Monday, July 22, 2013

Mything the Point

Sermon preached July 21, 2013

Texts: Genesis 1:1-8, 24-31; 2:1-9, 18-25; John 1:1-18

A frog sits on a log in a swamp singing a song called “The Rainbow Connection.” As the song is ending, up paddles a canoeist. “Help, help. This is a serious call for help. Someone help.” He comes upon the frog. “I have lost my sense of direction.” Frog: “Have you tried Hare Krishna?”
This must be my year of the Muppets. That scene begins “The Muppet Movie” – the first feature-length film starring Jim Henson’s lovable muppet characters. One of the wonderful things about the Muppets is that they appealed to children, yet had humor for adults. “I’ve lost my sense of direction.” “Have you tried Hare Krishna?”
Kermit the Frog walks into the El Sleezo CafĂ© and sits down at the bar. “Buy me a drink sailor?” “I don’t even know you.” “Buy me a drink anyway.” The woman’s date intervenes. “Are you talking to my girl?” Woman: “I think he touched me.” Man: “You better go wash or you’ll get warts.” Frog: “No, that’s a myth.” Man: “Yes, but she’s my myth.” Frog: “No, myth, myth.” Then a young woman walking by says, “Yes.”
The question posed for today, from the sticky Scriptures suggested for this summer was this: "How do we know which Scriptures are mythological and which Scriptures are factual?” The texts suggested were Genesis 1 and John 1. I embellished a little by adding some of Genesis 2 to the readings.
How do we know which Scriptures are mythological and which Scriptures are factual? The question may sound kind of abstract, but I think it matters. It matters if we seek a thoughtful faith. It matters if we want to respond to some of our sisters and brothers in the faith who see nothing but fact in the Bible, and who think that this is the Christian position.
Let’s look at the story of creation. A few years ago, I was channel surfing on the car radio. Is that getting to be a lost art in this world of Cirrus radio? Anyway, I stumbled onto a signal where there was this rather breathy radio preacher. “And I tell you, if you don’t believe the Bible, that God created the world in seven days, not seven periods of time, seven days, well, you can’t be a Christian.” For this preacher Genesis 1 had to be true, literally factual. And if you do not believe that it is, then you are not a Bible-believing Christian, a true Christian.
There are some problems with this. For one, if one reads carefully, one finds two distinct creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2. We are familiar with the days of creation, with the orderly progression from day/night to plants to animals, culminating in the sixth day’s creation of human beings – So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them. Beginning in Genesis 2:4 we have another take. Before there were any plants, the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life. Then God plants a garden and puts the man in the garden. Later, God says, “It is not good that the man should be alone.” To avoid this idea of two creation stories set side-by-side in the first chapters of Genesis, those who read the Bible literally tend to argue that chapter two just gives details missing from chapter one, but that doesn’t work well.
The more significant problem with a literal/factual reading of the early chapters of Genesis is that it seems to run counter to just about every bit of empirical scientific data we have about the earth, and to the best of our scientific thinking. The earth is millions of years old, as best we can tell, not a recent creation. Some sort of evolutionary processes seem to function in living things. It has taken some time, but many theologians have found compatibility between evolutionary science and Christian faith. The official position of the Vatican is that something like the evolutionary processes described by Charles Darwin occurred, but that these processes don’t preclude Christian understandings of the human as created in the image of God, or as having a soul. Theologian John Haught writes about the potential compatibility of science and theology.
Even if religion and morality have been adaptive – say, in the evolutionary sense of aiding the survival of human genes – theology is not necessarily wrong to claim at the same time that religion and morality exist because of a divine invitation to each personal consciousness to reach beyond itself toward an infinite horizon of Meaning, Truth, Goodness and Beauty (God and the New Atheism, 85).
Haught also responds to those who argue that evolution and Christian faith are incompatible. Taking the Bible as a source of accurate science actually diminishes the sacred texts. Symbols and metaphors… lead us much deeper into the world of the spirit than literalism does. Taking the Bible’s figurative language literally actually leads to a loss of religious depth. (Responses to 101 Questions on God and Evolution, 78).
How do we know which Scriptures are mythological and which Scriptures are factual? Science matters in answering that question. It seems pretty clear from the best of our scientific knowledge that the creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2 cannot be “factual.” It is important to raise two cautionary notes here. One, science is a human endeavor suspect to mistakes and misinterpretation. The best science of one day and time has proven inaccurate at a later day and time. The best of science keeps an open mind about the full range of empirical data available, yet some, in the name of science, argue for a narrow view of what is scientific. The quote in the invitation to worship was from the scientist Ernest Rutherford (1871-1937) – “all science is either physics or stamp collecting.” Respect for science is different from “scientism” – “the idea that science, and only science, describes the world as it is in itself, independent of perspective” (Hilary Putnam, Renewing Philosophy, x). That there may be a measure of biochemical or biophysical explanation for some healing does not mean that prayer does not help with healing, or that something miraculous may occur. So the first cautionary note is not to give too much to an uncritical science, to scientism.
