OMNIPOTENT-INERRANT-UNCHANGING GOD!

Jesus Talkin' - Titles

By Lee Karl Palo

© 2015 Lee Karl Palo

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          What if genuinely pious folks use language about God and the Bible in ways other than what we theologians think they do? Surveys ask people, “do you believe the Bible is to be taken literally?” Very often the answer is “yes.” But what is the alternative? To say “no” would seem to be disrespectful to the high value we place on scripture. What if instead the question was “do you think the Bible should be taken seriously?” To go even further, why not ask which descriptor better fits: “literally” or “seriously?” For that matter, how often do you hear people say things like “I literally [fill-in-the-blank],” when you know the word “literally” is used metaphorically?

In church we sing songs that typically assign the best and highest adjectives to God. “Our God is an AWESOME God, He reigns from…” Would this not train people to use words like “omnipotent,” “unchanging,” “inerrant,” etc? It is not as if there isn’t precedent for using language that way. The Roman Emperors used some pretty lofty titles for themselves that were then used by Christians to describe Jesus in conscious opposition to Roman Imperialism.

As someone with formal education in theology, I know a ton of problems caused by corollaries of omnipotence as related to the subject of theodicy. Thus I understandably shy away from its use. Sometimes this annoys people I know who are not theologians.

Sure Biblical inerrancy, in the minds of those untrained in Biblical exegesis, can often lead to the tacit assumption that one’s own interpretations are inerrant. That God is said to be unchanging often ignores the reality that our understanding of God has changed a lot over time. I don’t think about God the way I did as a child anymore. I suspect many others would share that experience of having grown in our understanding of who God is. Thus “unchanging” seems more like a nice thing to say about God than a reflection of our lived experience. I do recognize that it is often legitimately used to emphasize God’s consistent love and faithfulness for us.

What if people use language about God as an outgrowth of their worship, rather than as the result of serious theological ruminations? Would most people even have a frame of reference to use the word “omnipotence” in line with John Calvin’s thought? If what people practice on a weekly basis is using grandiose words of praise directed toward God, should it be any surprise that they are reluctant to embrace any talk about God that isn’t correspondingly grandiose?

Church services, with so much praise of God, and celebration of the miracles in the Bible, is it any wonder that some people have a hard time avoiding language that may be problematic in some circumstances? How often do you hear about people praying for something other than healing for those who are sick or injured? A line I often use when talking about the subject of prayer is that “if human beings are mortal, and all you ever pray for is healing, then sooner or later it isn’t going to work.”

Should we then avoid language that may be something of an exaggeration in our worship services? I’m not sure that would be appropriate, but evaluating the theology contained in the songs we sing is a good idea for many reasons. There is a time for praise, there is a time for lament, and there is a time for careful theological discussion. It may be wise to consider the context in which people use language about God. The same words may mean different things in different contexts and to different people.

If all of this is true, how can it influence the way we talk about God with others?

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© 2015 Lee Karl Palo

leekarlpalo@gmail.com

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God is Transgender (Untimely Meditations or Unfashionable Observations)

Jesus Talkin' - Transgender Jesus

By Lee Karl Palo

© 2015 Lee Karl Palo

If Genesis 1:27 has both men and women being created in the image of God, does that not mean that both genders are present in God?

The wisdom of God, personified as the feminine Sophia, was the mechanism through which God created, and is later identified as the “Word of God” in John’s Gospel. Is it not valid to say that when the Wisdom/Word of God became flesh, that God is thus to be considered transgender?

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Untimely Meditations or Unfashionable Observations are meant to provoke thought. They are not necessarily meant to convey the author’s actual opinion, and may be hypothetical in nature. The style is inspired by a certain oft-misunderstood European philosopher of the late 19th Century (he would have preferred to be called a European philosopher rather than a German philosopher) – “Dionysus.”

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© 2015 Lee Karl Palo

leekarlpalo@gmail.com

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Scratch Paper Creation

Scratch paper Creation

By Lee Karl Palo

© 2014 Lee Karl Palo

Is it six 24 hour days that God created the Heavens and the Earth?

One of the problems I see, looking at debates about how to understand Genesis, is that the creation texts are constantly held up against science. Conservative and fundamentalist interpreters often defend the Genesis 1 creation account as an accurate scientific description of how God created the universe, while liberal, progressive, and moderate interpreters tend to use science to demonstrate how Genesis 1 is not scientific. Given that I am writing a book about Genesis 1-11, this just doesn’t make sense to me.

Until the Cokesbury Christian Bookstores were closed in 2013, I was the manager of the Seattle store, and every now and then someone would engage me in a discussion of some religious topic. One day there was a fundamentalist who came in to the store and talked with me, insisting that Genesis 1 must be seen as scientifically true. I am neither a fundamentalist, nor would many people consider me conservative. Now being a bookstore manager means it is not my place to engage in debate with customers.

In this case I drew a quick diagram on a piece of scratch paper (similar to the one below). The first column had days 1, 2, and 3. The second column had days 4, 5, and 6. I drew arrows going from the first three days to the second three days.

Six Days of Creation Scratch Paper

I mentioned to the customer that the spaces created in the first three days are filled in the second three days. Day 1 is light/dark and day/night, while Day 4 is the sun, moon, and stars to fill the day/night. Day 2 has the sea and sky, while Day 5 has fish and birds to fill the sea and sky. …and the same is true for Day 3’s relationship to Day 6. The sixth day has animals and human beings filling the space created on the third day (the land and the plants).

I didn’t say anything else, but the customer asked if he could keep the diagram (which I let him do). What I wanted to ask him was, “how does that pattern look anything like a scientific account?” Does it not look much more like poetry, albeit one with theological content?

