Month: October 2011

Can tea partiers and occupiers listen to each other?

As a society we’re bad at listening.  The point of a political discussion seems to be to make your opponent seem foolish.  Democrats stereotype Republicans.  Republicans caricature Democrats.

I wonder, can Tea Party-ers listen to Occupy-ers?  Or vice-versa?  At least one Occupy-er seems open to the idea.  In the October 24, 2011 Time magazine, Michael Oman-Reagan (an pseudo-librarian among Occupy Wall Street protesters) is quoted as saying, “If someone came with a truckload of Rush Limbaugh books, we’d [keep them].  We’re not opposed to having a dissenting voice.”  A sign of hope.

Unfortunately, Christians don’t seem to be better at this than anyone else.  Some may say, we’re worse.  What makes it even worse is that God’s word repeatedly commands us to listen to others.   Listening is a huge theme in the book of Proverbs (1:24; 5:7, 13; 7:24; 8:32; 13:1; 19:20; 23:22).  James commands not only listening, but being quick about it because it’s so important: “Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19).

In The Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy (film, 2005), a treasured object is “The Point-of-View Gun” which you use to shoot your opponent (wielded here by Zooey Deschanel).  After getting hit by this gun you are automatically forced to see things from the shooter’s perspective, almost like uber-listening.  (Zooey’s character doesn’t really need it because she’s “already a woman.”)

 Who do you find it difficult to listen to?  Who would you like to shoot with the point-of-view gun? 

Informing God what he already knows (Psalm 119:4)

“You have commanded your precepts to be kept diligently” (Psalm 119:4).

Only 172 verses to go.   (I’m blogging one verse from Psalm 119 each Sunday.)  And you thought I wouldn’t make it this far.

A dramatic shift occurs in the psalm at verse 4.  In verses 1-3, God is referred to in third person language.  He is YHWH (“the LORD” in most English translations.) or the text speaks of “him” and “his ways”.  But starting in verse, third person language changes to second person.  Instead of God being “he”, he is “you”.  He is no longer spoken about, he is spoken to.

This shift is emphasized by the Hebrew pronoun for you, ‘atah at the beginning of the verse.  In Hebrew, the pronoun is implied by the verb form (like a lot of modern languages other than English), so when the pronoun is used for emphasis.  “YOU have commanded…”  The pronoun begins with the letter Aleph, thus fitting into this Aleph section of the psalm.

Since God is being referred to as “you” it makes the psalm a prayer.  The longest chapter in Scripture is a prayer about Scripture.  Scripture, Prayer.  Nice.  That’s part of why I love this psalm.

So the psalmist informs God that God commanded God’s precepts to be kept diligently.  Why tell God something that he so obviously knows?  It’s hard to say definitively since we don’t know can’t read the mind of the psalmist.  (Bible teachers need to be a little more cautious about declaring to their audiences the mind of the biblical author.)  But one possible reason is that by stating this the psalmist is giving themself a reminder, and a reminder to their audience of this important truth that is easy to forget, ignore or rationalize away.

God wants to be obeyed, diligently obeyed.  Sometimes Christians think that this is just an Old Testament idea, and that God changed his mind in the New Testament and decided that he longer wanted his people to obey his commands.  There are two problems with this.  First, it makes no sense.  Second, Jesus, Paul, James, John and Peter and all the NT authors make it clear that obedience is still important.

Why do you think the psalmist tells God what God already knows? 

A Man for All Seasons

The film A Man for All Seasons contains one of the best lines in cinema.

As part of our attempt to expose our sons to films that pre-date Star Wars, we’ve recently seen I Confess (see blog under “Films”), North-by-Northwest and The Philadelphia Story.  While none of these other films really captured their teenage imagination and interest, the biopic on Sir Thomas More finally succeeded.

A Man for All Seasons is historical, political and cleverly written (winning six Oscars in 1966, including picture and actor-Paul Scofield as More).  The film tells the story Henry VIII’s attempt to dump Catherine of Aragon, who isn’t producing a male heir, in place of Anne Boleyn, who hopefully will produce (no males, but Elizabeth I–not too bad).

Cardinal Wolsey pressures More to give his assent to the annulment.  Because of conscience, More refuses.  Wolsey dies, so Henry speaks directly to More.  He still refuses.  (I hope this isn’t a spoiler for anyone, but the movie is pretty accurate historically, so I’m assuming you all know what’s coming.)

More is thrown in prison, but because he’s a lawyer, he is clever enough to not say anything the State can use against him in a treason case.  Eventually, More’s tried for treason and to testify against him is Richard Rich (played by John Hurt-Ollivander, if you watch Harry Potter 1, 7A and 7B, yeah, he was 50 years younger in AMFAS).  Rich perjured himself during the trial (for which he has been already been awarded with the post of attorney general for Wales), which allows the state to convict More of treason.  More, realizing he’s a dead man (beheaded July 6, 1535), makes an allusion to Mark 8:36 in his final words to Rich, “It profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world, but for Wales?”

Wow!  (I don’t use exclamation marks on principle, but this one is warranted.)

Does it get any better than that?  (Wales is actually a beautiful country.)  To see a 4 minute youtube version of the scene check out- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bLIsqYKDqY8

What’s your favorite movie line? 

Don’t ignore the problem

Richard Dawkins highlights the problematic texts of the Old Testament (e.g., the Canaanite genocide in Joshua; the smiting of Uzzah in 2 Samuel 6).  Atheists like Dawkins, after they bring up one of these problematic passages, like to say, “I bet you didn’t hear about that in Sunday school?”  And they are usually right.   Because Christians focus on the nice parts (e.g., Psalm 23; Jeremiah 29:11–“I know the plans I have for you…plans for your welfare and not harm”).

While I understand the desire to avoid the nasty bits of the OT (they are confusing and take work to understand), those of us who teach the Bible are not serving people when we skip over the parts we don’t like.  It’s a bit trite, but it’s hard not to think of that proverbial ostrich.

If the problematic bits of the OT get ignored in church, when will people encounter them?  At least 3 places.

1) When they are reading through their Bibles on their own.  What are they going to do when they get to the Levites concubine (Judg. 19)?  Since they’ve never heard a sermon on it, or never discussed it in Sunday school or in a small group, they will be confused without anyone to help them make sense of texts like that.

2) When talking to an atheist, who, like Dawkins, knows more about the problematic bits (Psalm 137:9- divinely authorized infant head-bashing?) than they do.  They will be surprised that there are passages like that in their Bible, and they will be embarrassed that the atheists know more about the Bible than they do.

3) When they go off to college and their Intro to the Bible or Intro to Religion prof, who is a big fan of the New Atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, brings up the story of the angel of YHWH killing 185,000 Assyrians (2 Kings 19:35).  Or perhaps, a bit more familiar, the story of the flood, where God drowns all humans except Noah’s family.  (At what age is it appropriate to first expose people to the horrors of the flood narrative?  College?  Mid-20’s?)

As I’ve been talking to people about God Behaving Badly, people tell me story after story of being shocked by what they find in their Bibles and being angry that their church never taught on problematic texts.  The word that gets used frequently is “betrayed”.

If you teach the Bible, don’t ignore problematic texts.  They teach profound lessons about God and his character.  And people need to know how to deal with them.  Books like God Behaving Badly, or Paul Copan’s Is God a Moral Monster? can help us understand texts like these.

In what contexts have you talked to people about problematic texts?  What texts do people ask you about?