Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Common Clichés and Misreadings Once More

“Made in the Image of God”
26 Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth." 27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (Gen 1:26-27 ESV)

Oh my goodness, has this concept caused millions of gallons of ink to be spilled. One could go through almost countless interpretations of what “image of God” (imago dei) might connote: we share in God’s morality, consciousness, personhood, in His capacity to have relationship, and on and on the suggestions come.

These all might be true to various degrees. Yet, in context, the answer is utterly simple. To possess the “image of God” means to exercise dominion or rule over the creatures and earth that God has created. The literary context tells us this explicitly.

But historical context helps us too. An image in the ancient world meant an idol of a god. Idols were carvings of various kinds of wood or stone. They were physical representations of the presence of the gods. That is, they were not attempting just to draw a picture of the gods. They were attempting to demonstrate that their god was present and in control.

Mostly, what they represented, was the gods’ authority in that house or region. If someone came into a Canaanite’s house in 2500 BC, they would see a small idol of Ba’al (which means, “Lord”) or Tiamat or Marduk or Ra. It would indicate that the homeowners paid allegiance to that god. The person might rub oil on the idol, give it food, keep it shaded, amongst other things, in an effort to let the gods know that the humans were paying respect to the gods who were in control of the weather, crops, stars, childbirth, and nearly everything else that occurred.

However, the author of Genesis is making a bold, unique claim in the ancient world. The True God doesn’t have wood or stone idols. No. He has flesh and bone idols—humans. And this is the point: when other animals or humans see humans, we are to be reminded of who is in control. Animals become aware that we are the boss; humans become aware that God is our boss.

The image of God has to do with demonstrating who has authority to rule over the Earth. And in this very ancient Hebrew account, it is humans who rule over the earth and animals. And no other ancient creation story suggested such a concept.

“For I Know the Plans I Have for You”                                                         
10 "For thus says the LORD: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. 11 For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope12 Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. 13 You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you, declares the LORD, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the LORD, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile. (Jer 29:10-14 ESV)

This text is overwhelmingly popular. Yet, like 2 Chron. 7, its historical and literary context is explicit: this text is speaking to an exiled community of Jews in Babylon. Read verses 10 and 14 once more. Now read them again. J

This was a powerful text to an exiled people. It gave them hope in a time when certainly many would have been convinced that all hope had been lost. This promise given by God was that Israel would be restored to their Promised Land. And He did.

But that's not how this text is used today. It's used as a blanket text to mean: "God has an individual plan for your life. And this plan is for your prosperity and future and blessing. God has huge things planned for you!"

Now, how in the world can Christians think that this text can be used this way? Because it polls well. It works. It gets people hyped up. And to some degree, that’s OK. Some people are struggling with depression and hopelessness. Texts like these, if applied to them, encourage.

The problem is, there is no reason whatsoever to make this a blanket statement for all people at all times. How can a Christian cite such a verse—ripped out of context—and interpret it to mean that God's favor and provision are just around the corner, knowing that Jesus guaranteed that we’d have a cross to carry? How would you preach this text to Jesus as He hung on the cross? Read verse 14 again: are we to believe that Jesus's "fortunes" are to be gathered to Him again? Or that ours will be, just because God promised that to an 8th-cent. BC exiled community?

We think that God has "big plans" for every person because of verses like these, and this is patently false. "Big plans" is universally understood as "big according to my human standards." Again, this is patently false. Most Christians who live, and who have ever lived, never get noticed, never get rich, never get famous, never cure disease, never write songs or books, and never do anything that the public would care much about. They are "nameless" heroes of our faith, just acting like Christians everyday wherever they are.  Have we even read Heb 11:35-38?

Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. 36 Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated--38 of whom the world was not worthy-- wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. (ESV)

"Big plans" according to human standards is straight up evil and sinful. Jesus taught us that humility, servanthood, and standing up for victims is the way of the Kingdom. And that way is not full of prosperity and "big dreams."

We’ve got to get our theology in check. If we can’t interpret an Old Testament text through the lens of the cross of Jesus, then it is NOT a blanket text for us today. Let’s all stop picking random verses in the Old Testament because they make us feel good, and stop telling everyone that this random verse is “clearly” God’s promise to you and me.

Of course God has a purpose for every human. Of course. And that purpose is to be formed into the image of the Son. That purpose is not for blessing and riches and good things to happen. In fact, Jesus guaranteed that we will go through some hell on earth before the world to come. And that’s OK. Jesus overcame the hell we go through. There is a joy, peace, and purpose that only Jesus can provide. And in that case, often through suffering, God has a plan for our “future and hope.”