Fundamentalists expect to have science used against them (see Ken Ham). Rather, use the literary quality of the text itself to show how the text is meant to be understood. Thus my method (in contrast to the typical “liberal” method of using science against “fundamentalist” interpretation) is to reveal the literary conventions of the text, and in so doing, undermine fundamentalist interpretation.

You may ask, “What does Lee think about whether Genesis 1 intends six 24 hour days?” The short answer is “Yes, the text really does intend people to understand creation in terms of six days.”

Why?

Framing creation in terms of a week drives home the centrality of Sabbath observance (read Exodus 20:11). The week of creation is to be understood as an allegory for how the Sabbath is integral to the rhythms of time at creation and in the present. Listening to people talk about how a thousand years is as a day to God is just nonsense in this context. It is a clever way of taking the story of Genesis 1 literally, while not taking the days literally. …and it completely misses the theological point of the importance of the Sabbath, which is the purpose for using days in the first place.

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 © 2014 Lee Karl Palo

leekarlpalo@gmail.com

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Sermon – The Bible is Cool!

My Bible

By Lee Karl Palo

© 2014 Lee Karl Palo

     Having a seminary level education and many years’ experience working at a Christian bookstore, I consider myself something of a Bible-geek. Thus I often get asked questions about the Bible. Many times this is as simple as what Bible translation I would recommend and why. Other times I am asked much more in-depth questions about the meaning of specific parts of the Bible. So when I was given this opportunity to preach again, I thought I might use it to talk about the Bible. So I will be discussing a variety of things about the Bible, including different translations, how translations are made, some peculiar and interesting facts about the Bible, and I will make some recommendations.

New Year’s Resolution

     At the end of the year it is time for many of us who choose a new year’s resolution to do so. For 2014 I made the decision not to post anything about politics on my Facebook page. That worked out reasonably well, and I think I will continue the habit into 2015 as well. I don’t intend to be as strict about it though. What I would like to do for next year is to read through the entire Bible. Since it is not a short book, there are many different plans for reading through the Bible in a year. Some suggest reading through from Genesis to Revelation. This can get a little trying when you have to wade through some of what most people would consider some pretty boring material like the first eight chapters of 1 Chronicles. I prefer a plan that has both Old and New Testament passages, which can make for a much more interesting daily reading schedule.

Why Read the Bible?

     2 Timothy 3:16-17 famously reads, “Every scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for showing mistakes, for correcting, and for training character, so that the person who belongs to God can be equipped to do everything that is good.” People often talk about the inspiration of the scriptures, but what does that mean? The 2 Timothy passage tells us that scripture is inspired, but not what exactly that inspiration is. There are various ways people define inspiration. The word itself means “breathed into.” It is common to talk about the Bible as if its inspiration was only relevant to when the books of the Bible were written. This is a mistake. I believe it is important to emphasize that no matter what translation of the Bible you read, God can inspire you through it. How it is that God inspired the Biblical authors is something of a mystery. The only way we have known of the inspiration of the Bible is by God speaking to us, the community of faith, through it. The answer to the question, “why read the Bible,” from the earliest of times has been that we can encounter God’s presence through the text of scripture.

The Word of God is…?

Another question that is good for us to ask: The Word of God is…?

Given this context of a sermon about the Bible, it is tempting to say that the Bible is the Word of God. It is true that we often talk about it that way, but it would be more accurate to phrase the question as, “who is the Word of God?” Most of you reading this would doubtless be familiar with John 1:1-18, which identifies Jesus as the Word of God made flesh. It is very important to remember that the Bible points us to Jesus as the “Word of God,” and not to itself.

So we know the Bible is a powerful book, but how much do we know about the Bible we have today?

The Formation of the Canon of Scripture

      The books that now comprise the Bible were written over a period of more than one thousand years, by many different people. Nearly all of the books were written for religious instruction, but were not considered scripture until much later. Even by Jesus’ day the only part of the Bible that everyone would have considered scripture was the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament (also known as the Pentateuch). Generally speaking there were no councils convened for the purpose of determining what books would be considered scripture, despite what Dan Brown might lead you to think in his novel “The Da Vinci Code.” Basically Jews and Christians had a number of books that they considered to be useful for spiritual growth and religious education. Of those books, the list didn’t really get narrowed down until there was conflict over the use of certain books by other religious groups. Since Jesus was a Jew, it made sense for early Christians to accept many of the books that Jews were also using. This prompted those Jews who did not become Christians to look at just which books they should consider scripture besides the generally accepted books of the Torah. Thus the Old Testament as we know it was born.

The formation of the New Testament canon was a bit messier. Jesus’ words very quickly took on the authority of scripture. We know this from the way in which our earliest New Testament author, Paul, would reference Jesus’ teachings. However, it would be some time before those words were written down in the Gospels we today have in the Bible (which are the earliest gospels known). It may be that a book like Q was first compiled as a collection of Jesus teachings, and was later absorbed by the authors of the Synoptic Gospels. You begin to see more effort on the part of Christian leaders to define which books they viewed as authoritative when heretics like Marcion began to edit Paul’s letters and the Gospel of Luke to suit his own theological views. Nevertheless it isn’t until the fourth century that you get a list, from Athanasius, of the books we now have in the New Testament, and only those books, as the authoritative Christian scriptures.

One thing that should be added is that for the Christians who would pass the faith down to us today, there were never hundreds or thousands of books for them to choose from to be in the New Testament. The books they used the most in their communities of faith are the ones we have in the New Testament. There were a few books that were being used by those communities that didn’t “make the cut,” but they were still seen to be valuable. Occasionally a book with questionable content would be used by some churches, but frequently such material would be quickly denounced as heretical by church leaders. It doesn’t take a rocket-scientist to read the final saying (114) in the Gospel of Thomas and wonder why it wasn’t accepted as scripture by the majority of Christians—it is pretty obvious.

