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navigating between the everyday and theology

The Blog of Bo Sanders

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September 2011

Obama, the Antichrist, and the Beast (reading the Bible better)

This past week a heckler was escorted from a speech by President Obama for calling the President ‘the Antichrist’. If you want to read about it or watch the video,  here are some links.

I find this story very interesting for four reasons:

First, I passionately believe that the Book of Revelation was a spiritual-political commentary on the Roman Empire of the first two centuries. It was written in a Jewish style of literature called Apocalyptic.  I do not think it is about our day nor is it about the end of the world. It is an inspired (and thus scripture) movement of prophetic imagination to call for (in hope) a preferable future.

but that is not how I was taught to read the Bible. I was taught to read it in one hand with a newspaper in the other (as they say). I was told that we could see events (like the Bear from the East) being fulfilled in the Soviet Union or Israel. I no longer believe this but am fascinated by those who still do.

Second, there is no such thing as the Antichrist. Now, scripture does speak about an antichrist spirit – it is all in the books of 1 and 2 John of the Bible and there are 4 references – none of them are what get thrown around these days. The idea of THE Antichrist is actually a horrible amalgamation of nearly every bad-guy in the Bible mashed into one. We take the Man of Lawlessness (from Thessalonians), the Prince (from Daniel) and a whole bunch of other baddies from the Old and New Testament and transform them into one galactically bad figured called THE Antichrist. In reality, there is no such thing.

Third, if there was such a cosmic bad-guy, do you think that you could just pay $250 dollars for entrance to a fundraiser and yell at him because he let gays into the military?  Don’t you think that he would destroy you with like… I don’t know… beams of hell-fire from his eyes or something.  You can’t just yell at the Antichrist and get away with it.  What are you thinking?Continue Reading →

Reading the Bible Better (part 3)

Dualism is deadly little disease.  The odd thing is that in our overexposed-undeveloped era of information saturation, terms often get thrown around without a working understanding necessarily being in place.  I’m not talking about full blown mastery of a subject. I’m just taking about clarity.

This can be especially limiting when it comes to reading the Bible. I’ve said before that I am a big fan of the Reformation impulse to put a Bible in everybody’s hands in their own language. I also recognize the danger or limitations if the reader is not discipled or empowered with good tools of interpretation (hermeneutics).

I thought it would be good to throw out two items for clarification that relate to our discussion last week about “A Better Way to Read the Bible”.  I posted in Moving Mountains and Signs that make you Wonder some of these issues, so this would be part 3.

Dualism is not simply the presence of two categories. Jesus and Paul had all sorts of pairings: body and spirit, law and grace, etc. That is not dualism. Dualism begins when those categories are excluding and non-overlapping.
Many of us have been groomed to think in mutually-exclusive oppositional pairs. Democrat-Republican, Creation-Evolution, Lost-Saved, Man-Women, etc.

When it comes to reading the Bible some of us have been told there are two categories: literal and allegorical. It is built on fiction or fact, real or fake, true or false.

This is not helpful.Continue Reading →

Then agian, maybe I’m wrong

I posted yesterday about Plaxico Burress, Romans 8:28, Walter Rauschenbusch, President Obama, and the Antichrist. My point simply was that people do believe this stuff – even though sometimes I am accused of contending against something that no one really believes. My only point is that people do actually believe those things.

But I know what people who hold to those views are going to say – I have heard this line of reasoning since I first attended Bible college 20 years ago. Here is what they will say:

  • Maybe Plaxico Burress shooting himself in the foot did happen for a reason. Maybe God – who is in control [which is the next level up from being sovereign] – let this happen so that nothing worse happened. Maybe God allowed him to injure himself so that he did not harm who know how many other people with that gun.
  • Maybe people don’t know about Walter Rauschenbusch because he focused on the wrong thing (social conditions like poverty) instead of the Gospel (of salvation). [if you are unfamiliar with this distinction, read this post by Rachel Held-Evans about Scot McKnight’s new book]. Maybe God let his name fall into the annuls of long lost history because his ministry was not honoring to the truth of the gospel and got side tracked from the real important issue.
  • Maybe President Obama could be the Antichrist. With everything happening about Israel right now, all the earthquakes, the economy like it is… this could be the end – and if it is – then the most powerful politician in the world who plays both the Christian and Muslim card could be that duplicitous man of lawlessness that we have been waiting for.

