Tuesday 23 October 2012

Bible Say, Bible Do

The other day someone posed this question to me: is Genesis sexist? It got me thinking about the way in which we approach Scripture, with what we expect of it as much as anything else. So here's a bigger question for us to chew on: are we meant to agree with everything the Bible says?

I'm hoping that this blog already has a diverse enough range of readers that not everyone reading this will answer that in the same way (again, I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments). If you respect the Bible as 'God's Word' (as I do) your knee-jerk reaction might be 'yes'. If we're talking about a book imbued with God's truth, a book that's as trustworthy as God Himself, then surely it must be 'yes'.

If you think about the question for a moment then there are countless instances where portions of the Bible aren't aligned with God's perspective. Why? Because Biblical authors allow human beings in their texts to open their mouths. The Bible's full of people questioning God, contradicting God, even full-on attacking God. The book of Job's a good example. Virtually the entire thing is dialogue, framed by a narrative intro and ending. And a lot of the stuff in the middle is pretty ugly. One of the most extreme points is when Job accuses God of making his life great just so He could get some pleasure out of sadistically tearing it down (Job 10:8-17). It's hardly what you'll hear preached from the pulpit. But there are different characters in the story who each get their own say - it's characters expressing opinions. We don't need to stress out if those characters contradict one another. It isn't that 'the Bible' (as an authoritative, canonical whole) is contradicting itself, just that a text within it is letting characters give different perspectives.

It gets trickier in narrative passages. Take Judges 21. Israel's just been through a bitter civil war where eleven of the twelve tribes have turned against the tribe of Benjamin. Israel has pledged that its women won't intermarry with Benjamin's men but doesn't want the tribe to die out completely. The men of Benjamin need new wives to continue the family name. So, first, they burn down one of the cities that didn't take part in the war and force 4,000 women from it into marriage. Then, when there's still not enough to go round, they come up with this cunning plan:

So the elders told the men of Benjamin, "Go and hide in the vineyards. Watch for the young women from Shiloh to come out and join the dancing. Then run out from the vineyards and take one of the young Shiloh women and return to the land of Benjamin. If their fathers or brothers come to us and complain, we will say: 'Be kind to the men of Benjamin. We did not get wives for Benjamin during the war, and you did not give the women to the men of Benjamin. So you are not guilty.'  
Judges 21:20-22

Frankly, that's shocking to us today. Am I supposed to read this and nod along, taking it as a model for my life? ("Kidnap's the way forwards - at least it skips out that whole tedious dating phase..."). I think it's plain-as-day that's not the case. The text just tells the story, relaying the facts. That's not to say that it doesn't have a message or an ideology - actually, I think there's a lesson here in not making hasty promises (like Israel's pledge not to intermarry with Benjamin) that you'll later regret. Sometimes the Bible itself will guide us as to how we're meant to interpret it. In this passage we're pretty much left to draw our own conclusions. Personally, I don't have any qualms in condemning the kidnapping and forced marriage of a woman as a violation of  her dignity and honour. Notice that it's the elders of Israel who say that this is justified ("you are not guilty"). Not the narrator. And certainly not God. The tragedy as I see it is that confusing stories like this can persuade people not to read the Old Testament (in particular) out of a well-meaning assumption that God must be agreeing with everything that's going on.

What I'm not saying here are two things. Firstly, I'm not denying that there are Biblical texts that have their own challenges and which beg their own significant questions. Secondly, I don't see the Bible as a neutral, take-what-you-want-from-it artefact or think that its meaning is somehow lost in layers of bizarre ancient culture. The Bible is God speaking to us right now. It's meaningful in our culture and has the authority to cut us to our core (Hebrews 4:12).

What I am saying is that our reading and interpretation should always be sensible and intelligent, bearing in mind textual context, genre, who's speaking, historical context etc. Sometimes it'll be obvious what God means us to think about something said or done. When it isn't we should be wary about assuming God's agreement in every detail.

Monday 8 October 2012

Come and Go

"Where can I go to get away from your Spirit? Where can I run from you? If I go up to the heavens, you are there. If I lie down in the grave, you are there." Psalm 139:7-8

How often have you been in a church service where someone's asked God "to come"? In other words, to arrive? I've been musing on what's become a part of the Christian consciousness - the idea that God turns up for a moment only to then leave us again. It's what I call the Lucozade God - the God who comes, gives us a temporary boost and then says "See you next Sunday". The problem is that it simply doesn't register with my concept of the Biblical God - with His character as much as with any specific Biblical statement. I doubt that many Christians would specifically agree with the idea that God abandons us (they'd probably crack out the footprints story or Hebrews 13:5). But it's something that seeps into the way we talk about God, and particularly His presence.