The New Testament we have represents those books that were seen to have ties to Apostolic sources, and that the community of faith felt God’s continued inspiration from their use.

The Languages of the Bible

     The Bible was not originally written in English. It appears in English as the result of translating the original languages the books of the Bible were written in. The Old Testament was originally composed in Hebrew. The New Testament was composed in Greek. This is a bit of an oversimplification however. The authors of the New Testament themselves, when they quoted the Old Testament, were not themselves reading and translating the original Hebrew. By Jesus day the Old Testament had been translated into a popular Greek translation called the Septuagint. Jesus and his Disciples spoke Aramaic, so they may have heard Aramaic translations and interpretations of various books of the Old Testament called “Targumim.” At times when you read the Bible, you may notice that a New Testament quotation of the Old Testament isn’t always identical to the Old Testament passage being quoted. This is because the translator is working from the Greek New Testament with its quotations of the Greek Old Testament (as opposed to the Hebrew original). This is one complication related to the translation of the Bible into English, there are many other difficulties facing translators as well. Let’s look at a few of them.

Colloquialisms

     Language is not always used in a plain sense in English. I titled this sermon, “The Bible is Cool,” as a fun example of this issue. If someone was new to learning English, they might wonder what cold temperatures have to do with the Bible. There are examples of this in the Bible too. As we still use the word “cool” to refer to temperature from time to time, so it is with some words and phrases in the Bible. A few good examples of this are “sitting at the feet,” “knowing,” “gnashing teeth,” and “uncovering feet.” Some translators choose to ignore the literal word in favor of a more accurate word in its place. It is possible that translators could choose to find a different phrase that today works along the same lines as the Biblical phrase. Gnashing one’s teeth implies a great amount of anger, so you could substitute the phrase “pissed off.” However, that sounds a bit vulgar for translating the Bible, even if it is an accurate way to translate the phrase “gnashing teeth.”

$#!+

     Other times translators do not want to translate the blunt meaning of the text because it is deemed inappropriate for public reading, etc. Did you know that there is profanity in the Bible? Look up Philippians 3:8. Whatever English translation you look at uses a phrase like sewage, sewer trash, rubbish. The original Greek of Paul’s letter is a lot stronger than this, and the most accurate translation would be a certain four-letter word that represents feces.

Titles and Slogans

     There are also phrases and titles that have more meaning than people living today would understand. Titles like “Son of God” and “Savior of the World” were not understood by most people living in the First Century CE to be about Jesus. In fact most of the people across the Roman Empire in Paul’s day would have heard those phrases used most often with reference to the Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus. Only people who identified as Christians would have thought those titles were properly addressed to Jesus. It would be like us today talking about Jesus as our “Commander-in-Chief,” “Leader of the Free World,” “President,” and so on. Another Bible passage, 1 Thessalonians 5:3, is where Paul quotes the common Roman Imperial slogan “There is peace and security.” This would be like quoting the phrase “The land of the free and the home of the brave” today. You can take it literally, but all of us would know that there is an undeniable reference to the United States there.

The Divine Name

     There are, at times, difficulties with Biblical names. The name of God, in particular, is a bit tricky. YHWH, the personal name of God, is revealed to Moses at the Burning Bush (Exodus 3:14-15), but the name of God was considered too special and holy to be pronounced aloud. As a solution, the word “LORD” in all capital letters was substituted for the divine name. So when you come across it when you read the Bible, it is always used in place of God’s personal name.

The Meaning of Names

     While there are quirks as to how God’s personal name appears in the Bible, that doesn’t address what the name itself means. There is a lot more to the meaning of the divine name than I have time for here. In brief, God’s name has a deliberate range of meaning. It can represent “I Am,” which is the most common way to refer to it, but it also means “I Will Be.”

Names have meaning, but translators don’t translate the meaning of proper names. When you read the name “Leah” in the Bible, you don’t think of “cow,” or “sheep” when you read the name “Rachel.” Nevertheless, the meaning of the names is played upon in the text of Genesis (the author of Genesis loved puns and wordplays). It was also common in the ancient world to incorporate the name of a God into personal names for people. The practice is referred to as theophory. Bible translators are in the practice of finding equivalent characters for personal names, what is more often called “transliteration.” In other words, translators ask which English letters are the closest to the letters of the original languages. Often this means there is some similarity to the pronunciation in English to the pronunciation of the original language. When you read the name “Jeremiah,” there isn’t anything that stands out as a part of the divine name, but when you pronounce the personal name for God, “Yahweh,” and the name “Jeremiah,” you can hear the “yah” sound at the end of Jeremiah (incidentally, Jeremiah means “God exalts”). The generic name for God, “El” is also commonly used in names, such as “Ezekiel” (and it is much easier to spot in English translation).

When you read names, even when you come across genealogies, there may be more to the text than you might think.

Literary Devices

     People in the ancient world did not have many of the conventions of writing that we do today. Punctuation and paragraph divisions are more recent advancements in writing. Writing was also more of a way to preserve the spoken word, than it was an end in itself. Most of the people in the ancient world could not read or write. Thus a book’s use would be primarily in its being read aloud to an audience. In many cases the books we have are merely the written preservation of what was first composed orally. Since people were concerned with memory then as now, there were memory aids incorporated into the composition of many works. One such literary device that facilitated memory is called chiasmus. This is where you have a series of parallels that are inverted. Sometimes this can be as large as whole story episodes, and sometimes this can be as small as sentences or phrases. How it works is that the first idea parallels the last idea, the second idea parallels the next-to-last idea, the third idea parallels the third to last idea, and so on. In many cases there is an unparalleled center point, sometimes there is not. Often the various parallels help to interpret each other, sometimes it is just more of a poetic aesthetic (like repeating a phrase with the same or similar wording).

