Whose Land?


I have just come back to work after convalescing from a fall.  I am thankful for all the prayers lifted up on my behalf, and am pleased to report that I am feeling great–though I regret my lengthy hiatus from my work, including this blog.  Rather than delaying these posts any further, and in sorrowful recognition of recent conflicts in Israel and in the West Bank, I am reposting my blog from April 14, 2013, entitled “Whose Land?,”  with prayers for the peace of Jerusalem, and justice for all of God’s people.

The Bible is always in the background of discussions about the land in Palestine.  Jewish settlers in the West Bank, and the American churches and synagogues that support them, sometimes insist that Jews can settle wherever they like, because the land is theirs: promised to them by God.  Just as Abraham and Joshua were told to walk through the land and so claim and possess it (Genesis 13:17; Joshua 1:3; 24:3; compare Ezekiel 36:8-12, where this is applied to those returning from exile in Babylon), so building more and more settlements in the West Bank is for some a way of laying claim to God’s promise. 

So, what is God’s promise?   In Genesis 12:1-3, God says to Abraham, “Leave your land, your family, and your father’s household for the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation and will bless you. I will make your name respected, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, those who curse you I will curse; all the families of earth will be blessed because of you” (Common English Bible).  This promise, repeated in different forms in Genesis 17:7-8 and Exodus 3:16-17, seems fairly explicit.  The land of Canaan—modern-day Palestine—is promised to Abraham and to his descendants.

But to whom is the promise given? Deuteronomy 26:1-11 directs that, when presenting the offering of the first fruits gathered in the harvest, the worshipper is to recall the history of God’s kindness to the ancestors, beginning with Abraham: “My father was a starving Aramean” (Deuteronomy 26:5).  In Exodus 3:16-17, God promises the Hebrew slaves in Egypt, “I’ve been paying close attention to you and to what has been done to you in Egypt. I’ve decided to take you away from the harassment in Egypt to the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, a land full of milk and honey.”  As we discussed in an earlier blog (see “The Bible and ‘The Bible’”, March 13, 2013), Israel is described in Joshua and Judges as a landless and friendless people, to whom the land comes as a gift.  In the Bible, the promise of land is not given to a people securely settled and established: it is an offer of hope to homeless, landless people, without power or property.

Further, while God says, “I will give you and your descendants the land in which you are immigrants, the whole land of Canaan, as an enduring possession” (Genesis 17:8), the promise of possession never involves ownership.  The people of Israel are given the right to live on the land, to farm it and to graze their flocks upon it, but the land itself does not belong to Israel.  This important distinction is emphasized in the laws concerning sabbatical years and jubilees in Leviticus 25 (from a part of the book of Leviticus called the Holiness Code).  According to these laws, every seventh year (the sabbatical year), the land is to be left fallow: the fields are not to be plowed, and no new crops are to be sown.  Then, every 49th year (the seventh seventh year) is to be followed by another fallow year, called the jubilee.  In the year of jubilee, all debts are forgiven, and any land claims revert to the family among Israel’s tribes and clans to whom that particular piece of real estate was originally entrusted, according to Joshua 14:1—19:51.

What this means, in short, is that the land itself could not be bought or sold—not permanently.  All that one could do is rent a property for the number of harvests remaining until the jubilee, when it would return to its properly assigned clan.  Leviticus 25:23 makes this principle explicit: “The land must not be permanently sold because the land is mine. You are just immigrants and foreign guests of mine.”  We do not know if the priestly ideal of the jubilee was ever historically realized.  But the principle it expresses, that the land belongs to the Lord, is consistently upheld in Scripture.

Since the land is and remains God’s, the prophets make it very clear that God’s permission for Israel to live in the land was not absolute.  In Jeremiah 7:3, in response to Jerusalem’s false worship, violence, and injustice, the Lord says, “Improve your conduct and your actions, and I will dwell with you in this place.”  In fact, the Hebrew of this verse could be translated as a plea, expressing God’s longing and love for Israel: “Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place” (New Revised Standard Version).  God will be in Israel’s midst in the land, and Israel will enjoy the benefits that presence brings, only if Israel worships God rightly, and acts justly.  Similarly, the prophet Ezekiel rejects the claims of violent people who rely on the sword that they shall possess the land (Ezekiel 33:26).  The land is God’s, and its inhabitants will be those whom God permits.

In Isaiah 61:1-2, the promise of jubilee becomes God’s promise of justice to all the oppressed:

The Lord God’s spirit is upon me,
    because the Lord has anointed me.
He has sent me
    to bring good news to the poor,
    to bind up the brokenhearted,
    to proclaim release for captives,
        and liberation for prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
        and a day of vindication for our God,
    to comfort all who mourn. . .

For this prophet, “the year of the LORD’s favor” must also be “a day of vindication for our God.”  Sometimes oppressors must be overthrown before real peace can be found; peace without justice is no peace at all.

But when Jesus read from this passage in the Nazareth synagogue, he pointedly dropped that line (Luke 4:18-19) – not because he sided with the oppressors (Romans, in first century Palestine), but because he had come to bring new life to everyone: Jew and Gentile, oppressed and oppressor, alike (Luke 4:25-27; see also Isaiah 66:18-23; Jonah 3–4).

There are, have always been, and will always be hotly contested claims to the land of Palestine.  The modern state of Israel, first established in 1948 in the wake of World War II as a homeland for the dispossessed Jews devastated by Hitler’s holocaust, has a right to exist and thrive.  But the Palestinian Arabs also have a right to live and thrive, in a state of their own (such a state, in fact, was stipulated by the same UN resolution that established the modern state of Israel).  But that discussion is a matter for another day.  For today, my purpose has been simply to address the claim advanced, particularly by American Christians, that the land belongs to the Jews because God gave it to them, while Arabs (Christians and Muslims alike) have no right to the land.  That claim, I would suggest, is not valid.  According to Scripture, the land doesn’t belong to Israel: it never did.  The land is God’s.


How to Read the Bible, Part Five: “God-Breathed”?

The threefold battle cry of the Protestant Reformation was Sola gratia, sola fide, sola Scriptura: “Grace alone, faith alone, Scripture alone.”  Against the claims of medieval Catholicism– that salvation came through the traditions of the Church, with its saints and sacraments and papal indulgences–Reformers such as Martin Luther asserted that we are saved by God’s grace alone, received through faith alone, and that all that is necessary for salvation is revealed through Scripture alone.

This emphasis on the primacy of Scripture rather than tradition has remained perhaps the central tenet of Protestantism.  Yet curiously, adherence to “Scripture alone” has not unified the church.  Rather, Protestant churches have continued to fission and fracture into a multitude of Christian expressions down to the present day, when nearly 40% of Protestant Christians worldwide identify as “independent, nondenominational or part of a denominational family that is very small or otherwise difficult to classify.”

The reason for this diversity, of course, is that the “one book” (or more accurately, the many books) of Scripture is interpreted in many different ways, by different Christians in their myriad contexts.

For example: John Wesley, leader of the Wesleyan revivals in eighteenth century England, famously referred to himself as homo unius libri, “a man of one book.”

I want to know one thing,—the way to heaven; how to land safe on that happy shore. God himself has condescended to teach me the way. For this very end He came from heaven. He hath written it down in a book. O give me that book! At any price, give me the book of God! I have it: here is knowledge enough for me. Let me be homo unius libri.

