Monday, December 8, 2014

Missing the point with Mary

Somewhere in my bible school music training one of the instructors quoted something like the following, which, regrettably, I can't immediately source:
Christians are more likely to sing heresy than teach it.
Well this Christmas, I am guilty. I'm part of a group that will be performing a chant that extols Mary as "Virgo semper intacta" which renders in English as "virgin ever pure." Now in one sense, that of redemption through the death, resurrection, and return of her firstborn, I have no problem ascribing to her any amount of purity. But the literal sense of the Latin doesn't lead us in that direction at all. "Intacta" signifies untouched, by which we may assume that she never, through long years of 'marriage,' ever copulated with her husband Joseph. And that idea I find viciously problematic.

Now the Gospels clearly state that the couple abstained until the birth of Jesus. And I wonder how anyone could extrapolate "never" from such a statement. I mean, why include the limiting preposition "until" if you really mean "never?" But that is by the by. I have been sometimes accused of being a grammar cop, but I shall try to avoid that here.

It's not the misuse of the text that is so problematic, but the damage that the eternal "purity," and (let's go ahead and say it) 'Immaculate Conception' of Mary does to the whole story of Incarnation. To me the point of Jesus' coming was for God to come as an everyman and not have any advantages that could compromise the worth of his sinless life. Think how much easier he had it, if throughout his whole upbringing, his mother was without any faults. How is that fair? And take yourself back to the time he lived in and imagine that he was the only boy in his neighbourhood of probable one room dwellings who had not experienced the childhood trauma of waking up to the sound of his parents' revels at midnight. "Go back to sleep, son -- no, everything's alright, we'll explain in a few years..." Paul's idea is "tempted in every way that we are" and I think he's right. I think he gets the Incarnation in a way that those who wish to ascribe all sorts of fairy tale virtues to Mary just don't.

In black and white, then, the more we embellish the character of Mary, more we detract from the redemption. If Jesus had some unique advantage, he can't be our Saviour and he can't be our Example.

But the quote stands. I will, as agreed, sing this heresy. But not without comment.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Rule on Rule

What do the Jewish Talmud, the teachings of the Catholic and Orthodox churches, the teachings of Bill Gothard, and many of the teachings that come out of the Charismatic movement have in common? My take is that much of all of these are based on stuff that is based on other stuff that is based on some original information or saying from the Bible.

The story of the Talmud is well known. It's a commentary on a commentary on commentary. And the rabbinical culture which produced it, produced much of the legalism that Christ had such a dislike for. I hope I am not wrong in the understanding that much of the that legalism is contained in the Talmud.

I'll skip over to Bill Gothard, since so much of my childhood Christianity was framed by his teaching. A clever man, that Bill. Could keep you listening to him for hours. Lots of helpful material, too. But when it came to overarching theory, it got a little sketchy. Bill liked to derive principles from the Bible and then derive principles from other principles and that's where he falls into the same camp as the Pharisees. My favourite was the reasoning behind his idea that rock music is evil. The whole idea comes from the mention in Paul's letters of spirit, soul, and body. Now Paul doesn't say that much about those three; in fact he was probably expressing the totality of human existence. But Bill had lots to say. For Bill, they represented not a totality but a hierarchy. Spirit on top, soul in subjection to spirit, body in subjection to spirit and soul. Based on this Bill constructed a theory of music. As follows: the spirit corresponds to the melody, the harmony to the soul (think "mind"), and the beat to the body. So rock music is obviously wrong because the body component of the music is emphasized. I'm guessing he probably didn't have much time for vocal jazz either, because the soul (think "mind") component is too prevalent in all those harmonies.

Two months or so ago, I had an extended discussion on Facebook about Mary as theotokos, or Mother of God. I questioned the use of the title, because it has always seemed to me to make Mary the originator of God. One response I got was, was I setting myself up against the third ecumenical council that declared her to be that? Well I finally looked up the council that declared her to be theotokos, (on Wikipedia -- hardly a primary source, but...) and the sense I got was not that it was focused on elevating Mary to a permanent exalted position in the Kingdom, but on proclaiming Jesus as God instead of merely Christ. The council was choosing between God-bearer and Christ-bearer. (And yes, the use of "bearer" instead of "originator," deals with my scruples about "Mother of God," but that's still an aside.) Assigning that title, though, to Mary has had its consequences. For centuries after, Christian worship has, to my mind, counter-intuitively included her in regular liturgy.

