Weeping for Jerusalem

It’s been a busy few weeks, workwise. In many ways, they have been very rewarding. But the last few weeks have been disillusioning too, and I have found it very difficult to write. I feel like I am beating the same drum, over and over again. But that drum is my heartbeat at the moment, and so in order to write authentically, I suppose I have to keep drumming.

For a brief moment I understood something of what Jesus must have felt when he looked down on Jerusalem in Luke 19 and wept:

41 And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, 42 saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. 43 For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side 44 and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.”

It was precipitated by the attack in Manchester. People were rightly upset and angry. That is how we should always feel about violence – particularly violence perpetrated in the name of religion. The outrage that ensued was entirely legitimate. But the very next day there followed what I can only imagine was – in some way – a retaliatory reaction. A US-led airstrike in Syria, ostensibly targeting ISIS, but which killed around 80 civilians, according to Human Rights Watch. At least half of those were children. I found it utterly heart-breaking. When I heard it on the radio, driving to work, I actually cried. Partially because this kind of thing happens so terribly frequently in the Middle East and Africa but it seems that nobody on social media protests with nearly the same vehemence as they do for tragedies in Europe (and I am not suggesting that African or Middle Eastern devastations are more deserving of our attention; only that they are also worthy of it). Partially because of the flood of hate-filled justifications of these types of atrocities by Christians on social media. It sickens me.

I have said what I am about to say so often in recent weeks that I feel like a broken record, but it bears mentioning again. Not that I feel it will make any difference to the situation. It won’t. But I need to write it to purge the anger and dejection in me. As a result, maybe one or two Christian readers will turn around and acknowledge that it is high time Christian ethics began to reflect the peace-theology of the early church founders, and of the one whose name they so glibly adopt. Maybe some non-Christian readers, legitimately bitter because this type of hypocrisy, so rampant in Christianity, has hurt them deeply, will begin to understand that one cannot conflate Christianity, as it is commonly practised, and Jesus’s theology and ethics. But that would be a side effect. For now, I need to vent.

A part of the reason I feel so disillusioned is that I know that much of why this hatred exists is because of how we read the Bible. Please note that I am not blaming the Bible. That would be like blaming a knife for a murder. It is never the tool, but the one who wields it, that ought to be held responsible. I am convinced that many of the writers of parts of the Bible were irresponsible with their words, promoting violence as a Godly mandate. And for that reason I believe that sticking to the conviction that the Bible speaks with God’s voice is irresponsible too.

I won’t lie – I was incensed by the various Facebook posts and online comments that advocated “giving the bastards what they deserve” after Manchester. I was immeasurably disappointed by Christian commentators who described Islam as the bully on the playground that needed to be put in its place, who simplified a whole belief system into a simple hate-driven story. I was angry with the glaring disparity between the love-oriented ethics of Jesus to which online commentators professed allegiance, and their vitriolic rhetoric. I was disheartened because I knew that, as a result, the detractors of Christianity would similarly simplify the Christian story and place the whole peace theology movement in the same box. And so the profound truth of Jesus’ response to violence would never be heard. And I needed desperately to write – to voice my frustration, my disappointment. But I could not find the words.

I blame the way we have been taught to read the Bible (and I could probably say the same for the way any sacred texts are read, but this is the one I know, and thus the one I have the right to comment on. I will leave you to do the same for your own, whether that is the Q’uran, the Bhagavad Gita, or The God Delusion): without any form of critical engagement, where daring to question is frowned upon, and in a Christian culture that (probably unwittingly in most cases, I will concede) drives young people to be afraid to address their concerns with the dominant ethos and creeds. We have created a culture where the threat of losing heavenly real estate is so pressed onto young dissenters that they are too afraid to allow themselves to question. And worse, where those who follow blindly are heralded as heroes of the faith.

We dare not cling to the idea that the Bible speaks with God’s voice. It is glaringly obvious: how could one God hold, as Paul does in Galatians 3, that in Christ all the lines we have drawn in society to determine who is acceptable and who is not should be erased, while simultaneously demanding the genocide of anyone outside of the Israelite tribe, as He so frequently does in the Old Testament? If God is, as Evangelical theology maintains, unchangeable, how on earth do you reconcile those contradictory statements into a coherent “loving” voice? How do you not link the insistence on the dogmatically defended belief that the scriptures, which legitimise race-based violence, are inerrant to the massacre of thousands of people in US-led airstrikes in the name of Christianity and democracy and – in the bitterest of ironies – peace?! “God” does command genocide in the scriptures. It is legitimised there. And if you cannot see that this stands in stark and irreconcilable contrast to the theology and ethics of both Jesus and Paul, then you are not reading properly. Then again, I think that is precisely the problem.

I am going to take a step back to explain – very briefly and inadequately – a couple of philosophies of reading. First, there is a positivist way of understanding the world. Proponents of this philosophy would argue that the only valid knowledge is that knowledge that can be verified through empirical evidence; that which can be verified through the senses and through logical reasoning. Clearly this would preclude any form of spiritual or emotional experience, and so is not generally a framework through which adherents interpret their sacred texts. It is, as an aside, a very limited way of understanding the world. It is self-defeating, because it is illogical to assume that our senses and reasoning processes are infallible, and that the world is fundamentally knowable through the limited human modes of understanding it. But that is a debate for another time. Suffice it to say that this way of thinking has limited theological application. And so most religious readers today tend to adopt the second model, even while pretending the first.

The second approach is a more solipsistic one. It centres all understanding of the world around the self. There is a long philosophical history behind this way of seeing the world, which is prevalent in the West today – heavily influenced by ideas from the likes of Descartes, Kant, and Nietzsche. Of course, Christians won’t (often don’t know enough to) acknowledge this, because it is a manifestation of an “evil” postmodern mindset that challenges our exclusivity, but this self-oriented approach has come to define how we worship, and how we relate to our faith and the Bible.

It is through this lens of “what-does-it-mean-to-me” that we give expression to the doctrine that the Bible is the inerrant word of God. We make a number of potentially problematic assumptions, most notably that God uses the Bible to speak directly to individuals (specifically, me) today. The message the text contains, therefore, was written not only for the people of the time the writer was transcribing God’s revelation, but was intended for all people everywhere, in all times (most importantly, for me). What was applicable then must therefore be equally applicable (to me) now. It is a reading that completely disregards context, which is why preachers are so happy to expound on only a few verses at a time, developing entire theologies around isolated verses. After all, if the whole thing is God’s word, then each word, each sentence must be granted equal weighting. And God is timeless (and therefore contextless, in a sense), and by extension the decrees in the scriptures must be so too. It is irrelevant in modern popular theology then, almost (certainly it is never seriously considered) that the verses and chapters were added later for ease of reference, and that it would be foolish to preach on any given passage independently of the context of the argument in which the ideas were raised. It is why we have been so blind to what Paul was arguing in his epistles. We can quote the bits where he cites the church in Jerusalem (which he regards as the false teacher), and attribute the ideas to Paul, when in fact he was paraphrasing the beliefs of the Jerusalem church and critiquing them– mocking them, even – not promoting them. We have to decontextualise Paul’s writings if we wish to construct a coherent, unified voice of God in the New Testament, when in fact there are two very sharply contrasting theologies presented.

Anyway, in assuming that God is speaking directly to us through the Bible, we ascribe to the writings a single, universal interpretation, and neglect the fact that reading is a dialogue. That we are always active in making meaning from texts. We forget, or at least disregard as irrelevant, the fact that our own worldviews (ideas underpinning how people of our time and place see the world) and mindsets (how we interpret those worldviews personally) influence what we read. In other words, we tend to regard ourselves as passive recipients of divine revelation rather than active (if unconscious) participants in the creation of it. The danger is this: by refusing to see how we shape our own readings, we refuse to see how the God we find in the texts is a projection of ourselves. To (over)simplify what is undoubtedly a complex phenomenon, the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture encourages Christians to worship themselves. That is why we see no problem with God-inspired violence to protect our own self-interests: we have already drawn the conclusion that our own interests are God’s too.

As an interesting aside, in the book of Joshua, Chapter 5, just before the battle for Jericho, there is an interesting cameo appearance by “the commander of the army of the Lord”, presumably an angel. When Joshua asks him whether he is on Joshua’s side or the enemy’s, the angel responds by saying neither. That is all we hear from this angel. Thereafter, the writer recounts how the Lord delivered the city into Joshua’s hands and commanded a wholesale slaughter of its inhabitants. I often wondered why that pretext was included at all. It seems in stark contrast to what follows. Did a later writer include it to suggest that the writer’s interpretation of what was God’s will in describing the fall of Jericho might be misleading? I don’t know. But it is an intriguing (and suspiciously overlooked) little piece.

Maybe what we need to learn to do is adopt what Tom Wright calls a hermeneutic of love. “Love”, he states, “ is the deepest mode of knowing because it is love that, while completely engaging with reality other than itself, affirms and celebrates that other-than-self reality” (Surprised by Hope, 73). In, The New Testament and the People of God he states: “In love, at least in the idea of agape as we find it in some parts of the New Testament, the lover affirms the reality and the otherness of the beloved. Love does not seek to collapse the beloved into terms of itself: and, even though it may speak of losing itself in the beloved, such a loss always turns out to be a true finding. In the familiar paradox, one becomes fully oneself to another. In the fact of love, in short, both parties are simultaneously affirmed…[With respect to texts] this means that the text can be listened to on its own terms, without being reduced to the scale of what the reader can or cannot understand at the moment. If it is puzzling, the good reader will pay it the complement of struggling to understand it, of living with it and continuing to listen. But however close the reader gets to understanding the text, the reading will be peculiarly that reader’s reading: the subjective is never lost, nor is it necessary or desirable that it should be. At this level, ‘love’ will mean ‘attention’: the readiness to let the other be the other, the willingness to grow and change in oneself in relation to the other.” (p. 64)”. We do not read the Bible through a lens of love. Instead, we read to find ourselves. And, tragically, we do.

It is only by responding in love that we can end the cycle of violence. Forgiveness or tragedy are the only possible endings. And we must choose. It is, I believe, why Jesus capitulated to the cross. It was the lived expression of his teachings, as captured in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5), and all of his parables. But we have refused to listen. That cross is too difficult to carry. We cannot deny ourselves the right to vengeance, to “justice”. To tragedy. How I wish we would choose the way of love for a change. The alternate doesn’t seem to have served us too well. But we won’t, of course. We like the concept of love more than the practical reality of it. Love is too hard, it asks too much. The sacrifice that love demands, and which Jesus warned us about repeatedly, is just so inconvenient. And so history repeats itself: the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, British and Spanish imperialism, slavery, the Holocaust, Rwanda, Idi Amin, Apartheid, Orlando, Manchester, Syria. As I watch the chaos that dominates the news headlines, I recognise the patterns. There is an awful familiarity about our responses to that chaos. I can see where it is all going, and I suddenly have no more words.

