The Heart of American Christianity Isn’t Jesus, It’s Winning

There has been a lot of talk this week about the term “evangelical” and whether or not it can be “saved.” I really couldn’t give a rip about that, to be honest. It’s just a label, a word, and one that has less than ever to do with the actual gospel of Jesus. So, whatever. What’s far more important and meaningful to me is the question that underlies that debate about nomenclature: the sorry state of American Christianity. When people ask if “evangelical” has lost its meaning, they are really asking if there’s anything left in American Christianity that can still be called “Christian.”

Many unflattering things can be said of American Christianity. It is combative. It is arrogant. It tends toward nationalism. It is obtusely focused on a hypothetical future and reckless in the present. It is more eager to be certain than it is to be kind. It is quick to demand respect and obedience but slow to listen or learn.

Put simply, American Christianity is obsessed with winning. It has inherited this ethos from the national culture, so that the “American” aspect far outweighs the “Christian” one.

Win. Be right. Dominate. Influence. Favor in this life, reward in the next.

How did these become values of people who claim to follow Jesus? Consider the ways American Christianity has compromised and contradicted the vision of God and humanity set forth by Jesus:

  • We have been paralyzed by dogma and tradition while our neighbors are dying.
  • We have defended our own rights to security and self defense while justifying the exploitation and suffering of others.
  • We have treated beloved children of God like subhuman enemies because of abstract ideological and doctrinal differences.
  • We have hoarded possessions and wealth while children starve to death.
  • We have become mired in nationalism and right wing politics instead of loving our enemies and advocating for the marginalized.
  • We have exploited the Holy Spirit as a source of personal power instead of the abiding and peaceful presence of Jesus.
  • We have obsessed over a cosmic and vengeful Jesus instead of honoring the humble Jesus who taught peace and self-sacrifice.

When did winning become more important than grace and truth? When did we commit ourselves to victory at any cost? When did we forget that we follow one who died for others, who forfeited glory and retaliation and then announced divine forgiveness to his own murderers?

There is no point in defending your identity as a follower of Jesus if everything you believe and do explicitly mocks him. How did this happen? How did we lose Jesus? How do we get him back?

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The Problem With “The Bible Says”

Our old, flat, and uninformed way of reading the Bible has become at best an unhelpful burden, at worst a liability. The church’s insistence on handling the Bible as a singular and consistent whole rather than a library of diverse voices continues to stifle and sabotage our ability to grow and learn. Worst of all, it has built an echo chamber of tepid and contradictory religion where the radical voice of Jesus can no longer be distinguished or heard.

Simply reporting that “the Bible says” this or that isn’t helpful in itself and can actually be detrimental and misleading. Yet this continues to be this basis for authoritarian Christian claims, often over the lives and fates of others, and not just inside the walls of the church. If “the Bible says” something, it must be true, and it must be prescriptive at least for the lives of Christians if not for all humankind. This elevates the texts of the Bible to a dangerous and impossible level of authority, consistency, and relevance. It also relativizes and neuters the subversive teaching of Jesus.

Context is Everything

If one day your spouse or roommate announced, “The library says that April is the cruellest month!” and then proceeded tearing out calendar pages and barricading doors, you might think they were nuts, or you might even join their strange crusade. But if you knew that those words were written in the early twentieth century by the English poet T.S. Eliot in a poem about death called The Waste Land, you could calmly engage them in a conversation about what those words might mean to them personally.

Context reveals the subjectivity and humanity of a text, which is precisely why Christians interested in an authoritarian Bible ignore it, and want others to ignore it too. They simply expect the “clear meaning” on the face of the text to be unquestioned and obeyed. The problem is, apart from context, the only “clear meaning” is the one imposed upon the text, explicitly or by way of unspoken assumptions. And when we do allow context to illuminate meaning, the shape and application of that meaning is often not as clear and straightforward as we’d like it to be.

Some Things “the Bible Says”

Here are just a few examples off the top of my head of things “the Bible says” that are not as straightforward as they seem.