The point I am trying to make is that teachings that are second or third generation (based on stuff that is based on other stuff) is suspect. A small amount of bias in a primary teaching is forgivable -- we are all human after all. But error compounds upon error and soon you have something that is not recognizable as stemming from the original.

Take the Trinity for example. The Trinity is, to my mind, a best-guess label for the mysterious relationship and identity Father Son and Holy Spirit have together. From the Bible, it's easily defensible as a good working concept. But it's never explicitly taught. We've derived it from what we read, honestly and humbly enough. But then someone the other day was telling me that he was meditating on the perichoresis, a deeper concept which describes of the intricacies of that mysterious relationship (read up in it yourself.) But how, I ask, can there even be a perichoresis, when we don't even really know if there is a Trinity? Our humble best-guess has exalted itself into being the basis for a whole other teaching. We've strayed into what we can't actually know.

How quickly this process occurs in the Church is evident in the some of the practises that have arisen among Charismatics. "Binding Satan" in prayers is surely based on stuff that is based on other stuff. (You never hear Jesus or the early church praying that way.) Catchphrases abound. "Come into alignment," "plead the blood," etc. All had some traction at one time in context of someone's inspiring teaching. But they are hardly central and should really be discarded before someone bases anything more on them.

I have an Orthodox co-worker, who justly accuses me of minimalism. Guilty as charged, I say. The enormous jurisprudence of canon law terrifies me. I read the intricate distinctions of who can have communion, what kind of marriages are legitimate, (divorce is unlawful, but you can get an annulment) etc. and wonder how any of that is foreshadowed by Jesus and his ministry here on earth. It's not. It's rule on rule, rule on rule, a little here, a little there. (And for those who think that that's a good thing, reread the Isaiah passage where that phrase occurs.)

So I propose a sort of hierarchy of teaching. The original sources are more authoritative. First generation teachings based on those sources are less so. Second generation teachings based on the first are suspect. Third generation teachings should probably be discarded. I'm probably wrong, but it's where I'm at right now.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Praying to Saints

Some twelve or thirteen years ago, when I was first presented by the conundrum of a scholarly friend and his family forsaking what I will loosely call the free churches (a very subjective label in this case -- by which, forgive me, I mean churches I more or less understand) for the Roman Catholic church, one of the more bewildering issues to me was the veneration of saints. As someone who has always believed that worship was for God alone, I would tend to condemn such a practise as idolatry if I ever thought of it all. But here was someone I respected embracing it along with all the other -- for me -- Martian ideas and practices of Rome. And having asked about it, I was supplied the following more or less plausible rationale for the whole practise.
  • The word prayer in the context of the saints is closer to simple asking than the included worship we subscribe to God when we pray to him. A little archaic in usage, but possible. In the past you might have in the same way asked something of your friend in the form of, "I pray thee."
  • Saints are part of the "Cloud of Witnesses" that surrounds us. And they don't just surround us as from stands in an arena. They're actually very close -- close enough to hear us and interact with our lives.
  • We already single out certain friends -- still alive friends, I mean -- who seem to have special faith for praying for specific things. Why not ask the various saints to intercede on our behalf in our diverse times of need?
So the above was, for me, an interesting excursion into another worldview. Veneration of Saints is a classic sticking point for Protestants to argue against the Roman church, a too-easy fault to write the whole thing off because no effort had been made to understand the practise from the inside. What I saw in the above was that here was practise rooted in a medieval paradigm that made some sense in that context, and as someone who tries to allow other cultures their worldviews, I had to make room for it as possible. The explanation I was given was an attempt to bring it forward into the present day. And in discussions with fellow non-Catholics I would try to downplay that particular issue, because, as members of another culture, we couldn't really judge what was in their hearts when they 'prayed' to the saints.