Did Jesus Rise From the Dead?

After my last post, I was asked what I believe is a key question. Rather than responding to the comment as a comment, I have chosen to provide a slightly more extensive response, and post it for everyone to read. I believe it sets up how I intend to proceed from here anyway. I need to apologise up front for what is going to be a loooong response (although it will still be too brief: scholars have given lifetimes and written enormous volumes to say what I will do in a few pages). But the question demands it. The question was this:

“Peter, I’m interested: if Messianic claims were fairly common at that time, what makes us think that Jesus Christ was any different to the others? In other words, what evidence is there that he was/a different from the ‘fakes’? I’ve always thought that the Bible was supposedly that evidence.”

I think that the first point I need to make is this: I have never dismissed the Bible as a legitimate way to investigate the question of God. On the contrary, it is indispensable. But it is not without problems. The Bible (although it is not one book but many) is not told through the single authoritative voice of God; it is told through many voices belonging to context-bound men with limited understandings and deep prejudices. In order to obtain value from it, we need to treat it as such. I will say it again, just so that nobody can misunderstand my position: I love the Bible: it is the source of enormous insight; it introduced me to Jesus and Paul. But it is a human construction, with all the limitations that being so carries. When approaching it, as with any other text, I would caution that we resist the urge to think dualistically. The Bible is not either all truth or all lies. It is dangerous to become so eager to defend it that you become blinded to the inherent problems arising from attempting to make so many disparate voices align completely. It is, by the same token, too easy to say that because the creators of the source material have opinions when writing (because they are biased, in other words), that we ought to disregard what they have to say. By that same reasoning, you would need to argue that because you have opinions when reading, that you do not want to believe what the sources are saying (because you are biased, in other words), that you ought to disregard your own opinions. That would be ridiculous. The truth is that all writing and reading is biased and limited in perspective. But that does not invalidate writing and reading altogether. Biased does not mean false, necessarily. What I am advocating, in other words, is that we ought to be cognisant of both our own biases and the biases of the sources when attempting to make meaning of texts. I am not saying there is no meaning in the texts at all, only that deriving that meaning requires a far more active and critical engagement with the text than we are often prepared to give.

 

When it comes to the Bible, I would suggest treating it as any other historical source. I think it is as irresponsible to blindly defend the idea that the Bible is inerrant and free of bias, when all the evidence points to the contrary, as it is to dismiss it altogether because of that. Take away all the emotional baggage – whether you are Christian or not – and you will find yourself in a better position to see what the writers are saying, and to evaluate their messages critically. My critique in recent weeks, if you have understood me correctly, is not of the value of Biblical texts; my critique is of our readings of them. I am not attacking God; I am attacking our understandings of Her.

 

My defence of why I believe Jesus rose from the dead will require you to attempt to see the world through 1st Century Jewish eyes. After all, that is the context in which the church originated and through which the early Christians understood Jesus. A lot of the arguments in popular literature for why Jesus could not have risen fall apart for this reason: they frame their arguments through modern worldviews and fail to take into account how the 1st Century Jewish paradigms influenced the early church.

When other self-proclaimed Messiahs were killed by the Romans – like Simon bar-Giora in 70 AD and Simeon bar-Kochbar in AD 135 – their movements simply died, or their followers found other messiahs. Jesus’ followers are unique in that they continued to claim that Jesus was the Messiah, despite the fact that somebody like James (Jesus’ brother), for example, would have made fine candidates for an alternative. Instead, unlike the followers of these other messiahs, the followers of Jesus insisted that he was alive again. The first issue the historian would need to account for, would be why this fierce loyalty to a figure, who had very publically been killed, continued. In other words, why did Jesus’ followers behave differently from the followers of these other messiahs after his death? The second question, which follows the first, is why Jesus’ following not only continued, but spread rapidly, taking root across the then-known “civilised” world in under two decades (Paul is writing to the churches in Greece and Rome by the 50s already). By any account, that is a remarkable achievement, and one that demands an explanation.

 

The rapidity of the growth is all the more remarkable because in that short time it crossed cultural barriers. It is noteworthy enough that so many Jews were willing to significantly shift their worldviews and ways of life (I will discuss this later), but that so many Gentiles (for lack of a better word) from the Greco-Roman world were willing to adopt an essentially Jewish Messiah simply cannot be explained by the various conspiracy theories that attempt to attribute the rise of Christianity to an elaborate hoax by the disciples. And those who claim that the resurrection was written retrospectively into the gospels also need to account for this.

 

To account for the astounding growth of the movement, a helpful place to start would be to look at the differences between 1st Century Jewish praxis (the way people conducted their everyday lives), theology (what they believed about God) and ethics (how their values and beliefs found expression in their behaviour), and the early Christians’ (who had their roots in Judaism). By looking at the key shifts, perhaps we can understand why so many people abandoned the comfortable spaces of their cultural paradigms for something quite alien and, for many, perilous. It is well established in psychological studies and in philosophical ones that people tend not to shift their paradigms until the evidence against their existing worldviews becomes too much for them to ignore. (A really good explanation of this is found in Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. It is a landmark book in scientific philosophy, with broad application outside of the scientific field. It is, frankly, a must-read for anyone with a philosophical bent). Evidently something quite profound must have happened for so many Jews to redefine, essentially, their identities. It is critical to bear in mind that the shift from Judaism to Christianity, or for that matter from a Greco-Roman way of life to that of the early Christians, is more than just a shift in belief. It is infinitely more than the adoption of an idea. It is a complete and radical lifestyle change. It demands an explanation of the historian.

 

To fully appreciate the significance of these shifts, we need to understand 1st Century Judaism. This is going to be a woefully brief and inadequate summary, so I ask your pardon, but it will serve to illustrate the point. More detailed material is readily available for those who want more. I would recommend N.T. Wright’s series of books entitled Christian Origins and the Question of God, from which much of my argument is derived. Anyway, I will make just a few (too) brief observations that I hope will serve to bolster my argument, the relevance of which I hope to make clear later.

 

First, in the Jewish culture of the time, the Temple was the centre of Jewish life and identity. In modern times, where the temples and churches are regarded from a more utilitarian perspective, we can easily overlook just how vital the Temple was to Judaic identity. It was the place where God met people, and needed to be kept holy. The temple was indispensable to Jewish life and identity. The fact that the early Jewish converts to Christianity abandoned it is enormous.

 

Second, Jewish society was a patriarchal one, where men and women ate separately, and where women had few – if any – rights before the law. You can see this, for example, in the account in John 8, where the woman caught in adultery is brought before the rabbis for judgment. Interestingly the man (I presume the act takes two…) was not. There is no suggestion, in the text anyway, that this is unjust. Women at that time, in Jewish society and indeed much of the then-known world, did not occupy a position of equal social status to men. Indeed, it was inconceivable that they should. That the women play a central role in the resurrection story is, to say the least, curious, as is the re-ordering of such social norms that arises in the early church.

 

Third, we must understand that Jewish people did not use the Law as a means to attain salvation. They used it to distinguish themselves as a people set apart for God, amidst a world of “pagans” (I use the word with no derogatory connotations intended). In a time where that identity was under threat by a brutal Roman imperialist occupation, this nationalist agenda became even more pronounced. To this end, the Sabbath and various dietary laws were strictly observed. Jewish identity was preserved through strict adherence to the Torah, to the point, for example, that a Jew would not share a table with a non-Jew. In Galatians 2: 11-14, the following interesting incident is documented:

11 When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. 13 The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.

14 When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?

Please understand that Paul does not see Peter as a hypocrite because he (Paul) believes that eating with Gentiles is wrong. After all, Paul himself was a Pharisee before his encounter on the Damascus road, and now he lives among Gentiles as equals. Rather, he calls Peter (it is interesting that he uses his Greek name, Cephas, here) a hypocrite because Peter, who has been pushing Gentile converts to become circumcised and to obey Jewish customs, a gospel which Paul calls “really no gospel at all” in verse 7, has himself been acting in unJewish ways, contrary to Peter’s own teachings. The early church, even though they struggled to let go of these customs, as seen above, discontinued these practices, abolishing the dietary laws and observing the Lord’s day on a different day. These are not inconsequential modifications in theology. For a Jew in 1st Century Israel, these are radical. Again, this requires an explanation. I, for one, am not content to write off such enormous shifts, not only in belief, but in the structure of everyday life and social relationships, to the maintenance of a hoax.

 

The question of the rapid spread of Christianity is clearly something scholars cannot ignore. It might be understandable for a person or two to abandon what must have been a very deeply ingrained sense of identity (we can see it in the way the church in Jerusalem struggles to do so) for a way of life that looks more like a Gentile (and therefore unholy) one. But for so many to do so would be exceptional and improbable indeed, barring something very compelling to persuade them to do so. No matter what we may think of it in modern times, it would have taken something extraordinary to compel any Jew to make such a monumental change.

 

The explanation offered for all of this by the early Christians is that Jesus had been resurrected. A crucial idea to examine, then, is the 1st Century Jewish understanding of “resurrection”. This is one of those terms that has acquired a slightly different meaning in the modern church from what it would have had for Christianity’s first Jewish converts. “Resurrection”, in ancient Israel, was not simply the reanimation of a corpse. If you have read the Old and New Testaments closely, you would have noticed that there is very little about life after death. That is simply because to the Jewish people, it was only a secondary issue. It was not a question of if it would happen, but when (see, for example, the discussion in Matthew 22, where the prevalent understanding is implied in the way the encounter with the Sadducees is narrated, as well as in Jesus’ response and the people’s response to his answer). The Resurrection was also tied up in the concept of the Messiah, who was a political figure more than a spiritual one (or at least the two were very much linked). Essentially (and I simplify hugely), there was a spectrum of belief regarding the resurrection. The Sadducees on the one end believed in no afterlife. On the other end were the Pharisees, who held that the Messiah would come, he would cleanse the Temple, conquer Israel’s enemies and usher in the resurrection, where the martyrs and the prophets and all of Israel would be resurrected in incorruptible bodies, and God would come down to dwell once again with humanity. Evidence of this belief is seen in the apocryphal book of The Wisdom of Solomon:

The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them.  In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be a disaster, and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace. (3:1-3)…

In the time of their visitation they will shine forth, and will run like sparks through the stubble.  They will govern nations and rule over peoples, and the Lord will reign over them forever. (3:7-8)

 

What the writer is saying is that the souls of the Israelites are safe in the hands of God until the day when God will raise them again to become stewards of the Earth as intended in Genesis. Note that the life after death does not happen immediately after death. It is what Wright refers to as “life after life after death”. At the appointed time – once Israel’s glory has been restored (through the Messiah, if one looks at other Scriptures) – they will be raised again to rule over the new Earth. For Jewish people, “heaven” is not the place we go to in some ethereal realm when we die. It is where God brings His dwelling place to earth. This, by the way, is evident in one of the New Testament’s few references to heaven, in Revelations, where the restored creation involves a movement of God towards earth, rather than individual souls towards God. The point is that the final dwelling place of God is here, not in some arbitrary alternative dimension. When you reread the gospels in this light, you might suddenly notice that Jesus always preaches about the “Kingdom of God”, not about ‘Heaven’, and within the paradigm of 1st Century Jewish theology, Jesus’ ministry takes on a very different meaning from the one preached in modern pulpits.

