Bible-Based

This post is supposed to be about the Bible, and it will get there by talking about what the Bible says about homosexuality.  I find that when we talk about controversial subjects, it seems to be less about the subject itself and more about how we view and understand the Bible.  First, I need to be honest about where I am coming from. I was raised in conservative Christian culture, and still find myself in those circles often. I am heterosexual, and so I acknowledge that I am trying to talk about something outside the realm of my experience.  My goal is to be honoring and kind to all people regardless of background. This is not a comprehensive study of what the Bible says about homosexuality, nor do I think I can speak authoritatively on that. Rather, my aim to explore how we understand the Bible as evidenced by the way we speak about homosexuality.

One of the phrases I have seen come up when a Christian organization is talking about homosexuality (or evolution for that matter) is ‘Bible-based’.  I suggest that this phrase is being used as elitist language to imply that anything other than a plain reading is being unfaithful to the text. I believe that this is both a way of misunderstanding what truth is and of weaponizing the text to protect one’s own security.  It is a way of shutting down the possibility of further conversation because, ‘well, the text says what it says’, and that any other way of looking at things is using ‘extra-biblical’ sources, the most insidious of which being the mores of culture.

A literal reading of the Bible has been linked with believing the truth and authority of the Bible.  These things are not the same thing and can be separated out. We are all selective literalists when it comes to reading the Bible.  The Psalms, for example, speak of finding shelter in God’s wings.  Does this mean that God literally has wings, or do we take this as a metaphor for God’s love and protection?  What about Psalm 137:9? Are we to believe that this blessing still pertains to us? We all make choices about what to interpret literally.  And we all make choices about which commands or guidelines are still in place for all people and which are contextual to a certain time and place.  When we are honest and clear about the the processes and guidelines we use to determine what to take literally and what to consider as metaphor, what to follow and how literally to follow it, we show more integrity and consistency in our scholarship.

I am frustrated because I know the care that I put into research, study, and thought about homosexuality, as well as the Bible in general, and I feel as though, when we use phrases like ‘Bible-based’, my research and care are considered less than a plain, literal reading.  The assumption is that my views have shifted because I want to match the cultural around me, I’m a sell out. The truth is, it is my study of the Bible itself that leads me away from the literal rendering. So I want to affirm a few things about the Bible:

  • I affirm the Bible’s authority–I affirm the way the narrative of redemption and restoration unfolds, and I believe that pattern is what we, the church, are called to recreate.
  • I affirm the truth, and even some historicity, of the Bible–I acknowledge that it is a text written in a time, place, and culture very different from my own, so it is necessary to look at historical and culture contexts and uses of words in order to understand the Bible’s truth.
  • I affirm that the Bible is subversive –I believe that the Bible tells a story of power, sometimes used rightly, mostly used wrongly.  Which means that as interpreters, we need to examine our own motives. What do I have to gain from my interpretation? From being affirming?  What do I have to gain from not? Is my own desire for security oo power the motivation behind my chosen interpretation?
  • I affirm that the Bible is inspired–I believe that the Bible shows me who Jesus is, and that, by seeing God, I am inspired to live in the pattern of recreation.
  • I affirm the Bible is living and active–I believe that the Bible can be new each time I read it.  In its pages I find deeply human people who help me see myself in new ways.

In any exchange of words, there’s a context that doesn’t get recorded.  Spoken or written, there is much in conversation that goes unsaid. Without intuiting these unsaid parts, we can miss the context of what’s happening.  Sarcasm is an example. Using sarcasm, one means something that is often the exact opposite of what one is saying. While sarcasm can be picked up by tone of voice and even by context, when the words are in writing, there are fewer context clues one can use to determine the correct reading.  This is how language works–there is more to communication that just the words themselves.

