"That which does no earthly good cannot be heavenly minded." R. Rivera

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Bible According To Whatever

By Ruben Rivera
Heavenly Minded & Earthly Good Blog©
26 Oct 2011

 Well it had to happen: the open political polarization of the interpretation of the Bible. After all, if you believe all the nonstop banana oil your hear in this country, there are absolutely no other worlds in the universe possible other than the cosmic dualism of the extreme wings of the Republican and Democratic parties.

After countless denials from Fox News that it presented unvarnished "news", anchor Chris Wallace admitted in an interview with comedian Jon Stewart (June 2011) that Fox in fact was presenting a so-called counterbalance to news outlets that they felt were dominated by liberals. Important as this is, tv "news" only deals with mundane temporal events.

But what about the eternal news?

Now, The Conservative Bible Project has set up a Wikipedia type web site "utilizing the 'the best of public' to render God's word into modern English without liberal translation distortions." http://conservapedia.com/Conservative_Bible_Project

Don't get me wrong, Bible translation has always been a mine field and the Conservative Bible Project is correct in pointing out that influences like gender, modern liberalism, socialism, evolution and more can work their way into the translation work done by scholars, either deliberately or simply because a person's social location, politics, intellectual convictions and other "leanings" filter into the things they do even if they are not aware of it.

The importance of the matter is impossible to overstate, since when one reads the Bible assuming it is God's word, he/she may not be aware of the extent to which it may not be. Yet all of life (here and hereafter) is said to hang on the Bible.

Page from The Jefferson Bible. Notice what it was
about Jesus that Jefferson felt mattered most.

Thomas Jefferson (whom many modern evangelicals mistakenly claim was evangelical too) compiled what has since become known as the Jefferson Bible in which he cut out miracles. Why? Because as a true son of the Age of Reason, Jefferson no longer believed in them. 

The modern "quests" for the "historical Jesus" have always revealed at least as much about the era and worldview of the person on that quest as the Jesus they claim to have "rediscovered".

A "Feminist translation" is declared to be a corrective to the male domination of the Scriptures (both in the "original" and in translation) so that women's subordination to men becomes as universal and non-negotiable as belief in the resurrection of Jesus is essential for someone to be Christian at all. All this, the feminist argument continues, courtesy of the illogical, prejudicial and heretical making of God in the image of the patriarchal culture from which said God emerged in the first place, and which continues to be perpetuated in translations by men. But then among some correctives is to start referring to God in feminine pronouns and characteristics, raising the charge of feminist bias, and pushing off the table any discussion about the possibility of any sound points made in the previous scholarly argument.

So, as I said, The Conservative Bible Project (CBP) is correct in pointing out how cultural, social, political, intellectual and other kinds of bias influence Bible translation, let alone Bible interpretation. I just wish they would focus the same critical lens inward. Are liberals, socialists and feminists the only ones who have "tampered" (as the more kind among them put it) with the Bible? Has there been no Bible tampering by conservatives and lassiez-faire capitalists? 

The answer is, overwhelming, yes they have. Can we not admit that the Bible is frequently whatever people need it to be? Biblical justifications for slavery and segregation were once common. Yet what evangelical today would support either?

 Image of Jesus most people under Western
influence grew up with.

Image of the likely features of Jesus 
(i.e., a 1st century Aramaic Jew) based on 
forensic anthropology and biblical texts.

To prove this everyday abuse of Scripture by those who claim most to revere it as God's inerrant word (remember, those who don't believe that, don't even bother to have this kind of discussion), I often ask Christian groups the following questions after reading several verses from the famous Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapter 5. I quote from the New International Version or NIV. (Yes, I'm aware of the irony in picking one translation over another for the purposes of this discussion. But that doesn't matter here. It is the responses to the readings that is important.)

I've seen lots of Jesus toys. But it's the
"Glow-in-the-Dark" hands that got me. 

1. "I tell you the truth...not the smallest letter or stroke of the pen shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished." (Mt 5:18)
Question: Raise your hand if you believe this teaching (i.e., that Jesus should be taken literally here).
Everyone raises their hand. This is no surprise coming from people who believe that the Bible is God's Word and can therefore have no error and must be obeyed.

2. "You have heard it said to the people long ago, 'Do not break your oaths, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.' But I say to you, do not swear at all....All you need to say is simply yes or no. Anything beyond this comes from the evil one." (Mt 5:33-37).
Question: Raise your hand if you believe this teaching (i.e., that Jesus should be taken literally here).
Fewer people are now raising their hand.

3. "You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your father in heaven." (Mt 5:43-45a)
Question: Raise your hand if you believe this teaching (i.e., that Jesus should be taken literally here).
Even fewer people are raising their hand.

