Thursday, May 10, 2007

more on jonah

One of the common objections among evangelicals to viewing some parts of the Bible, such as Jonah, as unhistorical, is that such a view is the first step down a long and treacherous slippery slope.

Ken Hamm, a major name in creationist circles, asks "If the Creation and the Deluge stories aren't actual events, as described, then at what point does God start meaning what he says?" Another popular question about Jonah is, if you can't believe in Jonah, how can you believe in Jesus coming back from the dead? Especially when he referred to "the sign of Jonah" as the only evidence his generation would receive of his messiahship! (I'd argue that Jesus' allusion no more requires it to be an historical event than my using the phrase "tilting at windmills" indicates I believe Don Quixote was a real person.)

I believe it was Real Live Preacher who once noted that once people start invoking the slippery slope, they find it harder and harder to use any other sort of argument, until after a brisk slide down, the slippery slope is the only argument they know how to make.

How can I believe in the Resurrection but not in Jonah's misadventure with a marine animal? It's actually pretty easy. I believe the story of Jonah being swallowed by a great fish is a parable about God's love for all nations. I believe that the Resurrection is an actual historical event. (See? It's not hard at all.)

Partly it's recognition that the Bible is a multigenre work. It contains mythology, from Genesis 1-12; it contains folk stories and legends, from Genesis 13-50, the books of Judges and Ruth, and parts of Exodus; it contains history, from Samuel through Kings and Chronicles, plus Ezra, Nehemiah, and Acts; it contains poetry, such as the Psalms and the Song of Songs; it contains wisdom literature, in Proverbs, Koheleth, and Job; mysticism in the gospel of John; theology in most of the Pauline and lesser epistles; personal correspondence such as Philemon; lessons on Christian living, such as the book of James; apocalyptic writing in Daniel and Revelation; and so on. The synoptic gospels actually combine several of these types of writing.

The Bible isn't a history text, though it contains history; it isn't a math text, though it contains some math; and it isn't a science text, though it contains some science. (And some of it appallingly bad, like the way Jacob breeds Laban's flocks so that he can get all the best ones and leave Laban with the weak ones.) I think we do the Scriptures an unncecessary violence when we insist that there is only one way to understand it, and that its every word has to be treated as definitive in terms of science, history. Its only claim about itself is that it's God-breathed and meant for instruction, encouragement, reproof, and revelation.

Given the polyphany of voices in Scripture, I don't think it's unreasonable to regard Jonah as divinely inspired fiction. In what way does that diminish its meaning or message? Either way, its inclusion in the canon shows that God's love abounds even to our enemies, and that his desire is for a broken heart and contrite spirit, rather than to leave a smoldering ruin where a great city once stood.


Anonymous said...

Warning: Some readers may find the content of this digital creation offensive and generally unsettling.


Not really, but I would like to ask one question in good natured counterpoint to the root of your belief system. Why did Jesus have to die for our sins? I mean, come on, if God is a god - omnipotent, omniscient and supremely benevolent then forgiveness is right up his alley, its kind of his trademark. "You screw it up, and I'll forgive you!" Would be this ideal being's motto. That is what he is.

So, why in gods' green earth would he need to torture a "mortal" incarnation of himself to death, just so he could "bring us home?"

OK, I know you're thinking, my kid asked me this just the other day. That's why it matters! Children (and me), just can't get their mind around it. (Though in their defense, the older I get the less I can get my mind around this concept.) Kids tend to accept what they are told, after a while, sometimes immediately, so eventually they give in..."OK, god so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son....Oh, sorry, God not god." Why.

I can't save you from your mistakes or the price that you will have to pay to learn from them. You can't save me from suffering the results of my actions. By doing so, and convincing me that someone can, you prevent me from bettering myself. I prevent me from seeing that what I do comes back to me. Instead I say Hail Marys, or the Lord's Prayer, or Salah, or (add your preferred worship here), and I feel forgiven, changed, bettered. Really, I'm just drunk on a belief system that teaches me that if I'm really, really sorry (or in some cases merely act like it) I can be freed from all of the wrong doings I've been feeling sorry about. Why change?

This, for me is the draw of Buddhism. No-one can do it for you. No being is so great that they are able to prevent you from learning. No being is so great that they can force you to learn, either. You are in charge of your own life. No one can save you, no one can condemn you, except you.