Adding in a cultural layer to the case of homosexuality and the Bible, we are reading our Western understanding of (more or less, at least ideally) equal rights and consensual sex onto the text while ignoring the power dynamics involved in a sexual encounter because we have the privilege to do so, being on more or less equal footing with the people we want to have sex with, or–probably the case with some straight, white, male interpreters–we’re used to getting what we want because of our power that goes largely unexamined.  Without understanding common sexual practice in ancient Jewish, Greek, and Roman cultures, we will miss some of what the text is saying. Which is just what it is. Without perfectly knowing the context, we cannot perfectly interpret, so we need to develop the humility when reading and interpreting the text to admit that ‘I could be wrong’. Instead of declaring with authority that we are ‘Bible-based’, we need to declare, ‘this is the best of our scholarship, and we could be wrong’. And then continue to study and learn. This is a position that I can respect.  It is one that invites me into dialogue. If we took this approach, we could learn from each other and hopefully have more compassion for the people that we are talking about. What if we invited them to weigh in? What would we learn about love and community?

What if the text is versatile?  I have a good friend who stays with a more literal reading because it provides reassurance and comfort.  She is experiencing some of the most difficult moments of her life, and approaching the text from a mostly literal place comes from her story and her integrity to her story.  She is courageous enough to own that story. She is intelligent, not intellectually lazy, and because I know her story, I have the utmost respect for the way she sees the text.  She is also compassionate, willing to hear my perspective even when it’s different or even opposite, affirming that even when she doesn’t agree, where I am coming from makes sense.  The Bible speaks to her and it speaks to me. Not in the same way, and maybe that’s ok. The text invites us into conversation.  

When we have the courage to engage in that conversation, we learn more about others and ourselves and the text.  We see how the text is both contextual and transcendent. Our understanding and our empathy expand even if we don’t ultimately change the conclusions we started with.  

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‘Why aren’t we just reading the Bible?’

The first part of my junior Bible class focuses on knowing self and knowing God. I believe that experience is a vital part of the life of faith, so in this part of the course we spend time with different personality theories and spiritual practices, reflecting on what comes naturally and what doesn’t, what is comfortable and what helps us grow. The goal is to give students familiarity with a wide spectrum of spiritual practices so that they have tools to sustain their spiritual life if that is what they choose. This is a departure from their previous two Bible classes, Old and New Testament Survey, which focus much more heavily in the Biblical text. Usually within the first couple months someone will ask me “Why aren’t we just reading the Bible?”

I tried something new at the beginning of this year. A friend has been challenging me to rethink the purpose and function of syllabi. While I was dissatisfied with the syllabi I had created 5 years ago, redoing them was very low on my list of priorities. Until it wasn’t. So with my New Testament class (the first time I’d taught the sophomores, so this was a first impression), our syllabi included a freewrite followed by dialogue about the idea that Scripture is ‘living and active’ (Hebrews 4:12). My philosophy in my Bible classes is not about telling my kids what the Bible says, rather it is to provide them with skills and tools to be able to read and understand and interpret it for themselves over the course of their life. This freewrite was meant to emphasize that we all have thoughts, opinions, and assumptions when approaching the Bible. Not only do we all have a voice to communicate our understanding, we also need to have the humility and compassion to listen to and learn from each other.

Many of my students talked about how, when reading the Bible, there’s always something new to discover—the same verse will speak to you in new ways in different situations. I have found that this ‘difference’ in what the text speaks depends on what I am bringing to the text. My experiences will bring certain things to the foreground, and send others to the background. In this way, I will see ‘new’ things because of the interaction between the text and my life.

Having read the whole Bible several times in a relatively short time span (5ish years?), after a while, I didn’t find a lot of new. With familiarity, the weird stuff is less weird. I sometimes wonder if the feeling I had of being connected to God through this practice was little more than the feeling of novelty. As I’m coming back to a little of it after a break of almost 2 years (apart from the reading I do in my Bible classes), I am starting to feel new feelings towards the text. And I think it’s the distance.