 

Essentially, the Jewish belief is that the resurrection event ushers in the dawn of a new age where God dwells with Her people here on earth. What the early church believes is that Jesus’ resurrection is the ushering in of that new age. To the non-Christian Jews, this would be incomprehensible, because the resurrection is a single event: everybody is raised at the same time, starting with the Patriarchs. It is certainly not ushered in by one person being resurrected separately in what is essentially the middle of time. For the Jews, the resurrection is an end-time event. This, for me, explains an account in the gospels that I have hitherto found confusing: the Transfiguration (recounted by three of the gospel writers: Matthew 17; Mark 9; Luke 9). Whether or not you believe it happened literally, it is indicative of the belief among early Christians that the patriarchs had been raised – the resurrection had come. When the gospel writers document Jesus’ clearing of the Temple and walking among the Patriarchs in the Transfiguration they are quite clearly (for readers at the time, anyway) framing Jesus as a messianic figure. What the early Christians do, then, is move the concept of the resurrection from a more marginalised position in theology to a central one. They proceed to reshape their praxis, their theology, their symbology, their ethics around the belief that the new age has come, and it is therefore unnecessary to use the Law to define a people set apart. God is already with people. Under this new dispensation, Paul states in Galatians 3:28, as the culmination of his argument, that “[t]here is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” He also argues that we have died with Christ and been raised with him (Romans 6:8; Colossians 2:20 and 3:3), that we have been made new (Ephesians 4:24; Colossians 3:10). From the evidence we have available, we can see that where-as the early church leaders disagreed (sometimes quite sharply) on theological questions, they never differed on the issue of Jesus’ resurrection and its meaning, which is a significant departure from the spectrum of belief regarding the resurrection in Jewish culture at the time. This shifting of emphasis, this centralising and reformed understanding of the idea of resurrection in the early church’s theology, demands a new way of interacting, where everyone is equal under God. And that, indeed, is how the early church arranges itself. For me, this radical reshaping of worldviews and lifestyles alone is sufficient evidence to suggest that at the very least, the early Christians believed that Jesus had been raised from the dead. And because the Jewish understanding of the resurrection involved a corporeal resurrection, not merely a spiritual one, they would have believed that Jesus had been bodily resurrected.

 

The question is, was he? It’s not easy to answer. As with the validation of any other ancient historical event, we have to choose to what extent we trust the limited sources we have. Again I need to reiterate that the historical scholar needs to attempt to remove herself from the hype around the Bible. Whether or not we admit it, we all come to the Bible with emotively bound preconceptions. Many are either determined to defend its inerrancy or, conversely, are determined to disprove it altogether. Both are forms of bias. Treat this as you would any other historical investigation.

 

First, remember that the Bible is not one source. It is several documents collated into one anthology. So in essence we have five accounts of Jesus being seen to have been resurrected (the four gospels and the Pauline letters). Paul even claims to have encountered the risen Jesus personally. The key question is “how far can we trust those claims?” As far as I know, there is little evidence outside of the claims of these “witnesses”, so we need to interrogate their stories to make a judgment about their claims. As I have argued, I am convinced that at the very least they believed they had seen him, and seen him bodily. Further than that, we need to draw our own conclusions. In history, the evidence never speaks for itself. The historian is always required to make a judgment. Here are some of my reasons for believing that Jesus was, as the early Christians claimed, resurrected.

 

First, Paul’s theology shifts from a Pharisaic outlook, with its zealous and often violent fanaticism, its desire to preserve the integrity of Jewish identity and consequent persecution of the Jews who are perceived to be selling out, to a non-violent theology based on inclusivity. In other words, he dramatically reshapes his entire worldview, based – as he claims – on an encounter with the risen Jesus on the Damascus road (Galatians 1:11-24). Whatever you believe about his claim to have met Jesus, that is a radical transformation. Do we accept his explanation? Certainly very many people throughout the ancient world did. We will never know, I don’t think, exactly what they found so convincing about his story, but – undeniably – they believed it, because the early church positively mushroomed.

 

As far as the gospels are concerned, several things intrigue me about the accounts. I know that many of the critics would claim that the resurrection claims in the gospels are written retrospectively into the accounts in an effort to breathe life into a movement that is breaking apart after the death of its central figure. They claim that because the earliest we can date these accounts is between 65 and 110 AD, they have had ample time to revise their stories.

 

My first response to that would be that, as I have argued earlier, the growth in the early church is due almost entirely to the fact that people believed Jesus to have risen. Since Paul’s letter to the Galatians can be dated to the mid-50s, around 20 years after Jesus’ death, and since by that stage the church had already spread across the ancient world, the belief must have already been in existence a long time. It could not have been introduced later. A later introduction of the of the resurrection certainly does not account for the radical shift in the converts’ worldviews and behaviour, nor for the rapid spread of Christianity in the years following Jesus’ death.

 

But some aspects of the narrative constructs of the gospels themselves intrigue me. For example, if you are making up a story and intend for it to be taken seriously by your Jewish audience, why make the first witnesses to the risen Jesus women? All four gospels agree on this (Matthew 28; Mark 16; Luke 24; John 20), and it needs to be remembered that these accounts are separate, even though we have become accustomed to viewing them together in the Bible and thinking of them as one. It seems implausible to me that no fewer than four separate accounts name the women as the first (and least convincing) witnesses of the resurrection if they were attempting to fabricate a believable story.

I am also interested in how the risen Jesus is described. First, it is clear that the disciples were not expecting him to return from the dead, and don’t believe what they see. To this end, whereas there are constant references to how Jesus fulfilled various Scriptures through his actions in other parts of the gospel, even in his crucifixion, there are few, if any, scriptural references used to justify the resurrection story. I think this is significant. If a writer intended to validate his interpretation of Jesus as the Messiah by invoking sacred texts, which the gospel writers do frequently, why do they cease to do so at the critical point? Surely if they were only writing this in retrospectively and at a much later date, they would have had ample opportunity to find scriptural justification for their stance, and it would be logical to do so if the aim was to persuade a Jewish audience of the veracity of the claims? But they do not, which suggests to me an immediacy of response.

 

Also, the descriptions of the risen Jesus are not what one would expect. The disciples both recognise him and do not recognise him simultaneously (Matthew 28:17; Luke 24; John 20:15 and 21:4). Jesus has a body that they can touch, yet which does things bodies cannot (John 20: 19). The point is that while the body of Jesus conforms to their expectation of a bodily resurrection at the end of time, the form Jesus’ glorified body takes is entirely unexpected, and unprecedented in Jewish literature. I need to ask why, if they were making that up, they would innovate. Surely, if your aim is to persuade others to your point of view, it would be more natural to construct a narrative that your listeners would find plausible within their religious frameworks?

 

I don’t believe that an historical investigation alone can ever lead us to the truth about an historical event. There would always be questions about the reliability of the sources. And there will always be (too) much that has been lost, leading to an incomplete picture. History is fraught with subjectivity, both in the telling and in the interpretation. As Tom Wright puts it, “[w]hat the candles of historical scholarship will do is to show that the room has been disturbed, that it doesn’t look like it did last night, and that would-be ‘normal’ explanations for this won’t do”. We have to do the rest. When we explore the origins of the Christian church, we find a people who radically transformed not only their beliefs and creeds, but their lifestyles, their social interactions, their ethics, their deeply entrenched cultural identities, virtually overnight in historical terms, to embrace something dangerous and alien. To us, two thousand years later, donning academic ‘detachment’ like a familiar cloak, it is easy to overlook the fact that for them, that was a life-and-death decision, and most people don’t make those decisions lightly. They claim to have done so based on testimonies that Jesus had been raised from the dead. That’s the evidence. What we conclude from that evidence remains open.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Peaches and the Bible

My mind sometimes works in, I think it is fair to say, unorthodox ways. I am aware that most people, when the local radio station (goodness alone knows why) decides it would be marvellous to play The Presidents of the United States of America’s Peaches, would not immediately recognise an opportunity to discuss Biblical exegesis. Evidently I am not most people: I did. As I listened to the repetitive (and here I seriously understate the case) strains of “Movin’ to the country; gonna eat a lot of peaches” (pretty much the sum-total of three long minutes’ worth of lyrics), I realised that the song would provide me with the perfect way to introduce where I want to take my blog’s discussions in coming weeks.

 

In my recent posts I have been arguing that if we are to understand what the “good news” of Christianity really is, then it is necessary to start by recognising that the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture is largely a fairly recent Protestant one, and that we be willing to discard it. Please understand that I am not advocating that we dismiss the Bible altogether. That would be foolish. After all, the bulk of what we know about Christian origins and the early church is contained in its pages. If you want to investigate Jesus and understand the Christian message – not the version we have of it now, distorted through the ages into the ticket-to-paradise, middle-class-social-club monstrosity we have inherited, but the one that, despite vicious persecution in a brutal, imperialist Greco-Roman world, where Messianic claims were reasonably commonplace, took root and flourished, transforming Western worldviews – then studying the Bible is imperative. Just because I reject the claims that it is inerrant, it does not mean that I see it as worthless. Quite the opposite; it is vital to establishing a sound Christian theology. Rather, I am suggesting that we ought to approach the Bible as we would any other text: critically.

