessed-August-4-2014.-Used-by-Creative-Commons-Licence.-httpsflic.krp79AtF3The Bible is one of the most misunderstood books in the history of humanity. Yet, it is the most read book in the history of humanity.  

It has been used to produce beautiful and broken realities:

  • The Bible has been used to silence and dehumanize women as “less than” and inferior. Some scholars have gone as far as saying women lack the image of God. Obviously, this leads to abuse and exploitation.
  • The Bible has been used to affirm the enslavement and exploitation of complete races of people who look different than those in power.
  • The Bible has been used to justify some of the bloodiest and unjust wars in human history.
  • The Bible has been used to isolate segments of society as though they are modern day lepers who are trying to infect the rest of the society.
  • ON THE OTHER HAND, a massive number of human rights and liberation movements throughout history have been fueled by a community who held the Bible as their sacred text. To name a few: The civil rights movement, modern unearthing of the sex trafficking industry, global reduction of poverty and increased access to clean water, overturning South African apartheid, etc…

This begs the question, “Is the problem the Bible or the way in which we have interpreted it over centuries of Church history?”

The other day, our church community started a series focused on asking hard questions about the Bible; where it came from, how it was written and assembled, what it contains and what are faithful ways we can begin to interpret its seemingly beautiful and broken contents. 

Let’s be honest, many folks have been reading the Bible since they were small children and now approach it will so many assumptions around interpretation and application that our engagement with the living text has calcified. On the other hand, many of us are new to following Jesus and asking where this book containing violence, infidelity and tribalism fits into liberating love and faithful discipleship.

We have two choices: 1. Continue with our assumptions about the text and stay comfortable (and potentially resentful), or 2. Engage the text critically seeking a renewed understanding of its place in our Christian story.   

I would endorse the latter. We don’t honor the Scriptures by dancing around the hard questions that force us into the muck and messiness of this complex story. No, we honor the Scriptures when we push into them with an eye toward understanding where they fit in God’s story of reconciliation with humanity and redemption of all the cosmos. It should make us squirm when we read about God endorsed genocide in the Old Testament and dehumanizing endorsements of “slavery” and gender inequality in the New Testament. We can let that squirming fester and lead us to resentment or withdrawal, or we can jump right into it seeking to understand beyond a surface reading that fails to invite us into the depth and breadth of the text in context.

A Couple Thoughts to Frame this Conversation

We don’t follow the Bible, we follow Jesus. When those get inverted, bad things happen. Yes, the Bible is one of the primary resources for faithfully following Jesus, and we are commanded to obey Scripture, but it is a means to an end…not the end in and of itself. When we follow the Bible (or, more accurately, our interpretation of it…) rather than Jesus, we may get the “right” answers while failing to live, love and lead in the way Jesus did and calls us to do. We can’t prooftext our way to right relationship (e.g. 1st century Pharisees or modern street preachers holding hate signs that may -- or may not -- have the “right” answers but in no way reflect the love of Jesus for humanity). We must enter into relationship and allow the Spirit to lead and guide us in the middle of it. 

The Bible wasn’t written ABOUT us, but it was written FOR us. We have to understand context and genre because most people writing the Bible and/or whose story the Bible was telling lived in a radically different context that we do today. The vast majority of the Biblical canon is written about a people (Israel) who are seeking to rightly follow God (Yahweh) and reflect his love to the world as they live as a migrant community wandering the Middle East or as a community in exile under the heavy yoke of Empire (of course, they had seasons in power as well). Bottom line, as Western Christians who have the most “power” in the world, there is very little we can relate to about the realities of who the Bible was written about. We’d be wise to ask our immigrant neighbors or our brothers and sisters living under the reign of a violent regime how they may help us intrepret the Story of God told through Israel. Lastly, it was written FOR us in as much as it is a story of humanity’s (which includes us) journey back to God and his mission of reconciliation and redemption of all the cosmos. 