Yet, in the preface to his Sermons (where he identifies himself as homo unius libri), Wesley acknowledges that the meaning of Scripture is not always simple and straightforward:

Is there a doubt concerning the meaning of what I read? Does anything appear dark or intricate? I lift up my heart to the Father of Lights:—“Lord, is it not Thy word, ‘if any man lack wisdom, let him ask of God?’ Thou givest liberally, and upbraidest not. Thou hast said, ‘if any be willing to do Thy will, he shall know.’ I am willing to do, let me know Thy will.” I then search after and consider parallel passages of Scripture, “comparing spiritual things with spiritual.” I meditate thereon with all the attention and earnestness of which my mind is capable. If any doubt still remains, I consult those who are experienced in the things of God: and then the writings whereby, being dead, they yet speak. And what I thus learn, that I teach.

The interpretation of Scripture requires prayerful reflection and spiritual discernment–that is, a personal experience of devotion to God through Christ and of yieldedness to the Holy Spirit. Understanding the Bible requires study–that is, the exercise of reason!–and so the careful consultation of other books.  Faithful interpretation of Scripture calls us to enter into conversation with other believers past and present: in short, with the tradition.  All claims to the contrary, then, sola Scriptura strictly understood is an unobtainable–indeed, an undesirable–goal.

Often, Christians who insist upon the Bible’s absolute and infallible authority refer to 2 Timothy 3:16-17.  In the CEB, this passage reads:

Every scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for showing mistakes, for correcting, and for training character, so that the person who belongs to God can be equipped to do everything that is good (compare KJV and NRSV of these verses).

The highlighted phrase is a single word in Greek: theopneustos.  The NIV famously renders this as “All Scripture is God-breathed“–which is, literally, what theopneustos (combining the Greek words for “God” and “breath”) would seem to mean. Surely, if the Bible is God-breathed, it must be as perfect and infallible as God is, carrying God’s own authority.


This is the position of Josh McDowell, whose recent book called God-Breathed sets out “to present a compelling case that God’s Word can be trusted to be undeniably reliable.”  As McDowell states,

Each book, each page and each paragraph of Scripture was written through the lens of its human spokesmen, yet it still communicates the exact message God wants us to receive.       . . . His words were supernaturally guided through his selected human instruments so that his truth would be vivid and relevant to our lives. With God as the author and men as the writers, the sixty-six books of the Bible can rightly be called the Word of God.

But the derivation of a word is not necessarily a reliable guide to its meaning.  Consider that the “literal” meaning of the word “sarcophagus” is “flesh-eater”!  A surer guide to what theopneustos means would be how the word is actually used elsewhere.  Unfortunately, this word is uncommon: it appears nowhere else in the New Testament; nor is it used in the Greek translation of Jewish Scripture, the Septuagint.

Outside of the Bible, the term is no less obscure. In the Sentences of Pseudo-Phocylides, a first-century Jewish philosopher, theopneustos is used to distinguish wisdom from God from human wisdom (Sentences 129); note, though, as P. W. van der Horst observes, “This line, in clumsy [Greek], is probably inauthentic.  It is lacking in some important textual witnesses” (The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, Vol. 2, ed. James H. Charlesworth [Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1985], 579).  In a compendium of the teachings of the philosophers ascribed to the first-century historian Plutarch, but likely written much later than his time, theopneustos is used to distinguish “dreams which are caused by divine instinct” from “dreams which have their origin . . . from the soul’s forming within itself the images of those things which are convenient for it” (Placita Philosophorum 5. 2. 3).  Perhaps characterizing the Bible as theopneustos sets it apart as sacred writing, different from other, ordinary books.

Another way into this question is to ask what we usually mean when we speak of inspiration (a word which is also related to breath).  Methodist theologian William Abraham considers what it means when we say that a teacher is inspiring, or that a teacher’s students have been inspired:

. . . there is no question of students being passive while they are being inspired.  On the contrary: their natural abilities will be used to the full extent, and as a result they will show great differences in style, content and vocabulary.  Their native intelligence and talent will be greatly enhanced and enriched but in no way obliterated or passed over. . . . there need be no surprise if, from the point of view of the teacher, they make mistakes (William J. Abraham, The Divine Inspiration of Holy Scripture [Oxford: Oxford University, 1981], 63-64).

As a Bible teacher, this illustration resonates strongly with me.  I do indeed hope that I inspire my students.  But by that, I certainly do not mean that I expect them to repeat my own words by rote, or even that I expect them to think just as I do.  I do hope that they will love the Bible as I do, and that through their study they will be led into a deeper and deeper relationship with the God of Scripture.

Applying this analogy of classroom inspiration to Scripture, Abraham writes:

We must allow a genuine freedom to God as he inspires his chosen witnesses, knowing that what he does will be adequate for his saving and sanctifying purposes for our lives.  In so doing we escape the tension and artificiality of those theories that have staked everything on the perfectionist and utopian hopes that stem from a theology of Scripture that substitutes divine speaking [i.e., “the Bible is the literal word of God”] for divine inspiration without biblical or rational warrant (Abraham, Inspiration, 69-70).

While Abraham’s statement that the Bible is “adequate” to God’s saving purposes may seem to us far too weak, it is not much different than the claim that the writer of 2 Timothy makes.  Scripture is “useful”–not infallible, not inerrant, not even authoritative, but “useful”:

for teaching, for showing mistakes, for correcting, and for training character, so that the person who belongs to God can be equipped to do everything that is good 

As Daniel Migliore observes, “Scripture is indispensable in bringing us into a new relationship with the living God through Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.”  However, “Christians do not believe in the Bible; they believe in the living God attested by the Bible” (Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology, Second Edition [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004], 50).

The Bible is not an end–it is a means to an end. These ancient words express the faith of women and men who were enlivened and transformed by God’s presence; hearing their words, we are brought into an encounter with the same God, and equipped for service in God’s world.




How to Read the Bible Part Four: Lost in Translation

Sundown Sunday, September 13 marked the beginning of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. I have always resonated with beginning the year in the fall–since for most of my life, as a student and as a teacher, I have been involved with education, September rather than January has always been my time of new beginnings!  As I write this, we are toward the middle of the ten Days of Awe between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  As my colleague Edwin van Driel and I are team-teaching a course at PTS this term on models of the atonement in Christian theology, that solemn day too is much in my mind.

In Judaism, Yom Kippur is a fast day, on which one reflects upon the sins of the past year, repents before God, and resolves to live differently in the year to come.  In Scripture, both the rite for Yom Kippur and its significance are quite different from the day as it developed in Jewish life and practice.  But those ancient rites, and what they might mean for how we think about God, have a great deal to teach us about the ways that we read, and sometimes misread, Scripture.

First, take that word “atonement.”  Look it up in any dictionary, and the first definition you will find will be something like, “reparation for a wrong or injury.”  Growing up as a young Christian, that was certainly the way that I saw Christ’s atoning death on Calvary: as Jesus making reparation to God for my wrong.  The only way of understanding the cross I knew was that Jesus had taken on himself God’s wrath, and the deserved punishment for my sin, so that I could be forgiven–an understanding of the atonement called “penal substitution.”  I grew up singing “There Is a Fountain Filled With Blood” and “Jesus Paid It All.” However, like many believers, I have come to be concerned about what this language says about God.  Do I really believe that God’s wrath can only be assuaged by blood, even the blood of his innocent Son?   Further, if it is solely the death of Jesus that atones for our sins, doesn’t that make his life and teaching irrelevant?

The history of the word “atonement” suggests a different original meaning for this term, which may broaden our understanding of God, Christ, and the cross–as well as our reading of Yom Kippur.  The Oxford Dictionary dates “atonement” to the early 16th century, when it was coined out of  the phrase “at one”–influenced by the Latin adunamentum (“unity”), and an older word, “onement” (from an obsolete verb form, “to one,” meaning “to unite”).  The word was used, particularly in Christian circles, to talk about the reconcilition of God and humanity accomplished by Christ.