    • The Bible says that the earth was created in six days. (Genesis 1)
      Actually, the book of Genesis opens with a song celebrating nature. It uses a distinctive seven-day schedule as an orderly and easy-to-understand framework in which to explain creation, often in contrast to the chaotic and violent creation myths that were popular in that ancient world. We know a lot more about the cosmos today, so what kind of language might we use to describe the fundamental integrity of the universe?
    • The Bible says that the punishment should fit the crime, i.e. “an eye for an eye.” (Leviticus 24:20)
      Actually, while some Torah laws appeal to this principle, later dubbed lex talionis, others call for harsh punishments and even execution. Elsewhere in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus teaches his followers to forfeit all retaliation and to confront evil with nonviolent resistance. Does this perhaps represent a trajectory away from violence and retribution? How do we approach questions of justice and punishment in our own time and culture?
  • The Bible says that God punishes children for the sins of their parents. (Exodus 20:5; Numbers 14:18)
    Actually, this is a common claim in some portions of Torah and some prophetic texts, but it also openly rejected in the writing of Jeremiah and the teaching of Jesus. How does it change our understanding of history and our view of the future if we get past the idea that God punishes us for the “sins of the past”?
    • The Bible says that rich people go to hell and poor people go to heaven. (Luke 16:19-31)
      Actually, Jesus adapts a very common Greek fairy tale as a parable about the subversion of wealth and class in the kingdom of God. How might Jesus reconfigure some of our best known myths and stories to demonstrate our inside-out values?
    • The Bible says that there can be no forgiveness of sin without the shedding of blood. (Hebrews 9:22)
      Actually, the unknown author of Hebrews says that “according to the law, there could be no forgiveness without the shedding of blood.” It’s part of a complex and often strained argument for the superiority of Christianity over Judaism. How would we as Christians respond to this kind of argument today?
    • The Bible says that wives must submit to their husbands. (Colossians 3:18)
      Actually, the apostle Paul wrote letters to his first century congregations teaching them to organize their relationships according to mutual love and respect. Language of “submission” was commonplace in that ancient world, but Paul’s point was about reciprocal love rather than strict hierarchy. How should we approach family relationships today in a way that reflects our understanding of Christian love?
    • The Bible says that women cannot teach or lead men. (1 Timothy 2:12)
      Actually, the author of Timothy (probably not Paul) wrote a rant against a particular group of women who were apparently stirring up trouble in one of his churches. What do the contents of letters like these reveal about the evolution and struggles of the earliest Christian churches? What issues in our own day might correspond to those faced by the ancient churches, and how might we respond to them? And while we’re here, does the controversy about the authorship of Timothy and Titus have any bearing on how we read and interact with the Bible, or on our concept of “biblical authority”?
  • The Bible says that the world will end in Armageddon, a cosmic battle between good and evil. (Revelation 16)
    Actually, the book of Revelation is not a prediction of the sorts of things that will or must happen in the future. It was a creative apocalyptic response to a specific first-century crisis, the martyrdom of Jewish Christians at the hands of the Roman Empire. The author was attempting to reassure suffering people that Rome would fall and God’s kingdom would be established, and images of dragons, plagues, and war were his way of condemning Rome’s oppressive regime. What does the Bible’s pervasive critique of empire say to us as modern Americans? How does our view of the future change if holy war is not a foregone conclusion?

Each of these biblical statements represents the work of a subjective human author, and each invites us into a world of thought and imagination. There are a thousand conversations to be had, fresh in each generation, and always new voices to be added. It is never enough to simply throw “the Bible says” at someone, as if these texts were objective axioms from the very mouth of God, and as if our own humanity and the humanity of the Bible’s authors never entered into the equation. If there is truth and value and glory in the Bible, we will find it together through humility and listening, by embracing honesty and subjectivity.

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Quest for a Violent Jesus, Part 1: So Many Swords!

From the earliest days of Christianity, mercy and nonviolence have been integral to the character and legacy of Jesus as understood by most of his followers. It’s unfortunately true that some of the most popular and influential Christian institutions have diminished or even contradicted this theme, but there have always been prophetic voices calling us back to the fundamentally peace-loving and forgiving ethos of Jesus. For a growing number of Christians today (your humble blogger included) this isn’t just a nice fact about Jesus, that he happened to be a pacifist, it is the very heart and essence of his message, his life, and his revelation of the divine.

Those who seek to challenge or to mitigate Christian nonviolence find plenty of cause to do so in the Bible’s own words. Violent visions of God and judgment aren’t just relegated to the “Old Testament,” they are common in many books of the New Testament, from the letters of Paul and Peter to the politically charged visions of Revelation. If you want a God and a universe which are ultimately and inescapably violent, the Bible’s got you covered. Those of us who espouse nonviolence as the true heart of Christianity – and the true heart of God – do so based almost entirely on the words and person of Jesus as described in the gospels.

And that’s why critics love to throw certain verses from the gospels in our faces. Continue reading

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Persecution Porn: Quick Thoughts On God’s Not Dead 2

I wrote a detailed post about my intense distaste for the original “God’s Not Dead” movie, so you can imagine how delighted I was to see this new trailer for the sequel! Last time our heroes defeated the evil powers of atheist academia, and this time they’re up against the dreaded ACLU (spit on the ground). Looks like the franchise is doubling down on what it does best: fearmongering and persecution fantasies. This movie appears to be modeled after those inspiring movies about outsiders who fight the system to earn their rights, except those movies are usually based on real people with real problems, while this one is based on segment two of a bad talk radio show.

