Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The Bible is Clear . . . As Mashed Potatoes

German Colloquialism

There are some German sayings that I really love. Some are bizarre, but then others are very illuminating. One time while I was living in Germany, a friend of mine had called me to cancel an appointment because she had problems with her almonds. I was totally confused by this. I had no idea what she meant. I didn't know if she had an allergic reaction to almonds or if she would rather have walnuts instead. Then she told me that her throat was very sore. Now I was very confused. So I turned to my dictionary. Lo and behold! "Mandeln," the German word for almonds, was another way of saying "tonsils."

I have no idea why that is. There are other bizarre expressions in German. Sometimes a German would say, "That's sausage to me," when he/she means that s/he doesn't care. If you "have a bird," you're "nuts." (Please don't ask me to explain what a "mother cake" is.)

One expression, though, that I really liked was the expression, "clear as mashed potatoes." We have a similar expression in English, "clear as mud." It means the same thing:  that the topic of discussion is actually not very clear at all.

We are the Borg

(Resistance is futile)

Recently in an online discussion group, some of us were talking about how when a person becomes a member of The Salvation Army as a soldier, one of the things that we like to do is to recite our doctrines. All of us collectively read our doctrines. This is similar in other worship services if, especially in liturgical denominations, you say the Apostle's Creed, or the Lord's Prayer collectively.

Our first doctrine in The Salvation Army talks about Scripture. "We believe that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament were given by inspiration of God and that they only constitute the divine rule of Christian faith and practice."

I try to give feeling to what I say when we recite that collectively. Otherwise, we come across all sounding like the Borg from Star Trek. 

I have a somewhat fiendish desire for a session of cadets (Salvation Army seminary students) to say, "Resistance is Futile" after they are commissioned (ordained).

The Bible is . . . not clear.

I have begun to notice a disturbing trend among Christians. This comes from many persuasions, whether conservative or progressive in their thoughts. When discussing theological issues, I often hear the phrase, "The Bible is clear . . ."

I want to wince every time I hear that.

First of all, the Bible is rarely clear on anything. It is often contradictory and filled with inconsistencies. The best example I like to give is with Judas Iscariot.

How did he die?

Most people say that he committed suicide by hanging himself. (See Matthew 27:3-10.)

However, Luke in his account in the Acts of the Apostles, states that Judas died by accident. He tripped in a field he purchased and his guts spilled out.

Unfortunately, I know many people who try to remove the obvious inconsistent stories here with a stretch of logic. They try to reason that Judas hung himself, but then the branch broke on the tree he hung himself and his guts spilled out when he fell. There is a word to describe this type of logic:  Sophistry.

Screenshots are Gossip

Last year, I was involved in an online discussion with some people about this very topic. I was still a Salvation Army officer. In the discussion, my debater told me that the "Bible is very clear" on the topic we were talking about. My response to this person was the grabbed by a screenshot and then sent to my superiors. When I was confronted with my response, my superiors told me that what I said was heresy.

At this point, let me digress. One of my newest pet peeves are screenshots. People use screenshots to prove what someone has said. They can be a useful tool, especially if they are unaltered; however, at the same time, they can be a terrible form of gossip. In fact, I would submit that they are this decade's new form of gossip.

Just recently, some people took screenshots of a conversation I was a participant in and this conversation was shown to a friend of mine. Some disparaging things were said about my friend, but not by me. My friend and his wife promptly "unfriended" me on Facebook and blocked me. Despite my explanations to the contrary, they told me that they couldn't trust me and that they needed to protect their family.

Gossip ruins lives and friendships.

What was so heretical?

What was so damning in my screenshot? In this case (and since I'm no longer an officer), I'll be happy to share what I said.

My counterpart was stating the same sex relationships are sinful and the Bible was clear on this point. I believe he might have also said, "The Bible says . . ."

My reply was this:  "The Bible is rarely clear on anything. It is only our interpretation of certain passages that are clear to us."

I was called a heretic for saying that.

Our approach is wrong.

We often look at the Bible in the wrong way. We approach it with our own understanding, which is guided by our own worldview.

We forget many things. First:  the Bible was not written in English. It was written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.

Secondly, we do not have an entire intact Bible from the first century. We have many fragments of copies and most of these are inconsistent with each other. Granted, these inconsistencies are sometimes small, but sometimes significant. For example, we have 2 different versions of Isaiah found at Qumran.

Also, we need to understand that we are intersecting with our own culture and the culture of the Bible. They are many different things going on there that we might not understand. Some day I'll do a blog on the Canaanite religion, which was basically a sex religion and which would also explain the prohibition laws in the Torah.

When we say "the Bible," this could actually refer to many different versions and translations. Even if we use the Protestant Bible with only its 66 books (Catholics have more!), even the newer translations use texts that weren't available to the translators of the King James Version or even the Revised Standard Version. We discover the huge portions of the Bible were added later by some well-meaning scribes. The last portion of Mark is perhaps the best example. Also, the phrase, "For Thine is the Kingdom and the power and the glory forever" does not appear in the original Lord's Prayer in Matthew 6.

The Bible is not inerrant.

Finally, I believe we are wrong to call the Bible the Word of God. It is not. That implies something terrible:  that every single word coming out of the Bible is actually God talking. When a church fellowship says they believe that Scripture is inerrant and infallible (which thankfully mine does not), they are setting themselves up for a big disappointment. When someone starts studying Scripture intensely and purposefully, one begins to see even in English the minor inconsistencies and contradictions in the Bible.

We in The Salvation Army don't say that the Bible is inerrant. We do say that it is inspired, which is not the same thing. Just think of a movie you see with the disclaimer ahead of it, "Inspired by true events." That's the type of inspiration I believe the Bible gives us.

