Christian exegetes who explain, critically analyze and interpret scripture continue to see Christ as the heart of the Bible. Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-88)saw Jesus, as well as scripture, as God’s Word in human form. God is knowable and shows himself in understandable terms. However, we must constantly wrestle with difficult biblical texts because they are indispensable to us. The Bible gives archetypal stories of encounters between God and people. These stories act as model and pattern that describe all divine -human encounters. They are mythical stories but provide a prototype of how each of us encounters God in real life. Thus they help and inspire readers to pursue the divine as the most important of dimension of our lives. These stories seize the imagination like a great play or work of art. But it is impossible to draw once for all definitive fundamentals of theology or doctrine of God. They are a doorway into spiritual experience but not a blueprint that explains everything. We are never totally able to pin down absolute truth by studying the Bible. We can experience what we are able to receive. This is great but it is always open ended with more to discover and learn. But scripture is still authoritative for everybody from the Pope on down. There is a call and critique that each Christian has a duty to summon the Church to adhere to, if it sees it departing from the spirit of these stories, the spirit of the gospels.
Hans Frei (1922-88), converted from Judaism and became an Episcopal priest and Yale professor. He pointed out that in pre-critical times most people assumed the Biblical stories were historical. But after the eighteenth century Enlightenment this consensus broke down. Some did not partake of Enlightenment studies and saw the biblical stories as purely factual, forgetting that they originated as stories to give us a foundation and point to the spiritual path. Jesus was most surely a historical figure but when you study the gospel narrative of the resurrection closely it is impossible to declare what exactly happened. Frei taught that the Bible must be read with a sustained contemplation of our own times. That is read it in the historical light of our own times, juxtaposing the gospel with current scholarly knowledge and follow the spirit and attitude of the gospel as we dig deeply into the complexity of current events.
We must remember there are no easy interpretations. We must always remember the Bible and Jesus are always subversive of the power structure of society and church because they are nearly always oppressive. The Bible stories should never be used to back up the ideology of the establishment which always produces some form of enslavement. The spirit of the gospel story helps us expose the hopes, claims and expectations of our time and destruct and refashion them according to the spirit of Jesus.
Wilfred Cantwell Smith (1916-2000), formerly professor of Comparative Religion at Harvard said we must understand the Bible historically. It is impossible to understand what the Bible really means because its verses have all been interpreted in so many different ways. But people of faith, Jews and Christians, have used the biblical story to work out their own salvation within the confines of their particular stage of history with its particular circumstances. And so we can ever do if we will just follow its spirit which opens us to God and not its letter which self destructs us.
Michael Fishbane, a great modern Jewish modern Bible scholar has some sound and beautiful insights. The central theme of his work is that the Bible constantly reinterprets itself and corrects its errors which must be done in each era for it to be a living book. We must not give in to our sinful desires for security and power over others and exalt the Bible to perfection making it the equivalent of a Protestant pope. Only do we find salvation from the Bible by discovering its core message in each era and living it in the best light we can, do we find peace and salvation from its message.
Here is an example of Fishbane’s insight. It is something few ever notice. Isaiah saw all nations making their way to Mount Zion, the city of peace, saying, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of Yahweh…that he may teach us his ways…since the law will go out from Zion, and the oracle of Yahweh from Jerusalem.” Micah 1: 1-5 qouted these words because he looked forward to a universal peace when the nations would speak gently to one another. But he added an audacious coda that few notice. He said that each nation, including Israel, “will go forward each in the name its own gods. Micah hoped for a time when multiple visions would begin converging on a common truth which is found in the Bible’s best efforts to portray God.
I think this vision of Micah’s is working in the world. I hope it comes to fulfillment soon. There are ways in which all religion points to the ultimate reality of God, The Divine Consciousness that holds the universe together. a
Fundamentalists are often loud bullies because they are afraid but in their aggression they tend to gab the headlines while moderate and progressive scholars work quietly away before they get major recognition and then the fundamentalists ignore or condemn them.
