Monthly Archives: March 2013

‘Biblical’ Challenges…

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:14-17, NRSV)

Unless you have been under a rock for the last month or so, you have missed one of the most controversial and yet ‘trendiest’ topics in pop culture……The Bible. This 13-part miniseries seeks to cover some of the pivotal and definitive stories of the Biblical text. Unlike most History channel programming about the Bible, this series contains little to no scholarship or commentary (in fact very little narration). Instead this series seeks to ‘tell the story’ with, according to the series, a fervor and vibrancy that “bring the Bible to life.”

With a multi-racial cast and a eye toward an interpretative acting, the series offers insight into an angle on the scriptures that a segment of our Christian family affirms. Retelling the stories of pivotal stores of Creation in Genesis, Samson in Judges, Moses in Exodus and David in the history texts among others, the series hopes to bring the Bible and its narratives into the mainstream of the public consciousness and conversation. To that end, the series has been widely successful. It has trended on Twitter, been followed closely by TV personalities like TJ Holmes and Roland Martin and has been featured on several news networks. The series has also been deeply criticized by biblical scholars, feminists, and Christians from all over the world. I too, add my voice to that criticism of the series…

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I have watched the series produced by Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, (both avowed evangelical Christians), each week with excitement and bitter resentment. Excitement to see the stories of my Christian heritage brought to life and resentment as to how they would be butchered and skewered in the grinder of cultural, social and contextual blindness. They have selected the stories, chosen what was relevant and used their multi racial cast in such a narrowed view that Egyptians are white and Jews are British. Their choices have left no doubt about their intentions, directions and purposes in telling their narratives about the bible.

In watching last night, I found myself repulsed by the brunette Brit that was supposed to represent my Jesus. Weirdly, I previously tolerated a British Moses and Pharaoh, a peculiarly black Samson (with a thing for white women), the gross mischaracterization of David’s ‘rape’ of Bathsheba and the casting of President Obama’s twin as the devil in the earlier installments of the series. Yet, I found this week that this interpretation of Jesus was a bridge too far….

The truth of the matter is that the casting of colonial Jesus essentially completes a ‘whitewashing’ of the continual portrayal of the Biblical narrative. For centuries, the truths of the African and ‘colored’ heritage of the text has been undermined by colonial powers and forces that sought to rewrite and patronize the what the ancient writers sought to convey. Many folks have said that the color of Jesus shouldn’t matter as long as we appreciate and believe what he did for us. If Jesus’ color doesn’t matter, then why are nearly all of the depictions of Jesus in western culture of a white man? The ‘color’ of our stories matters because they help us to inculcate and in grain the narratives in our lives. Culture, context, gender roles and power all matter in the telling of sacred narratives because they help to expose the continual truth of God’s engagement in the culture, context and power of our present lives.

One colleague commented on reviewing one of the episodes that I, “should not be surprised or astonished, because Burnett and Downey could not be expected to do multicultural telling of the Bible.” My reply was that “my expectations were not unrealistic and in fact were even more normative given that this is the 21st century and we have a broader view of the text and the messages of the text.” Expecting Abraham to be middle eastern and speak something other than English (with a British accent) is not an unreasonable expectation in the 21st century. Expecting a culturally and textually appropriate portrayal of any Biblical character is not an unreasonable expectation of white producers or of the History Channel. Expecting that critical elements of the narratives of Christian heritage not be redacting or edited is also a reasonable expectation.

Unknown-1The text for this week is a passage that I often struggle with. In and of itself, this passage (which has been used by many preachers to support the efficacy of the Bible), on its surface validates the use of scripture because ‘scripture says so’! However, the more nuanced understanding of the text offers a view that the Bible is relevant for teaching because of the inherent truth of the witness of God throughout all generations in the totality of scripture. I believe the writers of the biblical text told the truth of the stories with an awareness of God’s action in and through and by and with the messiness of our human existence. That truth of the text is what makes  the text “useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.”

In my vocation as a pastor and religious educator, I plan to use the series and all of its flaws. I plan to use it to teach the power of hermeneutics and enculturation in reading the bible. The History Channel series is no different than many of the other portrayals of the Bible (see ‘Ten Commandments’, ‘One Night with the King’, ‘Prince of Egypt’, etc.). All of these movies and shows tell the stories of the Bible in ways that are intentional in leading us to believe what they want us to. In many ways, these tellings reinforce cultural mores and norms that continually oppress and undermine the real meaning of the text. In teaching about this form of redaction, I hope to empower many in our faith to counteract these tendencies when we see it so that we may be empowered in our views of pop cultural representations of our faith.

