Friday, December 27, 2013

Holy Books And The 21st Century - Exploring Cultural Bridges

Confusion reigns in many 'modern' religions as ancient scriptures and rituals try to find relevance and meaning in a post industrial world. If ancient texts do have meaning for today's world, then that meaning's discovered through interpretation. Interpretation is the art of finding the original meaning in a text and then showing how that might be relevant today. Interpretation is particularly important for religions that hold ancient 'texts' to be important. In Christianity (my religion) the interpretation of 'the scripture' focuses on the Bible. Understanding the Bible therefore is a major area of concentration in the lives of all Christians. One would hope that better interpretation would lead to better Christians, but that does depend on what we get from our interpretive effort, and on how we then apply what we got to our lives!

Unfortunately, as a religion Christianity is very far away from finding any consensus on how the Bible is to be understood.

Rather than diving right into the various attempts to interpret the Bible (which would certainly take more than a series of blog posts to cover) I am going to just try to outline how I personally understand the Bible and how that understanding affects my thinking about one currently 'hot' cultural topic, that of sexual orientation.

The Bible is an ancient text. It was last contributed to over 2000 years ago and the entire span of its writing covers over (at least) 1000 years! All the various parts of the Bible are written for and about particular happenings in particular places and communities during that millennium. The Bible is not monolithic. The Bible has been built brick by brick and stone by stone, and it has stood the test of time! The Bible's story culminates in four gospels that tell us about Jesus, and then (in the New Testament part of the Bible) goes on to follow the birth of Christianity over the next few decades. It's worth noting that for the writers of the New Testament (NT - about Jesus and the early church) their Bible actually constituted of the largely memorized Tanakh of that day's Judaism, which is mostly our present 'old' testament (OT). 

The NT writers record the introduction of belief in Christ in various parts of the Roman empire, and simultaneously, they record Jesus' life and ministry in a very interesting way. The style of their records of Jesus are fascinating both for their commonalities and for their differences, but the picture of Jesus that emerges from the reading of 'the gospels' is an incredibly powerful and gripping story of the person Jesus, who did what he did so remarkably well that lives were transformed for good. Jesus' impact is the very heart of what becomes Christianity.

We cannot reconstruct from these gospel records anything like a 'Life of Jesus' though not for want of trying! We can, however, get to know Jesus himself, and I think the main reason for this slightly odd phenomenon is that many people who personally knew Jesus went to incredible lengths to pass on what they knew as accurately and completely as they could. Naturally, they stuck to stuff that had so startled them out of their slumbers that it became clearly imprinted in their minds. As a natural consequence, their records are not given to being strung together either chronologically or subject-wise, but do provide a wonderfully clear picture of the person, Jesus.

By studying the gospel accounts in parallel, we can see that many witnesses had come forward to tell what they knew. The result is that 4 different authors draw breathtakingly similar pictures, yet one can clearly see that the roots of their stories have been gathered independently. One impressive explanation for the striking similarities and critical differences comes from B. Gerhardsson who shows that there was a definite "Rabbinic method" that teachers of that day followed to accurately orally preserve their words, and it explains so well what we find in actual fact in the gospels themselves. Incidentally, in cultures such as India it is well known that teachers (gurus) orally train their disciples, and it is precisely this sort of tradition to which we owe the preservation of the sayings of the Buddha (for e.g.).

So, at the culmination of what was essentially a one tribe story (the Old Testament - OT - of the Bible) we have Jesus bursting onto the scene and creating a cataclysm. For Jesus, the OT - his scripture - was given by God for guidance to mankind. However, Jesus introduces a striking change in how the OT is to be understood... if you want to understand the scripture, (says Jesus, in effect) you have to look for the Father - our loving Father. Don't therefore take the letter of the law as the final thing, though every bit of that is important (as your primary source material), but look instead for what the OT can teach you about the Father, and apply that knowledge of the Father to what you are about today! So, the OT actually records the give and take between the Father and His people, with the people vacillating between periods of understanding and obedience and living in love and justice, then sliding right back into doing all the things that they know will irritate their Father to the utmost.

Jesus goes on to show us in his own life what really seeing and believing the Father means in day-to-day life. He summarizes the main principles as:
1. Love God.
2. Love your neighbor as yourself.

