online book group: What’s the Least I Can Believe, chapters 8, 9, 10

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Again, these chapters seem interrelated, so we’ll address them together. Next week we’ll head into the second half of the book, the section in which the author lays out what Christians do believe. So this is our last day in myths about Christianity!

Chapter 8: Everything in the Bible should be taken literally.

Chapter 9: God loves straight people but not gay people.

Chapter 10: It’s ok for Christians to be judgmental and obnoxious.

I think you can see why I feel these chapters are related. heehee!

So: are we supposed to take the Bible literally? Thielen points out that biblical literalism is a 19th century response to the rise of modern science, and that it has not been the position of the church for most of history. That’s true–for most of history the Bible has been interpreted as metaphor and allegory. Then again, for most of history there was not anywhere near the level of scientific understanding we have now, so interpreting the Bible more literally was also easier…but in any case, the short answer is “no”–because the Bible is a collection of stories about the relationship between God, God’s Creation, and God’s People. When we tell family stories, things can be told from different perspectives or with different details emphasized, yet we simply laugh about how differently we see things in our family. The same is true of scripture–it’s a collection of family stories told from different perspectives, by different people, from different places and times, but about the same thing: the relationship between God, God’s Creation, and God’s People.

Is the Bible divinely dictated, inspired, or a completely human document? As Reformed Christians, we affirm that the Bible is inspired–it is God-breathed, as 2 Timothy says–but not dictated. The Spirit of God was moving through the communities and people who produced the text, and is still moving through the word today, pointing us to where our attention should be: on God.

Interestingly, I had a conversation about this topic with the Rabbi from the McHenry County Jewish Congregation, and she said this is not really a debate in the Jewish community. She says that it doesn’t matter who wrote the Bible (but, for the record, it was people), because they are sacred stories that have been guiding their life with God for thousands of years, and that’s enough authority.

The question of chapter 9 is directly related to chapter 8 in many ways. Those who say that to be homosexual is a sin are also often those who take the Bible completely literally and claim it is inerrant and infallible in all things. In the Presbyterian Church, those people have managed to frame the discussion around inclusion or noninclusion as being about biblical authority, claiming that those who disagree with them don’t take Scripture seriously. As we have seen, it is possible to take Scripture very seriously and yet understand that it comes to us from a time and place very different from our own–so how is the Spirit moving through the word to speak to the church today?

The Bible is silent on the issue of committed same-gender loving relationships. In fact, the Bible is very nearly silent on the issue of committed monogamous loving relationships, period! The standard relationship in ancient times was the arranged marriage–the daughter was transferred as property from one house to another, often for economic or political reasons. There was often more than one wife in a household, again for economic or political reasons.

In Leviticus, which is the book often turned to for “proof” that God hates gay people, there is one verse that prohibits using someone of the same gender to fulfill your own lust. There are surrounding verses about not using people of different gender to satisfy your lust. And there are surrounding verses that say you cannot wear clothes of mixed fibers, that you must not round off your haircut or beard, that you must stand when in the presence of someone older than you, that you can’t sow two kinds of seed in your field, that you can’t eat shellfish, and that you must treat the foreigner among you as one of your own family.

Meanwhile, Jesus had nothing to say about people in same gender committed loving relationships. He had lots to say about commitment, and relationships, and love, and where our focus should be. And he had lots to say about how people are created in the image of God. And he had lots to say about not turning PEOPLE into objects or issues.

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God. period. (1 John 4)

And again, chapter 10….the short answer is: NO. it’s not ok for us to be judgmental or obnoxious! Matthew 7 pretty clearly states that it’s not our job to judge. And pretty much every parable and every healing story and every encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees you can find in any gospel account is about not making judgment based on appearances. Our task as people of God is to love God with all our heart, all our mind, all our soul, and all our strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. We can’t love our neighbor if we’re busy judging them.

So–what did you think of the first half of this book? What questions remain for you? What do you hope is addressed in the second half?

