Review: The delusion of ‘correct’ beliefs

18 January 2018

Peter Enns is a scholar and we’re used to a fairly technical type of book from him. This one is different: while it comes, in the best sense, from his head, it comes also from his heart, more than any of his other writings so far. It is:

The Sin Of Certainty: Why God desires our trust more than our ‘correct’ beliefs by Peter Enns (HarperOne, 2016).   

tsoclargeHe observes that the maintenance of ‘correct beliefs’ has been the major factor dividing Christians, especially Protestants, since the Reformation. We major on it, in fact, much more than God himself does. What God is really after is our trust: our determination to remain committed to him and assured of his love no matter how puzzling our circumstances. That is especially true when we experience ‘the dark night of the soul’—a deep experience of God’s felt absence.

Enns writes partly from his own struggles in ‘dark night’ periods and tough personal circumstances—he was dismissed from his post as a professor at Westminster Theological Seminary for not toeing the party line. But, being the scholar he is, he puts those struggles into context with a helpful historical survey of how we have reached our current obsession with ‘correct doctrine’, along with some helpful biblical insights.

For all who, like myself, are conscious of being on a spiritual journey taking us away from much of mainline evangelicalism this book is both reassuring and helpful. It will make you more tolerant of other Christians, more sympathetic towards non-Christians and, best of all, more trusting of God himself.

[Here are some quotations. The numbers are not page numbers but Kindle location numbers]

When once settled questions suddenly become unsettled, our life narratives are upset—and no one likes that. Reflecting on that tension and working through it is what this book is about. (259)

No one just “follows” the Bible. We interpret it as people with a past and present, and in community with others, within certain traditions, none of which is absolute. Many factors influence how we “follow” the Bible. None of us rises above our place in the human drama and grasps God with pure clarity, without our own baggage coming along for the ride. We all bring our broken and limited selves into how we think of God. (356)

The problem is trusting our beliefs rather than trusting God. The preoccupation with holding on to correct thinking with a tightly closed fist is not a sign of strong faith. It hinders the life of faith, because we are simply acting on a deep unnamed human fear of losing the sense of familiarity and predictability that our thoughts about God give us. (416)

Looking back, I am simply astounded that no one was aware enough to tell any of us that sooner or later “know what you believe” wouldn’t cut it. Sooner or later, that tank runs empty. (539)

If having faith means holding on to certainty, when certainty is under “attack,” your only option as a good Christian is to go to war—even if that means killing your own. (689)

The Bible does not have a good track record of promoting unity among those who read it.

When people read the Bible for themselves, they often disagree about what it means. The Bible does not have a good track record of promoting unity among those who read it. (715)

The Bible models trust in God that does not rest on whether we are able to be clear and certain about what to believe. (769)

Feeling like God is far away, disinterested, or dead to you is part of our Bible and can’t be brushed aside. And that feeling—no matter how intense it may be, and even offensive as it may seem—is never judged, shamed, or criticized by God. (834)

I don’t think “knowing” or seeking to think “correctly” about God is wrong. Not at all. The problem is preoccupation with correct thinking—mistaking our thoughts about God with the real thing, and then to base our faith on holding on to that certainty. The Bible is not remotely interested in that preoccupation. (1227)

I’m not against creeds or talking about what I believe. But as it’s used in the Bible, believing doesn’t focus on what someone believes in, but in whom one places his or her trust—namely God. Believing is a “who” word. (1237)

Being like God. That’s the goal. And we are most like God not when we are certain we are right about God, or when we tell others how right we are, but when we are acting toward one another like the faithful Father and Son. (1349)

How can Christians condemn brutal tribal warfare today when the Christian God commanded brutal tribal warfare yesterday? What kind of God are we dealing with here? (1615)

A faith that eats its own not only drives people out but also sends up a red flare to the rest of humanity that Christianity is just another exclusive members-only club, and that Jesus is a lingering relic of antiquity, rather than a powerful, present-defining spiritual reality; a means of gaining power rather than relinquishing it. (1852)