Modern biblical scholars have tried to revive traditional biblical spirituality in a more peaceful spirit. Jewish scholars have provided some of the most wholesome thought. Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber (1878-1965) believed the Bible witnessed to God’s presence at a time when he seemed absent. Study and interpretation of the scriptures could never stand still because the Bible represented an ongoing dialogue between God and humans. A transformed lifestyle must come from Bible study. To truly open the Bible we must be ready to be changed by what we hear. Buber pointed out that the rabbis called scripture a miqra, “a calling out.” We are to hear from the Bible a call to become involved in the world’s problems and determine to stand fast and be tuned in to the undercurrent of events.
Franz Rosensweig (1886-1928) was also a Jew and a friend of Buber. He agreed that the Bible pushes us to face the crises of the present. Readers of the Bible must respond to its “calling out.” We are to hear from the Bible a call to become involved in the world’s problems and determine to stand strong as we tune in to the undercurrent of events.
Franz Rosensweig (1886-1929) was also a Jew and a friend of Buber. He agreed that the Bible pushes us to face the crises of the present. Readers of the Bible must respond to its “calling out” as the prophets and cry out “Here I am”- volunteering to face the reality at hand. He concluded that the Bible was not a preordained writing. “Our daily lives should illuminate the Bible, and in turn the Bible will help us to discover the sacred dimension of our day to day experience.” He taught that modern people could not respond to the Bible as those generations before them. Each of us needs the new covenant described by Jeremiah wherein the law of God is written within our hearts. Each of us must appropriate and internalize in patient, disciplined study the core message of scripture which is “get involved in loving the world to betterment.”
Michael Fishbane, a Chicago Jewish scholar, pointed out historical criticism is good, helpful scholarship but it is not enough to transform the heart. Each person’s inner world is created by fragments of many different texts from the Bible and other great works of literature. These different fragments fluidly group together and react to one another and form a system of thought. The Bible does not exist in our minds in its entirety but in fragmentary form. We each create our own canon within a canon. And if we insure that our collection of texts is good, helpful, love centered then our thinking is full of power and good to bless others and ourselves.
This is how all the great helpful systems of Christian thought have been created throughout history. They are collections of synchronized fragmentary texts such as Norman Vincent Peals’ wonderful system of Positive Thinking that has bettered the lives of millions and ministers today through its literature, caring and prayer programs to 89,000 people daily. Systems of helpful thought like this have always been built by synchronizing a selection of benign texts to teach love, joy, hope and overcoming power. In all these systems the negative aspects of the Bible story are rightly skipped over. Historical criticism helps to distinguish the benign texts from the destructive ones. The selecting of the benign texts comes simply then from a devotional reading of scripture as Dr. Peale did.
The historical study of the Bible shows that there were many different aggressive competing visions of the Lord’s main agenda. But we can read the Bible as a prophetic commentary on our world of raging orthodoxies and find a compassionate distance from destructive strident dogmatism, substituting for it a loving pluralism. Also, we can, from selecting fragments of scripture build a liberating, loving and creative personal philosphy of life. We do not need aggressive dogmatism.
Pat Robertson’s form of fundamentalism is extreme, far more extreme than Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority. But an even more extreme group is the Reconstruction movement founded by Texas economist, Gary North and his father-in-law Rousas John Rushdoony. They are convinced that the secular government of Washington is doomed. It will be taken over soon by a Christian government run along strictly biblical lines.
They consider democracy a modern cesspool and the Christian state they are planning will be run literally by every single law of the Bible. This will mean the re-establishment of slavery, the banning of all contraceptives, adulterers, homosexuals, blasphemers and astrologers will be executed, and consistently disobedient children will be stoned to death.
They believe God is against the poor which is directly unbiblical, for many places say just the opposite such as the Psalms which declare that “God works justice for all the poor and oppressed.” They think it wrong to use taxes for any kind of welfare because it is subsidizing laziness and that is paying them for being evil.
They also teach the Bible forbids all foreign aid to the to the developing world because it is poor and underdeveloped because it is addicted to paganism, immorality and demon worship. Always in the past serious Bible scholars sought to bypass these inhumane passages or give them an allegorical interpretation that was positive and fit the way of love.
