Friday, February 22, 2013

Bible Challenge Day 5 - God Backs Away

Genesis 13-15, wherein Abram comes full circle, he and Lot are separated, then reunited through Abram's heroism, the first tithe is paid, and God promises Abram's descendants vast tracts of land.

Psalm 5, wherein the Psalmist is slandered, and asks for God's protection

Matthew 5, wherein Jesus says some beautiful and challenging things

Genesis is filled with competing visions who God is physically. We have God who walks in the Garden of Eden, from whom Adam and Eve literally hide in the bushes. Other people are described as "walking with God", notably Enoch (about whom we know basically nothing else), and Noah.

Abram's relationship with God is more distant. We know in Genesis 12:1 that God speaks to Abram, but what form God takes at that time is unclear; the same is true in 13:14, which seems to prefigure (or be another version of?) the covenant coming in chapter 15. But by chapter 15, it's seems that God is speaking to Abram in sometimes terrifying visions, that the days of God just walking around on the earth are at or near a close.

The image toward the end of today's reading, "When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces" (the divided sacrifice that Abram had made earlier in the day), is a poignant sign of God tiptoeing away, no longer appearing to human eyes, but veiled by darkness, soon to stop leaving footprints on the earth.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Bible Challenge Day 4 - The Psalmist vs. the Prosperity Gospel

Genesis 10-12, wherein we are exceptionally interested in the descendants of Shem, and also stop speaking the same language; also our hero Abraham (nee Abram) is introduced

Psalm 4, wherein the heresy of the Prosperity Gospel is refuted, mildly

Matthew 4, wherein Jesus is tempted by Satan, waited on by angels, and heals a bunch of people

I have given up alcohol for Lent, so I am tempted to imagine the angels showing up to wait on Jesus after his fasting as a heavenly flock carrying trays of dry martinis. I'm pretty sure that's not what happened.

But instead of fixating on the angels, I would rather focus on Psalm 4 for the moment. For me this is the first psalm that resonates with my own experience. It hints at the fact that faith in God is not a ticket to comfort and prosperity: "When you are disturbed, do not sin; ponder it on your beds, and be silent. Offer right sacrifices and put your trust in The Lord." If God were to always keep us comfortable, what would there be to be disturbed by? This is the reality of lived faith; what comfort there is comes from trust, not a deserved or bargained-for reward.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Bible Challenge Day 3 - Deserving to Drown

Genesis 7-9, wherein the earth is flooded and then something weird happens in Noah's tent, but I'm not quite sure what
Psalm 3, wherein the psalmist seeks deliverance from danger
Matthew 3, wherein Jesus is baptized by John the Baptist

There may be no greater example of history being written by the victors than the story of the great flood in Genesis. There may be bloodier stories in the Bible, but they don't often get painted on nursery walls. Don't get me wrong, the story of Noah is a good story, and who can resist imagining being on a boat with such a menagerie?

But spare a moment to think about this from a different perspective. 1998 was the year of the asteroid movie, and while Deep Impact was a plain also-ran compared to Armageddon and its unstoppable-please-make-it-stop Aerosmith theme song, it did feature the image of an estranged father and daughter making peace with one another on a beach, just as a monstrous tidal wave is about to consume them. This is, as far as I'm concerned, the only emotionally interesting moment in 4+ otherwise wasted hours of disaster porn. Yes, I saw both of them. In the theater. Judge not.

That one intimate moment, quickly swept away by the force of nature, may be a useful way to visualize the flood. The people drowned in this story had friends and families and children who didn't make it, lives and memories that disappeared when "all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened". It can be tempting to think that these dead deserved what they got, but I wouldn't be so quick.

Virtually the first thing Noah does when he's back on dry land is get completely plastered (by accident, but still) and then curse one of his sons for seeing him passed out naked (and whose fault is that exactly? This story is weird). This is the same man who a few chapters before was described as one who "walked with God." Perhaps he was never as righteous as he was earlier made out to be, or perhaps we have here an early indication that even the most righteous person can never fully merit God's grace on his or her own. I suspect that's a theme we'll come back to.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Bible Challenge Day 2: On the Run

Genesis 4-6 - wherein Cain kills Abel, the genealogy of Adam and Eve is rehashed twice, and Noah learns to be a shipwright/gamekeeper in a hurry

Psalm 2 - wherein David, presumably, asserts his authority as a king with divine favor

Matthew 2 - wherein Herod slaughters the children of Bethlehem, and the Holy Family is on the run.

