Sunday, December 30, 2007

287. thoughts on the trajectory of the Bible


How's that for a fun, provocative title?

When I first started my Layman's Theology Series, I originally planned on starting with foundational ideas like salvation and communion and then work my way up to some really big, crazy, likely controversial thoughts I've been having recently about God and the Bible and christianity.

And there are still some basic tenets that I want to write about like sin and prayer and worship, but I can't wait anymore and I want to fast forward to get some of the more crazy ideas out before I forget about them or get too scared to put them up.

I think most of what I've written before about my take on theological ideas has been well within the realm of orthodoxy - the ideas were gleaned from books I'd already read by authors like Brian McLaren, Anne Lamott, N.T. Wright, Lauren F. Winner, and others.

But I've never read anything like what I'm going to share below. It may have been hinted at and that's probably where I got the idea, but still, it feels a bit scary to post because I'm not one to just speculate wildly about the nature of God because, well, God is GOD, you know?

As always, I'd love to hear from you - what do you think, am I completely off in left field on this one?

[end preface]

So one of the things that's always puzzled me about the Bible is, if God doesn't change, then why does he seem so mean and mad in the Old Testament and so warm and full of grace and love in the New Testament?

Well what if God seems to change between the OT and the NT not because he is different but because society and social systems changed and so the way he related to them changed?

The best way to explain this idea is to think of parenting. The way parents treat and relate to an infant is far different than the way they behave when their son/daughter is a teenager or when they become an adult. And this is understandable because the needs and abilities of their kids change as they age. More and different responsibilities are relinquished to them as they are able to handle them.

What if the same thing is happening between the end of the OT and the beginning of the NT? Think about the nation of Israel back when Abraham and Sarah gave birth to it. It was helpless and small and undefined. Israel was very much like an infant at this point. Then think of the Exodus - the wandering in the desert and the complaining and the time when Israel entered the promised land. This could be seen as the early adolescence of Israel when it tested boundaries and struggled to find its identity. The rest of the OT can be seen as Israel's late adolescence and early adulthood where it was trying to find meaning and purpose while sometimes shirking responsibilities and suffering the consequences.

Now think of the way God interacted with Israel during these periods. During this formative time, God was pretty hands-on and brutal because he had to be because perhaps the young nation of Israel needed this kind of discipline and guidance.

Take the OT dietary and cleanliness laws (Leviticus 11 and on). On a pragmatic level, what if they were there to keep the Israelites from getting food poisoning and keeping them sanitary? I mean, think about it. They didn't know anything about microbes or how diseases spread the same way a young person doesn't know that fire burns or that too much candy leads to indigestion and bad teeth. Because they don't know any better, we grab kids' arms away from the flame and hide treats up where they can't get to them. And they don't get it - they think we're being cruel and arbitrary. When they grow and come to understand why we've kept things from them, we let them restrain themselves.

This idea could help explain why God loosened up on the dietary laws in the NT (Acts 10:9-16). What if his change took place because enough was known about how to properly handle and cook meats?

I don't know nearly enough about culinary customs of the time so I have no idea if this way of looking at dietary laws holds any water, so maybe that's a bad example. How about this one.

The heavy-handed nature of God in the OT can be likened to old-school parenting. I'm talking spankings and no-TV, no-phone, no-internet groundings style parenting. Children need discipline and because they can't understand the long-term consequences (growing up to be an asshole) of bad behavior, a firm hand is needed to keep them in line.

Think about the early years of Israel. Before being delivered from Egypt, they didn't have any kind of governmental structure, they didn't have written laws, and little in the way of customs - basically, no culture. In a way, the only defining characteristic of the people of Israel was circumcision. That sounds to me like a pretty wooly, loosly organized band of people - hardly the stuff out of which to birth a nation.

So God intervenes and literally lays down the law. The Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) are where God lays down rules and customs for the people of Israel. And there are lots of them and if your use your imagination, doesn't it read a bit like a parents laying down the rules of the house and chores for their children?

But kids don't like to follow rules or do chores so a firm hand is required to impose order. This need for parents to be firm helps me understand the way God acted out the way he did during the Exodus where over and over again, he comes down hard on the Israelites. For example, there's this episode where the people of Israel are tired of eating manna day after day (forgetting that manna was a gift, appearing miraculously every morning) and they yearn for the taste of meat (Numbers11:4-35). And God gives it to them along with a plague that killed many - the story seems to suggest that it was the ones who complained about wanting meat that died there.

And there are lots of stories like this in the OT.

Maybe this picture of God violates our modern sense of justice and compassion because the punishment seems excessive in the extreme but the brutal fact of the matter is that the birthing of a nation is a messy, bloody, painful process (take a look at any political revolution of the past century). For me, reframing God's heavy hand as the discipline of a loving parent towards an unruly, young nation helps me see the Bible as a seamless work rather than one that portrays two different, unreconcilable Gods.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Fast forward a couple hundred years or so and we see the birth of Christ. By this time, Israel is a fully fledged nation (albeit, one that is under the thumb of the Romans). They have a robust culture and identity as well as social structures that do their best to keep everything in line. But they seem to have forgotten something. Perhaps afraid of invoking the wrath of God, they have become all about following the law. They have forgotten that they were called to be a blessing to all nations.

