Saturday, 30 August 2014

Discovering a love for the bible - for the first time!

I mentioned in my last blog that the work of Brian D McLaren had helped me through difficulties with The Bible. So let’s elaborate on that a bit.

Over the last five years or so the bible has come alive for me. I have discovered a depth, richness and wisdom that were never there before. Over a period of time the bible firstly became a problem, then irrelevant and eventually died. And it almost took my faith with it.

My Christian story is like many others. From my teens I was in a strict brethren assembly for nearly 15 years. This was a great environment for learning about what was in the bible. But it was the last place on earth to question its content. The bible was inerrant in every way. To question whether there was a real Adam and Eve, Noah or 900 year old Methuselah was unthinkable. The answer to any question was ‘the bible says’. The question that followed any statement was – ‘do have a chapter and verse for that bro?’

Even as I moved into the more ‘progressive’ thinking of events like Spring Harvest and New Wine there was still that underlying mind set. The bible had to be factually literal. If it wasn’t then the whole basis of our faith collapsed and the whole basis of our social acceptance disappeared.

The questions that were always there became more problematic the more I studied the bible itself. And there was no shortage of problems –

  1. A literal belief in every statement required an acceptance of facts which in any other context would not be given a second thought. The sun could not possibly have ‘stood still’ in Joshua 10. Where was it planning to go? People do not have conversations with snakes and did Balaam really have a conversation with his ass, so to speak? (Numbers 22). Was Jonah really swallowed by a big fish and stay in its belly for three days? Even St Augustine struggled with that one –
  2. There are very obvious contradictions. We have three gospels which give one account of Jesus and a fourth which is almost entirely different. We have a letter to the Galatians saying - There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ Then we have the writer of Timothy saying that a woman is not permitted to teach and have authority over a man.
  3. There is sickening violence. Did God really kill the entire firstborn of Egypt; possibly one of the greatest acts of genocide in history? Did God tell Joshua to kill 12,000 men and women in Ai, to plunder the city and to hang the king of Ai on a tree? Was God really angry with Saul for failing to kill all of the Amalekite men, women, children and infants? And how does that tally with a god of love and mercy?

We could go on. These difficulties were always there but were suppressed because, well the bible was God’s word and He knew best. My real crisis came when I was asked to speak on the massacre at Ai and had to admit that I had nothing to say! In the light of the ‘all or nothing’ mentality the whole building began to collapse. If the baby had to be thrown out with the bath water then so be it.

One advantage of hitting rock bottom is that you then have the freedom to face things head on. There is no longer any other agenda driving you. From this point I began to actually study the bible itself and also how and when it was written. Suddenly there was a bigger picture that made it all so much clearer. I was helped here by Brian McLaren, Karen Armstrong and more recently Marcus Borg (see below).

I firstly explored where the whole idea of inerrancy came from. For many, the answer is obviously found in 2 Timothy 3:16. But let’s break that verse down –

‘all scripture’ – the writer is manifestly not talking about the bible. There was no such thing at that time. We were at least a century away from that. Even the Hebrew cannon was not yet complete. All the writer knew was the law and the prophets. There has be a considerable stretching of logic to extend this to the bible as we know it.

‘is God breathed’ – this expression is all about giving life. We are told in Genesis 2 (the second creation story) that God breathed into Adam ‘the breath of life’. So, according to that story I am God breathed. But I am certainly not inerrant. So, we are told that, ‘all scripture’ has its life and vibrancy from God but that is a long long way from a claim to inerrancy.

‘and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness’. I have to confess to ignoring that part of the verse for many years. So scripture is useful. It has a role to play. It is important. But there is nothing say that this means that every single statement has to be literally and factually accurate.

There are two conclusions from looking at this verse. Firstly it is highly questionable, in any event, that something is inerrant just because it claims to be – I did once hear a Spring Harvest speaker say that. Secondly the bible itself does not actually make any such claim.

Rather than undermine my faith this discovery of the patently obvious was liberating. It opened the door to enable me deal with all of the above problems, and more.