He tells us that in these two principles reside everything that God wanted us to know from the entire OT.

I don't think we can easily grasp how shocking Jesus' teachings and doings (based on these two principles) actually were to his contemporaries. The religious leaders of the day at first tried to analyse his message, then when they realized the implications, they tried various methods to discredit Jesus, and failing these, they finally found a way to 'permanently' silence him - that is, they had him put to death by their Roman rulers by claiming that he was a very real terrorist!

All this happened in a cultural milieu, and fortunately, because of extensive writings preserved from that period, and the meticulous work of archaeologists, we do know a fair amount both about Jewish history, society and culture, and that  too of their rulers of the day, the Romans.

Now, what's happened in effect is that Jesus, in the life he lives, reveals to us anew who God the Father is. Everything that happens subsequently, with the founding of Christianity, is the working out of this renewing knowledge of God and the resulting renewed relationship with God the Father in and through His Son Jesus. The authenticity of the message of the gospel and of Jesus Himself comes with a terrifying bang at the end of all four gospel accounts, first with His horrifying death, and then with His most unexpected resurrection.

We can clearly see some of what God has done (in the Bible), and it presents us with a puzzling conundrum. Why has God done these things? The answer that the Bible gives, that Jesus emphasizes, is LOVE!

Unfortunately for us we are far too fascinated with the 'why' and 'how' types of questions to not enter into speculation. Speculation is the mother of doctrine - and we will see where that takes us soon enough! Suffice it to say that the gospel is so simple that no one can mistake it - at the same time we can also choose to build huge edifices upon it and eventually we will forget the simplicity of the foundation and remember only the complication of what we have constructed!

As we dig into the gospels for more on Jesus, it is hard to miss the concept of Emmanuel (God with us), by which Jesus is introduced to us (Isaiah 7-8, ‎Matthew 1:22-23). God is with us, and Jesus focuses God's presence in his teachings on what the reality of God's kingdom is all about, especially that the Father is particularly with the downtrodden, the suffering, the sick, the disenfranchised, the poor, the outcaste, the seeker, and all those others that religion and society have left in a lurch.

And that's pretty much my own basic understanding now of how I find relevance in the Bible, for it's the Bible that leads me to Jesus, and that makes me want to follow Jesus, and to know Jesus. I see Jesus most clearly in his life, his doings, and his teachings as they are found in the gospels and in turn, the gospels help me to see what the whole of the Bible is about, revealing both God the Son and God the Father to me.

Just as that great crowd of witnesses had memorized and learned from their teacher, so we too should immerse ourselves first and foremost in those very same gospels that record whatever could reliably be remembered of Jesus. I am certain that the very reason we have so many gospels independently covering so much of the same ground, is that for the new believers, the most important thing, the most critically important thing, was to be able to know and then follow Jesus. They needed to get together all that they could of him from reliable witnesses while these were still around, and they did! The same process took place wherever there was any concentration of original witnesses to be had, and voila, out of all those efforts we have now our 4 gospels!

In the rest of the NT we do not find much of Jesus being quoted, though allusions to His teachings and doings are numerous. This has long puzzled scholars, and bizarre theories have been generated by them in turn. But I suspect that once folks had memorised all the available stuff and were holding these findings in common with others who had also memorised the same stuff (about what Jesus said and did), they rarely needed to keep quoting the known bedrock to each other. Rather, one gets on with understanding and discussing how this works out practically, and you remind one another of where you are more by allusion than by quotation. In fact that's what the word 'gospel' comes to mean in the rest of the NT, and that's probably why outside of 'the gospels' themselves (that constitute that entire bedrock of critically important knowledge - "the gospel") we see so little of the quoting that we would otherwise expect. The ground on which discussions take place IS common.

The gospels would then constitute something like the basic 'catechism' (boot camp), and the new believer's first job is to memorize (remember that books were uncommon and extremely expensive back then) the gospel.

Everything that we have in our gospels is therefore The Gospel that was then taught, preached and memorized as the story of Jesus spread out. I do think this grounding process took time and there is evidence in the NT that the time was taken to establish these basics properly.

