Choose you this day whom you will serve: Lectionary reflections on Proper 27, Year A

This Sunday, we will be observing All Saints, so our scripture readings will not be a continuation of the texts we’ve been reading. That’s a shame, because all three of them are rich. Both I Thessalonians and the Gospel reading have to do with the Second Coming, while the reading from Joshua 24 is the culmination of that book. All of the readings are available here.

I can’t read Joshua’s speech without thinking of our house in South Carolina.

We purchased our house from fundamentalists. Even though we liked the location, the layout, etc, there was one detail that almost broke the deal. On one of the living room walls was stenciled in large letters: “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”

Now you may think there’s nothing problematic about that verse, that it is a worthy sentiment. But think about it for a moment. Joshua has given the Israelites an ultimatum: “Choose this day whom you will serve.” And to buck them up, to set an example, he continues, “as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” Do you get it yet? He is making that decision, not just for himself, but for everyone who lives with him—his wife and children, and any slaves. A worthy sentiment? Perhaps, but only if you think the only views that matter are those of the senior adult male.

The first thing we did after closing was paint over that stenciled verse; it took two coats, and still Corrie really wanted me to perform an exorcism on the entire property. After all, underneath that paint, those words remained. Our discomfort with them wass no accident, not just an example of the centuries and the cultural changes that separate us from the book of Joshua. For in their original setting, they were meant to bring discomfort to those who heard them first.

Joshua is largely unfamiliar to us today and the primary reason is that it tells a story that is deeply disturbing to many twenty-first century Christians. It records a version of the conquest of the promised land—with gory details of battles, and perhaps even worse, it records God taking initiative in those battles and demanding the complete destruction of the native population. It resonates uncomfortably with our own nation’s history of settling the continent of North America, defeating and destroying native populations in response to a belief that this land, like Canaan was given us by God. It also raises uncomfortable questions about waging war in the belief that God is on our side.

In fact, there is much more to the book of Joshua than the conquest, and even there the story it tells is much more complex than a quick skimming would suggest. The Israelites did not succeed in displacing the native population, as the later books of Judges, Samuel, and Kings relate, throughout the period of the monarchy, Israel lived among other peoples, and probably over time assimilated many of those people into their nation.

In these last verses of Joshua, we have the culmination of that story of conquest and settlement. This reading is extracted from a larger story, a dramatic covenant ceremony. Much of what was omitted was a recounting of the history of the Israelites—from Abraham and Jacob, through their slavery in Egypt, and the conquest of Canaan. After recounting those mighty acts of Yahweh, Joshua presents the people with an ultimatum: choose to serve Yahweh, or the gods of Mesopotamia, or the gods of the Canaanites. This story hearkens back to the events at Sinai, when Yahweh appeared to the Israelites and gave them the law.

In a way, it’s an odd story, because it implies that the Israelites’ commitment to Yahweh was less than total. In fact, it suggests that it is only now, after entering into and possessing the promised land, that Yahweh demands they give up their allegiance to other gods. But on another level, it is a reaffirmation of that faith, coming about at the end of a lengthy struggle, and centuries of unfulfilled promise. Yahweh had promised Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that they would possess this land; Yahweh had promised Moses and the Israelites as they suffered under Egyptian oppression, that they would be given a land flowing with milk and honey, and now finally, it was theirs.

The authors and editors of Joshua were writing the history of Israel from a vantage point hundreds of years after the fact, and hundreds of miles removed from the promised land. They were writing in Babylon, exiled after the destruction of their homeland, and they were trying to understand those events and to reflect on them theologically. So they developed a theology of promise and fulfillment, of a covenant made at Sinai, reaffirmed here at Shechem, but broken by centuries of unfaithfulness. Yet they hoped for a return to Jerusalem, their faith in Yahweh allowed them to imagine a future back in a restored kingdom.

Lectionary reflections on Proper 26, Year A: Entering the Promised Land

This week’s readings are here.

We’ve been using the semi-continuous readings from the RCL this summer, which have taken us from God’s promise to Abraham that he would possess the promised land, up to now, Joshua 3, when the Israelites finally cross the Jordan and enter the land. I’ve not had the opportunity to do much more than allude to the readings from the Hebrew Bible in my sermons over the past few months. I won’t be preaching on Sunday, and if I were, I probably wouldn’t say much about Joshua, but this dramatic scene, and the one which precedes it, deserve attention.

In last week’s reading from the last verses of Deuteronomy, we heard of Moses’ ascent of Mt. Nebo, his first and only sight of the Promised Land, and his death. It’s impossible for me to read this text and not think about the speech given by Martin Luther King, Jr., on the night before his assassination.

The book of Joshua carries the story forward. In this week’s reading, the Israelites cross the Jordan River. At the same time, it resonates deeply with earlier stories, especially the crossing of the Red Sea. There are thematic and linguistic parallels–the rare Hebrew word used in v. 13 describing the waters as standing “in a single heap” is also used in the Exodus account of the Red Sea, to give just one example.

