How to read the Old Testament: Wisdom from an old dude

In keeping with prior posts on hermeneutics (that is, how to read and actually understand the Bible in some reasonable fashion), more hermeneutics, discovering the nature of God, and too many posts to link to directed at shaking a bit of sense into mindless pop Christian culture, check out Ben Witherington, once again, as he provides a great post on how we should read the Old Testament in light of the New Testament.

The “old dude” I’m referring to is “Saint” John Chrysostom, one of the gems of the Early (4th Century) Church. We don’t hear too much from Chrysostom, and some may never of heard of him. It seems as though many people assume that there were no brilliant theological minds between the Apostle Paul and Martin Luther (or Calvin, for you Reformed folks). Born in 349, Chrysostom was actually a contemporary of Augustine, who was 5 years younger. Chrysostom became the Archbishop of Constantinople, while Augustine joined the Church in Italy after being converted in Milan. Of course, at that time there was still only one church, although Rome always seemed to always claim a higher status. While both men are considered saints in both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, the West seemed to follow Augustine’s thinking, while Chrysostom seems to carry more clout in the East. But, enough history.

The point that Witherington & Chrysostom make concerning the reading of the Old Testament is that since the coming of the New Testament (basically, I think, the appearance of Jesus) the Old Testament must be read and interpreted in light of the New Testament. Here’s a quote that Mr. W quotes from Chrysostom:

Now when you see these things merely sketched out you neither know everything nor are you totally ignorant of everything, but you know that a man and a horse are drawn there, though they are indistinct. But you don’t accurately [or fully] know what sort of emperor or what sort of prisoner it is until the truth of the colors comes and makes the face distinct and clear. For just as you don’t ask everything of that image/portrait before the truth of the colors, but if you receive some indistinct knowledge of what is there, you consider the sketch to be sufficiently ready , in just that same way consider with me the Old and New Testaments , and don’t demand from me the whole fullness of the truth in the [OT] type…For as in the painting, until someone draws in colors it is a shadowy sketch.

Much weirdness comes from reading the Old Testament separate from the New, and as a consequence confusing how the testaments fit together. Witherington says:

Now what is so interesting about this whole hermeneutical approach is that it believes that one must do justice to the history if one is to do theology and ethics right. Christianity was a religion grounded and founded in history, and so theology proper was a reflection on God’s mighty acts in history which had a before and after to them. It was not an abstract science or philosophy where one took ideas and simply linked them together without them arising out of historical events and their substance. In the end, Chrysostom’s hermeneutic mirrors that of Paul and the author of Hebrews. It would be my view that we should go and do likewise.

Good stuff again from Mr. Witherington. Go read the whole article.

My letter to a Christian Nation 5: Hermeneutics and heretics

Dear Christian Nation,

One of the problems that we have, and why some atheists and other forms of non-believers find Christianity nuts, is that so many of us read the Bible in ways that allow us to make it say whatever we want. Thus, we have those committed to a life of poverty, and also those committed to material wealth; we have legalists and antinomians, liberal pacifists and fundamentalist war-mongers, and the list goes on. Many non-Christians don’t understand that when Pat Robertson proclaims a natural disaster as punishment from God, or when Oral Roberts sees a 900 foot Jesus, they aren’t speaking for the rest of us. This individualized, subjective (and dare I say postmodern?) reading of the Bible is, at the very least, setting a bad example for non-Christians who are trying to make sense out of what we believe (or are supposed to believe).

This is not to say that even with good hermeneutics (the art of interpreting ancient texts such as the Bible) we won’t have disagreements; however, I’m certain that we’d have significantly less disagreement over many important passages, with just a little dedication to truth. After all, aren’t we supposed to be dedicated to truth?

Ben Witherington has posted a brilliant piece called Hermeneutics– A Guide for Perplexed Bible Readers, that should be of interest to Christians and may also be of interest to non-Christians. It may also upset a number of Christians who insist on creating their own private reality.

Witherington first makes a good case (please pay attention to this) for why Christians should work a bit harder to try to understand the Bible correctly. The problem, however, is that many of us simply don’t want to hear this; actually treating truth as something worth working on interferes with our “making it up as we go” brand of reality. In other words, hermeneutics interferes with their heresy.

Witherington says:

But why would we need a guide to the perplexed in regard to the interpreting of the Bible? After all, don’t Christians have brains and the Holy Spirit to guide them? Well yes, but all modern brains are affected in the way they think by the modern cultural milieu in which they are immersed. They are affected as well by their whole educational progress (or regress) through school as well.

And frankly, ancient Biblical cultures, languages, and modes of conveying meaning are often so different from what modern ‘common sense’ may deduce that we do need some guidelines to help us interpret the Biblical texts which came out of very different cultures and circumstances from our own, ESPECIALLY if we are only trying to interpret the Bible on the basis of one or more English translations, none of which are perfect representations of the original language texts.