I take REAL issue with redaction (even in the ancient traditions in the Old Testament). Redaction is a power grab and a selective revisionist view toward telling the truth. Its misleading with intent and purpose. If we are ever going to get a free and fair glimpse of the vision of truth, we are going to need to tell the story of our faith free from redaction, revision and with a healthy wrestling with God in the text.

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Learning to Get Unstuck…

At that time Jesus went through the cornfields on the sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. 2When the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, ‘Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the sabbath.’ 3He said to them, ‘Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? 4He entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him or his companions to eat, but only for the priests. 5Or have you not read in the law that on the sabbath the priests in the temple break the sabbath and yet are guiltless? 6I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. 7But if you had known what this means, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice”, you would not have condemned the guiltless. 8For the Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.’ (Matthew 12:1-8, NRSV)

In our life together we are so often bound by the traditions, rules and regulations of our own creation. Traditions that shape our familial practice, careers, and religious practices all shape our life. After all, these traditions can help to keep us grounded and focused when the vicissitudes of life keep us in flux. Our morning routines, the rules we follow on our jobs, the expectations and standards that we promote in our lives all serve to create consistency that we rely on in the day-to-day moments of existence. But what happens when those rules that guide become ties that bind? When do our traditions and experiences that so helpfully regulate our lives, become limiting and restrictive to the life?

There are times when our expectations and life traditions do in fact hinder us. The rules we make around dating and relationships, what we will and won’t do, and the circumstances by which we would perform and extraordinary task all have the dangerous propensity for limiting life as much as they define it. I have talked with people who have grown old and bitter because of the rules they have made for themselves. They didn’t get married because they wanted a particular type of spouse. They didn’t work in the field of their heart’s desire because of the traditions that their family assumed about being a musician or artist or teacher. They have limited their lives because of the rules and ideologies they made for themselves.

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Such is the case in the New Testament with respect to the rules and traditions of religious practice. Jesus is born into a religious context that has long been shaped by thousands of years of religious tradition and interpretation. The laws and regulations that shape Jewish religiosity are strict and specifically enforced by the Pharisees. Despite the intense regulation of obedience to the laws (and the traditions), Jesus is countercultural in nearly every respect of those very traditions.

In the above passage, Jesus has finished providing instructions and teaching to the disciples. After he concludes they begin their journey to a new town. Nothing wrong in this except that their travel begins and continues on the sabbath. Traveling on the Sabbath means that he is already in violation of the laws concerning work for Jews during this period. Worse yet, in the middle of the journey, the disciples get hungry and instead of stopping and resting, they decide to keep walking through a grain field and pick off the heads of grains. All is well until the disciples gets caught by the Pharisees.

The interchange that takes place between Jesus and the Pharisees is one in which Jesus critiques the understanding of the purpose of the law and not just a general interpretation. By challenging the very notion of the function of tradition, Jesus exposes the risk of strict adherence to the rules. Rules can be dangerously limiting and deny life when you focus on the rule and not the purpose of the rule. Jesus reminds the Pharisees that rules exist for a reason and to ignore the reason and keep the rules makes the rules irrelevant and legalistic.

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The truth of the matter is that we too, build fortresses of rules and traditions and hide inside. We often forget why we create these rules and what purpose they served in our life. Instead we cling to the rules blindly and watch happiness in life pass us by. Jesus in the passage reminds us that rules have a purpose. Once the purpose has changed, the rules need to be changed (or maybe even omitted). Our hypocrisy, contortions of belief and the undermining of relational happiness emanate from blind allegiance to the rules.

Life is happening all around us. Life is engaging and changing in the brief moments of love, charity and interaction. Traditions are important to shaping and defining life for each one of us. Traditions do not, however, bring life, they merely maintain the status quo. Doing what you always have done because it’s what has been done, is never good enough and will never yield life. Being responsive to the needs of life  and the needs you have means sometimes changing (or breaking) the rules. It’s not the end of the world, but the promise of life. After all, the visions of truth only come outside of the rule box!