For example, the command in Joshua for Joshua to kill all the inhabitants of Canaan from the oldest to the youngest babe, spare none of them, which is very ungodly, but God never actually said this. Serious Bible scholars would sometimes teach an allegorical interpretation of horrid passages like this. They taught do not take this as literal history but apply it to yourself and show no mercy to your bad habits big or small,get rid of all of them completely. Now, this was far fetched interpretation, but it was for more godly than taking it as literal history. This was the approach to troublesome passages that C.S. Lewis advocated and it is a positive one. Certainly, it is far better than taking them as literal history. For if it is that, then God is a very bad actor.
But people like the Reconstructionists like to take such passages without relating them to their proper historical context or considering whether it is actual documented history or late mythology with a hidden agenda which in the Joshua case is what it was. It is a made up story written with a hidden nationalist agenda in about 622 BCE about 600 years after the supposed Exodus.
Other fundamentalists have absorbed modern violence, sort of coexisting with it, but Reconstructionists have created a religious version of militant capitalism to justify their selfish materialistic lifestyles. Fear of those different and fear of loss of wealth and power lies behind such foolish use of the Bible.
#102, Woe is Us
While Jewish Zionists were trying to develop a Jewish state in Israel, protestant fundamentalists had evolved a Christian Zionism that was paradoxically antisemitic. The Jewish people had been central to the “rapture” vision of John Darby in the in the 1800s. The Rapture of the Church from the earth into heaven, the seven years tribulation on earth, the battle of Armageddon, with Christ coming to earth and setting up his kingdom on earth as it exists in Christian Fundamentalism today were all invented by Darby in the nineteenth century.
And though the Jews are very important to this view of the second coming of Christ, Christian fundamentalists are just using the Jews, hoping they will become good Protestant Evangelical Christians like them and then they can go to Heaven. This view uses the Jews to, in a way, exalt themselves and their exclusive views.
Support for Israel, according to American Protestant Fundamentalists, is mandatory. But Darby’s vision taught that the anti-Christ would slaughter two-thirds of the Jews living in Palestine in the end time. So fundamentalist writers were wanting to keep Jews in Palestine at any cost so they would be there to be slaughtered in ghastly numbers to facilitate the return of Christ. I am sure the fundamentalists in their interpretation based on insane literalism never think about their views in this way. But this is what it amounts to, if you think about it. And that is what I suggest. Let us think through our Bible interpretations instead of believing ungodly interpretations.
After all, do we really want to serve such a blood thirsty Christ as this view taken from Revelation presents. Christ was a non-violent leader in his first coming. He will surely be the same in whatever second coming there might be. And like the Father, he is the same today, yesterday and forever. What do such ideas and uses of the Bible say about our religion. These ideas and interpretations are the worst enemies of the American church and not the materialistic society around it.
Like the Jewish Kookists, our Christian fundamentalists are often not interested in peace. They opposed any detente with the Soviet Union in the cold war because they considered the Soviets the biblical “enemy of the north” who would descend on Israel. Televangelist James Robison was against peace because it was “against the word of God.” Those like him were not troubled by nuclear catastrophe, because 2Peter 3: 10 had predicted “the world would be destroyed completely by fire.” But that is all right with our fundamentalists because they will be raptured out of the world before it happens. Does not that sound tremendously egotistical to you? For awhile after the fall of the Soviet Union, Sadam Hussein became the ”enemy of the north” and after that his role was taken by Syria and Iran.
Unqualified support for Israel can become ruinous, deadly. In January 2006, after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suffered a massive stroke, fundamentalist leader, Pat Robertson said that it was God’s punishment for withdrawing Israel’s troops from Gaza. The more this kind of nonsense proliferates, the more Israel and we stand in danger.
# 101, Kooky, Kooky, Kooky
In the June war of 1967, the Israeli army took over the West Bank, the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip and the Golan. Zionists saw this as literal fulfillment of scripture and as indicating that the end of time had begun. They thought they could not return the territories to the Arabs in exchange for peace. Radical Kookists squatted in Hebron and built a city at Kiryat Arba even though this was against Geneva Conventions which forbade settling territory taken during hostilities.
