01 December 2005

1 Chronicles 13

1 Chronicles 13 was the passage my daily devotional told me to read this morning. If you feel so moved, do me a favor and read it; it's only 14 verses. I linked to the GNT translation, but that site will let you pick other translations, both more and less literal, if you prefer.

I have to say I wasn't very satisfied with my devotional's commentary on that passage. And I'm not sure what I make of it. So I thought I'd try a dirty trick and try to get y'all to be my Bible teachers. What do you make of that passage? I don't care if you're Christian, Jewish, any faith or no faith--what does that passage say to you? I'm not (just) interested in attempts to harmonize it with our ideas of the loving Father of Jesus; if the passage pisses you off or makes you throw up your hands in disgust at God/the Bible/people of faith/Christians/oxen, I'm interested in those reactions too.

I give you a topic. Discuss. And report back by clicking on "comments" just below. If, as I say, you feel so moved.

Thanks!

28 comments:

aBhantiarna Solas said...

Oh, "that" story. That story always creeps me out. I never understand why Uzzah forgets that DUH you're ... NOT ... supposed ... to ... touch ... the ARK. It's not like it hasn't been around for a while now and the rules haven't been established for a long time. But no, he's got to try and touch the electric fence and see if it zings him. I know the standard evangelical spin ...

It has to do with upholding God's perfect standards and things like that. But now ... well, I'm not sure what to do with it.

Gary McCullough said...

Perhaps it means what it says: David considered that Jahweh was petulant and dangerous.

The Yahweh of the earlier texts of the Bible is a different kind of creature than the Yahweh of the later texts. The earlier Yahweh is more limited, more volatile, less universal. This scene clearly shows a Yahweh that is a tribal god, with whom a would-be king can be put out. A plain reading of the texts shows how the idea of Yahweh evolved over the centuries from a particular personal or household god into a tribal god and finally into the universal monotheistic conception.

But such an idea does not fit comfortably with traditional Christian faith in the one God, eternal, unchanging, and all merciful.

Mike Croghan said...

Good stuff, Gary. In my opinion, there's nothing un-Christian about admitting that the Hebrews "figured God out" and/or "had the true nature of God revealed to them" only gradually, over time. Even if you take the (very classical Greek, very un-Hebrew, and frankly un-Biblical) position that God is eternally unchanging (which I don't), there's no reason why there couldn't have been a gradual, evolving revelation to our dense and willful monkey brains. The same sort of progression can be seen in other faiths as well--from the Vedas to the Upanishads of Hinduism, for exmaple.

Of course, this is also problematic if you take the position that the Bible is inerrant and infallible, but that's not my position either. (And, finally, there's the fact that I believe Chronicles is generally regarded by scholars as a post-exilic text, and hence rather late for an OT text, but this story is probably a much older tradition that was preserved either orally or in other writings. There's a parallel, for example, in 2 Samuel 6, which I think is thoguht to be part of the mostly pre-exilic Deuteronimistic history.)

Anyway, I don't believe the Bible is inerrant or infallible, but I do think it is inspired and profitable for teaching, so I have to grapple with the question: what is this text supposed to teach me as a 21st-century Christian? Maybe it's just that I should be glad that revelation in the Judeo-Christian tradition didn't stop here, and later Jews and Christians alike (excepting Pat Robertson) came to understand that God is not such a petty asshole.

Gary McCullough said...

>I don't believe the Bible is inerrant or infallible, but I do think it is inspired and profitable for teaching, so I have to grapple with the question: what is this text supposed to teach me as a 21st-century Christian?

Ah, but why are you assuming that it is meant to teach you anything? Did the writer have you in mind when he wrote down Uzzah's tale? On the other hand, if the human hand was just God's way of getting the story down to you, then wouldn't that invalidate your otherwise sensible remarks that "I don't believe the Bible is inerrant or infallible"? I mean, if God wrote the Bible to communicate His truths to you, what does it matter whether the hand that wrote it understood it? But if instead it was a flawed human understanding that was at work, then where's the reason to believe that all too human writer considered his audience to be so widespread as to include an 21st-century gentile American Christian? Aren't you trying to have your hermeneutic cake and eat it too?

Mike Croghan said...

More good stuff. Well, first of all, in a classic bit of circular reasoning that I'm sure you'll love, I direct your attention to 2 Timothy 3:16, in which the Apostle Paul (or whoever wrote 2 Tim--likely a disciple of his) wrote: "All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness." So, why do Christians believe the whole Bible is inspired by God? The Bible says so. How do we know that's reliable? Because it's inspired by God. La la la....

Circular or not, the inspiration if scripture (but not its inerrancy nor its infaliibility) is a core Christian belief. So what does "inspiration" mean if not those? It means that God played some part in their composition. It does not mean that the fallible human writers didn't play some part--perhaps a very large part--as well. So if God was involved--to whatever extent--in the composition of these texts, then Christians believe that they have something to teach us today.