Anonymous said...

the previous comment did not appear where I had planned it. Sigh, well, I guess I'll need to pay more attention to what I'm doing when filled with zeal.

Since I'm here - I like Jonah. He's more authentically human than the other prophets/blessed to me. I think we might have been drinking buddies :)~ The meaning of this scripture also resonates better with me than most others. In fleeing god's will Jonah is merely fleeing his own perfection. By rejecting the oneness of all beings, he instead becomes the other, and it is only in confronting the otherness in himself that he is able to transcend it and embrace humanity. (OK, maybe embrace is a bit cheerier than it deserves, at least before the shrubbery dies, and he sees the unity of all beings.)

I do agree with you though, whether he is swallowed by a fish, or enters into the darkness of separation, it doesn't matter, he learned, he was able to change, and in his emancipation from that separateness, he was able to see the truth that binds us.


marauder said...

I don’t know if I’m getting your reaction right, but it sounds like you’re objecting to the evangelical Christian doctrine of substitutionary atonement. That’s the doctrine summed up in phrases like “We owed a debt we could not pay; he paid a debt he did not owe,” which holds that because of God’s high standard of justice, he was unable to forgive our sin unless someone’s blood was shed over it, so Jesus stepped forward and let himself be killed so that our sin could be removed or covered by his blood.

If that’s the aspect of Christianity you’re objecting to in terms of divine forgiveness and redemption, I can’t say I entirely blame you. While it certainly paints Christ in a positive light, taking the freight train of God’s wrath square in the chest to spare a world of sinners, I can’t say it creates a very favorable impression of God, especially when he claims to be loving and forgiving.

Thing is, like any other major religion, including Buddhism, there’s more than one way to understand the foundations of Christianity. The doctrine of substitionary atonement is, from what I understand, a relatively recent arrival on the scene in terms of understanding the Crucifixion and the significance of Christ’s life. It emphasizes the death of Christ, demotes the Resurrection almost to an afterthought, and barely touches on the life of Christ at all.

There’s an older doctrine called Christus Victor, taught in the Orthodox churches and only recently growing in favor in the West through theologians such as N.T. Wright, incidentally a bishop in the Episcopal Church. Christus Victor doesn’t emphasize the sacrifice of Christ as a substitution for our own deaths as much as it emphasizes the notion of Christ entering our lives and making people holy through the experience of the Incarnation, his entire life. In other words, Christ identifies with our experiences as people, being born as we are, growing through puberty as we do, and experiencing the slings and arrows of the same outrageous fortune that we endure. His crucifixion then becomes not a substitution for our own deaths, but identification with our shame and separation from God, sharing in the pain of death, and then through the Resurrection ushering us into a relief from shame, a promise of forgiveness and full restoration to God. My understanding of Christus Victor, which admittedly is still in its infancy, is that it holds that even if Adam had never brought sin into the world, the Incarnation still would have been necessary for us to experience greater intimacy with God.

See the difference? Christ didn’t come because was so mad at everyone’s sin that he was going to throw us all into hell; he came because God wanted a deeper relationship with us. Because of the Incarnation, the experience of being human is one that become suffused with Truth and Meaning, from growing a garden and painting a landscape, to suffering through a painful divorce and enduring mindless drudgery. The Incarnation, not the Crucifixion, distills the entire divine experience into humanity, and so creates the potential for every human to experience the divine in ordinary ways.

Anonymous said...

First I want to thank you for giving my response attention. I appreciate your willingness to discuss this intelligently with someone who has found faith to be too great a challenge. While I have considered the human incarnation as perhaps being the point of Jesus' visitation, I have not considered it as being the fruit of the christian church's teaching.

Having been "saved" years ago, I have not been able to get beyond my almost inexpressible resentment towards the "one-way" ticket to heaven I was sold as a young man. I needn't delve deeper into this, but I found myself unable to worship a being who is so inhumane is his treatment of living beings that he created or at least spawned. Or perhaps, it is that God has been painted as far too human and fatherly in his response to his "children." Again, I cannot worship such a being. So what does one do? I have not found answers that I could live with in christianity, in twenty years of searching, that I would not have to take on faith alone. I certainly am not likely to be listened to in my dis-ease with teachings that have been around for better than 2000 years.

Christus Victor sounds like an interesting approach to the divine, though again, why would God need to devise a plan to achieve a closer relationship with beings he has created? Perhaps I am balking at a simple truth in a childish manner. I will consider Christus Victor in a bit greater depth, and then get back to you.



marauder said...