It certainly resolved the question of violence. Those books are ancient documents written by humans in a very violent age. Most other writings from that time concern warriors who wished to prove that their god was greater then others. It was part of the literature of the day. The stories do not reveal a violent God but are the written record of verbal accounts that had been around for hundreds of years. That was how stories were told at that time.

If it is no longer essential to hold on to the literal factuality of the bible then the bible can become a living resource to teach us so much about God and ourselves. The one thing I have learned is that there is all the difference in world between saying the bible is true and saying that every detail is factually literal. In fact the truth is not dependent on whether the stories are recording historical facts or not.

For example Brian McLaren deals with Adam and Eve in his latest book –

‘The story of Adam and Eve doesn’t have to be about literal historical figures in the past to tell us something very true about us, our history and our world today. We humans have consistently chosen the wrong tree. Instead of imitating and reflecting god as good image-bearers should do, we start competing with God, edging God out, playing god ourselves.’ *

So it matters not whether this really happened or not. The real truth lies behind the story, not the actual history. The same goes for Jonah. Once we see it as a parable about one man’s journey to enlightenment, it becomes so much more than a cute, if rather unlikely Sunday School story. We are very comfortable with the parables that Jesus told. Nobody needs to believe that there really was a sower. The bible is packed with stories which reveal God to us. And it is the truth within them that is relevant. If we never get out of the need to prove that it is all factual despite our intelligence and experience, then we are in trouble.

This does not mean that the bible is of no value. In fact it is of supreme value, if read correctly. These books are the gateway to us understanding God. Not because they were supernaturally dictated, but because they were written by those who were expressing their experience of God.

So how do we read the bible?

(a) A reasonable starting point is our own intelligence and experience. We draw the truth from the bible as it it is revealed to us following careful and prayerful study. If everything that we know tells us that the massacre of children is wrong then we read those stories from that perspective.

(b) We must explore the times and the context in which particular passages were written. So if, in Romans 1 Paul is writing about the unacceptable behaviour of his day - including homosexual activity by heterosexuals, we have to careful about applying those words to sincere same sex relationships today just by word association.

(c) We must look at the whole story and not use bible verses like fortune cookies. I remember years ago booking a speaker for a youth group. He let us down on the night and left a phone message to say ' -can't make it. Romans 8 - 28',  as if that coded message made everything alright.

(d) Read the bible through the lens of Jesus. He said that he was 'the way, the truth and the life'. This has usually been used to promote the exclusivity of the christian faith. But I am not so so sure. If you look at the the context, he was answering a question about finding God. His answer was that if you want to know what God is like then 'look at me'. So the bible has to be read from the same perspective. Jesus has to be our starting point in finding the truth of the bible.

(e) Read it imaginatively, always look for the truth behind the words.

These are just some ideas but the possibilities are endless.

The books of the bible were written in a particular time and place. We need to read them from where we are. We should not translate an ancient cultural world to today. We need to seek the truth within the books and interpret that truth within our world.

It is this process that has brought the bible back to life for me.  It has been transformed from a dry, unmovable rule book to a rich well of truth and life.

This is neither a liberal nor conservative viewpoint. It is the result an honest struggle over many years.

*Brian D McLaren We Make The Road By Walking – Hodder and Stoughton 2014

Helpful reading –

Karen Armstrong The Bible, the biography – Atlantic Books 2007

Marcus J Borg Reading the Bible Again for the First Time – Barnes and Noble 2001

Brian D McLaren Generous Orthodoxy – Zondervan Book 2006

Sunday, 16 February 2014

So am I a Christian or not?

Have you noticed that many Social Media sites, including Facebook, invite us to share our religious beliefs?

I have begun to struggle with what to put! In reality it should be the easiest question in the world. I was baptised at a font as a baby, I was baptised as a teenager by full immersion, I was confirmed in my forties – belt and braces or what? Just don’t ask me to be circumcised! I have been a Church of England Reader for 17 years.

So surely I should confidently say that I am Christian and get on with it.

