The Passion According to St. John

I worked on this with Rev. Jason Chesnut, Rev. Lenny Duncan, and Tracy Radosevic so, if they needed to, churches could use it at the center of their Good Friday virtual worship.

Or, for anyone actually.

Take a listen.

“The Passion of Christ as told by the writer of John’s Gospel stands at the center of the holiest three days of the Christian year, the Triduum.

It’s a drama, and is not read so much as told. It’s told because it’s a story worth passing on, worth hearing in all of its intrigue and inflection, in all the ways it challenges presuppositions, powers, and principalities just in its very recitation.

The Passion of Christ is not a Biblical reading so much as a word to a weary world about the Word.”

Did Jesus Ride into Jerusalem on One Donkey or Two?

13slid1The answer to the title of this blog post is, “Depends on which Gospel you read.” It’s an appropriate question to ask as we cuddle up to Palm Sunday this year, because Matthew’s gospel, unlike the other gospels, has Jesus riding in on two, count ’em two, donkeys.

And it’s one of the bulwark examples of why the Scriptures cannot be inerrant nor infallible.

If your church teaches the infallibility or inerrancy of the Scriptures, send your pastor this blog and ask them to defend the position.  They will come up lacking; there is no defense.

Ready for the in-depth analysis?  Here we go…

Matthew’s “entry into Jerusalem” begins in Matthew 21 and goes through verse 11.  And Matthew, as he’s wont to do, likes to cite the Hebrew scriptures in his writing because he thinks it gives him both credence and authority.

And for his accounting of Jesus’ “triumphant entry” he borrows from a few places: Psalm 118 (this is where the Hosanna’s come from), Isaiah 62 (this is about the entry of salvation coming to Zion), and the prophet Zechariah, chapter 9.

It is Zechariah that Matthew struggles with here, and Zechariah is the one who mentions donkeys.

So, read Zechariah 9:9.  Zechariah has this long poem, and in it he recounts the Messiah’s entrance into the hearts of the people, and he does this thing in his poem that lots of Jewish poets did at the time, something that I think Matthew doesn’t understand…or if he does, he’s ignoring it.

See, in ancient poetry, especially Jewish poetry, you’d offer up one line of poetry, and then follow that first line up with a second line that reinforced that first line, further emphasizing it.  You see this in the Psalms all the time.

And Zechariah does this.  He notes that salvation will “ride in on a donkey, on a colt the foal of a donkey.”  Zechariah is talking about one donkey here, with the second line repeating with emphasis that first line.

But Matthew doesn’t get it.

And so, in Matthew’s gospel, the disciples go and untie two donkeys: an adult and a colt.  And they bring them both to Jesus and, the writer says, “Jesus rides them” into Jerusalem.

Now, think about it: this makes no sense.  Riding one donkey is hard enough. Can you imagine riding two?  And not just two donkeys, but two of differing heights and sizes?!

Impossible.

Why does Matthew do this?  Because he really wants to cite Zechariah, and this is what Zechariah writes.  And so he paints this picture of Jesus riding two donkeys.  He says Jesus rode two donkeys.

And listen folks, this isn’t a case of “well, different people have different perspectives of the same event…” which is what literalists usually argue has happened when the Gospels differ.

It’s clearly not that.  It’s clearly wrong!  Matthew doesn’t get what Zechariah is writing, and gets it wrong.

To say the scriptures are inerrant would mean to say that Matthew gets it right…but in doing so, you’d say that Mark, Luke, and John get it wrong, which cannot be.  To say that the scriptures are infallible would be to say that Matthew understands Zechariah, which clearly he does not.

So what can you say?

You can say that Matthew is really dedicated to the Hebrew scriptures, so much so that he really goes to great lengths to use them as proof texts in his accounting of Jesus’ life, and he sometimes misses the mark.

And that’s OK. It doesn’t have to be inerrant or infallible to hold the truth.  Inerrancy and infallibility are brittle things.  Poetry is flexible, and this is more akin to poetry than prose, Beloved.

So, did Jesus ride two donkeys or one when he entered Jerusalem?  Eh…depends who you ask.  The point?

He got there.

 

 

Why I Don’t Think the Magi Actually Happened, but Still Believe it’s True

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A 4th Century Carving of the Adoration of the Magi. Note that fifth person hanging around…and how Jesus is older. In Matthew this happened a few years after the birth.