In the nearly two years that I haven’t read through the whole Bible, I have done a ton of study, learning, reading, and experiencing Bible/theology, philosophy, myself, dinosaurs, and all kinds of stuff. I am getting ‘new stuff’ out of the text because I am bringing new stuff into it. Jared Byas of ‘The Bible for Normal People’ podcast describes this as muscle memory. The rigorous reading of the Bible that had been normal for me was one way of reading the text. And it worked like an echo chamber so that I was only ever seeing the same things. Taking a break from daily reading practice serves to break the muscle memory so that I can see things in a new way. The Bible is again becoming something to grapple with; familiar, yet not predictable.

This means I need to keep taking in info that isn’t just Bible to build more connections with the Bible. When new learning occurs, a neuron in your brain doesn’t just increase in size to hold that learning. Instead the brain changes because connections between neurons increase and become more efficient. In the same way, the material we learn mirrors the neural network; making connections between the biblical text and other things creates a rich network of ideas on which to draw when reading the Bible.

So the reason we aren’t ‘just reading the Bible’ is to keep the Bible alive and active by bringing it into contact with anything and everything else. Giving space and voice to all of these other sources of learning will enliven the conversation that we are having with the Bible. The last part of Hebrews 4:12 says that the word of God ‘judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart’. This is letting the text read us. Bringing new information to the text ultimately reflects back onto us. Why does this information matter to me? Why do I feel what I do as I read? What values does this express, and are they in line with my own? Does what I’ve learned inspire me to think differently? If I’m unwilling to change my mind, why? Experience is an inescapable part of how we all interpret the Bible, and when we acknowledge that, we can develop greater self-awareness to allow the Bible to speak into our lives.

On Meditation

My college roommate was up visiting a few months ago.  We were catching up, and I was telling her about some of the stuff I’ve been doing in my classes.  The first semester of my 11th grade Bible class is focused on knowing self and knowing God. We explore different personality theories and spiritual practices and self-discovery tools and reflect on those experiences in a journal.  At the end of the term we will be going back through our entries to determine what spiritual practices are most comfortable, most challenging, and best for our spiritual growth as an individual. I explained to her that I would introduce a topic, we’d spend a little time learning about it, then I’d give the students a week to try out practices related to that topic, and finally we’d debrief about our experiences at the end of that week.  My roommate, now a marriage and family therapist, said that I was instinctively conducting group therapy. I was proud of this fact. My juniors did not seem as excited as I was to hear that information.

We had been exploring meditation.  I often incorporate meditative practices into our daily prayer time, so much so that I once had a student tell me that I was like an ex-Buddhist turned Christian.  Maybe one of the better compliments I’ve received. This was the first time with this group of students that I had stopped to try and define what meditation is. As part of our exploration we read the chapter on meditation in Foster’s Celebration of Discipline, and I asked my students to try out 3 of the 4 meditation techniques that Foster describes over the next week.  When we came back together after that week for mock-group therapy, I opened up the dialogue about our experiences with meditation.  One of my students shared this story:

 

“I wasn’t at school the day you assigned this, so I didn’t read the chapter, and I don’t know what the 4 types of meditation are.  But I was home sick, and I just felt like it was a good day to meditate. So I went into my room, shut the door, and picked up everything in my room and smelled it.”

At this point I interrupted, “Even the dirty laundry?”

“Even the dirty laundry.  And when I had picked up and smelled everything, I left it where it was and sat in the middle of the floor and meditated.”

This student entered deeply and intimately into knowing relationship with everything around them in order to engage in spiritual practice.  As Parker Palmer says in To Know As We Are Known, “…prayer is our capacity to enter into that vast community of life in which self and other, human and nonhuman, visible and invisible, are intricately intertwined.  While my senses discriminate and my mind dissects, my prayer acknowledges and recreates the unity of life.” (pg. 11) There is an intuitive sense of relationship and oneness in this approach.  My wannabe ex-Buddhist heart is so proud.

Fruit of the Spirit

There are many times in my Bible classes when it is incredibly useful that I’ve memorized lots of Bible verses over the course of my experience in Christian culture. Sometimes it helps me to tie a classroom dialogue back to the Bible. Sometimes it helps me point a student to the specific text they are trying to call to mind.