Hang on. Isn't there a Biblical precedent for God being particularly present in one particular place? Like the famous Shekhinah overwhelming the priests in 1 Kings 8:10-11? There's an aspect of that question that's too big for me to consider in a single post and so I may return to this later. For now, let me say that God certainly did dwell with His people in the Jerusalem Temple (and elsewhere) in a unique way. That doesn't mean that He was isolated there. Put simply, you can't lock God in a church, or a Temple (1 Kings 8:27).

Or, to say it a different way: how many atoms in the room that you're in right now do you think God is absent from?

I don't think there's a single place where you could say, 'God is not there'. Like the Psalm says, there's nowhere where we could run away from Him. God is everywhere, the definition of a God immersed and dwelling in His creation (whilst still remaining distinct from it). If that thought is mind-blowing let's not write it off for seeming too incredible.

There are two important caveats to this. Firstly, there is certainly a distinction between a Christian's experience of God's presence and a non-Christian's. As a Christian, I have the indwelling presence of God's Spirit that marks me out as His in a way that is distinct from a non-Christian (Ephesians 1:13-14). I don't think that means that when someone becomes a Christian God 'turns up' for the first time. Rather, it's like a jumbled TV signal that was always there that gets suddenly sharpened. I particularly love Rob Bell's idea (from his video, called 'Breathe') that God's name is written into our very breathing, even if we don't know Him. Secondly, God's being omnipresent (everywhere) doesn't mean that spiritual warfare isn't a reality. We won't always feel or experience God in the same way. We won't always have the 'high' of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes God feels pretty far away. That doesn't detract from His very real constant presence in our lives - whether we notice Him or not. Perhaps our prayer in the place of spiritual barrenness shouldn't be that God comes into our emptiness but that we become aware of just how present He already is.

A large part of this problem is that as humans we're limited - we're only in one place at a time and therefore think in terms of 'coming' and 'going' all the time. But God is Spirit (John 4:24) and doesn't follow the same rules as us.* I don't want to outlaw the language of God 'coming'. Sometimes all that we mean by it in our own minds is that we want God to be more sovereign. But we shouldn't let that convince us that God isn't there.

Because He always, always is.

As ever, let me know what you think...

* Of course, in taking on flesh, Jesus certainly did follow the same rules as us with regards to physical limitations (only being in one place at one time). That doesn't really affect the point I'm making, though.

Tuesday 2 October 2012


Welcome to my blog!

As I begin this I wanted to share my thought process a little. I've been toying with the idea of doing this for a while. Starting something like this fills me with apprehension about whether it's really a good idea. Here are my reasons why I'm going ahead. It's good to talk, to share dialogue over the big things in life - particularly in a Christian context. There's always space for another angle, another interpretation, another voice. And I feel, for what it's worth, that I have the potential to be a voice of clarity where there's confusion. I'm also encouraged by friends who blog, that I'm not the only one I know doing it.

The cons, as I see it, are the following, and these are what I want to commit to avoiding as long as I do this blog. There's a danger that I become opinionated, another voice in the digital hemisphere waxing lyrical about this, that and the other without actually having anything useful to say. There's a danger that in sparking debate I could end up being divisive rather than enlightening. And there's a danger that this blog simply makes me too busy or absorbed to live out what I'm writing about.

I'm especially aware that I've got a lot more to learn. In writing about the Bible in particular there are probably going to be times when I get it wrong, or wiser heads than mine can point me in a better direction. But then our knowledge is always going to be limited in this life (1 Corinthians 13:9-12). I think it's OK to venture an opinion if you're willing to listen to what others have to say.

I promise not to write about something unless I feel that I genuinely have something useful to contribute. I'm well aware that blogs can often be distractions and only want to take people's reading time if it's going to be worthwhile. Above all, I want to put this under the command of Boss Jesus, to "capture every thought and make it give up and obey Christ" (2 Corinthians 10:5).

Please do disagree with me. Comment. Get involved. This is not a one-way conversation. Ask anything you want. You're welcome to express any opinion you want, as long as you do so respectfully. So here we go.

Let's talk...