Its not that I am unaware of the line of reasoning. Its just that I don’t believe it. Now, I could be wrong about any one of these given bullet points – but that people do believe these things … about that I am not wrong ;).

Sometimes I hate being right

Three stories caught my attention today:

1) In the newest Men’s Journal magazine, Plaxico Burress (NFL player) who was recently released from prison for weapons possession is interviewed. He was busted two years ago for weapons because he brought a gun into a NY nightclub and … shot himself in the foot.  Literally.

The eye opening part of the story is the two page spread of a tattoo across his back that reads – and I am not kidding about this – “Everything happens for a reason“.

2) I was listening to an popular podcast on Itunes. It is a theology show that tackles tough and often complex subjects. They’re most recent show was on the Religious right and the Religious left.  The team member that was charged with reporting on the Social Gospel said that he had never heard of Walter Rauschenbusch … and that he had never heard his name pronounced out loud before. He had to ask how the last name was pronounced.

3) A protester/heckler was removed from a speech by President Obama for shouting him down as “the Anti-Christ“. For real.

Here is why these three got to me:

  • I am frequently dismissed  for making too big of deal out of a bad reading of Romans 8:28 that “God causes everything to work together to for the good …”  I am told that “no one actually believes that everything happens for a reason.”  I’m telling you – they do.
  • I am continuously telling people who read theology or attend a Mainline church that “people in the Conservative-Evangelical-Charismatic camp do not know who that is – they have never heard of them”.  That’s impossible is the response. I would bet that a large majority of self-proclaimed Christians in America have no idea who Walter Raushenbusch is.  I didn’t.
  • The “Left-Behind” dispensational end-times teaching has permeated the American church. I try to point out the inherent danger here and am more often than not told that “no one actually thinks that“. They do.  People who I know by name believe it. That we are in the end times, the there is actually a mark of the beast and that there is actually one big bad guy called the Anti-Christ.

I’m telling you: people actually think that “everything happens for a reason”. People have no idea who Walter Raushenbusch was. People think that Obama might actually be the Anti-Christ.

This is not the kind of thing that I wanted to be right about.

Just FYI

I have been asked to contribute on a major project to be unveiled for early 2012.  I am so excited.

So I need to condense down some of my side projects and focus them a little more. This will become the home for my 300-500 word posts about life,faith, and the Bible in the 21st century (navigating between the everyday and theology). I will post my more theological-philosophical stuff over at Homebrewed Christianity.

I posted there this morning in defense of one of my favorite theologians and authors John Caputo if anyone is interested.

A quote from Caputo’s the Weakness of God:

The kingdom of God is the rule of weak forces like patience and forgiveness, which, instead of forcibly exacting payment for offense, release and let go. The kingdom is found whenever war and aggression are met with an offer of peace. The kingdom is a way of living, not in eternity, but in time, a way of living with out why, living for the day, like the lilies the field–figures of weak forces–as opposed to mastering and programming time, calculating the future, containing and managing risk. The kingdom reigns whenever the least and most undesirable our favor all the best and most powerful or put on the defensive. The powerless power of the kingdom prevails when ever the one is preferred to the ninety-nine, whenever one loves one’s enemies and hates one’s father and mother while the world, which believes in power, counsels us to fend off our enemies and keep the circle of kin and kind, of family and friends, fortified and tightly drawn.”  – p. 15

Signs that make you Wonder

Let me just say how much I have enjoyed the conversation this week. One of the dynamic elements of a conversational blog is that sometimes that conversation takes longer or goes in a different direction than expected – this is the nature of dialogue (vs. a monologue). I was supposed to write on allegory today but that can wait till Friday – today we get talk about miracles, the supernatural and signs that make you wonder.

It seems to me that there are two main things to get on the table here.