Recently, there was a moment at work when it was useful for me to list the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). I have quoted this list from memory for most of my life, from the time I was a little girl.

So this time, when I called upon my brain to quote this list from memory, it responded,

“Ah, yes. Word chain. Nine items1. Ahem. *deep breath in* Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars…”

One of my seniors responded by asking if I was okay.

1 There were still nine planets when I first learned to list them from memory.

Souls and Bodies

Among the many points made by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove in his latest book, Reconstructing The Gospel, one, in particular, struck me by its pervasiveness in Christian culture. He posits that the idea of ‘saving souls’ was invented by white slaveholders as a way to not have to face the social implications of the gospel. Instead, the gospel was used to keep slaves docile and grateful because it was better for their body to be enslaved and their soul saved than for them to be a free heathen in Africa.

In the last four years of my Bible teaching career, my school has been trying to build and expand our international program. Most of our exchange students to this point have come from China, with a few from South Korea and Japan. So far, I’ve graduated one student who was with us for three years, will graduate another this year who is in their third year, and have four more students coming up through the sophomore class. All this is to say that, per the requirements of our school, these students, like all the others, will have had a year-long Bible class for every one of their years at our school. And I (or my students or our host families) have yet to make any converts.

I was talking recently with our Exchange Student Coordinator after one student shared in a paper for me about an extremely difficult situation back home that they were trying to navigate and understand last year, while experiencing depression and not feeling like they could be honest about that to the people around them. It was a situation that brought up the big questions of meaning and existence. This student communicated that after going through that time, they were not sure what to believe. I was grateful to be trusted with that piece of their story and proud of their strength in vulnerability.

Since the Exchange Student Coordinator and the student’s agency were both familiar with the situation the student wrote about, I passed the paper on to the Coordinator who then shared it with the agency. The agency is hoping to share that writing with other Christian schools to help them understand the struggle that exchange students face when they are essentially force fed Christianity and sometimes judged for not accepting it.

Any good missiology course will teach you that you cannot effectively communicate the gospel without understanding the context in which your are trying to evangelize. And that context is embodied in all of the people you encounter. You must be a listener and learner first. Our exchange students may be in America, but everything about them still embodies everything they’ve grown up with. When we present a gospel that is supposed to call out someone’s sin problem and point them to salvation in Jesus, and these students don’t have categories for sin, or a personal God, or salvation, or any number of things, we cannot expect them to just understand and believe in Jesus.

And when our gospel communicates that a person’s soul being saved is most important, it gives us license to ignore everything that may be true about that person. We lose sight of what it’s like to be in their skin. Their doubts, their confusion, their story becomes less important than praying a specific prayer to avoid eternal punishment. I am sure that fear of eternal punishment creates a sense of urgency to bring someone to repent and believe the good news. And if our urgency just bulldozes who someone is, that is not good news. When we value someone’s soul over everything else about them, we make them into an object to be molded and controlled however we see fit.

What this student’s writing helps to reveal is that these kids are living in a clash of worldviews, sometimes being told that the truthTM is something other than and completely foreign to what they have grown up hearing and believing for upwards of 15 years. When the version of the gospel they are given is a white gospel that makes no inherent sense in the context of everything they’ve ever known, of course they don’t understand it and they don’t accept it.

That piece of writing is the fruit of a two year relationship. And so far that fruit is simply the openness to questioning what to believe. It takes patience and love to create a space that is open and safe enough for someone’s true thoughts and feelings to come out. If we jump to save souls without knowing the other as a person, we are not creating that safe and open space. Kids are smart, and they know how to give answers that adults want to hear. If a student is feeling unsafe and unseen, and knows that they will be left alone if they start talking about how Jesus saves sins, of course they will take that option as a form of self-preservation. If our students feel the need to protect themselves in our classrooms, we have not shown love and we have not provided for the needs of those students. They will develop an increasing resentment towards the supposed ‘good news’, and the gospel will be shut off from bearing fruit in their lives. In the words of Paul, ‘I planted, Apollos watered, but God made it grow.’ It is not our job to save souls; it’s God’s job to save people. Our job is to be present in relationship to the other, without objectifying them. Our job is to love people whose story is written in their bodies, who exist in a context and a culture, who see the world differently and beautifully.

