The Bible and Living Well: It’s not Complicated

One of my favorite stories which has been told for generations by preachers is about a person who hoped to find the answer to a pressing question by looking in the Bible.  After prayerful consideration of the problem, this person was inspired to open the Bible to a random page, believing the answer would be found in the first place looked.  Opening the Bible, twirling a finger in the air and landing it on a page, this person found that the answer to the problem was Matthew 27:5: “Judas went out and hung himself.”  Perplexed, the person decided to try it again.  As luck would have it, this finger plop method of investigation led to Luke 10:37:  “Therefore go and do that same.”  Yikes! Clearly, this was not the answer the person hoped to find.

Yes, people often struggle with making decisions, wondering what to do.  Some seek answers to their day to day challenges by attempting to derive answers from a sacred text.  While the Bible does provide clear advice on how to live our lives, it doesn’t provide us with answers on which job to take, who to marry, or predictions of the winning numbers for the lottery.  But the Bible has lots of wisdom to share about living and finding happiness.

As a follower of the teachings of Jesus, I pay close attention to the clear things that Jesus is recorded to have said.  I do my best to make them part of my life.  That doesn’t mean that I always succeed.  But it does mean that the teachings of Jesus articulate how I hope to live.

Remember what Jesus said about how to approach our lives? “Consider the lilies of the field.  They don’t work or make clothes.  Yet not even Solomon wore as fine clothing as the lilies.”  “Who among you can add to their lifespan by worrying?”  “Do not be afraid.”  Yes, these simple sayings from Matthew’s gospel are very clear.  Yet we often don’t realize that they are central to the teachings of Jesus. We fail to notice the centrality of these teachings of Jesus because we’re generally caught up with worries about what to do, fears of what might happen, or try to make ourselves look better, more competent, or more self-assured.  Instead, the practical teaching of Jesus is to let go of fears and self-preoccupations and to live fully in the present moment, just as the birds that fly freely through the air. The teachings of Jesus lead us to live in a way that’s trustful, centered in the present moment, and with detachment toward the things that are ephemeral.

We also forget that morality and ethics are pretty simple matters in the teachings of Jesus.  “Love one another.”  “Give and it shall be given to you: pressed down, shaken together, running out all over you.”  “The measure you measure with will be measured back to you.”  In other words, as a follower of Jesus, all of our interactions with others should be directed by love for them.  Yes, it’s simplistic, but it’s very real.  No judgment, just acceptance.  Treat others with dignity and in ways that exemplify kindness and compassion.  That’s the foundation for Christian morality.

Jesus was also very patient with people and met them where they were.  He was known to spend time with those considered social outcasts, foreigners and racial minorities (the Samaritans), and responded to the needs presented to him by healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and offering comfort to those in grief.  He is recorded as showing anger to only one group:  religious leaders who took advantage of others.  He called them blind guides and compared them to a pit of snakes. He had no tolerance for oppression and called out the oppressors — particularly the ones who used religion for their own gain or the control of others.

The teachings of Jesus are clear and practical.  There’s little mystery to them.  They are focused on living life in a good way, caring for others, and standing against injustice.  As for what job to take, who to marry, or what lottery numbers to select….well, those choices are yours.  But it seems to me that in the day to day decisions a follower of Jesus would ask questions like:  is my choice in this matter demonstrating trust in God’s goodness in my life?  Does this decision demonstrate love and compassion toward others?  Does the way I live oppress others or lead to equality among all people?  Ultimately, there are no quick easy answers for the follower of Jesus.  Perhaps that’s why some people think that plopping a finger on a random page of the Bible is an attractive solution to life’s challenges. By treating the Bible as a magic book, they don’t have to take the actual teachings of Jesus to heart.

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© 2017, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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Hurricanes, Fires, and Floods: Where is God?

Throughout the world at any given time, a natural disaster may occur.  Earthquakes, typhoons, wiwildfires, volcanic eruptions, tornados, hurricanes, floods, drought….the list is overwhelming.  When natural disasters occur, when people’s lives are overturned, when there is a loss of life and destruction of property, people often ask questions like why did this happen to me?  Why did God allow this to occur?  Why did God do this?

I lived for a time in South Florida.  During my first year there, in 1992, Hurricane Andrew struck.  It was devastating.  While I did not experience the brunt of it, there was damage in my area and loss of power for days.  At a special service held at my local church meant to be a source of comfort and inspiration following the hurricane, my good friend and colleague, the Rev. Grant Lynn Ford, reflected on God’s role in Hurricane Andrew:  “Living in South Florida means that we live in hurricane alley.  It’s not that God did this to us.  Instead, we chose to live in a place where hurricanes are likely to occur.”  Grant was right.  The disaster wasn’t about God sending a storm into our lives.  Instead, we lived in a place where storms occurred.  By making South Florida our home, we would likely be impacted by a hurricane.

While certain types of preachers claim that the sins of some group caused God to send a natural disaster, such preachers promulgate a theology that is morally bankrupt.  A deity who causes natural disasters is nothing less than capricious and sadistic.  Beliefs in this kind of deity reflect an understanding of the forces of nature prevalent in the Iron Age when people had no idea what caused storms or earthquakes.  Belief in a capricious deity is fundamentally contrary to the teachings of Jesus.

The author of the Gospel of Matthew conveys Jesus understanding of God’s role in natural events:  “God made the sun to shine on the evil and the good and rain to fall on the just and unjust alike” (Matthew 5:45).  Disastrous events don’t happen because people sin; they happen because they happen because they are part of nature’s cycles.