A couple of days ago, in the context of a random discussion -- we have lots of them in our family -- I did a web search for Saint Peregrine. I figured there had to be such a saint, because of the popular fruit juice soda brand 'San Pelegrino' and I guessed rightly that the English version of his name must be Peregrine. And I found the following. When I read it aloud, someone made the comment that he had always found the practise of praying to the saints somewhat idolatrous. And you can easily glean the same from the verbiage in the prayer, which seems to me to be a pretty standard sort of address to a saint. And it certainly doesn't fit into the made-for-protestants explanation given me by my friend. The formalism, the titles, the 'buttering up' of the saint, all point in the direction quite the opposite to the "asking a friend to pray for you" model. But I'm going to try give this the benefit of the doubt and try to update the prayer a bit. Bear with me.
  •  "Hey Peregrine, you've had some success praying for miracles, haven't you? And you also sacrificed a lot to serve God and I appreciate that and frankly, I look up to you. You're a real role model. I'd consider it a favour if you would pray for me that I could have the courage to be like you. So much for the long term. In the short term, there are a few miracles I need. Can you please pray for [fill in the blank] and [fill in another blank]. Like I said, I'd sure appreciate your help if you've got the time."
What do you think? If you can get your head around talking to people who are gone on to where we all will await resurrection, I think it might work. I've made a conscious effort to not address Peregrine the way I address God, to avoid assigning titles -- Forgive me,I still take the Matthew 23 passage very seriously-- and to include at least some of the material of the prayer on the above web page.

The resurrection thing is an interesting point about saints, though. Jesus himself was not glorified until he was resurrected, and none of us, not even the saints, have been resurrected. It possibly kind of calls into question us depending on them as if they were glorified. But I'm not going to push on any farther in that direction. The whole thing is still just so foreign to me and there are far bigger issues to resolve before I would ever follow in my friends footsteps.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

A Bible Study: Sometimes, It's not Love, but Honour

The Luke 11 "Ask, Seek, Knock," passage has been on my mind recently. Especially the story about the man who wakes his neighbour. And I think that strange mistranslation has crept into most of our bibles in this story. The point of the story is not the knocking friend's persistence. The story is not about persistence at all or repetition or even as one bible puts it, impudence(!)

As a non-scholar in Greek, how can I say this? Well, compare the story with that of the father giving scorpions for fish. The two stories are a unit, that much is obvious. And equally obvious is that the intent of the second story is to horrify the listener with the idea of a father who will not supply his children with that which good, sustaining and life-giving, but rather that which indigestible, unclean and poisonous.

So I would propose that the first story was also horrifying (probably slightly less horrifying -- we are leading to a climax here) to Jesus' listeners. The idea that a friend and fellow villager would not help to take care of the newly arrived traveller was received, by this line of reasoning, was to them a horrifying thought. And as an aside, I'm not being very original here. I've heard this elsewhere, in some sermon or Bible School lecture. And five minute's googling turned up ample evidence that my memory is not faulty and that wiser heads than mine have said the same about this passage. Historically, care of travellers was a matter of honour. The whole village's reputation was at stake. The selfishness of the so-called friend's reply in the first story is a rhetorical device. He is saying what would never be said! --in the very same way that the earthly father in the second is doing what what would never be done. So whatever the word ought to be, it can't be 'persistence.' Hopefully, Greek scholars will bear me out on this.

So where am I going with this? It's clear to me that ultimately these two parables are pointing to one idea, which is that it concerns God's honour to answer our prayers. And to complete the thought, it concerns his honour to give the Holy Spirit to his children when they ask. I have to say that this is my favourite part of the passage, that it all points to the availability of the Holy Spirit to us and that it would be as horrifying for him not to give the Spirit as a father giving a scorpion when asked for an egg. But that's not what I'm getting at here. There's no mention in this passage of his love for us, great though that is. It's his honour, that is, his righteousness, that is highlighted here.