Four Responses to Power

I have a favorite project that my New Testament class does near the start of the year. After a little bit of setting the stage by looking at the cultural shifts of the Intertestamental Period, I divide the class into 4 groups. These groups are tasked with researching and taking on the identity of one of the four main sects of Judaism during the Second Temple Period.

The first of these sects are the Sadducees, who were generally members of the wealthy upper class and had the most political power. During Roman occupation, the Sadducees aligned with Rome for survival. Likely due to their submission to Rome, the Sadducees were the ministers of the Second Temple, Herod’s Temple. As such, the Sadducees did all of the priestly duties and offered sacrificial animals for purchase in the temple courtyard.

Next are the Pharisees, who we in the Christian tradition typically give a bad rap for their legalism. The thing is, the Pharisees were threatened by the Roman Empire and afraid of losing their identity. Their strict emphasis on following both the written and oral laws was an attempt to preserve who they were within an empire known for gradually absorbing the cultures it conquered.

Third are the Zealots, who generally believed the same things as the Pharisees, and were violently against the Roman occupation. Zealots remembered the days of the Maccabean revolts and looked forward to a Messiah who would lead them in an effective revolution out of Roman rule.

Last are the Essenes, who sought to preserve their identity and purity as the true Israel by living outside the towns in their own compounds. The Essenes followed a similar strictness to the Pharisees, and they believed that their separateness from greater society made them holier than those involved in that society.

Another group, not represented in the class, would be the poor and disabled. Popular wisdom of the day said that those who were in this last category were there because of their own (or their parents’) sin. The Zealots, Essenes, and Pharisees all believed that the advent of the Messiah was contingent upon Israel’s purity. This enforced the strictness with which they lived and led them to look down on the poor and disabled, who they believed to be evidence of Israel’s lack of purity. This last group typically had no power or voice in their society.

(Note to you history nerds: some great resources on the topic of Second Temple Judaism that we use in class are Daniel Erlander’s Manna and Mercy and two titles by Darrell L. Bock: Studying the Historical Jesus and Who is Jesus?)

Upon finishing research, the groups present who they are and what they believe. Next, we dig into Mark, chronologically likely the first gospel written. As we read, each group strives to make sense of Jesus through the lens of their sect. Sometimes they were together in their sect groups, sharing information from different chapters as though they were spying on Jesus. Sometimes they form groups where one of each sect is represented, and they attempt to share their findings in a way that protects their own interests yet also finds out what the other sects are thinking.

As we near the end of Mark, I bring the sects together in a forum. The purpose of the forum is to determine what needs to be done with Jesus. Most years, every sect finds enough reason to see Jesus as a threat, traitor, or both, and then they try to find a way to get him killed. The tricky part here is that only Rome has the authority to kill anyone. The sects find themselves walking a delicate balance between a Roman Empire that is both entirely disinterested in petty, Jewish affairs, and still sensitive to any threat of sedition their occupants (*cough* Zealots *cough*) might be concocting. After taking time in the forum to present one’s views, ask clarifying questions of the other sects, and answer concerns, each sect proposes a course of action and everyone votes for the option they like best.

This fall was the 4th time I have done this project, and it was the first time I had a group fully support Jesus throughout the whole study of Mark’s gospel. The Essenes saw how Jesus was caring for the poor and disabled, recognized that all of the sects, themselves included, had failed to do this, and decided that this was generally good for society, and it got them off the hook. (This second reason was probably the big sell.) They held their ground in the forum and were eventually outvoted by their peers who decided that the Essenes should be offered as slaves to appease the Romans in exchange for executing Jesus. While I was surprised at the Essenes tenacity of loyalty to Jesus, I was also surprised by something I’ve seen every year, and in the biblical narrative itself.