The Gospel of Matthew has an agenda: it wants you to trust that the Jesus it speaks of is the same Messiah spoken of in the Hebrew Scriptures.

The writer (we call them “Matthew” but have no reason to believe a person named “Matthew” actually wrote it) is not unbiased.

The writer is not objective.

The writer is not very original, either.  Want to read an original writer?  The Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of John are super original.  Matthew cobbles his Gospel together from a few places.

We know that the writer used the Gospel of Mark, and some other sources, in the writing of this Gospel.  The writer quotes Mark directly in some parts, and goes off writing on their own in other parts.  Some of these non-Markan passages are also found in the Gospel of Luke.

And some, well, aren’t found anywhere else.

Like the story of the Magi.

BTW, I’m going to refer to the writer as Matthew and “he” from now on, but know that the only definitive reason we call it “Matthew” is because someone in the ancient world named it that, probably so that it would get wide readership.  Booklets that were attributed to Apostles got wide readership (which is why you don’t see the letters of Clement I and Clement II [which are faithful and wonderful and should be in scripture!], and instead find the scurrilous book of James included in the canon).

Here’s the thing, though.  If you understand Matthew’s point, you can see how the Magi play into Matthew’s working theology.  And through that lens you get the meaning behind the Magi.

And that’s the important part.

What’s not important? Whether it happened or not.  In fact, that’s the truth about a lot of ancient tales and sacred scripture.  It doesn’t matter if it happened; it happens all the time!  It doesn’t matter if it happened; it’s true!

That kind of lens is, I think, one of the things missing from the faith in these post-enlightenment days.  We want things to be fact, equating fact with truth.  But fact is not always true, and true things sometime never actually happened.

I can go on in another blog about that, but back to the issue at hand…

If Matthew wants you to see that the Jesus he writes about is the same Jesus, he’s going to go to great lengths to get you to understand it.

And so one of the things that Matthew is going to do is make sure that you see that the arrival of the Messiah in the world will have a global impact.  Kings, Magi, will literally bow down before him.

They have to.  It says so in Isaiah 60:3 and Psalm 68:29 and Psalm 72:10…and other places.

And Matthew is very concerned that you see that the Hebrew prophecies come true in the life of Jesus.

See?  That’s why Luke doesn’t include it: it’s not important for Luke to prove that to you.  He has other biases.  And that’s why Mark doesn’t include it: Mark doesn’t care about that, either.

And John?  He’s a lone-ranger on this sort of thing.  It’s a miracle that Gospel even made it into the canon (especially because Jesus dies on a Thursday in John).

The Magi prove Matthew’s point: the prophecies of old come to fruition in Jesus, and so kings, Magi, have to bow down to him, especially since Herod (we know) won’t.

But even though I don’t think it happened, I still think it’s true.  Why?

Because the Jesus story has had a global impact.  And that star that the  Magi followed inspired a whole generation of cosmic exploration by Christian scientists who furthered astronomy more than most know.  And the beautiful foreshadowing that happens in Matthew, by design I think, leads you to understand the nature of Jesus: gold for kingship, frankincense echoing the sacrificial gifts of the old temple, and myrrh because he will die (it was kind of like giving Jesus a coffin).

And what’s more, Matthew makes this wonderful political statement with the story of the Magi!

If Herod, the puppet king (who was ruthless, but historically not a terrible ruler), wouldn’t bow down before Jesus, these kings would.  And when Herod tells the Magi to return to him and tell him where Jesus is, they catch wind in a dream (dreams are important to Matthew because they’re important in the Hebrew scriptures [think Jacob, Joseph, and Samuel]) that they shouldn’t, and the Magi disobey.

The point?  When your rulers tell you to do something that your conscience won’t allow, you disobey, by God.  Literally: by God.

There are all sorts of true nuggets in this story!

And here’s the thing: your pastors probably know this.  But we don’t talk about it. Instead we spend time trying to find out how the Magi traveled and where they came from and what their names were (I love that part of lore, actually…it’s fun and true, even if it’s not fact).

And all of that is, in the end, like trying to describe how a number smells.  You can go round and round and get nowhere because, well, numbers don’t smell.  The story isn’t told because it happened…don’t get wrapped up in that!

In all of that we miss the points, I think.

Because the story of the Magi is important for Matthew, and is so true in so many ways.

But did it happen?

Well, it happens all the time.

