How to Read the Bible, Part 2: A Mirror of Healing

boat-499585_960_720Last week, we began a conversation about the Bible and how we might read it today: a conversation about what in the world this particular book of ancient stories means for us today.

This is a very important question for us, as it is for any community that is going to continue to use this very ancient and very mixed collection of texts. How do we read and understand the writings we find in the Bible, and what role do they play in our lives today? This is important  because what we believe about this book—about who wrote it, what’s in it, what got left out of it, and how we are called use it today—what we believe about all these things has an enormous effect on our relationship with God, our relationships with our fellow human beings, and our relationship with the rest of creation.

I want to be very, very clear that this really is an open question. In the United Church of Christ, and in this congregation, there is nothing you have to believe about the Bible, or about anything else. I’m not sure I can say this often enough. In the United Church of Christ, there are no tests of faith. There is nothing you have to believe about this book or about anything else in order to be welcomed here. 

And yet, we do continue to privilege this book by reading from it in worship. If we are going to continue to read this book on Sunday mornings, and if we are going to continue to read it to our children in Sunday school, then I believe we have a moral obligation to make sure that the way we use the Bible is life-giving, both for ourselves and for the world. Because, God knows, the ways in which the church has historically used this book have brought far too much suffering, death, and destruction to other peoples, and to creation itself.

I want to talk a bit about that suffering and destruction this morning. Because I believe that unless we grapple honestly with the destructive ideas we’ve inherited about the Bible, we are likely to continue to hold those ideas, even if we hold them unconsciously. And then…I’d also like to offer you another possible way to read the Bible — a lens through which to read this book in a more healing, and life-giving way.

One of the most troubling ideas about the Bible—an idea I hear in churches all the time—is this formula:  “The God of the Old Testament is a God of wrath, while the God of the New Testament is a God of love.” Maybe you’ve heard this, too.

As we discussed last week, this is a very slippery slope. It is a slippery slope to dismiss any other people’s sacred scripture as inferior to our own. A slippery slope down which the church has too often slid, believing our scripture, and thereby ourselves, to be superior, and thereby justifying the atrocities we commit in the name of God. 

But we know that Jesus himself was spiritually formed by the sacred texts of the Hebrew Bible. We also know that Jesus’ own words, as portrayed in the Christian gospels, often echo the exact words of the Hebrew psalms, the passion of the Hebrew prophets, and the extravagant love of the Hebrew God. I don’t believe it’s possible to understand Jesus, let alone follow him, while dismissing the sacred texts that were so important to Jesus and his people.

And I hope that even a quick sample, such as the one we read this morning from the prophet Hosea, will be enough to convince you that the God of love is alive and well in the Hebrew Bible. This is a God of extravagant forgiveness; a God who lifts God’s people to God’s own cheek, even when that people has gone badly astray. I hope that even our brief comparison this morning will illustrate the difference between this loving God who speaks through the Hebrew prophet Hosea and, on the other hand, the God whom Jesus describes in the gospel of Matthew—a God who, in wrath, casts into the outer darkness all those who refuse God’s invitation. I hope that this small sample will encourage you to take another look at the texts of both scriptures, and to dip into the Hebrew Bible. Especially if you haven’t read these texts in a while, or ever.

I think what you’ll find is that the God of love is all over the Hebrew Bible. And that the God of wrath shows up in the New Testament more often than we like to admit.

Which leads us back to our original question. What are we to make of the difficult and complex collection of writings that make up this book? A book in which God is portrayed, in both the Christian and Jewish holy texts, as a vengeful deity who is coming to judge the world, and also as a tender parent who longs only to guide people away from their hateful and destructive ways?

This morning, I want to offer you a way of reading this book that I believe can be particularly helpful and healing. What I’m about to offer you is not the only way to read the Bible, of course. But it’s a way of understanding the Bible that allows us to use all of it—including the wrathful, vengeful parts—as a tool for healing, and learning, and spiritual growth.

