Bible nasties- soft conclusions…

During April, I wrote a series of 5 posts (the first of which is here) chewing on how we might understand some of those difficult passages of the Bible which appear to portray God as a mass murderer, who commands rape, child sacrifice and even cannibalism.

For example, this one. Mass murder, mass rape- but the keeping of a trivial oath- all in the name of the living God.

I began by considering some apologetics- here. There were some glimmers of hope of explanation, but on the whole, I found the business of trying to explain away the contradictions of a violent, murderous loving God (as apparently described in the Bible) impossible.

Next I chewed a little on the way Jesus seemed to deal with the hard judgmental, ‘scriptural’ truth that religious people hit him with. I noted that when he talked about the truth that would set you free, he did not seem to define this truth by a narrow interpretation of the written words that were handed down to him.

Next, I wondered about this word ‘context’- and how we needed to attempt to understand the nature of the cultures and historical times that the Bible stories emerged from- often violent, bloody and dynastic. Inevitably reading the Bible like this is a slippery slope towards liberal re-interpretation (as any good Evangelical will tell you.) I am sliding…

Then I got into a bit of  a philosophical ramble about the nature of truth- which to be honest, did not help much. The basic conclusion that I suppose I might take from all this is that truth is almost always nuanced, subjective, debated and interpreted according to perspective.

Finally, I wondered about hell and listened to Francis Chan suggesting that our understanding of hell may well be a rather recent invention.

I am no theologian- although I have been trying to make sense of this stuff for most of my life, so I suppose this might give me some personal source material, even though I lack the breadth of study. But I think the time has come for me to commit myself to some soft conclusions arising from the above.

Soft- because they will be imperfect, and incomplete. They will need to be reviewed and be open to challenge and modification.

Soft too because it is so easy for conclusions to become self referential, self sustaining, and the bedrock for further and more lasting distortions. Perhaps it is even impossible for this NOT to happen.

But conclude I will, because (as discussed in a previous post about (un)belief) I think it is time to step aside from the deconstruction of faith, and start to build again.

So here are my shallow, portable foundations- you could even say the flat surface for my fragiletent-

The stories in the Bible are open to our interpretation, to our questions even to our doubts. They are open in this way because God is open in this way. God is bigger than our understanding, or the understanding of the ancient writers of the Book.

There are many way to approach a reading of Bible passages- context is important, but Brian McLaren lists 10 other ways here– we have got stuck with a either/or approach- either literalism or myth. Perhaps we need to address this tired polarity by giving other things a try for a while.

This might steal away the mystique and sacred from the Bible for some- but this might be a good thing, as we could  have stumbled into a kind of idolatry, where we venerate a book, rather than who the book is about.

In trying to approach the book with this mindset, there are countless potential beartraps and cellar stairs to fall into. So we need to start with the body of knowledge within the church- both recently and more ancient. But be prepared also to work our understandings out as (Rollins again) “faithful skeptics”. And we should do this in community.

We do not need to have the answers to all of our questions. The questions too can be holy.

We are followers of Jesus- and we need to start with the stories about his life. This can be challenging enough after all! After that, we can then use our understanding of him to work backwards and forwards into history. But let us not try to make everything fit. It sometimes will not! And where it does not seem to fit- this can be a window for the Spirit too.

And speaking of the Spirit- he is present, NOW- not just in the pages of a book, but in all sorts of ways-

friendship

sunsets

dreams and visions

Kindnesses and moments of sublime grace

Music and dancing

Wisdom

Gentle promptings of guilt and remorse, as well as longing for things to be better

In the midst of us, and also in wild places, stirring the waters

Poetry

Silence

And because of this- we are not alone in this search. We are not powerless nor unenlightened. Rather we might expect the unexpected. The God of Surprises.

And finally- back to all that murdering and raping and child sacrificing. Did it happen in the way described? Well, perhaps. The times these things happened were full of such things. But as much of these stories were written down centuries after they happened, and survived through oral tradition, you would expect that there would be a reframing process- a self justification process. A God-on-our-side process.

Even if through the whole thing, there is a God-in-the-middle who still emerges as we read these stories.

Did it happen that way because it was what God commanded- what he demanded to assuage his lust for blood and vengeance?

My soft conclusion to this is-

No.

You might not concur, which is fine- but don’t lynch me please.

Because the other useful fact that has emerged for me came from Helen’s comment on one of the previous posts in this series- regarding the fact that our faith had overemphasised hard belief and doctrine- whereas perhaps more important than this is how we live- how faith sets us on a journey.

Travel on.

Aoradh meditation, Thursday, Psalm 148…

(Praise the LORD from the earth…)
stormy winds that do his bidding,
9 you mountains and all hills,
fruit trees and all cedars…

So I was thinking about wind-

The sort that fills a sail with purpose and

Cracks flags in front of the pavilion

That raises up a litter dervish from the gutter

And streaks hair across pretty faces

It choreographs the sway of the marram grass

And cools the evening rest

.

But there are other winds that scare me

Desert winds that strip the skin from bone

And clawing winds that rip the fruit from the summer trees

Shaking the cedars to their ancient roots

Katabatic acrobatic angry winds

Howling down the holy mountain

.

I am stirred like the sea by a distant storm

With more questions than answers

For this wind blows wherever it pleases

The sound of it is in the branches

But who knows where it comes from

Or where it is going?

.