When the King James Version of the Bible was translated in 1611, the relatively new expression “make atonement” was used for the Hebrew verb kipper, particularly in connection with Yom Kippur (see Leviticus 16).  This word apparently had the original meaning “cover.”  However, kipper came to be used specifically for rites of cleansing and purification.

In ancient Israel, Yom Kippur was the day when all lingering defilement from the previous year, either accidental or deliberate, was expunged, making full access to and communion with God possible in the new year.  The Common English Bible, which translates Yom Kippur as “Day of Reconciliation,” captures both the meaning of this ancient rite and the older meaning of the word “atonement” as dealing, not with reparation or punishment, but with communion restored.

The centerpiece of the ancient ritual for this day involved two goats.  One was selected by lot as the goat to be offered as the sin offering (the most familiar translation of the Hebrew khattat; the CEB reads “purification offering,” which better catches the significance of this sacrifice in ancient Israel).  The second goat was given to Azazel.  We have no idea what this means; perhaps Azazel was a monster or demon believed to live in waste places, or perhaps Azazel is an old word for “wilderness.”  The KJV read “scapegoat,” which has entered our language as a person or group blamed for wrongs done by others.

In Leviticus, the goat for Azazel is not a sacrifice, nor is it killed.  It is driven out into the wilderness, symbolically carrying away the defilement of the people.  The other goat, selected by lot as belonging to the LORD, is sacrificed.  Its blood is taken by the high priest into the inner room of the shrine, called the Most Holy Place, where God was believed to be specially present.  This inner chamber held a golden box, called the Ark (the Hebrew word for the Ark, ‘aron, simply means “box,” or “chest”).  The lid of the Ark was a slab of gold, molded in the image of two cherubim: terrible semi-divine heavenly beings like winged sphinxes.

The cherubim‘s inner wings overlapped to form a throne: the divine title “the LORD, who is enthroned on the cherubim” (for example, 1 Sam 4:4; Ps 80:1) recalls this connection.  The Ark itself served as the LORD’s footstool, making this golden box the intersection of divine and human worlds.  In the days of Israel’s wilderness wandering, Moses and Aaron encountered the LORD at the Ark (for example, Exod 25:22).

On Yom Kippur, the blood from the people’s purification offerings was applied to the lid of the Ark (kapporet in Hebrew; translated as “mercy seat” in the KJV and the NRSV, but best rendered, as the CEB has it, simply as “cover” or “lid”).  This meant that, once a year, the blood of the purification offering was brought to the very feet of God.

In Romans 3:23-25 (NRSV), Paul seems to use the rite of Yom Kippur as a way to understand the work of Christ on the cross:

since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.

The Greek word translated “sacrifice of atonement” in the NRSV (the KJV has “propitiation”) is hilasterion.  But this Greek word is used in the Greek translation of Jewish Scripture, the Septuagint, not for either the sin offering or the scapegoat but for the lid of the Ark: the kapporet.  The CEB translation “place of sacrifice” is a little better, though still misleading.  Paul’s point appears to be that the cross where Jesus’ blood was spilled has become the kapporet: the point where divine and human worlds intersect, and so the place where reconciliation–atonement–happens.

Reading the Bible in English, we are likely to miss all of this.  We may assume that, in Leviticus, Yom Kippur is the day of atonement in our sense: referring to a reparation for sins, made in blood to an angry, judging God.  We may assume that the death of Jesus too must be read it this same way: as Jesus taking the punishment, or paying the price, for our guilt.  The meaning of the Hebrew words  kipper and kapporet, the Greek hilasterion, and even the history of the rather new English word “atonement,” may well pass us by.

This is, of course, an argument for learning the biblical languages, so that subtleties and nuances often lost in translation can be recognized.  Even for those of us without access to the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek texts of Scripture, it means learning to read the Bible carefully and prayerfully, making use of commentaries , study Bibles, and other resources that will “complexify” our plain reading of the text.  For all of us, it means remembering that the Bible was not written in English.  We need always to be aware of the bones beneath the flesh of the translation, and to resist the temptation to see our own surface reading as what the Bible “plainly” says.


As the new academic year begins at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, welcome to all new students, staff, and faculty–and welcome back to the old-timers!  Praying for all of us, for God’s blessings on this new year of possibility.


Preaching from the Left-Hand Side of the Bible

I love the scene in the first “Ghostbusters” movie where the team warns the mayor of New York of a coming “disaster of biblical proportions”:

Dr Ray Stantz: What he means is Old Testament, Mr. Mayor, real wrath of God type stuff.

Dr. Peter Venkman: Exactly.

Dr Ray Stantz: Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies! Rivers and seas boiling!

Dr. Egon Spengler: Forty years of darkness! Earthquakes, volcanoes…

Winston Zeddemore: The dead rising from the grave!

Dr. Peter Venkman: Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together… mass hysteria!

Actually, except for the “dogs and cats” part, this is a pretty fair summary of the impression many people, even life-long believers, have of the Old Testament.  No wonder we are reluctant to read and study, let alone preach from, the first two-thirds of Christian Scripture!

I am going to list the top three reasons I have heard for not preaching from the left-hand side of the Bible.  I am then going to argue that each one is actually a reason that we need to preach these texts.

1) The Old Testament God is wrathful and violent.

Certainly, there is bloodshed aplenty in the texts south of Matthew (for example, see the account of Nineveh’s fall in Nahum 2–3). But the New Testament certainly is not lacking in texts witnessing to this theme (for example, Revelation 16:1-20Matthew 10:34; or Luke 22:35-37).  Avoiding the Old Testament doesn’t solve the problem.  However, addressing these texts carefully in context reveals a God who cares passionately about justice, and who sides with the oppressed against the oppressor–themes we must address from our pulpits.  For example: the horrific texts in Nahum are introduced in the final form of that book by a psalm (Nah 1:2-11) affirming that the LORD is a God of justice who punishes the wicked and the oppressor:

The Lord is slow to anger but great in power,
    and the Lord will by no means clear the guilty (Nah 1:3 NRSV).

Nineveh’s destruction, then, is presented as a measured act of just punishment, not the capricious act of a violent deity.  Indeed Habakkuk, the book that follows Nahum, wrestles with the problem of divine justice in the face of violence and suffering:

Your eyes are too pure to look on evil;
        you are unable to look at disaster.
Why would you look at the treacherous
        or keep silent when the wicked swallows one who is more righteous? (Hab 1:12-13).

Rather than providing simple, condescending answers to our questions, the Old Testament invites us to join in the age-old struggle for meaning, and so to find ourselves in conversation with the Divine.

2) The Old Testament is law, the New Testament is grace.

This misunderstanding of the Bible derives from a misreading, not only of the Old Testament, but also of the New–particularly, the letters of Paul, who sometimes opposes legalism to faith (for example, in Romans 4:13-16).  Nowhere in the Hebrew Bible is the idea expressed that, by proper observance of the law, one earns God’s favor.  Rather, always and everywhere, obedience is a faithful response to the love and grace that God has shown.  Micah expresses this very aptly:

With what should I approach the Lord
        and bow down before God on high?
Should I come before him with entirely burned offerings,
        with year-old calves?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
        with many torrents of oil?
Should I give my oldest child for my crime;
        the fruit of my body for the sin of my spirit?
He has told you, human one, what is good and
        what the Lord requires from you:
            to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:6-8).

Grace is the beating heart of the whole of Scripture.  Indeed, hearing that grace expressed in the pithy, earthy language of the Old Testament, rather than the often otherworldly language of the New, may make its message all the more potent.  This leads to the third objection:

3) The Old Testament is odd.