Maybe my purpose on earth isn’t to be the thought police first and love others after all their ideas line up as they should. Maybe my first order of business is to risk my own sense of certainty about God and love others where and how they are no matter how they do on my theology exam. (1933)

Doubt isn’t a sign of spiritual weakness but the first steps toward a deeper faith. (2063)

St. John of the Cross’s insight [into ‘the dark night of the soul’], which has meant a lot to me, is that the dark night is a special sign of God’s presence. Our false god is being stripped away, and we are left empty—with none of the familiar ideas of God that we create to prop us up. The dark night takes away the background noise we have created in our lives in order to prepare us to hear God’s voice later on—in God’s time. (2176)

Working on the lifelong habit of cultivating trust has meant learning to express my faith with words that rarely came to mind before—and that I might have mocked if they had—like journey, pilgrimage, and mystery. (2454)

I was learning, and still am, to honor my head without living in it. (2504)

Trust is not marked by unflappable dogmatic certainty, but by embracing as a normal part of faith the steady line of mysteries and uncertainties that parade before our lives and seeing them as opportunities to trust more deeply. (2615)

The flood, massacre of Canaanites, and other such acts of violence don’t tell us what God is like but how the Israelites, an ancient tribal people, understood and worshiped God. Readers today are not meant to think of God the same way, because the Bible is not a handy information packet on God from A-Z but a record of Israel’s understanding of God, often penetrating and consoling, but also incomplete and disturbing. (2853)

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Review: A refreshing ‘take’ on Scripture

11 January 2018

Richard Rohr, the author of many books, is a Roman Catholic priest in the Franciscan tradition. Does that set your Protestant alarm ringing? If it does, switch the alarm off, please, for here is a book with a depth of biblical insight that, frankly, leaves a lot of evangelical writing seeming, by contrast narrow and insipid. The book is

Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality by Richard Rohr (St Anthony Messenger Press, 2008).

thlargeIt looks at some key biblical themes and draws from them practical applications for living the Christian life today. I found it resonating with lots of the changed attitudes to Scripture that I myself have adopted in recent years (some of which I have touched on in my free e-book, A Poke In The Faith)—like the ‘trajectory’ approach to hermeneutics (which Rohr calls ‘the developing tangents’), the clear trend towards non-violence, rejection of the classic understanding of ‘original sin’, God’s core essence as self-giving love, and wariness of the ‘I’m right and you’re wrong’ position.

The author sees all the major themes being introduced early on in the Bible. These then develop throughout the middle part of it, and come to a crescendo in the risen Christ, who is the final revelation of what God is like, and who draws us into union with him. The large middle section records many instances of ‘three steps forward, two steps back’, as Israel’s understanding slowly progressed. We should be wary, therefore, of letting some parts of the Bible inform our conclusions as to what God is like.

In moving towards the goal of union with God through Jesus Christ, we need both the external wisdom of the Scriptures and the inner wisdom of experience; each sheds light on the other. As Rohr himself puts it, ‘Information is not necessarily transformation’. Too many Christians claim to have all the ‘right’ theological answers but don’t echo the character of Jesus much—and that’s challenging!

outstandingbookI love the penetrating insights Rohr provides into human nature, social dynamics, how we perceive truth, and how we change, grounding them firmly in the teachings of Jesus. They ring true and I, for one, have found them prodding me to make some adjustments to the way I think and act, and how I treat other people.

Throughout the book there is a strong emphasis on grace, which will be reassuring if you are wary of any writing from Catholic sources. And I have to say that the nature of the grace it portrays is a million times bigger and better than the Calvinistic variety! The whole flavour of the book, in fact, is one of grace, warmth, love and challenge-to-change.
This is the best book I have read in a very long time. There’s huge and winsome wisdom here, and I encourage you to taste it.

Here are some quotations.

