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Why I’m Quitting This Blog

Blogging about Jesus and the Bible has been an enriching and even a life-changing experience for me.

But I’m done now. Here’s why.

About a decade ago, I set out to become an evangelical man-hero answer robot. My expectation was to master the scriptures so I could become a shepherd and keep other Christians safe, “orthodox,” and free of doubt.

The critical thinking skills I acquired and everything I discovered about the authentic nature and context of the bible set me on an unexpected path. I began to rethink and reconfigure everything I thought I knew about faith God and tradition.

This blog represented a late stage in this journey where I was very honestly and publicly enunciating the things I had learned and wrestling with the things that still didn’t (and don’t) make sense.

Now I find myself entering a new phase. I don’t know everything, I never will, and I think that’s just fine. But I’ve arrived at new place where I don’t feel the need to publicly ruminate and bloviate about faith anymore.

In the last year I had some real “success” with my blog: prestigious endorsements, viral posts, floods of traffic, general accolades. At first it was exciting, but very quickly it’s become a sort of bummer. The right things started happening, but for some reason it felt like it was going all wrong.

The last thing I want to do is become a “Christian blogger” or a minor “progressive Christian” Internet celebrity. I enjoy lots of Christian blogs and podcasts and I admire the individuals who generate that content on a regular basis. But that job’s not for me. It was fun and even liberating to think these weird thoughts in public with you, but I don’t want to wind up spinning my wheels, repeating myself, and defending the prog xtian party line against the fundies and Calvinists. God save me from becoming another sort of gatekeeper.

So anyway, that’s it. I’m not saying I won’t write about religion anymore, and I still owe all of you a book, but this blog will be pretty quiet from now on. I will remain active on Twitter, on my personal account @JoshWay and my Christian account @Godsplainer. I continue to create donor-supported comedy videos at https://patreon.com/joshway and I’m already busy cooking up another podcast project. You’ll see me around.

Thanks for reading!

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Do I Believe In Demons?

I get questions like this a lot. “Do you believe in demons?” “Do you believe in the Devil?” Sometimes it’s an inquisition, a checkpoint to gauge how far I’ve strayed from someone’s personal standard of orthodoxy. Other times it’s just friendly curiosity. Either way, people hoping for a simple “yes” or “no” will likely be disappointed by my answer. My response is rather complicated and begins with a clarification of the question.

What do you mean by “demons”? That might sound like an obnoxious deflection, but it gets to the heart of the matter. The important question underneath this whole discussion isn’t whether or not I have decide to believe in some specific reality called “demons” or a “devil,” but rather how I read and interpret the texts of the Bible.

Many Christians point to personal experiences of oppression, deliverance, or some sort of psycho-spiritual phenomena as proof of a demonic realm, and I wouldn’t presume to contradict or belittle anyone’s experiences or beliefs. I have seen and felt my share of the weirdness. But our choice to interpret such experiences in light of biblical language isn’t “proof” of anything, it merely highlights the lens through which we make sense of our lives. Angels, demons, the devil/the satan, and even divinity itself for that matter are all ideas that have clearly evolved over time, even among the different eras, texts, and traditions of the Bible. How we read those texts and how we connect them to our personal experiences is ultimately a matter of subjectivity and will.

Two Ways to Go Wrong

I think there are two major errors we can make concerning spiritual entities and experiences: completely dismissing the idea and mocking those who claim to have profound spiritual encounters, or believing with absurd certainty in a taxonomy of spiritual beings that colors and skews our response to everything that happens to or around us. It is foolish and small-minded to eschew spiritual “otherness” altogether, but even more reckless to declare ourselves demon hunters. There are certain spiritual mysteries in this world we share, and the authors of the Bible explored them using certain sets of ideas and words. That is our starting point, not the conclusion of the matter.

All of that is why I cannot reduce my answer to a simple “yes” or “no.” Now to a more robust response to the question, “Do I believe in demons?”

Josh the Spiritually Agnostic, Sensitive, Skeptical Christian

Here is a quick overview of my response, followed by a few paragraphs of explanation: I am generally agnostic regarding the existence of “personal” spiritual beings like demons, angels, the adversary, the accuser, etc., though I am deeply sensitive to the things I understand them to represent; I am exceedingly skeptical of religious traditions which emphasize spiritual “warfare” as the defining reality of life, especially those which effectively burden and terrorize hurting people, and I prefer instead to foster and calibrate my sense of spirituality according to the ethos and spirit of Jesus.

I know the word “agnostic” hits most Christians in a very negative way, but I don’t see it or intend it like that. I mean to say that I am earnest and open-hearted vis-à-vis the Bible’s spiritual language, even though I recognize it as an evolving pageant of distinctly ancient categories and constructs. After all, which “satan” am I meant to believe in? The “son of God” from Job who acts as a divine prosecuting attorney? The spirit that enters David and makes him defy God by taking a sinful census? The physical being who tempts Jesus away from his messianic vocation? The giant dragon in Revelation? It’s very difficult to track this being across the canvas of biblical thought as a consistent and tangible figure, yet it is easy to recognize the profound spiritual truth at the heart of each of these images. 