But the point is much bigger than just the issues surrounding the actual time, place, and method of composition of the text. Those are interesting, but not the whole story. Of course the Chronicler didn't have me in mind when he (probably not she) included this old story in his Chronicles, any more than Shakespeare had me in mind when he wrote The Tempest. But that doesn't mean that I can't learn anything from Shakespeare's plays--about human nature, relationships, even God. And to the Christian, all parts of the Bible, even exasperating passages like this one, are different from Shakespeare in that we believe God played some part in their composition. (This is not to deny that old Will had some divine inspiration on his side as well.)

Basically, it's an article of faith for Christians that "Scripture is inspired and useful for teaching, etc.", and significantly, Christians through the ages have found study of scripture to be a "useful" spiritual exercise, especially deep forms of study like group theological reflection and lectio divina. As a practical matter, I think Christians have found it more "useful" to grapple with the Bible than to start discarding bits of it. Which doesn't mean that we need to suffer fools (like Pat Robertson) who glom on to awful, nasty stories in a literalistic way and claim that these illustrate the character of God.

Gary McCullough said...

>the inspiration if scripture (but not its inerrancy nor its infaliibility) is a core Christian belief.

That's a big claim to which many, many Christians would take the strongest exception. So, were I a Christian, my response to this would be: who are you to say which tenets are Christian and which are not? If you allow yourself this much liberty, then how can you know where the unshakeable foundation of faith really is? Does every Christian inhabit their own personal faith? If so, then does it really mean anything to claim to be a Christian? If it does mean something, what?

If God and man are both at work in contriving the biblical texts, why? If the Almighty undertakes to compose a book for men, what can mere mortals contribute to that effort? Is there any sense in which human participation could not but diminish the perfection of the divine work?

So there is the paradox: if God is the author of scripture, human intentions are irrelevant. If man is the author, then divine intentions are irrelevant. If human intentions are irrelevant, the mutability of God's image in scripture is inexplicable. If divine intentions are irrelevant, the scriptures can lay no greater claim on authenticity than may Shakespeare or Pat Robertson. If god and man are co-authors then the siginificance of man's contributions are inversely proportional to God's greatness.

>Basically, it's an article of faith for Christians that "Scripture is inspired and useful for teaching, etc.", and significantly, Christians through the ages have found study of scripture to be a "useful" spiritual exercise,

Now, it's no use running back to the shelter of the faith. For you discarded that haven when you said the scripture is neither inerrant nor infallible.

>As a practical matter, I think Christians have found it more "useful" to grapple with the Bible than to start discarding bits of it.

So again, I would argue you're trying to have your cake and eat it. Either you're being practical or you're being faithful. As a practical matter, I think you're on good ground.

Proceeding from there, suppose we just forget about faith and divine inspiration and whatnot? Suppose we dare to look at the scripture as a human expression of human experience, ideas, intuitions, and desires? In other words, if there is anything divine in the scripture it is there because the scripture is a human expression and there is something divine in human nature. Now we've stood the traditional conception quite on its head, and we are looking within ourselves for the divine, instead of in a book.

And now we have a truly open and comprehensible way to approach the scripture, free of circular rationalizations and filters of faith, for we will approach the scriptural texts as we approach all other texts: with our own human judgment, holding it up against our human experience, which is nothing other than the world as we find it. We love Shakespeare as much as he rings true to life. We despise Pat Robertson as much as he does not.

And now, if we have admitted so much, then every book becomes a kind of scripture, for every book is an expression of our humanity, and our humanity expresses our divinity. Now every act, every word, every thought, every experience can be an expression of the divine.

Elizabeth M. said...

a gradual, evolving revelation

I ran across a similar idea in the Brian McLaren book I'm currently reading. His take seems to be that the reason YWH appears to be so petty, jealous, cruel, and genocidal in parts of the Hebrew scriptures is because the emerging nation of Israel was petty, jealous, cruel, and genocidal, and YWH was meeting them on their level. That seems like a giant cop out to me, though I admit I'm giving McLaren a very skeptical reading as I go (that is, he's arguing a case, and by golly, he's going to have to argue it well to convince me).

Really what he is arguing here is a slightly more subtle version of the one unchanging God theology: there's always been one unchanging God, he's just revealed himself gradually over time in changing forms. Well, okay, but then Occam's razor would seem to insist that we drop the extra assumption of the one unchanging God and accept the surface interpretation that the Hebrew scriptures are talking either about a variety of gods or about a God who changed, a God who was at times the nasty and hateful God Pat Robertson worships? We don't have any trouble, for instance, believing that other cultures in other times worshipped unpleasant, cruel, or hateful gods, because we take their beliefs and scriptures at face value. We don't try to re-interpret them to come out meaning the opposite of what they say.

Why would Paul say that all Scripture is profitable for reproof, for rebuke, for etc? Perhaps because all scripture is -- all scripture, not just Judeo-Christian scripture (or more specifically, Hebrew scripture read through a Christian lens). The great religious writings of the world all possess wisdom, that's what makes them great. But that doesn't mean that all stories and metaphors are wise for all people at all times.

I agree with Gary that the interesting thing about the Uzziah story is how pissed off King David is. That part of the story is frequently overlooked in the standard evangelical/fundamentalist interpretation (which was how I learned it, too), which is that the story of Uzziah is meant to serve as a warning to us that God doesn't care what's in our hearts if we can't be bothered to adhere to the very letter of the law.