Three bizarre lines of dialog stood out to me in this trailer:

“The message of the gospel has us standing in the way of a lot of things that powerful people want. We’re at war!” – Pastor Cool Dude

WTHuh? I can’t begin to decipher what this is supposed to mean, but I have a sinking feeling it has something to do with American Christians losing the cultural clout and privilege they’ve enjoyed for a very long time. But here’s the thing about that: if Christians actually lived their lives in accordance with “the gospel” – the real gospel – they’d have willingly forfeited or surrendered that privilege a long time ago. Dogma and authority must be contended and fought for, but grace and peace only come through love and surrender.

Silly rabbit, Christians don’t fight for influence and power. They’re too busy dying for their enemies.

“If we’re going to insist that a Christian’s right to believe is subordinate to all other rights, then it’s NOT a right!” – Atticus Flinch

OK, first off I’m not sure that the “right to believe” is really a thing. No one is trying to take away anyone’s ability to think or believe whatever they want. The issue, if there is one, is how the expression of beliefs affects others in an intentionally diverse society. That’s not a sign of persecution or the end times, it’s a legitimate question that concerns all Americans. You’re not being persecuted, you just have neighbors who are human beings like you.

Strictly speaking, shouldn’t Christian culture be less interested in fighting for the rights and influence of Christians and far more intent on advocating for the rights of others?

“I would rather stand with God and be judged by the world than stand with the world and be judged by God!” – Sabrina the Middle-aged Teacher

If that’s true, then quit your job and refuse to defend yourself. Take the hit. Lose in public with grace and truth on your side. Like Jesus.

Christians. Don’t. Fight. For. Rights. And. Power.

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Study Bible Roundup: Ezra

Today I’m introducing a new feature called Study Bible Roundup. In these posts, I will select a challenging story or passage from the Bible, and then survey the commentary in four popular “study Bibles”: The NIV Study Bible, The ESV Study Bible, The American Patriot’s Bible (yes), and The Extreme Teen Bible (yup).

If you grew up in a conservative and/or evangelical church tradition, I don’t need to explain study Bibles to you. For everyone else, these are giant tomes which contain the full text of a popular Bible translation along with commentary from editors, usually pastors and apologists. Study Bibles often claim to be objective and scholarly, but typically cater to specific markets or denominations. These are the only safe and approved educational apparatus available to many Christians.

My goal in this exercise is to see how these commentaries handle the text in question. Do they consider history, language, and politics in their analysis? Do they acknowledge potential issues in the text and, if so, what responses do they offer? I’m not expecting them to reach certain conclusions, I’m just looking for a well-rounded and intellectually curious presentation. For this first installment, we’ll piggy-back on our previous post about the book of Ezra. Will our study Bibles acknowledge and address objections to the content of Ezra, specifically the mass deportation of women and children? Let’s take a look.

NIVNIV Study Bible

While I give the NIV commentary credit for a fair amount of historical detail (mostly geographic trivia), its exposition of Ezra 9 and 10 is basically a covert apologetic. Covert because it never openly acknowledges any potential difficulties in the text, yet it consistently builds a case for the necessity and propriety of Ezra’s edict about “intermarriage” (the word is used pejoratively). 

Two rationalizations are offered for Ezra’s deportation, one scriptural and the other historical. First is an appeal to Malachi 2, in which the prophet condemns Judah for figuratively shacking up with a foreign god/wife. Next is the non-biblical cautionary tale of the Elephantine settlement, a community of Jews in Egypt roughly contemporary to Ezra which was eventually assimilated into the greater population. The sense is that Ezra is right about Judah, that intermarriage is both a sin and a threat to national security, and that the shame and repentance of the people was the only fitting response.

The only crack in the veneer is a comment on chapter 10 verse 15 which acknowledges that Ezra was opposed by four other priests, possibly because they found his measure “too harsh.” However, the commentary also wonders if these men might merely be acting out of self-interest.

ESVESV Study Bible

Like the NIV, the ESV commentary speaks of “intermarriage” as a serious problem and the chief sin of the men of Judah. There is no ambiguity or restraint in this analysis: the foreign women are “wicked” and “idolatrous” by nature, and Ezra’s deportation program was nothing less than faithful obedience to God’s command to “purge the evil from your midst” (Deut. 17:7). There is no view to a political battle or any wider historical perspective. There is even an attempt to neuter the meaning of 10:15 (about the opponents of Ezra’s plan).