Since much of the Bible was designed to be spoken and transmitted by word of mouth, chiasmus was often the form the Biblical authors chose to use. If you remember the first half of a story, it is much easier to remember the second half. Here is a fun example…

Genesis 6:1-4

1When the number of people started to increase throughout the fertile land, daughters were born to them. 2The divine beings saw how beautiful these human women were, so they married the ones they chose. 3The Lord said, “My breath will not remain in humans forever, because they are flesh. They will live one hundred and twenty years.” 4In those days, giants lived on the earth and also afterwards, when divine beings and human daughters had sexual relations and gave birth to children. These were the ancient heroes, famous men.

Genesis 6 1-4 Chiasm

Verse 3 seems a bit out of place until you notice that it is the center point of a chiasm. This Bible passage could appear as something of a factual description of what was going on, but when it is understood to be part of a chiasm, the meaning becomes clearer. Since verse three is the climax of the chiasm it leads to the conclusion that God is displeased by these relationships between divine beings and human daughters. In the literature of the ancient world (particularly in the Epic of Gilgamesh), one of the ways people faced their mortality was through doing acts to make themselves famous. When the story is understood in its chiastic form it is possible to see the conclusion, with the famous heroes, to be a rejection of the mortality God has imposed.

There are other literary devices in the Bible as well. Some are a lot like what we still use today, for example: puns and wordplays. Most English translations just can’t capture the rhyming of the original languages. Everett Fox, in an effort to help an English audience see some of the textual play going on, translated the Pentateuch to highlight these fun rhythms and inside jokes of the Biblical text. Occasionally you may find a note in an English translation, like the Common English Bible, that remarks ‘the Hebrew sounds like such and such’ to help draw the reader’s attention to some of the more well known wordplays in the Bible.

Yes, there are jokes in the Bible too. One downside to people reading the Bible literally is that some of these jokes are taken far too seriously. One great example that I love is in the story of the Tower of Babel. Most every Christian will say that God is present everywhere. So what does it mean to talk about a tower that was meant to reach the heavens, when God “has to come down” to see it (Genesis 11:5)? Clearly the height of the tower is being mocked by the Biblical author, rather than God being understood as some type of “old man” who resides up in the sky far away.

Junia

     As you may understand by now, translators have an impossible task trying to communicate all of the meaning the scriptural text has. This is, of course, why many Bible commentaries and Bible study material has been written, as well as why there are so very many English translations of the Bible. No translation is ever perfect. Unfortunately, there are also times when people’s theological agendas get in the way of translating the Bible accurately. One of the most famous Bible verses in this regard today is Romans 16:7. Depending on what English Bible translation you have in front of you, it might refer to a woman, “Junia,” or a man, “Junias.” Some more conservative Bible translators don’t believe that women can be pastors today, much less back in New Testament times, so they changed “Junia” to “Junias” thinking it had to be a mistake that there was mention of a woman being an Apostle. Well, other scholars have noted that the name “Junias” does not appear on any ancient writings, so the newest conservative Bible translations have the name switched back to Junia. They haven’t given up though, so you will find that many of those new conservative Bible translations have instead chosen to alter the meaning from Junia being a prominent Apostle to Junia being prominent according to the Apostles.

Thus far I have discussed a wide variety of problems and quirks of Bible translation. This shouldn’t cause us to despair. They don’t amount to any kind of dramatic shift in the basic meaning of the Bible. Martin Luther was surely onto something when he translated the Bible into German so everyday people could read the Bible. Indeed, the Bible should be available for all people to read, because God is still speaking to us through it.

Choosing a Bible

     I hope you will take up the challenge to read through the Bible in a year. Further, I would recommend reading the Bible in a different translation than you are accustomed to. There are several good translations out there. My favorite is the Common English Bible for a variety of reasons. Eugene Peterson’s The Message is an interesting combination of both translation and paraphrase. Since Peterson was using the Hebrew and Greek texts it is a translation, but since he is looking to convey the meaning of the text rather than choose words and sentence structure that closely resemble the original languages, it is also a paraphrase. This does mean that sometimes he can provide a more accurate rendition of the text than a more literal translation. One good example of this is Deuteronomy 6:5 that the Common English Bible renders as, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your being, and all your strength.” To the ancient Hebrews, you define something not through precision, but by tossing around a bunch of terms and ideas so the audience gets the point. In this way Peterson translates the verse as, “Love GOD, your God, with your whole heart: love him with all that’s in you, love him with all you’ve got!” In that way it is more accurate to the meaning the author intended, even if it isn’t a word-for-word translation.

While some readers may have grown up with King James Bibles, it is far from the most accurate translation available today. Many archaeological discoveries, particularly the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and advances in textual criticism have resulted in more accurate and easy to read English translations of the Bible. My personal top three Bible translations are the Common English Bible, the New Revised Standard Version, and Eugene Peterson’s The Message. The Message is especially good if you have already read through the entire Bible, if you find reading to be a problem in general, or if you want a fresh and unique translation. Others that may be worth a look are the New Living Translation and either the Today’s New International Version or the 2011 update of the New International Version (primarily because of the improvements made with those revisions). In the end though, let me assure you that God can speak no matter what translation you are reading.

Conclusion

     What does all this talk of Bible translation mean? There is always more going on in the Bible than you realize! Understanding the Bible is a lifelong journey, not a destination. God inspired the authors of the Bible. God works through Bible scholars today to help us better understand the original meaning of the Bible. God inspires us as we read the Bible. I recommend reading the Bible with an open-mind, and don’t assume the way you read it, or the way that God inspires you through it, is the only way it can be understood. Prepare yourself to encounter the Word of God as you read the words of scripture. This can be an amazing journey, one that I hope you will join me on for 2015!