The ecumenical character and future of Christianity is becoming rather obvious. It is really the religious side of globalization. (p4)

I am increasingly convinced that the word prayer, which has become a functional and pious thing for believers to do, is, in fact, a descriptor for inner experience. (p6)

The [Bible] text itself edges forward and sometimes backward, just as humans do. In other words, it doesn’t just give you the conclusions, but it does create a clear set of patterns and a tangent—and our job is to connect the dots forward and backward. In my opinion, it is only inner experience that can do that job—not just proof texts or external belief systems. (p11)

Our job is to see where the three steps forward texts are heading (invariably toward mercy, forgiveness, inclusion, nonviolence and trust), which gives us the ability to clearly recognize and understand the two steps backward texts (which are usually about vengeance, divine pettiness, law over grace, form over substance and technique over relationship). (p11)

If you read searching for certain conclusions, to quickly reassure your “false self,” as if each line in the Bible was a full dogmatic statement, all spiritual growth will not just stop, but you will become a rather toxic person for yourself and others. (p12)

We have created a terrible kind of dualism between the spiritual and the so-called non-spiritual. This dualism precisely is what Jesus came to reveal as a lie. The principle of Incarnation proclaims that matter and spirit have never been separate. Jesus came to tell us that these two seemingly different worlds are and always have been one. We just couldn’t see it until God put them together in his one body (see Ephesians 2:11–20). (p17)

What you have built into the Hebrew Bible and strongly expressed by Jesus and the prophets is the capacity for self-critical thinking. It is the first step beyond the dualistic mind and teaches us patience with ambiguity and mystery. (p18)

Our temptation now and always is not to trust in God but to trust in our faith tradition of trusting in God. They are not the same thing! (p19)

Forgiveness always heals; it does not matter whether you are Hindu, Buddhist, Catholic or Jewish. Forgiveness is one of the patterns that is always true, it is part of The Story. (p23)

One of the enlightened themes that develops in the Judeo-Christian tradition and reaches its fullness in the crucified Jesus is the recognition of the cosmic and personal significance of human pain and suffering…   I would define suffering very simply as “whenever you are not in control.” (p24)

We were created in the very “image and likeness” of God… our family of origin is divine. Our core is original blessing, not original sin. This says that our starting point is totally positive, or as the first chapter of the Bible says, it is “very good” (1:31). We do have someplace good to go home to. If the beginning is right, the rest is made considerably easier, plus we know the clear direction of the tangent. (p27)

God’s main problem is how to give away God! But God has great difficulty doing this. You’d think everybody would want God. But the common response is something like this: “Lord, I am not worthy. I would rather have religion and morality, which give me the impression that I can win a cosmic contest by my own efforts.” (p31)

[Re the animals in Noah’s ark and Gen 7:16]  Most people never note that God actually closed them in! God puts all the natural animosities, all the opposites together, and holds them together in one place. I used to think it was about balancing all the opposites within me, but slowly I have learned that it is actually “holding” things unreconciled that teaches us—leaving them partly unresolved and without perfect closure or explanation. (p35)

If the mind that needs to make moral judgments about everything is the master instead of the servant, religion is almost always corrupted. (p37

The major heresy of the Western churches is that they have largely turned around the very meaning of faith, which is not knowing and not needing to know, into its exact opposite—demanding to know and insisting that I do know! (p38)

Salvation is only secondarily assuring you of an eternal life; it is first of all giving you that life now, and saying, “If now, then also later,” and that becomes your deep inner certitude! If God would accept me now when I am clearly unworthy, then why would God change his policy later? You can then begin to rest, enjoy and love life. (p41)

If we do not understand election as “inclusive election” (chosenness is for the sake of communicating the same to others), religion almost always becomes an exclusionary system against the “non-elect,” “un-worthy” or “impure”…  In any kind of “exclusive election,” the “chosen” do not see their experience as a gift for others, but merely a gift for themselves. We end up with a very smug and self-satisfied religion. (p44)

