Thursday, February 14, 2013

Protecting the Bible

I have always been a little concerned about those that suggest that the bible is flawless and without error.  It smells too much like, the apparently urban legend that a deck hand said of the Titanic, "Not even God could sink this ship."  For the Bible to be completely inerrant, it would require too much from imperfect people.  And I think anything that we humans construct has the potential to sink, even holy books.

First, people would have to hear perfectly what God told them -- and I know from many experiences that people don't do that well.  Once after coaching a JV soccer game, the opposing coach came over to me and said, "I sense a rivalry here."  I replied, "No.  Next year we will be varsity and you will kill us."  Somehow, the other coach heard, "Next year we will beat varsity and kill you."  I discovered this when we played the varsity team next year and all their players were taunting us about "You're going to kill us?  Welcome to varsity, after which they trounced us 11 - 0.  All because of our imperfections in communication.  And with God, it is even more difficult for us to get our message right.

Second, for the bible to be inerrant people would have to refrain from adding their personal comments to what God told them, you know embellishing it a bit to make it more exciting.  Another soccer story.  After each game, I would send the scores, stats, and a written quote to the newspapers for them to print if they wanted to.  I put the quote in quotes with my name in order to make it clear it was an exact quote.  Yet on one occasion the sport's editor didn't think my quote was exciting enough and totally rewrote my statement using hyper-competitive language not befitting of a pastor.  I wasn't very happy.  With the Bible, it seems equally (if not more) likely that humans would want to add their spin -- us being self-centered and all.

Third, the transmission of the texts would have to be perfect.  It is true, that the texts have been passed down with remarkable accuracy, there are places where ancient texts have slight variations.  They usually make no difference to interpretation, and yet the differences are there.

Some people try to get around these issues by saying that the texts were perfect in their original form and in their original language. That may sound like an acceptable statement at first, but in reality it is problematic.  If God could get the bible perfectly into the hands of the original authors, wouldn't God have also ensured that the text remained pure and error-less during its transmission?  Why would people long ago have a more accurate ability to get God's word exact than people now-a-days?  It sounds good at first, because we don't know those people from long ago, and it is easy to trust people whose motives and personalities are invisible to us; while with current scholars, it is easy to distrust them because they must have an agenda they are pushing.

Now, don't get me wrong.  I think the bible is a wonderful book, written by people about their experiences of God.  I believe that it has the sanction of the Christian community and is intended to help us understand the faith and draw closer to God.  I believe it is the spirit-filled, authoritative, and sacred book of Christianity.  But I don't believe it is perfect.  We should be willing to say, "Yes, the bible is right about this, but not about that.  It is right that God is behind all of creation, but it isn't right about it taking 7 days.  Yes, the bible is right in teaching that children ought to honor their mother and father; yet it is wrong about sparing the rod spoiling the child."

So here is what started this little rant.  As I was working on my sermon this week, I was studying marriage in the bible and that favorite feminist passage about women submitting to men.  So many commentators have struggled to remind us that it isn't talking about an ancient hierarchy that accepted abuse, but about humble service, it is about respect for one another, sacrificial love like that of Christ.  But as I studied I discovered that those commentators are trying to protect the Bible from its own cultural bias where male dominance was acceptable, and hitting a woman to keep her pure wasn't morally questioned.  No one wants to admit that the bible is very close to suggesting that spousal abuse is okay, that would make it all too obvious that the bible is not a perfect book.

Even the translators are in on it.  Here's the verse as several Bibles render it.  Ephesians 5:33

"Nevertheless let every one of you in particular so love his wife even as himself; and the wife see that she reverence her husband." -- King James Version

"So each husband should love his wife as much as he loves himself, and each wife should respect her husband." -- Contemporary English Version

"Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband." -- New Revised Standard Version

"However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband." -- New International Version

The problematic word is 'reverence' or 'respect'. It is a nice word, a gentle word, an acceptable word; but it isn't what the original Greek says.  The original word is phobeo.  You should recognize that, it is the word we use as phobia -- a deep and life-controlling fear.  Every other time this word appears in the bible, it is translated as fear, afraid; but not here because that would not only unpopular, it would be immoral to suggest that wives should live in mortal fear of their husbands. Accurately rendering the word would force us to examine whether or not some of the biblical teachings are no longer acceptable; and admit that the authors were as human as we are, and subject to error.  And that in turn might cause us to question. What teachings are applicable to us today?  Where are the moments where God truly speaks, despite our human failings?