I would characterize the ESV commentary as intensely unapologetic in its insistence that Ezra represents a god’s-eye-view of an authentic and exemplary revival. Ezra himself is seen as a bold and godly leader, a Phinehas whose zeal for the Lord led him to perform drastic deeds of “righteousness.” There is no room for sympathy for the banished women, who were inherently evil, or for their children, who paid the price for their parents’ sin in accordance with God’s “justice.”

APBThe American Patriot’s Bible

Whereas the NIV represents a covert evangelical apologetic and the ESV an intensely Reformed theological buy-in, the “American Patriot’s Bible” (APB) is an unabashed flag-waving midrash on the entire Bible, reimagining it as a textbook about American greatness. Under that banner, the little book of Ezra is actually a big deal: a tale of restoration, reconstruction, and bold leadership. Hey, just like America!

The APB does not provide verse-by-verse commentary like the NIV and ESV, rather it interjects short inspirational blurbs throughout the text. Between 9 and 10, the chapters detailing the deportation, there is a short profile of the 19th century evangelist Peter Cartwright, who baptized and converted thousands of people in the deep south. The implication is that Ezra has performed a similar function, convicting the men of Judah of their sins and providing the way “back to God.”

Elsewhere in Ezra, comparisons are made with U.S. presidents from Washington to Reagan, and (I kid you not) figures like Booker T. Washington and Harriet Tubman. To give the APB an ounce of credit, they are specifically referring to Ezra leading people out of the slavery of exile. But given the parade of refugees this book leaves in its wake, those might not be the wisest comparisons to draw.

ETBThe Extreme Teen Bible

The Extreme Teen Bible (ETB) is a hip and totally-in-your-face study Bible for young evangelical Christians. I really wanted to make fun of this thing and exploit it for laughs, but I must confess that it completely surprised me. Not only does it go out of its way to explain to kids that the Bible comes from another time and culture, it is the only Bible on this list that anticipates and directly addresses objections to Ezra’s pagan purge. I may not be on board with their answers, but I applaud them for even making the attempt.

In a blurb labeled “Intermarriage,” the ETB says the following: “Intermarriage wasn’t a moral problem. People are people no matter where they are from. But intermarriage was a spiritual problem. All the surrounding cultures worshiped idols. Marrying someone doesn’t mean you will take on all their beliefs and practices, but it does mean that you will be influenced by them.” And a comment later in chapter 10 stresses that the intermarriage crisis was not about “race” but about “worship.”

Wow. While I think this is ultimately a poor response to the objection (racial discrimination is immoral but religious discrimination is not?), I am nonetheless heartened to see an affirmation of basic human dignity in this conservative Bible aimed at young people. Despite its goofy cover and outrageous fonts, the ETB manages to be more thoughtful and open-hearted than any of the other Bibles on this list. Too bad that it ultimately falls back on unsatisfying answers.

What did you think of this feature? Would you like to see more posts like this? Let me know.

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Break Your Bible: Ezra Makes Judah Great Again

One of the major convictions which fuel most of the material on this blog is my belief that modern Christianity must confront and reconsider how it understands and interacts with the Bible. This is not necessarily the most important nor the ultimate task, but it is a necessary stepping stone to growth and progress. The old flat and systematic way of reading the Bible as an inerrant catalog of religious axioms is the biggest hindrance to spiritual advancement and the rediscovery of Jesus which we need so urgently in my opinion.

In that spirit, I often highlight problematic or misunderstood portions of scripture, not to be contrary or to “attack the Bible,” but to foster the important conversation about what the Bible is and how we can read it honestly and fruitfully. Today I want to look at the small book of Ezra.

Ezra, Revival, and Mass Deportation

In a sense, Ezra should be one of the most triumphant and satisfying texts of the Hebrew Bible. It narrates the return of the exiled citizens to Judah, the rebuilding and rededication of the temple, and the religious reawakening of the people. And yet, many modern readers find this to be a shocking and upsetting episode for reasons we will presently consider.

The titular Ezra only shows up in the book’s final chapters, a priest empowered by the Persian King Artaxerxes to re-establish the traditions and (more importantly) the laws of the Torah. This involves prayer, reinstating sacrificial practices, public reading of the law, and a call for national repentance, which is where things start to get rough. Ezra demands that those Judahite men who have married foreign wives during or since the exile must divorce them and have them all “put away” along with their children.

The gamut of modern reactions to the book of Ezra is perhaps represented by two recent blog posts: one from our pals at Charisma News hailing Ted Cruz as “an Ezra for America,” and one from Fred “Slacktivist” Clark who responds with both horror and humor. The difference is between those who believe that mass divorce and deportation of women and children are right and good when religiously justified, and those who have their doubts.

