My Favorite Biblical Errors: Ezekiel

Ezekiel 37

Usually, people who claim that they read the Bible literally also claim that the Bible contains no errors. Yet one of the reasons I so admire the Bible and consider it authoritative is that it dutifully records its own errors.

One of my favorites is the prophecy of Ezekiel against Tyre in chapters 26 through 29. For three whole chapters, Ezekiel rails against the city of Tyre. Since he believes that the army of Babylon is God’s chosen instrument of wrath against Jerusalem, he is excited to see it lay siege to Tyre.

(When you read this, you have to imagine Samuel L. Jackson’s voice.)

They shall destroy the walls of Tyre and break down its towers. I will scrape its soil from it and make it a bare rock.  It shall become, in the midst of the sea, a place for spreading nets. I have spoken, says the Lord God. It shall become plunder for the nations, and its daughter-towns in the country shall be killed by the sword. Then they shall know that I am the Lord. (Ezekiel 26:4-6)

As I said, for three whole chapters this goes on, with Ezekiel relishing his poetic destruction of the city.

Only one problem: It didn’t happen. Babylon laid siege to the city for three years, but you can’t successfully lay siege to a seaport. I imagine the guards on the walls of Tyre yelling down to the Babylonian tents, “Hey, guys! We’re having a fish fry today! Can you smell it? Oh, hey, what are you having for dinner? Aww, thin gruel again? So sad!”

At the end of three years, the army gave up. So, naturally, Ezekiel went back and tore up his manuscript, right? Or maybe he wrote, “Oops, my bad.”

Nope. He just turned his attention to Egypt!

Mortal, King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon made his army labour hard against Tyre; every head was made bald and every shoulder was rubbed bare; yet neither he nor his army got anything from Tyre to pay for the labour that he had expended against it. Therefore, thus says the Lord God: I will give the land of Egypt to King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon; and he shall carry off its wealth and despoil it and plunder it; and it shall be the wages for his army. I have given him the land of Egypt as his payment for which he laboured, because they worked for me, says the Lord God. (Ezekiel 29:18-20)

Nice save, Ezekiel! So, naturally, Babylon conquered Egypt, right?

Nope again.

My favorite theory is that Ezekiel became the model for the story of Jonah, which was written to be read not literally, but as a satire of the hellfire and brimstone prophets. Jonah is a frustrated prophet who fumes when God fails to destroy Israel’s enemies. In contrast to Ezekiel’s logorrhea, Jonah just stomps part way into the city, utters one line, turns around and stomps out. He wants so much to see the bad guys punished that he wraps himself in his own private hell of resentment and bitterness. God, in contrast, can’t bear the thought of hurting the children or even the cattle (Jonah 4).

There is a dialogue going on in the pages of the Bible, where competing theologies are trying to describe God’s history with God’s people. I don’t deny that there are authors who believed that God would punish cities by starving their populace, so that families would be torn apart, people raped and sold into slavery (Deuteronomy 28:30-34), and parents would be forced to cannibalize their own children (verses 54-57). Job, Jonah, and Ruth (among others) critique that theological view. And for Christians, Jesus is the final repudiation of that theology (Matthew 5:43, John 9:3, Luke 13:4, Mark 15:34). Good and bad things happen to people not as God’s rewards or punishments, but because stuff happens. What God makes out of it, and us, is where grace happens.

Anti-religious detractors like to point out these errors and blood and guts passages in order to portray believers as foolish or barbaric, but for me, these errors are awesome. The editors and compilers could have edited out Ezekiel’s mistakes, but they didn’t. They could have harmonized the gospels, the creation stories, and the histories of the monarchy, but they didn’t. The Bible is not a monologue—it is a dialogue. To me, that’s what makes it believable. What’s even more cool is that we are invited to participate in the dialogue, which doesn’t end even when you close the book and the people say Amen.

This Sunday, the sermon topic at Saint Junia’s preview service will be on the Two Creation Stories (Genesis 1-3). I’ll be sharing why it’s perfectly reasonable for Christians to believe in evolution, considering that we already have more than one creation story in the Bible. Come join the dialogue!