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© 2014 Lee Karl Palo

leekarlpalo@gmail.com

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Christian Witness about Homosexuality

Question Mark

By Lee Karl Palo

© 2014 Lee Karl Palo

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          Finally, a resolution to the long ordeal of Rev. Frank Schaefer has come down. Rev Schaefer, who performed a same-sex wedding ceremony for his son, can now continue with his appointed ministry in the denomination he is a member of. This is, of course, a resolution that could never please all parties within the denomination. In the grand scheme of things, it just happens to be the most recent high-profile case involving questions of sexuality and the church that has been a source of division in Mainline Protestant denominations over the last decade-and-a-half. What lessons can we draw from events like this with regard to the future of the church?

The issue of whether a denomination should be open and affirming toward LGBTQ persons of faith or should condemn homosexual practice is a very divisive one. If nothing else, it helps to create negative perceptions about church in general regardless of denominational identity. What do the unchurched think when they hear of all this conflict within various Christian groups? One may wonder if such negative perceptions are unavoidable given that there is seen to be a lot at stake by those who take a stand on the issue.

Certainly a complicating factor for this problem is the frequently vitriolic nature of discourse and debate on the internet. People often feel free to comment with anonymity or impunity, and the more people feel their opinions are ignored or marginalized, the more they can become inappropriately aggressive in their responses. Anger and fear physiologically drive us toward conclusions upon which we can immediately act, and are generally not helpful for thoughtful dialogue.

How then can we get beyond these problems and actually have constructive and helpful debate on the issue? An often trite answer is to just listen to what other people are saying. This is a good principle, but not everyone is trained in how to listen closely and effectively. The debate over homosexuality and the church is one area where people often talk at others rather than to others they disagree with. It also seems like those with whom we disagree really aren’t listening to us either. How is this?

What is going on?

          The problem with this issue is that there is no agreed upon definition of terms for the debate. People are actually listening at times, but they only hear words in ways they themselves have defined them, not how those who are speaking define their words. So, you may ask, what is the difference in definitions? I initially described the debate about homosexuality as being about whether the church should be open and affirming of LGBTQ persons of faith or whether homosexual practice should be condemned. This is not accidental. One side views the debate as whether or not LGBTQ people are to be welcomed into the church, while the other side views the debate as whether or not the practice of homosexuality is to be condemned. In an attempt to avoid pejorative terminology, the former position is commonly called the “progressive” position, while the latter position is called “traditional.”

Progressives believe that the debate about homosexuality is ultimately about the very personhood of LGBTQ folks. Seen from this viewpoint, no factor of someone’s innate makeup should bar them from participation in the church. Traditionalists, by contrast believe that the debate about homosexuality is ultimately about ethical behavior, specifically that homosexual practice is seen to be unethical in all circumstances. Thus sin should be called sin, from this perspective.

Both progressives and traditionalists use their respective definitions and don’t at all embrace the other side’s definitions. How could a person possibly not be who they were born as? If you are Caucasian, you can’t not be Caucasian, for example. Thus if you are LGBTQ, you can’t not be LGBTQ, so say the progressives. To the traditionalists, people always have a choice about whether they will sin or not. Not everyone suffers from the same temptations, so why should there be an exemption for certain acts clearly understood to be sin?

The debate between these two sides not using definitions in common for the same terms can, and often does, degenerate very quickly. Lets look at how this plays out for each side of the debate…

* * * *

          A traditionalist perceives progressives as advocating for the acceptance of certain types of sin and wonders what the next sin will be that progressives will no longer call sin. Progressives are seen by traditionalists to be promoters of immoral behavior. This makes sense if homosexuality is only defined in terms of certain proscribed sex acts. Traditionalists very often advocate loving sinners and hating the sin. But what happens if, as the progressives see it, this issue isn’t about sin at all?

* * * *

          A progressive perceives the issue as being about the rejection of a certain class of people for no other reason than who they are intrinsically. For traditionalists to say “love the sin but hate the sinner” can only mean to LGBTQ persons that they can never be allowed to be or express part of their deepest identity under any and all circumstances. It is a rejection of the highest order. For progressives, the only parallel in recent memory is that of racism. Thus traditionalists are seen by progressives as bigoted and racist.

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          To traditionalists, since they only perceive the issue as being about immoral behavior, it doesn’t make sense to them to be called “racist.” How can one possibly be a racist for saying that an immoral act is immoral? An analogy would be to not condemn robbery as an immoral act—there are plenty of acts we rightly condemn as immoral, so it doesn’t make sense to be called a racist for making certain ethical judgments. It thus appears to traditionalists that progressives are using the ad hominem fallacy (calling them pejorative names) when progressives call traditionalists “racist.” But to progressives how could traditionalists not be seen as anything but racist when they reject people for no reason other than the way they were born?

* * * *

          When progressives hear that traditionalists are calling progressives immoral, it also appears to be an ad hominem. How could it be, the progressive wonders, that they are advocating for immoral behavior when they advocate for same-sex marriage? Is not marriage the most universally agreed upon best-context for sexual relations? It should be the most moral thing to do to not only talk about sexual ethics but to also promote a healthier alternative to promiscuous behavior—that of marriage (be it “traditional” or same-sex marriage).

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          Perhaps by now you can see all the more why the debate on homosexuality and the church often gets heated and vitriolic. Each side frequently hears the other side calling them names, like “racist” or “immoral,” that don’t make sense to them. But of course the names make appropriate labels of the other side by those doing the labeling. …all because of a difference in the definitions of the basic terms used in the debate. If you take the time and listen very carefully, you can discern these differences in definition. Notice how examples are given by traditionalists of other sexual sins beyond homosexuality. They are treating the discussion as one of sexual ethics, not something like genetics or discrimination. Traditionalists wonder if those other sexual sins are going to be the next things to become acceptable by progressives in the church. To them sin is sin no matter what the sin happens to be, so if one sin is not to be any longer considered sin, where’s the criteria to say other things are or are not sin anymore? Notice also how progressives don’t talk about the issue being one of sin, but as being about God’s love for all people—being about justice and human rights for all people. How can someone be condemned for something akin to the color of their skin? Shouldn’t people be able to be ethically and responsibly who they are, and not be forced to be something they are not?