How we relate to God always reveals how we will relate to people, and how we relate to people is an almost infallible indicator of how we relate to God and let God relate to us…  The whole Bible is a school of relationship, revealing both its best qualities and its worst. (p56)

Jesus brings the biblical tradition to a climax when he defines truth itself as personal rather than conceptual. He says “I am the truth” (John 14:6) and then immediately defines himself as one who is in absolute relationship with his “Father” (14:7, 9–10) and the Spirit who is in relationship to both (14:16–18). This rearranges the world of religion from arguments over ideas and concepts into a world of encounter, relationship and presence to the face of the other. That changes everything. (p61)

God is not dependent upon knowledge in the sense that the Western mind understands knowledge. How could God make such a mistake when 98 percent of the people who have ever lived could not read or write? Biblical knowing is more akin to face-to-face presence. (p63)

You feel so much more in control when you are right than when you are in right relationship. (p67)

Faith will always be faith, and we are never going to be able to make it into total certitude and clarity, although that is always the temptation of religion. (p71)
Paul takes much of Romans and Galatians to say what the Dalai Lama says in one oft-quoted line: “You must learn the meaning of the law very well, so you will know how to disobey it properly.” You must know and respect the rules before you can break the rules. (p73)

It is painful but necessary to be critical of your own system, whatever it is. But do know it will never make you popular. As you know, the prophets are always rejected by their own (see Luke 12:50–51) and usually killed. (p74)

Jesus criticizes hypocrisy more than anything else. He does not hate sinners at all, but only people who pretend they are not sinners! Check that out, story by story, if you do not believe me. (p76)

Paul tells us in Romans 7:8 that “sin takes advantage of the law” to achieve its own purposes. What does he mean by that? Our unconverted and natural egocentricity (“sin”) uses religion for the purposes of gaining self-respect. If you want to hate somebody, want to be vicious or vengeful or cruel or vindictive, I can tell you a way to do it without feeling an ounce of guilt: Do it for religious reasons! Do it thinking you’re obeying a law, thinking you’re following some commandment or some verse from the Bible. It works quite well. Your untouched egocentricity can and will use religion to feel superior and “right.” It is a common pattern. (p82)

We have been given a God who not only allows us to make mistakes, but even uses our mistakes in our favor! That is the gospel economy of grace and is the only thing worthy of being called “good news, and a joy for all the people” (Luke 2:10). If we could have come to God by obedience to laws, there would have been no need for God’s love revelation in Jesus. The techniques for order and obedience were already in place. (p84)

Only very gradually does human consciousness come to a selfless use of power, or the sharing of power, or even a benevolent use of power—in church, politics or even family and marriage. (p85)

Two thousand years after the revelation of Jesus, many people still seem to prefer a punitive, threatening and violent God, which then produces the same kind of people and the same kind of history. (p87)

It is largely a waste of time to tell people to love generously when the God they have been presented with is a taskmaster, loves quite conditionally, is easily offended, very needy and threatens people with eternal torture if they do not “believe” in him. (p89)

It seems that until you are excluded from any system, you are not able to recognize the idolatries, lies or shadow side of that system. It is the privileged “knowledge of the victim.” (p92)

After Jesus, God can no longer be perceived as the Pantocrator or Omnipotence Itself, but a member of a self-emptying and humble Trinity. (p93)

[Re Gideon’s army-reduction]  God has to teach the people that there are alternatives to brute strength. If all you are taught is the art of the hammer, everything in your life is perceived as another nail. (p94)

Until you don’t need external power, you normally cannot handle power. When you have real power, you do not need to flaunt it. When you know you are being used by a Higher Power, you do not take your small power too seriously. (p98)

[Re Luke 9:3]  This austerity was not a program for the whole of life, but rather it was an initiation rite, a training course in vulnerability and community. Jesus is telling his apostles, as it were, “You’ve got to go through this or you will never be capable of empathy, compassion and identification with the pain of the world that you are called to serve. You will use ministry as a career move instead of a servant position.” Some such rite of passage seems necessary to break our foundational narcissism. Paul says the very same, and it is the only time the word initiation is used in the Scriptures, to my knowledge (check out Philippians 4:11–13). (p103)