 

Generally speaking, people are quite lazy and naïve readers. If a text seems to resonate with our worldview, we regard it as truthful. If not, or if we do not understand it, we regard it with suspicion or dismiss it outright. Often we think dualistically. Either something is right or it is wrong. Its “rightness” is determined by how closely we perceive its ideas to resemble our own. Wrongness entitles us to ignore it. But things are seldom that simple. I fell into that trap the first time I heard Peaches. I like my music to have (even marginally) intelligent lyrics, or failing that, to have one of the band members demonstrate exceptional musical skill on an instrument, hence my (possibly unfair) disregard for Katy Perry, for example. So a song that expressed, as its central concern, a desire to relocate to a rural setting and, once there, to consume significant quantities of fruit, practically invited mockery. But my “reading” was irresponsible and lazy. Not that my assessment was off, necessarily. I still dislike the song, but I don’t think it’s fair to label it “bad” because it doesn’t suit my taste. Maybe Peaches is simply about a fructose addict looking for his next fix. Maybe, though, there is something more.

 

So how ought I to approach the text? Well, the obvious first step is to attempt to comprehend what is being said. That can itself be relatively tricky. For example, was the relocation to the country voluntary, or was some hostile agrarian force with a predilection for peaches force-feeding some unfortunate subordinate, causing him to bemoan his impending fate? Does the high volume of peach consumption indicate a preference for peaches, or does it rather suggest a paucity in the supply of alternative deciduous fruit? Does the writer believe that peaches consumed in a more natural setting are somehow superior to those consumed in an urban environment? Mere comprehension is not always a straightforward as it might initially appear. And, going on the text alone, we do not have sufficient information to make any sort of definitive arguments either way.

 

Similarly, when reading the Scriptures, it is seldom sufficient to rely on the text alone. Without an understanding of both the context in which the passage was written, and the context in which we read it, the text can be made to say pretty much anything. But a Christian culture that emphasises personal salvation, and which believes that the Bible speaks with one inerrant voice – God’s – is underpinned by the (probably subconscious) assumption that because God actually wrote it, the “meaning” must be clear. The “fact” that God uses it to speak to me personally discourages me from interrogating the validity of the message I receive from the text. We don’t bother with context, probably because at some level we are suspicious of it. It is easier to cling to the belief that both we and the texts are neutral. After all, our faith makes us feel better, safe even, and we don’t want to risk that by probing too much. The result is a Christian culture that believes in “the” meaning of Scriptures, where “the” meaning is whatever I need it to be, and utterly beyond questioning.

 

But context matters. I know that we live in a postmodern culture, where the meaning that I make of a text is as valid as the meaning the author did, where the text can take on its own life, independent of the author’s intentions, and legitimately speak in different ways to different people. But I believe if we are going to base our theologies, our lifestyles, our ethical codes on a text, then we ought to make some effort to understand what is actually being said. The New Testament, for example, contains two very different and largely incompatible theologies: Paul’s and the church in Jerusalem’s. It is not sufficient to say, “The Bible says…”. You cannot frame a coherent theology around the idea that the Law is both part of the problem (as Paul argues) and part of the solution (as the church in Jerusalem argues), which you would have to do if the Bible was one, God-authored book. You certainly cannot meld them if you have understood either side of the argument properly ie. If you have actually read the New Testament. To do so implies a schizophrenic God.

 

If I am to do justice to Peaches I need to look beyond initial impressions; I need to explore context. How do I locate it in within late 20th Century popular culture, and alternative rock culture particularly? Do the band’s other songs provide insight into my reading of Peaches? Could the song possibly be parodic in nature? Certainly both alternative and punk bands make frequent use of parody and satire, and The Presidents of the Unites States of America have made use of parody themselves in that same album. If so, were there specific events or prevalent worldviews in society that would have prompted such a response? Is the song’s message consistent with the band’s outspoken support of the Democrats? If not, why not? Are there other sources, apart from the band’s own work, that could help us make sense of the song? Could John Denver’s Blow Up Your TV (quoted below) have had any influence, and if so, why?:

 

“Blow up your TV, throw away your paper,

Go to the country, build you a home.

Plant a little garden, eat a lot of peaches,

Try and find Jesus on your own”

 

Is this similarity more than coincidence? If so, was that conscious? Has the writer himself said anything about the text? In the case of Peaches, yes. Chris Ballew said that it was inspired by a childhood memory of waiting under a peach tree for a sweetheart. Was he truthful? If not, why not? Has anybody else written about the text? If so, how reliable are they as sources?

 

If it is obvious how valuable these questions are to understanding a song as simple as Peaches, how much more useful would they be in investigating the gospels or the Pauline letters? Sadly, that is a bit too much like hard work, and far too threatening, for many. Instead, we blindly trust in others to think for us, despite the wealth of information that is readily accessible to everyone in the technological age.

 

One of the considerations we ought to make when investigating a text is how our own mind-sets and the predominant worldviews in our own cultures affect the meaning-making process. I need to acknowledge that my engagement with a text is never neutral. I come with certain expectations of the text. Countless studies on the brain have demonstrated that we see what we want to or expect to see, and can be blind to evidence that contradicts those expectations. For example, I come to music (and especially alternative rock) with an expectation of a degree of intelligence. Three lines into Peaches, I had made up my mind that I could leave that planet because there were no signs of sentient lifeforms. I could easily have not looked for evidence to contradict my impressions. I think that is the path most would have taken.

 

When we engage with texts, we need to acknowledge that we have biases, and that those biases influence what we see. I may well be overly critical and dismissive of, or too quick to accept what is presented because I have certain agendas, or have had certain experiences. That can be devastating when it affects how a person reads a “holy text”. For instance, if one is homophobic or racist or misogynistic, it is easy to latch onto those verses in Scripture that seem to validate those biases. The consequences of that, as I noted before, can be catastrophic.

 

I also need to identify which key concepts or terms may have had a different meaning for the creator of the text than they do for me. Differences in understanding of central terms could result in significantly different interpretations of a text. How, for example, might my South African picture of the “country” differ from the Presidents’? Are there political or social connotations to “country” and country living for PUSA that I would be unaware of?

 

I think modern Western Christianity has failed to take this into account when reading the Scriptures. We have assumed that ideas like “The Law”, “salvation”, or “eternal life” had the same meanings for 1st Century Jews as they do for us today. Quite simply, they don’t. And if we are going to reconstruct what Jesus or Paul believed, then we dare not make that assumption. For the most part, for example, 1st Century Jews did not believe that obedience to the law led to salvation. Even the concept of salvation had political connotations for them that we are largely ignorant of. For the Pharisees and the people of Jesus’ time, salvation was not so much spiritual and personal as it was political and communal. We have, for too long, been reading the Scriptures through our own lenses, not exploring the ideas through the filter of 1st Century Judaism. I think if we did that – if we built our theologies (and consequently our ethics) around what Paul actually meant, as opposed to what we think he meant, or around what a 16th Century Protestant worldview has taught us he meant – then I suspect Christianity would look very different. Better.

 

So in the next few weeks I am going to try distil for you what I am reading. I want to understand what a 1st Century Judaic context – the one that influenced what and how Jesus and Paul taught – looks like. And if you are up to it, I would love to have you along. Come with me to the country, away from all that is comfortable and familiar to you. I hope you like peaches.

Rejecting Perfection: What If We Were Meant to Fail?

On one of my business trips, some colleagues and I lay outside on the lawn at the bed and breakfast we were staying at, looking up at the stars. Somebody remarked that a heaven where there was no pain or hardship would not be a heaven at all. She pointed out that all of her best attributes were forged in suffering, that so much of her growth was born in discomfort, and that any space that prohibited growth would be sterile and stagnant. She wanted no part of that.

 

I have been thinking a lot about that conversation ever since. It is true, in my experience, that we learn more from our failures than our successes. We understand how things work better if we fail again and again, learning from our failures and making progress, than we do if we simply get things right the first time. I love playing chess, for example, and am reasonably good. But the most rapid growth in my development as a player came when I joined a chess club where I was completely outclassed by the other, more experienced players. I lost the majority of my games when I joined. A year later, I was awarded the annual trophy for the most improved player at their prize-giving ceremony. In a culture that worships perfection, the “most improved” trophy is one that few actually want to receive. When I was teaching, I saw that a lot. “Most improved” was normally interpreted to mean ‘completely talentless but tries very hard, and we don’t want to demoralise the poor little tyke, so we have to give him something”. But I was proud of that trophy. I could see how far I had come. I had not stagnated in my game, which I suspect would have been the case had I been champion.

 

Have you ever watched Idols? I am often amazed that some of the entrants are so oblivious to the fact that, as far as singing goes at least, they are marginalised ability-wise. I am sure that, in part anyway, it is the consequence of well-meaning friends and family, who didn’t want to offend them by gently discouraging them from pursuing that particular avenue of pleasure. And so they find themselves being humiliated on national television because, until that point, their singing had never “failed”. I admire those would-be Mariah Careys and Michael Jacksons who respond to the failure by taking singing lessons and returning the following year (invariably failing again, but failing ‘better’). Eventually they seem to understand that their talents are best expressed in the shower, and never return. I believe they have been freed to pursue dreams that may be more realistic and thus rewarding for them. But they need to be crushed first before they can see that. One of life’s truths, and one that runs counter to our sensibilities, is this: failure is not only necessary, it is good.

 

Spiritually speaking, I think that is true as well. If I consider Jesus’s relationships, he was always less critical of those who had been branded as sinners than he was of those who believed that they had no sin. Moral perfection was, in so many of Jesus’ teachings and stories, a hindrance to spiritual growth rather than a laudable goal. The Law was never intended to be a goal in itself. How else do we interpret Jesus’ response to the Pharisees in Mark 2:27, when he is confronted about the fact that his hungry disciples had picked grain on the Sabbath: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath”? Now if we are to consider Jesus sinless, when on occasions like this he undeniably contravenes the Law, then our current theological frameworks have either misunderstood what sin is or have failed to grasp the purpose of the Law. Probably both. This much seems clear: God never intended the Law to be a standard of holiness to aspire to, so much as a set of guidelines to promote quality of life.

 

If quality of life is more important than strict adherence to the rules, that has significant ramifications for our theologies. For one thing, if our quality of life is enhanced by failure as opposed to success, maybe we were meant to fail. It always did seem a bit odd to me that God would create Adam and Eve, knowing that they would fail but doing it anyway, and then punishing them for the inevitable outcome, which She alone could have prevented. If failure was not only necessary, but good, then the very act of creating humanity makes a lot more sense. The Law makes a lot more sense. He (and the inconsistency in my use of gender pronouns is deliberate) would have understood that, like children, we would need the security that firm boundaries provide in order to develop a sense of identity and order. But She always intended us to move beyond the boundaries of the Law. We cannot move beyond ourselves, and truly love others, until we actually have a self to let go of. The Law helps us find ourselves. Often by breaking that same Law and experiencing the natural consequences. But, to quote Richard Rohr (Falling Upward, pg 5), “[o]nce you have had your narcissistic fix [what he later describes as the need to look good to ourselves and others, which is a typical trait of religious puritanism], you have no real need to protect your identity, defend it, prove it, or assert it.” Only then are you freed to love.