Guilty as charged!  The Old Testament is, after all, old: it reflects the worldview of ancient cultures, far removed from us in time and space.  The oddity of texts such as Ezekiel’s vision of the LORD’s glory (Ezek 1; depicted effectively in Albrecht Dürer‘s woodcut above) should not, indeed cannot, be denied or explained away.  However, precisely because they are strange, these passages may be able to help us hear anew a message that more familiar texts no longer effectively convey.  The message of God’s caring, and God’s determination to come to us where we are, may no longer sound so strongly in passages we have heard over and over again (such as John 3:16).  But the wheels beneath the divine throne in Ezekiel’s vision reveal that God is enthroned in a chariot, enabling God to be present in God’s full glory wherever God wishes–a striking image that, in its very strangeness and unfamiliarity, may break through to us as it did for African slaves discovering the Bible and its faith.

Preaching the Old Testament is not optional: if we believe that the Bible is indeed word of God for the people of God, then we need to preach Scripture in its fullness.  When we do so, we will experience the power of God’s word and God’s presence anew.

AFTERWORD: Wendy and I are just back from a glorious vacation in New England and Atlantic Canada.  The Bible Guy series on how to read the Bible will resume next time.  This week’s blog responds to a request from Melissa Logan, Director of Communications at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, for ideas on preaching from the Old Testament.  Hope you find it useful.



How to Read the Bible, Part 3: The Bible Isn’t Flat

In our ordinary, day-to-day reading, we realize that different texts must be read in different ways.  It would never occur to us to read the phone book the way that we would read a novel (“Hmmm–lots of characters, but no plot. . .”).  Similarly, we are (at least, generally) aware that while novels sometimes may contain facts, they are not factual: neither Sherlock Holmes nor Atticus Finch is a real person.

But when we turn to the books of the Bible, we sometimes forget this common-sense principle, and insist that each passage of Scripture must be read in the same way as every other passage, “flattening” the Bible as though it were all of a piece.  Slogans such as “God said it. I believe it. That settles it” not only treat the Bible as if it were flat, but also insist that this is the only faithful way to read the Bible. If the Bible is God’s word, after all, then it must be true, and if the Bible is true, then that must mean that every word of it is true in the same way: factual, accurate, applicable, and authoritative.

We will talk about biblical authority next time.  But for now, this flattening approach ignores a fundamental feature of the Bible, evident to the most casual reader: the Bible is not book, but a library of books, written in different times, places, and languages.  The Hebrew Bible contains a good deal of poetry: indeed, the books of Psalms and the Song of Songs (sometimes called the Song of Solomon) are entirely poetic.  The Greek New Testament is dominated by letters, such as Romans or 1 Thessalonians.  Some books are narratives, with characters and dialogue and plot–such as Ruth or Jonah on the left-hand side of the Bible, or Acts on the right.  Most Old Testament prophetic books, such as Amos or Jeremiah, are collections of speeches; similarly, in the New Testament, Hebrews is a sermon.  The first five books of the Bible are commonly called “law,” although only Leviticus and Deuteronomy consist mostly of laws; Genesis is entirely narrative, and Exodus is mostly so.  The first four books of uniquely Christian Scripture are all called “gospels,” from the Old English godspel, or “good news”–although only Mark explicitly bears that title (Mark 1:1).  No wonder we call this book “the Bible,” a word which comes from the Greek ta biblia, meaning “the books!”

Not only do different books call for different readings, but within each biblical book, we find a variety of styles and techniques, calling for different approaches.  For example, Jesus was a master storyteller.  In the New Testament, the word “parable” (Greek parabole) occurs fifty times, all but twice (Heb 9:9; 11:19) in the first three books: Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  Indeed, Mark and Matthew go so far as to say that Jesus never taught without a parable (Mark 4:34; Matt 13:34).  The Septuagint (the Greek translation of Jewish Scripture) uses parabole for the Hebrew word mashal.  In the Hebrew Bible, a mashal is a saying requiring interpretation: generally speaking, a riddle,  a proverb (the Hebrew name for the book of Proverbs is Meshalim), or a metaphor.

Put simply, parables are meant to be read not literally, but figuratively (as the two uses of parabole in the book of Hebrews indicate).  For example, Jesus’ parable of the weeds growing among the wheat (Matt 13:24-30) doesn’t describe good farming practices–although when I was growing up, I tried persuading my Dad that weeding our garden wasn’t biblical!  Instead, it is a story about the kingdom of God.

Usually, we understand this distinction without difficulty.  When Jesus says, “How often I wanted to gather your people together, just as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings. But you didn’t want that” (Matt 23:27), no one thinks that Jesus has wings, or that the inhabitants of Jerusalem were chickens!  We know how figurative language works.

 Yet Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-30) is sometimes read, not as a story told to illustrate a point about wealth and responsibility, but as a proof of the existence of hell–indeed, as a detailed geography of the afterlife, detailing where “the bosom of Abraham” and hell are located relative to one another, with a “great gulf” between them, across which people in hell can see into heaven, and vice versa.   That Jesus says nothing about that topic either before or after this story in Luke should remind us that this is after all a parable, not a cosmic travelogue.

Reading the Bible rightly, then, requires us to ask of any passage, where does this come from?  What sort of text is this?  What standards of interpretation do I need to apply if I am to understand its message?

Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 are often cited by Christians opposed to same-sex marriage.  In the CEB, the first passage reads, “You must not have sexual intercourse with a man as you would with a woman; it is a detestable practice (Hebrew to’ebah).”  The second goes further: “If a man has sexual intercourse with a man as he would with a woman, the two of them have done something detestable (Hebrew to’ebah). They must be executed; their blood is on their own heads.”  How ought these passages be read and applied?

I have written about these verses in greater detail  before.  Put briefly, they come from a section of Leviticus called the Holiness Code (Lev 17—26), which “democratizes” the idea of holiness: not only are the priests and the sacred objects pertaining to worship set apart as belonging to God, but all of Israel is God’s, and so is called to a higher standard of commitment, service, and ritual purity: “You must be holy, because I, the LORD your God, am holy” (Lev 19:2).

In these chapters, more stringent standards of ritual purity are upheld than is the case elsewhere, even within the book of Leviticus!  For example, Leviticus 15:24 states that a man who has sex with a woman during her menstrual period (during which she is ritually unclean: see Lev 15:19–23) shares in her impurity—like her, “he will be unclean for seven days.”  Lev 18:19 and 20:18 go far beyond this, however.  In the radical view of ritual purity the Holiness Code upholds, sexual contact with a menstruating woman is to’ebah: an abomination to be punished by exile from the community (Lev 18:29; 20:18).

Ritual purity and impurity–the “clean” and the “unclean”–are strange concepts to many of us.  Put simply, these rules have to do with customs that you follow in order to be a fully integrated member of your tribe: the food that you eat, the clothes that you wear, the way that you plant your crops. Violating these customs alienates you from your tribe: but even more, in ancient Israel, such violations were regarded as pollutions that stained not only the offender, but anyone else who came into contact with him or her.  In fact, the Holiness Code declares that the land itself was defiled by such actions, and so would repel their perpetrators:

You must not do any of these detestable things, neither citizen nor immigrant who lives with you (because the people who had the land before you did all of these detestable things and the land became unclean), so that the land does not vomit you out because you have made it unclean, just as it vomited out the nations that were before you (Lev 18:26-28).

Some such customs deal with actions any culture would condemn, such as as incest (18:6-18), child sacrifice (18:21), and bestiality (18:23).  But ritual purity doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with morality.

Horses, for example, were ritually unclean: since, unlike cows, sheep, and goats, they have solid rather than divided hooves and do not chew the cud (see Lev 11:3), they couldn’t be eaten or offered as sacrifices.  But this doesn’t mean that ancient Israelites thought that horses were evil:  in fact they were important, particularly for the military, and praised for their strength and beauty (see Job 39:19-25).