So why is it a problem? It is because that particular badge has come to be associated with intolerance. When we were young we sang a song that included the line – “..and they’ll know we are Christians by our love..’ In some respects that has been replaced by – “..and they’ll know we are Christians by our disapproval..”

I’m not the only one who has hit this problem. The novelist Anne Rice announced a few years ago, that she was no longer able to call herself by this title. She posted on her Facebook page –

"In the name of Christ, I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life. In the name of Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. Amen,"

There are so many ‘antis’ in there. I know what she means. How often do we encounter angry Christians complaining that they are under threat or even persecuted when what they have lost is political or social power that has more to do with Constantine than Jesus –

Many of these negative views are based on selected quotes from the bible. So Gay marriage is wrong because of some obscure verses in the book of Leviticus about priestly conduct or comments by St. Paul in the book of Romans about orgies; none of which were ever intended to have any application to a form of relationship that was completely unknown. Those same people would never go to the story of Joshua and say that we should massacre our enemies – men women and children (Joshua 8 v 24).

It is almost as if some Christians feel the need to decide who they dislike and then look for some biblical justification, often based on nothing more than word association.

So what are my ‘religious views’? Is religion the problem? Jesus did not mention anything about establishing a new religion. He did not say anything about going to heaven when you die if you ask him into your heart to be your own ‘personal saviour’. He didn’t say anyone was an abomination.

In fact when asked a direct question about what was needed to inherit eternal life, he talked about giving everything away to the poor.  He was far more concerned about the Kingdom. This was not something in the future but something for now. He told us to pray the words – ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth..’

He was interested in loving your neighbour, turning the other cheek, walking the extra mile, forgiving others. He talked about a kingdom where the meek will inherit the earth, where the merciful will be shown mercy and where the peacemakers will be called children of God.  The only time he voiced disapproval was when he encountered hypocrisy, particularly from religious people.

He never ever said – ‘love the sinner hate the sin!!’, with all of the judgmentalism that that barbed comment contains.

That is the Jesus that I am proud to be identified with.

So am I a Christian or not?

It is of course only a badge. But is one that has become tarnished. Maybe under religious views I should simply put ‘none’ which is possible nearest the truth!

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Food banks - a dilemma!

There has never been a time when there have been so many food banks starting across the UK. My own church at St. Luke’s in Liverpool is shortly to launch its own project in conjunction with Trussell Trust .

According to the trust, 13m people live below the poverty line in the UK. They expect to provide food for almost 1/4m people over the next year. This creates a dilemma. At one level it should not be for churches and other voluntary groups to be feeding the hungry in this country. When we hear of £40m wasted on trying to find a new provider for a perfectly well run rail service and £300m for state of the art court building to accommodate commercial disputes, we rightly question the priorities of our politicians. Surely it is the role of the state to ensure that its citizens do not go hungry.

So isn't the church just making matters worse by setting up these banks? Won’t the government see what is being done and say ‘there you go; we don’t need to look after the poor because the churches are doing it’? I would have no hesitation standing up to make that case. But I am also fully behind the St. Luke’s initiative.

That may seem to be a contradiction but ultimately we have to look at the bottom line. That has to be hunger. For Christians this is a mandate which outweighs almost everything. In Psalm 146 a faithful person is one who is –‘executing justice for the oppressed and giving food to the hungry.’ Jesus himself identified himself with those in need and described his true followers by saying – ‘For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat.’ And so we could go on.

So when it comes to this bottom line we have to place the provision of food ahead of everything, even our own political convictions, however reasonable they might be! So to support those most in need Christians will do what they have to do.

But alongside that the arguments should continue. The UK remains one of the wealthiest nations on earth – don’t let the loss of AAA status deceive you! It is not acceptable that anybody should need a food hand out. That has to change. The fact that churches are doing the right thing does not lessen the responsibility of government to write budgets that place the poor and hungry at the top of the agenda.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Gay Marriage - a view from the Circles (Update)

Many thousands of Gay and Lesbian people in Ireland are celebrating today following the huge vote in support of equal marriage -

I originally planned to post the first version of this post on my usual Legal Blog. But it is a subject which is driven more by religious/philosophical and political arguments. For lawyers the position should be straightforward – whatever the law is that is what we work within and advise on. We may want laws to change but that is influenced by our worldview.