 

This must alter how we understand the cross. If failure is not only inevitable, but necessary and good, then punishing us, let alone the innocent Jesus in our place, is profoundly unjust. The gospel writers make only two axiomatic claims about God: God is love (1 John 4:8) and God is light (1 John 1:5). Neither of those is compatible with an understanding of the cross that pits a monstrously angry Father against her beloved Son. The cross is far more than a free pass into Heaven, despite our inability to keep the rules. It is a gift infinitely more valuable than fire insurance. It is God’s liberating us from our enslavement to the “curse of the Law” (Galatians 3:10-14).

 

Paul reiterates it over and over in his letters: we die to the old self, the one incapable of seeing that life lies beyond the boundaries of the Law. Does that mean we are free to sin? Absolutely not! (Romans 6). We need the Law to help us understand what it is to have life. And the life God promises – true, fulfilling life in abundance (John 10:10) – necessitates that we learn to let go of self (Colossians 3:10-11) and love (Galatians 5:6; 14). And the Law, seen as an end in itself, does not allow for that (Galatians 5:22-23). The Law is a necessary step in our development, but it is not the end of it. We find life beyond it, not in keeping it. It is a merely a foundation for the creation of a new heaven and a new earth. That is what Jesus showed us. His rejection of holiness-code-based religion, and the brutal exposure of what that system really offers, illustrated in his death, opened the way (John 14:6)for us to catch a glimpse of the true nature of God.

 

As you ponder the cross and the resurrection this Easter, I pray that you may see God. Not as a smiting, vengeful dictator, but as a giver of life. I pray earnestly that you may see beyond the lies and half-truths, the logical and theological inconsistencies on which our understandings of the atonement rest, to the indescribable beauty that is visible, for those who will see, through the anguish of that terrible weekend, and in the promise contained in his resurrection. Shalom.

 

Image accessed from https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/learning-through-failure-learn-actually-fail-dan-walker-cfa on12/4/2017

A Hermeneutic From Below

The problem with believing that God was punishing Jesus on the cross for our sins, as Michael Hardin points out, is that it doesn’t take sin nearly seriously enough. It limits the power of sin to the personal. In other words, it implies that the primary problem with sin is that I will be harshly punished for what I have done wrong. By reducing sin to actions, we negate the power of that which drives the actions. By focusing on the outward manifestation of the disease, we neglect the far more perilous causes of the disease. In other words, if the primary purpose of the cross was for God to punish our sins through Jesus, then the atonement is incomplete and superficial. And I don’t believe that God would settle for that.

 

I think we need to step out of the spiritual complacency that the “personal salvation” gospel engenders, and start to actively seek God. Only then will we find him. And for me, the logical starting point for that is the Scriptures. Now I know that statement may seem to contradict what I said in my previous post, but it does not. I have not been arguing that we must dispense with the Bible altogether, only that we must approach it in the proper way, or else our theologies will inevitably become rooted in fear and violence. Much of the modern Western approach to reading the Scriptures is entirely passive. Because the Bible has come to be regarded as the inerrant word of God and the only worthy guide for our lives, we have become entirely uncritical of it and assumed that our readings of it are accurate. God speaks to us through it and it only remains for us to obey.

 

But this approach is deeply flawed, as I explained in my last post. And it makes us lazy. We forget that interaction with a text is never a monologue, but always – at least – a dialogue. The reader is integral to the meaning-making process, not simply a passive recipient. Reading is never a neutral process. We always approach a text with our own cultural filters, and make sense of it through the lenses of our personal experiences, fears, desires and expectations. Even if the Bible was the inerrant word of God, we ourselves are far from infallible, and so could never experience an inerrant reading of it.

 

There are, for instance, numerous terms that Jesus and Paul use, which we understand in very different ways, because we live two thousand years later. We have come to understand ideas like “resurrection” and “born again” in ways that Jesus never did. But our cultural filters, which have become more attuned to 16th Century Protestant theology than 1st century Judeo-Christian theology, have normalised our understandings of these concepts in very different ways. Unless we immerse ourselves in the ideas that shaped the ideas of the time, we can never understand fully what Jesus’ teachings, or Paul’s writings, are saying.

 

One of the unhelpful modern layers in Biblical hermeneutics (how we interpret the text) is privilege. Among the unfortunate consequences of growing up in relative comfort is the tendency to develop an inflated sense of one’s own importance. And so it becomes easy to make the assumption that one’s own personal purity is somehow important to God. Let me posit this: that if God is so affronted by your sin that he feels compelled to act on it or else He cannot be at peace, then He is as much a slave to sin as you are. It is below God to be affronted by your sin. But in a universe that revolves around you, that understanding of the cross would seem perfectly logical.

 

But now try to imagine a different hermeneutic. Forget about reading the Scriptures in a way that allows you to feel complete after you have sung a few choruses on Sunday and let the preacher’s words assuage your guilt. Forget a church that can exist for middle-class fellowship and home groups and tea after the service. Forget a reading of the Scriptures that requires of you only that you reflect on your own failure to be perfect, and where the primary purpose of discipleship is to grow in personal holiness, and where if others are necessary at all, it is only to hold you accountable on the quest for personal piety. Forget the temporary vindication you feel when you participate in a church outreach programme, or the validation of your goodness you experience because you listen to “Christian” music or read “Christian” books. Dare to imagine that God’s purpose for your life demands more of you than imposing your version of faith on “sinners”. Try to recognise your hermeneutic of privilege for what it is. It is a reading of the Scriptures that perpetuates a mindset of empire. It is designed to legitimise your power, and to render it invisible and natural. But empire is always built on the exploitation of others, through the blood and the sweat of those who are powerless to resist.

 

Now imagine a hermeneutic from below. Imagine how the Scriptures would be read by the homeless, by the prostitutes, by the racially marginalised, by the disabled, by the LGTBI community, by the terminally ill, by the hungry, by the poor, by those under the heel of your boot as you justify their suffering in the name of pleasing your God. How comfortable would these people feel if they walked into your church?

 

Do you want to know which reading Jesus supports? Look at the company he kept. Jesus’ ministry did not centre around the temple, the church of the day, but around the tables in the homes of the tax-collectors and the prostitutes, in the company of the sick and the illiterate and the Other. Jesus constantly affirmed the marginalised. He was no cultural imperialist. In his life and his teachings, he consistently challenged the notion that godliness was the domain of the holy elite. It was an idea he died for.

 

The truth is that we need to be delivered from our righteousness. We need to stop thinking in terms of “I used to be sinful but now I am saved; I used to be on the wrong side of God, but now I am in His good books”. We ought to remind ourselves that it was precisely in their best moments, when they were being most obedient to their laws, that the Pharisees demanded the crucifixion of Jesus, or that Paul was converted on the road to Damascus. Discipleship means more than merely believing about Jesus or even in him. It means believing him. We love him when we do what he commands: love one another (John 15). We cannot claim to love him if we do not obey him, if we refuse to love.

 

So we need to critique the Bible. It is absolutely essential that we subordinate it to the true Word of God, Jesus. Any reading of the Scriptures that does not do more than promote a holiness code has no place in the Kingdom. The problem of sin is not so insignificant that it pertains only to our personal salvation. It is a systemic problem – it is rooted in the nature of society, of our interactions with other people – and it delivers only death. As long as our spiritual purpose is to be holy, then we can allow ourselves to divide people into the good and the bad (isn’t it coincidental that we are always somehow among the good?), and on that basis to justify violence and exploitation. As long as our spiritual goal is a ticket to Paradise, how we think about and treat others is irrelevant,

 

But if you read the Scriptures carefully, if you filter it through Jesus , who said: I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you (John 15:15, my emphasis), you will begin to see how God speaks. And what She says is unmistakeable. It is the promise of the most difficult journey you can make, of a cross that you must bear with Jesus if you are to call yourself his disciple. But it is also a promise of hope: a renunciation of blood sacrifice and vengeance. It is the picture of God, dead on the cross at the hands of a humanity that believed it was doing what was right. It is how God forgives us our righteousness. When you look at the Scriptures through the eyes of Jesus, one word resonates clearly (let he who has ears, hear): Shalom. Peace.

Towards a Christ-Centred Theology

We did not arrive here by accident. Make no mistake about it, the mess that is the world was created by our own actions, rooted in our beliefs and values, shaped by the way we think about who we are and how we ought to relate to others. If our misogyny allows us to perpetuate a rape culture, if our suspicion – if not outright hatred – of anyone Other breeds racism and discrimination, if our fear of sexuality permits us to ostracise the LGTBI community, then it is allowed to do so because our God endorses it. We find justification for our cruelty and hatred in the fact that it is divinely sanctioned. Brexit, Trump, and Apartheid are not aberrations in our history, they are the natural consequences of theologies that authorise violence. We did not arrive here by accident.

 

And one of the chief culprits is the Bible. More specifically, the way that we read the Bible. The line of thinking that has dominated Western Christian thought regarding the Bible since the Reformation has been that it is the inerrant or infallible Word of God. This belief has necessitated that we find one voice – the voice of God – in the Scriptures, that we find ways to make each verse agree with every other verse, else we find ourselves with the problem of a God with a severe mental disorder, vacillating between complete love and retributive wrath. We have had to manufacture ways to make the disparate voices agree. And, frankly, we have failed. People who might otherwise have come to understand just how much God loves them, have been turned away because of our dogged determination to defend a morally reprehensible picture of God. Rightly so. And it is time we owned up to our mistake. It is time that we faced up to the consequences of our idolatrous beliefs surrounding the Bible.

 

It is easy to spout vitriolic condemnation of the gay community when throughout the Old Testament, God is commanding genocide, wiping out the Amalekites, the Midianites, the Amorites and any other –ites unfortunate enough to stand in the way of God’s chosen people. When the Old Testament writers gleefully advocate taking the infants of the enemy and smashing their heads against rocks, when the conquering Israelites take the enemy virgins as spoils of war, then it seems relatively minor to justify women and child abuse. When God is raining fire and brimstone on entire cities because they would not believe, it is easy to defend colonialism – the violent extermination of entire cultures in the name of Christianising them. But I don’t believe that any of this is what God wants. And that is why I am opposed to a Bible-centred theology. No good can – indeed has – come from that. Because the Bible, all too frequently, glorifies violence. You can cloak it in all the apologetics you want, but that is the bottom line: The Bible is a book of blood.