The Bible does not speak. It doesn't state. It doesn't talk. It is a collection of inspired words that try to tell about how these ancient people engaged God, especially through the person of Jesus Christ.

Mike McHargue (aka Science Mike) gave some wonderful axioms for his faith when he was looking for structure after he had lost it and regained it once again. It was a starting point for him, to which he admits he has moved on. It can also be a starting point for us.

This is what he stated about the Bible:

The Bible is AT LEAST a collection of books and writings assembled by the Church that chronicle a people group's experiences with, and understanding of, God over thousands of years. EVEN IF that is a comprehensive definition of the Bible, study of scripture is warranted to understand our culture and the way in which people come to know God.

If the Bible is not the Word of God, then what is?

It's not what:  it's WHO.

Jesus is the Word of God. Jesus is God's message to humanity, showing us and pointing us the way to God. He showed us how to live, how to love, and how to be.

I found an amusing quote about the Word of God:

Let us not force the Bible into a form that it cannot sustain. Let us realize that the Bible is a wonderful book for us. It is even the basis for Christian belief, but let us not turn the Bible into our idol. Let us not turn the Bible into our sacred cow and try to use it like the Israelites tried to misuse the Ark of the Covenant. Instead, let us turn our eyes to the true Word of God:  Jesus.

photo credit: Making Mashed Potatoes via photopin (license)

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Chemistry for Christians

Litmus Tests

I loved chemistry when I was in school. Even today, I am a big fan of chemistry. There is a wonderful series of videos on YouTube from the University of Nottingham on all the elements of the Periodic Table and then some. They are truly engrossing and I get as much excitement watching a reaction of potassium with water as they do.

One of the earliest experiments I learned in chemistry was a simple one:  trying to find out the pH balance of a liquid to determine if the liquid were acidic or basic. Water would almost always have a pH balance of 7. If the number were lower, then the solution was more acidic (like cola). If it were higher, than the solution was more basic (like something with baking soda in it).

All you had to do was to dip one of these litmus test strips in the solution and then compare the color of the reaction to see if the solution were basic or acidic.

A Test for Christians?

Is there a test for Christians? What or who determines who a Christian is? For some people this answer is quite obvious. They will start off spouting also sorts of rhetoric, including words such as "saved," "born again," "baptized," etc.

My own denomination likes to pass out in its literature the ABC's of Salvation. It is a simplified guideline for those wishing to identify as a Christian. It involves: Admitting your need (used to be admitting that you're a sinner), Believing in Christ, and Committing yourself to Christ.

We Salvationists tend to leave the baptism part out of it and the rest of the Christian world screams in uproar. Most Christians worldwide (with the notable exception of the Society of Friends (Quakers) and The Salvation Army) practice baptism as a rite into Christianity. The Salvation Army did away with those with very good theological reasons. (For an in-depth treatise, I recommend Dr. R. David Rightmire's book, Sacraments and The Salvation Army:  Pneumatological Foundations.)

Baptism is often seen as a wonderful rite into Christianity, until you get into the nuances behind it. When do you do it? The high church tradition (from Orthodox to Roman Catholic and even United Methodists) practice baptism at infancy. Anabaptists tend to do it at an age of accountability, a nebulous time when a person is old enough to decide for him/herself to make religious decisions. Then some churches have it as a prerequisite for their own church membership, whether or not they have been baptized before.

Is it something we do? Then what? Get baptized? Eat some bread and drink wine? Do we help people? Do we serve others? Is it what we believe? Is it what we read? The Bible? Which translation? (Weird tangent:  I hold the New World Translation with the same esteem as I do The Message, which is none.) How many books does it have? Protestants have 66 while Catholics and Orthodox have many more. Why were some excluded? What makes them scripture?

We Christians have been arguing with each other over what we believe that it's no wonder we keep on splintering into more and more denominations.

I sometimes imagine that we Christians just like to argue with each other, quite similarly to this Monty Python sketch:

We seem to thrive on debate, but then the debate turns into argumentation, then into contradiction, and finally into rejection.

What does it mean to be a Christian?

I have recently been confronted by people who are trying to find some sort of way to see if I'm still a Christian or not. Some do it out of concern. Some do it out of spite. It seems to me that the latest "litmus test" for Christianity is where one stands on LGBT inclusion. The United Methodist Church is going through that great discussion this week. I am so glad that they can talk about it openly. My denomination regulates such discussions to committee meetings and there is no room for open debate. I believe that these committee could do great things, but I'm just concerned that there is no input from those in the denomination itself. If there is a way for such input, then this information is not disseminated to the rest of the denomination. (A lack of communication tends to be a hallmark in my denomination, all based on the idiom "need to know.")

I am very worried that we Christians are going about trying to figure out who's a Christian or not. I don't think that's our job to do. When we start down that path, we begin to judge other people. We become dualistic:  It's us versus them.

Our job is not to be exclusive. This is a bit ironic. We Christians are called to be holy, which literally means to be set apart, but it's not how you think. Being set apart for Jesus means to do what Jesus did. Jesus set himself apart, not from the sinners, but from the religious. He set himself apart by mixing in with society, by immersing himself with the population and scorning the religious establishment. His harshest words were for those who should have known better.

So what makes someone a Christian? You know what? I don't care anymore. My job is not to define that. My job is to be a Christ-follower and not to determine who is and who isn't. I leave that decision up to God.

My fear is that we are turning into the religious elite of Jesus' day. My fear is that Christ is more welcoming and affirming than his own followers are today.

photo credit: Litmus Bottles.jpg via photopin (license)