Unsolicited Advice to an Atheist Church: Mission

This may sound condescending, and the only thing I can do is insist that I do not mean it that way: I find it very heartening that some atheists have decided to start a church. Along with stories about humanist chaplains, I think this is a sign that popular atheism is “growing up.”

Again, I don’t mean that in a condescending way. Well, I do, in one sense. Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris and others have been known more for what they rail against than what they are for. When someone insists that religion embodies everything that is wrong with the world, and that we would all be better off if only our thinking were more rational and in better order, I can’t help but think them a bit naive. In Christian thought, sin is pervasive, and infects everything we do—including our reasoning. This is why a raving religious fundamentalist and a non-believer who insists he is “spiritual but not religious” can express the same contempt for others in the same religious terms: “everyone who disagrees with me is a damned fool.”

But I believe that most reformations begin by rejecting something and then having to deal with the “what now?” When Protestants rejected papal authority they had to deal with the “what now?” of how they would organize and who would be in charge. It is not enough to be isolated individuals who share proper thinking. We must organize and effect change. That is what I mean by “growing up.”

Christian churches have operated with a theology that they enflesh or “incarnate” the Spirit of Christ, that they continue a ministry which he started himself. In secular language, it’s about how you live out what you believe and connect it to a larger, ongoing project. And it’s not just “walking the walk” on your own, because it doesn’t become real until it’s done in community, with a common purpose, with real human beings who sometimes get on your nerves or challenge you. If atheism is only about getting religion off our backs so we can enjoy life, then it is a juvenile atheism. When it becomes about how we can practice transforming society into something more humane and increasing our collective quality of life, all the while struggling with our own tendency toward evil, then it is growing up.

In terms of the condescending sense of “growing up,” I’ll also point out that it is far too easy to find examples of Christians who are immature, who are known more for what they are against than what they are for, who do not connect the tenets of what they supposedly believe with their way of life. So easy, in fact, that reciting all of the ways Christians fail to be Christian is tiresome, and I find that I tune out and start thinking about more productive ways to spend my time. I’ll also point out that anyone who thinks they are mature and that they have it all together is probably the most “lost” of us all. (Not coincidentally, this was Jesus’ chief complaint against the religious leaders of his day).

One part of growing up is having a sense of mission, and this is what really excites me about the concept of the atheist church in the article: Just because you believe in an accidental, purposeless universe does not mean human life—and your life—are without purpose. This seems to be a hard concept for many Christians to grasp about atheism. The mission (the author calls it a “mantra”) of the church in the linked article above is “live better, help often, wonder more.” Having a good mission statement is key to getting people on board with collective action of any kind. If you want to challenge the naysayers, have a clear yardstick for group decision-making, and motivate your people, you need a mission statement.

It’s also a reason you need a good theology—or “atheology”—of your mission. Why is what you do important to other people? Can’t they achieve that mission by watching a bunch of TED talks? Is there some reason people need to be “in the flesh” with other human beings in a group? For Christian churches, it is good to ask: Why do people in your community need Jesus? Why do they need church? Why do they need your church? If you really want to take it to the next level, ask these questions of your people.

While I am writing about mission with an air of authority, I do so tongue-in-cheek, with some sense of trepidation and humility. Though I do have quite a bit of experience in different churches, I’m in the process of planting a new church, and we’ll see very shortly if I’m able to live out what I write. The atheist church in the article started with 300 people. I hope we do so well!

I enjoy thinking about what it would take to plant an atheist church, because it helps me critically reflect on how I am planting this church, and what difference a theology of the presence of God and the power of the Holy Spirit has on what I do. There are days that I have trouble believing in God, and what sustains me is the belief that I’ve been called to do this thing, regardless of how I feel in the moment, and not by my own power. Somehow, even in the midst of my doubt, God shows up. Again and again I witness the miracle of the mustard seed: a tiny bit of faith, planted and watered, which spreads like an invasive weed. (In atheistic language, it is a benevolent, infectious meme.) I hope to see the birds of the air come nest in its branches.