So what does all this mean for the future of the Church?

          It isn’t easy for many people to listen this closely, because when feelings get riled then carefully reasoned debate often gets lost. People in general are sensitive to being called names. How can the church get past the vitriol, when it is intrinsic to the debate? What does the nature of this debate say to those outside of the church? American society as a whole has embraced the progressive definition of homosexuality as being fundamentally about a person’s intrinsic identity. This means that for a very vocal percentage of the Christian population who identify with the traditionalist position, they are being perceived as racist, bigoted, and irrational, not only by progressives within the church, but by those outside of the church as well. And thus traditionalist arguments against homosexual practice are doomed to make little or no headway to those outside of the church. But when the debate within the church gets heated, as it is prone to do, how will the unchurched perceive progressive “attacks” on traditionalists?

No matter which side of the debate you are on, will they (those outside of the church) know that we are Christians by our love? This issue is not merely a matter of whether you are a progressive or a traditionalist, but how you conduct yourself in the debate. If you don’t understand how you are being perceived by those on the other side of the debate, how can you hope to make any headway with them? How can you hope to reach those outside of the church with a welcoming message of God’s grace, particularly when you are perceived to be anything but kind or welcoming to some of your fellow Christians?

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Does Jesus’ admonishment to love your enemy have relevance here? How are you going to talk about, or talk to, those with whom you disagree?

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© 2014 Lee Karl Palo

leekarlpalo@gmail.com

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Top Ten Books

By Lee Karl Palo

© 2014 Lee Karl Palo

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Books 1

Something making the rounds on social media is a question about what your “top ten books” are that you have found to be the most influential. I don’t tag people to get them to compile a list of their own, but it is a good exercise. So without further ado…

1. The Bible

Easily the most influential book for me on this list has been and continues to be the Bible. I am very fond of Genesis in particular (I am writing a book on Genesis 1-11 in its Ancient Near Eastern literary and rhetorical context).

I recommend the Common English Bible Translation for a variety of reasons.

2. The Tao Te Ching

I took a World Religions course in college from Michael Lodahl which introduced me to The Tao Te Ching, and I fell in love with it. I own more than 30 different English translations (when you read it you’ll know why). This is also the shortest book on the list, as you can easily read it in much less than a day. This has always struck me as more of a philosophical text than a religious one.

3.The Tacit Dimension” by Michael Polanyi

In Seminary I was told by one of my fellow students, “What you are saying sounds a lot like Michael Polanyi.” So I obviously had to check it out. I asked Professor Truesdale for advice on which of Polanyi’s books to start with and this was the one he recommended. After having read Polanyi’s other books, I would agree with Dr. Truesdale that this is the best place to begin. If you want to understand how people learn then Polanyi is must-reading. He is like a cross between William James and Thomas S. Kuhn: he sees a lot of the same things as Kuhn, but has the positive outlook of James. It is also interesting to compare James’ concept of habit with Polanyi’s concept of indwelling.

Books 2

Speaking of William James…

4.The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy” by William James

and

5.Essays in Pragmatism” by William James

William James is my favorite philosopher. There is so much good stuff in his works. I highly recommend reading the essay, “The Will to Believe” in particular. James is great at finding common-sense solutions to intellectual problems. Can a man ever go around a squirrel if the squirrel always remains on the other side of the tree from you? The essay, “On Some Hegelisms” is also a gem. I love the metaphor of Hegel’s philosophy being like a whirlpool that can suck you down to the depths of the sea (I’m not a fan of Hegel).

6.The Portable Nietzsche” by Friedrich Nietzsche (edited by Walter Kaufmann)

I started reading Nietzsche because I wanted to know what serious atheists were saying about Christianity so that I could defend the faith. I ended up agreeing with Nietzsche a lot more than I expected to. The Portable Nietzsche contains selections from all of his writings including the entirety of a few of them like Thus Spoke Zarathustra. It is a good place to start if you are interested in reading Nietzsche. You see famous quotes in-context like “God is dead” and “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger” (from The Gay Science and The Twilight of the Idols respectively). The latter quote is typically misquoted—it actually reads “Out of life’s school of war: what does not destroy me, makes me stronger.”

7.The Great Divorce” by C.S. Lewis

The psychological genius and imagination of Lewis is just amazing. In my opinion, The Great Divorce showcases his profound psychological insight the best. “The Screwtape Letters” is similarly full of insight. The title “The Great Divorce” is rather misleading. It is a work of fiction that tells the tale of a journey where people from Hell visit Heaven—and they have the option to stay in Heaven!

8.Scientific Mythologies: How Science and Science Fiction Forge New Religious Beliefs” by James Herrick

I am a huge Sci-Fi fan, be it Babylon 5, Star Wars or the various iterations of Star Trek. Thus Herrick’s book was very helpful in illuminating many ideological presuppositions that have a significant influence on people (often without Sci-Fi fans being aware of them). This book also gave me more appreciation for C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, That Hideous Strength, and the unfinished work The Dark Tower).

9.Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” by J.K. Rowling

After College and Seminary this was the first fiction book that really restored my love for fiction. Rowling has a fantastic imagination!