Infallibility, Inerrancy and all that fun stuff. This is where things often get a bit sticky. The Bible is a book written by human beings with stories, agendas and literary techniques unique within their context. Yes, the Bible was God-breathed, but we have to understand both the human writing and human reading of the text. Inerrancy is a modern concept; not applied to Scripture until the Enlightenment when truth became primarily associated with science, logic and rationality. Infallibility doesn’t lead people astray, it leads people into the middle of the human story (with all its muck, mess, beauty, hope, tragedy, doubt, etc) and of God’s willingness to meet them right in the middle of it. 

The Art of Interpretation. There is a long history of brilliant people trying to decide how in the world to interpret this wildly complex and sacred text. The way in which said brilliant people have chosen to interpret represents a really, REALLY wide spectrum. Some have chosen to see Scripture as allegorical (Church Father, Origen, being a leading proponent), which proposes that the deepest truth of Scripture isn’t found in a literal reading, but in the space where the words are pointing us (beyond and below a literal reading). On the other end of the spectrum, some argue that a literal reading of text is the only way to faithfully interpret the truth being conveyed by the biblical authors. In short, it is important to note that there is no such thing as reading the Bible without interpreting it. There are many ways to interpret and we trust the Spirit to guide us to those ends, but all is interpretation and we’d be wise to embrace that as a gift rather than a threat.  

PRIMARY THEME: It is important to enter our reading of the Bible with an eye toward the meta theme of God’s Story, which is God’s Reconciliation with Humanity and Redemption of all the cosmos (New Creation). Amid all of the potentially confusing, complex and confounding pieces of Scripture, this is the theme our interpretation must point back to (unless, of course, you view the primary theme as something radically different…). It is a story of right relationship, grace, selfless love, unfolding liberation and a relentless pursuit of all things being set to right.  

CENTRAL CHARACTER: Israel. Yep, this is not the answer most people expect to hear and, sadly, I don’t have space to fully unpack the nuances here. In short, the whole of the Old Testament (Hebrew Scriptures) is the story of Israel’s covenant relationship with God (Yahweh) and their vocation to reflect good news to the world. The Bible isn’t a story of autonomous stories that are fun to read. No, they are all placed within God’s redemptive plan for humanity as seen through its central character, Israel. “Well, what about Jesus?” one may ask. Yes, Jesus is the more important character in the story, but we MUST understand Jesus in the context of his role in Israel’s story. Jesus is the long awaited messianic deliverer of Israel (second “Adam”) who finally liberated them from exile and expanded the identity of the people God to the ends of the earth. Jesus is central to Israel’s story and to understand him outside of the context completely neuters the story and his decisive role within it. 

In my next post (part 2), I’ll seek to answer the question, “Where did the Bible come from?” by offering a brief recap of how the content was captured over a couple thousand years leading up to the final canonization of our current Christian Bible. 

 

3 Steps to Becoming the Most (un)Successful Person in the World

monastery2I spent yesterday morning at a local monastery seeking to create some space to not only clear my mind and heart, but to listen to the voice of the Creator. As life produces more and more “noise,” these times are hard to come by, but remarkably significant. I can’t imagine a better, yet more challenging way to begin a new week. 

Much of my time was spent reflecting on something a mentor of mine recently said, “God’s will is not success, but peace.” 

What does this mean? And if it means what I think it might, the implications seem pretty high.

What is “Success?”

In our culture, success has been defined primarily by how well we produce X that leads to wealth, power or reputation. Our identity is rooted far more in what we do (and how well we do it) than it is in who we are. And, to be honest, most of us don’t even know who we are. For me, it often feels like a daily struggle. 

How Do We Define God’s Will As Peace?

It is the restoration of all things back to Himself. It is wrong things being made right. It is a humanity that is reconciled to God and to one another. It is knowing that our identity is not informed by what we produce, but by who we are as sons and daughters of the Father.

What would my life look like if I spent my best energy towards peace rather than the building of “success?”

When I pursue culturally constructed versions of success, my image bearing neighbors (near and far) become means to my end rather than ends in and of themselves. Not only do I fail to acknowledge their humanity, I lose my own. If success is anything other than about the love of other, then it will be destructive. 

I don’t have to look far for examples of this. No, I simply have to look inward. This definition of success has infected my DNA as much as the next guy/girl. It is a daily reality that requires daily repentance and realignment. 