The standard church reading of Ezra, informed by inerrancy and an apologetic commitment to the moral cohesion of the entire Bible, sees this as a story about revival, repentance, and the difficult choices we often must make when confronted with God’s clear commandments. This is not to say that every bible-believer smiles in approval of the tragic events at the end of Ezra (though some clearly relish it). But most feel obliged to give assent to the “divinely inspired” leadership of Ezra. In fact, most wouldn’t dream of questioning any of it, simply because it happens in the Bible.

Ezra and History

In a flat and self-contained reading of the Bible, especially historical texts like Ezra, the perspective of the author is always assumed to be divinely sanctioned, the morality consistent and prescriptive, and the main characters heroes of the faith. But diverse political and ideological perspectives run wild in the collected texts of scripture, often in tension or even in slap-fights, if we will just open our eyes to see it. When we acknowledge this fact, it is no longer possible to talk about a singular “biblical” perspective, but rather the various voices and agendas which populate the library. Just because the historical context or ideological bent of a book or author is not spelled out for the modern reader doesn’t mean they are not present or have no bearing.

In the case of Ezra, he represents a particular aristocratic wing of Yahwism in the fifth century BCE which placed a strong emphasis on religious and genealogical purity. This powerful group (or party) was opposed to and by other groups, such as the resident Samaritans, who were descendents of the northern Israelites with different ideas about how the nation should be run and who was to be included in the “people of God.” This political battle gave Ezra’s party control of Jerusalem and resulted in the great schism with Samaria, the effects of which are still seen centuries later in the narratives of the New Testament gospels.

While our traditional way of mining Bible stories for absolute truths and coded messages has only ever seen Ezra as a positive example of how a nation might please God by cracking down on certain laws or enforcing certain prohibitions, a more careful and educated approach understands that we are reading a text written by the winners of a particular ancient culture war. This doesn’t make their actions inherently commendable or condemnable, but it means that we are free to use our discernment and moral sensitivity when considering that question for ourselves. If forced mass divorce and deportation in the name of “pure religion” strikes you as unsavory, you might want to follow those instincts. I can even think of a few other voices in the Bible which might agree with you.

Weighing the Cost of Intellectual Honesty

Whenever I push Christians to think critically about the Bible like this, there is always the inevitable “gotcha” question: If you nuance, critique, or openly disagree with even one part of the Bible, how can you trust or believe in any of it, especially what it says about Jesus?

This question presupposes so much about authority and the nature of belief and the Bible, and my response is always the same. I can only judge anything I read in the Bible based on the same simple criteria I apply to everything else: Is it good, and does it turn out to be true? I can’t prove, argue, or defend anything based on those questions, I need to have faith and patience. Good things will bear good fruit, and bad things will bear bad fruit, regardless of obtuse appeals to authority or “purity.”

Subjectivity is unavoidable, in fact our attempts to deny it take us down roads of compromise and delusion. When it comes to the Bible, let’s learn from history, literature, and conscience. Let’s be the best subjective, educated thinkers we can be, let’s passionately celebrate the good things we find and not hesitate to call out specious and harmful things as well. 

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Three (Specific) Bible Words That Don’t Mean What We Think They Mean

Typically on these lists I’ve addressed concepts and categories instead of actual Hebrew and Greek words from the Bible. This blog is meant for public consumption, so I rarely delve into scholarly minutiae. But here are some specific words from well-known biblical texts that are begging to be revisited and reconsidered.

Luke 2:7: The Greek word kataluma doesn’t mean “inn”

We’ll start with this one since it’s not particularly controversial, though it has the potential to completely transform the way we read Luke’s nativity story. The familiar reading sees Mary and Joseph turned away by an innkeeper with no vacancies, forced to birth their baby in a filthy barn among the livestock. While this is a suitably ironic and dramatic setting for such an important event, it also strikes us as a tad melodramatic and harsh. Were first century Judeans really so cruel as to force a pregnant women to deliver in a pigsty?

The word kataluma doesn’t connote an inn or public place of lodging, instead it refers to the “upper room” within a family home where guests stay and share meals with their hosts. This is the same word which describes the room where Jesus and his followers celebrated the “Last Supper” (see Mark 14:14).

In this clarified reading of the story, Joseph returns to Bethlehem to find his family home full of visiting aunts, uncles, and cousins in town for the census and holiday. The kataluma is already at capacity. His family doesn’t toss Joseph and Mary out back in the barn to fend for themselves, rather they invite them into the main living quarters of the home, where the host family resides and where the spotless sacrificial animals are kept and cared for, and where stone hewn mangers are carved into the very structure of the house. The context and circumstance of Jesus’ birth were indeed humble, but he was actually born in a place of relative honor and comfort, according to Luke. It is not difficult to see the theological implications of what the gospel writer is doing here.