The second cautionary note is even more crucial to a thoughtful faith. I would challenge what can be too strong a contrast between the mythological and factual. I appreciate the question asked in the sticky Scripture box, and I have asked it a lot myself. I also think we need to be careful because the default mode of thinking in our culture tends toward an uncritical scientism which equates factuality with truth and the mythological with magical thinking. We live in a scientistic culture, a secular culture. To quote one of my theological teachers and mentors, Schubert Ogden: The widespread popular assumption that what is mythological in its form of expression cannot be true evidences only the extent to which all of us today are, to some degree, under the spell of secularism. Underlying this assumption is the secularist denial that there is any truth other than empirical truth most fully worked out in the sciences. (The Understanding of Christian Faith, 132).
For me, a thoughtful Christian faith is open to scientific knowledge, acknowledges that much of our Scripture is mythological in language and form, yet argues for the importance, yes, even the truth of the mythological. Interestingly, modern Christian fundamentalism is really “a kind of inverted scientific approach in its adherence to a crudely literalistic reading” (The Literary Guide to the Bible, 539). Fundamentalism says that we need to read the creation story and all Scripture in as literal way as possible and that it and they must be factually true. If not, the entire meaning of Christian faith crumbles.
There is a better way to understand Scripture. John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg write helpfully about this in their books The Last Week and The First Christmas. Are these stories fact or fable? For many people, Christian and non-Christian alike, these are the two choices…. It is important to realize that there is a third option that moves beyond the choices of fact or fable. (The First Christmas, 27). They call their third option “parabolic truth.” “The meaning of a parable – it’s parabolic truth – does not depend upon its factuality” (33). In telling a parable one can say, “I don’t know whether it happened this way or not, but I know this story is true.”
To try and make factual claims from poetic, parabolic, and mythological texts is to miss the point of those texts, because these texts “myth the point” – they speak truth in powerful ways that speak to the human spirit.
If we are to read the Scriptures in ways that open us up to what God’s Spirit might be saying to us today, I think we need to develop a richer understanding of poetic, mythological and parabolic language, or poetic, mythological and parabolic truth. The late author Joseph Campbell is another resource for helping us do this.
Campbell tells us “myth is of the order of poetry” (Myths to Live By, 258). He quotes the Christian monk Thomas Merton. The true symbol does not merely point to something else. It contains within itself a structure which awakens our consciousness to a new awareness of the inner meaning of life and of reality itself. (265) In his extensive televised interviews with Bill Moyers, Joseph Campbell reflected on the power and purpose of myth. People say what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our own innermost being and reality so that we feel the rapture of being alive (Campbell and Moyers, The Power of Myth, 5).
Awakening. Aliveness. These are at the heart of Christian faith. Jesus offers the image of new birth to Nicodemus – awakening, aliveness. Jesus says that he came that we might have life, life in all its fullness. Awakening. Aliveness. God’s Spirit continue to invite us into this newness of life, and because that awakening and aliveness are often best expressed in the language of metaphor, symbol, poetry, parable and myth, we dare not disparage them. Facts matter, but here is a fact. Human beings respond in the depth of their lives to symbols, metaphors, poetry, parables and myths. They move us in powerful ways, and through such language God’s Spirit speaks to our spirits and souls inviting us to newness of life.
Theologian John Haught poses the question of what the purpose of our lives might be in an evolving universe. Our vocation, our mission in life, must be in some way to participate in the universe’s own ageless labor of intensifying the reign of beauty…. A lively awareness of the general cosmic aim toward beauty give us a rich context in which to cultivate the life of virtue. The virtues we idealize are still the traditional ones – humility, compassion, justice, gratitude, hope and so on…. In the context of evolution, we can see more clearly than ever that the good life is one that contributes meaningfully not only to the spiritual growth of the individual person but also to the ongoing creation of a whole universe. (Responses, 142)
The first story of creation is a parabolic truth about the beauty of the world and the importance of the human person. The second creation story is a parabolic truth about the care of God, and our need for each other. It is not good for us to be alone. The re-creation story in John says that the very wisdom that is part of the created world finds its way into our world, particularly in one Jesus, in whom was embodied grace and truth.
The world was not made in seven days, but that story is deeply true, as are the companion creation stories. God is the relentless, persistent power toward beauty. The way of following Jesus is the way of awakening, of aliveness, of intensifying the reign of beauty. It is a way full of grace and truth. It is a way that can only adequately be expressed in the powerful language of myth, symbol, metaphor, parable. It is the way God’s Spirit continues to invite us to live, and that’s what matters most. Amen.