 Like a lot of pictures on the web, this one was hard to
trace to the original source and intent. If it's a joke, it 
worked on me. I roared laughing. If it's a real
advertisement, there's something a little sick about it.

4. "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.' But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other also. And if anyone wants to sue and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles." (Mt 5:38-41)
Question: Raise your hand if you believe this teaching (i.e., that Jesus should be taken literally here).
Very few people are left raising their hand. One time I did this and only one person in a room of well over a hundred people raised their hand for all four questions.

Oh, and by the way, you can pretty much predict how people will answer those questions depending on what is happening in the larger culture around us. If we are in a time of peace and prosperity (both personally and nationally), more people will raise their hands on questions about loving your enemy and turning the other cheek. During economic hard times and conflict, very few if any will raise their hands: The Bible according to whatever is happening or needed.

A Jewish author who asks: "What Jewish
sources agree with my Christian friends?"
I include this here to illustrate that Christians
aren't the only ones politicizing God and the Bible.

So while I laud the attempt by Conservatives to point out how non-Conservatives may tamper and pick and choose from the Bible, may I make a suggestion?
Physician heal thyself.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Prophets Are Easy to Admire From The Safety Of Historical Distance

By Ruben Rivera© 6 Oct 2011

 Left to right: MLK, Shuttlesworth, Abernathy: 
founders of the SCLC

On Wednesday, the Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth died at the hard-fought age of 89. There are obituaries everywhere that describe the life and legacy of this great civil rights leader, the last of the movement's "Big Three" founders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference or SCLC (1957) to pass away.

Here I want to point out briefly a few things that stand out to me about Shuttlesworth and the work of racial reconciliation and social justice.

First of all, there are many ways to do that work. Lots of whites back then hated King, but a lot of whites liked him much more than Shuttlesworth. King struggled constantly to be as conciliatory with whites as possible, to enlist the better angels of their nature in achieving racial equality in America. Shuttlesworth was much more confrontational both in his preaching and his social activism, demanding racial equality now, whether whites felt consoled or not, and at times this put him at odds with King.

"Shuttlesworth and King were the two major axes of the SCLC part of the movement. Shuttlesworth was in the vanguard of direct action, pushing towards confrontation. King was the person who could really deal with white people and was more conciliatory. The two of them together formed a dialectic that drove the movement forward." Diane McWhorter, 2002 Pulitzer Prize winning author of "Carry Me Home."

Shuttlesworth, said Diane McWhorter, was just as important to the civil rights movement as was King. Two different men, and two different approaches. But both contributed to a freer America for which I am grateful.

Second, the work of racial reconciliation and social justice is NOT over. Shuttlesworth understood this and in 2004 he tried to reinvigorate the Southern Christian Leadership Conference calling for greater social activism. With studies showing that the current decline of the middle class, home ownership and financial net worth impacts blacks more than whites, or that whites get job call backs at twice the rate of equally qualified blacks -- even by government and private employers that advertise, "Equal Opportunity Employer", one can understand Shuttlesworth's belief that the work of civil rights is not over.

Third, the civil rights movement is not what it used to be. An example of this is the fact that the SCLC ousted Shuttlesworth's and his vision for greater activism.(1) The SCLC ousted one of its founders. Would that qualify as ironic?

Fourth, it is always easy to admire non-conformist prophetic persons from the safety of historical distance. What Bible-believing Christian will say that the Hebrew prophet Amos was not a true prophet of God for social justice? But would we want him to appear and preach to America today?

Do we not admire William Wilberforce who fought long and hard to end the slave trade? But would we have admired him if we had lived during his time?

The former female slave Sojourner Truth traveled and preached against the discrimination of women in voting, employment and more. That was something that even recently freed black men weren't ready for. But she is acknowledged today as an important figure in the vanguard of abolition and equality. Of course she is. She is no longer dangerous.

The 16th century Spaniard Bartolome de las Casas arrived to the New World as a conquistador. But he became a monk and champion of the love of God and protector of the Indians against his own oppressive countrymen. Today he is admired as the great "Apostle to the Indies" and so is his missiology or theology and methods of missions. But in his own day, nobody wanted him around, and his writings were placed on the official Catholic list of banned books.

On Wednesday, the 5 of Oct 2011, the Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth passed away. The world can rest easier now. For Shuttlesworth has now become another in a long line of historical prophets of social justice. He is part of history. He is now safe to admire.

(1) Elaine Woo, http://www.latimes.com/news/obituaries/la-me-fred-shuttlesworth-20111006,0,752108.story