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.

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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”.

The story is told of an ancient rabbi who was a storyteller. The rabbi told his disciples many stories to illuminate the reality in which they found themselves, and to open them to the ever mysterious being that they believed was part of this reality.

The rabbi once told the story of a time long past,

when people used to sacrifice people in order to please god. Not only people need to sacrifice people, but a friend needed to sacrifice a friend in order to please the god. In times of war, or draught, or plague, someone would get the message from god that he need to sacrifice his friend.

At one stage there was a draught for many years. Many people died in this time, but nobody got a message from god that he should sacrifice a friend. There was a very devout man, Alinksi, with a friend who was like a brother to him. One night Alinski had a dream in which god told him to sacrifice his friend. Knowing what this dream meant, he told the tribe leader the next day that god had told him to sacrifice his best friend in order to stop the draught. The two friends cried together, they spent time in silence. His friend wasn’t mad, he knew that this was the way the gods worked.

The day of the sacrifice drew closer. And on the day everyone was quite. It wasn’t a day of celebration, but everyone knew how the god worked, and that someone had to sacrifice a friend. The two friends started the ritual of gathering the wood together, building the altar, and the friend climbed onto the altar. As Alinski was getting his knife ready, he heard god speak to him, saying that this offer wasn’t necessary. What is more, he heard god say, people should no longer be sacrificed! I don’t need sacrifices to provide you with rain! I don’t want people to be sacrificed ever, I am a loving being.

Alinski was full of joy. He dropped the knife, and kissed his friends on both cheeks. However, his friend was confused, and told Alinski to continue the offering. “No”, exclaimed Alinski! Didn’t you hear? God has just stopped the sacrificing of people! God told me that sacrifices wasn’t neccesary anymore. Didn’t you hear? “No”, his friend replied. He was sceptical, because he knew that god has always told their tribe to sacrifice people in times of crisis. But he trusted Alinski, and knew he was a devout man. So after some conversation, he was convinced.

Full of joy they went back to the tribe leader, to tell him of the wonderful news. God doesn’t require human sacrifice any longer. “Impossible”, the tribe leader shouted. He wanted to kill these two men, to sacrifice them himself. How dare they try and make a fool out of the holy men of the past who have heard God speak to them over and over again, telling them to sacrifice a friend in times of crisis. But, being afraid of the many people who considered Alinski to be a devout man, he decided to shun them from the tribe, not kill them.

Alinski and his friend traveled for the rest of their lives, bringing people the good news that God do not require human sacrifice.

That, the rabbi told his students, is why we no longer sacrifice humans.

One of his brightest students replied: “But we have never sacrificed humans.”

“No”, the rabbi said, “we have, before the time of Alinski, it is many years ago, many generations ago, but their was a time when everyone knew that god required human sacrifice”.

“How can we ever trust a god that have changed his mind in the past?” the student asked.

“How can we ever live life with a god that will never change his mind in the future?” the rabbi answered.

in the beginning…

May 16, 2009

hebrew-cosmosI’m reading Genesis 1:1-2:4a. The first creation narrative. Written later than much of the Old Testament, in Babilon (remember that most Jews in later times lived not in Israel, but in Babilon). And it’s the most brilliant story! Imagine with me, how a Jewish father would explain faith to his little son, who have to listen to his Babilonian friends speculate about the universe and about the different gods in existence. Keep the picture to the right in mind, this is how they pictured creation.

What was there in the beginning? Nothing? No, in the beginning there was darkness and water. Darkness and water: In the beginning there was only chaos! Nothing good can come from darkness and water my son. We know that the see is the host of choas, the way to the underworld. It would have been hopeless my son, but God was there. In the beginning, all that was, was chaos and God!

The heaven of heavens did not exist, the firament of the stars did not exist, the underworld, pillars of the earth, nothing existed. That was, except for the darkness, the water and God. God and the chaos.

But then, God said, this wouldn’t do. Let us create light to take away the darkness. Let us get rid of the chaos, so that we can create a space where life can exist. God spoke, and the chaos started receding, because now the possibility of hope was there, the possibility of light, op hope! Where was the light? Well, we don’t know yet, but light was now possible.

