# 87, The Need for a Core Message

                              

The history of how the Bible developed teaches us a most overarching central truth. It is the same central truth of Jesus life and message which was that most important thing of all was to love God and his compassionate justice for all, especially the poor and oppressed and to love your fellow man as yourself.

Jesus' core message was the same as that of the great rabbis who came before him. Wise men always understood that the Bible was to be interpreted and used according to these great principles which are elastic and stretch to cover all situations in life positively. Using this core as one's guideline keeps the Bible from becoming a self destructive tool in the hands of the unlearned who usually wind up worshiping the Bible and their particular interpretation of it more than they do God.

In the West, the more people were encouraged to make the Bible the focus of their spirituality, the harder it became to find and follow its simple core message. It became a source of great divisiveness. Any passage could be interpreted to serve diametrically opposed interests for there was no good simple interpretive core like Jesus had.

At the same time African Americans used the Exodus story and Jesus story to develop their theology of liberation, the Ku Klux Klan was using the Bible to justify its lynching of African Americans. Others used it to justify their enslaving of those different and murdering those who disagreed with them just as Moses exterminated those who rebelled against him and as Joshua massacred the Canaanites.

However neither of these events really happened in history. They are made up stories, legends, several centuries after they were supposed to have happened. This historical knowledge strongly reinforces Jesus' interpretive core of love of God and fellow man.

The Exodus must be interpreted by Jesus' core because it does not mean liberation for everyone. It allowed the selling of your daughters into slavery. Earlier it ordered the abandonment of the Egyptian slave girl Hagar and her son Ismael in the wilderness. No wonder there has been so much enmity between Arabs and Israelis.

Scripture alone could point people in the direction of the Bible but it could never provide an absolute guideline because people could always find an alternative passage to support an opposing viewpoint. By the seventeenth century, religious people were realizing the Bible could be a very confusing book and science was rising in influence, and clarity and rationality of thought were prized as never before. Only the ancient core message of the Bible can preserve a rational meaning and influence for society in such an age.

# 86, Is America a Chosen People?

                              # 86, Is America a Chosen People?

 

 

Many Americans still consider themselves a chosen people with a manifest destiny, and see their nation as a beacon to the rest of the world. This is carried too far by conservative politicians who shout American exceptionalism as if all the world should bow to it.

But in the gospel message, to be chosen or special means simply to be called to be a servant, a helper, to all others who are just as special or chosen as we are. But if you think being chosen makes you more special or better than others, you have missed the ship of accepting grace entirely.

In emulating the Exodus story, there has been a trend of American reformers going into the wilderness to make a new start. A significant number of American Protestants have always been preoccupied with “the last days” and have felt a strong affinity with Israel.

And though Americans have been committed to liberation and freedom, for over 200 years we kept an enslaved “Israel” in our midst in our black people. Also we have not done too well with our Native Americans.

In 1619, one year before the Mayflower came to Plymouth, a Dutch ship forcibly brought 20 black Africans to America. By 1660 blacks were thoroughlydefined as slaves who could be bought, sold, whipped, chained and seperated from their tribes, wives and children.

As slaves they were eventually introduced to Christianity and the Exodus story became their story. It seems that slaves retained their traditional religion at first because Christianity seemed hypocritical. And slave owners were afraid that if they converted they would use the Bible to demand their freedom and basic rights.

Southerners invented the interpretation that some believe even today,a that Noah's curse on his grandson, Canaan, son of Ham, was a curse on the African peoples to be forever slaves. A Southern Baptist deacon once argued angrily that this was true when I said it was false. People have often used the Bible to justify their hate and other sins.

But by the 1780's African Americans had redefined the Bible on their own terms and our nation is certainly the better for it.

 

 

 

# 85, Exodus and End Time Thinking

                                 Exodus and End Time Thinking

 

 

America has a strong desire for end time thinking and it began with the Puritans. Many of the Puritans were convinced that their coming to America was a prelude to the last days. It is a psychological fact that people addicted to their religion love to dwell on end time doctrine and their central importance to bringing in the last days. And they usually think of themselves as those who will escape all the horror and judgment while others suffer it. That is strange thinking, isn't it, for a religion which is to be centered in the way of love of others.

The Puritan colony thought of itself as the city on a hill foreseen by Isaiah 2: 1-6. Their colony was the new era of peace and blessing beginning.