Almost everybody seems to need some kind of sinner or heretic against which to compare themselves. (p105)

[Re those excluded from the Temple, Lev 11-24]  We tend to like purity codes. They define groups and give us an identity as superior. Once inside, we cannot hear anything that demotes us. (p107)

The Bible illustrates both healthy and unhealthy religion, right in the text itself, and Jesus offers us a rather simple criterion by which to judge one from the other. It is not a head category at all, but a visual and practical one—“does it bear good fruit or bad fruit?” (Matthew 7:15–20; Luke 6:43–45). Jesus is almost embarrassingly practical. (p110)

When we presume we know fully, we can all be very arrogant and goal-oriented. When we know we don’t know fully, we are much more concerned about practical loving behavior. This has become obvious to me as I observe human nature. Those who know God are always humble; those who don’t are invariably quite sure of themselves. (p110)
In my experience, I observe that the people who find God are usually people who are very serious about their quest and their questions, more so than being absolutely certain about their answers. I offer that as hard-won wisdom. (p113)

Without an in-depth prayer tradition, religion has cried wolf too many times in history and later been proven wrong. Observe earlier authoritative church statements on democracy, war, torture, slavery, women, usury, anti-Semitism, revolution, liturgical forms, native peoples, the Latin language and the earth-centered universe—to name a few big ones. If we had balanced our knowing by some honest not-knowing, we would never have made such egregious mistakes. We proved whatever we wanted from one twisted line of Scripture. The unprayerful heart will always twist reality to its own liking. (p114)

Good poetry doesn’t try to define an experience as much as it tries to give you the experience itself, just as good liturgy should do. It tries to awaken your own seeing, hearing and knowing. It does not give you the conclusion as much as teach you a process whereby you can know for yourself. It does not “overexplain and destroy astonishment.” (p116)

If I left myself as open to misunderstanding and misinterpretation as Jesus did by teaching in the way he did, I surely would be called a heretic, or at least a very fuzzy and dangerous thinker. Why do we need to be clearer or less capable of misunderstanding than Jesus? Apparently, it was not a problem for him. (p117)

The three monotheistic religions each insist on absolute truth claims in forms of words, whereas Jesus’ truth claim was his person (John 14:6), his presence (John 6:35 ff.), his ability to participate in God’s perfect love (John 17:21–22). (p123)

We must approach the Scriptures with humility and patience, with our own agenda out of the way, and allow the Spirit to stir the deeper meaning for us. Otherwise we only hear what we already agree with or what we have decided to look for! (p125)

Only people who have first lived and loved, suffered and failed, and lived and loved again, are in a position to read the Scriptures in a humble, needy, inclusive and finally fruitful way. If you put the Scriptures in the hands of a person uninitiated by life, they will always make it into a head trip. It becomes a set of prescriptions instead of an actual description of what is real and what is unreal. (p128)

Human nature always wants either to play the victim or to create victims—and both for the purposes of control. (p134)

It’s hard for us religious people to hear, but the most persistent violence in human history has been sacred violence, or more accurately, “sacralized violence.” Human beings have found a most effective way to legitimate their instinct toward fear and hatred. They imagine that they are fearing and hating for something holy and noble, like God, religion, truth, morality, their children or love of country. It takes away all guilt, and one can even think of oneself as representing the moral high-ground or being responsible and prudent, as a result. (p135)

If I would try to describe the evil people and evil events that I’ve encountered, they’re invariably characterized by a sense of certainty and clarity. They suffer no self-doubt or self-criticism, smirking at people who would dare to question them. (p135)