Isaiah 7:14: The Hebrew word almah doesn’t mean “virgin”

Now things get a little more dicey. Christian apologists will deny and fight this one until their last breath, but it’s pretty clear that the Hebrew word almah in Isaiah 7:14 does not refer to a virgin but simply a young woman of childbearing age. In the specific context of Isaiah, the prophet is clearly forecasting the natural birth of a child in his own immediate future. The point of the verse is not the mother or the birth but the child that will be born, and he will be a king who will defeat the Assyrians (7:20). That king was born, and his name was Hezekiah.

When the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek by Jewish scholars in the third or second century B.C.E., almah was approximated with the Greek parthenos, which does not necessarily refer to a sexually pure virgin, but usually refers to a young, unmarried girl. By the first century C.E., the Jewish authors of the New Testament were using that Greek translation (called the Septuagint) as their primary scriptural source, and the writer of Matthew used Isaiah 7:14 as one of five Hebrew Bible “fulfillments” in the early life of Jesus. This point is this: Isaiah once said that a parthenos would give birth to a savior child, and it is happening again.

People often misunderstand what I’m arguing here. This discussion has nothing to do with whether or not Jesus was born of a virgin or whether the author of Matthew is “wrong.” The point is that Isaiah 7 was never about a miraculous virgin birth in its original setting. Matthew performs a hermeneutical maneuver (band name!) based on a reading of the Septuagint to compose Jesus’ origin story. I assume that this author understands perfectly well what is really going on in Isaiah, and exploits parthenos as a license to draw a connection between two stories about two kings.

(SIDE NOTE: You’ll notice that conservative and complementarian Bible translations like ESV make a point to always translate almah as virgin in the Old Testament, which sometimes results in creepy renderings of verses like Proverbs 30:19.)

Romans 3:25: The Greek word hilasterion doesn’t mean “propitiation”

“Propitiation” refers to the appeasing of an angry deity by means of sacrifice or ritual. Blood is spilled or life is taken, and the wrath of the god(s) is satisfied or abated. The King James Bible translated the Greek hilasterion as simply “propitiation,” which rendered Romans 3:25 as “Christ Jesus, whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood.” This verse, more than any other passage in the New Testament, became the “smoking gun” for the doctrine of Penal Substitutionary Atonement, which understands Jesus’ death as a blood sacrifice which appeased the wrath of God, if only for those who will believe in it as such.

But the word hilasterion, admittedly difficult to define succinctly, has more to do with “expiation” than “propitiation.” Both concepts deal with the problem of humanity, sin, and God, but while propitiation refers to a godward flow of appeasement and sacrifice, expiation connotes an outpouring of forgiveness and pardon from God to humanity. It has to do with the removal of guilt and the application of mercy rather than the satisfaction of a divine bloodthirst. In the Greek text of the Torah, hilasterion is the name of the “mercy seat,” the footstool of God (and the “lid” of the ark of the covenant) from which God dispensed forgiveness and blessing.

Given all of this and the greater context of Romans 3, it seems that the cross (for Paul) is not the place where God’s wrath is poured out on the innocent Jesus, but rather the place where God’s mercy confronts and forgives human sin and evil. It is precisely by absorbing wrath, not dispensing it, that God’s mercy is made known through the cross.

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Jesus and “Family Values”

American Jesus is all about marriage and family values. For generations Christian leaders have linked the mission and legacy of Jesus with the health and centrality of the married couple and the nuclear family. If you grew up in an American church, especially in a conservative or fundamentalist tradition, you most likely learned a lot about “biblical” dating, marriage, sex, manhood, womanhood, parenting, etc. The impression is that Christian faith, while rooted in the person and way of Jesus, is most chiefly concerned with and most legitimately expressed in the life and home of a family. In this version of the religion, single adults are often viewed as deficient or suspicious, and cultural changes related to sex and marriage are viewed as threats against “traditional” marriage and values, dangers to the integrity of the gospel, and affronts to God.

There are, however, two realities which complicate these abiding assumptions. First, there is the fact that when the Bible does speak of marriage and family, it does so with a set of ancient cultural presuppositions which often do not match our own. Levirate marriage, polygamy, and primogeniture (favoring the firstborn) are commonplace in the Hebrew Scriptures, for example, and largely unknown in the modern first world. This does not necessarily preclude those texts from being read and interpreted fruitfully, but it does mean that they cannot and should not be read as instruction manuals for our own family lives. At the very least it ought to keep us mindful of the inevitable fact of cultural and societal change across the generations and the globe.