Joshua is a problematic text on many levels. It tells the story of the Israelite conquest of Canaan, and of God’s ruthless demands that the Israelites utterly destroy their enemies (and God’s punishment when they don’t). It has been used over the centuries to rationalize other conquests, such as the American conquest of Native Americans (witness the number of place names from Joshua used by settlers for towns in the US). The story, however, is more complex than that, for in fact the Israelites did not utterly destroy and displace all of the land’s inhabitants. Many survived and thrived, and the book of Judges offers evidence of the continuing presence of non-Israelites in the land. Still, it is worth pondering the influence of Joshua’s portrayal of the Promised Land and Holy War on the American psyche.

There are other important theological themes present in Joshua, among them the succession of authority from Moses to Joshua, that provide food for thought for contemporary Christians.

Debating the principles of Biblical interpretation with Atheists

Trust me, it’s not a pretty sight.

Mark Shea asks: “Does Evolutionary Science disprove the Faith?

Jerry Coyne takes issue: “Catholics claim that lies are truer than truth

Ross Douthat chimes in.

Coyne’s response to Douthat.

Andrew Sullivan’s comments here and here.

Coyne assumes that readers of the Bible are completely arbitrary in their approach to scripture; that they decide randomly, what to take as “literal fact” and what to take as metaphorical. While that may be the case for many fundamentalists, it is not for those readers who have any theological education, and that is true whether one is talking about 21st century Christians or 5th century Christians. Certain texts are problematic, although the problems are very often quite different in different historical or cultural contexts. Thus, the Fathers had great difficulty in the Exodus text that will be read on Sunday in many churches, a text that references “the backside of God.”

Many atheists are fundamentalists in that they assert the only possible reading of a text is its “literal” interpretation, whatever that may be. Interpreters since Philo, at least, have sought deeper meaning in biblical texts that were problematic in a literal reading. Augustine went so far as to say that any possible interpretation of a text that was plausible given the words on the page, was perhaps a legitimate interpretation. Coyne would find Augustine’s “literal” interpretation of Genesis 1 nonsense. The point is that for thoughtful readers of Scripture, a literal reading in many cases, perhaps in most, is nonsensical.

Jacob was a good Christian man–not! A Sermon for Proper 11, Year A

July 17, 2011

I have college professor friends who amuse themselves and us by keeping track of the most outrageous things students write on essay papers and exams. I never did such things, in large part, because writing such things down took time away from grading. So only a few such statements stand out in my fifteen years of teaching. And perhaps the most outrageous, absolutely, incorrect things I ever read was the opening sentence of an essay exam, “Jacob was a good Christian man.” Continue reading

Sermon Follow-Up: The ABC on “Doubting Thomas”

From Mark Vernon:

So clearly there’s a pattern emerging. This is a sceptic and the gospel says it’s quite important that in the balance of personalities around Jesus there is somebody who asks the awkward questions who is not a kind of Pollyanna optimist and who eventually will only be convinced by the confrontation of a relationship. At the end of the day, in fact, he says ‘I need to touch the risen body.’ But when Jesus appears to him as a risen body, Thomas doesn’t touch. He says ‘now, I see enough.’

Some random links on reading scripture

Mark Vernon exploring the interpretation of scripture by comparing it to interpreting Plato’s Symposium. Of the latter he writes:

It’s impossible finally to decide. There is no one reading of the Symposium that’s definitive. Love, like life, is both of us and beyond us. And this is why the Symposium is a living text, and worthy of comparison with the real Good Book. Ultimately, it’s not rational or even ethical, is not a distillation of wisdom or a consolatory read. Rather, it’s a living text – and hence, like the Bible, has inspired art and further literature, architecture and generations of human beings. It forces us to read between its lines to glimpse something of the mystery of life, and thereby to want to make something of this most tremendous energy in life.

Or, of course, to draw back and flee in the opposite direction.

David Lose, professor of homiletics at Luther Seminary at St. Paul, whose work I regularly engage when preparing my sermons, on the truth of scripture:

the Bible is filled with testimony, witness, confession and even propaganda. Does it contain some reliable historical information? Of that there is little doubt. Yet, whenever we stumble upon “verifiable facts” — a notion largely foreign to ancient writers — we should keep in mind that the biblical authors deployed them not to make a logical argument but rather to persuade their audiences of a larger “truth” that cannot be proved in a laboratory but is finally accepted or not accepted based on its ability to offer a compelling story about the meaning and purpose of the world, God, humanity and everything in between. To attempt to determine whether the Bible is “true” based only on its factual accuracy is therefore to make a profound category mistake, judging its contents by standards its authors were neither cognizant of nor interested in.