In order to use the Bible in this way, it can be very helpful to think of this book as a mirror. A mirror that works in two ways. First, it reflects the state of consciousness of the people who wrote each part of the Bible. And second, it simultaneously reflects back to us the state of our own individual and collective consciousness—if we are willing to gaze honestly at what we see. 

I’m sure you’ve heard me mention that there are different states of human consciousness. And that the human brain has several parts, each of which developed at different stages of human evolution.

And although we like to think of ourselves as highly evolved, the most evolutionarily ancient part of our brain is still around. This is the part of us that neuroscientists call the “reptilian brain;” a part of the brain whose job is to keep watch for anything that seems to threaten our own survival. Ancient and primal, this part of the brain creates in us the spiritual condition known as the egoic mind. This is the mind of fear, the mind our earliest ancestors relied on to survive, and the mind that we, too, slip right back into as our default state of consciousness. Without our intentional effort and attention, we modern humansjust like our ancestorssee our world through the lens of the often paranoid and always suspicious egoic mind. When our egoic mind is in control, we, too, create a world that is divided into “us” and “them”— and we imagine that God is the one who enforces these lines of division. You don’t believe the way we do? You don’t worship the way we do? Better watch out, says the egoic mind. Because the God of wrath is going to cast you into the outer darkness. And so it is that in our minds and in our sacred texts, we humans create God in our own image!

This is a very natural human tendency, and we see it all over the Bible. And every time we see it in the Bible, we have a very important choice to make. We can let that text of fear and wrath reinforce our own fear, and our own egoic mind—in which case the Bible simply sucks us right back into the primal ooze of hatred. Or, we use that text of hatred and fear as a mirror. A mirror that lets us see the mind of fear at worknot only in the ancestors who wrote that text and imagined a God of wrath, but also in ourselves. Oh, right, we can say as we read about the outer darkness in the Gospel of Matthew. I have felt that way about my enemies, too!  If we are honest, we can admit to ourselves that we, too, have been afraid of those who are different. And in that moment of recognitionrecognizing the fearful egoic mind at work in the Bible and in us—we can wake up. We can make a choice to grow out of that mind of hatred and wrath, and into the mind of God’s extravagant love. This is a choice we can make every time we encounter the mind of fear and wrath at work anywhere in the Bible.

This moment, this opportunity for reflection and growth, is the reason I don’t advocate throwing out the whole Bible out. People ask me all the time if it wouldn’t just be better to get rid of the Bible in order to rid ourselves of the hateful texts that continue to do so much harm. The trouble with this solution is that if we throw it out, if we simply dismiss these disturbing writings as the work of a less-evolved, ancestral mind, then we miss this opportunity to see that same fearful mind at work in ourselves. And, as any psychologist will tell you, when we fail to recognize the evil in ourselves; when we fail to own in ourselves the shadow emotions of hatred and fear, then, friends, we inevitably project these characteristics onto someone else. And once we have projected our own shadow onto others, we feel entitled to attack and harm those others, very often in the name of God. 

Friends, the story of the Bible is the story of our people’s struggle to describe their experience of the God whose essence is unconditional, infinite love. A love so expansive and so inclusive that our human minds can barely comprehend it: it fries all the circuits!  And so, when our human mind gets a flash of this miraculous, mind-boggling love, we rush to record it—right here, in some of the most beautiful, healing words the world has ever known. And then…we forget! We fall right back into our default state of consciousness: into our human fear, into our human hatred, into our human love of vengeance. And we write those words down, too—right here, in the very same bookcreating a vision of God that matches our broken, vengeful state of mind. 

You can try this out for yourself and see what happens. I invite you this week to open your Bible and see what you find reflected there. Is it the egoic mind of separation and fear, or is it the unitive, expansive mind of inclusion, forgiveness, and extravagant love? I bet you’ll find both! Because both minds were in the ancestors who wrote this book, just as both minds are in us. I bet you’ll even find both minds in the portraits of Jesus that were recorded in the gospels. And maybe, after all, this is what it means to be both fully human and fully divine. Both the expansive love of God and the fearful mind of humans…in one body. Both were in our ancestors. Both are in us. Both are in this book. 