The first is the phrase ‘super-natural’ comes from specific worldview that came to ascendancy in the seventeenth century. It is very mechanistic. It says that God set up the natural world to work a certain way (like a clock) and the debate was really between folks like the Deists who said the God stepped away after creation and is letting it run like clockwork. The other group believed in intervention and held that God did – from time to time – interfere with the normal mechanisms and do something … super-natural. The activities of angels and demons were outside the perceptibility and predictability of the ‘natural order’ and so on.

That is the supernatural and that is exactly what I do not believe in.

Now, I do believe in the miraculous. The miraculous in this sense is that which is extra-ordinary, outside the expected normality of human experience. Since I am a believer, I attribute that to the power of God who is at work in the world in Holy Spirit.

I want to say again that I do not believe in a solely transcendent God who in ‘his’ holiness can have nothing do with fallen matter and thus resides ‘up’ in the heavens and intermittently ‘breaks through’ the veil of reality in order to intervene in human affairs.

The second thing that we need to get on the table is Biblical language repeated so often in the Gospels of “signs”. What we calls miracles are often referred to as signs. I have even heard them called ‘signs that make you wonder’. This is sacramental language – which is why so many of us are not familiar with it.

A sign, by being fully itself, points to something that is beyond itself. Think of a road sign. A symbol, similarly, is something that participates in that which it signifies without being totally that thing. So in communion, we might say that the bread points to the body of Christ while remaining fully bread. Or that the church is not the Kingdom of God even though it participates in the it. It is a sign that points to a greater reality.

What we would call miracles, what the Gospels often refer to as signs, are activities of God’s presence that point to something beyond themselves while – or by – being fully themselves.

Once these two understandings are in place the conversation takes on a whole new set of possibilities. Once you say goodbye to predictable formulas (mechanistic) then you can move to a conception of a dynamic relationship with a living God. Once you move away from a super-natural mentality (which is often superstitious), you can move to a sacramental participation with the natural world.

God is at work in the world. As Christians we say this proudly and confidently. (I understand those in the Enlightenment who rejected the interventionist view of god and who explained away the miracles in the Bible by simply saying that ancient pre-modern people only interpreted things that way – but that is not where I am at).

If you are into Process Theology, there is a whole second conversation that takes you into all sorts of fun places!  But today I just want to point people to Chapter 7 in the Secret Message of Jesus by Brian McLaren called “the Demonstration of the Message”.  It is wonderful.  I will close here with the words he closes with there.

… this is in large part what I believe the signs and wonders of Jesus are secretly telling us: that God, the good King, is present – working from the inside. The King is in the kingdom, and the kingdom is among us here and now – for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear. The King is present in the mess and chaos of everyday life on earth, bringing healing, sight, perception, liberation… The incursion of the kingdom of God has begun. We are under a gentle, compassionate assault by a kingdom of peace and healing and forgiveness and life.

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Moving Mountians

I was reminded again in my morning reading of the beauty of following Jesus. It’s something that is never far from my mind but which is always bursting through the crust of everyday life with new freshness like a blooming tulip in the Spring while the landscape all around it is still gray and brown with dirty snow unmelted in the shady edges.

I am also painfully aware of the presence of something quite different when I read the words of Jesus: a gap.  I am stabbed by the realization that Jesus not only spoke a different language than me but that he used words very differently than I was taught to.

Then Jesus told them, “I tell you the truth, if you have faith and don’t doubt, you can do things like this and much more. You can even say to this mountain, ‘May you be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ and it will happen. Matthew 21:21  NLT

I was taught to be literal. I was told Jesus was actually saying that if you had enough faith you could do anything! Nothing was impossible. I had, coincidentally, never heard the world ‘hyperbole’ before.

Now it seems so clear. Jesus spoke in parables and Jesus spoke parabolically. He was not a philosopher or a scientist in our modern sense. I have blogged recently about a better way to read the Bible and I think that this fits in with that.

Jesus was not telling us that we could rearrange the topography of our region. He was not telling us that we could reorganize our geological and geographical surroundings.