The point is that, if indeed Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 have to do with ritual purity (as their context suggests; see Lev 18:26-28), then we should not read them as though they were moral proscriptions.  Concerning ritual purity, Jesus taught: “Listen and understand. It’s not what goes into the mouth that contaminates a person in God’s sight. It’s what comes out of the mouth that contaminates the person” (Matt 15:10-11).  When pressed for an explanation, he said:

Don’t you understand yet?  Don’t you know that everything that goes into the mouth enters the stomach and goes out into the sewer?  But what goes out of the mouth comes from the heart. And that’s what contaminates a person in God’s sight. Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adultery, sexual sins, thefts, false testimonies, and insults.  These contaminate a person in God’s sight. But eating without washing hands doesn’t contaminate in God’s sight (Matt 15:16-20).

Christians need not read every verse of Leviticus as a commandment–nor indeed do we.  Few if any Christian readers regard sex with a menstruating woman as a sin.  Further, even among those who would insist upon applying Lev 18:22 directly to our contemporary context, few would call for the death penalty for gay men (Lev 20:13), let alone for children who curse their parents (Lev 20:9) or for mediums and diviners (Lev 20:27).  In short, despite protests to the contrary, none of us really apply the same standard of authority or interpretation to every passage of Scripture.  All of us realize that the Bible is not flat–and an honest reading of Scripture must begin with that acknowledgement.

Because the Bible is not flat, reading Scripture responsibly and honestly requires taking the Bible seriously–not literally.  The Bible requires committed, prayerful reflection and careful study.  This is particularly the case for those books, like Leviticus, that presume a worldview and way of life very different from ours.

But this certainly doesn’t mean that Christians should avoid those harder books!  Leviticus, including the Holiness Code, is Scripture–word of God for people of God.  We need to hear, and heed, its summons to lives of personal holiness.

Holiness, after all, means more than ritual purity. The Holiness Code also states, “You must not take revenge nor hold a grudge against any of your people; instead, you must love your neighbor as yourself; I am the LORD” (Lev 19:18).  Jesus called this passage one of the two commandments on which “[a]ll the Law and the Prophets depend” (see Matt 22:34-40).  For John Wesley, holiness, or Christian perfection, meant

. . . loving God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength.  This implies, that no wrong temper, none contrary to love, remains in the soul; and that all the thoughts, words, and actions, are governed by pure love (John Wesley, A Plain Account of Christian Perfection [Orlando: Relevant Media, 2006; orig. 1777]; p. 49).

May our reading of the Bible lead us into lives of love, following the God who comes to meet us in these pages.


Several of you reported problems with the subscription link on this page.  Our seminary’s intrepid webmaster David Keys wrote, “To make this a more generic feed to read, I converted the link to a feedburner link. This is a Google service which should make subscribing more universally easy to everyone.

. . . The users that are using the original rss feed will continue to do so. It is still active.”

Let me know how this works!



How to Read the Bible, Part Two: Look Again!


On Sunday, it will be my honor to participate in the memorial service for Dr. Loretto R. Auvil, mother of my old and dear friend Walt, and a leading citizen and philanthropist in Parkersburg, WV where I was raised–may light perpetual shine upon her.  As is traditional in services of death and resurrection, we will share together the ancient, powerful, comforting words of the Twenty-Third Psalm.

One reason we find this passage so comforting is that it is so familiar.  Typically, I find that as soon as I start this Psalm, others join in–many people, even folk who have long been estranged from the church, have this psalm by heart.  Like John 3:16 or 1 Corinthians 13, Psalm 23 has become woven into our culture.  Surely, such a familiar passage must be throughly understood–how could it possibly hold any surprises?

My Hebrew class was reading Psalm 23, identifying words and parsing verbs as we went, when we came upon weshabti in the middle of verse 6.  My students were puzzled by this word–and to my astonishment and chagrin, so was I!  I had always read right over it, but when I looked again at the verse, and at this word, I found that it did not say what I had always assumed that it said.  Usually, weshabti is read as though it were a form of yashab (“dwell”)–so, “I shall dwell.”  That is what the Aramaic  Targum of this psalm has, what the Greek translators of the Septuagint assumed (for more on these ancient versions of Scripture, see my blog “Which Bible?”), and the way that pretty much every English translation of the psalm of which I am aware reads.

But, if weshabti comes from yashab, it is a very irregular form of that verb!  What it actually looks like is a form of the verb shub (“return”), in which case the verse should read, “I will return to the LORD’s house”–as the footnotes on this verse in the English Standard Version and the Common English Bible alike observe.  The point of the verse would then be the psalmist’s promise to keep coming back to God’s temple as long as he lives–to return on pilgrimage, as often as possible.  Psalm 23:6 may not be so much about rest at life’s end as it is about a lifelong commitment to worship the LORD.

The Bible does this to me all the time.  Again and again, a “familiar” text that I had thought that I had pegged will suddenly leap off the page, grab me by the collar, and show me something I have never see before.  The writer of Hebrews puts it very well:

God’s word is living, active, and sharper than any two-edged sword. It penetrates to the point that it separates the soul from the spirit and the joints from the marrow. It’s able to judge the heart’s thoughts and intentions (Heb 4:12).


One of my favorite sayings comes from nineteenth- century American humorist Josh Billings (the stage name of Henry Wheeler Shaw): “It ain’t ignorance causes so much trouble; it’s folks knowing so much that ain’t so.”  This is especially true of Scripture.  Because the Bible is so familiar, so deeply ingrained in Western culture, and so often cited as an authority, we sometimes assume that we know what it says, when in fact we may not.

For example, in a 2001 study by the Barna Group, 75% of Americans surveyed agreed with the statement, “The Bible teaches that God helps those who help themselves.”  Of course, that chestnut is not found in the Bible at all. The saying “God helps those who help themselves” comes from seventeenth-century English political theorist Algernon Sydney (Discourses Concerning Government, Chapter 2, section 23), though it was popularized by Benjamin Franklin (Poor Richard’s Almanack, 1736). I sneaked that one into the Bible content exam at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary once, and while I am pleased (and relieved!) to report that most of our students knew that “God helps those who help themselves” was not in the Bible, a disturbing minority was certain that it was in there somewhere, perhaps in James or Proverbs!

Even those of us who have long loved and studied Scripture continually find that the Spirit has something new to show us.  The first step in reading the Bible, then, is actually to read the Bible, in big chunks–not assuming that we already know what it says, but to look again, humbly seeking to discern Scripture’s intent.

One thing we may think that we know about the Bible is that the fiery destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19:1-28 proves God’s anger over the sin of homosexuality.  This may seem obvious:  after all, the men of the city crowd around Lot’s house, demanding “Where are the men who arrived tonight? Bring them out to us so that we may have sex with them” (Gen 19:5).  Indeed, this is where the word “sodomy” comes from.

But, look again.  The Bible itself does not refer to Sodom in this way.   When “Sodom” is mentioned in the Bible (in Old and New Testaments combined, in 48 verses), it is often used metaphorically, as an example of total destruction brought by divine wrath (for example, Deut 29:23Matt 11:24//Lk 10:12), with nothing said about the reason for Sodom’s destruction.  Even in the account of Sodom and Gomorrah’s destruction in Genesis 18:16–19:28, the reason given for the LORD’s judgment on the cities is not sexual sin:

Then the Lord said, “The cries of injustice from Sodom and Gomorrah are countless, and their sin is very serious!  I will go down now to examine the cries of injustice that have reached me. Have they really done all this? If not, I want to know” (Gen 18:20-21).

The Hebrew word rendered “cries of injustice” in the CEB is za’aqah (sometimes spelled tsa’aqah)– typically used for the cry of the oppressed for help (for example, Exod 22:21-24). Indeed, the gang rape attempted by the men of Sodom does not represent anyone’s idea of consensual intimacy!   This passage is about power and control through rape: the sexual humiliation of the stranger.