It happens when people lay down their power and agendas in deference to God. It happens when people disobey their leaders because they’ve been asked to do in moral things, and choose the path of peace instead.

It happens all the time.

A “Come to Jesus” Regarding Christmas…

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Wonder what they’re celebrating? Hint: it isn’t Jesus’ birthday…because, well, timeline.

So, full disclosure: I was going to title this post “Jesus is Not the Reason for the Season,” but that was deemed too provocative…

Growing up we’d sometimes have a “come to Jesus” meeting amongst the family.  It was a moment to speak some honest truths that were hard to swallow.  It was never a moment to degrade or deride, but rather to just say some honest things that set the ground for going forward.

And I think, Beloved, that maybe we need to have a “come to Jesus” about Christmas.

And I think maybe we need to have this conversation because, well, I’m noticing some strident things coming from certain circles about Christmas, the nativity, and the whole season that are really just, well, inaccurate.

And, I think, probably a bit harmful in the long run.

Because here’s the thing: while your Christmas might be about Jesus…he is the reason for your season, and maybe my season…we have to be honest about the fact that it certainly didn’t start that way.

Humans, since we’ve been recording these types of things, have always celebrated some sort of festival of light at the solstice.  It’s a need within us for reassurance that shadows will not last forever.

We’re, when we’re honest, scared of the night.

And so our ancient mothers and fathers who lived in the north, when the ground became too hard to plow, took a wheel off of their cart, brought it inside, decorated it with greenery and candles, and lit one every night, trying to coax the sun back from its hiding place.

This became, over time, our Advent wreath.  It became a Christian symbol, but it didn’t start that way.  And it’s OK that it didn’t!  I think it’s better that it didn’t…because it makes it all so much more universal.

And that yule log that will adorn your Christmas table is a pagan symbol of the huge burning logs that were lit on the solstice, the shortest day, to last through the shadows.  It’s got holly and ivy on it, the masculine (prickly holly) and the feminine (flowing ivy) to weave together our humanity into the rhythm of the world’s seasons.

And that tree in your living room was a stolen tradition from pagans who used to decorate the trees, making them beautiful (and, sadly, Martin Luther did not first put candles on them, as the legend goes) to counter the cold, frozen days of winter.  Fertility reminders were important in the fallow days, after all.  The sun would come back. The earth would give crops again. Humans would continue to thrive.  The evergreen incorporated all of this symbolism and more.

Early Christians took these fertility symbols and started using them to tell Biblical stories, by the way.

That Christmas tree didn’t stand near the nativity in the beginning, but for early Christians it stood for, well, the beginning!  They’d replay Adam and Eve plays using those evergreen trees, hiding apples in the branches to retell Genesis 1 and 2.

It’s OK that we didn’t invent it, Beloved.  Let’s not pretend we did.

But now for the piece that gets me the most emails, and some recent “unfollows” on social media: the birth narratives in the Gospels.

Here’s the truth:

Mark, it looks like, thought Jesus was born in Nazareth.  He didn’t care much about where he was born, or at least care enough to write about it, so in Mark, Jesus comes wandering out of Nazareth.

John, likewise, doesn’t care where Jesus was born, but just about who Jesus is.  His birth narrative is cosmic, and John 1 is a retelling of Genesis 1 with Christ at the center.  It’s beautiful, poetic, and has a point.

Matthew and Luke are the ones who tell nativity stories.  And why?  Well, if you read them you’ll find out.

Matthew needs you to know that the Jesus of the Gospels (of the Gospel of Mark, specifically) is the same Messiah told about in the Hebrew scriptures.  So he goes to great lengths, jumping over many hurdles, to make sure that the Jesus you read about in Matthew harkens back to the depictions of the Messiah found in bits and pieces throughout the Hebrew texts.

He puts him in Bethlehem because that fulfills the prophecy. (Micah 5:2)

Joseph, his father, is a dreamer, which is intended to echo that Joseph-the-dreamer in Genesis.  In dreams he learns of Jesus’ birth.  In dreams he learns to flee to Egypt when Herod goes on his rampage, which should remind you, by the way, of Pharaoh trying to kill all the newborns in Egypt, with Moses, that other messianic figure in Genesis, surviving.

Do you see?  Matthew is replaying the story for a new generation of the faithful.