In 1654, Edward Johnson published a history of New England saying, “Know this is the place where the Lord will create a new heaven and earth, and a new commonwealth together. … These are but the beginning of Christ's glorious reformation and restoration of his churches to a more glorious splendour than ever. He hath therefore caused the dazzling brightness of his presence to be contracted in the burning glass of his people's zeal, from whence it begins to be felt in many partsof the world.'' (The Puritans in America, p. 116-117).

Not all American colonists shared the Puritan vision, but it left an indelible impression of hope and optimism on the ethos of the United States. This was a helpful postive contribution. But their obsession with sin and guilt, predestination, hell, the devil and demonic powers and their sex addiction which is revealed by their obsessing against sexual sin, which usually is a coverup for denial, was the dark side of Puritanism. It left negative markings which are still on our culture. Another part of the Puritan legacy is their use of the Exodus story.

The Puritan emphasis upon the Exodus story would keep it a crucial text in American thinking. It was used by our revolutionary leaders in the War of Independence against Britain. Benjamin Franklin wanted our nation's great seal to show the parting of the Sea of Reeds by Moses. And though the eagle was chosen instead to be our imperial emblem, it too was linked with the Exodus. (Ex. 19: 4).

Other migrants drew on the Exodus story to define themselves in the same way as America did: the Mormons, the Afrikaaners of South Africa and the Jews who fled the perscution in Europe to find refuge in the United States. They each felt God had saved them from oppression and established them in a new land-sometimes at the dreadful expense of others.

If, however, we understand that the Exodus and Joshua story are a created mythical history to give Israel a story of origin to hang onto and to hang together with and that they are not a literal history for they never happened as pictured, then we realize that we do not take them literally and God never said for all the Canaanites to be killed unmercifully. Thus the Bible cannot be taken as justifying the murdering of others for our own gain. God is after all, love. And any interpretation of the biblical story that disagrees with this central revelation of God's character is to be thrown out and a better interpretation formed that fits the character of God and Jesus, his beloved son.

#, 84, Inbuilt Intolerance

                                   # 84, Inbuilt Intolerance

 

 

Modernization in Europe was Progressive and Empowering but it did not empower everybody.There were always some who experienced this new Western society as cruel and invasive. Some gained freedom while others became enslaved.

In 1620 a group of English Puritans landed in Plymouth, Massachusetts. They were radical Calvinists who felt very persecuted by the Anglican Church of England and migrated to the New World.

Like John Calvin they were very immersed in the Old Testament and used it to form the paradigm of their American experience. The Exodus of Israel from Egypt seemed to them replicated in their own project.

England was their Egypt, crossing the Atlantic was their journey through the wilderness and America was their Promised Land which they called New Canaaan. And for many the Indians became their Canaanites and they thought it proper to destroy them and take their land. Such are the dangers of taking the narrative myth and legends of Israel as literal history.

The Puritans gave their colonies biblical names: Hebron,, Salem, Bethlehem, Sion and Judea. John Winthrop arrived in 1630 and became their leader. He proclaimed that America was Israel and they were going to take possession of the land if they would, as Moses enjoined, keep God's commandments. They would perish if they were disobedient.

The Indians, of course, did not want to be dispossessed. But the Puritans generally felt they had a mandate to remove them and they deserved such fate. Puritans considered the Indians pretty worthless compared to them. So the persecuted came to America and became the persecutors. They felt it was lawful to take this land because the Indians were not “using” it according to their definition. The Pequot tribe remained hostile to the Puritans so the Puritans labeled them Amalekites and Philistines who opposed Israel and they “had, therefore to be destroyed.” And America for most of its history followed the Puritan example and felt righteous in so doing.

But some Puritans believed the Native Americans were the 10 lost tribes of Israel, who had been deported by the Assyrians in 722 BCE. And since Paul in Romans 11: 26 predicted the Jews would become Christians before the end, some Puritans felt they should evangelize the Pequots and thus hasten the return of Christ. Mormons and the Church of God in Prophecy have also taught that Native Americans were the 10 lost tribes of Israel.

 

(For more similar thoughts see Karen Armstrong's book, The Bible.)

 

# 83, Religious Liberty Problems

                          

Freedom of religion is a wonderful God given right and it is the most helpful posture towards humanity's religious evolution. But in the seventeenth century it had become problematic because of issues related to the rise of nation states in Europe.

As nation states such as France, England, Spain, Germany, etc. were emerging, the political climate in each group demanded conformity for the protection of their state. And they were prepared to have conformity by coercion.

So in the 1600s Europe was tumultously ravaged by wars which were propagandously promoted in religious imagery. But in reality they were wars caused by the rise of the larger centralized nation state, a different kind of political organization in the modernizing Europe.