Lies My Preacher Told Me: Three Ways We Censor the Bible

In my last post, I talked about the “secret” history of Red Alabama, and how that history gets sanitized. How we sanitize history is the subject of the book Lies My Teacher Told Me, which argues that how we teach history affects our thinking and our politics. There is a similar “secret” history of biblical interpretation, which also affects both our thinking and our politics.

I’m doing a Bible study called “Your Vulgar Bible” on Monday nights in a local pub. I’m sharing the stories and passages that don’t get preached. These are stories that do not get shared, either from the pulpit or in Sunday schools, and so people get a skewed vision of the Bible.

I argue that there are three ways the Bible gets censored:

  1. In translation. Translators often make ambiguous passages more explicit, and explicit passages more ambiguous. When Saul calls Jonathan the “son of a perverse and rebellious woman,” who is a “shame to [his] mother’s nakedness,” he is not making a claim about Jonathan’s parentage. He’s insulting him, calling him a son of a bitch. While “bitch” might not be a literal translation, “perverse and rebellious woman” conveniently hides the gist in such a way that it will not shock the people in the pews. Likewise, when Rehoboam’s friends make derogatory statements about the size of Solomon’s genitals (and thus his manliness), we can translate the phrase in such a way that makes readers think we’re talking about his waist circumference. In both cases, we’ve gone very literal in order to hide the meaning. It’s possible to censor the latter passage by going very vague. Either way, you hide the scandal of the language used. That’s censorship.
  2. In selection. Some passages simply never appear in the lectionary or sermon series, nobody talks about them in Sunday school lessons or devotionals, and they just don’t come up. This is like the history of Helen Keller’s socialist leanings, or the fact that Birmingham was once a hotbed of communist agitation. There are people who know these facts exist, and choose to avoid the topics when they teach them. If we talk about the fact that there is cussin’ in the Bible, or allusions to sex outside of marriage, then the very categories we use to think about the world get called into question. It’s easier to never talk about it than to let it challenge us. We tell only part of the story, or don’t tell the story at all.
  3. In interpretation. We can read some passages a thousand times and never pay attention to what is being said, because we skew the interpretation to be about something more palatable. When Paul talks about the church as the Body of Christ, he is likely not the first to do so. What he does with the metaphor, though, is to twist it in such a way as to make a point: “The church members you dislike,” argues Paul, “may be assholes, but would you want to live without yours?” Paul refers to “body parts with less honor” that we “cover up,” When these less honorable body parts rejoice, all the body rejoices, he says. His hearers would have known he was talking about sex.

Most contemporary church people never hear the subtext of Paul’s passage, though. Paul figured his listeners 2000 years ago were smart enough to figure it out. Unfortunately, when it comes to the Bible, a lot of preaching makes us dumber! When we never hear alternative interpretations, we are less likely to hear delightful subtext, allusion, double entendre, humor… in short, everything that makes reading fun. This is why so many nonreligious people think the Bible is full of dry-as-dust moralistic writing.

Like the story about Helen Keller’s socialist leanings, these aspects of the Bible are lies by omission. We are sold a vision of history—and the Bible—that is shaped by an ideology, a narrative that censors every voice that might contradict it. When we buy into that narrative without question, we rob the Bible of its ability to shock and challenge us. We silence the voices of its authors by setting the Bible up on a pedestal. Rather than let them speak, we talk over them, drowning out their own words with ours.

I would also argue that we silence God. It is hard for me to comprehend how white Christians in slave states in the South could have read the book of Exodus without casting themselves in the role of the Egyptians, or how child-labor supporters and anti-suffragists and Jim Crow supporters could ever read the Bible and simply not hear prophetic calls for justice for orphans, widows, the poor, and the oppressed. Yet they did.

And they do. Because of biblical censorship, people will continue to “look without seeing” and “hear without understanding.” These are the folks who claim to read the Bible literally and believe every word. Yet the Bible they believe in is missing most of its pages.