Unfortunately, our modern and post-modern church gives scant respect to the gospels and I think this is perhaps why Christians of today scarcely remind us of Jesus the Christ whom they are supposedly following and believing! Instead of a people who behave in a manner consistent with intimately knowing Jesus their Lord and Savior, we all too often see packs of doctrinalists and literalists, who in their loveless rantings more resemble the religious enemies of Jesus than Jesus Himself!

I have little doubt that 'the gospel' was precisely what Paul (who wrote many of the letters in the NT) had to learn after he suddenly realized that Jesus was The One, and his resulting 'gospel' he finally checked for consistency with other disciples of Jesus who were then congregated in Jerusalem. But all that is speculative... I have no doubt that it is this very gospel that was what Paul proclaimed as he moved through the length and breadth of the Roman empire.

For the present, I think that's a fairly good summary of my current understanding of what the gospel is and how (and why) it came to be the way it is. 

What happens next in the NT is that this gospel goes out and meets various groups of people scattered across the Roman empire, eventually creating scattered fellowships of Christ believers/followers. Jesus has been acknowledged by these believers to be the long promised messiah of the OT and is therefore God's anointed one, and in Greek, that is what the word Christ signifies, hence our word Christ-ian.

In the process of spreading out from Palestine into the larger Roman empire, practitioners of the gospel encounter cultural realities/environments that are not similar to those of Palestine at that time. In these strange new cultural environments, how is the gospel to be worked out? And so we have Paul, John, Peter, James and so on all communicating by way of brief letters (epistles) to address particular situations that arise after the proclamation of Jesus, and as their gospel walks out into unfamiliar cultural territory.

Now, here we are 2000 years further along in time. We are therefore now in a situation that was reminiscent of those querulous first few steps that the gospel took once long ago, for both cultures and societies (and religion) have changed remarkably over the interval, and yet the same gospel is there to guide us as to the nature of the Father, and the revelation of the Father is seen just as clearly now in the life, teaching, and doings of the Son Jesus. The gospel that Jesus lived out has not changed. The gospel is still addressing human beings, and in spite of our culture, our 'advanced' society, and our technology, we are still just human beings in need of and in search of our Father.

As I leap out over this chasm, I also notice that in many instances when the gospel spread into the Roman empire, there was culture shock and then cultural accommodation, and we can see this accommodation taking place in the epistles of the NT itself. Some of these cultural accommodations are sensible and sound applications of Jesus teaching and principles, while others fly in the face of the principles that Jesus taught, i.e. are contrary to the gospel of Jesus.

One excellent change for example, was that racial discrimination was tackled as it became obvious that not only people of Jewish descent were responding to Jesus and believing in Him.

A contrasting area of cultural accommodation, was the young church's inability to tackle the issue of slavery. There are a number of reasons for the church not to have taken this issue on. However, in subsequent Christian history, eventually it was realised that slavery(1) in any form is not compatible with believing in and following a just and loving God. Eventually, Jesus and his gospel won.

Since Wilberforce and his friends fought their epic battle in the 19th century,  the battle against slavery - of the official, culturally acceptable kind - has been mostly won. In consequence, colonial influence has waned and we do have a slightly more equitable world to live in.

Other areas of conflict that were left unresolved by the NT included that ubiquitous thing called war, which is an outgrowth of our tolerance for violence in so many forms, and prominently gender equality, and sexual orientations. As with slavery, the young church was unable to step back and ask whether Jesus' gospel called for changes in these areas. We can see that Paul in particular was aware of the clash as his statement in his epistle to the Galatians (3:28) and again in Colossians (3:11) actually follows the implications of Jesus teaching to their conclusions. But he himself was unable to do much other than to toe the cultural norms in his other writings.

I am privileged to live in India, which due to its decidedly Eastern culture and agrarian economy has a lot of cultural similarities with life in Palestine 2000 years ago. Still, the changes that have taken place in the world are huge^^.  In India, the gospel as understood by India's mainline churches has its own peculiar cultural blind spots. At its root, we find that we have inherited a literalistic approach to the Bible and subsequently many of the wrong cultural tendencies of peoples from biblical times are used to justify very wrong and anti-Christ-ian practices in our present day church life. The most obvious of these is the failure to tackle the evil of casteism. We have also not tackled our male dominant society, and we have chosen not to take on issues of wealth, poverty and the ownership of property! We have also chosen to avoid questioning the church's status quo on matters of sexuality and in particular the homophobia (LGBTA-phobia) that we have inherited from the Victorian colonial West.