But the water was still everywhere, everything was still water. So God said: This wouldn’t do. Let us create space for life to exist. God moved the water around. Some he sent to the underworld, some he sent up to the heavens. Suddenly, a space started to appear where it was visible that God was at work, because the chaos was moved out of the way.

But there was still no place for life to exist. There was space, but the sea was still everywhere. So God said: Let us move this sea out of the way, so that we can have some ground for life to exist on.

Finally, to really nail the chaos, God created two lights. One for the day, and one for the night. Now the chaos was really moved to the underworld, between the pillars that God created for the earth to stand on.

Then God bursted out! “Let’s make life! Earth”, God commanded, “spawn living beings”. Plants, birds and animals, big and small, let us even make fish to swin in the sea, to populate the remaining chaos. And then, my son, God made people, and God made us to look after everything that he created.

So my son. It is true, in the beginning there was only chaos, water and darkness, but in the chaos, there was God. And God got rid of the chaos, to make some space for life. And we are too look after this life. And on the Sabbath, the seventh day, we stop to remember the God who created, we stop and lister to the Spirit of God, the same Spirit that was there when all that existed was chaos.

Oh, and by the way, my son. All those gods your Babilonian friends talk about, that’s just things that God created, not gods.

Creation and evolution. How these two ever got to become two opposing extremes within the church is a study which historians of the present and future really need to help us with. But now we have it. TGIF had one of it’s biggest meetings I’ve seen this morning, listening to Dr Hennie Mouton, creationist, enigineer, elder in the Dutch Reformed Church (last time I heard), and regular contributer to our church newspaper (in the form of letters of critique). The only other time I’ve seen such a large crowd was for the Christian/Atheist conversation between my two friends Roger and Kevin. The number of people attending says something of the hot topics in our society (western, white, post-apartheid, educated etc).

The questions afterwords mostly seemed to come from those who agree, either fully or to an extend, with a little bit of critique. So, this is some of my assumptions on creation and reading texts. Now, I’m not a scientists, so I’ll skip the science, there are others much more capable on those topics. I’ll stick to the theology and the text.

  • The authors of the Bible was very smart people. Don’t patronize them. They were at least as smart as you, maybe smarter.
  • The Bible  was written within time for it’s own time. It contains the science, theology, history and philosophy of it’s day. In short, it’s not a simple spiritual text, but addressed the whole worldview of it’s day, and challenges it with the story of the creator God to become part of the worldview.
  • The Bible has the potential of being important for our day. Challenging us in our time on some extremely needed issues.
  • It was not intended as a science book, or a history book. Both these genres appeared over the last couple of hundred years.
  • The Bible is in tension with itself, showing development and growth in the reflection on God (theology) over ages.
  • The “simple spiritual being, whom we call God” (Belgic Confession), that the people of the Old Testament called Jahweh, created.

There is a very important distinction between literalism and fundamentalism. Important for this discussion. See video below.

I come from a Reformed background. OK, so I’ve opened myself up to many other church traditions, and learn from them, but I find depth in my own tradition as well. It’s a more dinamic relationship with tradition I guess, where tradition is challenged, and sometimes it humbles us with the wisdom that we find in response to the our challenge. Anyhow, not the point, the point is rather that some parts of our tradition is gaining meaning which I want to point to.

We reformed folks talk about two books in which we learn about God: The book of nature and the Bible. Yeah, we obviously link back to Paul (Romans 1) when saying this. Paul said that we learn about God in nature.

burning_bookBut what then if we mess up nature? Is that like burning Bibles? Maybe worse, cause Bibles we just print again. Is it like  somehow getting rid of all copies of the gospel according to Mark… forever?

I’m not totally insane am I?

I remember a conversation where we once played around with what prophets would do in our day. Remember the symbolic things prophets did in the Old Testament? Marrying a prostetute. Walking around naked. Carrying around joke. What would prophets have done today?

Well, maybe they would have took a heap of Bibles to church and burned them on a Sunday morning, as a symbol for how we are burning the book of nature, God’s revelation…

Maybe I’m just insane or losing it. What do you think?