I appreciate your willingness to discuss it as well. I've known a number of people on each side of the fence who see dialogue as an opportunity for name-calling and ad hominen attacks, rather than for mature discussion.

I guess it helps that we're both in the process of deconstructing (or reconstructing) faith in general and Christianity specifically. At the very least it means that neither of us has any reason to feel threatened by the other's comments, stance or beliefs. But you're still going to burn in hell, natch. :-P

Viewing the Incarnation and not the Resurrection as the point of Jesus' coming is a relatively new thought for me too; although I've come across it before, in things Madeleine L'Engle has said and written, I've never seen the thought as fully developed as I've been encountering it lately. And I have to say, it makes a lot more sense than the stuff I recall being told after my spiritual awakening to Christianity almost twenty years ago.

You mention God's inhumanity in your comment. Are you referring to hell, some of the stuff in the Hebrew Scriptures, or just the stuff they sometimes teach in church?

Part me wants to suggest that Edmund Blackadder had it right when he said that hell is horrible only if you don't like the things that they do in hell. ("You guys ain't gonna like Wednesdays ...") But the truth is that I don't really like the doctrine of hell much either, and I find myself disturbed by those who revel in the idea of mean people being beaten with red-hot pokers for the rest of eternity.

Of course our images of hell are greatly informed by medieval literature and its fantastic depictions of the horrible punishments tailor-made for each sin, like Dante's vision of deserts where fire falls like snow, where heretics and false prophets are cut to pieces by demons, where flatterers shit through their mouths, and where traitors to their benefactors are frozen in ice. (And the evangelical hell houses of course continue in that grand tradition.) To the Bible's credit, nothing that horrific is in its depiction of hell. The Greek word is actually a transliteration of gehenna, the Aramaic name for the garbage dump outside Jerusalem, where refuse continually smoldered and burst into flame as the methane built up, and of course, where worms aided in the decomposition process.

What I get from that is that hell is not as much a place of eternal and everlasting punishment, where the wicked are forced to dance upon red-hot iron (as I believe the Quran claims), as it is a final stop for, well, garbage. That still sounds cruel, but again (in my understanding), the idea is that Judgment Day is not a day where God tosses sinners into hell by the wagonload and pulls out the select few for endless hosannas and harp-playing as much as it is a day where God looks at the crops that have come in and sees which are weeds and which are what he wanted to plant. It's not that he's punishing and rewarding as much as he is seeing what will be plainly evident to all: those who have followed him and know him will become fully human, moreso than they ever have in their entire lives, and those who hae not followed, won't even be human any more, much like those Talking Beasts in "The Chronicles of Narnia," who stopped being Talking Beasts when they came before Aslan at the end of "The Last Battle." And I can't help but note that Jesus never makes a particular set of doctrine the standard by which we will be judged as he does a certain standard of conduct: the Samaritan who risks his life to save someone who would just as soon throw stones at him; the "sheep," who tend the sick, feed the hungry, and clothe the naked; and quite often, the poor, needy and oppressed themselves.

It doesn't make me like the doctrine of hell any more, but at least it makes a little more sense.

As to the stuff in Judges and other parts of the Hebrew Bible, I can honestly say I don't really know what to make of it entirely. Did the authors get it wrong? Did God change? Or did our understanding of him change?

Only a small and rigid mind objects to questions that have been around at least as long as the teachings themselves.

And you know, I haven't really found answers that I can live with either. I'm tired of putting off the questions, though, and am willing to let the chips fall where they may. I've already shocked some people with what I've said lately, benignly amused others who are a little farther along the journey I'm now undertaking, perplexed still others, and doubtless have some who are praying for my soul.

A couple thoughts present themselves on the subject of why God would take the road of the Incarnation toward greater intimacy with us:
1) Stop questioning. Just accept it on faith. (Sorry, I couldn't resist.)
2) Maybe it was a learning experience for God too.
3) The tao that can be perceived is not the eternal tao. But what it if the tao became flesh and walked among us? I doubt anyone can relate to a transcendent deity, but I think just about anyone can relate to a blue-collar laborer if we're willing to take the time.

Let me also recommend a great book called "The Secret Message of Jesus," by Brian McLaren. It is, I think, an excellent treatment on the Christus Victor understanding. A friend of mine got it for me, and it was like a spiritual H-bomb going off when I read it.