What a beautiful thing this is. What an honest reckoning it offers. What a generous healing we might yet choose if we look in this mirror to see ourselves, and then make a new choice.

May we have the courage to see ourselves clearly, and to choose well. Amen. 

How to Read the Bible, Part 1: Not One Letter



a reflection on Matthew 5:13-19

One of the great privileges of my work is that I get to talk every week with folks who are honestly grappling with their doubts and concerns about coming to church — any church! People who are longing for a spiritual community, and for a relationship with God, but who are very concerned, and rightly so, about the messages the church offers about who God is, about what a person has to believe in order to belong, and especially about the Bible. Every week, I talk with people who are worried about the ways in which the Bible is used to harm and exclude; people who are troubled by the messages they find in this book. Every week, I hear from folks who wonder whether this ancient and complicated collection of writings is something we should even be reading anymore. Folks who are wondering whether it is even possible for progressive, inclusive Christians to read the Bible in a way that brings life, and healing, to the world. I love these conversations!

What I tell people is also what I want to tell you this morning. That in order to read this complicated book in responsible, healing ways, it is essential that we take an honest look at the the ways the Bible has historically been used, and continues to be used, to inflict great harm, particularly to the most vulnerable among us: indigenous peoples, women, LGBT folk, religious minorities, other species, and the earth itself. Now, I realize that this is not an easy, feel-good topic to approach on a Sunday morning. But if we believe that there is still something of value in this book, and if we long to share that value with the world, and if we want to share our sacred texts with those who have been harmed by the church and by the Bible, then we have a responsibility to name and to renounce — to publicly renounce — the harm that the church has done with this book. And to do this, friends, we must be willing to look honestly at that harm, and begin to heal it. 

So that’s where I’d like to begin today. And to do that, I brought a friend with me. Anybody know what this is? A puffer fish! Anyone know what the puffer fish is called in Japan? Fugu! Fugu is a delicacy in Japanese cuisine, but you have to be a little brave to eat it. This is because the organs of the puffer fish contain a powerful neurotoxin that paralyzes and kills anyone who eats it. Remember this if you’re going out for sushi tonight! If you want to eat fugu, it must be prepared very, very carefully. A skilled sushi chef knows how to remove the toxic parts of the fish without letting the toxin contaminate the edible flesh. Fugu, prepared carefully, is a delicious, nourishing morsel. Consumed carelessly, it will kill you.

When I was in seminary, I had a professor, Mary Ann Tolbert, who is a well known New Testament scholar. On the first day of class each semester, Professor Tolbert liked to stand up at the front of the lecture hall and make this stunning announcement. She said, “The Bible is fugu.”

The Bible is Fugu. In the Bible, there are beautiful, delicious morsels of truth that can nourish body and soul. Also in this book, there is deadly poison. The Bible can kill.

So here’s my answer to everyone who asks me how in the world we should read the Bible today. Very carefully, I tell them. In other words, we must take a lesson from the sushi chefs and learn how to deal with the poison before we feed the Bible to ourselves, to our children, and to the world. And one of the very best ways to deal with the poisonous and deadly parts of the Bible is to understand the historical context in which they were written. 

For instance, when we read any gospel story, it’s very important to remember that the gospels were written a generation and more after Jesus’ death, and that they were written for early Jesus followers who had grown confused and angry. They were confused because Jesus, whom they believed to be the Messiah, had failed to return after his death to save them from Roman oppression as promised. They were angry because their fellow Jews were not flocking to join their new religious movement, but were instead choosing to stay in the synagogue and wait there for the Messiah they believed had yet to arrive.