But then...what's the story of pissed-off David supposed to teach us? And what are we supposed to learn from the story of the people who were blessed by sheltering the Ark of the Covenant -- that God's furniture bears mysterious magical powers? Is this an endorsement of abundance theology? :)

If we are able to find in stories like that of Uzziah some deeper spiritual significance, mightn't it be possible that any wisdom to be had here is already inside us? If so, I don't think that's a bad thing.

Mike Croghan said...

Wow, a Double McCullough Challenge! Sit tight, folks, it may take me a few days to respond to these properly.

Erin said...

Hi Mike, I'm a friend of several of your Formerly-Mars-Hills friends. Couldn't resist this discussion.

To me this story seems to parallel the story in acts in which Ananias and Saphira are killed by the holy spirit for lying about their generosity. To me that's important because it rules out the "old covenant/new covenant" "progressive revelation" stuff. Uzzah got zapped for a well intentioned and what one would say inconsequential act; A and S got zapped for a less-well intentioned but pretty minor lie. These things bug because they seem out-of-proportion and unfair.

If you believe in the Second Coming and the Final Judgement, it seems like you have to accept that there will be some zapping then, too.

I try to coexist peacefully with the fact that I love a God Who Zaps, Has Zapped, and Will Zap Again. Pretty medieval of me, I know.

The apparent triviality of the offenses are what interests me. One thing I've heard, that makes some sense, is that while God is all-merciful, the more God is manifest, the more dangerous it is for us earthlings. So at times and places in History when the Holy Spirit is overwhelming people, there is far less room for sin and error than usual.
One of the frequent signs of revival is the overwhelming conviction of sin, followed by repentance.

But dangerous, how? What's so bad about getting zapped? Easy for me to say, since I don't think it will happen to me or mine any time soon. But I bet it doesn't hurt, and I bet it doesn't affect the state of anyone's god-believing soul. Mercy extends beyond life and death,eh. And I bet that dependents left behind are not abandoned. I hope they aren't anyway.

Gary McCullough said...

But stop a moment and think about what you're saying. Because Uzzah in a moment of fright extended his hand to steady the tottering ark, Yahweh deprived him of life, widowed his wife, orphaned his children, brought lamentation and suffering down upon all who loved him. Note also that the scripture does not say that Uzzah made the mistake of touching a live wire and got zapped for being thoughtless or ignorant, but that God quite deliberately killed him in anger: "At once the Lord became angry with Uzzah and killed him for touching the Box." The reading of this passage that you're offering seems to me awfully forced.

Nor does the scripture say that anybody knew that God did not want the Box touched. I mean, how did they get it up on the cart to begin with? Did they wear gloves? The scripture does not state that Uzzah's act was one of disobedience, we just read that into it to account for God's anger. But David thought God was simply wrong. And it's hard to read the plain meaning of the words in any other way. We work at reading more into it because a petty God is hard to accept.

Mike Croghan said...

OK, Gary first.

>>the inspiration if scripture (butnot its inerrancy nor its infaliibility) is a core Christian belief.
>That's a big claim to which many, many Christians would take the strongest exception.

They're welcome to. The thing about claiming something is "core" is that if others choose to add to that core, they're not in disagreement with you.

>So, were I a Christian, my response to this would be: who are you to say which tenets are Christian and which are not?

I'm a Christian. The hypothetical Gary-the-Christian is welcome to disagree with me. And I never said anything was not Christian (although clearly I think some things are not), I just said that inerrancy and infallibility are not core and universal to all Christians.

>If you allow yourself this much liberty, then how can you know where the unshakeable foundation of faith really is?

As a matter of fact, the foundation of my faith (which may or may not be shakeable, but to date remains unshook) has very little to do with any intellectual statement of belief about the Bible or anything else. It has to do with a trust relationship with God and God in Jesus. It's like asking you how you know what the unshakable foundation of your marriage is. If you felt capable of coming up with an answer to that at all, I doubt it would have much to do with your marriage license or even the text of your marriage vows.

>Does every Christian inhabit their own personal faith?

Sure they do, although more important in my opinion is the collective faith of any given Christian community. But of course one individual, study group, church, synod, or national denomination or international communion will differ from any other. Thank God!

>If so, then does it really mean anything to claim to be a Christian? If it does mean something, what?

It means what I was talking about before: having a trust relationship with God and Jesus. Those relationships will differ, as relationships do. Isn't that cool?

>If God and man are both at work in contriving the biblical texts, why? If the Almighty undertakes to compose a book for men, what can mere mortals contribute to that effort? Is there any sense in which human participation could not but diminish the perfection of the divine work?

Well, that's not really very close to my understanding of Scripture. I don't think God undertook to compose a book for men, exactly. I think men (and possibly but not too probably some women), specifically Hebrews over about 1000 years, recorded in the Bible the record of their on-again, off-again love affair with a God they were gradually growing to know and trust. And I think God blessed and aided this effort. But I don't see the Bible as a book God wrote to instruct us in propositional principles. In fact, I would venture that most Christians worldwide (Orthodox, Catholic, mainline Protestant, and many Evangelicals too) don't see the Bible that way.