Thus I am committed to an intentional sensitivity to the satanic dangers of accusation and condemnation, the demonic spirits of rivalry, exclusion, and violence which always creep around the edges of our feelings and experiences. This is not “just a metaphor,” it is the very spiritual reality to which the many biblical metaphors are pointing. And this enemy doesn’t dwell in some outward dimension, it is a much more present danger as it lurks in the shadows of our own hearts.

Meanwhile, churches and preachers which project a fully literal and anthropomorphic view of such devils and spirits tend to sensationalize and abuse the notion of spiritual danger, blaming every sickness and inconvenience on “demons” and reveling in spectacular and emotional shows of deliverance and triumph. In their mission to seek out and kick demon butt, however, they miss the mundane but insidious spirit of accusation and vengeance in their own hearts. It’s easy to cry “devil!” when someone is thrashing around onstage under hot lights, it takes more intelligence and sensitivity to acknowledge our own demonic enslavement to war and security, religious supremacy and exclusion, self-righteousness and hate. 

And this is why I defer to Jesus on matters of spirituality. Jesus, of course, employed common ancient language about “spirits” and “the satan,” but it would be a mistake to assume this means he endorses and affirms everything you’ve ever heard or read about such things, even from the Bible. Jesus subverted the established religious and apocalyptic categories of his time, and I believe there is more meaning in the nature of his subversion than in the categories themselves. Jesus didn’t use demons and spiritual enemies as a platform for the intimidation or coercion of others, it was always bound up with his ethical vision of a world where the satanic is ultimately overcome by love. Jesus didn’t blame misfortune and sickness on devils and sin, in fact he urged his hearers past that regressive mindset. His vocation wasn’t to hunt and fight demons, it was to liberate and heal people. Any true Christian spirituality ought to be grounded in that same commitment to hope, reconciliation, and love.

So I guess my ultimate answer is that I don’t really “believe” in demons, devils, or hell, I believe in Jesus.

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Learning To (Reluctantly) Appreciate The KJV

I wasn’t raised in a KJV-only tradition. Most of my elders had some respect for the King James, but we rarely used it in study or in worship, and we certainly weren’t taught (as many young fundamentalists are) that it represents the definitive and authoritative revelation of God’s Word in the English language. For us it was just the old fashioned Bible where people talk funny.

So it’s been easy for me to overlook and even to disdain the KJV, especially as I have developed an interest in the evolution and transmission of biblical texts. I remain baffled by the American fundamentalist obsession with the KJV as a timeless and inerrant text, despite its clear origins in such a specific historical place and moment and its abundance of questionable translation choices and outright errors.

gods-secretariesIt was a pleasant surprise, then, to read Adam Nicolson’s book God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible and to find myself appreciating the KJV in a more informed and sympathetic light. Not a book by or for American fundamentalists, this is the work of an English historian reconstructing the milieu of Jacobean England from which the King James Bible emerged. Far from the world of snake handlers, young-earth creationists, and tent revivals, this was 17th century England; still reeling from the Protestant Reformation, steeped in royal intrigue, devastated by the Plague, home to wild opulence and astounding poverty, rattled by the Gunpowder Plot.

The KJV translation is less a product of divine revelation or inspiration than of royal ambition and scholarly collaboration and competition. The colorful cast of characters includes King James himself, who commissioned an official royal English Bible, and various famous courtiers, translators, and opponents: Lancelot Andrews, Richard Bancroft, Henry Savile, and many others, all self-interested, all flawed, and all brilliant. And this is my curious takeaway from the book, that the very thing I came to appreciate about the KJV is probably also what ultimately disqualifies it as a faithful and reliable transmission of scripture: the willfully grandiose and magisterial English prose created by its translators.

When we were kids (and I think most American Christians still assume this), we thought the King James sounded like that because it was very inspired and religious, and that heavenly language was bound to sound highfalutin’ to mortal ears. But of course, the words of the KJV were not dropped from the heavens, they were written and rewritten and debated and reworked and revised and compromised by a team of feisty and combative scholars.

I’ve often read American histories of the King James Bible that claim it is written in the vernacular of the common folk of 17th century England. However, Nicolson’s book makes it clear that the translators of KJV quite intentionally amplified and bedazzled their text to give it a unique air of majesty and import. No one ever really talked that way, it seems, but they aspired to. And the KJV was the perfect platform for that very English ambition. This is a work of literary art, a deliberate attempt to bring the full arsenal of Renaissance English to bear upon the old texts of the Bible.

This all helps me to appreciate the KJV in its native context as a work of intention and aspiration, but there should be no mistake regarding the real motivation behind the work. This was no mere attempt to precisely and faithfully transmit the spirit and letter of the ancient Hebrew and Greek scriptures, though the translators were certainly experts in those fields for their time. The KJV represents an explicit and overt attempt to marry the majesty of the British throne with the authority and power of the Bible. This meant not only amping up the language and weaving a work of grandeur and artistry, it also meant deliberately crafting a Bible which endorsed and upheld a specifically British church polity, purged of anything that might fuel papists on the one hand and anti-tyranny Calvinists on the other. This was the king’s Bible for the king’s reign, designed to buttress the authority of crown and church simultaneously.