The thing about Matthew is that he's very intent on making sure we understand that what is happening in the story is a fulfillment of what the prophets have said. So when Jesus is born in Bethlehem, it is fulfillment of scripture; when the Holy Family flees to Egypt, it is to fulfill a scriptural reference suggesting that the Messiah will come from Egypt; when Herod kills the children of Bethlehem, it is so a scripture foretelling great sorrow at the loss of children would be fulfilled, and when the Holy Family decamps from Egypt back to the Holy Land, it is so Jesus "will be called a Nazorean."

This is fine as far as it goes, but if you're really trying to place yourself in the story, to understand its wonder, violence, desperation, and displacement, the constant references to prophecy are a distraction. They impose an order on the story that Joseph and Mary could not at the time perceive.

It is easy for us to gloss over these early passages because they're so familiar that we know everything will be ok; Jesus will escape death (for now). But Joseph and Mary didn't know that. They chose homelessness and itinerancy just to keep their child alive.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Day 1: Wherein We Already Have a Contradiction


Genesis 1-3 - wherein the world is created, twice
Psalm 1 - wherein the law is praised
Matthew 1 - wherein Jesus is begat

I'm not going to say anything about the creation narrative other than that it is beautiful in both its grand sweep and small details. I will also take this opportunity to go on record as accepting evolutionary science with not the slightest bit of dismay. People who treat the Bible as a history book put themselves in the unfortunate position of having a falsifiable faith that forces them to close their eyes to what is right in front of them. That's not what I want nor is it what I believe God wants.

What I found most interesting in today's readings was actually the juxtaposition of Psalm 1 and Matthew 1. Psalm 1 talks about how the righteous "delight in the Law of The Lord". Meanwhile in Matthew 1, Joseph finds that his fiance is pregnant. Now, even if you haven't read the Old Testament laws before, I'm sure you are aware that women where there were doubts about their virginity before marriage tended not to come to a good end. But check this in Matthew: upon finding out about Mary's pregnancy, we have this: "Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly." Considering what the Mosaic law gave him the right to do, well, it's just interesting to see that the Psalm regards adherence to the law as characterizing righteousness while Matthew suggests that a righteous man can be known by his mercy. I think this might be a helpful thought to return to as we get to some of the darker parts of the Old Testament.

Reading the Bible Again for the First Time

I learned about the Bible in what a large swath of Christianity regards as the most apostate way possible: in the classrooms of a public university. The circumstances were that I had what the Evangelicals call a conversion experience (Episcopalians don't have a native word for it, regrettably) when I was 20. Among the first things I realized was that I didn't know anything about the Bible.

So to fix that, during my junior year at Indiana University I decided to pick up a Religious Studies minor. I took classes on the Old Testament, New Testament, the thought of St. Paul, the history of American Christianity, and because getting the minor required a course on non-Western religions, I took a class on Confucianism and Taoism, most of which I have forgotten aside from reading an improbably number of texts involving ingesting cinnabar (That sounds like candy, by the way, but it's not. It's mercury ore. Apparently a lot of these people died untimely deaths).

The experience was thrilling. My headlong rush into the Bible took me straight into the realms of textual criticism, taking apart Paul's letters for clues to early Christian liturgy, understanding the different audiences the Gospel writers were addressing, and learning that there were three accounts of creation (one of which involves tearing a sea monster in half - bet you didn't know about that one). All this came as a shock to my more fundamentalist classmates, who had taken these classes only to be blasphemed to on a daily basis. But the more I learned about how these texts came to be, the more I learned about how the original Christians wrestled with the question of who Jesus was and what he meant, the more I found company for my maturing faith (this had its limits: there was a class where we discussed the Jesus Seminar, whose mission may be well-intentioned but I think is futile and silly). I developed a particular affinity for St. Paul, who like me had a sudden conversion, who remained a plainly flawed individual post-conversion (more so than he would admit, I'm sure), but could also write inspiringly and movingly about the love of God.

I came out the other side of my state-school Biblical education knowing the Bible backward and forward, with a particularly astute knowledge of Paul's letters and Gospels. I have now let that skill atrophy for about 15 years.
Aside from the hit or miss periods when I read the Daily Office, I haven't read the Bible systematically for a good long while. The last time I meant to was when I wound up in the hospital for a few days with a broken ankle when I was 27, but it turns out, weirdly, that large quantities of morphine are not conducive to a careful study of Matthew.

So I'm excited that the Diocese of Indianapolis is launching the Bible Challenge today. The plan is to read the entire Bible in one year. I'm particularly excited because while in the course of my education at IU I read the New Testament multiple times, I've read most, but not all, of the old. I realize part of the reason for that is that IU didn't see the point in making me read both Chronicles and Kings; I won't be so lucky this time.

I'm not going to promise much: reading the Bible is challenging enough without committing to write daily about it, but I'm going to endeavor to say something, at least every now and then. So, onward!