>So there is the paradox: if God is the author of scripture, human intentions are irrelevant. If man is the author, then divine intentions are irrelevant.

Why on earth would that be so? Good gravy, Gary, you are one black-and-white sort of dude. Why is it impossible that the Bible is a human work inspired and blessed by God?

>If human intentions are irrelevant, the mutability of God's image in scripture is inexplicable.

I think human intentions are very relevant, so I'm with you on this point.

>If divine intentions are irrelevant, the scriptures can lay no greater claim on authenticity than may Shakespeare or Pat Robertson.

Depends a lot of what you mean by "authenticity". If "authentic" means "carries a ring of truth and relevance and importance in someone's life", then the Bible is more authentic than these works--for Christians. Because they've chosen, as part of their trust relationship with the God and Jesus known through that Bible, to intimately connect their own life stories to the Story told in Scripture. But to someone else it might be no more "authentic" than Shakespeare. If by "authentic" you mean "absolutely true and infallible", then I don't demand that of the Bible any more than Shakespeare. Some do. OK for them.

>If god and man are co-authors then the siginificance of man's contributions are inversely proportional to God's greatness.

This assumes that God would participate in the composition of scripture to the extent that God had the power to do that. Why would anyone assume that?

>>Basically, it's an article of faith for Christians that "Scripture is inspired and useful for teaching, etc.", and significantly, Christians through the ages have found study of scripture to be a "useful" spiritual exercise,

>Now, it's no use running back to the shelter of the faith. For you discarded that haven when you said the scripture is neither inerrant nor infallible.

Who the hell are you to tell me what my faith is or should be? I already said that beliefs about the Bible aren't the foundation of my faith,and they aren't its "shelter" either. You don't get to define my faith any more than the fundamentalists do, despite the fact that you seem to be in agreement to a remarkable degree.

>>As a practical matter, I think Christians have found it more "useful" to grapple with the Bible than to start discarding bits of it.

>So again, I would argue you're trying to have your cake and eat it. Either you're being practical or you're being faithful. As a practical matter, I think you're on good ground.

Why are faith and practicality opposed? Why can't I be both practical and faithful? Again, if faith is like a marriage, aren't you both practical and faithful in your marriage?

>Proceeding from there, suppose we just forget about faith and divine inspiration and whatnot?

OK.

>Suppose we dare to look at the scripture as a human expression of human experience, ideas, intuitions, and desires?

OK, I'm with you so far. I do look at it that way.

>In other words, if there is anything divine in the scripture it is there because the scripture is a human expression and there is something divine in human nature.

Hmm. I think I still agree. Genesis 1:27.

>Now we've stood the traditional conception quite on its head, and we are looking within ourselves for the divine, instead of in a book.

Have we? I agree that we've stood the fundamentalist Protestant conception on its head, but as I've pointed out, that's hardly the only (or even the majority) Christian conception of Scripture. Orthodox, Catholic, and many Protestant ideas of Scripture are probably closer to what you describe than they are to inerrancy/infallibility. Also, you just said that there's something divine in the book by virtue of its being composed by people with something divine in their nature. So in fact we're looking both in ourselves *and* in the book, no?

>And now we have a truly open and comprehensible way to approach the scripture, free of circular rationalizations and filters of faith, for we will approach the scriptural texts as we approach all other texts: with our own human judgment, holding it up against our human experience, which is nothing other than the world as we find it. We love Shakespeare as much as he rings true to life. We despise Pat Robertson as much as he does not.

That's fine, and I hope you do approach Scripture that way. I'm with you completely--except for (in my case) "free of filters of faith". Because of the faith I've chosen, the Scriptures are special. I don't need to make grandiose claims about their infallibility or inerrancy, but they lay claim, for me, to a special status because of the faith commitment I've made. In a way it's like some of the additional commitments that come along with a marriage commitment. The Bible, Gary, is like my mother-in-law. :-) I have no obligation to either claim that she has magical powers (on the one hand) or reduce her to the status of any strang woman I might meet (on the other). She's special to me, and even has some authority over me, but unless you marry my wife or one of her sisters, I don't expect you to give her any special status.

>And now, if we have admitted so much, then every book becomes a kind of scripture, for every book is an expression of our humanity, and our humanity expresses our divinity. Now every act, every word, every thought, every experience can be an expression of the divine.

Cool! But for me, and for other Christians, the Bible, and Christian practices, etc. will remain specially significant (to us) expressions of the divine.

I don't think we disagree as much as it seems like we do, but the gulf seems big because we disgree on two different axes: Christian vs. non-Christian and postmodern vs. modern. (This is one way of interpreting the fact that, in some ways, you seem to agree with fundamentalist Christians where both of you disagree with me: you are very "modern" in your outlook, as are fundamentalists--and, incidentally, classical liberal Christians--while I'm much more postmodern. Postmodern != better than modern!!! Just different worldviews.)

Mike Croghan said...

Elizabeht next. This will be a bit shorter than it would have been, 'cause I accidentally deleted the first try.