 

A Jesus-centred theology, now that is a different thing altogether. I can get behind that. But I don’t believe that you can have a theology that is both Bible-centred and Christ-centred. You have to choose. Jesus completely eschews violence; both in his conduct and in his teachings, the emphasis is consistently on restoration of relationships, on forgiveness, on creatively solving conflict in peaceful ways. The Bible, on the other hand, no matter how you may try to justify it, does not. And unless God is two-faced and mentally unstable, both cannot be God’s revelation of His divine nature. God cannot be simultaneously violent and opposed to violence. Can you honestly say you can picture Jesus commanding genocide; exhorting his followers to destroy entire cultures, wiping out every man, woman and child, and – in some cases – even the livestock? Not if you have understood what he stood for in any even rudimentary way. Not if you can recall how he treated the woman caught in adultery, the stories he told about the Prodigal Son or the Good Samaritan, the inordinate amount of time (as far as the Pharisees were concerned, anyway) that he spent in the company of prostitutes and tax-collectors. Not if you study how he handled his arrest, trial and crucifixion. Even his enemies knew him as an advocate of peace (Luke 22:52-53). The question, then, is: which of these ought we to use as a framework on which to build our theologies? Do you choose to believe Jesus when he claimed that if we have seen him, we have seen the Father (John 14:9), or do you cling to a 16th Century doctrine of the infallibility of the Bible?

 

I am not dismissing the Bible. I am asking you to think about it differently, to be willing to see it through the eyes of Jesus, not of Reformer theologians; to see that it does not speak with one monolithic voice, but outlines a debate about the nature of God that spans millennia. It juxtaposes priestly voices that insist that God requires sacrifice to be appeased (most of Leviticus, for example), with prophetic voices that insist that those sacrifices are not only meaningless, but abhorrent to God (Hosea 6:6; Psalm 40:6-8; Jeremiah 7: 22-23; Amos 5:21-24; Micah 6: 6-8; Matthew 9:13); it invites you into the fierce conflict between Paul’s theology (outlined in his letters and in the gospels) and the theology of the Jerusalem church (in Peter’s letters and in the book of James), which is documented in Acts 15 and 21, and in Galatians 2. By no stretch of the imagination does the Bible promote only one theology. It is a debate, and one that does not ask you to agree with all perspectives, but asks you to take sides. To insist that the books of the Bible speak with one voice is to misunderstand and completely disregard the sharp points of disagreement in their ways of understanding God, and to hugely diminish and problematise our own understanding of God as a result.

 

So where does Jesus stand? Which side does he pick? Throughout his ministry, when Jesus quotes the Scriptures, he frequently emphasises the gracious and non-retributive nature of God, either by omitting the retributive parts of the Scripture altogether, or by adding to the Scriptures. He certainly does not treat them like the infallible and inerrant revelation of God’s will to humanity. That was a human addition, and an unhelpful one at that. If you don’t believe me, go and look at all the times that Jesus quotes Scripture. Also look up the original Scriptures he quotes from. Notice what he emphasises, what he adds and what he leaves out. Think about what the implications are of the fact that he feels the freedom to do that at all.

 

And once you have let go of the Bible idol, you will begin to see the cross differently. You will see that the story of the cross is not one of God rejecting Jesus because of our sin, and punishing him instead of us. Sin is a disease, and no disease can be cured by punishing it out of the afflicted. Sin requires a doctor, not a judge. The problem with sin was never that we were naughty and needed to be punished. It was that sin robbed us of life, trapped us in an endless cycle of blood and death, rendered us incapable of interacting properly with God because we could never do so without fear and blood, without being so focused on our own inadequacy that we lost sight of His all-sufficiency and love. At the cross, we see how God wishes it all to end: not with retribution and punishment, not with fire and blood, but –as evidenced in the first words the risen Jesus speaks to those disciples who themselves rejected and betrayed him – in peace. Shalom.

 

We did not arrive here by accident. But we can change we go. We can let go of our blood-centred theologies and carry the cross that Jesus asked his followers to carry: the gospel of peace. The sacrifice of forgiveness. Imagine what a world would look like if our actions were rooted in love, not in retribution or fear. Imagine a place where serving one another out of love and respect, as fellow children of grace, took precedence over morality codes and blood sacrifice. Imagine a God that looks more like Jesus than Molech. We can end up there. That’s the gospel. But we need to choose, a little more wisely, the object of our faith: Jesus or the Bible.

Rejecting the Inerrancy of Scripture

The Bible is not the word of God. Let’s get that out of the way right up front. I think that if we are to make genuine advances in our understanding of who God is, and why He would choose to become human in the person of Jesus, we need to relinquish our grip on that cherished idol. The Bible is not God’s revelation of himself to humanity; it is not a manual for spiritual living; it is not the benchmark for determining God’s will against which all our beliefs and our ethics ought to be judged. That singular honour belongs to Jesus. Anything else is idolatry.

 

In fact, the Bible never claims to be the word of God. Not once. The closest that those who defend this view can come to such a claim is to be found in 2 Timothy 3: 16-17 “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” First, perhaps the obvious needs to be stated: the writer is not referring to the Bible as we know it, which won’t exist in that form for several hundred years more. Second, I do not believe that the writer sees the Scriptures as the inerrant word of God. He says that they are inspired by God (which is a significant departure from their being authored by God), but sees in the them a utilitarian purpose – as a guide to wise living –  rather than a divine revelation of God to humanity.

 

On the other hand, the gospels are very clear that Jesus is God’s word:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind…14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1: 1- 4; 14)

 

The distinction is important. Jesus is 100% God’s revelation, without ‘interference’ from humanity. The Scriptures are human dialogues and human perceptions of divine events. And the problem with humans is that when they interact with the divine, they tend to descend into religion. And religion always ends in bloodshed. The Scriptures, over and over again, paint a picture of a quest to know God that ultimately results in innocent blood being shed in order to appease his wrath. It is a picture wholly at odds with the ethics and the theology of Jesus, as seen in the gospels. So which do we trust? It seems clear to me that if Jesus – and not the Bible – is God’s revelation of himself to us, then we ought to be interpreting the Scriptures through the lens that is Jesus, rather than attempting to understand Jesus through the lens that is the Bible. That is not to say that there is not much about God that is revealed in the Scriptures, but we need to understand that sometimes the theology in the Bible is terribly wrong, when set against the true Word, Jesus.

 

Even Jesus did not use regard the Scriptures as inerrant and complete. He used Scriptures with a recklessness that would appal many modern conservatives, just as it did many of the teachers of the law during his own lifetime.

 

I owe the following example, and the insights that follow, to a series that Michael Hardin taught on how to read the Bible. It is the third instalment in the series, and can be viewed here (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dn6zV2IIkXw ). It provides much insight into how we ought to understand the Scriptures.

 

To provide the context for this passage from Luke 4, it is the Jubilee year, and Jesus is preaching to a Jewish nationalist crowd with very strong anti-Roman sentiments. They believed that the promised Messiah would crush the Romans and liberate the Jews. During the Jubilee year (once every 49 years), Jewish law required debtors to cancel the debts that were owed to them, to provide a clean slate, so to speak, to those who were indebted to them. Jesus’ identification of himself as the Messiah on this occasion, and using the text he does, in the way he does, speaks volumes about the character of God.

 

16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,     because he has anointed me     to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners     and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, 19     to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked.

23 Jesus said to them, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ And you will tell me, ‘Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’”

24 “Truly I tell you,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown. 25 I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. 26 Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. 27 And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.”

28 All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. 29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. 30 But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.

 

Jesus preaches a sermon that espouses peace and social justice, making reference to a text that those hearing would have clearly understood to be a Messianic prophecy. According to this translation of verse 22, it seems to be well-received. And then something inexplicable happens. Jesus loses it. He berates them for rejecting him and they become so furious that they try to kill him. What possible explanation can we provide for why Jesus becomes incensed at the people’s seemingly favourable response to his message, and for why – even though Jesus might seem to be unreasonably vexed – the crowd’s disposition turns so suddenly from adulation to homicide?

 

If we were entrenched in the mindset that the Bible is infallible, we would probably miss why this passage is so powerful. The key, Hardin asserts, lies in the translation of part of verse 22 from the Greek: πάντες  ἐμαρτύρουν  αὐτῷ  which can be translated as “all bore witness to him”. The word αὐτῷ, though, is in the dative case, and could equally accurately be translated as “all bore witness against him”. But because it was Jesus teaching, and the evangelical translators could not possible conceive of the notion that he would not be well-received, the account becomes translated as “they spoke well of him”, rather than the probably more accurate “they spoke against him”.

 

And then suddenly we see that it was, in fact, the “gracious words that came from his lips” that made the crowd angry! Why? At this point we see how Jesus treats Scripture. If you go back to the Isaiah passage that Jesus quotes, we notice a very important omission. Absolutely deliberately, Jesus has taken a well-known passage, claimed that he is God and is bringing this prophecy to fulfilment, and is leaving out an idea that the Jewish nationalists in the audience would have regarded as quintessential to their understanding of the Messiah. The original, found in Isaiah 61, reads (my emphasis):

“The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,

because the Lord has anointed me

to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,

to proclaim freedom for the captives

and release from darkness for the prisoners,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor

    and the day of vengeance of our God

 

The power behind the “gracious words” that rile the people to the point that they wish to kill him lies in what Jesus left out, more than what he quoted. It is not because the people were opposed to God ministering to the socially marginalised that they became incensed. It was Jesus’ tacit suggestion that the Messiah was not going to smite the Roman oppressor, and more than that, that the Messiah’s mission was not concerned with retribution for the suffering of the Jewish people, that stirred them up.

 

In this high-voltage atmosphere it is easy to lose sight of another important facet of the narrative: the manner in which Jesus treats Scripture. He does not benchmark himself against it. He does not use the words of the prophet Isaiah to inform how he ought to think about God. In fact, he uses himself as the yardstick by which to measure the validity of the Scripture. As the one true word of God, he is able to render completely nonviable the parts of the prophet’s words that are not aligned with the nature of God, as evident in himself. And he utterly dismisses notions of vengeance. There is no “God wrote it, I believe it, that settles it!” mentality with Jesus, when it comes to reading the Scriptures. Because he does not view these documents as the inerrant word of God, he feels no compulsion to accept everything in them. And indeed throughout Jesus’ ministry, we see evidence of him reinterpreting Scripture, adding to and subtracting from it as he sees fit. If he is himself the Word of God, that makes sense.