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Common Clichés and Misreadings

There are countless clichés and “urban church legends” promulgated by Christians. For various reasons, apparently no matter what the denomination is (or lack thereof), the average Christian layperson and leader continues to foster false readings of the text. Garnering a conglomerate list of bad theological phrases would be expansive.

The following are some real gems. I've seen entire books and workbooks (bestselling, some of them!) on the following bad readings of the Bible. This sample manifests what it means to ignore a favorite word among scholars: context, context, context. It clears up so many things.

“A Man After God’s Own Heart”
13 And Samuel said to Saul, "You have done foolishly. You have not kept the command of the LORD your God, with which he commanded you. For then the LORD would have established your kingdom over Israel forever. 14 But now your kingdom shall not continue. The LORD has sought out a man after his own heart, and the LORD has commanded him to be prince over his people, because you have not kept what the LORD commanded you." (1Sa 13:13-14 ESV)

Traditionally, the text "after God's own heart" means something like "David shares some moral quality that is like God." This is a possible reading, but it has its problems. (For a recent scholarly defense of the traditional reading, see Benjamin Johnson, "The Heart of YHWH's Chosen One in 1 Samuel," JBL 131, no. 3 (2012)). It seems to me that the chief problem with this reading is that there is nothing in the text that tells us what about David's heart is like God's. The story has nothing to do with David being moral. It has nothing to do with David hearing God on a regular basis, etc.

Instead, nearly every OT scholar today reads the phrase, "after my own heart" to mean "according to my choice." See how “his own heart” is used in 1 Kings 8:38; 12:33; Isa. 57:17; and Jer. 23:17.

Another possible reading, it seems to me, is that one would say that “after my own heart” means “will do what I tell him to do.” This seems to be how it is used in Jeremiah 3:15 and 13:10.

But no matter what, it seems to me, what this phrase cannot mean is the traditional interpretation. Even if David’s obedience is in view, it cannot mean that God is obedient too, since God obeys no one. There is nothing in this context or language that tells us that David’s “heart” somehow mimics or is like God's “heart.”

Instead, “after my own heart” either means “after God’s own choice,” or “will do what I tell him to do.” Either way, David’s moral character doesn’t seem to be in view at all.

“If My People . . .”
12 Then the LORD appeared to Solomon in the night and said to him: "I have heard your prayer and have chosen this place for myself as a house of sacrifice. 13 When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locust to devour the land, or send pestilence among my people, 14 if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land. 15 Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayer that is made in this place. 16 For now I have chosen and consecrated this house that my name may be there forever. My eyes and my heart will be there for all time. 17 And as for you, if you will walk before me as David your father walked, doing according to all that I have commanded you and keeping my statutes and my rules, 18 then I will establish your royal throne, as I covenanted with David your father, saying, 'You shall not lack a man to rule Israel.' 19 "But if you turn aside and forsake my statutes and my commandments that I have set before you, and go and serve other gods and worship them, 20 then I will pluck you up from my land that I have given you, and this house that I have consecrated for my name, I will cast out of my sight, and I will make it a proverb and a byword among all peoples. (2Ch 7:12-20 ESV)

When you read this, did you stand and salute the American flag? Is this the favorite text at your July 4th service too?

Reading this text in context quickly lets us determine that this has nothing to do whatsoever with America or any other nation besides ancient Israel during the reign of Solomon. Solomon had just built the Temple and he prayed for God’s presence (end of 2 Chron 6). God’s glory filled the place. That night, during a dream, God made a promise to Solomon and his reign. If Solomon, not the next Republican President, keeps the covenant, leading his people to repentance and prayer, then God will guide his reign. If not, then God will “pluck [him] from my land . . . and this house [= the Temple].”

That’s it. It’s a promise to Solomon and his reign concerning the ancient nation of Israel. I know that this is controversial to some people, but for Biblical authors, this is quite simple: there is only one nation that formed a covenant with God. And it’s not America. It’s not any other nation on the planet. Jesus wasn't an American. America is not promised anything whatsoever concerning Israel’s promises because why? America has no covenant with God. This was a powerful promise for Solomon. And sure, Christians can expect that God will hear our prayers when we pray. But, that's it. There is no promise for any other nation intended or implied in this text. Context, context, context.