So too, in Ezekiel 16:49-50, we read:

This is the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were proud, had plenty to eat, and enjoyed peace and prosperity; but she didn’t help the poor and the needy.  They became haughty and did detestable things in front of me, and I turned away from them as soon as I saw it.

Since the word rendered “detestable thing” here (Hebrew to’ebah) in used in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13  for male homosexuality (for more on those passages, see my earlier blog; we will discuss these verses and others next time), some have proposed that that is its meaning in Ezek 16:50 as well.  However, in Ezekiel, where the term to’ebah appears 43 times, it nearly always refers to idolatry (for example, Ezek 6:9; for the concern for idolatry in Ezek 16, see 16:16-21).  For Ezekiel, injustice to the poor and false worship together led to Sodom’s destruction.

The exception that proves the rule–the only passage in Scripture that relates the sin of Sodom to a sexual act–is Jude 6-7:

I remind you too of the angels who didn’t keep their position of authority but deserted their own home. The Lord has kept them in eternal chains in the underworld until the judgment of the great day.  In the same way, Sodom and Gomorrah and neighboring towns practiced immoral sexual relations and pursued other sexual urges. By undergoing the punishment of eternal fire, they serve as a warning.

Jude’s reference to “the angels who didn’t keep their position of authority but deserted their own home,” imprisoned “in eternal chains in the underworld,” alludes to a third-century BC Jewish apocalypse, “The Book of the Watchers,” preserved in 1 Enoch.  The Watchers were angels, charged with caring for humanity, who instead gave humans forbidden knowledge, and had sex with human women.  Out of these unions the Nephilim (Hebrew for “fallen ones”) were born: giants, monsters, and heroes of ancient times (see Gen 6:1-4).  For their crimes, the Watchers were imprisoned until the final judgment (1 Enoch 10:4-14).

Jude says that Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed for acting “in the same way” as those angels–that is, for doing what the Watchers did.  The CEB translates the Greek opiso sarkos heteras as “other sexual urges” (the NIV has “perversion”), but a more literal rendering would be “going after other [or “strange”] flesh” (see the KJV). The explicit comparison with the story of the Watchers makes plain what is meant by this odd expression.  The men of Sodom lusted after angels, just as the angelic Watchers lusted after human women (for Jude’s concern about showing spiritual beings proper respect, see Jude 8-10).

I invite you to chase these passages yourself, and do your own study of them.  But I honestly see no relevance of the Sodom texts to our contemporary conversation about LGBTQ women and men.

Distinguished Hebrew Bible scholar and preacher Ellen F. Davis writes,

I suppose every one of us would like to be an astonishing preacher–unlikely though that seems on a week-to-week basis.  But the plain fact is that no preacher can ever be astonishing (in a positive sense!) unless she has first been astonished.  And the only regular and fully reliable source of astonishment for the Christian preacher is the Scripture itself (Wondrous Depth: Preaching the Old Testament [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2005], 2).

This is true, sisters and brothers, not just for preachers, but for all of us! God give us open ears, open hearts, and wide open eyes, so that we will not settle for what we already “know” that the Bible says, but will be willing, always, to look again–and to wait, confidently and eagerly, for God’s living Word to astonish us!


The Bible clearly states. . .

On Friday June 26, by a 5-4 margin, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that same-sex marriage is a Constitutionally protected right.  Responses, pro and con, were swift in coming.  As a Bible-believing Christian, a United Methodist minister, and a Hebrew Bible scholar who welcomes this ruling, I was not surprised that many other believers did not.  Disagreements among believers on doctrine and Bible interpretation are certainly nothing new, and I have dear friends and family members who I know differ with me on this issue, as on others.

I was, though, saddened by many responses. Christian vocalist and evangelist Carman Licciardello wrote:

I have to hand it to the LGBT community. They have fought for what they believed in much harder than the Christian community ever did. They’re much more united than we are. They comprise only 3% of the American population and took in the 83% who claim to be Christians and won. 

Similarly, Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, when asked by ABC correspondent George Stephanopolous if he was calling for acts of civil disobedience against the Court’s ruling, replied:

I don’t think a lot of pastors and Christian schools are going to have a choice. They either are going to follow God, their conscience and what they truly believe is what the scripture teaches them, or they will follow civil law. They will go the path of Dr. Martin Luther King, who in his brilliant essay the letters from a Birmingham jail reminded us, based on what St. Augustine said, that an unjust law is no law at all. And I do think that we’re going to see a lot of pastors who will have to make this tough decision.

You’re going to see it on the part of Christian business owners. You’ll see it on the part of Christian university presidents, Christian school administrators.

Most bewildering was this tweet from Christian radio talk show host Bryan Fischer:

What none of these responses recognize is that not only are there many Christians, like me, who support this ruling, but that there are Christian churches–the United Churches of Christ, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the Episcopal Church, to name three–that permitted their clergy to perform same sex marriages, where the law permitted, prior to this decision.  What is more, 48% of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, and questioning) women and men identify as Christian–indeed, 13% identify as Evangelical, and 11% as Catholic, despite the position of the Roman Catholic Church and of most Evangelical denominations in opposition to homosexual acts, if not to same-sex attraction.  Are these persons, these denominations–let’s make it personal, am I–then, not “really” Christian?

Many friends have posted links to a blog by Jonathan Parnell, titled “Why Homosexuality Is Not Like Other Sins.”  Rev. Parnell writes,

As Christians, we believe with deepest sincerity that the embrace of homosexual practice, along with other sins, keeps people out of the kingdom of God. And if our society celebrates it, we can’t both be caring and not say anything. Too much is at stake. This means it is an oversimplification to say that Christians — or conservative evangelicals — are simply against homosexuality. We are against any sin that restrains people from everlasting joy in God, and homosexual practice just gets all the press because, at this cultural moment, it’s the main sin that is so freshly endorsed in our context by the powers that be. Let’s hope that if there’s some new cultural agenda promoting thievery — one that says it’s now our right to take whatever we want from others by whatever means — that Christians will speak out against it. The issue is sin. That’s what we’re against. And that’s what should make our voice so unique when we speak into this debate.

But what about those of us who genuinely are persuaded that homosexual practice is not inherently sinful?  The response invariably is that those of us who take this position are rejecting Scripture.


It certainly cannot be denied that there are passages of Scripture that condemn same-sex relations (though perhaps not so many as is sometimes claimed).  However, the Bible is also perfectly clear on other matters about which we are not so ready to claim its authority.

For example, it is absolutely clear that divorce and remarriage are condemned by Jesus, in the very passages commonly cited as demonstrating that biblical marriage is between one man and one woman (Mark 10:1-12//Matthew 19:3-9; see especially Mark 10:11-12, and compare Matthew 19:9 and 5:31-32Luke 16:181 Cor 7:10-16).  Yet my own United Methodist Church, which states in its Social Principles that “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching” (2012 Book of Discipline ¶ 161F, p. 111), also states that “when a married couple is estranged beyond reconciliation, even after thoughtful consideration and counsel, divorce is a regrettable alternative in the midst of brokenness” ( 161C, p. 109) and that “Divorce does not preclude a new marriage” ( 161C, p. 110).

Please do not misunderstand me here.  I do not believe that the Scripture passages regarding divorce and remarriage should be applied legalistically. However, if I am indeed to take the entire Bible literally as word of God, without picking and choosing, then how can I justify reading Mark 10:11-12 any differently than I read  Romans 1:23-27?