More pertinent to this discussion, however, is the complicated and even dismissive attitude of Jesus toward family and marriage according to the gospel accounts. In fact, an honest assessment of what Jesus apparently believed and taught about “family values” can be downright unsettling. The subject doesn’t come up as often as you’d expect, but when it does the words of Jesus are almost always shocking. Consider:

  • A curious episode in Mark 3 where Jesus’ own family, including his mother, accuse him of being “out of his mind” and try to drag him back home. Jesus ignores them and asks his followers, “Who is my mother?” He answers that “anybody who does God’s will is my brother, sister, and mother.” (The later gospels revise or omit this bit, and scholars of all stripes have wrestled with Mark’s depiction of Mary in this scene. Remember that Mark does not provide a birth narrative for Jesus!)
  • In Matthew 8 a new follower asks for Jesus’ permission to “first go and bury my father.” Jesus commands him, “Follow me! Let the dead bury their own dead.” Disciples of Jesus are expected to abandon their families and responsibilities.
  • Later in Matthew 10 Jesus describes how his gospel announcement will result in fathers betraying children, and children rebelling against their parents. He famously adds that he “didn’t come to bring peace – I came to bring a sword! I came to divide a man from his father, a daughter from her mother.” And further, “If you love your father or mother more than me, you don’t deserve me.” This is rhetoric, to be sure, and it actually affirms the importance of familial bonds by challenging them. But challenge them it does.
  • Jesus’ argument with Pharisees about divorce in Matthew 19 is typically used by today’s Christians to demonstrate Jesus’ affirmation of “traditional marriage” (especially verses 4-6). In the context of the passage, Jesus’ point is that divorce should be seen as a concession for cases of adultery rather than a loophole for men who tire of their wives. But it is Jesus’ private conversation with his followers after the argument that is seldom discussed. Disappointed in his teaching about divorce, the disciples ask “given this, wouldn’t it be better for a man not to marry?” Jesus apparently agrees, and his cryptic response in verses 11-12 seems to indicate that marriage itself is a concession and a compromise of the kingdom ideal of celibacy.
  • Along similar lines, Jesus engages with another Jewish sect in Mark 12 and Matthew 22 on the topic of resurrection. The Sadducees were the conservative elites of Jerusalem, who rejected the relatively new notion that God’s people would be resurrected at the coming of the kingdom. They mock Jesus regarding the logistics of marriage among the resurrected population of New Jerusalem. If, they ask, a woman marries several brothers after each one dies, to whom is she married after the resurrection? Jesus responds with the bombshell that there will be no marrying in this kingdom, and that current marriages will apparently be dissolved. This detail is not featured in many sermons about heaven.

Kingdom Values Are For Humans, Not Just Families

The takeaway is not that Jesus hated families or disapproved of the institution of marriage. However, given what we read in the gospels, it is virtually impossible to argue that family and marriage were the foundation or even tenets of the movement which Jesus started. Quite the contrary, since at every turn Jesus challenged the common obligations of family and matrimony as distractions from the real mission of proclaiming the Kingdom of God. To be sure, Jesus preached fidelity and compassion in all human relationships, but he did not prescribe a particular lifestyle or family configuration (though he was apparently keen on celibacy).

In conclusion, I want to say two things: 1) Despite the radical apocalyptic origins of the religion, marriage and family came to be inextricably woven into the fabric of Christianity. This is a strange tension, and it’s something we could actually stand to wrestle with a bit more than we typically have. But I do not think we ought to feel conflicted or guilty about loving and cherishing our families, whatever they look like, as good gifts from God. This seems self-evident. 2) At the same time, Christianity has a built-in defense against those who would beat the drum of “family values” and “traditional marriage” as if these were the things most precious to Jesus, most essential to his message, and most likely to anger God if we get them wrong. The sorts, names, shapes, and sizes of families and communities change with the centuries. Fidelity, selfless love, and empathy are always the same, and these are the heart of the gospel.

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Depravity Follow-Up

Wednesday’s post really seemed to resonate with some people and to irk others. On the one hand, lots of folks seemed to identify with my personal journey away from burdensome and fear-based religious beliefs. Meanwhile, others pointed out that I wasn’t quite describing or analyzing the doctrine of depravity correctly. And guess what? They’re technically right (the best kind of right!).

When I published that post I thought to myself, Someone’s going to tell me that I don’t understand depravity. Someone’s going to explain that depravity relates to the pervasiveness of sin in all aspects of the human condition and has nothing to do with original sin, divine violence, etc.  And that’s true, I suppose, by the book. I took those courses and read those texts. I know what the doctrine of depravity is all about. My post was rather sloppy, I admit, from a doctrinal perspective. I basically used “depravity” as an umbrella for related doctrines about sin guilt and its legal ramifications. I should have been more precise.