The Pharisees and Sadducees always determine that they should be working together, despite their differences, to achieve a common goal. Having a sympathy for the Pharisees because of their desire to maintain their identity, I was struck by why they should ally with the Sadducees in the first place. The Pharisees viewed the Sadducees as sellouts who had voided and betrayed their Jewish identity for a position of economic and political power. The Sadducees should have been the greatest threat to the Jewish way of life, even more than Rome. Rome could give them a hero’s death, but the Sadducees, even if they claimed to be Jews, had bastardized what it meant to be God’s chosen people.

And yet, isn’t this the same pattern we see in our own American political system? When we feel threatened, when our very identity and way of life feel at stake, we align with the powerful. The church has often allied with those in power. This may require us to give up pieces of the identity that we are trying to protect, and yet we think that survival demands protection from those in power.

The example of Jesus stands in stark contrast. Jesus spent his time with the powerless, changing their lives, liberating them from an oppressive religious system, providing hope. He gave up power, submitted to being slandered, beaten, and executed. In one account, Jesus stays silent, not even offering a single word in his own defense. This example runs the risk of death, of annihilation, of losing one’s identity with one’s life. And it is the promise of resurrection that keeps this story compelling.

So we have to ask ourselves: Is our alignment with power about what we truly believe is right, or is it about self-preservation? Does this alignment cause us to jeopardize our own integrity? Do we care about what happens to those without power? And do we believe that the death of the ego, the identity, the ideals that carried us this far are also given the promise of the resurrection? Can we trust Jesus with even that?

Exit Letter

I have been a vocational Bible (and band!) teacher for 7 years.  I have felt the pressure, assumptions, and expectations of being good enough and polished and Christian.

But I wonder if maybe it’s a holy moment when one of my now seniors, who was once one of my adorable six grade saxophonists when we first got to know each other, who, despite hating sand and letting me whine about also hating sand, despite having a fear of tsunamis so deep that he had to work up the courage to walk down the stairs to the beach, did just that for community building with all of his 7-12th grade classmates; who, with courage and authenticity admits to me, the Bible Teacher™ that, “yeah, if there’s a tsunami, we’re all fucked anyway.”

I have come to a place where I can’t live up to the ‘good Christian’ expectation anymore.  When I can’t be myself, when I can’t speak honestly about who I am, where I’m at, what I feel, curse words and all, I am not being honest before God.  When I can’t preface a sentence with “If God exists, then”, I am not being myself with God. And if I can’t be authentic with God even in these (quite frequent) moments, how can I claim to have a relationship with God?  My fakeness, even if it looks Christianly acceptable, does not bring me closer to God. It does not make me ‘pure’ before God. This is the ‘righteousness’ that is like filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6).

I feel the pressure, sometimes spoken or implied and sometimes probably my own fears and assumptions, as the Bible Teacher to have it all together, to be the paragon of morality, to know all the answers, to be righteous.  And I know, I have known, that I can’t live up to it. I have tried to still be myself, to be as real as I can without worrying administration, parents, my students themselves with my doubts, questions, and curse words because I do believe they want what’s best for the kids (certainly, I do too).  While I may disagree about what’s best, I try to respect where others are at too since that’s what I hope for myself. And there are limits on my authenticity because of fear. I need the paycheck and don’t want to jeopardize my livelihood by not fitting in.

And the reality is, I don’t think I can fit in anymore.  I want to be real. And I want to honor this community that has been a huge part of discipling me into adulthood.  All relationships, all communities are messy. Not everything I have felt has felt like a gift, and I want to assume a posture of gratitude for this community in which I can no longer find myself.  Thank you for loving me, being patient with me, teaching me, making me laugh, making me grow, and helping me to see through eyes not my own.

To all of my students:  I love you all and I am so grateful for all you’ve taught me, for your realness with me, and your encouragement.  I hope I have shown you how big God is and how roomy faith can be.

While I no longer find my place here, I know that others do and that is real.  You are a vital part of my story and many of the reasons I am where I am at today.  I hope that as I form the narrative of my life, I can figure out the balance between telling my story with truth and boldness, and honoring the community that took me in at 24.