“I Can Do All Things”
13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (Phi 4:13 ESV)

This might be the most popular verse used out of context. People cite this all the time as a proof-text to support whatever it is they want to succeed. This might be one that irritates me the most because it’s so commonly quoted utterly excised from context.

Interestingly, I just read an outstanding essay on the blog of Dr. Ben Witherington, III. Of course, he says it well. No need to re-write anything. So, here’s a segment from it:
“We’ve all seen the T shirts, and the T-bow eye black touting Phil. 4.13. And the translation always is ‘I can do all things in Him who strengthens me’. Leap tall buildings in a single bound, overcome all odds, go boldly where no one has gone before. You get the picture.

The problem is, that this translation absolutely makes no sense of the context, and is not a literal rendering of the verse in question at all. The verb ‘to do’ is nowhere to be found in this Greek verse. The verb ‘ischuo’ means ‘to be able, strong, healthy, valid, powerful’. That’s the only verb in this phrase. You have to fill in the helping verb, and the context absolutely doesn’t favor the translation— ‘to do’ as in ‘I am able to do all things….’ Not at all. Here is a rendering of the verse in context.

“I know a humbled state, and I know also surplus. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of how to be satisfied, even if hungry and being able also to do without. I am able/strong enough [to endure] all things in Him who empowers me.”

What Paul is saying is that no matter what his circumstances, God has given him the strength or ability to endure and be satisfied, even when he must do without, even when he must go hungry.

This verse has nothing to do with ‘I can accomplish anything with a little help from the Lord’. It is a verse about perseverance in God’s will and way, not about personal success or triumph or even overcoming odds to win an individual victory of some kind. And most emphatically it is not about God helping us achieve our desires and goals. It is about Paul submitting to God’s goals and plan, and God giving him the strength to do so, even when he must endure house arrest (as he did when he wrote this), and hunger, and deprivation.

The ‘superman’ rendering of this verse is all too typically American. It is based on an assumption that we can accomplish anything we set our minds to, perhaps with a little help from above and a little luck.”

Not only is this verse typically mistranslated and ripped out of context, the common misreading of the text completely ignores reality. We fail at things all the time. Again I’ll say, Christians can fail. I love how Dr. William Lane Craig says it: Moreover, Christians can be incredibly discouraged, sad, and depressed. Have you read what Paul  says in 2 Cor. 4:8-9 and 2 Cor. 11:23-28? Dr. Richard Bauckham writes a good essay on this issue:

Let’s stop acting like God “blesses” everything so that everything we attempt will succeed. That’s bad theology and has no place on the lips of Christians.

“To Give You Life to the Full”
10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. (Joh 10:10 ESV)

There is no conceivable way that one could interpret this to mean that Jesus wants us all to be rich. Why? Because in the context of John and the other Gospels, Jesus never said, and would never had said, that the Kingdom of God is about being rich. I once heard Joel say on T.V. that “God wants everyone to own their own house.” [long pause of incredulity]

I don’t desire to unpack the richness of the term “life” in the Fourth Gospel. But, if you’ll look up every time it occurs, you’ll see that Jesus is using “life” to mean something like, “the quality of life governed by the reign/love of God.” In John, the opposite of “eternal life” is not death, but sin. Sin vs. eternal life. So here, Jesus is speaking of the quality of life governed by the Father. Quality, not quantity. Not wealth and prosperity.

Context, context, context.

Translation Issues that Scholars Know but Can’t Get Into the Public Mind

“As a Man Thinketh”
For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he: Eat and drink, saith he to thee; but his heart is not with thee. (Pro 23:7 KJV)

This one seems really popular among Pentecostals for some reason. I even found an essay written in 1902 by James Allen called, As a Man Thinketh.

This text is always used in vagueness: “You know,  . . . as the Bible says . . . ‘As a man thinketh’ . . .” I have never once heard this used in context or in proper translation.

This is purely a translation issue. And because of the beloved King James translation, we have a common misreading. Unfortunately, this text has nothing to do whatsoever with psychology. It has nothing to do with giving an insight into the power of cognitive behavioral therapy or the power of positive Joel Osteenian thinking. Nothing.

The truth is, this Hebrew text is a bit confusing. It means something “calculating in your mind.” The NET and ESV bring this out. For example:

“Do not eat the bread of a man who is stingy; do not desire his delicacies, 7 for he is like one who is inwardly calculating. "Eat and drink!" he says to you, but his heart is not with you. 8 You will vomit up the morsels that you have eaten, and waste your pleasant words.” (Pro 23:6-8 ESV)

This text, in proper translation and context, has nothing to do with unveiling a deep psychological truth. Instead, it’s about the simple idea that a stingy person can’t be trusted. He’s scheming on the inside.