The truth is, none of us read the Bible in that way–and we never have.  As Rachel Held Evans reminds us in her thoughtful blog, the “plain teaching of Scripture” has been used far too often to confirm what we already believe: to condemn racial integration, to oppose the ordination of women–even to reject the view that the earth goes around the sun, and not vice versa.  All of our readings of Scripture are interpretations of Scripture, built on who we are and where we stand. This means that we must read humbly and prayerfully, and be prepared to acknowledge the possibility that our reading has been misguided–or at least, that we can learn from a different approach.  Ms. Evans puts it very well:  “One need not discount the inspiration and authority of Scripture to hold one’s interpretations of Scripture with an open hand.”

In the following blogs, I will wrestle with the question of how to read Scripture.  This involves, first of all, a willingness actually to read the Bible, not to rely upon what we already believe the Bible to say.  Secondly, it requires a determination to acknowledge, honestly, the implications of our commitments.  Most importantly, reading the Bible requires that we realize what the Bible is: not an encyclopedia, or an instruction manual, but a confession about who God is, and an invitation into a relationship with God.



The End of the World (As We Know It)

Walking the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, Scotland, Wendy and I saw this wonderful pub.  Its name has no apocalyptic significance: as its website states,

Back in the 16th century Edinburgh was a walled city. The gates to the city were situated outside the pub, and the brass cobbles in the road represent their exact location. As far as the people of Edinburgh were concerned, the world outside these gates was no longer theirs: hence the name, The World’s End.

By now, surely everyone has seen or heard about the Pew Research Center study “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” which also signals the end of a world, if not of the world.  The results of this nationwide survey confirm trends identified by earlier studies, and are neatly summarized in this graph:

In the wake of this study, some have been swift to place the blame on the liberal theology and lenient morality of the “mainline” Christian denominations.  For example, an article in Christianity Today headlined, “Pew: Evangelicals Stay Strong as Christianity Crumbles in America” bears the subtitle, “Amid changing US religious landscape, Christians ‘decline sharply’ as unaffiliated rise. But born-again believers aren’t to blame.”  Similarly, Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, wrote in response to the Pew study:

The Pew report holds that mainline denominations—those who have made their peace with the Sexual Revolution—continue to report heavy losses, while evangelical churches remain remarkably steady—even against some heavy headwinds coming from the other direction. Why?

We learned this answer 100 years ago, and it reminds us of what we learned 2,000 years ago. Two or three generations ago, Christians who held to the Virgin birth of Christ were warned that their children would flee the faith unless the parents redefined Christianity. “If you want to win the next generation,” they were told, “you have to make Christianity relevant, and that means dispending with miracles in favor of modern science.” The churches that followed that path aren’t just dying; they are dead, sustained by endowments and dwindling gatherings of nostalgic senior adults with a smattering of community organizers here and there.

Digging more deeply into the results of the Pew study does not confirm this view.  Evangelical churches are not in fact growing: they too have declined, by about 1% overall as a share of the U.S. population.

As Jonathan Merritt, in an article for Religious Studies News, observes:

Simply put, almost all of America’s largest Protestant denominations are declining, regardless of political or theological alignment. Roman Catholics are declining at roughly the same rate as mainline Protestant denominations. The nation’s largest evangelical body, the SBC [Southern Baptist Church], is declining at roughly the same rate as the largest mainline denomination, the United Methodist Church.

These numbers tell us that America’s religious landscape is more complex than some evangelicals once believed. Conservatism does not necessarily lead to growth, it seems, and liberalism does not necessarily lead to decline.  The waters of change that once overwhelmed mainliners are now lapping at the toes of evangelicalism.

I believe that the best response to the Pew report that I have seen came from my old friend and brother in United Methodist ministry, Michael McKay.  In a Facebook post, Mike wrote:

So, the Pew report is out and its pointing out that non-affiliated folks now outnumber Catholics and Mainline Protestants has everyone’s shorts in a knot.

I will confess it has had me feeling pretty bad when I reflect that I am a part of a generation of clergy that has lead the church into this decline. The drumbeat of decrease and calls to fix it are never ending.

But then I think of Casey Stengal addressing his 1962 Mets at the end of the worst season of baseball ever played (42-120). He said to his players, “Don’t feel bad boys, no one person could have done all this.”

God sometimes speaks from the most unlikely places…

So what might a Casey Stengel have to say to the American church today? If we want to assign blame in the rapidly changing religious landscape of the United States, there is plenty to go around! But it is much more fruitful to ask, how can we be faithful in this contemporary context?

Perhaps the best conclusion to draw from these disturbing statistics is that we are indeed seeing the end: not of the world, or of the church, but of an illusion called “Christendom.”

It is an old illusion, one that has been clinging to the church since the days of the Roman emperor Constantine (272-337 AD), when the Christian religion not only became legal but also took on the trappings of official power.  Certainly here in American, we Christians had come to think that we belong with the popular and powerful, rather than the shunned and the powerless. We had come to believe that we ought to be able to dictate our values to the world, rather than demonstrating our values through lives of engagement and service. We had forgotten that we serve a crucified Lord, whose only crown was a crown of thorns.  Perhaps now that “Christendom” lies dead or dying, we can be the Church again, and seek the kingdom of God.

But the end, even of an illusion, is never easy!  In the Book of the Twelve, Habakkuk speaks to the doubt, fear and anxiety prompted by the end of his world, with the rise of Babylonian imperial power.  In anguish, the prophet cries out:

LORD, aren’t you ancient, my God, my holy one?    Don’t let us die.
LORD, you put the Chaldean here for judgment.
        Rock, you established him as a rebuke.
Your eyes are too pure to look on evil;
        you are unable to look at disaster.
Why would you look at the treacherous
        or keep silent when the wicked swallows one who is more righteous? (Hab 1:12-13).

Yet God’s answer to the prophet is stark and bleak:

There is still a vision for the appointed time;
            it testifies to the end;
                it does not deceive.
    If it delays, wait for it;
        for it is surely coming; it will not be late (Hab 2:3).

The stark honesty of Habakkuk’s struggle with doubt and uncertainty in the face of that message may take us aback. Indeed, one ancient Christian interpreter of this prophet, Theodoret of Cyrus, insists that the prophet never really doubted God, but merely “adopted the attitude” of the doubter, “putting the question as though anxious in his own case to learn the reason for what happens” (Theodoret of Cyrus: Commentary on the Twelve Prophets, ed. Robert Charles Hill [Brookline: Holy Cross, 2006], 191).  Since Habakkuk’s book is an oracle (see Hab 1:1) delivered “under the influence of the Spirit,” the apparent anguish of the prophet’s cry (“LORD, how long will I call for help and you not listen?,” Hab 1:2) cannot be real: “it is obvious that, instead of suffering that fate personally, he is exposing the plight of those so disposed and applying the remedy” (Commentary, 192).

But surely  this defense is unnecessary.  People of God in all times and places have known that faith and doubt are not opposites: indeed, deep faith and profound doubt can occupy the same heart.

May 24 was not only Pentecost, but also Aldersgate Day, when Methodists the world over recall and celebrate John Wesley’s vaunted Aldersgate experience, when his heart was “strangely warmed” and he knew the assurance that Christ “had taken away my sins, even mine” (John Wesley, ed. Albert C.  Outler, Library of Protestant Thought [New York: Oxford University, 1964], 66).

Years after that profound spiritual experience, John Wesley wrote in a letter to his brother Charles,

[I do not love God. I never did]. Therefore [I never] believed, in the Christian sense of the word. Therefore [I am only an] honest heathen, a proselyte of the Temple” (Wesley, 81; the words in brackets were written in Wesley’s private shorthand).

Yet in that very same letter, Wesley affirms, “I find rather an increase than a decrease of zeal for the whole work of God and every part of it,” and urges his brother, “O insist everywhere on full redemption, receivable by faith alone; consequently, to be looked for now” (Wesley, 82).