10.Love Wins” by Rob Bell

Rob Bell is able to use the Bible to question many Evangelical Protestant theological traditions that may not have as much scriptural support as Evangelicals think they do. In this case he asks some probing questions about what the point of the Christian faith really is. Can it really be reduced to a question of where you go after you die? Rob would seem to say, “no.” I would have to agree with that. It is unfortunate that most of the critics of this book get stuck on whether or not Rob Bell believes in Hell, when I’m not sure Rob really cares about whether there is or isn’t a Hell in the afterlife. I suppose what I admire most about Rob Bell is his epistemological humility and his method for communicating the Gospel. When I read him I feel like I am reading a book by someone who really cares about people and doesn’t want to tell them the answers so much as show them the way.

11? There are certainly some honorable mentions to this list. N.T. Wright and Marcus Borg have also had a significant influence on me. Reading Rachel Held Evans is like an “amen” experience. The fiction series “The Liturgical Mysteries” by Mark Schweizer is very humorous and a lot of fun!

NT Wright and Marcus Borg

So the question is now, what books or authors have influenced you?

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© 2014 Lee Karl Palo

leekarlpalo@gmail.com

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What Christianity is Really All About—The World of Love

By Lee Karl Palo

© 2014 Lee Karl Palo

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Unless otherwise noted, all scripture quotations are from the Common English Bible (CEB). For reasons as to why I use the CEB, go here.

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          What follows is an attempt to sketch out what the Christian faith is really all about in a positive manner. This is more difficult than you might think. One of the more challenging practices when you are a philosopher or theologian is making a positive statement. Pretty much everything you can say is a comment or evaluation on what has come before, a reality which doubtless gave rise to Alfred North Whitehead’s famous line, commonly paraphrased as: “All of philosophy is a footnote to Plato.”[i] This is also true in Christianity as well. The beliefs we have were formulated in light of other beliefs. For example, the authors of the Bible weren’t writing in a vacuum, but were aware of the religious beliefs of their neighbors (Egyptian, Babylonian, Greek, Canaanite, etcetera).

If we ask, what is Christianity really all about? I would argue that in essentials it is about a proactive commitment to live as a people of God called to love God and love others, as a people called to join in the task of making the world a better place—doing good to others and caring for the world in the service of a loving creator, as a people called to embody this love of God as an expression of the reign and realm of God in action in the world today!

That’s it in brief, but few things this important can be stated this briefly so let me sketch this out just a bit more as my own footnote responses. The hope is that I might provoke some conversation

The Core of a Positive Faith

          In the New Testament, Jesus identifies what he believed to be the essential elements of faith in God. This is what he says…

One of the legal experts heard their dispute and saw how well Jesus answered them. He came over and asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus replied, “The most important one is Israel, listen! Our God is the one Lord, and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, You will love your neighbor as yourself. No other commandment is greater than these.” Mark 12:28-31

In the Matthew 22:34-40 parallel Jesus also said, “All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.” This has been and continues to be a common emphasis in both Judaism and Christianity. This emphasis is comprised of two Bible passages from the Torah that together make up the core of faith. The first is Deuteronomy 6:4-5, “Israel, listen! Our God is the Lord! Only the Lord! Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your being, and all your strength.” This passage is referred to as the “Shema” in Judaism. The second verse, is Leviticus 19:18b, which reads “you must love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord.”

Judaism preserved these commands as central to their religious identity. Christianity took this further by extending the religious ideal of love for God and neighbor, not just for one ethnic group, but for all of humanity. This relationship of Christianity to Judaism has been characterized by Franz Rosenzweig as akin to Judaism being like the Sun and Christianity being the rays of the Sun. A commitment to serve and care for God and others is thus central to the Christian faith, and is what I will refer to as “the core.”

Positive Faith in Action

          After Jesus’ answer regarding which commandment is the most important in the Markan passage cited above (Mark 12:28-31), the “legal expert” follows up Jesus answer in Mark 12:32-34. There is a clear allusion to Micah 6:6-8 in the legal expert’s reply. The passage culminates in verse 8 with the famous words, “He has told you, human one, what is good and what the Lord requires from you: to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God.” Doing justice is at the center of practicing faith. In a similar fashion, the Letter of James reads, “True devotion, the kind that is pure and faultless before God the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their difficulties and to keep the world from contaminating us” (James 1:27). To help those in need, with an expansive idea of who our neighbor is that we are to “love as we love ourselves,” expresses the core of the Christian faith (see Luke 10:25-37 where we encounter the Parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke’s parallel to Mark 12:28-34).

While it can be conceived that the avoidance of doing harm to others may be an expression of the core, this doesn’t capture its full expression. The Golden Rule is found in many different world religious traditions, including Christianity. In many forms, the Golden Rule is phrased negatively as something like “Do not treat people in the same way you would not want to be treated.” In the words of Jesus in Matthew 7:12, the Golden Rule is phrased positively, “Therefore, you should treat people in the same way that you want people to treat you; this is the Law and the Prophets” (see also Luke 6:31). Instead of an inwardly focused existence that avoids doing harm to others, Christianity promotes doing good to others in community.

Positive Care for Creation

          This emphasis on care for others does not end with care for our fellow human beings. The command in Genesis 1:28 and Genesis 2:15 is for humanity to take charge of God’s creation. We are connected to our environment, so our actions must consider implications for others today and for our posterity. The poetic echo of creation’s goodness from the spoken word of the divine in Genesis 1 sings of the value the creaturely realm has to God. Jesus’ bodily resurrection too speaks volumes as to God’s valuation of material existence. Resurrection is not the transformation of a physical body to an immaterial higher state of the soul—it is to a transformed material bodily existence. The material world matters to God for it to be resurrected. Animals do not exist merely to be exploited, but they are a divinely given responsibility to manage. To limit ethical behavior as only relevant to the treatment of our fellow human beings is dangerous. It trains people that kindness and care are relative. It is a slippery slope that can lead to the devaluation of people either by default or design, and ignores the intrinsic worth and the goodness of all of God’s creation.