…the story of Noah’s Flood and God’s seeming destruction of the whole world. Unfortunately, this picturesque and ancient story that explains God’s salvation of a few, ends up presenting Yahweh as accusing, petty and even one who kills the unworthy and the innocent (Genesis 6-9). God’s love has not yet been received at a deep or reflective level by this biblical author. It is still a very conditional and deserved love, and God is free to drown a whole world of animals and children, even if we can assume all the other adults on the rest of the earth were sinful and “violent” (Genesis 6:11–13). Here God is created in our own punitive image and is made worse than we would hopefully be! But it is a good start, because Yahweh is at least revealed as a “savior” of some (6:19–20)…  This is an important story to use to reveal what I mean by a text in travail: getting part of the point, but not all of it yet, and partly in direct opposition to the tangent that will develop. (p139)

Jesus does not define holiness as separation from evil as much as absorption and transformation of it, wherein I pay the price instead of always asking others to pay the price. (p142)

I think the story of Jonah is the much-needed journey from ministry as mere careerism to ministry as actual vocation, from doing my work for God, to letting God do God’s work in and through me. (p147)

It always takes us a while to move beyond groupthink and to join the God of all the earth in universal compassion. (p148)

No one had been more pious, Jewish and law-abiding than Paul (Philippians 3:5–16). He was a perfect Pharisee, as he said, and suddenly he realized that in the name of love he had become hate, in the name of religion he had become a murderer, in the name of goodness he had become evil. (p148)

All three absolutes that keep people small and paranoid have been undone by Jesus: my identity or power group, my job, and my family. (p150)

Jesus is teaching us that if we put our energy into choosing the good—instead of the negative and largely illusionary energy of rejecting the bad—we will overcome evil in a much better way, and will not become evil ourselves! (p152)

I want to name what I think is the central positive theme of the Bible. It is the Divine Unmerited Generosity that is everywhere available, totally given, usually undetected as such, and often even undesired. It is called grace. (p155)

[Re a ‘reward and punishment’ mindset]  As long as we remain inside of a win-lose script, Christianity will continue to appeal to low-level and self-interested morality and never rise to the mystical banquet that Jesus really offered us. It will be duty instead of delight, “jars of purification” (John 2:6) instead of 150 gallons of intoxicating wine at the end of the party! (2:7–10). How did we avoid missing the clear message on that one? (p159)

When forgiveness becomes largely a juridical process, then we who are in charge can measure it out, define who’s in and who’s out, find ways to earn it and exclude the unworthy. It makes for good religion, but not at all for good spirituality. We have destroyed the likelihood that most people will ever experience the pure gift of God’s forgiveness. (p162)

God seems quite practiced in using peoples’ sin for good, but those who refuse to see their dark side God cannot use! Jesus himself is never upset at sinners. He’s only upset with people who don’t think they’re sinners. Righteous folks are much more problematic for Jesus, because they are only half there, at best. (p167)

To allow yourself to be God’s beloved is to be God’s beloved. To allow yourself to be chosen is to be chosen. To allow yourself to be blessed is to be blessed. It is so hard to accept being accepted, especially from God. It takes a certain kind of humility to surrender to it, and even more to persist in believing it. (p168)

God apparently gives us exactly what we want. Do you want life, to live inside the city of Jerusalem, “where you will be suckled, filled from her consoling breasts, where you will savor with delight her glorious breasts” (Isaiah 66:11). Or do you want “Gehenna,” the garbage dump still outside the walls of Jerusalem, “where the worm never dies nor the fire ever goes out” (Isaiah 66:24). That is always the choice, and in these concluding verses of the prophet Isaiah the choices are dramatically portrayed. They became archetypal metaphors that were used in the Jewish tradition down to Jesus himself. They were used so dramatically, however, that they become literalized and localized. This has had an unfortunate effect for generations of Christians, who were often not consciously realizing that to take it literally would make the loving God into an eternal torturer. It’s an absurd notion, because then God would be less loving than we are. (p171)

