Category Archives: Bible

Listening to 80s Music with Karl Barth

Very thoughtful survey. I’ve thought of Das Nichtige as “nothingness” because it consists of all that God opted not to create, and that because there “is” God and the things God opted to create, there must also be “not God” or “the nothingness.” Am I misreading Barth there?

Pop Culture and Theology

By Jack Holloway

I make a lot of “best of” playlists. Recently, I made a playlist of what I think are the 150 greatest 80s songs (find it here). I listened to hours and hours and hours and hours of 80s music, soaking it all in, and, like the Apostle Paul, “examining everything carefully, holding fast to everything good.”

I primarily study the theology of Karl Barth, and so I thought a lot about Barth’s theology as I contemplated the music I was listening to. Barth talks about God’s No and Yes, God’s wrath and redemption, judgment and forgiveness, and on and on. He thinks Christians should move from one realization to the other, from understanding our sinfulness to God’s forgiveness, from seeing sin and death to believing in God’s redemption.

“Human experience and thought,” he says, “would proceed in a straight line from despair to even deeper despair…

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Considering Jonah and Noah in Light of Harvey and Irma

I said earlier that  I’d been re-reading the flood narrative in Genesis.

The devastation from Harvey, and, soon, Irma, compels me to say something about what God isn’t doing.

God is not sending these storms as a punishment on America.

God is not sending these storms as a punishment on the world.

God is not sending these storms, period.

Remember the story of Jonah?

God (Yahweh in the text) calls Jonah to cry against the city of Nineveh, “for their wickedness has come up before me.”  Jonah wants nothing to do with this mission, and embarks for Tarshish instead.  He doesn’t get far.  Trapped in the belly of a great fish, Jonah offers an incredible prayer:

“I called to the Lord, out of my distress,
    and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
    and thou didst hear my voice.
For thou didst cast me into the deep,
    into the heart of the seas,
    and the flood was round about me;
all thy waves and thy billows
    passed over me.
Then I said, ‘I am cast out
    from thy presence;
how shall I again look
    upon thy holy temple?’
The waters closed in over me,
    the deep was round about me;
weeds were wrapped about my head
    at the roots of the mountains.
I went down to the land
    whose bars closed upon me for ever;
yet thou didst bring up my life from the Pit,
    Lord my God.
When my soul fainted within me,
    I remembered the Lord;
and my prayer came to thee,
    into thy holy temple.
Those who pay regard to vain idols
    forsake their true loyalty.
But I with the voice of thanksgiving
    will sacrifice to thee;
what I have vowed I will pay.
    Deliverance belongs to the Lord!”

“And Yahweh spoke to the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land.”

Jonah preaches a warning from God in Nineveh: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” The people, from beggar to king, repent of evil.  God responds in kind.

Jonah gets lit.

“But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

I’m going to repeat the most important part of this passage, ignoring, for a moment, Jonah’s impossible dramatics.

“I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.”

God could have left Nineveh tore up from the floor up.  (The justice of such an action is another matter.)  Rather than sending calamity, God sent a prophet.  Rather than a tidal wave or a series of storms or an earthquake, God sent correction.  Jonah held Nineveh in contempt; God wanted its people to repent and flourish.

In Jonah, God does not send calamity.  God sends correction.

The devastation from Harvey, Irma, and other natural disasters are not punishments from God.  Modern-day Jonahs, eager to see the things they despise brought to ruin and claim the destruction as mighty acts of God, be warned.

As for Jonah’s (and would-be Jonahs’) histrionics:

“Yahweh replied, ‘Is it right for you to be angry?’

Jonah had gone out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city. Then the Lord God provided a leafy plant and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the plant. But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the plant so that it withered. When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, ‘It would be better for me to die than to live.’

But God said to Jonah, ‘Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?’

‘It is,’ he said. ‘And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.’

But Yahweh said, ‘You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?'”

This stands in quite the contrast to the moody, brooding God of the Noah’s Ark narrative.  In that story, Yahweh (still smarting in familial dysfunction?), kills almost every man, woman, child, and animal on Earth with a great flood.

One of these stories is partly about the nature of God.  One is partly an attempt to explain an historic calamity in concert with the notion that God is all-powerful and good, and is also a claim that God has established a certain covenant with a certain elect band of people.  “Good” people.  And whatever these stories seek to say about God, they say an awful lot about the nature of people.  Jonah longs for the destruction of people God would rather save.  The writer of the flood story hedges that the payoff of a national god who can control nature will be worth the scandal of having that god kill innocent children.