In general, in the world of the 21st century we actually have a strange situation where many gospel implications (based on the gospel principles of justice and equality) have been wholeheartedly accepted by post-enlightenment, secular, science oriented, common sense based thinkers.

At the same time we have an even stranger phenomenon of the bulk of Christianity wrongly preferring the norms and mores of the 2000 year old culture that Jesus Himself challenged with His gospel!

The very fact that modern and post-modern thinkers have decided to support equality and justice seems to have enraged our religious conservatives, and the key question of whither the gospel will lead has been blanked out by blind reactionism. Where we see this most clearly is regarding sexuality and sexual orientation. While abuses in the 'institution' of heterosexual marriage are rampant, most especially in the propagation of male dominance, domestic violence, and in heterosexual exceptionality, we find many Christians concentrating their rage instead against persons with differing sexual orientations (the LGBTA) and particularly focused on 'gay bashing', homophobia. I am frequently told by would-be conservative 'scholars'  that this is because of their 'interpretations' of the Bible, and it involves a savagely literalistic use of some texts*. 

I have no doubt that singling out any group of people and discriminating against them because of issues of differences from the 'norm' (in this case because of their sexual orientation) is unjust, inequitable, dehumanizing, and against Jesus' gospel!

The (conservative/non-affirming) church has actually created a class of untouchables and has been the agent of evil in denigrating these persons' humanity. Rather than reaching out to the downtrodden, we (the church that claims to follow Jesus) have become the authoritarians who tread upon the lives of others - what a travesty!

Yet the conservative-doctrinaire branches of Christianity insist on discriminating against anyone who does not toe the heterosexuality-only line. The fact that 'sin' is found as commonly in heterosexual relationships seems not to count at all. In fact there is a strong tendency to disregard in any active discussion, all heterosexually sinful activity including marital rape, premarital sex, and divorce, from the purview of 'sin', though oddly enough, adultery does seem to be a sticking point for some... 

The shrillness accompanying any discussion of sexual orientation other than heterosexuality is amazing to me. Forgotten are Jesus' directions to take responsibility first for our own sins and to be nonjudgemental of others, let alone being so willing to cast the first verbal stones.

Perhaps the most startling thing for me was the discovery that conservative heterosexuals freely admit that they are not aware of when they chose to ('obeying God?') become heterosexual, yet homosexuals (really, any LGBTA) are accused of choosing to be homosexual, therefore denying God, and therefore worthy of hellfire etc.!

So, do we follow Jesus 
do we follow the very worldly religious 
literalistic-doctrinaire-conservative 'way'. 

It's for you to decide...

On the one hand as the gospel enjoins, there is love, justice, equality, respect, and a lack of judgmentalism. 

On the other hand there is condemnation, ostracism, outcasteism, denial of rights, judgementalism, lots of hell-talk, suppression of personality, vituperation, and often outright hatred - all presented supposedly as legitimate expressions of God's love.

The choice is yours!

I'd highly recommend Philip Yancey's excellent introduction to Jesus - The Jesus I Never Knew, if you want to get just a bit deeper into "Christology" or just get to know Jesus a little better. But, there's no substitute for reading (and rereading) the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) themselves in any modern translation

*The conservative-literalistic-doctrinaire dumbing-down approach to the Bible, unsurprisingly negates Jesus' stress on understanding the Father, and negates the importance of living lives of love and service, justice and equality, and living as genetically, ecologically, and ethically selflessly as possible. I've heard this method described as a grammatico-historical approach to interpretation, but neither grammar nor history demands that we exchange understanding for simple mindedness!

There's an excellent recent short interview/article  on God and gays carrying the views of both Mohler and Vine that's well worth reading.