I feel bad for anyone who has prayed about something – or even ‘claimed’ something – and thinks that it is their fault that it didn’t happen because they didn’t have enough faith. I am horrified that we have taught people to read the Bible this way. In trying to be exacting and literal – in an enlightenment/ modern sort of way – we have warped the message of the Bible to be something that it was never meant to be.

It’s a tough one. Whenever I tell people that Jesus did not mean that we would literally move mountains with just a little bit of faith, one of two reactions happens.

  • they tell me a story about this one time that some people they never met in place they have never been did it.
  • they say something about taking the Bible literally and how I am making it allegory.

The second one really gets me. Because parable is not allegory. Allegory would be like taking the story about the widow who used three cups of flour to make bread and asserting that the three cups of flour represent the three continents that the apostles would take Jesus’ message to: Asia, Africa and Europe.

Allegory is very elaborate. Reading the Bible poetically, prophetically or parabolically makes in simpler – not more elaborate.

I used the example of a person finding out that there is no Santa Clause and the Jesus was not born on December 25th and concluding that Christmas, if it is not literal, has no meaning. They, of course, would be wrong.

So it is with casting mountains into seas by faith. Jesus was using hyperbole to make a point. That does not steal from it meaning, it points like a sign to the real meaning.

Next time: beyond allegory

Bo to Go

I have been having some fun at different outlets around the web. Here are 3 audio files that you may want to download for your listening pleasure.

  • I preached this past Sunday at Westwood UMC. Here is the Media player. You can also download it onto your computer or get it on I-tunes. I look at the story of Zacheaus from Luke 19 in a sermon called “the Gift of Possibility”.
  • The economy is a concern for us all. At Homebrewed Christianity it is a theological concern. Tripp interviews Joerg Rieger, author of No Rising Tide – my favorite book on the subject. It is a theological look at the economy and it is fascinating.
  • I got to interview Graham E. Fuller ,the former vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council at the CIA. This is our HBC 9/11 special and I hope that you will listen to it. [the interview starts in minute 9] He wrote a book called “A World without Islam” and we talk about the world we live in and geo-political roots of our contemporary conflicts. We go to  Israel, Turkey, Russia, Bosnia,  Malaysia, Indonesia and America.  We also go back in history – past the Crusades – to the roots of the East/West split and the relevance of those tensions for us today.

I wanted to link these all here for those who, like me, are always looking for something interesting to listen to on their Ipod. It is wonderful to be a part of the wider conversation and I really appreciate all who participate in this little corner of it!   -Bo

Here and Now

I am a big fan of being present. That is especially true in the spirituality of presence. It is also one of the great dangers of our modern technology. It allows us to be somewhere else, neglecting those we are sitting with,  and to be focused on some other time (either future plans or past memories). This has always been a danger. Now, day dreaming or living in regret are one thing but technology enables us and can even encourage us to be some other place or at some other time.

There is a beauty to being here now.

This tendency, if unchecked, can accentuate a mentality in some christians to long for the 1st Century in an idealized form of ‘the early church’ or the ‘church of Acts’.  I have talked often about the error of making the early church singular by quoting books like “The Churches the Apostles Left Behind” , “The Emergence of the Church” and “Unity and Diversity in the New Testament“. The is no ‘Early Church” in that homogenized sense. It was never a singular expression. There was always diversity and variation. I actually think that God likes it that way and wants it to be that way. But that is a different conversation.

My main focus here the is the temptation to long for the 1st century as Bible readers. We should be careful what we wish for. We might not be getting what we think we are asking for. In fact, not only is it impossible … even if it were possible, I’m not sure how accurately our romanticized version would measure up to the real deal.

Two things have prodded me in this area recently. The first is a quote that a freind sent me from Alfred North Whitehead

Whereas you can make a replica of an ancient statue, there is no possible replica of an ancient state of mind.