The old smaller fuedal kingdoms were being organized into more effective centrally controlled states. At first it was done by absolute monarchs who could coerce conformity.

For example, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain were pulling together the Iberian kingdoms to make a unified Spain. There was no way they could allow their subjects total religious freedom. They did not conceive they could possibly allow the Muslim or Jewish Communities to be autonomous in any way.

The harsh and terrible Spanish inquisition was their modernizing tool to hound those different who were or could be dissidents. It hurt, killed and was used by others to steal innocent people's property through the means of the Catholic Church but it was driven by the state's need of conformity and unity. Protestants also contributed to the horror in countries like England, Germany and Switzerland where they had Protestant rulers. They were ruthless to their Catholic subjects, treating them as enemies of the state.

In 1618-1648 there were so called wars of religion. But they were actually a 30 year struggle by the Kings of France and the Princes of Germany seeking their political independence from the Holy Roman Empire and the papacy. Militant Calvinists got involved fighting both Catholics and some Protestants.

I can still hear my high school history teacher saying these wars were why our founding fathers in America established freedom of religion and separation of church and state. These were two of our great gifts to humanity. But some of our conservative church people and political groups want to do away with both of these in their self righteous ignorance of history.

# 82, Protestant Reading of Scripture

                                          

In the Protestant Reformation era of the 1500s people began to read scripture in a modern way. This was an impossibility in the prior centuries. For most people were not literate back then and only the rich had access to a Bible. So, telling people to read the Bible daily for their spiritual formation never began until the Protestant Reformation which came shortly after the invention of the printing press which made the Bible much more available to the public.

In this time period, the modern pragmatic scientific outlook prevailed and scripture was read for the information it imparted. Science depended on rigorous analysis and this conflicted with the the symbolic system in the usage of scripture making it hard to comprehend. For example the division between Zwingli and Luthor over the communion bread, whether it was a symbol or whether Christ was really present with the bread and wine – became for most only a symbol.

The words of scripture had been seen as the earthly replica of the divine reason. But now they had lost their numinous dimension (the ability to have a deeply spiritual and mystical effect).

But this had a powerful salutary effect. The silent, solitary reading of the Bible freed Christians from the supervision of religious experts. And this was a primary expression of the independence that would become essential to modern man's spirit. This increased the emphasis of the teaching of the priesthood of every believer.

Scripture alone (sola scriptura) was both a noble and controversial ideal. Because in practice it meant that everybody had a God-given right to interpret these rather difficult writings as they chose. This led to Protestant sects proliferating like the frogs of Egypt over the land and each of them thought they alone understood the Bible.

In 1534, a radical apocalyptic group set up an independent theocratic statein Munster, Germany, led by a tailor who called himself King David. It sounds like and is very similar to the 1993 King David Koresh cult fiasco of Waco, Texas. The Munster movement was based on a literal reading of scripture that permitted polygamy, condemned all violence and outlawed private ownership.

The Munster experiment lasted a year, but it alarmed the reformers. If there was no authoritative body that could control biblical interpretation, how could anyone know who was right? Luthor asked, “Who will give our conscience sure information about which party is teaching the pure word of God, we or our opponents? Is every fanatic to have the right to teach whatever he pleases? And Calvin chimed in, “If everyone has a right to be judge and arbiter in this matter, nothing can be set down as certain, and our whole religion will be full of uncertainty.”

So in history, just reading the Bible has not always produced a mentally healthy religion or society. One must have a mentally healthy core from which he interprets and judges all scripture, a plumbline to which all scripture must measure up, to be considered important to follow. For many of the wisest ancient rabbis and for Jesus of Nazareth and some of the early saints that guiding interpretive core of scripture was, “love your neighbor as yourself and God with all your being.” How much do you think we are following this today?

(Class at Clovis Community College on all the Tuesdays in June, 5:30-8:30. Cost $40.00. 575-769-4760, Judith Blaine for sign-up and info).

# 81, Protestantism and Western Culture

 A great religious movement does not take place in a vacuum. There are interacting economic, political, social and cultural elements involved. And so it was with the Protestant Reformation.

A new culture was emerging in the West with the Protestant Reformation. The basis of the economy was changing. Instead of being based on a surplus of agricultural production as all cultures of the past, it was being based on the scientific and technological replication of resources and the constant reinvestment of capital.

Thus all of society had to be more productive. Calvin's theology strongly supported the work ethic as did Luthor's. His teaching led the common people to find glory in their everyday work. Historians do not call the great force of this era, the Protestant work ethic for nothing.