This settlement movement got worse after the October War of 1973. Religious Zionists joined with the secular right in opposition to any peace deal. For them, true peace meant preserving the whole land of Israel for Jews only. Kookist rabbi, Eleazar Waldman stated that Israel was engaged in a battle against evil and the peace of the whole world hung in the balance. (So many of us interpret the Bible as though the world is centered around us. We should never do that. It is just another expression of our selfishness.)
On another but related track of thought, a small group of Jewish Fundamentalists came up with a biblical version of genocidal thinking to match the Nazis. They made the Palestinians like the ancient Amalekites, a cruel people that scripture commanded the Israelites to kill without mercy. But this was the writing of priestly and deuteronomic authors centuries after Moses and Joshua who wanted to expand Israelite territory in the time of King Josiah.
Rabbi Meir Kahane had a narrowed down way of reading the Bible which produced a terrible caricature of Judaism. It gave a biblical rationale for ethnic cleansing just as the Nazis did with the Jews and others. He said, “Judaism had only one message. God wants us to live in a country on our own, isolated, so that we have the least possible contact with what is foreign.” (Karen Armstrong, The Bible, p. 213.)
Kookists got really kooky in the 1980s when a small group of them planned to destroy all the Muslim shrines on the site of the ancient Jewish Temple which was the third most holy spot in the Muslim world. They felt they should do this because the Messiah could not return when this holy site was so polluted.
These Kookists believed that by forcing war with the whole Muslim world they would make God send the Messiah to save Israel. This conclusion was drawn from the Kabbalistic principle that events on earth influenced divine action. This could have led to World War III. It was a nihilistic project which was not considered out of place in a world where some were willing to expose their own people to nuclear destruction so as to defeat a hated enemy.
Beware! This is what a wrong reading of the Bible can lead to, self destruction and self defeat, the triumph of the demonic. A majority of the Jews do not think as these above but as with ultra religious conservatives almost everywhere the above thinkers are angry, bullying, loud and aggressive and influence policy way too much. Good people must not stay silent. The heart of the Bible is the love of God and neighbor.
We must face and accept each moment and learn from it whether it be good or bad. By doing this we grow spiritually, because like God we are working all things together for good that we may love God as he loves us. (Rom. 8:28). This is the supreme good. To successfully do this we must not judge the moment, for that wastes energy that we need to evolve spiritually and do good for ourselves and others.
Jesus taught us to live this way in the Sermon on the Mount. If we do not do it, then in the tragically bad moments we will not learn from them and build the wonderful good that we could. The Jewish Holocaust of WWII was a tragically bad time. But if one judges it instead of accepting it in unity and peace to further our spiritual evolution we regress and go deeper into our past traditions and become trapped by them and self destruct.
I believe this is the case with the ultra orthodox or fundamentalist Jews after the Holocaust. They have regressed stringently into their past traditions, at least some of them, and they are creating self destruction for themselves and for others.
In the early twentieth century, the original Zionists seeking to build a homeland for Jews in Palestine did so by diplomacy, working and improving the land and fighting when they needed to. They were secular Jews and they made good, gradual progress. They were bitterly opposed by the conservative Orthodox Jews who accused them of rebelling against Judaism and profaning the land of Israel.
But after the Holocaust, in the 1950s and 60s young Orthodox Israelis developed a religious Zionism based on a literal reading of the Bible. They said the Jews must have all the land that was originally promised to Abraham’s descendants. The secular Jews never claimed this. These Orthodox Zionists soon chose a very fundamentalist elderly Rabbi Kook as their leader. He was very radical.
Kook, like Fundamentalist Christians such as Jerry Farwell, taught that Jews must return to their homeland and settle land now inhabited by Arabs and then the final redemption and peace would come to the world. This influence has hardened much of Israel’s and some of America’s politics. There are now considerable numbers of some young Israelis who say they should just kill all the Palestinians and get it over with.
This kind of scripture interpretation has led to young men such as Baruch Goldstein to shoot 29 Palestinians worshipping in the Cave of the Patriarchs at Hebron on the Festival of Purim, February 25, 1994. Then Yigal Amir on November 4, 1995, assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin during a peace rally in Tel Aviv. He claimed he had to kill Rabin because he was seeking peace with the Palestinians and giving some of their land back to them.