Bible Scholars have also noted that God’s good creation is designed for humanity to continue the work. Religion does not exist to stifle creativity, but to give it direction and turn it loose. Make something beautiful out of the wonderful world God has made. While this is easy to conceive as being about artistic expression, that is not its limit. There are many systems that can use some creative direction toward the goal of benefitting others. Hospitals look for ways to improve patient outcomes and employ new techniques to heal. Businesses can look for opportunities to meet human needs and adequately provide for their work force. The possibilities for creative endeavors in any field are endless.

The Positive Confession of Conviction

in God’s Redemptive Work in Christ

          So one may ask: Where do the religious claims of the Christian faith enter into the discussion? Where Jesus summed up the essence of what it means to have faith in God as an expression of love, the early church soon realized that there were aspects of Jesus’ life and ministry that meant he was more than just a great rabbi or a wise teacher. They believed, as Paul wrote to fellow Christians in the city of Corinth, that “God was reconciling the world to himself through Christ, by not counting people’s sins against them. He has trusted us with this message of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:19).Acceptance of this redemptive claim was grounded in a public confession of one’s conviction that the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, makes possible the salvation of the world.

In a letter to the Christians at Rome some time around 55-57 CE (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epistle_to_the_Romans) Paul explains how salvation is offered through the gospel of Jesus Christ. At one point, he calls to mind for the recipients of this letter the essential confession of faith that was already core to their beliefs about Jesus. Christian convictions were grounded in the actions of its followers. He writes, in Romans 10:9-10 what may be the earliest creedal confession of faith we have in Christianity:

“Because if you confess with your mouth ‘Jesus is Lord’ and in your heart you have faith that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. Trusting with the heart leads to righteousness, and confessing with the mouth leads to salvation.”

This confession was framed for easy memorization for oral repetition (since illiteracy was common in the ancient world). To better see what is going on in these two verses it is instructive to diagram it in its chiastic structure.

A - Because if you confess with your mouth “Jesus is Lord”

          B - and in your heart you have faith that God raised him from the dead,

                    X - you will be saved.

          B’ - Trusting with the heart leads to righteousness,

A’ - and confessing with the mouth leads to salvation.

I have italicized the parallelism. But what does this confession entail as belief?

To say “Jesus is Lord” would be to deny that Caesar is Lord. Confessing the lordship of Caesar is what would have been expected of all loyal subjects of the Roman Empire. A contemporary translation accounting for the political overtones might be something like “Jesus is the leader of the free world,” or “Jesus is the Commander-in-Chief,” or even “Jesus for President.” To put a positive spin on it would be to emphasize that Jesus’ way of radical love for God and neighbor is what should be followed, rather than any human political ideals. It is hard to make the claim of being a Christian believer unless you actually participate in Christian action as exemplified in love—and this is salvation to follow the way of Jesus. To merely make an acknowledgement that Jesus should be considered the ultimate religious figure in the universe doesn’t go far enough if the way of Jesus isn’t followed in practice. Further, embracing the goodness of creation, as evidenced by Jesus’ resurrection, leads people to work toward justice for all of creation. It is to the resurrection and transformation of the world that the Gospel calls all people.

The World of Love [the Kingdom of God]

The World of Love

Salvation in primitive Christianity had earthly overtones. It was to a better way of living in this good creation that Jesus saves us. There is, of course, the additional belief that this better way of life on earth will one day transcend mortality. Nevertheless the focus is on this world, and not the hereafter. What is doubtless the central prayer of the Christian faith, the Lord’s Prayer, exemplifies this focus on the transformation of God’s creation. We pray as Jesus taught us in the developed tradition of the Lord’s Prayer (first articulated in the Didache)…

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven.

Give us today our daily bread.

Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.

Save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil.

For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours now and for ever. Amen. (The “Ecumenical Text” from the United Methodist Hymnal #894)

With the passage of time, many terms lose their historical connotations. The term “Kingdom of God” finds meaning almost exclusively in religious contexts today, but in the First Century CE there was more to it. There are few countries in the modern world that are ruled by monarchs, but not so then. As noted above, many terms and titles for Jesus, that we today think of as honorific, had political connotations for the early church. To proclaim God’s Kingdom is to imply that there is something wrong with earthly kingdoms as they are now. This is an obvious clue as to why Jesus was crucified by the Roman Empire. The “Kingdom of God” would certainly have been understood as a term used in opposition to the kingdom or rule of earthly figures like Caesar. Again, if Jesus is Lord then Caesar is not. Given problems with the term being so far removed from its original historical context and its origin as a negative term criticizing other political realities of the ancient world, it may be helpful and instructive to find a different term to represent the Kingdom of God.

If it is God’s will that “justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24), then I would suggest the term: the World of Love. Justice and righteousness are roughly synonymous terms, as evidenced by the parallelism of the first half of Amos 5:24 to the second half. A Christian notion of radical equality among all persons, regardless of hierarchical distinctions like slave/free, Jew/Gentile, male/female, etc., demands working for justice. God loves all people and all creation, and the direction of scriptural salvation is toward the redemption and transformation of the world—to a World of Love.

Conclusion

          Christianity, as I hope can be seen by now, cannot be limited to knowing factual data about spiritual realities. It is more than intellectual assent to religious propositions. Humanity has a divinely given purpose. What then is Christian evangelism if not an invitation to others to join in the task of making the world a better place—doing good to others and caring for the world in the service of a loving creator? The goal of humanity is the embodiment of the World of Love—the Kingdom of God!

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[i] The original version is “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”

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Special thanks to Robert Reid and Terri Stewart for their help in editing this post prior to publication.

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© 2014 Lee Karl Palo

leekarlpalo@gmail.com

 

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