You see, I do believe that the Holy Spirit carries the text to us, but I also believe that the Holy Spirit continues to speak; sometimes correcting the past and leading us into newness of life.  Yes, there is the danger that we will hear wrong, that we will twist the words to our own intentions -- but there is also the chance that God has plans for us that are greater, brighter and better than even those envisioned by the sages of the past.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Lesser Known Holy Days

One of the things that amazes me is how poorly attended the church services on special days in the Christian calendar.  I am not talking about Christmas and Easter, they get enough publicity.  Nor am I talking about the minuscule holidays like the feast of St. Briged of Kildare (which was February 1st) or the feast of the circumcision of Christ (which I am not sure why anyone would want to celebrate with a feast, and which has been overridden by New Years' Day -- although it does explain the use of alcoholic beverages as part of the celebration).  What really amazes me, is that days like today -- Ash Wednesday -- or Holy Thursday and Good Friday aren't big draws.

These special services are among the most powerful in the Christian year.  They have everything that the contemporary Christian seeks -- a strong appeal to one's emotions, an element of participation, music that is stirring, and the challenge to dig deep into our souls for that connection to God; and yet they only draw one-tenth of our Sunday crowd.  I have a hard time believing that the other 90% are so shallow in their faith that they feel that one worship a week is enough.  Nor am I willing to accept that these ancient rituals and stories no longer have meaning.  A few years ago when The Passion of the Christ came out, people flocked to the theaters to witness it, as though it were a new thing.  Yet every year, Good Friday provides a chance for us to hear the sacrificial story of Christ, and to contemplate its power in our lives.  The story still carries power.

Nor is it because our culture is less spiritual than in the past.  Those of the millenial generation increasingly say that they are spiritual but not religious, as if the two are different and disconnected.  What that tells me is that the spiritual hunger is there, the desire for deep meaning and soul-feasting are there. I think there are two things at work here, one which is a misunderstanding of the spirituality of religion, and one which is the church's lack of focus and attention to detail on these days.

First, the misunderstanding.  When the church provides the holidays which have spiritual power in its rawest form, people think of it as religious and not spiritual. Maybe I am wrong, but I think it has to do with one's view of tradition. Often the attitude is that if a practice is traditional, it comes from an impersonal organization, interested more in maintaining the institution and the old order, so people come to it with little expectation that it will affect them.  It is religious, born of past generations, and has little to do with me.  And when we come with that expectation, we close ourselves to the power of the practice.

To clear the misunderstanding, look not at the institution and the years of ritual, but look at the spiritual issue that the day addresses.  Ash Wednesday struggles with our humanity; that is, our mortality and our need for forgiveness. These are issues that are at the core of our spirit, our fears, our questions. To hear again ashes to ashes, dust to dust; while contemplating a God who forgives and offers new life is a profound experience. If we come to the service with the expectation of examining our spirit, ready to cast away our past and leave with new resolve to do better; we will discover why the practice has been maintained for so long -- it moves religion from the institution to the individual heart.

The second thing that affects attendance at these days, is I think, the church's fault, and I include myself in this culpability. We don't put as much emphasis on them as we do our Sunday services. Nursery facilities are often not provided, there isn't a children's message or activity for the kids to participate in. The choir and the praise band don't sing.  It is as though the pastor and the organist are the lone people involved.  I am not sure if it is because we expect the power of the holy day to carry the service, or if we are such creatures of habit that we just don't think about it until it is too late.  But whatever the reason, the church (including myself) needs to reevaluate its approach to these days.

It is time for us to emphasize the power and spirituality of the church experience, to help people see that the church puts as much effort into spirituality as it does into fund raising, and as much publicity for holy days as it does for its spaghetti suppers.