It should not be scandalous to suggest that any translation of scripture is a subjective product of a time and place in human history. (The same is true, of course, of the original texts.) As for the KJV, it stands as an artifact of a strange and volatile moment in English-speaking history. As a translation it carries little authority for our time and place, and too often actually obscures the spirit of the original texts. But as a work of English literature, it may rival the works of Shakespeare as a high point in the history of the language. I am still baffled by those who claim the words of the KJV to be the specifically authentic and authoritative utterances of God for all time, but I have learned to enjoy and admire what is truly an invaluable work of religious art.

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Are You Committing the Unforgivable Sin RIGHT NOW??

In Mark 3:20-30 (revised and expanded a bit in Matthew 12:22-37), Jesus is accused by some “law experts” of being in league with “beelzebul,” the “prince of demons.” He responds with some famous but dense words:

“How can the accuser cast out the accuser? If a kingdom splits into two factions, it can’t last. If a household splits into two factions, it can’t last. So if the accuser revolts against himself and splits into two, he can’t last – his time is up! But remember: no one can get into a strong man’s house and steal his things unless first they tie up the strong man; then they can plunder his house.” (Mark 3:23-27)

And then he delivers this little brain exploder:

“I’m telling you the truth, people will be forgiven all sins, and blasphemies of whatever sort, but people who blaspheme the holy spirit will never find forgiveness. They will be guilty of an eternal sin!” (Mark 3:28-29)

Yikes! I mean, I guess this is a good news/bad news situation: On the one hand, 99.9% of our sins can and will be forgiven. So that’s cool. But then there’s the small matter of an “eternal,” unforgivable sin. Kinda sounds like a setup for inevitable failure. Like, “you can eat anything in the kitchen except that one cookie.” Well, great, now I can’t stop thinking about the cookie. So what is the unforgivable sin? Smoking? Cussing? Watching HBO after 10? No, it’s what Jesus calls “blaspheming the holy spirit.” Which means… Wait, what does that mean?

How To Blaspheme The Holy Spirit

The worst way to appreciate what Jesus is saying, I think, is to take this as a flat and literal statement about a cosmic technicality called “blasphemy of the holy spirit.” Various Christian thinkers and traditions have tried to quantify and police this sin with unsavory results. As with everything in the Bible (and all literature and everything else, for that matter), the best way to understand this strange saying is to consider the context.

The immediate context in Mark 3 is Jesus’ great popularity among the general public and the intense jealousy of the religious authorities who found him to be a threat. In Matthew the exchange follows a specific incident of healing and deliverance. In both versions it is suggested that Jesus must be in league with demonic forces to be able to perform such works of wonder. Jesus’ response exposes the absurdity of the accusation, as if the satan (“the accuser”) was somehow running around casting himself out of people. No, Jesus is not the “strong man” who rules the household, he’s the one who has come to bind the strong man and set his hostages free.

Additional comments from Jesus in Matthew’s telling of this incident provide further illumination:

“You must make up your mind between two possibilities: Either the tree is good, in which case its fruit is good, or the tree is bad, in which case its fruit is bad. You can tell a tree by its fruits, after all.” (Matthew 12:33-34)

This is the same basic principle for discernment and spiritual sensitivity that Jesus laid out in the sermon on the mount: if something seems good it probably is, even if it defies your expectations and prejudices; and, on the other side of the coin, things that seem ugly and harmful probably are, even if they come in a respectable or religious package.

The unforgivable sin is this: looking at something divine (love, healing, pardon, compassion, advocacy, empathy) and calling it evil (unclean, sinful, liberal, tolerant, dangerous). And why is this unforgivable? Not because it makes God mad or breaks a really important rule, but because it is the act of willfully cutting oneself off from the source and reality of all mercy and goodness. Because how can you embrace and experience the pervasive spirit of divine forgiveness if you’re running away from it and calling it evil?

Jesus taught that healing and forgiveness are in the air, they grow on the trees. The unforgivable sin is to pollute the air and burn down the trees because you’re so scared and angry that everything looks like a devil to you.

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Jesus Forgives Our Doctrine

I heard Scot McKnight on a podcast the other day where he made an interesting observation. “I grew up in a Paul church,” he said, and went on to explain that in America there are “Paul churches” and “Jesus churches.” I hadn’t thought of it in exactly those terms, and I may not parse it out exactly the same way McKnight does, but I realize that he’s right. This is not to say that some churches openly worship Paul instead of Jesus (though a few come close). The difference is between churches that worship and celebrate Jesus according to ideas about Jesus, especially those gleaned from the writings of Paul as interpreted by the church fathers and reformers, and churches that seek to follow the teaching and way of Jesus himself. This isn’t really about Paul vs. Jesus, it’s about the often shocking disparity between our doctrinal beliefs and the kingdom ethos that Jesus taught and embodied.

Even though I’d never considered the “Paul church/Jesus church” rubric before, I have been meditating for a long time on the glaring disconnection between the Protestant church’s doctrines of sin and grace and the attitude and behavior of Jesus toward “sinners” in the gospels. In a “Paul church” setting, the tendency is to focus on legality and guilt, and to treat sinners like offenders and defendants. When there is talk of forgiveness and atonement, it is usually reserved for those who have entered into a process of confession, conversion, and belief. But is that how Jesus dealt with sinners? Jesus urged his hearers to repent and turn from sin, to be sure, but did he withhold blessing and salvation until his subjects proved sufficiently contrite or devout?