Friday, July 19, 2013

In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida: Revelation Decoded

Sermon preached July 14, 2013

Texts: Revelation 13:11-18, 22:18-19; Revelation 21:1-7, 22:1-5

Iron Butterfly, "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida"

Play clip of song.

I might have played “Super-Cala-Fraga-Listic-Expi-Ala-Docious” but I don’t have that on my i pod. What these songs share is some non-sensical words, or at least words that don’t seem to make any sense. Super-cala-fraga-listic-expi-ala-docious is intended to be non-sense in a fun song, so in that way it makes some sense. “In-a-gadda-da-vida” apparently was intended to be “In the Garden of Eden.” There are a few stories about how in the garden of Eden became in-a-gadda-da-vida, but at least we know something of the intent. It makes some sense.
The year I graduated from college, I decided I was going to read something entirely for enjoyment, so I read The Lord of the Rings, but I went back even further with The Silmarillion and then The Hobbit. There are a lot of characters and events to keep track of, so I bought a companion book, a Tolkein dictionary that listed characters, events, etc. If I ever was confused during my reading, I could easily look something up.
The Book of Revelation, the final book of the Bible. Someone suggested tackling this during our summer of sticky Scriptures, and so here we are. Revelation shares with “super-cala-fraga-listic-expi-ala-docious” and “in-a-gadda-da-vida” the feeling that we need some help to make sense of it all. Unfortunately, there is no authoritative guide to what the symbols in the book meant to the author, no Tolkein-like dictionary for the book.
There is no question that Revelation is strange, mysterious, fascinating, difficult, and potentially powerful. St Jerome wrote, “Revelation has as many mysteries as it does words” (The Literary Guide to the Bible, 523). It elicits all kinds of reactions. A biblical scholar has written of it: The Book of Revelation remains for many Christians a book with “seven seals,” seldom read and often relegated to a curiosity in the Bible. For others it is the book of the New Testament, full of predictions for the future and revelations about the present. (Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza,The Book of Revelation: Justice and Judgment, 1) An English novelist has reacted this way to reading the book: I found it a sick text…. There something not quite right about Revelation…. The riot of violent, imagistic occurences; the cabalistic emphasis on numbers; the visceral repulsion expressed towards the bodily…. In its vile obscurantism is its baneful effect. (Will Self, Revelations, 381)
Revelation is neglected by many, repulses others, and still others find in in a road-map for the future of the world. How might we read it so that the Spirit of God can speak to us through it?
It is helpful to remember that Revelation is a kind of literature. When you are reading science fiction, it is helpful to know that it is science fiction. Revelation is apocalyptic literature. This kind of literature, which had many expressions in first-century Judaism, purported to reveal mysteries about the cosmic dimensions of the world – what might be happening in the heavenly world and how that affects the present and future of this world. It relied on symbols and images, many of which made more sense the original audience. Reality tended to be portrayed in simplistic either-or terms – good and evil, light and darkness, God and the devil. Apocalyptic literature expected that the world would end in the near future, but only following a time of intense suffering. It was often written in times when people of faith felt themselves under threat of some kind.
One of the features of apocalyptic literature which puzzles us about Revelation is its use of symbols – seals, trumpets, beasts. Some of these symbols would have made more sense to the original readers, but even to them, some could have been mysterious. To us, we have really lost the code – the symbols are even stranger. All this use of symbolism has made Revelation open to wild interpretive flights. Kathleen Norris wrote: More than any other book of the Christian Bible, Revelation has suffered from bad interpretation; solipsistic, short-sighted, cruel (Revelations, 370). I was living in Dallas, Texas when the ATF and FBI surrounded the Branch Davidian compound about a hundred miles south near Waco. At one point, David Koresh promised to surrender if he was given broadcast time to explain his theology of Revelation. It was broadcast on Dallas radio, and I listened. It was wild. The images from Revelation have a strong echo in our culture. The last three digits of my cell phone number happen to be sixes. Don’t you suppose I get some looks!
So how do we read this work more thoughtfully, open to God’s Spirit? I think that we do so recognizing that much of the work was intended as a commentary on the author’s own day and time, a theological commentary about Roman imperial rule. A number of scholars make a strong case that the number 666 could be the numeric value of the name Nero Caesar in Hebrew. Symbolically, the number six also falls short of the number seven, considered a perfect number. Oh that my cell number ended 777.
