Surviving the Bible: A Conversation with Christian Piatt

The Youth Minister gave a new meaning to, “throw the book at him.” Originally the phrase meant to charge someone with as many crimes as are possible. Consider it throwing all the law at someone. Maybe, that is in fact what happened. Rather than take his questions seriously, the Youth Minister found it easier to apply as many legalisms as possible to Young Christian. So much for grace. Read More

The Rapture Betrays the Incarnation: An Interview with Jeffrey C. Pugh

“There must be some way out of here,” said the joker to the thief. “There’s too much confusion I can’t get no relief . . ..” Learning to read the Bible as a child and a young adolescent meant always looking up and hoping to get out of here. This world that is. Read More

Unfollowers: An Interview with Ed Cyzewski

Only rarely do we identify with villains, except maybe at Halloween. What if we discovered we had more in common with the villains of the Bible than the heroes? Even more, what would it mean if we found in our heroes villainous traits? Read More

Not Just Tornadoes and Drought – Earthquakes Too

The Oklahoma Geological Observatory reported more than forty earthquakes in the past seven days (to May 12, 2013). Who knew?! Many of these ground-breaking events go unnoticed, except at the point of origin.

We are in tornado season here in flyover country. When these storms fire up my coastal California friends will occasionally call, “Did you survive?” Spencer often remarks, “Why would anyone live where there is such a threat?” I would retort, “Most of the time we see them coming, unlike your earthquakes.” Now I am in search of a different answer.

Our Country continues to be rattled by startling stories. This time it was Cleveland, Ohio. A house in a non-descript neighborhood became the focus of our attention. Details emerge with regularity. One local morning news anchor noted that she listens for any and all updates. We are spellbound by the horror.

It does not take long to see weather patterns as apt descriptions for our emotional state. Whipped by the winds of stories from Boston to Ohio with a little hail from Philadelphia, we work to stave off fatigue from the dirge like 24-hour news cycle. The evening news programs serve up a drought of good news. Fires. Throat slashing. Drug busts. Abuse. Neglect. Scandal. Cover up.

I was struck by the possibility that Ariel Castro suffered as a child. Most of us could do without that detail. After all, we need him to be a monster. That is easier done if we cannot find any socially constructed identity forged around abuse and neglect. Absent human love it is nigh impossible to represent such love to others, even in marriage.

Circumstances do not excuse the terrible decisions. But, understanding the situation humanizes instead of allowing for detached judgments. The road to empathy is cavernously fractured. What story lies behind Kermit Gosnell?

These stories and more come to mind when I think about another earthquake. Rather than stirring images of broken buildings and wounded people, I have in mind breaking systems and freeing people. The (re)signing of earthquake in this rhetorical move stems from a recent reading of Acts 16.*

When humans serve as shifting plates within a system intended to harbor harm and exploitation, an earthquake disrupts the economic benefit of the status quo. The missionaries in Acts 16, responding to the vision of delivering good news in Macedonia, provide a case in point.

First, Christian people must capture a material vision for rescuing people. Our language tends toward the mystical, the ethereal. Human beings face bondage, captivity, addiction, emptiness, boredom, personal affronts, and more on the physical plane. Our verbiage mystifies a condition that leaves us talking about a subject very close to home but whose language largely obtains to a different plane, a spiritual one.

Sin leaves a stain. The imagery works for us in our church-house conversations. But, enslavement leaves a mark. Ask Elizabeth Smart. When we describe the rescue from sin, we need a corresponding physical reality. Rescue from enslavement conjures images of young women tied up and subject to the whims of another human being.

My friends on the left do not like the word sin. Maybe it is the ambiguity created by an umbrella word. Or, it may be the way we narrow our definition to an individual activity that keeps us blinded to humans systems that institutionalize sin. Think slavery. Once entrenched, these systems codify captivity. We miss these patterns when we only talk about your sin and mine.

Take for instance the idea that a particular eschatological vision creates an arrogant disregard for creation. “It will all burn up anyway.” Meanwhile a small move in the price of corn resulting from low yields due to drought sends many in the Southern hemisphere into poverty, or worse. Maybe you do not like global warming. Or, maybe you do not see humans as a culpable. You don’t trust science, so you don’t trust the science.

It is an odd day when we preachers will point out the consequences of sins that result from some human activity but not other.

Second, Christian people must learn to humanize the other. The missionaries represent the human plates that when rubbing against the cultural givens create an earthquake that unsettles the economic structures benefiting from de-humanizing, in this case, a woman. Consider the way the identity of the woman is translated in Acts 16.

“We were met by a slave woman.” (CEB) Our tendency is to attach meaning via labels. Translators, in an attempt to make the reading smooth, help create the perception that human identity is defined not by what it means to be made in the image of God, but instead by the ways that image may be marred.

The story could have easily been translated in its original form, “We were met by a woman.” We learn she is a slave by the context, “her owners.” I hope you see the shift. The chapter gives us the story of Lydia. She is a woman among the others found at the place of prayer in Philippi. Translators rightly emphasize her gender before noting she was, “a Gentile God-worshipper from Thyatira, a dealer in purple cloth.”

Why not follow the same pattern for the woman, a slave who had the spirit of Python enabling her to predict the future? There is no reference to her accuracy, which is not the point. As an aside, there was another snake in the Scripture that purported to know the future.

The intent here is not to consider how we should understand the first century cult of Python or the reference to Zeus in, “servants of the Most High God.” Rather it is to raise the question of the way we talk about persons, personhood, and identity. When we first point to a socially formed identity marker it is easier to de-emphasize the divine maker – made in the image of God.