To trust that God’s will is peace changes everything about how I live, love and lead. Rather than seeking to climb every ladder to stand over people, I begin to choose to pick up my cross and lift other people up. I become more concerned about living into who I am as a son of the Father than who I am perceived to be by those I seek to impress. I am free to love God and others selflessly, because self no longer takes center stage.

I become fully human again.

I have so much to learn and so many areas to grow.

I finished the day by walking the way of the cross. It was profound. In fact, it reminded me that walking the way of the cross isn’t a once a month spiritual disciple, but an everyday choice to follow the one who suffered so we might find life.

  

What Ruth Tells Us About Living the Jesus’ Story Today

I was recently reading the book of Ruth and was struck by the insight it offers into our vocation as followers of Jesus today.  There is something sacred about an ancient narrative informing our modern narrative in ways that impact the way we live, love and lead.  I will highlight three themes in Ruth that paralleled the life of Jesus and the story he has called his people to live out and into.

The first theme is that of identity as is found in bloodline versus voluntary submission.  In versus 16 & 17 of chapter 1, Ruth gives up her identity as was found in her familial bloodline and exchanges it for a new familial identity in Naomi and the people of Israel.  Ruth embraces her new identity as her true identity and it is her faithfulness in that that has direct implications for the advance of God’s Story in Israel (see genealogy of David in 4:18-22).  In the same way that Ruth submitted herself to a new family and identity in Israel, followers of Jesus are to submit their identity found in family of origin to their identity as part of the Kingdom family.  Mark 3:31-35 tells of Jesus radical redefinition of family in light of Kingdom he inaugurated.  For followers of Jesus, identity can no longer be primarily found in bloodline, but in a voluntary submission to the Kingdom Family shaped around Jesus.

The second theme can be found in Ruth freely choosing the way of self-sacrifice and obedience for the sake of her family and neighbors.  Throughout the narrative, Ruth is consistently making decisions that are intended to support, encourage and advance the good of Naomi and her family line over her personal good.  From voluntarily remaining with Naomi when it wasn’t required of her (1:16/17), to heeding Naomi’s request for her to pursue a relationship with Boaz (3:2-4) to giving birth to a son that would carry on the family line (4:13), Ruth consistently put the good of others ahead of herself.   Similarly, Jesus calls his followers to embrace the cruciform life and freely choose to live in Christ for the sake of others.  Jesus argues that our primary vocation is to love God and to love others (Matt. 22:37-39).  In Mark 1, Jesus comes announcing the arrival of a new Kingdom that we later find out is marked by service of and selfless sacrifice to the point of death on a cross.

The final theme is that of Ruth’s faithfulness, which leads to the redemption of a whole family line.  It is important to note that Ruth’s individual actions don’t just impact her immediate surroundings, but influence the good of her adopted family and the people of Israel (4:13-17).  In other words, there is redemption and restoration of many that comes as a direct result of her faithfulness.  Similarly, it is our faithfulness to an identity and vocation rooted in Jesus that will be the means through which a watching world is invited into the redemption Story of God.  Jesus not only acted decisively as the redeemer of Israel and all the cosmos, but he extents this vocation to his followers in John 20:21 when he says, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you!”  Like Ruth, the way we live, love and lead has direct implications for the redemption and restoration of those around us.  God has chosen to tell his Story and advance his restoration project through his people.

 

10 Things I Learned While in the Middle East

Hearing the story of Daoud at the Tent of Nations in West Bank

Over the past four years I have had the opportunity to spend a significant amount time in the Middle East.  I no longer approach the time as a tourist, but instead seek out relationships and experiences as a listener who has much to learn about the way God is at work in contexts much different than my own.  In that posture, it has been remarkable how much I have learned and begun to integrate into the way I live, love and lead back in my neighborhood.  Theologian Paul Knitter describes it well when he refers to ones inherited worldview as a telescope.  No matter how objective we may think we are or desire to be, we all see the world through a specific telescope/worldview.  When we choose to look through the telescope of people who are “different” than us, we begin to get a more comprehensive picture of the world and the way God is at work within it.  