I am also posting an opinion here because I always try to view things from a Christian perspective. And there are those who assume that, as a Christian, I will therefore be against Gay/Lesbian marriage. It is as if it is a tribal thing and thoughtful responses are not permitted. Not only am I in favour, I have positively advocated in its favour and will continue to do so. For the rest of this post I will refer to inclusive marriage.

Many Christians feel that opposition is the default position, because the bible says so. This is despite the obvious fact that committed same sex relationships were unknown in bible times. This is not the only area where there is a tendency to use word association games to attack minority groups. So there are references to obscure verses in the Levitical laws which talk of abomination. I know of no other area of life where those laws, which also have much to say about boils and shrimps, are used to form a contemporary morality. There are also references in Paul’s letters, Romans and Corinthians, which are clearly critical of promiscuity, orgies and being ‘inflamed with lust’. If those verses are used to ban inclusive marriage then heterosexual marriage goes out with the bathwater.

Another common argument from opponents is that the bible says that marriage is limited to a male/female union. As far back as the book of Genesis we read of a 'man' leaving his father and mother and becoming one flesh with his 'wife'. From any reading this is not a statement of 'law' but simply one of observed reality. That's how it was. 

The reality is that the bible is silent on a form or relationship which was culturally unknown. So why should we rely on some obscure references rather than other bible verses which talk about relationships and the importance of love, faithfulness, gentleness, mutual respect and acceptance. If a same sex couple wish to make that level of commitment to each other then is this something that Christians should oppose?

Another argument against inclusive marriage appeared some time ago in the Daily Mail. I have to say that Mark Dooley’s piece was reasonably argued and lacks the venom often associated with this subject. His main point is that same sex couples cannot naturally produce children. Comparing the two types of marriage he says – ‘While both are potential expressions of love, and while both are sources of pleasure, only heterosexual union is intrinsically goal-directed.  That is to say, only heterosexual union is capable of natural procreation.’

That is true but misconceived as a contribution to the debate. There are many heterosexual couples who are not capable of natural procreation. There are also many such couples who have no desire to have children. Does that somehow invalidate their marriage?

The classic marriage vows say – ‘I, (Bride/Groom), take you (Groom/Bride), to be my (wife/husband), to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish; from this day forward until death do us part.’

There is nothing there about the producing of children.

There are recognised legal unions short of marriage so why should same sex couples not stick to them. The more important question is why should they have to? Why should they not be entitled to same dignity as the rest of humanity?

I have called this piece a view from the circles because I am not gay. I have never experienced the exclusion, the venom, the bullying or the fear. So that extent I am an outsider looking in.

But if there is one thing that the Christian faith teaches without exception it is this; discrimination is never acceptable. Its most basic teaching is that humanity is made in God’s image – so sex, race, religion, wealth, age should make no difference. In our culture we have to add sexual orientation to that list. There is no difference to a person’s entitlement to be treated with dignity. Jesus became very unpopular with religious people because he mixed with and identified with those they disapproved of.

So if a couple wish to give to their relationship the commitment of marriage, then society should encourage rather than ban.

I have found the words of Irish Senator, Eamonn Coughlan particularly moving -

He added: “It is clear to me as a parent of a gay child that the marriage equality referendum is about voting for real people and their lives.
“It is not about politics or about voting for a particular party. It is about equality, removing rejection, removing exclusion, removing the guilt, shame and fear that gay people experience.
“We have to think of the person, their dignity, their validation, their human freedom to love and to live life to the full.
“I was lucky enough to marry the woman of my dreams. Who are we as a nation to deny our sons and daughters the basic right of marrying the person they love?”

I do not support inclusive marriage despite being a Christian, I support it because I am a Christian.