Everyone had to participate to make this new society work. An army of printers, factory hands, office clerks and teachers were needed. The level of education and literacy had to be increased. This resulted in increased improvement of the common man. And the common man, more empowered, began demanding a share in the decisions of government.

Protestantism reflected all these values while Catholicism at this time reflected the old power structure of the last 1500 years, a few rich ruling nobility at the top with huge number of subsisting peasants at the bottom with not many in the middle.

With Protestantism reflecting the values of the new culture there would be great changes towards more democracy. Calvin's theology greatly supported constitutional government with people electing the government officials. There would be revolutions, volcanic changes and civil war in this process.

Each of the factors of this new culture, religion included, depended upon the others and fed and pushed the others. Religion was inevitably pushed to participate in this great spiraling escalation of dependence and development.

Today, let us learn from this moment of history. If we do not promote just government that produces just policies that help all citizens to grow and more fully participate in our production then we will be a society that benefits only the few rich and ruling and our society shall soon fall on the garbage heap of history. All benefit the most when all are growing and benefiting and contributing. As Henry Ford said when he tripled the wages of his factory workers, “I want them to be able to buy the product we are building.” And in five years Henry Ford tripled his business.

 

# 80, Playing Protestant Pope

                                 Isaac Luria's rewriting the biblical creation story helped many Jews to develop a spirit of joy and kindeness at a time when they could have been overcome by rage and despair. Meanwhile in the world of Protestant Reformers, sola scriptura or scripture alone, was their benchmark guideline. However, their emphasis on scripture alone did not always produce joy and kindness to face life with. Such has often been the case in history when scripture alone proudly rules the church. It is not scripture's fault but the interpreters' attitudes.

It seems to me that all the Protestant reformers who changed their doctrine from that of Roman Catholicism soon went on to become Protestant Popes, ruling their followers and opposing those who disagreed with them with an iron fist.

The new discipline of scripture alone was just not able to bring a spirit of joy and kindness for the Christians of Europe. Luthor, though freed from an oppressive Catholic philosophy, remained terrified of death. He seemed almost constantly in a state of rage against the Anabaptists, with rebellious peasants, whom he condoned the slaughtering of by the German nobility. He raged viciously against the Pope, the Turks, the Jews (Nazis used some of his writings to promote their anti Jewish policies in WW II), women, scholastic philosophers and every single one of the theologians who disagreed with him on some point. Luthor was great, did great good but you can see he was not as wholesome as Protestants have often painted him. He hated the papacy and all its trappings but he became a German Pope over his domain.

He and the Swiss Reformer Zwingli engaged in an angry argument over the meaning of Christ's words in the Last Supper saying, “This is my body.” Zwingli said the bread and wine were symbols of Christ's body and blood while Luthor said Christ was really present with the bread and wine.

Zwingli was killed in the 100 years of religious wars that ensued soon after this. This ongoing religious warfare in Europe and England was the main reason our American founding fathers wisely separated Church and state giving us a secular state with freedom of religion. A secular state with freedom is always better, if Christians will just do their job.

God save us from the Christian state that many scripture alone fundamentalists seem to want. It would wind up a power hungry, oppressive state like all religious controlled states have been in history.

John Calvin, the other great reformer of this time, was appalled by the anger that had clouded the minds of Zwingli and Luthor and caused an unholy rift that could and should have been avoided. He felt that they could have, with effort, made conciliation with each other.

It was unrealistic to think interpreters would agree on every single passage of the Bible; So disputes should be conducted humbly and with an open mind. Yet Calvin did not always practice what he preached. He was more than ready to execute dissenters within his own church and sometimes did. I am so glad I did not live back then for I would have been executed with all Baptists, Methodists, Church of Christ and a few others, because these were all state sponsored churches and that is what you get when the religion and the state are not separated as in America.  

# 79, A Strange New Myth

                                           

When much of the church in the fifteenth and sixteenth century was reacting to the rise of modern science with biblical literalism, a group of Jews in their great distress and displacement created a strange new myth from the Bible that helped them to survive and it became a fervent form of spirituality.

These Jews had not yet succumbed for the enthusiasm of the literal reading of the Bible. In 1492 they suffered a disaster which made many turn to the mystical consolation of Kabbalah.

In 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella , Catholic monarchs of Aragon and Castille had conquered the Kingdom of Grenada, the last Muslim stronghold in Western Europe. Then Muslims and Jews were given the choice of conversion or deportation. Some converted but many Jews went into exile in the new Ottoman Empire. A good number went to live in Palestine which was a new Ottoman Province.