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Following a Different Policy

Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let us go out to the field.” And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him. 9 Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel? He said, “I do not know; am I my brothers keeper?” 10 And the Lord said, “What have you done? Listen; your brothers blood is crying out to me from the ground!” (Genesis 4:8-10, NRSV)

This past week a stunning thing took place at a assisted Living facility in Bakersfield, California. A woman had gone into cardiac arrest and had stopped breathing. A nurse (remember that) on staff called 911 and was waiting for instructions. The operator on the line stated quite clearly that CPR was needed and that it needed to be performed immediately. The nurse’s response is bone chillingly inhumane and robotic. The exchange went as follows:

911 dispatcher: Are we just going to wait and let this lady die?

Nurse: Well, that’s why we’re calling 911.

911:  We need to get CPR started

Nurse: They’re refusing CPR. They’re going to let her just die.

911: I understand your boss is telling you you can’t do it but if there’s anybody, a      human being, I don’t…. is there anybody that’s willing to help this lady and not let her die?

Nurse: Um, not at this time.

I must admit that when I first heard this I was struck by the irony of it all. A woman who is a nurse, and is trained to help people, quotes company protocol and policy when someone has a heart attack. In a “Assisted Living” facility no less!!(Worse yet, it has been reported that the deceased daughter is “satisfied with the treatment” her mother received.)

Apparently, the company that owns the “assisted living” facility has a policy that does not assist people in active medical distress other than calling 911. This company has effectively enshrined into company policy the phenomenon that we occasionally see from people in the streets. You see it through the hidden camera footage when people see someone on the streets in distress and then do little to nothing to aid that person. Sometimes they don’t even call 911 or reach out for anyone.

Cain and Abel

This behavior is not new. If we trust the witness of the scriptures, we find the first such incident in our above text. Often called the first incident of murder in creation, the above passage seems bigger than just sibling rivalry gone awry. Likewise, this tale is not merely about what happens when we are not forthright in our feelings. All of those explanations can be found in the text but Cain’s response to God’s prompt seems to be particularly telling.

When God “stumbles” upon the scene of fratricide, God asks,Where is your brother Abel?”, to which Cain offers a stunningly blunt and sarcastic retort, ““I do not know; am I my brothers keeper?” The response seems on the surface to be both disingenuous and pompous. At a deeper level, the writers of the passage are placing a double entendre into Cain’s mouth. The retort is both a denial of Cain’s familial responsibility for his brother and is a passive slap in the proverbial face of God. In other words, when God poses the question of Abel’s whereabouts, Cain’s response in our vernacular is, Don’t know what you are talking about. Keeping people isn’t my job, it’s yours!!

More importantly in the passage, Cain’s response reveals a truth of our own human shortcomings. When we fall short of expected behavior and fail to be human in our behaviors to our fellow sojourner, we resort to hiding behind the ‘policies’ we craft for ourselves. Whether it’s Cain hiding behind the witness of God’s character as humanity’s caretaker; the Pharisees being scolded by the Jesus for hiding behind the sabbath; or a nurse in Bakersfield, we use the convenience of policy to cover our ineptitude or inhumane practices to one another.

Beloved, we are made to be connected to one another. We cannot live a part from each other and thrive. We are meant to live in community and even though communities don’t always get along we are called to do it together. Resorting to legalistic interpretations of ‘policy’ stifles what has always been intended for each one of us. ‘Policy’ has a place in so far as it helps us to understand our relationship with one another and the ways we relate to God. However, our heavenly mandate is always answer yes when the question is asked, “Am I my brother’s/sister’s keeper?”. The 911 operator almost seems to be asking that very prophetic question of the nurse when she simply asks, “is there anybody that’s willing to help this lady and not let her die?” In the same way that Cain killed his brother Abel, this nurse willful inaction stole the chance for life for that woman. The nurse’s response to the operator says it all: “Um, not at this time.”

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We are better than what this nurse and this company offered this dying woman. It is insufficient for the company to say that they let all of their residents know of the CPR policy in advance. There is still a human standard, a basic standard or life. This standard applies to all areas of our life together. We can do better in our conversations about guns and violence and not hide behind a policy that “guns don’t kill people”. We can do better in our policies toward war, healthcare, poverty and all the ways that we should be “keeping” our brothers and sisters. God requires more and Abel’s blood cries out for me. We should demand better from each other and from those who lead us.

Getting the lesson from the Cain and Abel narrative without the death of another one of our brother’s and sister is a vision of truth…

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