 

I find it ironic. Whenever a preacher, like Jesus, dares to suggest that God will have nothing to do with vengeance, but instead proposes that God wants to allow us to start again; whenever somebody preaches that God is about love and not about retributive justice, it angers people to the point that they become nasty. I see it time and time again – in this story, as well is in the internet responses to any of the sermons on peace and love preached by theologians I have come to respect (Brad Jersak, Michael Hardin, Tom Wright, James Alison, J. Denny Weaver): religion and God will always struggle to find a meeting place. Religion demands blood. But Jesus, the true Word of God, rejects violence.

 

So our journey must begin with our willingness to let go of the idea that the Bible is the infallible word of God. It certainly has value, but we need to accept that it is steeped in religion, as human understandings of God always are, and religion is invariably a bloody affair. In Jesus, though, we see God incarnate, as he reveals himself to us, and in the Jesus narrative outlined in the gospels, we get a glimpse of how God interacts with religion. We are faced with two choices, really: either we must see the Bible as the flawless framework through which to understand the life, thinking, death and resurrection of Jesus, in which case we are bound to find a wrathful deity who needs to be appeased; or we must see Jesus as the perfect framework through which we understand the Bible – our religious attempts to understand God through blood – in which case we shall find a God who forgoes vengeance; who never sanctions violence; who embraces the socially marginalised; who disregards moral virtue as the quintessence of spiritual virtues; who opposes systemic inequality; whose grace extends even to the Romans, to his vilest enemies; who – even as all of our violence is directed at Him, because we cannot accept that God loves those we regard as unlovable, chooses to forgive; who inexplicably and abundantly surprises us with love. The two frameworks do not co-exist happily. We are compelled to a decision: religion or God. For me, anyway, it seems simple.

Mind Your Language

My recent move towards a nonviolent understanding of atonement has heightened my awareness of Christianese: the meta-language of evangelical Christianity of which I am becoming increasingly critical.

 

The problem with this kind of meta-language is that there are doctrines and ideologies deeply embedded in the words and phrases that are never questioned because the language has normalised them. But words, really, are my job. I am in charge of language assessment; I am an English teacher and a poet. I know words. And it is because I know them that I do not trust them. I know how perilous it can be to assume that they are harmless. They never merely reflect our world; they shape it too.

 

What sparked this particular train of thought was a reference in a conversation to “spiritual growth”. The more I thought about that term, the more uneasy I felt about it. I grew up in a Christian culture of “quiet times” – specific time set aside to pray and read the Bible, in order to “grow in Christ”. It sounds admirable enough, but I don’t think evangelical Christianity has bothered to deconstruct the assumptions implicit in the term.

 

My first objection is that it generates the belief that “spiritual growth” is the primary goal of faith. Embedded in this is the assumption that salvation and sanctification are dependent on the degree to which one grasps key theological concepts. Faith becomes a form of becoming intellectually enlightened, as opposed to a response to the gracious actions of a loving God. Put more cynically, the more deeply one becomes entrenched in the ideologies of one’s particular church, the ‘better’ a Christian one is. After all, by what criteria do we judge whether or not “growth” has occurred? Who gets to make such a judgement?

 

What is more, one engages in this pursuit in an intensely personal way. One can be “Christian” in complete isolation. So long as one has a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures, and prays and worships regularly, one can be considered to be “growing”. To me, though, this sounds suspiciously like the Pharisaic practices that Jesus condemned so vocally. Jesus always challenged religious practices that valued personal holiness over the expression of love for others, especially the marginalised. But the evangelical notion of “spiritual growth” can be accomplished irrespective of one’s engagement with anyone else at all, let alone the marginalised of society. I don’t mean this disrespectfully, but if you don’t see the problem there, then you really do need to read the gospels more carefully.

 

Furthermore, this way of looking at faith results in different classes of Christians; it is deeply divisive. It leads some people to believe that they are holier than others, better than others, more advanced than others. It removes love from the equation in any but a conceptual sense. If you really want to see loveless judgmentalism, go to the youtube videos of talks by, for example, Rob Bell or – to a lesser extent – N.T. Wright, who dare suggest that God might value love above vengeance, and see the vitriol expressed by fellow Christians. Christians who I am convinced have regular quiet times for “spiritual growth” purposes. I certainly don’t expect everybody to embrace everything that Rob Bell believes, but surely the responses from somebody who claims to know Christ is not to coldly condemn? I think that many of the evils of the Western world can be traced to a theology that has, at its core, a belief that faith is an individual and not a corporate affair, an intellectual exercise only.

 

Another Christianese word where this is manifested is “blessed”. I cannot tell you how many sermons, preached from pulpits of a variety of denominations, I have heard where the Scriptures were reduced to a series of actions that we need to perform or attitudes that we need to adopt if we want to magically unlock God’s treasure store. I have written about it before, so I won’t repeat myself, but it is almost certainly the result of prosperity preaching.

 

“Blessed” is not the only magic word we use. In certain churches, phrases like “washed in the blood of Jesus” or “I pray the blood of Jesus over you” are commonly used as a sort of talisman to ward of misfortune. As if Jesus’ assurance that “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33) was used in reference to minor inconveniences rather than as a guarantee of earth-shattering, life-defining cross-bearing. As if the command to carry our crosses with him (Matthew 16:24-25) was only about having a few people laugh at you because you are Christian.

 

No doubt, I will come to be critical of much of my Christianese. As I challenge the theologies I have grown up with, and as I find alternative (and I believe better) ways of seeing Jesus, I will no doubt find a new language with which to understand my relationship with and my identity in him. But that is the beautiful thing about words: they are not permanent. We do not serve language; it serves us. And if the service they provide is no longer sufficient, we can let them go. And we must. A beautiful theology, one rooted in love, needs a language through which to speak. Let’s create one.

Atonement as Liturgy: The Cross Re-examined

In recent weeks, I have explained why I feel compelled to reject the Penal Substitution Atonement philosophies that underpin many of the theologies and practices in the Western church. But if PSA is no longer adequate for explaining atonement for me, then I need to re-evaluate some of the key questions (Why did God choose to become man? What is the significance of Jesus’ death?). Today I wish to focus on the question of forgiveness. If the forgiveness of sins was an important part of Jesus’ mission, and his death was an important part of that process, how might we reframe our theology so that it speaks to these questions in a way that does not necessitate the propitiation of an angry God? Today I will draw heavily on the work of a Catholic theologian for whom I have a great deal of respect, James Alison, in attempting to grapple with that question.

 

James Alison (Some Thoughts on the Atonement, 2004, available from http://www.jamesalison.co.uk/pdf/eng11.pdf) suggests that part of the problem with the prevalent PSA paradigm is that it encourages us to think of the atonement in terms of a theory rather than a liturgy. In other words, we think of atonement as something to be grasped, and over which we therefore have some degree of control, rather than as a liturgy: something that is done to/ for us, and which is designed to promote reflection on the part of the ‘viewer’. Atonement understood through a purely theoretical framework, Alison argues, has significant (and problematic) ethical consequences. It means that atonement is an idea to be understood, and once we have “got it”, a divide is created between those who have and those who have not. Thus the primary instrument in driving atonement is the capacity of the individual to comprehend the theory. The agency behind salvation becomes human. Once one adds liturgical elements, atonement is being demonstrated. The agency becomes divine and humans become participants. That makes more sense to me.

 

The fact of the matter is that much of what Jesus did preceding the Easter events was clearly liturgical in nature, and the disciples understood this. In fact, if one examines the history of atonement outlined in the Scriptures, it becomes abundantly clear that the entire sacrificial system of the Old Testament is liturgical in nature. At no point are we asked to believe that the sacrifices actually remove sin. If the sacrifices were necessary and, in real terms, able to cleanse people of sin, then how ought we to make sense of statements like:

 

For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.(Hosea 6:6)

 

To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice.(Proverbs 21:3)

 

In sacrifice and offering you have not delighted, but you have given me an open ear. Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required. Then I said, “Behold, I have come; in the scroll of the book it is written of me: I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.” (Psalm 40:6-8)

 

For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. (Hebrews 10:4)

For in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to your fathers or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. But this command I gave them: ‘Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people. And walk in all the way that I command you, that it may be well with you.’ (Jeremiah 7:22-23)

 

“I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the peace offerings of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them. Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:21-24)

 

“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:6-8)

 

Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:13)

 

And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbour as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” (Mark 12:33)

 

 

If this is the consistent message regarding sacrifice, then why on earth would God demand that Jesus be sacrificed? God does not demand sacrifice; we do. What, then, are we to make of the sacrificial system in the Old Testament? I think God uses our demand for sacrifice to demonstrate to us an essential truth about atonement. But what is that?

 

To understand that, we would need to explore the atonement liturgy outlined in Leviticus 16. The priest, on behalf of the people, after expiating his own sins by sacrificing a bull, enters the temple with two goats: one “as the Lord” and one “as Azazel” (the devil). Some translations have “for the Lord” and “for Azazel”, but that translation raises the tricky question of why the priest, having purified himself, would make a sacrifice to the devil. My NSV version does both – “for the Lord” and “as a scapegoat”, but the root word is the same. It makes sense to me to translate it as “as” rather than “for”. Anyway, the priest then dons the seamless white robes, called The Name, which in effect makes him God (remember, this is meant as a liturgy, and not to be taken literally). Having taken on The Name (of God), symbolised in the Name being contained in phylacteries wrapped around his forehead or arms, he enters the Holy of Holies with the ‘Lord’ goat. This he sacrifices, and sprinkles the blood around what is to be seen as a microcosm of creation, in some way diminished by sin, to heal it. Then he comes to the veil that separates the Holy of Holies from the rest of the Temple – the place where God dwells from the rest of His creation. The veil is made of rich cloth, symbolising the material world. The priest dons a robe of the same material – representing God entering into our world – and sprinkles the blood in the rest of the temple too. Then the “sin” he has accumulated is placed on the head of the Azazel “scapegoat”, and it is driven out of the Temple; removed from Creation.

 

The thing to note, in all of this, is that – as Alison notes – the primary movement is not inwards, towards where God is, but is of God moving outwards, towards His Creation. There is no sense that the Jewish liturgy of atonement resembles what Alison calls the “Aztec mentality” that we seem to have adopted regarding sacrifice. This is not about appeasing an angry God. It is about God, requiring nothing from His creation (there is no goat representing humanity that gets spared), giving His life to restore His Creation.