And Egypt is important because ancient prophecy noted that, “out of Egypt will come (God’s) son…” (Hosea 11:1)  So Matthew had to get them there.  This all worked out nicely.

Luke, too, places Jesus in Bethlehem, much for the same reason.  But unlike Matthew, Luke has the issue of getting them to Bethlehem, because his Gospel opens the scene with them in Nazareth…probably because Mark starts there.

So the Holy Family is from Nazareth.  But how to get them to Bethlehem?  Ah, yes, we’ll have a census happen, which will connect them to Bethlehem and the ancient prophecy.

Except that, in extra-Biblical records we can’t find any census happening around that time.  There is one that happens later, it turns out.  And I guess it’s possible that the whole timeline is wrong…but that’s not the point, friend.

I’ll repeat that: the timeline is not the point.  Literalism is not the point for these birth narratives.  The point is painting a Divine picture for you.

So Luke gets them to Bethlehem, and Jesus was born.

And all of those other questions on whether he was born in a “stable” or a “cave” or even the first floor of a house are interesting and fun ponderings but ultimately don’t matter.

Because it only really happens that way in Luke, and…yeah, I’m going to say it…probably didn’t happen that way at all.

Because that’s not the point.

For Luke the point comes a moment after the birth: with the angels and the shepherds.  Luke, the Gospel that pays the most attention to the marginalized and the disenfranchised, has the birth of the Messiah being made known not to kings in palaces or the rich elite, but to the shepherds, who weren’t even allowed to testify in the courts of the day because they were considered lying scoundrels.

This is lovely symmetry with the end of Mark’s Gospel where the only people who see the resurrection of Jesus are the women who…wait for it…weren’t even allowed to testify in the courts of the day.

So between Mark and Luke you see that the most important book ends of Jesus’ life and ministry are seen only by people who no one should believe.

And that, Beloved, is the point: Luke wants to reinforce the idea that the poor, the marginalized, and the one you least expect is the one God bestows grace upon grace toward.

Now, why bother saying any of this?

I love nativity scenes.  I have many of them.  I have an icon of the nativity right in front of me at the moment, actually.  It’s beautiful and meaningful and truthful in so many ways.

But it’s not fact.  It didn’t happen that way.

And it doesn’t have to have happened that way.  Because that’s not the point.

Matthew’s point is not that literal Magi traveled across continents to visit Jesus, but rather that God’s entrance into our space and time had a global impact.  And those gifts?  They were not real gifts, but symbols of his life, death, and resurrection.  Gold, for the treasure that he was.  Frankincense, for the offering to humanity that he would become.  Myrrh, because he’s going to die…and that’s what you wrap people in when they die.

These are not actual gifts they gave, but rather symbolized the gift the Christ is.

And Luke’s point is not that an actual stable, or even actual angels, appeared on the scene, but rather that the people you didn’t expect would be the ones to play a pivotal role in the life, death, and resurrection of the Messiah.

People like you.

And, back to the season at hand…

None of this would have happened in December, anyway.  You don’t put sheep out to pasture in December, Beloved.  You do that in June.  So even if Luke was trying to relate reality, we’re way off on our seasons in this era.

No, our date for the Nativity of Christ is another stolen piece that we took from those non-Christians who were dancing around bonfires at the solstice.  They were already celebrating, so the church changed it from the “festival of the undying sun” to the “nativity of the undying son.”

And it wasn’t even a major holiday for ancient Christians!  Pentecost and Easter were the two big festivals for the first church.  That first church would probably be appalled and confused as to why we’re bothering with this December holiday, anyway.  Maybe, if we want to keep tradition, we should abandon Christmas altogether as a Christian holiday and re-ignite a passion for Pentecost (see what I did there?).

And you know what?

Most pastors know this stuff…at least if they’ve had an education that moved past Biblical proof-texting or a glorified Sunday School (and let’s be honest: too much that passes for “seminary education” these days is a glorified Sunday School).

We know this stuff, but we don’t talk about it because, I think, we’re afraid of being caught up in culture wars.  Or we don’t want to deal with the emails that come from speaking truth into a season that has so many tendrils upon our hearts.  Or we don’t have the time, honestly, because it’s already so busy…

But here’s my larger point with all this: Jesus can be the reason for your season.  That’s awesome, and meaningful, and beautiful.

But let’s not pretend that Jesus was always the reason for celebrating at this time of year.

Christianity took the season and made it something for themselves, which we’re wont to do, and that’s OK.