A saintly Jewish mystic, Isaac Luria, settled in Sufed in Northern Galilee and created a Kabbalistic myth of creation that had nothing in common with Genesis 1. But it so spoke to the Jews' suffering and displacement and so gave them something positive to do with a sense of redemptive purpose that by the mid sixteen hundreds Lurianic Kabbalah had a mass following in Jewish communities from Poland to Iran.

The Jews had been preoccupied with the idea of exile since they had been exiled to Babylon for nearly 50 years in 586-539 BCE. For these Spanish Jews, the Sephardim, the loss of their homeland in Spain was their worst disaster since the destruction of their temple in 586 BCE. They had been jerked out of their home that was filled with memories important to their identity. This made them feel that their existence was in jeopardy.

And since there was much human cruelty in their exile, it made them conscious of problems about the nature of evil in a world supposedly created by a just and benvolent God. Luria's most complicated, involved, esoteric, Kabbalistic myth was really far out. But it spoke to their situation, comforted them and empowered them. It made the Jews feel that if they were faithful to their Kabbalistic rituals and lived a life of good works and justice, God would use them to heal and redeem the world from evil.

I cannot begin to explain the essence of this form of Kabbalism. So I am going to quote an explanation of just the very beginning part of the myth from Karen Armstrong' wonderful book, “The Bible, A Biography,” to give you an idea of its inventive esotericness.

“Luria's myth: God began the creative process by going voluntarily into exile. How could the world exist if God was everywhere? Luria's answer was the myth of zimzum (withdrawal): the infinite En Sof (Hebrew for without end: the inscrutable, inaccessible and unknowable essence of God in the mystical philosophy of Kabbalah; the Godhead, the hidden source of the Divine) had as it were to evacuate a region within itself to make room for the cosmos. The cosmos was punctuated by accidents, primal explosions and false starts, quite different from the orderly, peaceful creation of Genesis 1. But to the Sephardim, Luria's myth seemed a more accurate appraisal of their unpredictable, fragmented world.”

There is so much more to this myth. Strange as it was, it was used powerfully in these exiled Jews for positive good.  

 

# 78, Literalism Produces Strange Things

                            

When science began its fifteenth and sixteenth century rise, the church's use of the Bible was not prepared to embrace modern science as a friend in many cases. Modernity had produced an increasing emphasis on the literal meaning of scripture. The bias of early modern thought required people to see truth as conforming to the laws of the external world. But there is no way to read all of the Bible as literal history and conform to this modern attitude.

If the church had held on to the old allegorical method of interpreting scripture, it would have coped much better with their changing world. It could have allegorized the difficult and miraculous parts of the Bible and made them fit the emerging new scientific theories on the natural world. This would have been much healthier than retreating from science and working so hard in the centuries ahead to prove the literal historical actuality of every piece of scripture, as much of the church has tried to do. The high end educated theologians have been very sensible and never done this but theologians on the lower end of education, which is the majority, often have. An example today is the fundamentalist American church which spends hundreds of thousands of dollars every year trying to prove the literal historicity of Genesis 1 and disprove evolution. Methinks there is not too much intelligent design in modern evangelical churches.

Seeking to understand the literal plain sense of the words of scripture is good scholarship but taking every story of scripture as literal history is a wrong approach. The healthier religious way is to realize that the Bible, like all sacred texts in all religions, is built upon a framework of legend and myth which teach great truths but are not literally true stories.

But only the more theologically trained segment of the church is willing to acknowledge and understand the above fact. When one does not deal honestly with legend and myth of the Bible, strange things can arise. Also, not noticing the if factor or contingency factor in all prophecy leads to weird prophetic interpretation. This is the “if they repent and do right” factor for the recipients of the prophecy. If they do not, the prophecy is invalidated. The New Testament interprets such Old Testament prophecies of Israel as being all fulfilled in Jesus Christ who is the faithful Israel.

But many believe these prophecies will be fulfilled literally for Israel in the near future. This segment of the American church is a good sized voting block which puts pressure on our foreign policy towards the Middle East. But someone needs to tell these folks and Israel that Israel is not the fifty first state of our nation and they do not always have our best interests at heart.

Biblical literalism among the conservative orthodox Jews leads to arrogance and hatefulness towards the Palestinians. Many of the non-religious youth of Israel share this hateful attitude thinking that they should just kill them all and get them out of the way. This is by no means all Israelis' thinking. But you would think the conservative hateful segment would know better, of all people, because the haters sound to me like the Nazis did toward the Jews. Extreme literalism always contributes much to this kind of unholy mess.