Further, in reading the teachings of Jesus, I find that the belief in a deity who is beyond us and controls and manipulates events is untenable. The teachings of Jesus are very clear.  Throughout the gospel narratives, Jesus is portrayed as saying that the realm of God is here and now (Matthew 4:17) and that the realm of God is within each of us (Luke 17:20).  As George Fox, the founders of the Quakers stated: “There is that which is of God in everyone.”

Natural disasters occur.  They are as certain on our planet as the rising and the setting of the sun.  Recognizing this, rather than asking questions about a deity’s motivation for disastrous events, I believe we need to consider how the Divine, whose presence is within each of us, responds when disaster strikes.  The presence of God in the world is not disembodied.  Instead, the Divine Presence in the world is manifested through us.  When we respond with care and compassion, God is responding with care and compassion.  When we act on the science that clearly demonstrates that climate change correlates with more intense natural disasters, then God is caring for the planet.  When we work to assure that needed relief is provided to people whom we will never know, whose lives and cultures are far different from our own, then God is providing relief to them.

As a follower of the teachings of Jesus, I fully believe that when a cup of cold water is offered, then God is present (Matthew 10:42). When we stand against profiteers who deny climate change and, in turn, harm the planet and all life on it, God is present (Matthew 21:12-17).  When we seek to create right-relationships with people, to respond with compassion to others, to live in a way that recognizes our own limitations (Micah 6:8), then God’s realm is made known in the world.

God does not cause natural disasters.  Yet, God is present in the midst of suffering, binding up wounds and providing a way forward when we respond and make the realm of God a reality in the world.


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© 2017, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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The Bible as Metaphor and Symbol

The contemporary debate among Christians today is whether or not the Bible should be taken literally.  Many Evangelical Christians view the text as being without error and without requiring interpretation.  From my perspective, there are problems with this approach.  First, it glosses over the obvious contradictions in the Bible, like which story of creation (there are two of them), Noah’s ark (there are two of these, as well), or the resurrection of Jesus is correct (there are four different stories of the resurrection of Jesus)? Second, it fails to acknowledge that a translation of any text to another language is itself an interpretation because languages communicate differently.  (If the only language you speak is English, think about the differences in American English with the idiom spoken in England or Australia.  It’s the same language, but the idioms are not the same.)  Third, a literal understanding of the Bible dismisses the significant differences among cultures, particularly cultures from the Iron Age which are the foundation for the Hebrew Scriptures.  Fourth and perhaps most importantly: a literal interpretation of the Bible is a relatively new phenomenon within Christianity.

Those of us who frequently read writings from the first millennia of Christian history, like the writings of mystics, early theologians, and saintly people, know that these people did not take the Bible at face value.  Instead, they understood the text from metaphorical and allegorical perspectives.  For example, stories of Jesus feeding thousands of people with just a few loaves of bread and a couple of dried fish were not understood as magic.  Rather, Christians from the first millennia would have heard this story as a metaphor for how the teachings of Jesus nourish the entire person: body and soul.

Recently, news of the recovery of a long lost commentary on the Gospels was carried by major press outlets.  The rediscovery of the text happened some years ago.  What news was really worthy was that this commentary, written by Fortunatianus of Aquileia in the fourth century CE, has been made available online in an English translation.  This commentary was described by early Biblical scholar, St. Jerome, as “a pearl of great price.” Jerome emulated in his own work, which is considered to be the first great Biblical commentary.  Throughout this 1500 year old commentary is the clear sense that the stories of the Gospel are not understood as literal stories, but as allegories about the message and meaning of Jesus as communicated to people in particular communities of faith.  You don’t have to take my word for this.  You can follow the links in this article and review the commentary yourself.

What led Christians to begin to view the Bible in a literal way?  While the history is complicated and nuanced, in the end it boiled down to the inability of church leaders to accept scientific discoveries as they unfolded.  First was Copernicus who demonstrated that Earth was not the center of the known universe but that the Earth rotated around the Sun.  This challenged the European view of the order of not just the universe but of social structure, of nobility and surfs, and the economic and political structure of Europe.  Later came Darwin’s observations of the natural world and the evidence for evolution.  Darwin published his Origin of Species in the middle of the 19th Century.  While there were stirrings toward a more literal approach to the Bible since the 17th Century, in the 19th Century many Christians doubled-down on the belief that humanity had been specifically created by God as God’s prized creation.  The possibility that we are in some way related to apes was simply untenable.  By the end of the 19th Century, Evangelical Christianity and Biblical literalism as we know it today was a reality.

Ultimately, Biblical literalism is a result of people’s inability to adapt to changes that came about from new scientific understandings of life on Earth and in the cosmos.  There’s always been resistance to change.  When the electric light bulb was invented, many people preferred to continue using oil lamps for lighting.  The same resistance to change occurs today as people cling to fossil fuels rather than adapting to renewable energy sources.  So, perhaps it’s not so strange that some people cling to a Biblical worldview not supported by current knowledge and, oddly enough, wasn’t even part of the first millennia of Christian understanding.  Because some people resist change, that doesn’t mean others can’t embrace the evolution of thoughts, ideas, and ways to understand the world and our place in it.  The ironic aspect of this in terms of a Christian understanding of the Bible is that it brings us back to the ways early Christians understood the Bible as metaphor rather than clinging to a literal view which is incompatible with the history of Christian thought.

Perhaps the words of Biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan summarize this best.  In his book, Who Is Jesus?, Crossan wrote: “”My point, once again, is not that those ancient people told literal stories and that we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.”

© 2017, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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