When we do not accept the bad moments as well as the good, learn from them and build good from them, then destruction ensues. The Fundamentalist Orthodox Jews and hard line Jewish politicians, it seems to me, have not learned from the Holocaust what they should. All who do not learn to love those different from them and work with them for peace ultimately will stand alone in the destruction they cause and that is what the heart of the Bible clearly teaches above all else
In 1920 a tragedy began for American Fundamentalist Christianity. The democratic politician, William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925) launched a crusade against the teaching of evolution in public schools. He believed Higher Criticism and Darwinism were linked in humanity destroying power. But he blamed Darwinism’s evolution for the atrocities of WWI.
Bryan’s studies led him to believe the Darwinian idea that only the strong should survive created the basis for the bloodiest war in history. (But the strongest are those who learn to compassionately live in community with their fellows.) This science he reasoned, manufactured the poisoned gases to suffocate soldiers and this same science preaches that man has a brutal ancestry and it eliminates the miraculous and supernatural from the Bible. So he was certain that evolution was evil in every way. This evil symbolized modernity’s ruthless destructive potential.
Bryan’s reasoning was wrong and naïve but he picked the right moment to get a quick and strong following from his fellow Fundamentalists in the campaign against evolution. The friendship between science and fundamentalist Christians ended with horror of the Great War. Fundamentalists wanted plain speaking, unquestioning religion and Bryan gave it to them on a silver platter with a silver tongue. All by himself he put evolution at the top of the Fundamentalist agenda where it remains today. It replaced Higher Criticism as number one on the hate list because of a drama that unfolded in Tennessee.
Until Bryan started his fight on evolution, the southern states had taken little part in the Fundamentalist movement which started about 1912. However, the South was very worried about evolution being taught. The state legislatures of Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas introduced bills to ban the teaching of evolutionary theory. Tennessee had the strictest anti evolutionary law.
John Scopes, a young teacher in the small town of Dayton, Tennessee, wanted to strike a blow for freedom of speech and confessed to breaking the law prohibiting the teaching of evolution. A trial was set for him in July of 1925. The newly formed American Civil Liberties Union sent a team of lawyers led by the great rationalist, Clarence Darrow. Bryan agreed to prosecute Scopes in favor of the Tennessee law.
The press gleefully began portraying the trial as a judging between Christianity and science and the circus of the century came to Dayton, Tennessee. Darrow made a disaster of Bryan taking the witness stand. The press portrayed the Fundamentalists as hopelessly behind the times and unable to take part in the modern world. A few days after losing the trial Bryan died., perhaps of a broken heart
There occurred something with the the Fundamentalists in this event that we should be mindful of in dealing with them. When they were attacked and made to look foolish, they reacted by becoming more extreme in their fury against evolution. They soon came to express creation science which espouses Genesis 1 as literally true in every detail. For all of history most of the church had never taken Genesis 1 as totally literally happening. Then they became more angrily literal in their interpretation of all scripture. Before Scopes, they had been willing to to work for social reform but now they left that behind to work only on “saving souls”. They have become more isolated associating only with their own kind and moved to the far right of the political spectrum where they remain today.
This is typical of how the Fundamentalist mindset reacts to loss of face and it always makes them more reactionary and dangerous with self destructive behavior. We need loving compassion and the wisdom of Solomon to ever turn a fundamentalist from his bent. And even then we may not succeed.
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All Fundamentalists of any kind, religious, political or economic, are motivated by fear and insecurity. Fear of change, fear of others different taking over, fear of losing what they have got, these are basic fears of the fundamentalist mindset. Fundamentalism and fear are pretty synonymous. For this reason fundamentalist attitudes are always dangerous to the common good of humanity.
WWI brought terror into conservative Protestantism in the United States. They thought the huge scale of slaughter in the war must be the battles foretold in Revelation. This interpretation was because conservative Protestants now thought that every word in the Bible was literally true. They began viewing current events as the fulfillment of precise biblical predictions. The Bible, they said, had predicted all of this horror 2,000 years or more ago.