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4 responses »

  1. Is a cyber community a genuine covenant community? Instead of digits on a monitor screen, shouldn’t a covenant community be flesh and blood people. The New Yorker Magizine had a cartoon years ago with a picture of the pastor announcing to the congregation, consisting of two or three persons, that future TV services would be discontinued. How many comments are you getting on the blog except for cranky old men like me. The covenantal commitment is a fundamental concept in the Bible, is it not? How should we define it and execute it?

    • I guess I qualify for a cranky old man, too, and I like this experiment in a book discussion. Sometimes I don’t know what I think about a topic until I write it down. Writing clarifies my thoughts and shapes my thinking. Plus, I get so much out of reading Pastor Teri’s summaries of the chapters. I print them out, read them over, and digest the words for my own understanding.

  2. Well John, I suppose a covenant community can be anywhere, even online–after all, we are people on the other side of the computer screen from one another, and our covenant with God and one another holds true in this environment just as it would if we were in the church building, right?
    Every community takes time and effort to build. Until we are regularly participating, why should anyone else? We do it, then we invite others, and eventually it’s just another format for a small group, right? We can have conversation but not have to spend hours working the schedule–some of us can participate late at night, others early in the morning, some over lunch, etc. The difficulty is that it won’t just happen without our effort (just like in-person-face-to-face community, which is so much more than just sitting in the same room together!).
    So the question is: are we willing to do what it takes to be covenant community? That question holds no matter whether we’re in the same physical space or the same internet space. We can sit in the same pews for 30 years but not be real community, we can read the same blog for a summer but not be real community. Or we can work at it, contribute, invite, pray, and be together. It’s up to us!

    As for how covenant is defined at lived out–I don’t think we define the covenant. God does, and defines us by the covenant as well. What that means for everyday life and for our life together as a community in the 21st century is definitely a question that’s still in progress. What do you think?

  3. Having only an onion-skin dimension of Biblical understanding allows some Christians to take the Bible literally, and when cherry-picking verses to justify their actions, must be a wonderful feeling for them. Ignorance can be such bliss. You can puff up your own personhood, and pick away at others and believe you have God on your side. One can scoff at the science of evolution, for example, by claiming Biblical inerrancy and infallibility. Oh, but what a tangled web we weave when faulty Bible teaching we receive. I shudder to think of the damage done by those who took the Bible literally and justified slavery for generations.

    You raise a challenging question: How is the Spirit moving through the word to speak to the church today? When we look through the “relationship to God” lens, we can see that Jesus faced similar issues that confront us as his followers today: an empire that spends hundreds of billions of dollars to maintain military outposts and soldiers around the world–just like the Roman Empire. Jesus stood against the supremacy of religious requirement laws and showed us the power of love and forgiveness instead. He spoke out against oppression of the poor–a situation that is constantly before us here in our nation and around the world. The Good News is still as relevant and needed today as it was when Jesus stood up against oppressors and lifted up the oppressed. Jesus is still our model to follow on how to do it!

    Chapter 8 and chapter 9 are related in terms of literalists cherry-pick the verses to thump their Bibles about the sinfulness of being gay. There are more verses about divorce in the Bible, and yet the percentage of Christians who divorce is equal to that of society as a whole. Yet, you just don’t hear from people on that issue like they hammer on the gay issue. I appreciate that concept of “surrounding verses” as a rebuttal to those who pick out words for literal use to justify their hated for others. Given that, there are even verses that speak to the killing of rebellious children! Yikes!

    Chapter 10 fits nicely with Pastor Teri’s sermon on wheat versus weeds. We can’t be sure which is which, and, besides, even if we could, it’s not our place to judge. As she points out, our task is to love God with all out heart, mind, soul, and strength (a big task in itself) and love our neighbor as ourselves. Again, I say, Yikes! To do that the right way leaves me no time to run around judging others.

    I’d like to hear thoughts from the author and others on being a patriotic American and being a Christian. I heard one evangelical christian claim a few years ago that if you were a Democrat you couldn’t be a Christian. Hmm, I wonder if that’s still true for political independents? Or,…Socialists???

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