In my opinion and experience, stories speak much louder than doctrines and axioms. Stories are interactive, designed to engage and provoke thought. And the Bible is full of stories and testimonies, especially about Jesus. So here are three stories about Jesus interacting with sinners that a “Jesus Christian” might take to heart.

Jesus Versus a Blind Man (John 9)

Wait a minute, you protest, a blind man isn’t the same as a “sinner!” And in your cozy, enlightened, twenty-first-century context you may be correct. But in this story and in the larger ancient world, the overwhelming belief was that anyone with an infirmity or disability was obviously being punished for some violation of God’s laws and/or the natural order. Jesus’ followers spell it out: “Who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?” (9:2) Jesus responds, “He didn’t sin nor did his parents; this happened that God’s works could be seen in him!,” (9:3) and then proceeds to heals the man. For Jesus, pain and brokenness are not signs of divine punishment but opportunities for divine blessing. And this is why I include this particular story on this list. In a Jesus-based view of humanity, the category of “sinner” has a radically different shape than it does elsewhere. Before we talk about how to deal with “sinners,” we might need to radically rethink the label itself.

Jesus Versus an Adulterous Lady (John 8)

OK, this is more like it. A real live sinner, caught in the act, even! Spicy! In this famous incident, a crowd of extremely religious gentlemen are set to stone a woman they caught in adultery (I guess the man she was with had to get to jury duty or something). They’re super excited to put their Bible-based doctrine into action and “deal with sin” when Jesus crashes their party and ruins everything. He exposes their hypocrisy, disperses the crowd, and sends the woman on her way to continue being alive. In a “Paul church” environment, Jesus’ admonition to “sin no more” (8:11) is the instructional takeaway. But really, “sin no more” is the least radical aspect of this story. This woman, guilty beyond doubt of a top-ten sin, is pardoned and rescued by Jesus with no lecture or ceremony, without so much as a word of contrition or devotion from her. What does this story tell us about Jesus and sin? In this account, like so many others from the gospels, the danger of punition and violence comes not from heaven but from the human religious establishment. Jesus’ only role is to invade and disrupt that system and advocate for the “sinner” that it seeks to victimize.

Jesus Versus His Own Murderers (Luke 23)

I’ve talked about this story many times here on the blog, because it always gets to me. In fact, if I was tasked with summing up the message of the New Testament in a single short passage, it might have to be this one. Jesus has been betrayed and abandoned by his followers, taken into custody, tortured, and is being executed, all on trumped-up charges. The son of God hangs there, degraded and mutilated, the victim of wicked collusion between religion and empire. And with his dying breath, what does he do? Does he call fire and death upon his persecutors? Does he speak ominous prophecies of vengeance and vindication? No, with his last breath he simply and bafflingly pronounces pardon upon his killers: “Father forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing!” (23:34)  Is there a more moving and powerful sentence in all of world literature? Not only does Jesus forgive his oppressors – unrepentant pagan murderers who will never believe in him or embrace the kingdom of God – he dies advocating for them. In a stunning and prescient sociological insight, Jesus recognizes the systemic and environmental forces behind the heinous deeds of his executors and looks upon them with inexhaustible understanding and compassion.

What if our doctrines of sin and grace were based on the words and deeds of Jesus in stories like these instead of the musings of philosophers and theologians? What if being a Christian meant being like Jesus rather than believing Christian things about Jesus? And what if God looked more like Jesus the lover of sinners than any of our shame-based doctrinal formulas? 

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Eschatology Without Ethics is Just Religious Escapism

The Christian bubble I grew up in was pervaded by talk about “eternity.” Over time this word has taken on an unfortunate connotation of dualism, a contrast between the compromised and fleshly experience of this life and the hyper-spiritual forever-dimension that is its opposite. This is a major mistake, as biblical talk of “eternity” and “eternal” things is actually concerned chiefly with the continuity of both human society and creation as a whole. Our hope is not that this life be forfeited in exchange for another one, but rather that it be redeemed and fulfilled.

lecrae nonsenseA popular meme in my Facebook feed says (in words attributed to evangelical rapper Lecrae), “If I’m wrong about God then I’ve wasted my life; If you’re wrong about God then you’ve wasted your eternity.” Not only is this sentiment oddly aggressive and sanctimonious, it also reveals a problematic underlying theology. According to this meme, the purpose of believing in (or being right about) God is to secure a happy afterlife, and it would be OK to appear to “waste” this life as long as one was prepared for the next.

There was a time when I was deeply committed to that logic, but now it makes no sense to me. In addition to a strong moral sense that this is a flawed and dangerous way to look at life, I also find that this is out of line with the way Jesus talked about God, humanity, and the world’s future. Jesus never separated eschatology from ethics, and neither should we.

You Got Ethics In My Eschatology!

“Eschatology” simply refers to an idea, view, or belief about where the world is heading. This is not so much about predicting the future as it is about diagnosing the present. It’s about seeing the handwriting on the wall and calling for change in light of it. The eschatology of Jesus was centered around what he called the “kingdom of God,” a spiritual and ethical reality into which he invited his followers. In the kingdom espoused by Jesus, life, law, and justice are reoriented away from the familiar machinations of power and domination and toward love, empathy, and forgiveness. The kingdom is radical, political, and social as well as spiritual. It is both present and future, it comes from heaven but is already inside and among us.