 

And the disciples and Paul understood this. There are numerous references in the New Testament to Jesus as a “priest in the order of Melchizedek”. Alison points out that Jesus’ last speech to his disciples in John 17 is based on the priestly atonement prayer. When Jesus applies “Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord” (Matthew 23:39) to himself, it is a reference to this exact ceremony, with the priest coming out of the Holy of Holies as God. And so when Jesus cries “It is finished!”, perhaps he means that the liturgy of atonement has been fulfilled.

 

But Alison points out that it is not only about liturgy. He insists that Jesus is subverting the sacrificial system from within, by placing Himself – both God and man – at the centre of it. The only reason, Alison contests, that animals or crops are sacrificed in our sacrificial systems is because human sacrifice becomes too traumatic, impractical and obviously ethically dubious. But the animals still represent human sacrifice. That, for Alison, is why at the last supper, Jesus points out that instead of bread and wine, the sacrifice is the Lamb. And the Lamb is human. It is murder. As both the priest in the Atonement liturgy and the victim, Jesus both fulfils it and exposes it for what it is, restoring creation Himself and abolishing our attempts to do so through our flawed understanding of what God requires. When Jesus points out the blood he sheds is for us (not God), the body broken is for us (not God), We – claims Alison – are the angry deity being propitiated. That is what Jesus asks us to remember when we participate in the Eucharist. Through his death he both fulfils and abolishes sacrificial systems, and opens up the possibility of life in God that is abundant and free of death. But not because He requires it. Because we do.

 

That still leaves many questions: what is sin and how does it affect our relationship with God? What is so terrible about it that it required God to become human (especially if it is not about punishment)? What is forgiveness? Who is being forgiven and for what? What does it mean to be forgiven? All these need to be rethought. And if I am honest, those questions excite and terrify me. Part of me does feel heretical. After all, my whole Christian existence has been saturated with Penal Substitution theory. I am certain that many of my friends read this and despair for me, are – as we speak – praying for me as I “lose my way”. But I am too far down this path to turn back. And even if I could, I would not. I cannot cling to what does not make sense. And I know God knows my heart. I do not believe he requires “right belief” of me; He simply loves. As Franciscan monk, Richard Rohr, puts it: “Jesus did not come to change the mind of God about humanity, Jesus came to change the mind of humanity about God”.

Putting my Jesus on Trial

I am a bit of a Thomas. When Thomas was told that Jesus had risen, he refused to believe it unless he could see Jesus with his own eyes, and touch the terrible scars (John 20:24-29). I, too, refuse to accept the Jesus presented to me by the Western church, until I can be certain, through my own probing (more intellectual than physical), that he doesn’t disintegrate under my touch. Not because I don’t believe he existed, or that he is God, as he claims, but rather because I am aware that his life story and teachings have been exploited so many times over the millennia for political or personal gain (by those who do believe his claims as well as by those who do not), and such complex mythologies have developed around him, that it is only prudent to interrogate the Jesuses we encounter.

 

I think if we are to put a Jesus on trial, we need to understand that – as far as I am concerned, anyway – two questions become critical: ‘Why would God become man?’ and ‘What is the significance of his death? The answers that the version of Jesus we are interrogating presents to those two questions will be pivotal in shaping our understanding of him, and of the God we worship. And that understanding would have a profound influence on the way that we view ourselves and how we understand and interact with other people. As such, I believe that these two questions deserve – indeed necessitate – rigorous exploration.

 

In most Western churches, the narrative that frames our understanding of those questions reads something like this: After the fall in the Garden of Eden, humanity’s sin made it impossible for them to approach God, because a holy God could not look upon, let alone remain in the presence of sinful humanity. People were destined to remain eternally separated from God. God’s absolute justice necessitated that sin be punished, and that could only be accomplished through the shedding of blood, through the death of the sinner. But God’s absolute love and mercy could not allow that, and so Jesus came to die in our place. He bore the full brunt of God’s wrath, so that God’s sense of justice could be satisfied. Jesus took the punishment that should have been ours, so that God’s perfect love could be satisfied too.

 

And this theory, known as the penal substitution theory, has come to be the theory of atonement in the Western church. But I have been thrilled to discover that it is not the only theory. In fact, the bulk of the philosophical work that has been done on the subject in recent decades, by writers from all denominational backgrounds, although they disagree on many issues, finds common ground in its rejection of this penal substitution model. And with good reason.

 

Brad Jersak, in his introduction to a collection of essays that he and Michael Hardin collated, called Stricken By God? (easily the best R400 I have spent recently), in an essay entitled Nonviolent Identification and the Victory of Christ, provides an excellent summary of the common charges against Penal Substitution atonement theology. I will paraphrase him, and add one or two of the other common arguments against it that he has omitted:

It is, relatively speaking, a recent theory. Its conception is generally attributed to Anselm of Canterbury, who penned Cur Deus Homo in 1097, in which he advocated what has become known as “Satisfaction Theory”. Anselm argues that – as in the feudal system in which he lived – sin was a slight against God’s honour that could not be ignored, in the same way as a serf who insulted the lord of the land could not go unpunished. Martin Luther, John Calvin and many of the Reformer theologians subscribed to a similar view, with the primary difference being that instead of sin being an affront to God’s honour, it was a debt that needed to be repaid. God, they argued, could not remain just if He left the debt unpaid, but could not remain loving if He carried out the mandatory death sentence. So He took the punishment for us.

 

Penal substitution, however, was not the dominant interpretation of the Easter events in the early church, although when we read the New Testament in the light of this theory, it seems to support it. When you read the gospels and the Pauline letters through some of the frameworks I will represent in future posts, though, you will see how retrospective (and, I believe, flawed) our readings actually are. Yet Irenaeus (130-202), one of the bishops of the early church, in attempting to address some of what he saw as the heresies creeping into church doctrine, writes that Jesus “gave Himself as a redemption for those who had been led into captivity” (led by whom? God? Surely not! The redemptive activity is not satisfying a principle of God’s here, but a need of humanity’s)…”not by violent means, but by means of persuasion, as became a God of counsel, who does not use violent means to obtain what He desires; so that neither should justice be infringed upon, not the ancient handiwork of God go to destruction” (Adversus Haereses, 5.1.1)

 

It makes a mockery of the unity between Father and Son. Jesus talks about being one with the Father (John 10:30), yet if satisfaction theory is to be believed, Father and Son are on opposite sides, with Jesus’ grace pitted against the Father’s wrath. Although the theory attempts to reconcile absolute justice to absolute love, it succeeds only in painting a picture of a quite schizophrenic God.

 

It actually requires the debt of sin to be paid back in full. Technically there has been no grace or forgiveness shown. The sentence has simply been transferred to a guiltless third party (in itself, the ‘justice’ of this is questionable). It is punishment by proxy. God has been neither merciful nor forgiving in this model.

 

It defines God’s sense of justice as retributive, an issue which I dealt with in a previous post.

 

It is incompatible with Jesus’ life. Jesus spends his life opposing violence, whether physical or systemic. He refuses to fight those who arrest him, although his followers are willing; he socialises with social outcasts – lepers, prostitutes, women (this is one of the common complaints from the Pharisees about him); he refuses to stone the woman caught in adultery. If Jesus is God, then his actions should provide tremendous insight into the nature and character of God. An interpretation of what happened at the cross that is inconsistent with the values of non-violence and forgiveness that he consistently modelled throughout his life cannot be considered credible. If we want to understand why God would become human, and to develop a theory of atonement, it needs to take his whole life into account. His death cannot be examined in isolation.

 

The notion that sin can be transferable is problematic. Penal Substitution presupposes that sin can be reallocated. It makes no sense that the person who commits the crime can simply pass on the responsibility to a guiltless third party and thus be absolved. There is no real justice there. Furthermore, this model does nothing to actually reform us. It merely lets somebody else pay the price for our crimes. If God’s aim is to eliminate sin, then mere punishment is insufficient. The sinner is unchanged at the end of the process, only perhaps a little more embarrassed about it, a little humbler. But fundamentally the same person. God would need to heal us, to reform us, for sin truly to be eradicated. It would be inadequate for him only to bear its consequences on our behalf.

 

It does not make sense that God would deliberately orchestrate a sin to eradicate sin. Jersak put it this way: “[Jesus prayed]”Father, forgive them…” Was it God’s will that we sacrifice Jesus for him? Were we being forgiven by sacrificing Jesus so that we could be forgiven for killing him?” This is a crucial question: could a holy God preordain a sin, even if it were to end sin? I can well imagine that God could generate goodness out of a sinful situation, but if He was deliberately placing Jesus on the cross (as opposed to the cross being the inevitable, although not orchestrated outcome of the collision between divine love and with sinful humanity), then He would be – in effect – sinning to end sin.

 

Although the Penal Substitution model has some thoughtful champions, for me, there is just too much that does not make sense. But that does not mean that Christianity does not make sense. It only means that many of its interpretations of Jesus’ life and teachings don’t. For centuries we have subscribed to the Penal Substitution theory because we were not aware that we had any alternatives. But we do. Now I am very new to this debate, so if you have wrestled with this for longer than I have, please feel free to correct me where I misrepresent it. If you are not, and – like me – you have been uncomfortable with aspects of Evangelical Christian life but did not know how to address that discomfort, please journey with me as I try to reframe my theological framework.

 

Jersak proposes this: “What if the Fall of Genesis is not about the violation of a law, necessitating punishment. Perhaps it is about the venom of deception concerning God’s nature and this led (and leads) humankind to partake of the poison fruit (anything from hedonism to moralism), requiring healing?

 

What if, rather than separating us from the love of God, the Fall triggered God’s great quest to descend into the chasm to seek and find the lost where they had stumbled?… What if God was not punishing Jesus on the Cross, but rather, God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself?” (pg 31)

 

I think it is time to revisit some of those key questions: Assuming that Jesus is God, as he claimed, then what did he see as his purpose? What is the significance of his death? What is sin and how does it affect our relationship with God? Could it be that the cross is not God’s brutal solution to the problem of sin, but His refusal to be drawn into the terrible cycle of human violence, his call to end centuries of war in His name,of bloody sacrifices, by responding to the violence we (not God) directed at him in the manner he had taught that we should: by turning the other cheek?

 

Some interesting reads:

http://bible-study-online.org/jesus_christ_atonement/?page_id=1004

 

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/2007/12/whats-wrong-with-penal-substitution.html

 

http://www.faith-theology.com/2006/08/ten-propositions-on-penal-substitution.html

 

There are literally thousands of websites discussing the issue. I have been blinded for so long to it because I simply was not looking.