If the author of Revelation is offering a theological-political commentary on his own time, he does so out of a deep theological commitment, and faith and trust commitment that in the end, God’s purposes will prevail. In the end love wins. In this way, the writer, inspired by the Spirit, is sharing with us the central conviction of Christian hope – in the end God’s purposes prevail. In the end, love wins.
We often think about Christian hope in very individual terms – my hope for my life, particularly in the face of death. Christian hope means that my life will continue after death in God’s love, because of God’s accepting grace which I have accepted in faith. That is part of the Christian hope, but only one part of Christian hope. In the words of one of my theology teachers and mentors, Schubert Ogden: The great virtue of apocalypticism… is that it brings to expression the truly cosmic dimensions of Christian hope, which sees in the reality of God’s love the promise of final fulfillment not only for each individual person and the whole of humankind, but also literally for every created thing. (The Understanding of Christian Faith, 135). In the end, God’s purposes prevail. In the end, love wins. In the end, for all creation.
If that conviction of Christian hope is the core of Revelation, we have to admit that it gets mixed in with a lot of other stuff, some of which seems very human, and not always the best of our humanity. Revelation takes some of the violent imagery we discussed last week and makes it a part of God’s work. God is seen in places in Revelation as a warrior wreaking vengeance on others. There are images of the great wine press of the wrath of God, with blood flowing from it (14:20). God drops hundred pound hailstones from heaven (16:21). If we remember that apocalyptic literature was often written in times of suffering and distress, this human element of vengeance makes some sense, and we need to read such passages in light of the whole Bible and its witness to God’s love. Whatever the character of God’s judgment, it cannot be separated from God’s love, and violent vengeance seems to do that.
Revelation is a mixed bag, but at its heart is the conviction that God’s purposes prevail and love wins. That should be our focus in reading the text. But the writer does not simply leave us with this. Inspired by the Spirit, we get a picture of what God’s purposes look like, about what happens when love wins. The writer describes a new heaven and a new earth.
What does this look like? God is near – the home of God is among mortals. God is near, and God offers tender care. God will wipe away every tear from their eyes…. Mourning and crying and pain will be no more. Human thirst, literal and figurative, is quenched. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. The nations are healed – the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.
Revelation is about God’s purposes prevailing. It about a conviction that love wins. It is about the nearness of God, the care of God. It is about the thirsts quenched and nations healed. It is about hope, a tenacious and persistent hope.
And there’s where it hits home for you and me today. Hope. Don’t lose hope in your life, no matter how difficult. God is present. God is near. Even when we mess up, God’s love can come through – to heal, to forgive, to give us a new start. And we do mess up. The novelist Mary Gaitskill finds in reading Revelation “a terrible abstract of how we violate ourselves and others and thus bring down endless suffering on earth” (Revelations, 371). Revelation is terrifying in places, but in that way it is true to life. The world can be dangerous and terrifying sometimes, beastly. No matter how bad it gets, though, God’s purposes continue, and in the end, love will win.
The other dimension to this message of hope for us is that we are not to give up on working for God’s newer world. It is easy to lose heart, to be discouraged, to become cynical. This week I viewed two contrasting videos – a brief video produced in the 1950s about the power of the middle class and how post-war prosperity in the middle class was providing unique opportunities. I also watched Frontline about the difficult struggles of two formerly middle class families in Milwaukee. The kind of solid, good wage manufacturing jobs that were part of the core of our post-war economy are gone, and we’ve not yet figured out how to replace many of them. Discouraging. There are many other issues around which we could be discouraged. Revelation encourages hope, staying true to God’s purposes of building a newer world. When we do, our actions contribute to that newer world coming. I love the way theologian Nicholas Wolterstorff puts this. In the eschatological image of the city, we have the assurance that our efforts to make these present cities of ours humane places in which to live – efforts which are so often frustrated, efforts which so often lead to despair – will, by way of the mysterious patterns of history, eventually provide tiles and timbers for a city of delight. (Until Justice and Peace Embrace, 140)
Hope. Because there is hope for your life in God, live hopefully. God’s at work building a newer world. Amen.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Rocket's Red Glare