 
Leading our first Learning Community to the Middle East apart of The Global Immersion Project I recently co-founded, I was invited to take a look through the lens of friends’ telescopes who live amid conflict in Israel and Palestine. Here are some of my key learnings:  
 

1. Stories Over Facts -- No matter how many stats we present or information disseminate, there is nothing more powerful than being invited into and experiencing ones story.  Especially a story that shatters our stereotypes, prejudices and understanding of justice. 

2. Learning Happens Best Through Exposure -- Those of us in the West have unprecedented access to information for learning.  One step of exposure into lived (experienced) history brings about far more learning than read/heard history.   
 
3. Stereotypes Aren’t Broken Unless We Are Willing to Listen -- The posture of a learner makes ALL the difference in what they learn.  If we choose not to be transformed by the reality around us, we won’t.  Two people can actually listen to the same story and come out with two different responses based on their willingness to set aside their own presuppositions for the sake of humbly listening and learning from those of different persuasion. 
 
4. Being a Presence of Reconciliation is Only as Real as Your Weakest Link -- When walking the streets and into the homes of those living in conflict zones, you are not viewed as individuals, but as one community.  It only takes the words/actions/disposition of one within a community to compromise the presence of reconciliation we are committed to representing.  
 
5. Being Present And Returning Matters -- People who experience daily injustice often have people come see and experience their story.  These people often “feel sorry” for them and say their going to go home, bring attention to their situation and some even say they’ll come back to help their cause.  This rarely happens and does more harm that good.  Having advocated, stayed in constant contact and returned multiple times to my friends experiencing injustice in Israel/Palestine I can see in their eyes a building sense of partnership, care and belief in us and our work.  
 
6. Living, Loving and Leading Differently is Contagious -- Rather than pull into parking lots, our Learning Communities pull into driveways.  Rather than isolate ourselves from the areas of conflict and tension, we fully expose and immerse ourselves in it.  We wander far off the beaten path of Holy Land tourism.  People both in the States and inhabitants of the Middle East notice the difference and want to know more of why we’re doing what we’re doing.  Rather than follow in the footsteps of Jesus in the Holy Land, we seek to encounter the people with whom Jesus footsteps led him towards.  That’s Good News and that’s contagious.  
 

Rabbi Eliyahu catching up with Muslim friend

7. Art of Peacemaking Requires Living in Radical Tension -- To be a peacemaker requires holding conflicting narratives in tension so we can be a presence of reconciliation in the middle of it all.  We compromise our ability to be peacemakers in the way of Jesus when we lose our ability to stand with people despite our differences.  

 
8. Sharing Tables is the Beginning of Sharing Humanity -- There is something sacred about sharing a meal with people who we have been taught to hate or disagree with because of the portrait we have been offered by the media, leaders or information in the West. It is in the conversation and shared life that exists around a table that we are exposed to the humanity of “the Other.”
 
9. How I Act in My Neighborhood Informs How I Act Abroad (and Visa Versa) --
I don’t know how many times we heard from locals in Israel and Palestine that our life, theology and politics in America have direct implications for their everyday life.  Some went as far as saying, “Until your theology and corresponding policies change, there will be no change here.” As a Learning Community, we have also been radically formed by our exposure and experience in the Middle East.  We see people, conflict and social realities differently so as to allow us to better live, love and lead like Jesus back in our neighborhoods.  
 
10. This Generation is Hungry to Live Differently -- Both the difference makers who participated in our Learning Community and the vast majority of the Israeli’s and Palestinians with whom we interacted with are committed to live out a new reality.  A reality that transcends blind prejudice, false assumptions and conflict that is based more on the fear of the past than in the reality of the present and future.  Amid the pain, violence and injustice there are individuals and communities that are offering a grassroots movement that is stirring up great hope and a new future.  

How To (and Not To) Respond to the Current Crisis in the Middle East

My heart is heavy.   

Every day for the past week, every social media outlet has told their version of the current uprising stretching across the Middle East (Egypt, Libya, Yemen) .  Whether it’s pictures of Embassy’s burned to the ground, rioting citizens or highly politicized comics, the surge of content has been anything but “feel-good” and hopeful.  And that’s because the events and corresponding responses have been anything but “feel-good” and hopeful.  
 