Looking at our present circumstance through the lens of Habakkuk and Wesley, perhaps we too can at once both acknowledge our fears and doubts, and also seek and celebrate God’s presence in spite of those fears and doubts.  Certainly Habakkuk knew that we need to see God in the midst of doubt, struggle, loss, and pain, and affirmed God’s presence even there – indeed, especially there (something we Christians, who affirm God’s presence and power in the cross of Christ, should recognize).  Therefore the prophet did not simply succumb to despair. His book ends with this bold assertion:

Though the fig tree doesn’t bloom,
            and there’s no produce on the vine;
        though the olive crop withers,
            and the fields don’t provide food;
        though the sheep are cut off from the pen,
            and there are no cattle in the stalls;
I will rejoice in the Lord.
        I will rejoice in the God of my deliverance (Hab 3:17-18).

We cannot choose our circumstances.  But we can choose how we will respond to them.  The end of a world, particularly an illusory one, need not be the end of our world.  In the immortal words of R.E.M., “It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine!”


This is the last of an intermittent series (beginning with this post from last October) on the twelve prophets whose books come at the end of the Christian Old Testament.  If you have ideas for a new series, or a question or issue you would like to see pursued by the Bible Guy, let me know!


“The Danger Of A Single Story”

This past Saturday, I was blessed to hear Grace Killian, a mission intern with the General Board of Global Ministries of The United Methodist Church (not to mention a daughter of Mount Lebanon UMC here in Pittsburgh, and an alumna of the Miller Summer Youth Institute at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary!) speak at St Paul’s UMC in Allison Park, PA.  Grace shared her experiences working in Palestine with the Wi’am Palestine Conflict Resolution Center in Bethlehem.  At the Wi’am Center, Grace worked particularly with women through the Just Sharing Fellowship: a gathering in which these young Palestinian women from Bethlehem (some of whom are in the picture above–that’s Grace on your far left) learned to trust and to empower one another by sharing their stories (you can read some of them here).

To help us grasp the power of story, for good and for ill, Grace shared with us Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk on “The Danger of a Single Story.”  Ms. Adichie relates her encounter with her first college roommate, in America:

She asked where I had learned to speak English so well, and was confused when I said that Nigeria happened to have English as its official language. She asked if she could listen to what she called my “tribal music,” and was consequently very disappointed when I produced my tape of Mariah Carey. (Laughter) She assumed that I did not know how to use a stove. . . . She had felt sorry for me even before she saw me. Her default position toward me, as an African, was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning pity. My roommate had a single story of Africa: a single story of catastrophe. In this single story, there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals.

Ms. Adichie speaks in particular of what happens when we define someone else by daring to tell their story for them:

There is a word, an Igbo word, that I think about whenever I think about the power structures of the world, and it is “nkali.” It’s a noun that loosely translates to “to be greater than another.” Like our economic and political worlds, stories too are defined by the principle of nkali: How they are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power.

Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person. The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti writes that if you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story and to start with, “secondly.”

When I was last in Israel/Palestine, in the Dheisheh refugee camp in Bethlehem, I asked our guide through the camp what we could do for him and for his community.  He said, simply, “Tell our story.”  That is hard to do, when the “single story” of Israel and Palestine told in America depicts Israel in entirely heroic terms as the courageous defender of democracy, and Palestine in entirely villainous terms, as a land of terrorists committed to violence against Israel.  What are we to do, then, with stories like this–one young woman’s memory of an Israeli army incursion in 2002, in response to what is sometimes called the Second Intifada:

I remember it was sunset, my mother was cleaning the house and I was playing, when suddenly we heard a hard knock on the door with people shouting “eftakh Bab, eftakh Bab” (Open the door). We opened and it was a group of Israeli soldiers with a tank and armored vehicles coming to take over our house. They came in yelling at us and I got really scared as any eight year old innocent girl would do seeing the enemy this close for the first time in her childhood. They were planning on putting the whole family my two aunts, my uncle with his two sons, and me with my two brothers, my sister, and my parents in my room with no bathroom, no water, no food to eat and not enough space for eleven people to sleep. But my grandmother, god rest her soul, saved the day. My aunt told the soldiers that my grandmother was sick and that we can’t leave her in the house by herself, so they decided to lock us all in my aunt’s two-room house. . . .

We were three families living in one small house, all our belongings were next door but unreachable and sleeping on the floor was our only choice because all our beds became part of the military defenses and we were only left with my aunts’ three beds. We were out of food and water and the Red Cross was our only source of supplies. I remember them bringing us food and water and putting them in a big basket that we would pull up the balcony. . . .

The soldiers then left and we thought the nightmare was over. But we thought wrong.  . . . the nightmare began again—the nonstop shooting, anxiety and fear began again. The worst thing is that this time they didn’t only endanger our lives, and violate our rights, but they offended our religion. The soldiers that came the second time were stricter than the ones before. They were of the “religious” kind. They took all the crosses that were in the house and destroyed them. They broke them, stuffed them between shoes and even peed on them.

Of course, this too must not be permitted to stand as the “single story,” whether of Israel, the Israeli people, or the Israeli army.  But it is a story that we need to hear, if we are not to impose, from our own position of power, a single story upon the entire people of Palestine.

This Sunday is Pentecost, when we recall the birthday of the church in the outpouring of God’s Spirit.  The primary Scripture reading for this day is Acts 2:1-21, a text which relates, in part, how the news of God’s salvation was spread abroad on that day through what is often called the gift of tongues:

When Pentecost Day arrived, they were all together in one place.  Suddenly a sound from heaven like the howling of a fierce wind filled the entire house where they were sitting.  They saw what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them.  They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak.  There were pious Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.  When they heard this sound, a crowd gathered. They were mystified because everyone heard them speaking in their native languages.  They were surprised and amazed, saying, “Look, aren’t all the people who are speaking Galileans, every one of them?  How then can each of us hear them speaking in our native language?  Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; as well as residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the regions of Libya bordering Cyrene; and visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism), Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the mighty works of God in our own languages!” (Acts 2:1-11)

Please notice that this passage does not say that the people all started speaking the same language–that their cultural and ethnic distinctiveness was denied or undone–but rather that each one heard “the mighty works of God” declared in her or his own language.

This should not surprise us.  The entire Bible models for us how to escape the danger of the single story.  Scripture rarely gives us a single story about anything!  At the beginning of our Bible, we find two different accounts of the creation of the world.  The story of Israel’s beginnings is likewise told, not in a single story line, but through multiple memories.  The New Testament opens with four gospels, presenting four quite different accounts of the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The canon itself calls for us to listen with open ears and open hearts for the truth told, not as a single story, but as a chorus of voices.  Sometimes those voices are in harmony, sometimes they are in dissonance, but always they are lifted in praise to the God who remembers all our stories, the comedies and tragedies alike, and catches them up together in love, forgiveness, and grace.


You are invited to join us at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary for the 74th annual Henderson Summer Leadership Conference on June 7-10, 2015. This year’s event will focus on “The Good Earth: Creation and Ministry in an Ecological Age.” Our  keynote speakers will be Dr. Norman Wirzba, Professor of Theology and Ecology at Duke Divinity School, and Dr. Fred Bahnson, Director of the Food, Faith, and Religious Leadership Initiative at the Wake Forest University School of Divinity.  Guests will have the opportunity to participate in a variety of workshops (including “Being Earthlings: Preaching As Though the Planet Mattered,” by the Bible Guy) and conversations with community leaders on themes relevant to sustainability and stewardship of the earth. There will be a Farm to Table  Banquet and optional field trips to sites related to the conference’s theme.   You can register for this conference here.