In the denomination I am part of, the situation concerning the debate over the Bible isn’t that different from what I belief exist in other places in the world. Within a popular environment “faith” is associated with a “high view of scripture” and a rejection of critical scholarship on the Bible. On the other hand “doubt” is associated with a “low view of scripture” and asking critical questions of the Bible.

There is however an obvious problem with this popular unpacking of two seemingly opposing views on the Bible. Wouldn’t true faith in the authority of scripture welcome loosening scripture from its parental ties of “divine inspiration”, stating that the ideas and arguments in the Bible, if taken seriously, can stand their own ground among the great literary, philosophical and religious traditions of history. And wouldn’t doubt in the authority of scripture require us to be all the more serious about its “divine inspiration”?

At this point criticism of the previous paragraph should point to the possibility of at least two other options (possibly more): That of critical engagement of the Bible with the exact purpose of pointing to the fact that it cannot stand it’s ground among the great literary, philosophical and religious traditions of history, and that of the faithful who critically engage the Bible in order to point to its divine inspiration. Both of these are self-refuting: Why even continue critical engagement with a text which cannot stand the text of time, and why even engage in proving divine inspiration to those who already believe in this inspiration (with this I need to mention that I believe that most modern-day apologetics are aimed at strengthening the faith of believers, not at converting the non-believers. If this were not true, why is it that conservative apologetics (all apologetics?) are mostly found in Christian bookshops and shelves?).

And is these last two examples not reactions against their opposites, rather than the natural result of their allies from the second paragraph? Critical engagement with the Bible with the sole purpose of pointing to its irrelevance, if continued indefinitely, is not really a continuation of the critical engagement with an authoritative and important text (in this context on the exact same level as other authoritative and important texts), but is a continued attempt to ridicule those who believe in divine inspiration. And Christian apologetics, if continued indefinitely, is not really a continuation of faithful belief in the divinely inspired text, but is a continued attempt at reacting against the criticism of academic study of the Bible.

These two then becomes the preached who preaches from the Bible against the usefulness of the Bible in modern society, or the academic which use the tools of the academy to point to the divine inspiration of the Bible, and to the fact that all we need is the Bible (but in both these acts the very acts in which is being participated argues against the statement being made).

I think a case can be made for those who doubt in the ability of the Bible as important text to stand its ground, and therefore remain true literalists, not attempting to explain the text against any background, and not taking random verses and sticking them together. Simply taking the text, the whole text, and nothing but the text as the Word of God (although I question whether such a position of radical doubt in the text and absolute faith in God who wrote the text is possible in our modern society).

Therefore I propose that we take the position of the absolute faithful. Putting the text out there on the marketplace, in the classroom. Opening it up for every possible criticism, for every literary and philosophical reading possible. This is faith. Facing the possibility that in this act you might be proven to be mistaken, but nonetheless acting out of your conviction. Only this act of radical criticism can be an act of radical faith in this modern society. And only through this can we find a text which has something to say for politics, philosophy, economics and spirituality.

Resurrection Sunday has always been a day of theology for me. In 2007 and 2008 I wrote blogsposts on this day reflecting on the resurrection, and in 2009 a few days later. But on this resurrection Sunday what is called for is not a philosophical reflection on understanding the resurrection, today we need the resurrection to come alive in South Africa. Today, resurrection Sunday calls for a response of public theological nature.

Last night Eugene Terre’Blanche, well known leader of the AWB, the most right-wing white party in South Africa, was murdered. All reports so far confirm that this was because of a dispute over salary, and done by two of the workers on his farm. However, the first 12-18 hours after the news came out has seen a renewed surge of racism and even calls to arms in South Africa. President Zuma, as well as many other important voices in South Africa, has called for calm reaction, and high profile figures from the ANC government, such as Genl. Cele and Minister Mthetwa, is involved to help things remain calm.