All of Jesus’ healings, touchings and “salvations” (Luke 7:50; 17:19; 19:9) were clearly now. He never once said, “Be good now, and I will give you a reward later.” (p173)

We don’t know how to say yes by ourselves. We just “second the motion”! There is a part of you that has always said yes to God, it is the Holy Spirit within you. God first says “yes” inside of us and we say, “Oh yeah,” thinking it comes from us! In other words, God rewards us for letting God reward us. Think about that, maybe even for the rest of your life. (p179)

How does Jesus “overcome death and darkness,” as we often say? Is it just a heavenly transaction on God’s side, or is it more an agenda that God gives us for our side? Did Jesus not reveal for all humanity the very pattern of redemption itself? Could that not be what we mean by calling him “The Savior of the World”? (John 4:42). Jesus is, in effect, saying, “This is how evil is transformed into good! I am going to take the worst thing and turn it into the best thing, so you will never be victimized, destroyed or helpless again! I am giving YOU the victory over all death!” (p188)

In forgiveness, it is precisely my ego self that has to die, my need to be right, to be in control, to be superior. Very few want to go there, but that is exactly what Jesus emphasized and taught. I am told that forgiveness is at least implied in two-thirds of his teaching! (p193)

We are the only religion in the world that worships the scapegoat as God. In worshiping the scapegoat, we should gradually learn to stop scapegoating, because we also could be utterly wrong, just as “church” and state, high priest and king, Jerusalem and Rome, the highest levels of discernment were utterly wrong in the death of Jesus. (p194)

[Re the cross]  The trouble is that we emphasized paying a cosmic debt more than communicating a credible love, which is the utterly central issue. The cross became more an image of a Divine transaction than an image of human transformation. We ended up with a God who appears—at least unconsciously—to be vindictive, violent and petty, not at all free, subject to supposed laws of offended justice—and a Son who is mainly sent to solve a problem instead of revealing the heart of God. (p199)

True Christianity beguiles, seduces, invites, cajoles, creates spiritual yearning and draws humanity into ever more desirable mystery, healing and grace. (p200)

If God can forgive, then God can forgive! We do not need one major exception where we need atonement and payment of price. But theoretical religion has always been more comfortable with cosmic problem-solving than with personal surrender to the healing and transformative mystery of divine love. (p202)

The things Jesus talked about constantly, like living a simple and nonviolent life in this world, like forgiveness and inclusivity, are still considered fringe thinking by many Christians. How strange that we have the capacity to not see what is taught so clearly by the one we consider our teacher. It must be what saddened Isaiah and Jesus too: “This people will hear and hear again, but not understand, see and see again but not perceive” (Isaiah 6:9; Matthew 13:14). (p213)

You don’t have to figure it all out or get it all right ahead of time. You just have to stay on the journey. All you can do is stay connected. We don’t know how to be perfect, but we can stay in union. “If you remain in me and I remain you,” says Jesus, “you can ask for whatever you want and you’re going to get it” (see John 15:7). When you’re connected, there are no coincidences anymore. Synchronicities, coincidences, accidents and “providences” just keep happening. Union realigns you with everything, and things just start happening. (p214)

It seems obvious to me that God is calling everyone and everything home, not just picking and choosing a few. In fact, the few are only for the sake of the many, or as Paul put it “the dough is for the whole batch” (Romans 11:16 ff.). We all are saved in spite of ourselves—and for one another. It never was a worthiness contest. If God is love and if grace is true, then what exactly is the cut-off point? “When is God’s arm too short to save?” (Isaiah 50:2). Are there any who have achieved worthiness and do not need saving? Name them, please. (p218)


‘No room in the what?’

20 November 2010

‘In the inn’, of course.

This is the Christmas story we all know and love. Joseph, with Mary at the point of giving birth, arrived in Bethlehem and ended up in a stable because the inn was full. Read it in Luke chapter 2.