And David Steinmetz on the process behind the compilation of the King James Bible.

About those lead codices …

You may have seen the sensationalized reports last week of the discovery of lead codices in Jordan that seemed to contain early Christian writings, perhaps the earliest ever discovered. There’s already a fairly complete wikipedia article that details the press coverage, the back story and some of the significant questions regarding their authenticity.

Peter Thoneman, who teaches Ancient History at Wadham College, Oxford, was shown photos of one of them several years ago and concluded it was a forgery, making use of a tomb inscription published decades ago. Here’s his article: The messiah codex decoded.

There’s much more complete coverage of the issues at Tom Verenna’s blog.

Short version? We’re coming up toward Easter; it’s time to round up another story about early Christian origins. Remember the Gospel of Judas?

The Gospel and the State of Wisconsin

How should communities of faith, and specifically churches, respond to the current political conflict in Wisconsin?

I’ve had as a motto, ever since Sojourners Magazine first introduced it, “God is not a Republican or a Democrat.” I believed it then, and I believe it now (just as I also don’t believe God cared who won the Super Bowl).

But God does care about justice and mercy: “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). To disenfranchise people, whether they are citizens of Egypt or of Wisconsin is wrong. To undo the rights of citizens, to fail to protect the needy, the poor, the widow and the orphan, is not just a political decision. It is an affront against the vision of society proclaimed by the Torah of Moses, the prophets, and Jesus.

I also know that people of good will and deep faith can disagree on matters of politics. We must be able to come together in prayer, confessing our sins, asking God’s forgiveness, and sharing in the Eucharist. To that end, we are making Grace Church available as a space of prayer and respite in these days of conflict, uncertainty, and turmoil. Many of us are worried about what is happening. We know our own perspective, the narrowness of our vision; we can also recognize the narrowness of our opponents’ vision; let us pray that God grant us the wisdom to enlarge our vision as well as that of those with whom we disagree, that together, we might create a more just and merciful society.

For another perspective, read this.

“The Rise and Fall of the Bible”: Rethinking the Good Book – Laura Miller –

Laura Miller writes in Salon about Timothy Beal’s new book on the Bible in American culture.  Entitled The Rise and Fall of the Bible: The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book, Beal’s work describes “biblical consumerism,” a situation in which the average American household owns nine bibles, purchases one a year (so what happened to the others), and yet most Americans are biblically illiterate.

Some of the most interesting chapters in “The Rise and Fall of the Bible” explore the world of Bibles created for specific subcultures and needs: the manly Metal Bible and Duct Tape Bible, kicky handbag/Bible combos and special editions geared toward teenagers, African-American women and so on. These can contain as much as 50 percent “supplemental” material, “explaining” the scripture according to the taste of the intended audience. Then there are Biblezines, publications in which articles about how to grill steaks or talk to girls (in the case of a Biblezine for boys) share the page with biblical quotations. Well-meaning older relatives give this material to young Christians, hoping it will make the Bible itself seem more “readable.” Beal thinks the kids just wind up reading the articles and skipping the quotations. He compares Biblezines to the “sweeter and more colorful roll-ups, punches, sauces and squirtable foams that I buy for my kids’ lunches” in lieu of the unprocessed fresh fruit they refuse to eat. At least you can tell yourself you’re giving them fruit.

Beal bemoans biblical illiteracy and those who want to interpret scripture literally. In fact, he sees a direct relation between the proliferation of niche bibles and the end of a search for certainty in scripture. I’m not so sure, and while I find the marketing of bibles to small subgroups of the population both odd and somewhat amusing, I don’t know that contemporary “biblical consumerism” is all that much different from what happened in earlier generations.

Take the Gideons, for example. They provide bibles in hotel rooms, hospitals, and the like, and distribute them on college campuses and elsewhere. I can’t remember where I was teaching at the time, but I recall coming into class one day (a Bible class, no doubt) and the students were joking about the New Testaments that were being passed out on the sidewalk.

For those passing out the bibles, they are a symbol of their own faithfulness as well as a means of reaching out and converting people. In past generations, a bible had a pride of place in many homes–a lavishly illustrated and bound volume displayed on an end table or coffee table in a living room. I doubt whether that particular bible was opened and read but its presence sent a message to all who saw it.

My sense is that the consumerism Beal describes has much more to do with the commercialization of Christianity–companies trying to make a buck–than with profound changes in biblical interpretation in the culture. Need a gift for a graduate? Why not buy the college-student’s bible?

Yes, there is rampant and growing biblical illiteracy, even in the South, and even among conservative Christians. It always amused me when freshmen figured out in the second week of class that the Bible course they took because they were certain it would be easy, turned out to be much more difficult than they anticipated, because in spite of their deep faith and regular church-going, they only ever read bits and pieces, at most. Then there was the kid who after I made an aside in another class, asked who Adam and Eve were.