And so Jesus enters the scene to remind them. But because Israel is older and wiser now, the reminder comes not in the form of fire and brimstone but as a man who walked around, healed people, and challenged religious leaders.

Once a child becomes an adult - gets a job, starts making his/her own decisions, takes responsibility for their mistakes - the relationship between parent and child becomes less top down and becomes more peer to peer or mentor to mentee. The parents will always be older and have more life experience and so retains the right to offer guidance and advice but when advice is not heeded, it's allowed to happen - they don't get out the old spanking paddle.

And that's how I see the move from the OT to the NT. It's not that God changed, he just changed the way he related to his people - a shift that occurs because of the "maturity" of the nation of Israel.

Well one might object, what about the NT story where God strikes down a couple in the early church after they lie about how much of their possessions they donated (Acts 5:1-11)? Well I see the same parallels I outlined earlier. Just as the early, less organized nation of Israel needed a more firm hand from God, the early, less organized church needed to be reminded that this was a serious business they were involved in. And to my knowledge, it's the only story in the NT of people being struck down like this for sinning.

Of course the parenting metaphor is not a tight fit. I only use it to provide a kind of framework to talk about why God seems so different between the OT and the NT, but why do I do this? Why do I try to justify and make sense of God's behavior? Is there a point to this or is this just some intellectual exercise?

The reason I share these ideas is because for me, they help make the Bible real and relevant for today. Because if God changes the way he relates and reveals himself to his people based on how they are able to receive him, then this shift continues today and we need to be sensitive to and aware of and looking for the way that God is relating to us as we are here and now.

See, some christians are still trying to experience God as he expressed himself in the Old and New Testaments. They want to see healings happen, they want to hear the taingible, audible voice of God, they want radical intervention. And let me say now before I get flamed that I don't discount such desires - I do believe God still heals and that he does choose to express himself more palpably to some people - but I also think that in general, God is choosing to relate to us today in a different way than he did even in the NT.

Why? Because we as a society have grown and changed and matured.

Here's what I mean. Some christians lament the fact that God doesn't seem to be healing people the way he did in the Bible but here's what I think. I think God has given us the gift of medicine and science and he is waiting for us to use these gifts to bring healing to the sick, the poor, and the needy.

I have a friend (let's call him D) who used to live in Hawaii who was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Now this is a guy who has experienced big miracles in his life. For example, when he first moved to Hawaii, he didn't have a car and started praying for one. Lo and behold, someone walks up to him after church that week and says to him, "God told me you needed transportation so here are the keys to my old car." But that's not the crazy part. See, D drives this car around for a week and discovers that it's a piece of shit. So he gives it back to the guy saying, "I don't think this is the car God has for me." Then a couple weeks later, someone else from the church gives him a car - this time an old (but fully functioning) Cadillac!

I share that story to show that this is a guy who's not unfamiliar with God's provision. So last year he gets diagnosed with a brain tumor and the prayer chain goes into overdrive. He's got lots of Pentecostal-type friends so they pray for radical intervention and complete healing but that doesn't happen. He has an operation and recovers completely. But he didn't have medical insurance so he got stuck with a mega-buck bill from the hospital. However, donations and support checks start appearing from friends and long story short, he's able to cover all medical costs.

The point I'm trying to make is that maybe a hundred years ago, prayers for God to heal D's tumor would have been answered because there was no other way for D to survive but now that the technology is available, God let the tumor remain so that he could let the church step up and provide the financial support D needed for the operation.

Today, I think that praying for medical miracles in cases where there are already treatments available is like an adult asking his parents to continue giving him an allowance instead of getting a job using the college education that his parents paid for.

Let me try and say this another way.

Take a look at this bit from John 14:11-14:

Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the miracles themselves. I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.

Some look at verse 12 and conclude that by doing "even greater things than these," Jesus meant that christians will be able to heal the sick and the blind and the possessed. And Jesus does mean that, but not necessarily in the sense of laying hands on a lame person and seeing his/her legs instantly made well again. What if by "greater things" he was referring to modern advances in prosthetics technology and the opportunity to help victims of land-mines in places like Cambodia and Afghanistan and Burma?

Maybe that isn't as sexy as a flesh and bone healing but while some christians are waiting on God to provide healing power, I would argue that God is actually waiting on us to use the knowledge and technology that he's already given us.

Because some still expect an OT/NT God, they point fingers at him when he doesn't provide relief in Indonesia or New Orleans or Sudan. What we don't see is God pointing his finger back at the excesses of Las Vegas, at outrageous CEO salaries and corporate profits, at all the money our government is throwing at the war in Iraq. More ominously, God is pointing his finger at mega-church ministries that fly their pastors around in church-owned lear jets and provide $23,000 commodes (NPR story).