Sermon preached July 7, 2013

Texts: Joshua 8:18-29; II Samuel 8:1-2; Isaiah 2:2-4; Matthew 5:9, 38-48

Thanks to some friends from church here, Julie and I were able to have a front row seat at Duluth’s July 4 fireworks. It is really pretty amazing what some creative minds can do with chemical compounds and explosive devices. It is also kind of amazing how such a display helps me think about all the things I appreciate about being a citizen of the United States. I appreciate the beauty of our country – spacious skies, amber waves of grain, purple mountains majesty, lakes, rivers, canyons. I appreciate the diversity in our nation. We are a country primarily comprised of immigrants and the descendants of immigrants. Mine came from Finland, France (through Canada) and Sweden. While we have not been perfect in our ability to bring people together, ours is a vast experiment in diversity that has been successful on many levels. I appreciate the founding documents of our country – the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. When South African blacks were looking to work on a new post-apartheid constitution for their country, these were two important documents they relied on. I appreciate our values of freedom, opportunity, caring for community, justice, the rule of law. I recently completed a book entitled The Orphan Master’s Son, a novel set in North Korea. While it is a novel, its portrayal of a closed society where some negative word about the government could get you imprisoned was chilling, and made me grateful for our freedoms. Some of my enjoyments in life are uniquely American in origin – baseball, blues-based music like jazz and rock and roll. Because I appreciate and care about this country, I participate in its civic life, I vote, I pray.
It is also important, as we celebrate the many good things about our country to recognize that there is a human tendency to draw circles around “our group” tightly, and that such tendencies can lead to harm, violence, and destruction. The rocket’s red glare of national pride can slip rather easily into rockets of destruction aimed too indiscriminately at others.
I think the issue of human violence and destruction is the issue raised by two of the texts we read this morning, two sticky Scriptures suggested for this summer’s sermon series on difficult Bible passages. The passages from Joshua and II Samuel raise the issue of a God who seems to sanction absolute warfare with the complete destruction of the enemy, or the rather capricious killing of the other. In Joshua, the city-state of Ai is completely devastated. The city is burned and all the inhabitants were, in the words of the text “slaughtered.” Twelve thousand people were killed, all the residents of Ai. The king was hanged. In II Samuel, Moabites lose in a battle to King David, and the King uses a measure of rope to determine who will live and who will die – “two lengths of cord for those who were to be put to death, and one length for those who were to be spared.”
What do we do with these texts that are a part of our Scriptures? What do we do with such texts in a world that is often too violent and destructive, a world often marred by religious violence?
Unfortunately, it seems every religion has been used to justify violence at some time in its history. It has been used to draw a tight circle around “us,” as against “them” and then to seek to wreak havoc and destruction against them. We are acutely aware these days of violence and destruction which perpetrators justify in the name of Islam. 9-11 will never again be a series of numbers since September 11, 2001 when terrorists claiming inspiration in Islam flew planes into the World Trade Center in New York. We will never again think of the Boston Marathon in quite the same way after two young men, moved by Islamic jihad rhetoric, planted bombs at the marathon this spring.
Christianity has been used to justify violent action. The Crusades were religiously-sponsored violence. Pope Urban II in 1095 called on Christian to liberate the Holy Land from Muslims, who he called wicked, accursed, and alienated from God. The Thirty Years War in Europe in the 17th century pitted Catholic against Protestant, both justifying themselves religiously.
Buddhism, which many look upon as a religion of pure peacefulness, is currently being used to justify violence against Muslims in the country of Burma. Buddhist mobs wielding torches and machetes have attacked Muslim villages in the country.
Some think that if we just get rid of all the religious rhetoric and traditions that would eliminate such violence and destruction, but I don’t think so. I don’t believe violence and destruction are inherent in any of these religious traditions. I believe there is something in our humanity which lends itself to violence and destructiveness, and that religions are sometimes used to justify what has arisen from our human condition.
To be human is to be self-conscious, self-aware. Unlike other biological creatures, we don’t just function on instinct. We have to make our way in the world. Psychologist Erich Fromm is insightful. Man’s existential conflict produces certain psychic needs common to all men. He is forced to overcome the horror of separateness, of powerlessness, and of lostness and find new ways of relating himself to the world to enable him to feel at home…. Each of these needs can be satisfied in different ways. (The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, 255). Among our basic psychic needs, Fromm argues, is a need to be effective, to make a dent, and if we can’t do that in a creative way, Fromm argues, we will do that in a destructive way (Anatomy, 264; The Essential Fromm, 82).