In fact, by the time the gospel  texts were written, the followers of Jesus, who made up what we might call the early church, were in the midst of a very painful divorce from the synagogue community. I’m pretty sure that every one of us has witnessed this kind of divorce. Some of us surely have even experienced this kind of divorce firsthand.  We know that in the midst of divorce, as a couple slogs through thickets of grief and disappointment, one partner or another is likely to say things about the other that are gravely distorted, that are obviously untrue, and that should never be repeated to anyone, much less captured in writing. Imagine what would happen if, during a painful divorce, our most bitter, hateful words were not only written down as gospel truth (so to speak), but also passed on to our children, and to their children, on down through the generations. Can you imagine the hateful words that would forever poison the hearts of those generations toward their ancestors?  

This, sadly, is what happened during those first difficult centuries of the church’s life. By the time the gospels were written down, a generation and more after Jesus’ death, the community of Jesus followers was baffled by the fact that the risen Christ had not yet returned, and bitterly disappointed that their fellow Jews were remaining in the synagogue. 

And so ensued a terrible, bitter divorce. If ever there was a poison pen, it was the pen that wrote the gospel accounts of the Jewish people. And deeply embedded in these accounts is the idea known in Christian circles as supercession: the idea that when Jesus arrived, God made a new covenant with Jesus’ followers, which supercedes, or renders obsolete, the original covenant God made with the Jewish people. By way of supercession (also called replacement theology) Christians come to believe they are the only legitimate heirs to God’s original blessing and promise. Christians are now the people of God, and Jews are cast out of God’s favor. This idea appears not only in the Christian gospels themselves but also in the second-century writings of Tertullian, who is one of the earliest and most influential Christian theologians. Tertullian promotes this idea of replacement or supercession in a volume he wrote, the Latin title of whichis Adversus Iudaeos. This translates into English as Against the Jews. Against the Jews is a foundational second-century work by one of the church’s founding fathers.

Now, we don’t read Turtullian very often in church, but his ideas have deeply influenced traditional Christian theology. And if we look carefully at our gospel stories, we will see that this idea of supercession and the poison of anti-Jewish rhetoric are also deeply embedded in the texts we continue to read today.

I trust that you don’t need me to spell out in detail the harm that this rhetoric has inflicted over the centuries. I think it will suffice to say that in the wake of the European Holocaust, the church itself  finally began to grapple seriously with the concept of supercession and the damage it has done over many centuries. Even today, this deadly idea of supercession is so deeply woven into Christian theology and scripture that we don’t even notice it anymore. When we refer to the Hebrew Bible as the “Old Testament,” we perpetuate this idea that the sacred text of our Jewish neighbors has been replaced by the New Testament and is therefore no longer relevant. Amazingly, it is this very idea of replacement that Jesus himself, who was a Jew all his life, renounces in our gospel reading this morning. 

“Until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law…” Jesus announces.

Don’t do it, Jesus says. Do not be tempted to think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets.

I think it’s remarkable, really, that Jesus is portrayed here as taking such a firm stand against anti-Jewish rhetoric, given that the Gospel of Matthew was written in the midst of such a bitter divorce. Even so, says the gospel writer, Jesus himself did not believe that the Hebrew Bible, or its people, were inferior or meant to be replaced. Which is a sentiment we can only wish the church had remembered throughout its history.

The good news is that we, ourselves, can remember today. With the help of modern Bible scholarship, we have the opportunity to reclaim the beauty to be found in this book, to separate that beauty from the hate-mongering, and to offer that beauty to the world with humility, and courage, and in the name of reconciliation. This is the way progressive, inclusive Christians all over the world are reading the Bible today, and we are invited to join them.

Friends, the Bible is fugu. There are beautiful, nourishing teachings to be found here. And there is poison, too. Our work is to learn to recognize the difference. Our holy work is to name and renounce the ways of death and destruction. 

This day and always, may we find the courage to study, and to walk, the paths of healing and of peace.