Witherington also gives three rudimentary rules of interpretation, with a brief explanation of each rule:

  1. What it meant is what it means
  2. Context is king
  3. Genre matters

Some may feel that these rules are meant to explain away some things, or to discredit some “pet” interpretations; however, these are simply rules for actually understanding what the Word of God actually means. Doesn’t this seem important? However, as sad as it is, there will be many who simply reject this approach as being “liberal,” or based on reason rather than “spirit.” These people will go on with their own version of reality based on subjective, individualized, out-of-context readings of the Bible, in effect taking the position that their own understanding is more authoritative than the Bible itself.

Sounds terribly postmodern, doesn’t it? Again, I’m not against different opinions on what a text means, and certainly not when it comes down to the application of a text’s meaning. However, if you’re going to simply pull meaning out of the air, why use the Bible at all?

There will be verse-mining and rumors of proof-texting. It’s unfortunate and apparently inevitable, especially when Christians reject “the good sense that God gave you.”

My Letter to a Christian Nation Pt 4: Please stop being so stupid…

Dear “Christian” Nation:

Please pay attention: You are not being persecuted if people hate you because you’re a jerk.

Almost daily, as I visit the blogs of Christians and Atheists, scan and delete e-mails, and read the occasional Christian newsletter, I see examples of obvious stupidity on the parts of Christians. It is, it seems, rampant in American Evangelicalism, Fundamentalism, and other para-Christian isms. If you’ve taken a look at Sam Harris’ $16.95 Letter To a Christian Nation, you’ll have seen that it was prompted by the large amount of “hate” mail he received, much of it from folks claiming to be Christians.

Harris writes:

Since the publication of my first book, The End of Faith, I have received thousands of letters and e-mails from religious believers insisting that I am wrong not to believe in God. Invariably, the most unpleasant of these communications have come from Christians. This is ironic, as Christians generally believe that no faith imparts the virtues of love and forgiveness more effectively than their own. Please accept this for what it is: the testimony of a man who is in a position to observe how people behave when their faith is challenged. Many who claim to have been transformed by Christ’s love are deeply, even murderously, intolerant of criticism. While you may ascribe this to human nature, it is clear that the hatred these people feel comes directly from the Bible. How do I know this? Because the most deranged of my correspondents always cite chapter and verse.

Harris has a good point. However, it must also be pointed out that anti-Christians are even worse… All you have to do is visit the same atheist / Darwinist blogs to see how absolutely vicious, obnoxious and stupid some (not all, or even most) atheists can be. (And, of course, Harris doesn’t appear to be bothered by viciousness when it’s directed toward Christians.) Self-righteousness is an ugly thing, whether it’s an atheistic self-righteousness or a pseudo-Christian self-righteousness.

You may note that I said “pseudo-Christian self-righteousness.” The reason is simply this: self-righteousness is simply the antithesis of Jesus’ teachings, his example and of the Christian Gospel itself. Remember things like “love your enemies,” “bless those who curse you,” and “turn the other cheek?” Remember also “take heed, he who thinks he stands, lest he fall?” What about “without love, you are as irritating as off-beat tambourine” (my interpretation). Do you understand that if you fall into any sort of self-righteousness you have, at that point, completely lost the Gospel? All of your foolish, arrogant, stupid “you atheists should rot in hell” comments are in a very real sense, un-Christian.

But wait, there’s more: Pithy sayings are an embarrassment to thinking people everywhere.

You can’t impress people with a smug, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” In fact, it’s my guess that there’s a very good chance that you’d completely embarrass yourself in any intelligent conversation with a non-Christian. Now, I have nothing against someone with a quiet, simple faith; some of these are, in fact, some of my favorite people and I don’t mean to offend them. But, a simple faith in the Flying Spaghetti Monster won’t do anyone any good; faith must be based in Truth as Paul points out:

For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge. Since they did not know the righteousness that comes from God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. Romans 10:2,3

Again, we find ourselves back to self-righteousness.

The people I am really speaking to are the smug, obnoxious folks who think that a bumper-sticker slogan is a great thing to yell at an atheist. A month or so ago an atheist friend of mine was confronted by a number of these obnoxious folks, who uses such witticisms as:

1. “Thank God for the Atheists!”
2. “I’ll pray for you!”
3. “I don’t believe in atheists!”
4. “God bless you!”
5. “So, do you, like, believe that the world just poofed itself into existence with no Creator?”

To you, I ask simply that you please shut up and start trying to use that brain (and heart) that God gave you.