Letting God speak through the authors takes a willingness to expose ourselves to other interpretations. We have to be willing to make a claim, test a hypothesis, and admit that we are wrong. All of this happens in the context of conversation! Jewish sages have been doing this for centuries, like Hillel and Shimmei, wrangling over what it means to “honor the Sabbath.” Our faith encounter with the Bible has always been dialogical, and part of my mission is to resist attempts to turn it into a monologue.

“Churches that preach politics should be taxed”

“Churches that preach politics should be taxed.”

This is a common refrain that grows louder every election year. I have heard it from both liberals and conservatives. In conversations about abortion, about Israel-Palestine, about gay marriage, and about tax reform, someone who disagrees with an official policy of one church or another will claim that church leaders should not try to convince their members to vote or advocate one way or another.

I do understand the sentiment behind it. As a pastor, I watch my words very carefully. People who have chosen to come into my congregation do so for a variety of reasons. They have loaned me their time and attention for somewhere between fifteen minutes and an hour, trusting that I will not waste their time or abuse that trust. There are some churches whose theological or political or aesthetic opinions I find objectionable, and I do wish they would shut up. Penalizing them financially might be one way to lower their volume in the public square.

But would you penalize a humane society for advocating for laws against dog or rooster fighting or animal cruelty? Would you say that an organization whose mission is to promote music and the arts should not take a public stand when politicians try to gut funding for art education or public museums? Would we say that an organization whose mission is to fight homelessness should only pass out blankets and soup bowls, and should not advocate for housing policies that would actually reduce homelessness?

If you agree that the above non-profit organizations should be able to advocate for policies that support their mission and values, then the only reason to tax churches is because they are religious—which violates the first amendment.

Supporters of the tax-the-churches idea claim that most of the charitable contributions to churches do not go directly to “causes” that benefit the community. They point to mega-churches with gym memberships and country-club atmospheres that cater to members only. They fume over pastors who live in mansions.

Strong opinions and anecdotes, though, are not data. Mega-church country clubs are big and visible, but they represent less than 10% of all churches. The median church has just 75 members. Within that 10%, churches range between 400 and tens of thousands of members. While half of all church-goers in the U.S. go to this 10% of all churches, most of these are not very politically active. You don’t usually get to be that size by being on the radical fringe.

Economists have also pointed out that the economic benefit of churches to the surrounding community is typically somewhere between two and six times their budget. This is because churches leverage ministry dollars and volunteer time to multiply their ministry. The person who is tithing is likely also singing in the choir, volunteering in the nursery, and working in a food pantry. By building community they are reducing crime, boosting literacy and education, promoting the arts, and providing free services of all kinds. A church with a $200,000 budget may have a positive economic impact in the community of up to a million dollars. This is called the <a href=”http://articles.philly.com/2011-02-01/news/27092987_1_partners-for-sacred-places-congregations-churches&#8221; title=”“halo effect.””>“halo effect.”</a>

A government who taxed such an organization punitively would be shooting itself in the foot.

Finally, it only takes a few minutes of reflection to realize how uneven calls for revoking tax-exempt status are. What kind of political behavior should churches be allowed to do? Should they have been allowed to advocate for Civil Rights? Women’s suffrage? The abolition of slavery? Support of child labor laws? This kind of rhetoric was used by people who wanted to silence religious leaders of those movements, too. Which churches shall we penalize? Glide Memorial in San Francisco, for their outspoken support of minority people?

What about churches whose individualistic prosperity gospel and support of the status quo certainly does fit the definition of “political?” Churches are inherently politically active, even when they claim not to be. One very wise author told me recently that he advised one church planter, “Decide, right now, whether you will be a Republican church or a Democrat church. If you choose neither or say you’re going to ‘transcend’ politics, you will be a Republican church. That’s the default Christian mode in our culture.”

I wish the church were the leading edge of social change and the transformation of culture, but in the last fifty years, we’ve been playing catch-up. God is still at work, and remains faithful, even when we are not.