>>a gradual, evolving revelation

>I ran across a similar idea in the Brian McLaren book I'm currently reading. His take seems to be that the reason YWH appears to be so petty, jealous, cruel, and genocidal in parts of the Hebrew scriptures is because the emerging nation of Israel was petty, jealous, cruel, and genocidal, and YWH was meeting them on their level. That seems like a giant cop out to me, though I admit I'm giving McLaren a very skeptical reading as I go (that is, he's arguing a case, and by golly, he's going to have to argue it well to convince me).

Cool, but keep im mind that in that book he's not really trying to convince you of anything--he's trying to convince Evangelical Christians that it's possible to be "generous" without sacrificing orthodoxy. But I'll be interested to find out what you make of it in the end.

>Really what he is arguing here is a slightly more subtle version of the one unchanging God theology: there's always been one unchanging God, he's just revealed himself gradually over time in changing forms. Well, okay, but then Occam's razor would seem to insist that we drop the extra assumption of the one unchanging God and accept the surface interpretation that the Hebrew scriptures are talking either about a variety of gods or about a God who changed, a God who was at times the nasty and hateful God Pat Robertson worships? We don't have any trouble, for instance, believing that other cultures in other times worshipped unpleasant, cruel, or hateful gods, because we take their beliefs and scriptures at face value. We don't try to re-interpret them to come out meaning the opposite of what they say.

I'm perfectly happy to admit that God might change, but on the other hand I'm not willing to admit that God did everything the Bible accuses God of doing, so I suppose I'm a heretic from both the Greek and Hebrew points of view. :-)

>Why would Paul say that all Scripture is profitable for reproof, for rebuke, for etc? Perhaps because all scripture is -- all scripture, not just Judeo-Christian scripture (or more specifically, Hebrew scripture read through a Christian lens). The great religious writings of the world all possess wisdom, that's what makes them great. But that doesn't mean that all stories and metaphors are wise for all people at all times.

I pretty much agree with this, though as I said to Gary the Hebrew-Christian scriptures will necessarily have a special status for Jews and Christians.

>I agree with Gary that the interesting thing about the Uzziah story is how pissed off King David is. That part of the story is frequently overlooked in the standard evangelical/fundamentalist interpretation (which was how I learned it, too), which is that the story of Uzziah is meant to serve as a warning to us that God doesn't care what's in our hearts if we can't be bothered to adhere to the very letter of the law.

I agree that David's anger is the most interesting thing too, and that the interpretation you mention is bullshit.

>But then...what's the story of pissed-off David supposed to teach us? And what are we supposed to learn from the story of the people who were blessed by sheltering the Ark of the Covenant -- that God's furniture bears mysterious magical powers? Is this an endorsement of abundance theology? :)

We know it melts the faces of Nazis. ;-)

>If we are able to find in stories like that of Uzziah some deeper spiritual significance, mightn't it be possible that any wisdom to be had here is already inside us? If so, I don't think that's a bad thing.

Sure, I think so. But I myself wouldn't go so far as to say that there's no source "outside us" for that wisdom that we find "inside us" and that we get from other people (which they presumably found "inside them"), including the writers of the Bible and interesting people we talk to in blog comments. ;-)

Mike Croghan said...

And finally Erin!

Erin, I was intrigued by your interpretation and it really had me thinking, but in the end I think I'm with Gary on this one--there are certain things that God is reported to have done in the Bible--both OT and NT as you rightly point out--that I just can't believe God really did. Leaving aside Gary's excellent points about family members, and accepting your point that perhaps zapping is painless, being mauled to death by a she-bear (2 Kings 2:23-24) is surely pretty freaking painful. So I can't go with the whole "God is just like that sometimes" interpretation, but I certainly don't call you wrong for holding to that view.

Peace,
Mike

Elizabeth M. said...

Mike, if the Bible is not a trustworthy source of information about God, where does your information about God come from? What is the basis for your trust relationship? Within your community of Christians, how do you know you're all talking about the same God?

Mike Croghan said...

Elizabeth said,

Mike, if the Bible is not a trustworthy source of information about God, where does your information about God come from? What is the basis for your trust relationship? Within your community of Christians, how do you know you're all talking about the same God?

Oh, certainly we're not--at least, our conceptions of God surely differ. And that's both fine and inevitable. If God exists, our little monkey brains surely can't comprehend God. There's no way those monkey brains could get an (the?) Absolutely True, Objectively Complete concept of God from reading the same book, even if we did bend our minds sideways to try to read it through the same lens of infallibility and inerrancy. We are fundamentally 1) different, 2) limited, 3) flawed. So of course we're talking about different "Gods".

Now, I happen to believe that there is a reality behind all of these different concepts (and not just behind Christian concepts, but other people's too) that is "real". But can we truly "know" God in this life? Not in the way I think you guys mean. We can know God in more limited ways, though, and perhaps we can know God enough to trust God. (I do.)