The second prompt came from a recent comment on this blog. It comes from Jason Stewart:

When I get in these sorts of conversations, I find it very helpful to stress that it is IMPOSSIBLE, not simply difficult, to read the scriptures in the same way the original audience would have. Many times I have made this very point, only to find out later in the conversation that the other person thinks I really mean something more to the effect of: “We should be really careful to make sure we’re reading the text in the same way the first audiences would have”.

Not being a premodern man and lacking premodern man experiences, language, culture, and expectations, makes my reading of the text very very different from his from the outset.

These two thoughts have been rattling around and haunting me. On this weekend where we remember that attack of September 11, I am very aware that in so many ways the 21st century is not like the world that we have known. It is not entirely unlike the world we have known but neither is it entirely similar. I want to be awake to the realities that we find ourselves in now. I think that the first step to that may be coming to terms with the fact that A) We can’t go back even if we wanted to. B) the past was never singular and homogenous. There was always diversity and complexity.

We are here now. I thank God that I have the opportunity to be here and to be here now. There is no other place I would rather be.

a Better way to read the Bible?

A better way to read (read) Admittedly, this is not how I learned to read the Bible. In fact, I’m not sure that I learned to read the Bible at all. I just read it. I read it like you would read anything else. I just read it and took it at it’s word. It was there in black and white.

However, there were some things about the Bible that made it different than everything else I read: it didn’t have a single author (or even a stated author for many of it’s ‘books’), it was written thousands of years earlier, and it was not written in English – it was translated.

None of that is a problem necessarily. I still got the main point of the book (I think) and was able to pick up on most of its important themes (at least they were important to me). In fact, the more general my reading and the more generic my intent, the better that way of reading works.

The problem comes when you want to either make bigger and broader claims bases on Scripture or the more narrow and specific you want to get.

For instance, if you want to make a big claim about how the universe works or the fate of every human soul throughout history, you end up doing something with the text that it may be unsustainable under further review. If you want to get specific and say that this word in the original text says ____ and therefore women can not ______ , or ministers must ______ … using the text that way may become an issue.

I put forward an idea in my previous post that gives us permission to update, revisit, and re-engage the texts of scripture based on two things:

  1. we do not have a pre-modern mind and therefore have a very different relationship to story, text, idea, and experience than people of the pre-modern world.
  2. we live in a world that is so different, has changed so much, has gone through such radical and traumatic experiences that we would be blind not to acknowledge and account for it.

In my clearest language: I am advocating for a more sophisticated way of reading the Bible and to move away from a simple reading. Like I said at the beginning, I was not taught to read the Bible, I just read it – or so I thought. I had to get rid of the illusion that I was ONLY reading. It is a simply awakening and only requires one thing to get started! You must admit that you are translating when you read. You are not simply reading , you are doing something else – even if it subconsciously  or unknowingly. There is a hermeneutic (way of reading) that is being employed by all of us and we have to come to terms with the idea that our way of reading is not (and can not be) the same way of reading as the ancients did.

Here are four advantages to awakening to the presence of interpretation:

  • We can read the creation stories in Genesis and call God ‘creator’ without discounting or disregarding contemporary science (and especially emergence theory).
  • We can take the story of Jonah or Job and recognize that they are more like movie scripts or plays than they are newspaper reports and not get bogged down in the details.
  • We can believe that the incarnate Jesus calmed a storm (the miraculous) without making the leap that God sent Hurricane Irene or directs tornadoes.
  • We can see that the Book of Revelation is a political commentary (prophetic imagination) about the first century C.E.  and not an exacting prediction about the end of the world.

I believe this to be a better way to read the Bible. It is both more authentic to the text and has more integrity in the world that has developed since the text was written. We are not limited to only the physics and metaphysics of antiquity but we also are not abandoning the whole project and going out on our own. We are providing continuity with the historic trajectory and honoring the tradition.

You can call this a ‘new kind of christianity‘ if you want, or something else, but it is a way a being in the world that honors Christ and engages the world as it actually is. It allows us to believe in miracles without being superstitiously ‘super’natural.  It lets us listen to the wisdom of the ancients without being stuck to their ‘three-tiered’ universe. It provides a dynamic engagement between the classic themes and the world we find ourselves in.

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