I. The World Has Moved On.
Poet James Russell Lowell:
New occasions teach new duties,
Time makes ancient good uncouth.
Bishop John Shelby Spong:
The world has moved on, leaving [those] elements of the Christian Church that cannot adjust to new knowledge or a new consciousness lost in a sea of their own irrelevance.
Theologian Dale Moody, one of the few people I’ve known personally who have earned two doctoral degrees, used to rail in his classes about the absurdity of interpreting the Bible using what he called “the flat Bible approach.” What he meant by that was some interpreters believe all parts of the Bible are of equal value so regardless of where one reads, she or he has access to absolutely reliable information. In this way of thinking, the teachings of Jesus are of no greater value than the book of Esther, just to compare, which makes not a single mention of God. The late Dr. Moody believed that the picture of God as liberator in the ancient Hebrew story of the Exodus was of greater value than any other part of Hebrew scripture. Similarly, he believed the teachings in Christian scripture about the power of life over death were of much greater value than the Apostle Paul’s admonition to slaves to obey their masters.
I would say this is the starting point for interpreting scripture–understanding the value of what we are reading. The obscure, solitary reference to the spirit of Jesus descending into hell in writing attributed to Peter, probably erroneously, might have minuscule metaphorical value, but it certainly shouldn’t have found a prominent place in a key creed of the church. In contrast, if I find words attributed to Jesus that seem to be universally applicable in confronting life’s mysteries and challenges, I’m all ears. I ponder the teaching, “The truth will make you free,” with rapt attention.
The next level of interpretation is asking a very simple question of any passage we may read: is it true? Yes, I know that the mere act of asking the question is in itself blatant heresy for a significant percentage of people who count the Bible a worthwhile resource in any sense. When I was growing up at the Beaver Dam Baptist Church in Halls Crossroads, one pastor taught us this maxim about anything found on any one of those impossible to turn, thin-thin-onion-skin pages of the Bible: “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” Of course, we church kids had no clue what that really meant, but later if we investigated we learned that it reflected a view of every word of scripture as literally God-breathed and therefore, of necessity, unquestionably true.
Well, then, science happened along and said, for starters, biblical cosmology is all wrong. Earth is not the center of the universe, and Earth is not comprised of three levels–our big flat island of a planet between the skies above and the underworld beneath protected from watery chaos above by the firmament. What caused rain, therefore, other than one of God’s attendants opening a window in the firmament thereby letting water fall to the ground?
Galileo took one of the first steps in negating biblical cosmology by challenging the assumption that the Earth was at the center of the universe. Galileo took Copernicus’ contention that the sun was at the center of the universe and ran with it despite the fact that the Vatican had placed Copernicus’ study on the revolutions of heavenly bodies on its index of prohibited books. In 1633 Galileo was sent to trial and pronounced guilty of teaching the Copernican falsehoods. His imprisonment was commuted to house arrest, but for the rest of his life he had no freedom.
Eventually, irrefutable evidence proved that Copernicus had been correct all along. The order of what was created when given in in Genesis 1 was proven to be flawed. Stars were formed on the fourth day of creation according to Genesis 1:16, astronomy established that stars are still being formed today. Earth, apparently, is the only planet in the Genesis 1 account, whereas modern cosmology has shown us several planets with ours coming into existence relatively late. Interesting to note, but those who finalized the beautiful Genesis 1 myth are in all probability in the next realm laughing themselves silly at the efforts, still very much alive–consult the Texas Board of Education if you don’t believe me, to turn their poetic myth into chapter one of a science textbook.
In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened. The rain fell on the earth forty days and forty nights (Gen 7:11-12 NRSV).
I listen to the Weather Channel now and then, and I’ve never heard one of the meteorologists mention heavy rains due to the opening of windows in the firmament. It would be fascinating–a bit like Orson Wells’s “War of the Worlds” broadcast–if the Weather Channel gave a weather report using strictly prescientific perspectives. “God is really angry at the west coast of the United States today, so the windows of the firmament have been opened directly over Sodom and San Francisco!”
Of course, you’re a couple of steps ahead of me AT LEAST, and you’re thinking, “Exactly what kind of truth are we talking here?” That’s exactly the question to raise. Did the writer of this part of the book of Genesis, chapter 7, give a flying hooey about where the rain and flood waters came from? Probably not. This detail is just a part of a story with a much more worthwhile message to present; namely, despite the horrible pathway we have to travel to get to the moral of the story, “God is not a big fan of evil, but God isn’t going to give up on humanity.”
II. “…but I say to you.”
“You have heard it said of old…BUT I say to you.” Those words and the series of juxtapositions they conveyed probably ensured Jesus’ death more than anything else he said. Traditions were not to be tampered with much less trampled upon in the views of the aristocratic Jews governing, to the degree permitted by Rome, other Jews. As a group, these privileged and powerful leaders were called the Sanhedrin.