However, I have personally experienced how the comments being made by Julius Malema, leader of the ANC Youth League, and the prominence given to him by the media, has caused a renewed anger among even very open-minded and positive white South Africans. And with his “Kill the Boer” case fresh in the memories of South Africans, this event can easily be made into a political moment which didn’t underly the murder. Whether it is the call to arms from white supporters, or the insensitive “he deserved it” from his opponents, it’s not helping South Africa.

This event can be a trigger to resurrect the AWB. To give reason why Terre’Blanche’s hope for a white homeland should be resurrected. To kill so much of what we have worked for in uniting the races of this country. But on the day of the most important festival of the largest religion in the world, also the largest religion in South Africa, and the religion to which both Mr Terre’Blanche and the leader of the ANC, President Zuma (although in very different forms) subscribed to, is it possible for a country, whether Christian of not, to hope for life to come out of death? Is it possible that in the face of this death, people from different races can come together to mourn another murder? To give condolences to a family who has lost a father, to them who have lost a friend?

Can this be the moment where black South Africans can say that it is possible to forgive? To repeat what President Zuma has said over and over again, that in this country people of all races must come together to build this nation. Is it possible for white South Africans to state loudly that we will not put our hands to the gun. We will not politicize every crime in this country. And we will speak out with the strongest possible critique against those who will use this tragic event to pour fuel on racial hatred in South Africa.

Because however you understand the resurrection, and however you celebrated this day, I believe today the question of whether the resurrection has meaning will be tested on how we approach the death of Eugene Terre’Blanche.

The South African Partnership for Missional Churches, working closely with the Church Innovation Insitute from Saint Paul, like to read Luke 10:1-12 with a process called Dwelling in the Word. I can still vividly remember the first time I was in a meeting reading this text three years ago, and my first response was that I find verse 10-12 extremely arrogant. My partner, who was supposed to share with the group what I heard in the text wasn’t quite happy with what I said, and neither was the facilitator.

Since that day I’ve been sharing my discomfort with the text every time we had to read it, and usually found myself to be a lone voice. However, Wednesday morning at the Missionary by its very Nature conference with Roger Schroeder, I found myself in a group of 5 people who shared my discomfort, hearing possible colonial interpretations when they read the text, being uncomfortable with fear motives etc.

I’ve been meditating on Walter Brueggemann’s 19 Thesis the past 10 days or so again. So I guess this got me to consider whether it’s possible to re-read this text as a counterscript. In a way that does not get stuck in old theological controversies or metaphysical speculations. So, this is my re-reading of Luke 10:

Luke 10:1-12 – After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to the town of politics, where dishonesty and misuse of power reigned, the town of economics, where discrepancies between rich and poor reigned, and the town of ecology, where grave dangers existed. This was some of the places he intended to go to bring peace. 2He said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. 3Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. 4You have only 1 goal: To go to the towns and houses where I have sent you. 5Proclaim to these houses: ‘Peace to this house!’ 6If in this house there is someone who is already sharing in this peace, or open to take part in this peace, you will find a connection, if not, you will remain a lone voice of peace. 7Partner with those who you find a connection with, stay with them, dream with them, and let them provide for you. Do not run away at the first hint of struggle, but stay with this one house that is open to peace. 8Whenever you enter a town and it’s people welcome you, become part of that town; 9care, cure the sickness of this town, and say to them: ‘God’s dream, the possibility of the impossible, has now come near you’ 10But should they refure the peace, should they wich to continue down paths of destruction for themselves and others, proclaim publicly: 11’This is wrong! We will have nothing to do with this! Yet the reality remain that God’s dream, the possibility of the impossible, is near. 12Know this: on the day when the dream which seem impossible come into existence, it will be more tolerable for the evils of ancient times that for those who refused to accept the peace, and chose to continue down destructive paths.”

Peter Rollins talk about the leader who reject leadership. This is Christian leadership. The leader who always gives the decision back, never willing to be the leader.

We cannot get around celebrities, if with celebrities we mean those known by many. People are not connected in a random network (see explanation of random and scale-free networks in the beginning on this well-known article by Dwight Friesen), where everyone is connected to a similar amount of people. This becomes even less so when one a one-way connection is needed (such as with twitter, where you can follow someone without them following you, and different from facebook, where both need to confirm before they are friends).