So this limited knowledge of God comes from many sources: prayer, interactions with other people (especially serving folks in need), worship, interactions with the beauty of nature, art. Most especially, for Christians, it comes from our knowledge of and experience of Jesus. This is one of the most important reasons why the Bible is so special for Christians: it's the primary place to go to learn about Jesus. Although, truth be told, I think the first place people get knowledge about Jesus when they're becoming his followers is from the lives, words, and actions of other believers. (Actually, that's probably the primary place that people who will never be Christians get knowledge about Jesus too--woe to us Christians!) If the witness of the lives of other Christians draws one to make a "leap of faith" and decide to, at least on a trial basis, become trust Jesus and become his follower, then perhaps one begins to read the Bible with new eyes, hungry for information on Him whom you've chosen to follow. But then, eventually, while Scripture remains the foundation for the faith (and the witness of other believers remains important too), first-hand experience with Jesus and with his Father becomes probably the primary source of "knowledge" and stengthening of trust. Now I'm talking mysticism, but I don't necessarily mean any sort of high-fallutin' ecstatic experience--just a conviction based on one's own walk down the path that the person you're walking with is real.

So I guess my answer to your question is threefold. Whence the basis for the trust relationship? 1) The witness of other disciples. 2) Scripture. 3) First-hand mystical experience of Jesus and God. And do these lead to the "same" concept of God for all Christians? Nope. Couldn't. Shouldn't. And thank God they don't! (Yay diversity!)

Gary McCullough said...

Mike, my friend, I don't think there's much disagreement between us about what religion is.

Where you seem to think I was trying to narrow what you can consider to be legitimate faith, actually I was only drawing logical inferences from what I took your assertions to be. Nothing more. Sorry if I pissed you off.

Let's circle back. Your question was: "what is this text supposed to teach me as a 21st-century Christian?" And my response was to undercut the assumption that underlies such a question: "why are you assuming that it is meant to teach you anything?"

So we're largely in agreement, I think, about how we see the scriptures. This bit was excellent: "Hebrews over about 1000 years, recorded in the Bible the record of their on-again, off-again love affair with a God they were gradually growing to know and trust."

So where I'm left is this: I don't assume that 1 chron 13 has anything to say to me. What it does say I find repellant as fact and useless as myth. But as a record of the evolving conception of Yahweh, it's very interesting.

Elizabeth M. said...

I've known (or heard about, or read about) Christians who, in my opinion, are truly doing the work of Christ on earth, and I can understand why their witness would cause someone else to want to become a follower of Jesus, too. But then where do orthodox beliefs in the supernatural fit in? The people I'm thinking of don't work miracles. There's nothing about their witness that speaks to Heaven or Hell. Why should a Christian take on the work of Christ AND a lot of pre-modern beliefs as well?

Likewise, when I read the teachings of Jesus, I don't see anything in them that necessarily transcends this life or human experience. To me the core of Jesus' teaching is not "Love thy neighbor as theyself," but rather, "Inasmuch as you do it unto the least of these my brethren, you do it unto me." But that's not a statement rooted in the supernatural, anymore than, say, Nargajuna's statements about emptiness.

So I guess I'm asking, is there anything that compels the Christian to accept supernatural beliefs?

Mike Croghan said...

Hi Gary, you didn't really piss me off--the "who the hell are you?" was a question asked soberly, but with emphasis. :-) I do steadfastly maintain that neither fundamentalist Christians nor fundamentalist non-Christians get to define my faith for me--but I am thankful for their (your)prophetic voice in helping me to consider where/when I might be emperor sans clothes.

I still wonder whether there's value in this story as myth (at least for persons of faith)--particularly centering on David's reaction. Any person of faith is bound to be in a position at one time or another of thinking that God might be culpable for someing awful that happened in the world. Look at the tsunami, the hurricanes, the Pakistan quake, maybe even September 11th. How do they react to that as a person of faith? If you're not a person of faith, though, this isn't a perticularly meaningful question.

Elizabeth, your question is a good one. I speak only for myself in responding to it, but I don't perticularly think the categories of "natural" and "supernatural" make much sense to me. If "supernatural" means "things that happen or exist that we currently have no explanation for" than damn straight I'm pretty certain that the supernatural is real.

But I think there's only the universe, and it contains wonderful things that we may never understand. Do I know for sure we never will understand certain things? How would I know something like that?

I do personally believe that there is a reality beyond the universe that our little ape minds will simply never understand in this life, and I call that reality God. That's a matter of belief, and as I've noted before, I see belief as a choice--I choose to believe in God.

Is it possible to be a follower of Jesus and not choose this belief in a "supernatural" God? I think it probably is. I certainly wouldn't ever try to tell someone that they're not allowed to follow Jesus unless and until they choose to believe in a supernatural God--that's ludicrous. Is it possible to *keep* following Jesus without eventually coming to believe in such a God? I don't know. It seems pretty certain that Jesus himself believed in a God like that, but the Buddha pretty certainly believed in karma and reincarnation, and not all Buddhists hold those beliefs.

Pretty much all Christians do seem to have faith in God. I think it would be very hard to understand and emulate Jesus without incorporating his faith in his Father. But I would certainly never, ever set that faith as a barrier in front of someone who was interested in following Jesus.

Also, I think the two teachings of Jesus you quote are saying the same thing. "Love" as in "love thy neighbor" did *not* refer to an emotion--it referred to an active love.

Thanks for all the great coversation!!

Erin said...