Jesus’ eschatology employed (and subverted) the language of Jewish apocalypticism which insisted that God’s kingdom was actually becoming a reality, on earth, in history. This is not “just a metaphor” or some future disembodied experience in an alternate dimension, it is a vision for the real and tangible future of humanity and creation. For Jesus, time and experience are not to be divided between life and afterlife, this doomed world and “eternity,” but between the world as it is and the world as it must soon be. And far from teaching people to sit on their hands while they wait for a postmortem reward, Jesus invites us to live out the reality of the kingdom. 

Divorcing ethics from eschatology has left many Christians with an unhelpful bifurcated view of time and the universe. The present and its concerns are seen as pale and irrelevant, and the future as a disconnected dimension where life will really begin. This is not the vision of Jesus. This is not how the kingdom of God works. The kingdom is forever but it starts now, and it is only as real and visible as our love for each other. The ethical vision of Jesus is not a set of suggestions for killing time until the apocalypse comes, it is the content of his eschatology. Because apart from love and forgiveness today, “eternity” is a pretty grim prospect. 

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From “Under God” to “Religious Freedom”: Our Reckless Culture Wars

American Christianity has a shameful track record of organizing and defending its own interests under banners of patriotism and slapdash theology. In the 1940’s and 50’s it was “Spiritual Mobilization,” a movement of conservative capitalists and corporate leaders pitting Christian rhetoric and celebrity preachers against the threat of communism and the social programs of the New Deal. This was a fully political movement, though the participation of pastors (like young superstar Billy Graham) baptized the effort in Christian language and spiritual urgency. These men basically invented a new gospel and placed it in the mouth of Jesus, a gospel of rugged individualism and the freedom to amass wealth and influence unhindered.

When the Eisenhower administration bought into Spiritual Mobilization and embraced its “back to God” agenda, the movement grew from a far-right campaign into a national craze. This is when and how “Christian America” was born, argues Kevin M. Kruse in his well-researched book One Nation Under God. This is the (historically recent) origin of American cultural memes like “In God We Trust” and “Judeo-Christian values.” In a way, Eisenhower derailed the efforts of the capitalist and evangelical leaders of Mobilization by transforming their political platform into a mainstream American fad. By the time Ike left office, our currency bore the “In God We Trust” slogan and the phrase “under God” had been added to the Pledge of Allegiance. A new and pervasive sense of patriotic identity and pride invigorated religious Americans of all stripes (sorry atheists).   

In hindsight, however, that mid-20th century “under God” movement was a rather reckless and vapid exercise. James Fifield, Graham, and the Spiritual Mobilizers garbled the Christian gospel into something unrecognizable in the name of political expedience, and Eisenhower hardly did better by amplifying patriotic God-talk and draining it of any real substance. Either way, the innovations and proclamations of that era did future generations of religious Americans no favors. In fact, they laid the foundation for the “culture wars” of our own day.

How “In God We Trust” Led To The Fight For “Religious Freedom”

As raucous and spirited as Eisenhower’s national revival had been for a seeming majority of Americans, it gave way almost immediately to a series of unhappy legal battles in the 1960’s and 70’s. The issue, unavoidable in hindsight, was how far the government could go in recognizing and celebrating the Christian aspects of American heritage without crossing constitutional boundaries regarding the establishment of religion. What started as a series of benign gestures of generic religiosity soon gave way to courtroom showdowns over things like school prayer and public Bible reading. It sounds nice and harmless enough to gather all God-fearing Americans together under some slogan, but eventually the complex realities of religious diversity become painfully clear.

Prayer and Bible reading left public schools out of legal necessity as a function of true religious liberty, a sobering reality check in the wake of Eisenhower’s happy but generic God crusade. As a result, however, the specious narrative of the government “kicking God out of our schools” was written in ink and the combative mood of conservative Christianity has only intensified since. The latest chapter in that self-victimizing narrative sees Christians on the far right contesting for “religious liberty,” which apparently consists of little more than their own inherited privilege and their imagined right to see their moral proclivities enforced at state and national levels. 

For all of its deep flaws, at least the Spiritual Mobilization movement paid lip service to the religious freedom of all Americans. Today’s “religious freedom” movement seeks its own welfare by actively promoting the marginalization of others. The sin of the earlier movement was inventing and peddling a false Christian unity which ignored diversity and excluded outsiders by negligence. Today’s culture warriors can no longer ignore their diverse neighbors, and so must name and target them explicitly. Tolerance is withheld and service is denied, and all in the name of a “Christian America” that was manufactured and marketed mere decades earlier. 

Like Spiritual Mobilization before it, “religious freedom” is a reactionary political movement that appropriates and melds Christian and patriotic rhetoric to establish and protect its own concerns and privileges. Neither movement bears any resemblance to the religious traditions they exploit, and both actually defuse and pervert the teachings of Jesus and the values of the church. Mobilization transformed the message of Jesus into a credo for the self-made businessman, and “religious freedom” sees the realities of diversity as a threat to God’s “design” for American society. Both seek to wield the Bible and the name of Jesus as instruments of personal advancement and domination. There is nothing authentically spiritual or Christian about either one.