Another psychologist, Anthony Storr, discusses human destructiveness from a different angle. He argues that a certain amount of human aggression is natural and needed in our lives. It is linked to self-affirmation (Human Destructiveness, 7). Theologian Marjorie Suchocki puts this insight well. Aggression in itself can be good, prompting us not only toward survival, but toward development of ego-strength. It can help us to dare to do things that are good but nonetheless a bit frightening to us (In God’s Presence, 70)
So we have this need for a measure of significance, to feel like we make a difference. Storr goes on. If the individual’s requirement to be recognized and appreciated as a person in his own right has not been met, the normal drive toward self-affirmation and self-assertion becomes intensified and transmuted into hostility. Aggression is liable to turn into dangerous violence when it is repressed or disowned (21).
The situation for humans can become particularly volatile when our imaginative capacity becomes involved. In considering something like the Holocaust, Storr insightfully writes: Cruelty and destructiveness of this order is peculiar to the human species because it requires the operation of the imagination. It represents the nether side of man’s most priceless asset. To be able to see fellow human beings as wholly evil, as possessing magical powers for harm, as being both despicable and dangerous, requires an imaginative capacity not found in other species. (137)
The roots of human destructiveness are found in our human condition, in our need for self-affirmation, for significance, to feel effective. When these needs do not find a creative outlet, they seek other outlets. This may not explain socio-pathic violence, but that is beyond today’s sermon. And if the Bible is a human book, at least to some extent, as well as an inspired book, then perhaps some of this less creative human stuff finds its way into the Bible, too.
The Bible is the story of God, but also contains the stories of a nation. And have you ever noticed that some of our national stories are a bit one-sided. We tend to tell the heroic tales. We tie our significance to being members of a group. Our stories can be triumphalistic. Perhaps some of this kind of material has found its way into the Bible. Look how great an army we have, we completely defeated our enemies at Ai. Look how powerful our king is, deciding the fate of the defeated Moabites. Whatever happened, these have become heroic tales of victory.
The danger in such stories is that we take them as revealing something of the very nature of God – violent and vindictive. Such stories can seem to justify our own destructiveness. Joan Chittister makes an important distinction between patriotism and jingoism. Patriotism is love of country…. Jingoism is chauvinism, a love of country that lacks a critical eye. Or better yet, perhaps, a love of country that lacks a loving eye. When we love something to such a degree that we lost the capacity to compare it to its own best potential, we don’t really love it at all. We idolize it. Read wrongly, these passages from the Bible can seem to justify jingoism, and destruction based on it.
But such a reading is at odds with the longer sweep of the biblical story. It is not simply a contrast between an Old Testament God of violence and destruction and a New Testament God of love. Within the Old Testament itself, we see a growing sense that what God is finally about is a new world, a peaceable kingdom where they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; where nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore. God is at work toward a world where the peacemakers are blessed and enemies are loved.
Such a reading of the Bible, and of these sticky Scriptures does not answer all our questions about whether war is ever justifiable, but it suggests that certain kinds of war are not. This reading of these sticky Scriptures does ask us to ask ourselves these questions. Does our reading of the Bible move us in the direction of God’s dream for the world – justice, peace, reconciliation and love? Do our expressions of faith move us in the direction of a thoughtful and reflective faith? And a thoughtful and reflective faith can support a thoughtful and reflective patriotism, though not an uncritical jingoism.
In the end, is there any positive value in reading such difficult texts such as those in Joshua and II Samuel? I know they pushed me into thinking deeply about the human needs that may lay behind violence, hostility and destructiveness. How can such needs be met more constructively. The American philosopher William James once argued that war brings out some good in people – a certain discipline, a certain camaraderie, a certain heroism. He suggested we needed a moral equivalent of war, something that called upon these positive human qualities without destroying other people. Inside of ourselves, there are times when we need to get beyond personal patterns of behavior that are harmful. We may need to marshal a certain war-like courage to confront ourselves.
Are such metaphoric readings of these sticky Scriptures worth the price? I don’t know, but if grappling with them leads us to a more thoughtful and reflective faith, leads us to a deeper commitment to God’s dream for the world, invites us to courage and love, then maybe. Amen.