Gary,

I think I agree with you on many of your points. I don't think what Uzzah did was disobedience or sin. And I'm in the same position with ol King David, in terms of how I feel about it. And if we assume for a moment that this story is historical in some fashion, it's certainly possible that Uzzah had a stroke or a heart attack and everybody hanging around said, "Oh, God zapped him." And then their interpretation of events ends up in this blog thousands of years later. But ultimately I don't think my interpretation was strained-- I was approaching it from the idea of proportion and perspective: destruction visted upon people out of proportion to the apparent offense.

The speculation on the badness of zapping is just that, speculation in service of the idea that someone's perspective could be off -- the people who wrote the story, ours, David's.

And Mike, I bet the bears and stuff did hurt. Not only that but many Hebrews didn't use to believe in an afterlife which makes any destruction of life seem that much more permanent and terrible.

My opinion remains that the way God runs the world doesn't make sense. Various acts attributed to God, such as this one, don't make much sense. In light of characteristics that are attributed to his character such as goodness, mercy, and lovingkindness.

And as a person of faith what I can I do about it? I can throw out the things that don't fit with my theology. I can struggle to formulate complicated justifications that make the weird stuff fit my theology. I can change or abandon my theology. I can assiduously pursue answers and not give up until I find them (ie, never). I can leave room around the edges my theology where this weird stuff can collect.

I've tried all four, and come down on choice D-- a flexible, roomy theology. I tend to accuse God of not acting like God when s/he causes (Uzzah), or neglects to remedy, pain. But recently I've come to believe that God's purpose in getting involved with us is something other (more, bigger) than alleviating suffering. Makes me feel I can relax a little on these stories and just let them be.

Maybe that's a cop-out. But the Gospels, the rest of the Bible, tradition, life experience, and spiritual/emotional experience still combine to keep me in the Jesus parade.

Elizabeth M. said...

Cool, but keep im mind that in that book he's not really trying to convince you of anything--he's trying to convince Evangelical Christians that it's possible to be "generous" without sacrificing orthodoxy. But I'll be interested to find out what you make of it in the end..

As an exhortation to Evangelicals to be more generous in their orthodoxy -- it seems to be a good book for that purpose. But to me, a former believer, it rings as hollow as anything written by C. S. Lewis or Chesterton or Philip Yancy, or any of the modern Christian apologists. McLaren shares their habit of arguing from analogy or tossing paradoxes on the table and then sitting back with his arms folded like he's really said something. This reaches its peak in the last chapter where he earnestly insists that postmodern emergent Christianity isn't a matter of mere relativistic pluralism, but he certainly won't be tempted into saying what it is -- we just have to trust that it's something much, much better, the same way we are to trust that we'll go to heaven when we die (but will anyone go to Hell? McLaren's lips are sealed!).

So, I'm still wondering -- is there anyone out there who isn't only preaching to the choir?

Mike Croghan said...

Hi Erin,

I don't think your conclusion is a cop-out--I think it's wise and beautiful. It reminds me of another conversation that happened in this blog's comments about "being" and "doing". I said in a follow-up post that I think we need to "work hard at allowing the Spirit to speak to us through [the Bible's] pages". Does that show my utter capitulation to our culture prejudice for "doing" over "being", or what? Thank you for reminding me that it's OK just to let these things be.

Peace,
Mike

Mike Croghan said...

Elizabeth asks:

So, I'm still wondering -- is there anyone out there who isn't only preaching to the choir?

I'm going to follow this up with a new blog post. Outstanding question.

Gary McCullough said...

>My opinion remains that the way God runs the world doesn't make sense. Various acts attributed to God, such as this one, don't make much sense. In light of characteristics that are attributed to his character such as goodness, mercy, and lovingkindness.

I once participated in a mock debate over Pascal's Wager which turned upon this very point. The nub of it is this: if God doesn't make sense to us, then there is simply no basis for making any claims about him. Kant goes off the deep end with this issue and finds himself compelled to assert metaphysical nonsense in order to avoid the unhappy consequences of an incomprehensible divinity. If we can make no claims about God, we can't make sense of any of these statements: "Jesus is the son of god," "God created the universe," "God is good," "God is just," "God loves us," etc. In short, if this is our stance, that God doesn't make sense, then no statement referencing "God" carries any authority.

-- So what? Faith is the evidence of things unseen, right? It doesn't have to make sense to be believed, right?

I submit that such a claim is simply empty of content.

Mike Croghan said...

Does your wife always make sense to you?

Presuming the answer is "no", does that keep you from making positive statements about her or having a rewarding relationship with her?

Hmm....

;-)

Gary McCullough said...

An incomprehensible morality is no morality at all. Suppose we were conquered by an alien race and made subject to their laws. Everybody was made to wear a monitoring device that instantly notified our masters of everything we did. One day you're walking down the street with your mother, and the device zaps her and she dies on the spot. You are on your knees beside her, bitterly weeping, when the alien police arrive to take the body away.

"Why did you do it?" you cry.

"She was wearing green on a Wednesday on the south side of the street," says the alien.

"What's wrong with that?"

"Against the rules."

"What rules?"

"Our rules."

"That doesn't make any sense!"

"Not our problem."

"How should I know what your rules are?"

"Also not our problem."

Those crazy aliens!

When you tell your friends about this horrific incident, the reaction is mixed. The pro-alienists among them say, "Well, it's a pity about your mother, but the aliens know best."