God is not a one-dimensional character. Yes, I'm being a bit hobby-horse-ish here but I defend myself by saying that it's only in reaction to others hobby horses. I see very much posted these days that filters everything through an all-encompassing idea of God's love. And I'm saying that even that single idea, grand though it is, is just like every other single idea when made the only lens through which God and all his acts and commands are viewed. Distortion ensues. Here's a passage about asking and receiving good things from our Father. Surely, some mention would be made about his love for us. But Jesus even downplays the friendship -- the love -- in the first story and makes it about the honour of the village (or so I argue above.) Well, I could go on and on about what I've covered in earlier posts about the necessity of God's wrath along with his love, assaulting motherhood, yeah, and apple pie with all the orneriness in me but instead I'll say this: I'm personally glad God has pledged not only his love, but his honour to being our good Father. It's something to take to the bank.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

the return of jargon

Here's a fun one. Are you "washed in the blood?" Have you "stood against" a "Spirit of Religion." Does reading this make you want to bring me "before the throne of Grace?"

Conversely, have you ever been turned off by Christian jargon? You're not alone. For years now we've been trying to avoid this stuff so that we can be understood by those we we witness to. But it keeps coming back. For a while there, everything was Hebraic: shalom, tehillah. Yeah I did it too. Used to always replace the Greek Christ for the Hebraic Messiah. Somehow it's thought to be more meaningful. But I'm wondering now whether if you can't express your sacred concepts in your own language, it's sort of an epic fail. You haven't actually welcomed him into your own culture and you had to dabble in someone else's just to talk about him.

And it's come back again. Now we're borrowing from Greek as it's come into vogue. Like perchoresis, kenosis and oikonimos, which are perfectly non-English words that I've come across recently. Don't get me wrong, I love words, I love words from all kinds of languages. I'm only saying, "Didn't we recently just make the effort to de-jargon-ify our faith?" I know I did. And now suddenly there are essential, or at least partially essential concepts that cannot be expressed except by borrowing a word from Greek, a word that only an interested party like me will bother to look up. Sounds like jargon to me...

It's just a matter of discipleship

I've been led down a road I never thought to find myself on. Earlier in this blog, I have questioned everything to do with inerrancy, I have questioned Paul's approach to patriarchal authority based on Jesus' words as reported by Matthew, and I've argued against using the phrase "Word of God" as a way of referring to the Bible -- because the Bible itself almost always uses it to refer to prophecy or the Gospel and not to a writing in existence at the time when the phrase, "Word of God", is used. But now I find myself, in my cross-grained, ornery way, defending the Old Testament more than I ever thought I would. And of course it's because I'm taking an opposing view to a something I see as a popular trend. I have no defence for  this. I do not know what drives me to always take a different tack to arguments for this or that idea. I only know that I do it.

So here's the impetus for this particular post. During a previously mentioned Facebook discussion about God's wrath, a couple of propositions were put forward about how to treat parts of the Old Testament. One of them writes off all instances of wrath as a mere metaphor, implying that the perceptions of God of the people of the time of the Old Testament were frequently innately wrong. Another was that actually much of the writings generally attributed to Moses were actually created during the Babylonian exile, a bit of higher-critical legerdemain to absolve that great man of all those acts that we find distasteful and evil, but which I've argued make perfect sense in the times when they occurred. And ultimately we were enjoined to make the Gospels our lens to view all of the other writings of the Bible, a proposition that I thoroughly agree with, but the working out of which I find I differ wildly.

Because here's the deal. Jesus, the main player in the Gospels, our example, the Rabbi on whom the proper imitation of our discipleship is focused, really does not seem to treat the Old Testament in any similar way to these approaches. Take the Sermon on the Mount. After the Beatitudes, he introduces all the rest of it with a disclaimer, namely, "I have not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfil them." And the people listening to those words would have heard that as meaning the same collection of writings that Christians refer to as the Old Testament. And in its context, this is not a throwaway statement, nor is it an idle threat. Jesus proceeds to examine, broaden and deepen various Old Testament concepts and laws. He even affirms the idea of just penalties for specific sins, and shockingly introduces the hyperbole (I hope it's hyperbole!) of preemptive and prophylactic penalties ("if your ___ causes you to sin, cut it off!")

I'd like to take this purpose statement ("I have... come... to fulfil [the law and the prophets]) out of its context, and ask the question, what does it mean to fulfil the Law and the Prophets. Three things come to mind: (and really none of this is original material.) 1) to actually successfully obey them, 2) to set them into their intended larger context and thus to 3) complete our understanding of them. And this is what I see Jesus doing throughout his teachings and works. It's not how the approaches I mention above strike me, at least not the write off of what we don't like and the higher criticism. They seem like abolishment. The third approach needs some further comment.