Botticelli, Temptation of Christ

The Temptation of Jesus As Literature

The temptation of Jesus in the wilderness is one of those overly-familiar gospel episodes that reward a fresh reading with open eyes. In terms of history and theology, this is one of the more difficult passages to analyze. Questions abound: who is meant to have witnessed and recorded this event? Is this a pale description of a spiritual or psychological experience, or a literal throwdown between Jesus and an embodied “devil”? Was this some kind of legal gauntlet that Jesus had to pass to prove himself the son of God, or just a dramatic manifestation of his anxiety and doubt?

Those are all fascinating questions, but they lend themselves largely to speculation. Approached as a work of literature, on the other hand, the text has much more to offer. This is a carefully and creatively composed piece of storytelling with many observable features which provide structure and impart meaning. All three of the synoptic gospels offer a version of this episode, while John’s gospel omits it. I’m going to focus on Matthew’s version and its appreciable literary form.

Matthew 4:1-11: Jesus Wanders in the Desert

The opening chapters of Matthew present the birth and early life of Jesus as a series of fulfillments and echoes of the story of Israel. Each episode is ordered and detailed to invoke elements and themes from Genesis and Exodus (and from Talmudic expansions on those stories): Jesus, a descendant of Abraham, flees to Egypt with his family. There are dreams and intrigue with kings and diviners, and Jesus passes dramatically through a body of water at his baptism. Then here, in chapter 4, he wanders the desert in an ordeal that lasts “forty days and forty nights,” and next he will go up on a mountain and talk about law.

So what is Matthew’s agenda in casting Jesus in a remake of Exodus? In a general sense, of course, he wants to establish Jesus a true Jew and Israel’s true Messiah. But the significance of the temptation story in particular is best understood if we pay attention to the details. The short text can be broken down into five units; an introduction, three temptations, and a conclusion. Each of the temptations includes a specific allusion to a text from Exodus and a rebuttal from Jesus that quotes Deuteronomy 6. Here’s the broad outline, with more details below:

  1. Introduction (Matthew 4:1-2): Jesus fasting in the desert
  2. Temptation 1 (Matthew 4:3-4): Stones into bread
    1. Reference: Exodus 16:3 (“bread”)
    2. Rebuke: Deuteronomy 6:3
  3. Temptation 2 (Matthew 4:5-7): Throw yourself down
    1. Reference: Exodus 17:2,7 (“to the test”)
    2. Rebuke: Deuteronomy 6:16
  4. Temptation 3 (Matthew 4:8-10): Bow down
    1. Reference: Exodus 32:8 (“bow down”)
    2. Rebuke: Deuteronomy 6:13
  5. Conclusion (Matthew 4:11):  The devil left him

Like the Israelites those millennia ago, Jesus is “led” into the desert where he faces three specific temptations that his ancestors also faced there. But where they failed, grumbling and rebelling, Jesus is faithful and true. And his source of inspiration is Deuteronomy 6, the defining expression of Jewish identity and belief. He essentially defeats the devil with Judaism.

Now let’s consider the actual temptations in a little more detail:

Temptation 1: Magic Bread (Matthew 4:3-4)

The identity of Jesus’ adversary in Matthew’s text is rather slippery. He is first called “the devil,” but usually just “the tempter,” and eventually Jesus calls him “you satan!” Whoever or whatever he is, the tempter begins by challenging the “famished” Jesus to turn some stones into bread to nourish himself. Jesus answers with his first quote from Deuteronomy: “It takes more than bread to keep you alive, you actually live on every word that comes out of God’s mouth.” (Deut 6:3)

This temptation involves the miraculous provision of dirty bread. For the Israelites (in Exodus 16 and following) God provided manna, and the temptation was to hoard or grumble or otherwise fail to appreciate the provision. For Jesus the circumstance is different but the temptation is the same. He is dared to exploit his privilege in order to instantly gratify himself rather than staying hungry and continuing to trust in divine providence.

Temptation 2: Go Jump Off a Cliff (Matthew 4:5-7)

Next the tempter takes Jesus up onto the temple mount and dares him to jump off, so that God might “command his angels” to come down and save him (a quote from Psalm 91). Jesus rebukes him with another Deuteronomic comeback: “You mustn’t put the Lord your God to the test!” (Deut 6:16)

This is another reference to Exodus, specifically Exodus 17 where the Israelites demand a miracle and Moses responds with a similar warning about putting God “to the test.” (Exo 17:2) But the Israelites intensify their protest and Moses capitulates in an incident with his staff and a rock that will see him banished from the promised land. The temptation here is not just ingratitude but a complete lack of faith manifested as a demand for religious signs and proofs, an exchange of reason and trust for insecurity and superstition. For Jesus the choice is between triumphant religious spectacle or quiet humanity, and he chooses the latter.

Temptation 3: Bow Down (Matthew 4:8-10)

Finally, Jesus’ devil takes him to a “very high mountain,” where they survey the “magnificent kingdoms of the world.” “I’ll give them all to you,” he says, “if you’ll bow down and worship me.” Jesus must have been listening to the audiobook of Deuteronomy on his phone that morning, because he is ready with one more quote: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve him alone!” (Deut 6:13) The devil leaves him.