The truth is in fact a little different. Biblical scholars have known this for a long time, but traditional versions of the Christmas story die hard and, next December, nativity plays all over the world will stick to the usual line. If you’re more interested in facts than sentiment, read on; otherwise, stop now.

Regarding Joseph and Mary’s accommodation in Bethlehem, consider these items for starters:

  • Joseph would have been welcome anywhere in Bethlehem, the town of his ancestors, simply because of his pedigree, especially as he was a direct descendant of King David.
  • A woman about to give birth draws sympathy and help from any group of people. The citizens of Bethlehem were no exception; no-one would have closed the door on her.
  • Even if accommodation in the town had been a problem, Mary’s cousin Elizabeth lived in a nearby village and they could have fixed to stay there with her and her husband.
  • But they didn’t, because Joseph had had plenty of time to fix accommodation. Contrary to the usual line, he and Mary had been in Bethlehem several days before she gave birth (Luke 2:6) and they were staying in the home of some friends there when her moment came.

katalymaThey were not in an ‘inn’ at all in the sense of a place offering rooms for paying guests—Greek pandocheion. They were with some friends, in their house.

A typical Middle Eastern house had one main room where the family lived and slept, plus a smaller room exclusively for guests, called in Greek the katalyma. This is where Mary and Joseph would normally have been put up but, with all the people in Bethlehem for the census, someone else was occupying it. So the family had graciously invited Mary and Joseph to share their own accommodation—the main family room.

Typically, at one end of this room was a lower-level area where the family’s cow, donkey and few sheep would be sheltered overnight. The animals could eat, if hungry, food placed in small depressions in the floor called mangers. These were at the higher level, just next to the drop to the lower level half a metre below. Sometimes they were made of wood, in which case they could be moved. It was in one of these that Mary placed the infant Jesus.

The reason Mary gave birth to Jesus in their hosts’ family room and laid him in one of the typical mangers there is because ‘there was no room in the katalyma’—the house’s guest room. That room was occupied by other guests.

So we need to revamp our understanding of the nativity account. There was no innkeeper, because this wasn’t an inn. And the birth was where the manger was: in a warm and friendly family home, not in a cold and draughty stable.

It was, however, a typical poor person’s house. The rich had separate accommodation for their animals. Jesus was born, not in a luxury villa but in the peasant-home of some commoners. And that was why, when the angel told the shepherds that they would find the infant Messiah lying in a manger, it was such good news to them. The Christ was in a peasant-home just like their own!

I don’t suppose the nativity plays will ever be re-written; tradition dies hard. But in my view the realities of the nativity just described serve to enrich the story, not to rob it of its power.

[To learn more, see Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, SPCK, 2008, p25ff]


Good old NIV

4 November 2010

With good reason the New International Version has become one of the most popular Bible versions ever: over 400 million copies in print. The NT arrived in 1973 and the OT five years later. I’ve used it ever since.

nivIt has undergone some revisions, a major one being in 1984. Also, Hodder & Stoughton produced an Anglicised edition for British folk who didn’t much care for the original American spellings and occasional odd (to us Brits) vocabulary. Then, starting in 2002 (with the OT in 2006), came the TNIV – Today’s NIV – which moved solidly towards gender-inclusive language wherever appropriate; so Paul addresses his letters to ‘brothers and sisters’, not just to ‘brothers’, because that’s what the Greek adelphoi actually infers. Not everybody liked that, but I thought it was brill and moved over to the TNIV as my ‘regular’ Bible without delay.

Now further change is upon us. The NIV translation and revision committee have most recently produced the 2011 edition. They combined the best of the TNIV and the 1984 NIV into the new version, and both the others are now no longer available. From what I’ve seen, the new version is looking good, and I’m glad I moved over to it. There’s an Anglicised edition, too.

If you’re interested in seeing how the committee approached the gender-inclusiveness issue – and also viewing their general guidelines, with some concrete examples – take a look at this article: http://www.biblegateway.com/niv/Translators-Notes.pdf

The new version continues to be called simply the NIV. I wish it well.