But my bigger point, which was also challenged, was about how divine violence is always the elephant-in-the-room with such doctrines, whether they spell it out or not. Ideas like depravity and original sin understand the human dilemma in terms of a desperate legal battle against the cosmic justice machine, an anticipation of divine wrath and violence instead of an embrace of divine forgiveness and mercy. This effectively makes people feel like tiny wads of sputum instead of beloved children of God, and God seem like the ultimate supervillain instead of a loving Father. It’s an arraignment instead of a party. It’s a millstone around the neck instead of a shattered yoke. It’s Augustine, Anselm, Calvin, Spurgeon, and Piper instead of Jesus.

Doctrine has value as both a subjective intellectual analysis of biblical material and a snapshot of how our forebearers in the church responded to their historical circumstances and challenges. The authors of our doctrines, like the authors of scripture before them, are products of specific times and places, and their work reflects a contextual attempt at faithfulness to God and tradition. We benefit from their work, and within our respective traditions it can help to shape our identity and inform our response to our own times and challenges.

But doctrine is no substitute for Jesus. Each generation has the opportunity and the duty to reassess its inherited doctrines in light of who Jesus was and is. This is why I feel not only permitted but obligated to critique and even to reject doctrines which distort or forsake Jesus’ kingdom vision. Clarifying and emphasizing that original spark of divine hope and liberation will always be more important to me than compiling biblical data or balancing my doctrinal ledgers.

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Depravity: The Sickest Thing I Used to Believe

I used to believe that I was so depraved in my mind, heart, and DNA that I deserved to be killed by God, but that Jesus died in my place so I was off the hook, except that I wasn’t really off the hook unless I believed and felt bad and obeyed every word of the Bible forever. I called this “good news.” I didn’t know any better.

Millions of children are taught from a very young age that they are broken and bad, utterly unacceptable to God as they are, and that only a religious negotiation will give them a chance at last-minute salvation. These are not the teachings of some fringe cult, they are the mainstream beliefs of American conservative Christianity.

Like so many harmful doctrines, the belief in “total depravity” (codified by Calvin) is based on a legal conception of the relationship between humans and God as well as a flat and technical reading of an inerrant Bible. When the poets and teachers of scripture describe their personal woes or the sorry state of the their society and world, they say things like “there is no one on earth who is righteous,” (Ecclesiastes 7:10) and “all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory.” (Romans 3:23) These powerful and subjective testimonies have somehow become burdensome legalities, a forensic diagnosis of humankind’s “fallen” state. The message behind the doctrine is clear to those living in its shadow: you may think you’re doing OK, but the Bible says you are awful and bad and God can’t even bear to look at you.

A Depraved Doctrine

In the Reformed formula, depravity is the necessary premise for an entire “plan of salvation.” Without a legal status of depravity, the legal solution of Jesus’ blood cannot be efficacious. This mires our Christian faith – which ought to be an open-hearted journey along the Path of Jesus – in the archaic and dangerous logic of blood sacrifice and sacred death.

The pastoral failure of depravity as a doctrine is how it teaches people (especially young people) that they have no worth apart from their legal standing within a religious system and, bad news, your default status within that system is “screwed.” It teaches them to feel bad about who they are, out of the box, and sets them on a lifelong journey of anxiety and self-doubt. Ironically, while the mantra of Reformed theology is that humans play no part in their own salvation, its effect is that of a death sentence for every human being unless they begin to frantically dig themselves out of the pit.

Theologically, depravity and its implications are deeply rooted in a commitment to divine violence and sacrificial religion. This is the notion that from the ancient past God has demanded lifeblood as a payment for human sin, and the expectation of an ultimate future in which God uses violence to set things “right.” In the framework of depravity and substitutionary atonement, the “good news” is that God has provided a loophole out of the inevitable catastrophe for an elect few, but it nevertheless upholds the essential violence of God and of the divine plan. Again, it fails to follow Jesus in envisioning and following after a God who is bigger and better than our broken and bloody systems of justice. It cannot imagine victory or peace without a necessary shedding of blood.

The Alternate Way of Jesus 

Jesus warned his neighbors and followers that they were committed to a path of self-destruction. He invited them to repent of their sinful and violent ways before it was too late. But Jesus saw humans as beloved children of God who had lost their way, not legally damned fodder for the divine bloodlust. He called them back to the loving embrace of a God of peace and reconciliation, not into a legal machine that might make them conditionally acceptable to a violent God through substitution and sacrifice.

Prof. Bernard Ramm is quoted as saying that “God forgives our theology just like he forgives our sin.” We must stop teaching our children that they are inherently deficient and depraved. Jesus points us away from shame and sacrifice and toward joy and peace. The young ones will discover soon enough how compromised and treacherous the world and their own hearts might be. Let’s be ready to encourage and affirm them as recipients and agents of God’s rescuing love in a world that needs them. This is the path of Jesus. Violence and depravity are the other path.

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