To finish off the parenting analogy, I believe that today in these modern, technological, scientific times, our society can be likened to a highly skilled adult and maybe God seems to be more hands-off today because he wants to see what we will do with the skills he's blessed us with. As a social species, he's moved us through birth, adolescence, young-adulthood and now that we are older, wiser, and better able to navigate this tricky planet, God wants to see what we will do.

The resources exist today to eradicate diseases like malaria and tuberculosis that are still ravaging developing countries. It would take a fraction of the current military budget in the US to provide clean water and sanitation for the 1.1 billion without it (2000 WHO report). Can't get your head around a number that big? The UN estimates that the global population topped 6 billion in October of 1999. That means about one in six people on this planet do not have access to clean, safe water. Think of six of your closest friends. Now pick one of them and contaminate his/her lifetime water supply with parasites, pesticides, and industrial waste chemicals. Then watch them waste away while you go on with your own comfortable life.

I mention the problem of clean water because I'm excited about something that my pastor is working on. He's blogged recently about a non-profit that he wants to set up and while I'm not exactly sure what it is yet, it seems to be exactly the kind of work that pastors and churches should be doing - helping to redeploy the gifts that God has blessed us and our country with to those truly in need.

Not to dis on any others, but my church is the bomb, yo.

Here's the deal.

It's easy to read the headlines and to be overwhelmed by all of the problems out there. But those problems aren't the problem. The solutions to those problems exist today, now. The problem is $25,000 desserts, perfumes that retail for $2,150 an ounce, a military budget that is looking to spend $439.3 billion this year (that's about 1.3 billion per day) - a fact that wouldn't be so bad (because defense is a priority) if the money were being used wisely but sadly, it isn't (warning, this story will make your blood boil).

God is not aloof or ambivalent. He wants desperately to take loving care of this world he's created and the people he's populated it with but he's not going to go in and fix things - not when we already have what we need to fix them ourselves. The reading of the Bible that I'm putting forward suggests a trajectory where God is placing more and more responsibility and expectation on us as we are able to handle it. Again, not because he's lazy or doesn't care but just as a parent of talented children wants to see them thrive with the talents they have, I picture God in anxious expectation just waiting to see the "greater things" that we will do with the resources he has equipped us with.

But he's not going to wait forever.


Autosmiler said...

My first impression is that you seem to be right on about God's adjustment to our growth. It seems so obvious now that you point it out. In fact, church today (here in IL) quoted from Hebrews 5:11-14. For casual comment-readers, this NT book is a letter "addressed primarily to Jewish converts...who were being tempted to revert to Judaism" and the verses admonish the readers that they should be beyond the basic understanding of Christ's new covenant (therefore don't need to follow archaic OT rules like they used to). They are like infants who rely on milk; "But solid food is for hte mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil" (NIV). This reveals that God recognizes human spiritual growth. And by extension, Randall, your theory is further supported by the mere fact that this letter had to be written at all to explain to this generation of converts that they should be at a more mature level of understanding than the previous generation. So much more mature that "in fact,... by this time [they] ought to be teachers". A couple thousand years later, shouldn't we be that much more mature?

I also completely agree that those who "have much" should give to those who don't. I am closely following the Kenya elections, and had read up on the most recent incidents (riots/violence, rising death toll, extreme poverty, intense corruption) just before meeting up with a friend at the local mall. It took me a full 30-45 minutes to recover myself from the anger and depression I felt walking among shoppingbag-laden shoppers with their daddys' credit cards and others who equally disgusted me. I couldn't get over how ignorantly unaware these selfish people probably were. Granted it's still the holidays and I was in Woodfield Mall, Illinois' most popular, largest, and busiest shopping center. But you get the drift.

(Note that I also felt judgmental and hypocritical at the time, being a part of the same community and having been unaware and unaffected myself only up until summer this year.)

Autosmiler said...

I'd also like to recommend "A Year of Living Biblically" by A.J. Jacobs. I can lend it to you when I get back this Saturday, but here's the synopsis from

The Year of Living Biblically answers the question: What if a modern-day American followed every single rule in the Bible as literally as possible. Not just the famous rules – the Ten Commandments and Love Thy Neighbor (though certainly those). But the hundreds of oft-ignored ones: don’t wear clothes of mixed fibers. Grow your beard. Stone adulterers. A.J. Jacobs’ experiment is surprising, informative, timely and funny. It is both irreverent and reverent. It seeks discover what’s good in the Bible and what is maybe not so relevant to 21st century life. And it will make you see the Good Book with new eyes. Thou shalt not put it down.

I think he started this project to mock the bible, but he learned a lot of significant things in the process, and shares a dense amount of handy, relevant information including speculations from his "spritual advisors" about why some rules may have been required by God.

madmonq said...

The point I'm trying to make is that maybe a hundred years ago, prayers for God to heal D's tumor would have been answered because there was no other way for D to survive but now that the technology is available, God let the tumor remain so that he could let the church step up and provide the financial support D needed for the operation.

The previous is a justification of a very sad situation. Not some sort of wacky proof of God's will.

Your post overall is a little like saying god gave us the ability to fly until we invented the airplane.

I hope your friend is OK.