An example of three gospel texts in parallel
healing of the leper:[9]
Mt 8:2–3Mk 1:40–42Lk 5:12–13
Καὶ ἰδοὺ,
αὐτῷ λέγων·
Κύριε, ἐὰν θέλῃς
δύνασαί με καθαρίσαι.
ἐκτείνας τὴν χεῖρα
ἥψατο αὐτοῦ
Θέλω, καθαρίσθητι·
καὶ εὐθέως

αὐτοῦ ἡ λέπρα.
Καὶ ἔρχεται πρὸς αὐτὸν
παρακαλῶν αὐτὸν
καὶ γονυπετῶν
καὶ λέγων αὐτῷ ὅτι,
Ἐὰν θέλῃς
δύνασαί με καθαρίσαι.
καὶ σπλαγχνισθεὶς
ἐκτείνας τὴν χεῖρα
αὐτοῦ ἥψατο
καὶ λέγει αὐτῷ·
Θέλω, καθαρίσθητι·
καὶ εὐθὺς
ἀπῆλθεν ἀπ᾿
αὐτοῦ ἡ λέπρα,
καὶ ἐκαθαρίσθη.
Καὶ ἰδοὺ,
ἀνὴρ πλήρης λέπρας·
ἰδὼν δὲ τὸν Ἰησοῦν
πεσὼν ἐπὶ πρόσωπον
ἐδεήθη αὐτοῦ λέγων·
Κύριε, ἐὰν θέλῃς
δύνασαί με καθαρίσαι.
ἐκτείνας τὴν χεῖρα
ἥψατο αὐτοῦ
Θέλω, καθαρίσθητι·
καὶ εὐθέως

ἡ λέπρα ἀπῆλθεν ἀπ᾿
And behold,
a leper came

and worships

him, saying:
Lord, if you wish,
I can be cleansed.

And he stretched out his
hand and touched him,
I wish it; be cleansed.
And immediately
his leprosy

was cleansed.
And, calling out to him,
there comes to him a leper

and kneeling and

saying to him:
If you wish,
I can be cleansed.
And, moved with compassion,
he stretched out his
hand and touched him
and says to him:
I wish it; be cleansed.
And immediately
the leprosy
left him,
and he was cleansed.
And behold,
a man full of leprosy.
But, upon seeing Jesus,
he fell upon his face
and requested
him, saying:
Lord, if you wish,
I can be cleansed.

And he stretched out his
hand and touched him,
I wish it; be cleansed.
And immediately
the leprosy
left him.

*The immediate context for today's blog is India's Supreme Court reifying Section 377 (a section of the IPC - Indian Penal Code, that dates back to 1861 when the British applied their very wise legal ideas to their Indian colony). The section was thrown out by the Delhi High Court a few years ago as ultra vires India's constitution. Right after the reinstatelent of 377, which was more in the form of a timely duck by the SC, came a storm of both protest and gleeful affirmation in the media and on the Net. Not surprisingly, Conservative Hindus, Conservative Muslims and Conservative Christians joined hands in praising the SC while taking the opportunity to generally bash liberals as well as the LGBT community.

One particular discussion took place on the Facebook page of Indian Evangelical Theologians, and I promised then to share my thoughts on the issues raised there in more detail, so here it is, for what it's worth.

377, adultery, asexual, Bible, bisexual, Christian, gay, heterosexual, homosexual, Jesus, lesbian, LGBT, LGBTA, NT, OT, Paul, sexual orientation, sin, slavery, transsexual
#377 #adultery #asexual #Bible #bisexual #Christian #gay #heterosexual #homosexual #Jesus #lesbian #LGBT #LGBTA #NT #OT #Paul #SexualOrientation #sin #slavery #transsexual #interpretation #literalism #doctrine #gospel #celibacy #Gerhardson #gospels #Rome #Palestine #understanding #DumbDown # #condemn #ostracism #outcasteism #rights #hell #HellTalk #vituperation #hatred #love #justice #equality #respect #judgmentalism #culture #CultureShock #accommodation #samlcarr #

(1) See the Guardian article

The history of British slave ownership has been buried: now its scale can be revealed

and the related BBC series Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners, the first of two episodes, presented by David Olusoga, will be broadcast on Wednesday on BBC2. Click here for the Legacies of British Slave Ownership Database

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