And that argument on whether Jesus was born in a cave, a stable, a house, an RV?  Don’t spend too much time thinking about it all, because that’s not the point.

And this is why I think it’s harmful not to share some of this info with the church: you might miss the forest for the trees.  You might miss the point of it all.

The point is that God’s advent on the scene shook everything from floor to rafter (Matthew), that God would invite the least-of-these into the center of the Divine drama (Luke), that the baptism of Jesus would be his second birth into ministry (Mark), and that the Christ is woven into all creation (John).

The rest, as we say in the South, is just lipstick and rouge, ya’ll.

And I get that this all might be an inconvenient truth.  But in this season of beauty and wonder and awe, it’s OK to lift up scenes and stories that have so much embellishment!

In other words, the stories are true, even if they’re not factual.

And it’s only inconvenient if you need them to be factual to see their truth.

 

 

Zeus is Alive and Well in the Church

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What’s the difference between this portrayal of Zeus and most common portrayals of God?

“Tell me about your Sky Wizard,” they said to me with a smirk.

They were referring to God, of course.  A God they didn’t ascribe to.

I think there was a time in my life where hearing that phrase would have offended me, but it certainly doesn’t anymore.

Because they’re right.  The God that many Christians subscribe to is exactly like some sort of “Sky Wizard.”

They’re granting wishes (though usually people call them prayers).

They’re in control of everything: the weather, your fate, every single outcome of every single instance, pulling levers like some busy 1940’s phone operator.

They’re a trickster: Zeus was known for tricking people.  He was fair and just, but also would throw obstacles in people’s way. In the same way we have people say, “God is testing me!”

I hear it all the time, as if God has nothing better to do than mess with your life.

Blessing people who do the right thing: “God is so good.”  I don’t want to deride people for saying this, but we have to make a distinction between getting what we want and getting something from God. A lot of times I find that God calls me to do exactly what I don’t want to do.

For Christians, God is most clearly seen in the person of Jesus.

Jesus: who would give up everything for the people he loved.

Jesus: who, especially in the Gospel of Mark, doesn’t need to be in control of everything, but remained steady and dedicated to love no matter what happened.

Jesus: who didn’t grant wishes as much as responded to the needs of the world with healing and hope…and called others to do the same.

Jesus: who is not interested in blessing people with things, but forming them into blessings for the world.

Zeus is alive and well in the Christian church.  He spends his days occupied with you in so many ways.

But Jesus?  Well, Jesus is dead.

And resurrected.

And asking you to be focused more on others.

And I sometimes have trouble finding him in places where people of faith dwell.

Seriously. I find this to be a problem.

How To Read the Bible-A Primer

bible-pagesThe Bible is not a book.

It is a collection of books.

The Bible is not a type of literature.

It is composed of many types of literature.

Christians hold the Bible in high esteem, perhaps too high in some circles, because the way that some Christians talk you’d think the Bible is their God, superseding even the very acts of Jesus described in the Bible.

This is actually heretical, even sinful, because it breaks the very first commandment in the Decalogue (if you need a reference, go ahead and check out Exodus 20:1-17 or Deuteronomy 5:4-21).  In my view Fundamentalists have become what they continually deride: idolaters.

So, if you’re a reforming Fundamentalist, an Evangelical who has read the Bible like an encyclopedia, a Mainliner who doesn’t really know where to start, or perhaps you’re on the edge of being Christian at all (or maybe you’re not even sure you can claim to be that close), I have a prescribed way to read the Bible that I commend to you.

  1. Read a good study Bible.  Not any study Bible, but a good study Bible.  The Harper Collins Study Bible, the Lutheran Study Bible, or some annotated version of the New Revised Standard Version are all to be commended.

    To be avoided?  The King James Version (or any variation of it).  The Living Bible. Any form of an “Augmented Bible.”  Any version of a gender specific/life-stage specific Bible (unless it’s an NRSV translation).
    Get’s a “meh” from me: the NIV, the Common English Version, or anything the Gideons pass out.

    The Message is a fine paraphrase to use if you’re using it for devotional purposes, as is The Book of God.

    Not all Bibles are equal, and what I mean by that is not all Bibles are translated with the same scholarly scrutiny.  Some of these interpretations take terrible liberties with translations, and even more problematic, some of them take absolutely wrongful liberties with commentary.  Any Bible that tries to pinpoint Eden, that attempts to locate support for the Rapture, or posits Esther or Jonah as history rather than story, are of poor scholarly quality.