Celebrities require such a one-way connection. And we will always have some people that are more well-known than others. But the world in which we live has created a culture where celebrity is being fed with meaning. Now the popularity of this person gives them authority. Authority to make truth-claims which then need to be followed simply because of the celebrity which said this (see how we quote celebrities sometimes). Authority to be above the system, to be untouchable (some of this came to the surface during the recent Polanski/Hollywood affair).

The Christian is part of a tradition in which texts such as these are important:

What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? was Paul crucified for you? or were ye baptized in the name of Paul?

Paul the Apostle, 1 Corintians 1:12-13

Also texts such as these:

As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good– except God alone.

Jesus in the Gospel according to Mark, 10:17-18

The Christian celebrity, meaning the one who is known by more people within the system of human relations, always rejects the celebrity status that come with the connection, the status which provides authority or privilege in any way on the basis of being a celebrity. It is impossible to be a celebrity, in my second definition of celebrity, and in line with the teachings of Jesus as they are reported in the gospels.

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?

The Madman, Friedrich Nietzsche

The words of a group of Muslim students on campus might be ascribed to pure chance, the evolution of language, and mistranslations. But “Have you read the last testament of God” immediately opened with two possible interpretations when I saw the poster. On a mainly Christianised university campus, it’s a nice slogan to start a conversation. After the first and second testament, or the old and new testament, their was a last testament, the Koran. Or else, it could be interpreted as the testament of God, God’s will. Those are the last wishes of a dead God.
And Christians can also do this. They talk about the Bible as the final word of God. An unchanging document that needs to be followed to the letter. It’s like following the testament of a dead man, to the letter, since he is no longer available to talk about possible interpretations, or to continue to develop these words.
Maybe it’s not funny then how the exact same people who read the Bible as if it was a testament, as the last words that God ever spoke, as the testament of a dead God, tend to resurrect this God by forcing it into the realm of the supernatural experience. This way we tend to end up with a God who spoke his last will, his last testament, 1400, or 1900, or 2300 years ago, but at times gets resurrected to speak a new final word to the receiver, words that may not be questioned, interpreted, or worked out in relationship with the other.
It would seem like any talk of a “final word” of God causes from its inception that this God is fated to die. To become silent. Subsequently, attempts at resurrecting God in the supernatural experience, when absolutised as the new final word of God, has, apart from the same problems, the added problem that new gods have the tendency to appear using the names of an existing god.
How else should we read the words of a creator God than by engaging, interpreting, criticising, reinterpreting, and listening to the noise, attempting to hear the continuing voice of God?

The words of a group of Muslim students on campus might be ascribed to pure chance, the evolution of language, and mistranslations. But “Have you read the last testament of God” immediately opened with two possible interpretations when I saw the poster. On a mainly Christianised university campus, it’s a nice slogan to start a conversation. After the first and second testament, or the old and new testament, their was a last testament, the Qur’an. Or else, it could be interpreted as the testament of God, God’s will. Those are the last wishes of a dead God.

And Christians can also do this. They talk about the Bible as the final word of God. An unchanging document that needs to be followed to the letter. It’s like following the testament of a dead man, to the letter, since he is no longer available to talk about possible interpretations, or to continue to develop these words.

Maybe it’s not funny then how the exact same people who read the Bible as if it was a testament, as the last words that God ever spoke, as the testament of a dead God, tend to resurrect this God by forcing it into the realm of the supernatural experience. This way we tend to end up with a God who spoke his last will, his last testament, 1400, or 1900, or 2300 years ago, but at times gets resurrected to speak a new final word to the receiver, words that may not be questioned, interpreted, or worked out in relationship with the other.

It would seem like any talk of a “final word” of God causes from its inception that this God is fated to die. To become silent. Subsequently, attempts at resurrecting God in the supernatural experience, when absolutised as the new final word of God, has, apart from the same problems, the added problem that new gods have the tendency to appear using the names of an existing god.