Here is an allusion to the famous incident in Exodus 32 when Moses ascends Mount Sinai and within five minutes the people below are “bowing down” to worship a fertility idol in the form of a golden calf. For the Israelites, this was simply the temptation to return to the glamorous and expedient type of local religion to which they had been accustomed. For Jesus, the temptation is to embrace the glamorous and expedient type of power and glory afforded by the empires and kingdoms of the world. To this day, political and military power are the only way most humans can imagine anything resembling justice to be accomplished. But Jesus knows there is a better way.

The Big Picture: Jesus the Good Jewish Human

Most readers of the New Testament, missing the literary clues and references, have imagined that these trials were unique to Jesus and his heavenly vocation as savior and messiah. But Matthew’s point seems to be that these three temptations – instant gratification, superstition, and power politics – are all common. They are common to Israel and common to humankind. What makes Jesus extraordinary is his transcendent response to these universal temptations, grounded in humility, faith, and an ongoing trust in divine goodness. Matthew is inviting his Jewish readers to place their trust in Jesus, the true Israelite and the true human. He portrays Jesus as “one of us,” which ought to make his goodness all the more relevant and inspiring.

Every Knee Shall Bow - J. Kirk Richards, 2008

Every Knee Shall Bow: The Bible’s Critique of Empire

fake-evil-jesus

This meme kicked me in the eyes over the weekend. It’s a particularly grievous example of a common Christian posture, a not-so-subtle threat on behalf of Jesus: worship me now or worship me later, but you WILL worship me! Of course Jesus never said anything like the words in that image, but it is rather loosely based on words written by the apostle Paul in his letter to the Philippians:

“Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus, Messiah, is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:9-11)

Most scholars agree that this passage comprises an extended quotation from an early Christian hymn about Jesus, a song which echoes Hebrew Bible texts like Isaiah 45 and subverts Roman imperial propaganda. But questions like context and source material have been of little interest to Christians throughout history who are content to take this text at face value as an ultimatum to nonbelievers. Believe now or be crushed later.

At the same time, there are many of us who reject such a reading as utterly antithetical to the very ethos and heart of Jesus. How could the same prophet of peace who loved us and gave his life for us now demand our allegiance and subjugation? That’s what despots and emperors do, not the Prince of Peace. And this gets to the heart of the matter.

Scripture vs. Empire

What’s missing from the discussion is an appropriate contextual understanding of the texts in question. As I indicated above, passages like Philippians 2 are not random proclamations out of time and space, they are subjective and derivative, products of a time, place, and tradition. Specifically, they are subversive parodies of imperial rhetoric. These are the kinds of things ancient people would say about kings and emperors (if they knew what was good for them), boldly revised with Jesus as their subject. In Isaiah 45 (the source material), it is YHWH who rescues and liberates the people, not the corrupt and oppressive kings of the nations. And here in Philippians (the subversive hymn), it is not Caesar who warrants worship and devotion but Jesus, a different kind of lord.

And there’s the rub: implicit in the name swap is also an exchange of values. Caesar demands worship under threat of violence, Jesus does not. Jesus is exalted as a divine and peaceful alternative to empire, not a sanctified version of the same monster. After all, as Jesus himself told us, the kingdom of God is not established by rulers “lording over” others, but by self-denying love that heals and saves others. The church’s mistake has been to imagine Jesus as the ultimate super-emperor, rather than the game changing, world saving anti-emperor. His kingdom is not defended against hated enemies with swords and battles, it is celebrated with feasts where everyone is invited and fed and loved. 

Ignoring the Critique

Why have so many Christians seemed unmoved and uninterested in the Bible’s pervasive critique of empire? This informed and clarified reading has become a fixture of biblical scholarship and has been largely embraced by “progressive” Christianity, but most mainstream Christians still resist or ignore it. Why is that? How has something that now seems so loud and unmistakable been essentially filtered out of our reading of the Bible for so long?

Could it be that American Christianity was formed and codified in a time when our home empire was unquestioned as a benevolent and even divinely sanctioned force for the salvation of the rest of the world? Has our commitment to the imperial rhetoric of our homeland inoculated us to the Bible’s anti-imperial posture? And/or, has Jesus been elevated to such a lofty but generic divine stature that the earthly and political dimensions of his life and legacy have been effectively rendered moot? Has worship of Jesus as supreme leader been so fervent and intense that the cause and content of that worship has gone unexamined? Have we really imagined that the meek and mild savior grew up to be a cosmic despot?