So it is with every child born of your Spirit

Beckoned into the glorious uncertainty

Of the Kingdom

Holy Spirit mojo…

So what does the Lord require of you? To act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.

Micah 6:8

I have been struggling a bit recently. Nothing dramatic- I am well used to low level angst. But I had this feeling of being shadowed and somehow beyond reach.

If I dig into what this was about, then some of it seemed to begin in the aftermath of a few difficult exchanges- some of them on-line discussions.

Like I said, I have learned to live with these shadows. I know myself well enough to see them as part of who I am and to have become aware that Grace is more powerful- and also that the ongoing transformational encounter with God that I have had is a process– not a magical event.

I can even believe that this process can be seen as the turning of negative things to positive-

So intense sensitivity can become a way to be sensitive to others.

Introspection and introversion can become creativity and contemplation.

Damage and depression can become empathy and openness to others who had emotional pain, and passion for social justice.

Isolation and social awkwardness can be mediated through an increasing awareness love and the value of friendship and community.

Doubt and insecurity can be turned to become instead the holy, restless longing for the ‘thing just beyond’- just outside the known. They can drive us to seek after God, and to reach out a little further beyond the safe places.

And like all of us, once I identified the things I was good at- once I had found my areas of expansion- I found a platform of security to build confidence and direction.

When the things that we define ourselves by are challenged- when we fall flat on our faces, or when others take a look at what we stand on and find it wanting- this can be hard.

So when confronted with others whose confidence and self assuredness exceeds my own, and they take a swipe at the things I stand on, I tend to shrink a little. Not nearly as much as I used to, but still, I struggle.

The issues that have laid on me heavily have been these-

• How an attempt to network can lead to a perception of empire building. And how unsatisfied I am with my response to such a challenge- which has been simply to withdraw.

• A suggestion that the life I found in ‘emerging church’ conversation is just male dominated argumentative posturing.

• And that unless I moved to live in the inner city and sought to do church with people in poor estates then my faith, and my chosen social work career, and by implication my whole life, has no value.

• A need to look beyond- to ask ‘what next Lord?’, well aware that I will never be fully satisfied with my own efforts towards life and love.

In the face of these challenges, I found myself shrinking inwards- still active and functioning, but lacking vitality. But God has this way of pouring in hope again, despite my capacity to let it leak out.

This is what I think he has had to say to me.

Put down those things you carry
Sit with me a while
Stop making things so complicated
It is much simpler than that

Start from where you are
Not where you would like to be
Not where others say you should be
There may come a time when I will warm your heart towards a new thing
But right now
I just want to warm your heart

All around you is beauty
See it

All around you are people I love
And I rejoice as you learn to love them too

Look for softness in your heart
There I am

Look for tenderness
And it will be my Spirit
Calling you to community

It is not for you to cut a way into the undergrowth
Or make a road into the rocky places
Rather let us just walk
And see were this path will lead us
You and I

For my yolk rests easy
If you will wear it
And my burdens lie soft on the shoulders
If you will take them up

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The compensations of landscape…

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I had a tough meeting yesterday- one of those where you suddenly find yourself isolated and scapegoated by people who appear to be out for blood.

But the drive to Lochgilphead was stunning.

I spent some time thinking and chewing and grinding my teeth on the drive home, forgetting again the peace of the Spirit, losing my anchor for a while. Forgetting to bring these things to God.

Not that I believe that God waves a wand to make all the tough stuff go away. But I think that the possibility of a deeper and more loving life is present within all our encounters- and the seeing of these is the work of the Spirit, should we allow this.

As for me, i am blessed by landscape- by the stunning perfection of the Highlands in late autumn.

It is no small compentation

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Post charismatic Christianity?

I have just started this book, by Rob McAlpine.

I have blogged before about my own Charismatic background- here for example… So the title of this book grabbed me.

I have found myself wanting to re-examine much of my own Charismatic experience again- something I have avoided doing in any detail until recently. I suppose these experiences are full of all sorts of mixed feelings and emotions. They left me with such mixed baggage.

For me, the it began with a yearning for God in my formative years, that met the electric possibility of a God who was present and active and empowering through the Holy Spirit.

But there was always the hope for more, amid the hype and exaggeration, and the plain madness of some people and situations I found myself in. I was often an outsider- not able to experience fully what others were blown away by. And feeling attracted and repelled in equal measure.

As a worship leader, I could always hide behind a guitar… it was possible to be there, and to be seen to participate, but to only have the shape of participation, not the fullness of it.

As a young man- I thought I was alone in my doubts. I thought I lacked faith, and my sin was insulating me from God like a rubber blanket on a live cable.

There were also many times though when I caught glimpses of God. When I was as sure as I can be that he was there amongst us. There are many things that happened that I can not easily explain in any other way.

Here’s a quote from the book that captured some of my own experience;

They are tired of hearing the stories of the good old days, jaded from hearing too many prophecies about the great move of God that seems to be just around the corner, fed up with exaggerated or even fabricated stories of healings and miracles, and disillusioned with a view of spiritual formation that is lived through a weekly crisis moment at the front of the church…

Pg 17.

That is not to say that I want to reject or deny the work of the Spirit. May the Spirit have free reign to do with me as he will.

But I hope that it is possible to find my way to him, and his to me without all the baggage that has become so unhelpful to me.

And from my reading of this book so far- it seems that I am not alone.