"How do you know?"

"Well, they rule the known universe, don't they?"

Mike Croghan said...

I don't think I know anybody who thinks God is like that, but I suppose some fundamentalists do, more or less. One has to admit, though, that "the universe" or "life" is kind of like that. It kind of calls into question the notion that the universe is "under the control" of a God who is "infinitely good". (I personally don't think "control" is a very good metaphor for the way God relates to the universe.)

Also, it would be pretty difficult to love and trust those aliens, but some people do love and trust God, despite devestating earthquakes in Pakistan. I think one can say this and take at least three different positions regarding God and the earthquake:

1) God didn't intend or cause the earthquake. (This implies that God isn't omnipotent, or at least that God voluntarily limits God's power or control for some reason.) I sometimes tend toward this point of view.

2) God intended/caused the earthquake, but, as Erin says, God's purpose may be something other/more/bigger than alleviating suffering. (For example, suffering might be regarded as a crucible forging people into more compassionate and empathic souls.) I sometimes tend toward this point of view too.

3) God caused the earthquake to punish people for something. (This is most like Gary's aliens, and is probably the point of view of Pat Robertson and many other fundamentalists.) I never believe this. I don't think God is like that, and I think Jesus comes down against this interpretation in John 9:3. The book of Job also argues against the whole "bad things happen to bad people (for some definition of 'bad')" perspective. So I personally think Christians who take this position are on pretty thin ice, and that Gary's analogy, which seems to be aimed at this viewpoint, is right on target, but also not applicable to most of us 'round these parts.

Gary McCullough said...

I think my analogy applies to all 3 options.

But what is this God-thing of which you speak? It might or might not be omnipotent. It might or might not be compassionate. It might or might not be comprehensible. Very post-modern. Or something! I don't know. You teach me! I invite you to make this the topic of a new blog entry soon!

M. Douglas Zukunft said...

Back to the discussion on I Chronicles 13. Someone posted the following:

Nor does the scripture say that anybody knew that God did not want the Box touched. I mean, how did they get it up on the cart to begin with? Did they wear gloves? The scripture does not state that Uzzah's act was one of disobedience, we just read that into it to account for God's anger.

Actually, this is not necessarily the case.

David should have known that the Ark of the Covenant was not to be moved by anyone other than priests and in a very detailed manner (cf. Exodus 25.12-14 and Numbers 4.16). Both Exodus and Numbers predate I/II Chronicles, which were written later in Israel's history. Specifically, these texts detailed that the ark was be carried on poles on the shoulders of the Kohathites who were of the priestly tribe of Levi. More: David's transportation of the ark on a cart was not only contrary to the earlier prescription(s), it was also the method employed by the Philistines, the unabashed enemies of Israel! So while David may have had good intentions - at large, the Chronicler always displays David (and Solomon) in a positive light - the enterprise (at least, this time around) was doomed to fail.

As for the Scriptures not saying that Uzzah's act was one of disobedience, that is not the case, either. True enough, this particular passage does not give a rationale for why Uzzah died, but the following passages (chapters 13-17 form one literary unit and should be treated together) do. Nevertheless, the circumstances within this pericope can lead us to a number of plausible interpretations: (1) The very touching of a sacred object in the ancient Near East was sacrilege, to be avenged either by the inherent force of the sacred object itself (according to a primitive understanding of the event) or, as in the case of I Chronicles 13, by God, who reacts in the most implacable way to the desecration of the sancta. A sin of this kind is objective and absolute; thus, the aspects of volition, intent and moral consideration play no role whatsoever. (2) His 'sin' can be interpreted as an expression of mistrust in the power of God, represented in the ark. It is for God and not for man to protect the ark, and any human action in this regard is a demonstration of disbelief.

In any case, the whole of Jewish Scripture was clear: The ark was NOT to be touched by any human hand...ever. In this manner, the witness of Scripture is consistent. Given the probability of Uzzah's good intentions, it makes the situation even more tragic. At the same time, however, the focus on this passage is not on Uzzah or his death. That is simply the hinge upon which the narrative turns. The Chronicler is far more concerned with David - his thoughts, feelings and actions. What happens directly after Uzzah's death? David takes to understand God's seemingly violent reaction as a sign for himself. Thus, he calls off the whole enterprise. But is this what God wanted? In verse 14, and the context from the parallel verse in II Samuel 6, the blessing received by Obed-edom (with whom David left the ark) is a not an 'automatic' result of the presence of the ark (as many assume) but of God's providence. It is also a purposeful sign, intended for David, sufficient to imply that the moving of the ark from the house of Abinadab was not a transgression. Instead, it was the manner of the transfer with which God did not approve. With the wrath having passed, David was clear to go ahead with his original plan...to bring the ark to Jerusalem - the new center of politics and worship in Israel.

Just some thoughts... And, just to be clear, I don't speak for God. This is just the fruit of my own study.

P.S. I Chronicles 13 is an almost perfect rehash of II Samuel 6.2-11. It has benefited me immensely to compare and contrast the two texts (and the purposes of each author). Samuel and Kings often portray David and Solomon more as they were, unlike the glittery, do-no-wrong kings found in Chronicles.