Shared Meal in Middle East

My heart breaks because I know the events that are unfolding do not represent the majority of those who inhabit the Middle East.  I spend a significant amount of time in the Middle East and have built deep, life-long friendships.  Just two weeks ago I sat around a table and shared a meal with Christians, Jews and Muslims in the home of a devout Muslim family in this region.  A day after that, I served alongside Muslim youth workers who are promoting non-violence and reconciliation in the face of oppression and poverty.  On the same day I sat with an Arab Christian who embodied Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount in dealing with daily injustice by saying, “We refuse to be enemies.”  Lastly, and what keeps playing itself over and over in my head, are the words spoken to me by a Muslim friend named Omar who lives in the Middle East.  He said, “Please give this message to all of your American friends. We (Arab Muslims and Christians) desire peace.  The violence you see in the news does not represent us.  It is not the majority, it is the smallest minority of extremism.  Please listen to our story and accept our friendship.”

 
I am now back in the States and am seeing that the fear, hatred and violence promoted by governments and media also being promoted by Christians in response to the events in the Middle East.  One Christian posted a picture of the world that had completely blown up the Middle East and labeled it “Ground Zero.”  The caption said, “There, I fixed it. Problem solved.”  This “solution” would mean the death of some of my dearest friends.  
 
My heart breaks because of the hateful stereotyping, racism and violent response being disseminated by Christians who in one breath proclaim the Jesus who calls us to love our enemies and in the next breath encourages their government to blow them up.  
 
As followers of the pro-people Jesus, is this best we can do?  Is that a reflection of the Christian hope that was brought about by and through the acts of the Suffering Servant?  Have we lost our imagination that leads to the participating in the restorative mission of God for the cosmos?
 
Friends, we can do better.  We must do better.  
 
How then shall we respond?
 
Grieve the loss of life. My heart breaks for the Americans (and their families!) who were killed in the violence.  Ambassador Stevens seemed to be a man who cared about people and did well at engaging the lives and stories of those he lived among.  He represented well what many Americans desire of foreign policy and relations.  His loss, and those of his colleagues, is a tragedy.  
 
Listen, Learn and Be Still.  We would do well to slow down and listen to the stories of others before telling their story for them.  Those that have stepped foot in other cultures (whether domestic or international) know how much we have to learn as products of each of our unique upbringings and world views.  Slow down, listen, learn and be still before jumping to words or actions that may do more harm than good.  
 

Generous Muslim Host

Have eyes for common humanity before common politics and religion. We all inherently know that the diversity of humanity isn’t going to allow for us all to perfectly agree on politics and religion.  Rather than look at people (again, domestically or internationally) through the lens of politics or religion, look at them through the lens of a shared humanity.  All humans were made in the image of God.  When we see Jesus in the eyes of “the other” it is much harder to hate, hurt and demean.  

 
Pray:  Pray for the healing of others, from all nations and religions. Pray for peace in places of conflict.  Seek forgiveness from our bling prejudice.  Ask for courage for those who promote Kingdom values.  Pray for new friendships to be cultivated among former enemies.  Pray for your/our enemies.  
 
Ask hard questions.  How might have my political or social involvement perpetuated or sparked some of the recent events?  Am I an objective observer or are there ways I can be part of the problem or part of the restoration?  Is the form of Islam that is being portrayed in the media an accurate form of faithful Islam or a simply an ideological counterfeit? 
 
Live a Different Narrative & Care for the Hurting Among Us. I have heard over and over again, “Oh, it’s those crazy, lunatic Muslim’s just doing what they do again.” It is in times like these that our role as pro-people people in the Way of Jesus must listen, learn and share a different story…a more true story of Islam and those in the Middle East.  Those of us that know and have experienced real life with the people who are now being labeled “insane terrorists” must bring to the dialog table the disconnect between perceived reality and reality. We must acquire important resources that will help us better step into this situation with eyes for common humanity, justice and the heart of God.  We must live into the narrative God desires for humanity, which inevitably will lead us to care for the hurting; whether grieving families who have lost loved ones or families/individuals who are experiencing hate and stereotyping in your neighborhoods because of the events half way across the globe. 
 
Let us begin that process now.
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