Now, I know that there are stupid people everywhere, and that stupid Christians are no more stupid than stupid non-Christians (I mean, after all, you do believe in God, so I give you credit for that). But seriously, go back to my first point (about the persecution of jerks) and give it some thought. If an atheist is a stupid jerk, it’s nothing to me. However, if you say you’re a Christian and you’re a stupid, loud-mouthed jerk, it embarrasses all of us, and just gives a sense of credibility to people like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and others who hold you up as the example of the social devolution that religion causes.


My Letter to a Christian Nation 3: Building the Christian Ghetto

Dear Christian Nation,

So we’ve come to the conclusion that we don’t have a Christian nation, at least at the present. Not as we’d like it to be, anyway. We can’t seem to force everyone to say “under God” or pray every day, and we’re resigned to the fact that the Blue Laws are probably gone for good. So, what do we do? Obviously, we create a Christian Ghetto!

The term “Christian Ghetto” refers to a pseudo-Christian pop subculture that has been constructed for two main purposes, that I can see. One such purpose (I’m not sure if this is the primary or secondary purpose) is to be able to market “Christian” books, music, clothing and other kitsch to the middle-class western evangelical Christian population. The other reason is to both insulate and isolate Christians from the contamination of “the world.” This latter reason probably comes from a mis-translation of the John chapter 17 where Jesus prays that the church be “in the world but not impacting the world.” (Yes, that’s sarcasm.) The evidence of this Christian Ghetto includes Christian bookstores, Christian radio and TV networks, “Christian” music, “Christian” movies, “Christian” novels, and the list goes on. Much of this isn’t for evangelism or education (which I don’t have a problem with). I’m guessing that most of it in terms of dollars is simply “safe” entertainment for Christians.

But now we have a new frontier, one which has frightened the Christian Ghetto for a few years now: the internet. It’s wild, it’s woolly, and we’re not sure how to deal with it. We’ve got online communities growing like fungi in places like MySpace and YouTube, and blogs off all kinds. What’s the Christian going to do with the Net? Why, create an online Christian Ghetto, of course!

My friend Mike pointed out on his blog a couple of months ago the obvious and embarrassing habit conservative Christians have (it is, really, only the conservatives…) of copying the cool worldly trends that they don’t approve of. I don’t spend much time in the “ghetto” (it creeps me out, to be honest) so I wasn’t aware of these things. Leave it to an atheist to discover embarrassing things about Christians. So, here, for your further embarrassment, are some cheap Christian-ghetto rip-offs:

GodTube: Here, your family can watch safe videos, some even with a Christian message (caution: not all Christian videos are theologically sound). There actually are some that are hilarious, including the series parodying the Mac man vs the PC man. This series is very well-done. Note that I’m not against the videos, per se. I’m just grossed out by the “ghetto” mentality of the whole GodTube thing.

Conservapedia: This one goes over the edge, in my opinion. They even have a patriotic flag-thingy at the top. Obviously they found wikipedia too liberal for Christian use. According to the site, they feature “over 11,950 educational, clean, and concise entries” Now, the question is, can you trust anything with such an ultra-right spin? Well, according to their front page today, “The LA Times praised our entries on the tuba, Claude Monet, the nation of Latvia, Robin Hood, polygons, and The Renaissance.” Whoa!

Today I received an e-mail plug for a WordPress plug-in at a site called MyChurch. Well, I started poking around MyChurch (never did get around to checking out the plugin) and guess what? You guessed it, it’s a “Christian” MySpace! Granted this site may have some cool features, as it allows churches to set up their own networks; it’s probably nice for churches who don’t have a tech team to build and support a stand-alone website. But, the thing is just to myspacey for my taste, and it does plug itself as “a Christian social network” and says “Join MyChurch to stay connected with your church and friends!” As much as I like the internet, I think if you need something like MyChurch to stay connected with your church, there are some problems.

Again, I don’t have a problem with Christians making little video things and I don’t have a problem with social networking. What I see as problems are the rather obvious ripoffs of non-Christian (and oft-criticized) ideas, and the fact that they exist to propagate the Christian Ghetto mentality. This can be likened to the concept of “parallel play” in toddlers: children 2 or 3 years old will sit and play blocks, and appear to be playing together. But, they are not necessarily interacting, they are just playing by themselves next to someone else. It’s not the same thing.

As Christians, we are supposed to be “in the world” not “alongside and not interacting with the world.” The Christian Ghetto fails to accomplish the mission of the church by establishing at best a parallel culture (and often an Amish-like encapsulated culture) rather than being present to impact the world. You see, it’s possible to be a Christian on YouTube, or MySpace, and I tend to like Wikipedia a lot…

So, once again, my challenge to the Christians in this nation is be find out what it really means to be a Christian in this nation.