As we become increasingly aware of human trafficking and exploitation we ought to aggressively work to maintain the humanity of those trafficked rather than make of those rescued, or yet to be rescued, numerical statistics only. We may be sure the “owners” of modern day slaves will be angered by the loss of revenue from treating others as sub-human, just as in Acts 16.

Third, Christian people must practice Incarnation all the way down. The missionaries followed the Spirit to Macedonia. Luke records the way in which the place of prayer in Philippi, where they met Lydia and then the woman who was exploited for economic advantage, became the physical place where rescue took place. To stay with previous descriptions, the rescuing Good News declared by the missionaries livened up the immanent plane, the physical plane.

Reading Paul’s correspondence with Christians in Corinth reads like a call to live faithfully on the physical plane – not a call to live other worldly. Paul regards his human experience part and parcel of his spiritual experience. The two had collapsed. As long as we continue to split our selves between spiritual and other, our ability to bear witness to Jesus will also be split. Some days it will be good, like Sundays, and other days not so much.

I shared a conversation with a friend who self-describes as having left the building, Christianity. He insisted the way Christians talked about transformation maintained a split experience. Talk of the Christians’ inability to experience transformation, substantial that is, this side of eternity actually undercuts any talk of transformation. It is as if since Christians know they will not be complete until the return of the King, Christians get a pass. The longing is for a spiritual experience of transformation.

What Jesus described, however, included physical transformation. That is, life lived in Jesus’ Way looked a particular way in the body. Think Incarnation. I suspect the culprit is the vocabulary, the language structures; we use to talk about life and faith. Something that may be helped if we consider the ways smoothing our translations keeps us from the necessary moves to live in the world as human plates rubbing against the structures that keep people sub-human and away from Jesus.

*I am working my way through Crystal L. Downing’s, Changing Signs of Truth: A Christian Introduction to the Semiotics of Communication, Kindle Edition.

Radical Faithfulness

During Holy Week Barry tweeted,

What is our cultural signifier? What habit or practice would approximate foot washing today that at the same time might be infused with the weight of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet?

Reading the Gospel narratives we cannot miss the reference to foot washing when the Pharisees objected to the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears. Jesus noted his host was inhospitable and therefore an unjust judge of the woman’s actions. Jesus’ feet were washed with tears and anointed with perfume. He washed the disciples feet with water. The act in John appears more noteworthy than the observance of the Last Supper.

The exchange spurred by the Tweet pointed up the practices surrounding holiday Easter. Few Christian groups practice foot washing today. After all we do not wear sandals and walk dusty roads. We are still left to wonder what habit or practice would give us the same example?

A visit from a friend set me to thinking about this again. In fact, I was going to write something during Holy Week on the subject but the week got away.

My friend stopped by to chat. He noticed my unkempt writing table. There are several stacks of books. He surmised I was studying or doing some sort of research. I told him I had been listening to a debate over the historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus. A couple of days listening to radical theologians will leave you thinking about the reality of the Resurrection. I digress.

“Debates rarely change anyone’s mind,” my friend remarked. I agreed, for the most part. It was at that point I mused aloud that what may have been more transformative, at least scandalous, would have been for William Lane Craig to wash Bart Ehrman’s feet. Here is where I need help to think through what cultural signifier would have demonstrated that above well rehearsed arguments and concise rebuttals the Resurrection of Jesus alters our interactions. I do mean something beyond being polite – please and thank you.

Our conversation took an interesting turn at that point. An underlying dilemma surfaced. First, how may we do a better job considering our way of life with others in light of Jesus’ Way? Second, what happens when it is realized all reading is interpretation.

First, we need the further collapse of the sacred and secular to the degree that we erase the experience of differentiated living. That is, practicing radical faithfulness would require us to live undifferentiated. As such any interaction we we face will inherently follow the pattern and habits of Jesus. We do not differentiate according to our surroundings or the people we encounter. This is evangelism. It is not Bible thumping. It is Jesus living.

Second, and this grows out of the first, we must recognize Scripture, under the influence of the Spirit, emits a polyphonic resonance. My friend and I turned to discuss reading, interpretation, and, the Constitution. Not the Bible as Constitution, but we talked about how the United States Constitution is read.

You should know my friend served in the United States Army. He is proud of his Country. It is also noteworthy that when he described that we may read the Bible faithfully and still come away with different interpretations – both being right – he is no postmodern liberal. In fact, I would not make that suggestion. He does have his conceal and carry.

We talked about the phrase, “all men are created equal.” For his reading this line signaled what might happen to the writers own places of privilege should someone come and claim more privilege. My read suggests that at the time the only ones described were white, land owning men. That our history records the fight for women’s rights and minority rights betrays reading equal too hard. We disagreed. We did agree there are a variety of interpretations. While he joked that I might be wrong, he opened up a way to say this is how and what happens when we read the Bible. Which he did.

What he does describe is the one conundrum many in my tribe face – the plurality of interpretations. We do find the Scriptures to be polyphonic. When we in the first world read Luke’s story of the lost son, we tend to vilify the younger son. When others read the story in the two-thirds world, the older son is vilified. Some even praise the younger son. (Consider the book, How Do They Hear?)

Radical faithfulness to Jesus and his Way requires something of us, something from us. Rather than double down on our positions, we may need to spend time with our cultural signifiers. Which one(s) may be used in the viable transmission of a very real event that transforms our way of being in the world?

I suggest it is not in rehearsing our well-worn arguments. It will not come in enterprising nuances. No, I contend it will come when we exert the energy to connect our cultural signifiers comparable to foot washing that we will offer something beyond the ethereal to those suspicious of the Resurrection of Jesus.

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