Conservatives held that Jews would return to their land before the end. So when the British government issued the Balfour Declaration in 1917, pledging their support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine, Christian Fundamentalists were struck with awe and joy. This proved the Bible was the very word of God.
Cyrus Scofield , in the reference Bible bearing his name, suggested that Russia was the power from the North that would attack Israel before Armageddon. The 1917 Bolshevik revolution made atheistic Communism the Russian ideology and was taken as confirmation of Scofield’s view which is still gospel to many American fundamentalist Christians.
The creation of the League of Nations after WWI was taken by Fundamentalists to be a fulfillment
of Revelation 16:14. They thought this League was the revival of the Roman Empire that would shortly be led by the Antichrist.
Now the dispute of Fundamentalists with Christian liberals now turned somewhat from the focus on the literalness of scripture to the very future of civilization. Then and now they see themselves on the front line against Satanic forces that will soon destroy the world. They believe that they and their churches are the only thing holding back the demonic forces that will destroy the world. They blamed Germany’s behavior in WWI on the Higher Criticism of the Bible which originated in Germany.
Fear, fear, fear motivated everything in twentieth Century Christian Fundamentalism and still does. After WWI some Fundamentalist became ambivalent even to democracy because it could lead to the most devilish rule the world has ever seen. I would agree that this a possibility but Fundamentalism has no answer. It is a major part of the problem.
For fundamentalists peace keeping organizations such as the League of Nations and currently the United Nations would always be connected with evil because the Bible says that there would be war and not peace at the end. For them both of these organizations are totally on the wrong track.
Fundamentalism’s most shocking distortion of the gospel is that they have managed to turn Christ, the man of peace, into Christ the Warrior, who comes again to shed the blood of the multitudes but of course save his few fundamentalist friends. This comes from their focusing on a few scriptures to the exclusion of many others and thus forming a canon within the Canon which justifies their anger and lack of love.
Depending on your viewpoint in the nineteenth century, the world could seem a godless place or a world of wonders which in some ways was making progress. Atheists who had been a shunned minority in the past often took what seemed the high moral ground. Ludwig Feuerbach, a pupil of Hegel felt that the idea of God worked against humanity's best interest. Karl Marx said only a sick society needed religion. Religion made an oppressive social system bearable and kept people from seeking a cure. And there is too often truth in this. Radical Darwinists started the war between science and scripture that goes on even today. Thomas Huxley, from England, Karl Vogt, Ludwig Buchner, Jacob Moleshott and Earnest Haekel made the knowledge of evolutionary theory well known and used it as a tool against religion. Huxley strongly attacked religion saying it and science could not coexist, “One or the other must go after a struggle of unknown duration.”
These atheist often had a very wrong attitude but nonetheless their criticisms probably should have been listened to and examined for the truth that might be in them much better than they were by the Christian Church. As Anthony Campolo of today says, “We should listen to our critics carefully. Some of what they say may be what we need to hear.” Sometimes Christianity's worst enemies are Christians and not its critics.
By the twentieth century, religious people were indeed under attack. Jews were attacked by a newly developed “scientific” racism. Biological and genetic characteristics of European people were so narrowly defined that the Jews became “other” to everybody else and came under violent attack.
A new flood of pogroms in the early twentieth century caused non-religious Jews to form Zionism, which sought politically to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine. The Zionists used the biblical symbols of Israel but they were not motivated by religion but by modern secular thought. Two of their biggest concerns were nationalism and socialism along with colonizing Palestine.
Much of the new secular world was benign but it was also violent and tended to romanticize armed conflict. War and conflict killed 70 million people in Europe and the Soviet Union between 1914 and 1945. The Germans, supposedly one of the most cultivated societies in Europe committed the worst atrocities. A rational eduction does not automatically eliminate barbarism. Our technology was used to carry out large schemes of extermination.
The death camp, the mushroom cloud and now the wanton destruction of our environment show a self destructive ruthlessness at the heart of modern culture. The historical condition has always affected the interpretation of the Bible. In the twentieth century Jews and Christians as well as Muslims have developed scriptural ideaologies that have accepted the violence of modernity. This ought not to be.