Jesus had no intention of attempting to do away with the ancient teachings. He wanted religious renewal, not a tossing of the baby out with the bath water. The Jews in leadership positions evidently lived and believed by an all-or-nothing philosophy. Thus, for Jesus to have suggested as he clearly did that the interpretations of the ancient religious teachings needed to be adapted for a community hundreds of years removed from the original setting for the teaching made him a marked man.
In fairness though commonly done, it is not OK to take ancient teachings out of context and try to force square pegs into round holes, that is try to force the ancient teaching to make sense in our society by having it appear to mean something that it never could have meant. Certainly those people who approach the Bible with the flat Bible interpretation mentality are more likely to do that than those who are sensitive to interpretive factors such as original context, language, societal norms and manners, most importantly theology. There was not one ancient Hebrew theology any more than there was one early Christian theology. Those sorts of false unification imaginings only cloud and complicate the effort to find, as closely as we can, the original meaning of a saying or a text.
In the name of humility and common sense,we have to be willing to admit, and without arm twisting, that some of the teachings in Hebrew and Christian scripture may never make any sense to us or–more optimistically–we may never be able to grasp the full impact of the teaching. Sometimes the context in which something was said is as important as what was said. The one cannot make sense without the other.
With his “You have heard it said of old…but I say unto you” teachings, Jesus not only subverted religious authorities but also established an informational process for those who would like to find some applicable, practical suggestions in ancient literature for how to live in today’s world. Rarely is it possible simply to turn to ancient texts and find ready to use, ready to wear teachings without some investigative work. In some cases the surface issue in an ancient teaching is completely irrelevant to our society. An example would be the Apostle Paul’s telling women in the Corinthian Church not to shave their heads. That’s a hot topic for most of you ladies, I know, so let’s allow Paul to have his say.
Any man who prays or prophesies with something on his head disgraces his head, but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head—it is one and the same thing as having her head shaved. For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or to be shaved, she should wear a veil (1 Cor. 11:4-6 NRSV).
Now, there are still some groups within Christianity who believe this is a literal teaching that must be adhered to yet today by the faithful, and they require on the basis of it that women must never cut their hair at all. Respectfully, I say: that is ludicrous, and it is based squarely on interpretive abuse.
As you well know, Paul did not have any real concern for fashion–either men’s or women’s fashion. What he wanted to stress to the women in Corinth is that they should look considerably different than the prostitutes who wanted to be easy to spot for the benefit of potential customers. Before getting snooty about prostitutes and seeing himself as morally superior to them, Paul should have taken time to recall unless remember that some of the primary heroines in Scripture including some of the ancestors of Jesus of Nazareth were prostitutes. I’m not recommending the profession or the utilization of the profession, and we may be able to wring some kind of moral lesson out of this teaching for our use today.
I come back again to say that some ancient teachings that we can interpret without difficulty should be condemned and not utilized in any sense. What about some of the ancient disciplinary codes? There is a reference in the book of Deuteronomy on how to discipline a son, probably not a little boy, who disrespects his parents specifically by being gluttonous and/or a drunk. Children’s protective agencies should scrutinize churches who are preaching this principle or even some adaptation of it literally. The biblical teaching is this. If you have such a son, you are left with no alternative but to take your tipsy, overweight son to the city fathers and ask them to stone your son to death.
God is portrayed by some ancient Hebrew holy writ as directing them, if they are victorious in battle, not just to walk away in celebration leaving behind them the bodies of their enemies strewn across the battlefield. Instead, they’re supposed to go into the cities and towns where the survivors of the enemy soldiers live and kill them all, leaving not one alive–child or woman or man.
III. The Flat Earth Society
Bishop Spong again:
I do not debate any longer with members of the “Flat Earth Society” either. I do not debate with people who think we should treat epilepsy by casting demons out of the epileptic person; I do not waste time engaging those medical opinions that suggest that bleeding the patient might release the infection. I do not converse with people who think that Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans as punishment for the sin of being the birthplace of Ellen DeGeneres or that the terrorists hit the United Sates on 9/11 because we tolerated homosexual people, abortions, feminism or the American Civil Liberties Union. I am tired of being embarrassed by so much of my church’s participation in causes that are quite unworthy of…the God whose mystery and wonder I appreciate more each day.
There are parts of the Bible that even with some kind of updated interpretation cannot be used and should be tossed out. We can sympathize with Marcion and Thomas Jefferson who created their own bibles by doing more cutting than pasting.
Yet, there are parts of the Bible that are of tremendous potential value if interpreted correctly. For example, the teachings of Jesus properly interpreted have changed the world for the good–over and over again. For several reasons, his voice has been heard calling us to sanity and spiritual health when no other voice could get any attention. We need to hear his truths, properly interpreted, again and again.