However we got here, this much seems self-evident: when you use Jesus to threaten and intimidate others, you have lost Jesus. When our proclamations of worship and devotion to Jesus are little more than sanctified and absolutized totalitarian threats, we have betrayed the very spirit of love we profess to represent. In the Bible’s anti-imperial critique, authoritarian language is reappropriated and turned inside out. The intended effect is an unmasking and mockery of earthly oppressors and a subversive proclamation of alternative values. Peace not war, forgiveness not accusation, advocacy not coercion. Our calling is not to Christianize empire, but to destroy it with love, to render it obsolete with service and empathy. That every knee might bow to the reign of peace and every tongue confess the supremacy of love.

jesus-food

The Bible’s Vision of Justice: Enough Food For Everybody

No, this is the fast I desire: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to untie the cords of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your home; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to ignore your own kin. (Isaiah 58:6-7)

We are at a major disadvantage when we read the Bible for a number of obvious reasons: time, culture, language, geography, etc. One specific and major but hard-to-see reason we often don’t “get” the Bible is that we (most of us in the western first world) have virtually unlimited access to food and goods, goods that have been processed and prepared by invisible industries and sold to us in small packages in convenient public transactions. We have bought into a system that promises the automatic meeting of our needs so we can concentrate on more important things. So it seems absurd for me to suggest that the Bible’s consistent central theme has to do with something as mundane as the distribution of food.

To us it sounds downright silly. In our world, it seems like there are far more critical things to worry about than where food comes from and where it goes. So few of us actually work to produce our own food, and we regard the hunger and need of others as an unfortunate glitch in an otherwise fair and benevolent system. And so we cannot fully appreciate the fact that JUSTICE in the world of the Bible (and in much of our contemporary world) is primarily and fundamentally about equitable access to food.

Don’t believe me? Consider this quick survey of the biblical library:

  • In the foundational story in Genesis, Adam and Eve are charged with caring for creation and holding “dominion” over it. From the beginning, food is the currency of justice. God expects the earth’s resources to be distributed fairly, even generously. In our relative affluence and comfort we have too easily read this as the origin story of our privilege, but the moral of the story is that food justice is the human’s first responsibility. (Gen 2)
  • In the story of Joseph, the innovation that saves Egypt, the Hebrews, and Joseph’s own life is an advancement in the storage and distribution of food. (Gen 41)
  • In the Exodus story, the miracle of manna is about the people having enough food for today, with no scarcity and no hoarding. Everyone gets what they need as a sign of God’s provision and justice among them. (Exo 16)
  • The Torah’s agricultural laws and the institutions of Sabbath and Jubilee are explicitly designed to foster and maintain food justice, to keep the powerful few from controlling the people’s resources, so everyone – even the poor and the alien – has what they need to live. (Exo 20, Lev 23, Lev 25)
  • When Israel’s prophets rail against the people for the sin of “forsaking God,” this sin is most often manifested as the failure to enact God’s distributive justice. Hospitality and food are the measurement of righteousness. (See especially Amos, Micah, Jeremiah, Isaiah 55:1, Isaiah 58:6-7)
  • In the New Testament, Jesus resists a dare to turn stones into bread, denying his own privilege and choosing to trust God in solidarity with those in need. (Matt 4)
  • Jesus multiplies bread and fish for a crowd, blatantly enacting distributive justice. (Matt 14, John 6)
  • Jesus oversees a miraculous catch of fish, demonstrating God’s generosity with natural resources. (Luke 5, John 21)
  • Jesus teaches us to pray for our “daily bread,” a prayer for food justice today and forever. (Matt 6, Luke 11)
  • Jesus tells a parable about judgment and the rubric for justice is not something abstract like religious belief or allegiance, it is whether or not the hungry got fed. (Matt 25)
  • Jesus spends his last evening with his followers sharing a Passover meal, breaking bread and pouring wine. Jesus identifies his own body with the food humans share to stay alive. (Matt 26, Luke 22)
  • The risen Jesus shares food with his followers (Luke 24) and multiplies their food resources (John 21). 
  • Paul scolds Corinthian Christians for failing to understand the Eucharist’s inherent theme of food justice, as wealthy churchgoers turn the communal feast into a party and leave nothing for the working class latecomers. (1 Cor 11)
  • Revelation, one of the New Testament’s (many) visions of eschatological justice, envisions an earthly city that is a heavenly blessing to the rest of the world. Healing and life flow from it like leaves from the “tree of life.” At long last, the dream of global justice is realized. (Rev 21-22)

This is a very truncated and incomplete list. Every biblical story, every appeal to justice, every metaphor for God’s kingdom has something to do with agriculture and/or the distribution of resources. When food isn’t on our list of urgent daily concerns, we miss and forget how the Bible equates God’s will with food equity. In our prosperity and complacency, we have favored legal and punitive visions of justice over the Bible’s practical and agrarian ones. For the humans who wrote the Bible, God’s will and God’s justice are fundamentally concerned with egalitarian access to creation’s bounty, and God’s reputation hangs on the way humans live and eat and share.

Ho boy, has Josh lost it? Is he just a crazy liberal trying to tell us the Bible is really all about privilege and socialism? Not exactly. What I’m trying to do is invite all of us to a more fundamentally pure and authentic “square one” for reading the Bible, because I do believe that our wealth and insulation have blinded us to its real context and message. We gloss over agricultural language as if these were merely metaphors for loftier spiritual concerns, and we miss the gravity and urgency of hunger and want that is still a present reality for many of our neighbors at home and around the world. We agonize over doctrine, belief, and authority, arguing about God’s will in the abstract as our brothers and sisters starve to death. The bottom line is that same system which promises us plenty keeps others hungry. This is the single greatest injustice of our world, and every one of us could do something about it today.