How else should we read the words of a creator God than by engaging, interpreting, criticizing, reinterpreting, and listening to the noise, attempting to hear the continuing voice of God?

the lion that ruled the world

September 2, 2009

“Alexander the Great was a lion”, my matric teacher told our class. For the average reader, with a general understanding of language and rhetoric, and who know enough about history that the name “Alexander the Great” is familiar, and who know what a lion is, this statement would be pretty easy to understand. But what if I were to meet someone who did not understand this type of saying?

“Alexander the Great was a lion, and he ruled the world”. The obvious question would then be: “How could a lion rule the world”? And lets say that over time the consensus in society would move to the point where no one would consider the fact that the saying “Alexander the Great was a lion” is a metaphor, some interesting ideas might ne the result. Maybe we would then start a myth to explain that there was a time when lions could talk, when they could mobilize armies, and where one of them, who happened to be born in Greece, became the ruler of the world.

If a historian might then discover a scroll saying that Alexander was a man, the child of a king, who fought many battles. This historian might over time realize that we have a metaphor that was literalized. In his reading of this man Alexander, he might after time decide that indeed, “Alexander was a lion”.

However, when he would try to explain to his friends what he discover, he would have to say that “Alexander the Great was not a lion”, since they have a literal understanding of the saying. Only in a community that understand metaphors, and the metaphorical language, and the history, that gave rize to the idea that “Alexander the Great was a lion” would the historian be able to proclaim tha amazing discovery he made when he read the stories of Alexander. In this community, while telling his friends about Alexander, he would be able to say: “Indeed, Alexander the Great was a lion”.

Albert Nolan wrote brilliantly on how Jesus is not merely the object of our spirtuality, but was also a subject that stood in relation to God, and from whom we can learn about spirituality. The basic thesis of Jesus Today was the historical Jesus research has enough to offer that we can reconstruct the spirituallity of Jesus. Andries van Aarde built his book, Fatherless in Galilee, around the assumption that Jesus found a Father in God, since he didn’t have an earthly father, which also say something about Jesus’ spirituality.

But while this quest for finding Jesus, that prophet, the human guy, who walked around Galilee and Jerusalem roundabout 30 AD, goes on both in the academic world, and also with a growing group of Christians in pews, coffeeshops and slums, another group of Christians is opting for an extreme divinization of Jesus. As someone told me earlier today, in response to my saying that we can learn from Jesus how to live in relationship with God: “Jesus had an unfair advantage, he was divine”.

This is not a new idea, and probably we’ll find this underlying an interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) which says that the Sermon on the Mount was never meant to be followed, but to show us that we are unable to live as we should, only Jesus could follow that – it should remind us how sinfull we are so that we’ll turn to God, to Jesus. Out of fear that we’ll turn Jesus into just another moral teacher, we divinized Jesus up to the point where both the life Jesus had with God, and the way he lived, is something totally undervalued, ignored, and rather exchanged for a Jesus which is purely the object of faith.

I remember Tony Jones saying back in 2006 that our generation is the WWJD generation. Thinking back on my primary school days I could see where he was coming from. Although on the other side of the world, and definitely less extreme, Adam at Pomomusings probably did an accurate description of the WWJD culture of the time (I never wore more than one, but basically everyone in our school had one). Critique can be delivered against the idea, but in our 12-year old minds we were opposing the idea that Jesus was merely divine, that the way of Jesus couldn’t be lived, and that he’s teaching was impossible to follow.

How we’ve come to this point I don’t know. How we got the church so polarized I don’t know either, maybe it’s always been like this. But somehow I can’t seem to think that the early church ever thought other than that we were supposed to follow the example of Jesus. They talked about the son of God, and about us being children of God. They said that our minds should work in the same way as that of Jesus Christ, we should hold the same view (Phil 2:5). Trying to live life in the way of Jesus is not denying the divinity of Christ (oh how I hate having to qualify things like this, but I’ll do it since I know that some tend imply this), it is simply trying to reconnect with the thinking of the early church. I guess this is part of my attempt at a “Christology from the side“…