    And it’s worth noting that the Christian industrial complex (if I can name it that) has consistently duped and made money off of people because they assume that most Christians either aren’t smart enough or discerning enough to know the difference. 

    Just like you should not buy any snake oil from a traveling salesman, don’t buy it if it’s embossed in gold, says “The Bible” on it.

  2. Read it with other people. The Scriptures are best read in community because then you hear what other people are taking from a passage.  Read it and re-read it. Because parts of scripture say different things at different times in your life.
  3. Reading the Bible from front to back is not usually helpful. The Bible was compiled with some logic to rough timeline, but it’s not like a novel.  So reading it front to back is not always the best way to read it.

    The Jewish ordering of the Hebrew Scriptures places the books according to type of literature rather than timeline.  Sometimes adopting that kind of reading schedule is more helpful, because you group types of writing together, staying in the same medium.  This is roughly how the New Testament is arranged.

    And, boy I know this is controversial, but there are simply parts of the scripture that perhaps are better left as un-turned pages.  There are pieces that are shallow, and some even dangerous, without some extra guidance (like a good Pastor, a great lexicon, or a reputable commentary).  Adopt a way of reading that works for you, and if something presents itself as a head scratcher, let it go unresolved for a bit.

  4. Speaking of unresolved…you’re going to find contradictions and errors…but keep reading and don’t try to resolve them too quickly, and don’t force a resolution.  And if you don’t, you’re not reading with your brain (which is a mistake, friend).  Why is it that scientists and mathematicians, engineers and auto-mechanics are well-practiced at using problem solving skills in their every day work and perfectly welcome scrutiny as a useful tool in their trade, but all of that is suspended the minute they crack the Bible?

    The Bible is held in high esteem by Christians, but this does not mean that we do not use methods of discernment and scholarly discipline when reading it.  In fact, I’d say that people who take a “plain reading” view of Scripture (or anything!) holds that thing in such low esteem that they are unwilling to submit it to the same tools and rules of finding knowledge.

    The Bible is not an encyclopedia, so don’t treat it like one.  It is not an instruction manual, either.  Any reading that adopts this kind of “hunt and peck,” or “search and find” method does it absolutely no justice and, I would say, is not how it was intended to be read at all.

    The scriptures are full of tension.  The Bible contradicts itself.  It has errors.  And those who put it together saw these, by all accounts, and decided to keep it all the same.  They lived with the tension.  Why can’t we?

    Don’t force a resolution.  Live in the tension.  Such is the life of faith.

  5. Literary over literal. These books were not written for these times, specifically.  So we must adopt a malleable eye and meaning-making mind when reading the scriptures.I am not saying that they’re not applicable to these times.Certainly the message(s) is applicable!  Otherwise I wouldn’t be doing any of this.

    But to imagine that the writers had you in mind when they wrote it is to steal their agenda and make it your own.

    The scriptures continue to speak into today, but they use the language, imagery, and thought process of yesterday.  This is helpful when reading passages that don’t jive cohesively with our understanding of psychology, sociology, and even systematic theology.

    Again, allow the tension to linger.

    And one of the worst things that we can claim is that the scripture contains science. It does not.  When representatives in Congress come to the floor to advocate that Creationism be taught alongside Evolution, they make the mistake of thinking that all theories are equal.

    They are not.  Christianity does itself no favors when it mistakes theology for biology (and I would say that science makes the same mistake all the time, too).

The Reformation may have brought the Scriptures to the people, but in some ways the theological world is paying the price for interpretations that have happened without any regard to good scholarship and training.

We wouldn’t buy a chemistry workbook written by someone who only took Chemistry 101 in high school, so why do we buy Bible studies written by people with little more theological training than an advanced Sunday School curriculum (looking at you so-called Bible Colleges)?

Not all Bibles are the same.  Not all studies are the same.  And when we treat them all the same we create an environment that is not only hostile to Christianity (because who would trust a discipline with such terrible standards?), but an environment also hostile to the pursuit of knowledge.

On How I Can Trust that Jonah is a Story but That the Resurrection Was/Is Real

I trust that the Jonah story is myth and not a real event.  I trust that the resurrection of Jesus was/is not myth, but a real event.

I trust that they are both true.