“I’ve Got a Mansion in Glory”
In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. (John 14:2 KJV)

If you've grown up in church, then surely you've sung hymns that have this in the lyrics (like “Victory in Jesus”). I've heard numerous songs, sermons, and conversations about how we are all awaiting a “mansion in glory.” Unfortunately, this is mistaken reading.

Again, because of the beloved King James translation, this one has stuck in our minds. In Greek, it’s quite clear: it’s not “mansion” but “room, dwelling place, or abode.” Also see how John 14:23 is not talking about the Father making a “mansion” with the disciples. No; a “dwelling place.” It’s the same Greek word in both passages.

“There Was No Room in the Inn”
7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. (Luk 2:7 ESV)

The trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem was about a week or two, depending on the traveling conditions. We have every reason to believe that Mary was not in a hurry or in the final stages of the third trimester. Instead, “while she was there, the days of her pregnancy were filled” (2:6). There’s no rush, no hurry, no panic. The dramatic Hollywood scenes are all fiction.

Instead, Mary would have stayed with Joseph’s family (don’t forget that’s the reason they came to Bethlehem in the first place). And because of the census, there would have been several other family members at the same house (notice how 2:18 assumes this: “all who heard it”).

The bottom line: they ran out of rooms. This is the precise meaning of the Greek word in 2:7: “because there was no place for them in the place/lodging/room.” For some reason, probably because of the overarching influence of the King James Version, this verse is continually translated as “there was no place for them in the inn.” But, “inn” is certainly not a proper translation. If Luke wanted to speak of a hotel or inn, he would have used the Greek word for that (as he does in 10:34). Instead, Luke just means that the rooms where people slept were full. We know that houses in this time and place were what we would call, “tiny.”

But where was Jesus born? Since Jesus was placed in a feeding trough for animals (though no animals are mentioned in any narrative), it is assumed that Jesus was born in a place where an animal ate. We have two probable options: (1) Many homes in this period and place were two stories. People slept upstairs (or on the roof), and the animals slept below them. Mary could have given birth in this bottom level of the house, or in something like a small courtyard. (2) Joseph’s family could have owned a small cave that acted like a stable. It seems to me that option #1 is the most likely. So much for entire pageants, skits, and songs denigrating an inn and inn keeper that never existed!

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Greatest Charade on Earth

I’ve been reading an outstanding book by Dr. Henry Cloud recently, Changes That Heal. In one of the final sections, Dr. Cloud discusses how healthy adults must be able to view other people as both good and bad, and view ourselves as both good and bad. We cannot live in denial of how the world is infused with both good and evil, including inside us.

Dr. Cloud spends several pages discussing how all humans perceive of themselves in two distinct “selves”: the Ideal Self and the Real Self. I hope you read this carefully:

"The ideal self is the one we can imagine and want to be. If you look at your particular abilities, you can imagine what their perfection would be like. . . . Deep down inside, we all realize the difference between our ideal self, the imagined perfection, and our real self, the one that truly is. If these two battle each other, we will be in constant conflict. What we wish were true and what really is true will war with one another. . . .We need to look at the relationship between the ideal self and the real self. If they are in conflict, there is going to be a perpetual war inside for center stage. Whenever the real self becomes apparent, the ideal self will judge it, and try to make it hide. And when we are hiding, we are not in relationship with God and others. If we demand perfection from ourselves, we are not living in the real world. The real self is not perfect—a reality we all must come to grips with."

Cloud, Henry (2009-05-26). Changes That Heal: The Four Shifts That Make Everything Better...And That Everyone Can Do (pp. 219-220, 222). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

Unhealthy people repress the Real Self. They think being broken, having flaws, is bad or evil or weak or sinful. Perfectionists are people who have repressed their Real Selves. There are numerous reasons why a person would reject the Real Self. Read the book to discover possible reasons. It is extremely worth your time.

While I had several “Praise Jesus!” moments concerning my own life as I read the book, it was one thought that struck me most. What I'm about to say concerning the Church isn't in the book, but Dr. Cloud's vocabulary is perfect for what I’ve seen in the Church for all my life.

In my experience, the average person attending a Church in America thinks one chief thing about Church (and would not be able to articulate what I’m about to say):

Church is the place to go to impress people by pretending to be my Ideal Self.