What does it mean that the Gospels are the lens through which we view the rest of the Bible? Well hopefully the Gospels will help us make actual sense of the rest of the Bible, but in the case of the Old Testament, it's a two way street. You see, I'm under the delusion that God was teaching the world about himself all through the Old Testament, and doing a good job of it, too. So when Jesus appears on the scene his task is not to undo all that has gone before, but to bring together all the threads and complete the task. By this I mean that no basic Old Testament concept is left on the cutting room floor. It all is part of the story. The mercy we receive through the cross is perfectly understood against the backdrop of the punishment we deserve, which we could only have known about from the Old Testament. To me (switching metaphors) it looks a contrast between two stages. One puts the cross in the centre of a new stage with a white backdrop and says "We didn't always know this, but now we know." The other (my preference, obviously) a stage with the cross at the centre and a backdrop which depicts all of that which has gone before, from which we can make sense of an entire flow of history in both directions -- the cross making sense of history and history making sense of the cross...

Well this at any rate, I think is what I think not abolishing but fulfilling the law looks like.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

One More Comment From the Edge

OK. It's obvious that if I continue to stand up for what I consider to be a valid viewpoint, that is that God can and does experience what we perceive as anger or wrath, that I am in danger of imbalance. God is love. His anger is, or would be, a merely situational thing. It's not a default. It's not a part of his nature. Yes, I've been arguing that any righteous being with the capacity for emotion will also be angry when presented with evil or wrong. But I would be doing God a disservice if I left everyone with the impression that that is what God is all the time. His declaration of his name, given to Moses on the mountain (and I do take the whole passage to be his name) compares maintaining love and forgiveness to a thousand generations with pursuing the guilt to a mere third or fourth generation. It's a ratio I should be observing to stay balanced -- a thousand words (posts?) about love to 3 or 4 about wrath.

In fact I was going to do just that. A comment on my last post, I thought very good (do go back and read it) was about the needlessness of God's wrath based on the order of magnitude difference between what he is and what we are. I'm not even going to disagree with it. I was going to repost it here and then the same commenter elsewhere posted this. It's a litany of what the article calls 'Dick Moves' committed by God in the Old Testament. I assume that the aforementioned phrase implies senseless arrogance and stupid maliciousness. So I've just got to put up my hand and say hang on a minute, before I leave behind the whole subject of 'wrath.' I have two things to say about this.

1) The people who wrote those things were proud of God for doing them. It meant a great deal to them that God would, unlike any god around them, step in and punish and stop evil.
2) Unlike today the world used to intuit that there were things that were worse than death. In fact many, many things topped the list before it. Things like (dare I say it?) blasphemy. Our 'death is the worst thing' ideal informs so much of this offence we have when we read the Old Testament. Do I agree with the past on this? I don't know. But I'm very shy about calling the O.T. stories (blech!) 'Dick Moves.'

Someone commented on my post about the continuing war between adult and child in me and said that even my intellectual pursuits had a childlike element to them. So here's my childlike response. I don't have the same view of inspiration in the Bible as many evangelicals do. That's obvious from my previous posts. But I do feel a kinship with the writers of the Bible. David, Moses, Paul, etc. are my family members. If I disagree with them, I disagree with what they say. But I'm not going to let them be called dupes. At the very least not without a rebuttal. And I've realized that's what I see in whole-hog attempts to reclassify the 'wrath' events in the Old Testament as either not actually God or mis-perceptions of God and my response to those attempts. It's all about family. These are my people and they're not stupid.

Addendum: After some processing of that comment about God never actually needing to be angry because of the difference between us, I realized that if he is angry with us, he is marking us out as peers, that is, his expectations of us are actually akin to the expectations he has of himself. It could be an evidence for "you have made him a little lower than God" as found somewhere in the Psalms.

But so much of my writing is in reaction to something else. And that fact has taken me to the edge on this one. Admitting that, hopefully I can inch my way away from it.