This is a difficult concept to grasp, I think, especially if you come out of a tradition where the Bible is taken very literally.

JonahBear with me a bit on this, though, because the binary thinking of “true/untrue” or “fact/fiction” is not as clear cut as we like to make it out to be.

If we take the Bible absolutely, unequivocally literally, we do it, it’s teachings, and ourselves a disservice.

Primarily we do a disservice because we know that the Bible was not meant to be taken literally in it’s origins.  How do we know this?  Because it contains different types of writings: histories, prose, poetry, legend, and yes, myth.

And Jonah is a myth.  An instructive myth, a myth worth being in the Bible, but a myth.  It’s form is mythic.  It’s pattern is mythic.  It’s characters, narration, plot, all of it is mythic.  It’s not meant to be taken literally.  It’s to be read and learned from and pondered over and thought over…but not in the way you’d ponder over a math problem.  Not in the way you’d ponder over how someone could be stuck in a whale for days and not eaten by stomach acid.

So, we do Scripture a disservice when we hold all of it’s parts (written over hundreds of years) as all the same type of writing.

Secondly, we do it’s teachings a disservice by holding the whole Bible as being all the same type of writing to be held at the same status.  Why?  Well, if I can’t bend my mind around how Jonah can sit in a whale and not be eaten by stomach acid, and that story is just as real as a Jesus story, then I have to throw the whole thing out.

This line of thinking is a byproduct (an unfortunate one) of the Enlightenment.

Finally, we do ourselves a disservice by thinking that it all is the same because we either force our brain to believe something that we know isn’t…and isn’t supposed to be…true, or we keep ourselves from deep riches found in Scripture because, if we can’t buy all of it the same, we’ll buy none of it the same.  In this case we don’t allow ourselves the great love of God shown in the Scriptures, and a relationship with God informed by these ancient writings, specifically around the message of the Christ.

So, how then are we to take the resurrection?  Here’s how this pastor sees it.

For the Christian, something should be honored at the outset: the resurrection is central to the faith whereas the story of Jonah is not.

I think that’s just true.

Were Jonah missing from Scripture, the Christian faith would largely go on with all systems normal (for better or for worse).

I feel that, without the resurrection, the central tenet that God’s work moves into a future where nothing is lost, specifically the very people God has come to hold in love through eternity, would be missing.  In short: the bookend of the salvation story would be lost, leaving everything before it in a heap on the theological floor without any sense, order, or telos.

And thus we end up with Saturday morning Christians: the Christ is crucified, time to hideout in an upper room because there’s nothing left.

It’s also worth noting that, for Jewish-Christians to propose that someone singularly rose from the dead is not only unthinkable, 15-the-resurrection-of-jesusbut would most likely initiate charges of blasphemy and result in death or expulsion from the Jewish community of faith.  If they were willing to risk talking in this way, that’s telling.  The masterful theologian N. T. Wright goes to great lengths on this in his book Surprised by Hope, which I found myself agreeing with.

This all being said, do I think that you have to believe in the bodily resurrection to be a Christian?  No.  The calls from Tony Jones and other theologians (even in my tradition) for those who may not subscribe to a bodily resurrection to “re-think” and recant on their take of a metaphorical/mystical or otherwise-known interpretation are wrongheaded.

As if the Christian faith was ever meant to be one with a list of beliefs that one had to check-off to be considered a Christ follower.  If that is the case, the most literal Christ-followers in Scripture, both the Magi in Matthew and the disciples pre-Easter in all of the Gospels, fail the test.  The Magi were pagan and the disciples were clueless.

Any attempt to coerce another person into trusting the veracity of a certain story, historical, mythical, or otherwise, is not creating trust and faith, it is trying to force fact.

A story can be true without being fact.  I’m reluctant Christian because much of the church has forgotten this.

For this Christian I think it is intellectually honest to acknowledge that not all of scripture is meant to be read the same way. We do all sorts of disservices when we do.

But, for this Christian, a healthy dose of mystery surrounding the central stories is also important, especially those written so as to be a history of the salvation story.  After all, the resurrection is not a “problem” to be solved.  It is a mystery to be pondered over, embraced, and loved.

Jonah is a great fire-side tale that tells many truths and should be embraced and loved and pondered over (and should be acted out by persons to get the whole picture).  But it wasn’t written to be history, and we shouldn’t have to take it as history to be faithful.