This is why we dress up. Years ago some person gave some unmerited, false argument that we dress up “in order to give God our best.” Ridiculous nonsense. Have we never read the Bible? Do we really think God cares about our clothes? Nope. We do it because that’s what our “Ideal Self” would do. Our Ideal Self dresses up.

This is why we act phony in false handshakes and smiles: not because it’s “Christian,” but because that’s what our Ideal Self would do. Our Ideal Self would never dress relaxed, or be sad, be upset, be angry, or say something inappropriate.

It’s like almost everyone at Church acts like they’re on a first date. That’s how we behave when we’re courting someone. We put forth our Ideal Selves. We dress up, smell good, act polite, laugh, and almost bend over backwards to accommodate the other person. It’s our Ideal Selves.

And I’m convinced that nearly everyone in the Church thinks that Church is the place to go to impress people by pretending to be my Ideal Self.

This is why Jesus said that certain religious experts are like "white washed tombs." It's like they're an actor, wearing a mask, or from the Greek, that person is called a hypocrite. "Woe to you, experts in the law and you Pharisees, hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs that look beautiful on the outside but inside are full of the bones of the dead and of everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you look righteous to people, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness."(Mat 23:27-28 NET) I've never felt so much like a "expert in the law or Pharisee" in my life until now. How stupid we must look to God, all dressed up, pretending to be something we're not.

Not only those inside the Church think this, but those outside the Church too. In every poll I've seen, the top two perceptions given by nonbelievers of the Church is that Christians are (1) judgmental hypocrites and (2) not open to someone "like me" because I’m not good enough. It’s the latter one that strikes me now. Even nonbelievers think that Church is where your Ideal Self goes to be around other “perfect” people.

And this is extremely unfortunate. It’s a lie from hell. It’s false. If there should be one place on the planet that is not ever driven by the need to pretend to be the Ideal Self, it’s the Church. The Church is the place for us to be what we really are: Real Selves. Broken, flawed, sinful, grace-needing, Selves.

We need to accept what we are. We need to come before God as what we really are. We need to come to our sisters and brothers as what we really are.

We are all part of a huge charade, pretending to be a huge group of Ideal people. And pretending it is. There are no Ideal people. Ideal people don’t exist. My Ideal Self doesn't exist, no matter how much I want to be seen by others as having it all together. It’s false.

I’m convinced this is why so many people fade away from Church. They know that they’re pretending and feel guilty, and don't ever bond with others. They live however they want from Sunday afternoon until Saturday night. Sunday just feels so fake. So, they don't open up about their week. They think, "if people only knew what I really struggle with." This makes them feel terribly guilty. And worse still, they feel like everyone else is so much better than they are. Why? Because they don’t hear anyone else talking about their struggles. They don’t hear how others have sinned during the week, how they doubted during the week, or how they were so discouraged during the week. Whatever it is, the Church-leaver just couldn't relate to all these “perfect” people each Sunday morning. They tried for a while to implement the preacher’s sermons, got a little close to some people, but in the end, it wasn't good enough. They never bonded with others because we can’t bond with Ideal people. We just can’t relate. 

And that's it: (1) guilt because of the huge disparity between the Real week and the pretend Ideal Sunday morning and because (2) they never bonded with others because they thought other people weren't pretending to be perfect, but really were! So, they couldn't relate, which means they never bonded.

Do we spill our guts to everyone? No. Of course we need wisdom in being Real. Of course. I’m fully—fully—aware that not everyone can be trusted. Being Real takes wisdom and risk. But whatever it takes, the risk is worth it when it's done wisely.

What do I do now? It’s time to stand up and admit that we’re not Ideal. It’s time to stop pretending—in fact, even thinking—that our Ideal Selves even exist. They don’t. It's a fairy tale. A fiction.

Jesus didn't come, preach, live, behave, die, and resurrect for your Ideal Self. He did all that for our Real Selves. God is perfectly aware that we needed saving. He did that for us. And that’s what forgiveness and grace is.

If you've been pretending to be good enough, either before or after you've become a disciple of Jesus, then now’s your time to admit the obvious: you’re not the Ideal Self you’d like to be. And if you’re painfully aware of this fact, and live a life of anxiety, guilt, and/or depression because you can’t forgive yourself of not being Ideal, then it’s time to let it go. Accept the fact that you—the Real you—has been forgiven because of what Jesus has done on your behalf. 

This is gospel. And this is Real.

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