These stories are “about” God, but they are more fundamentally about how we can only understand God in conversation with others.  Left to our own devices, we inevitably cast God in exclusionary terms.  We become like the writer of the flood narrative’s darkest moments.  We become like Jonah.

As I said yesterday:

It’s important to remember that when we study the Scriptures, we’re not simply interpreting a set of neutral or sacrosanct writings.  The very act of reading Scripture is an act of encountering a diverse collection of people’s perceived, longed-for, and actual experiences with God.  There is incredible richness in such and undertaking.  Whatever else they’re meant to do, these stories, poems, parables, and teachings are meant to put us in conversation with ourselves as much as with each other.  With our own preconceived notions about God and everything else.  Understanding the Scriptures, even a little, requires engagement with other people.  That’s incredibly important, especially if you believe or want to believe in a God who’s still speaking, a God who lives beyond story and page, beyond symbol or sacrifice.

I don’t know what God is literally able to do in the face of calamity.  But I know God does not send it.

For the victims of these and all raging storms, let us pray with Jonah:

“I called to the Lord, out of my distress,
    and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
    and thou didst hear my voice.
For thou didst cast me into the deep,
    into the heart of the seas,
    and the flood was round about me;
all thy waves and thy billows
    passed over me.
Then I said, ‘I am cast out
    from thy presence;
how shall I again look
    upon thy holy temple?’
The waters closed in over me,
    the deep was round about me;
weeds were wrapped about my head
    at the roots of the mountains.
I went down to the land
    whose bars closed upon me for ever;
yet thou didst bring up my life from the Pit,
    Lord my God.
When my soul fainted within me,
    I remembered the Lord;
and my prayer came to thee,
    into thy holy temple.
Those who pay regard to vain idols
    forsake their true loyalty.
But I with the voice of thanksgiving
    will sacrifice to thee;
what I have vowed I will pay.
    Deliverance belongs to the Lord!”

Amen.

 

Why Did God Reject Cain’s Offering?

I was re-reading the story of Cain and Abel this evening.  Maybe it’s because I pastor a church in the agricultural heart of Lehigh County and, as a food trucker, am a near-end user of so much of what our local farms produce, but I noticed something in the text I’d never really thought about before.

I remember from childhood that Cain raised crops and Abel raised meat, and Yahweh accepted Abel’s offering and rejected Cain’s.  Cain was born first, “and Abel was keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground.”  Cain brought an offering of fruit, Abel the first of his flock and best potions thereof.

If Cain was a tiller of the ground, and Abel a shepherd, where did Abel get his feed?  Were his pastures enough? In all conditions?  In all kinds of weather?  For all the ewes in their various cycles, and for all the lambs?

Scripture doesn’t say why Yahweh rejected Cain’s offering.  The editorial school or tradition most likely to have produced this section of Genesis (the “J” or “Yahwist” source, named for its specification of “Yaweh” as the name of God) is also thought to have given us the story of Adam and Eve.  Yahweh fashions Adam (from adamah, essentially a word for earth or soil) from the ground (Genesis 2:7).  In Genesis 3:19, Yahweh reminds Adam that from dust, earth, and soil he was made, and to dust, earth and soil he shall return.  Yahweh banishes Adam and Eve from Eden after their disobedience, where they are destined to work the land (adamah) for their survival.

Cain, their first born, is as closely connected to the land as they are.  But Abel is at least one step removed from the earth-bound toil of his brother and parents.  Certainly, successful, stationary animal husbandry requires more feed than the sparse pastures the rocky ground east of Eden provided?

If I were to make an admittedly radical assumption as to why Yahweh rejects Cain’s offering, I’d start by considering family systems.  I’d speculate that Cain’s sacrifice reminds Yahweh not only of the failure of Eden, but of Yahweh’s own rash response.  Cain, who tilled the soil, reminds Yahweh of his own loving creation of Adam from adamah, and of Yahweh’s outsized reaction to Adam and Eve’s transgression.  Adam and Eve disobeyed Yahweh with the eating of a fruit, and it’s fruit Cain brings as an offering.  In Abel, Yahweh finds one a bit more removed from this original dysfunction.  It’s worth noting that Yahweh does not punish Cain with death, and vows to protect him from those who would slay him.  If I were to offer a radical assessment, I’d suggest there are deep pathologies here.

If the bulk of the stories in Genesis are meant to be taken symbolically, we’d be less radical locating these pathologies in the hearts and minds of the people writing the Scriptures, or we might understand Yahweh’s rejection of Cain as a commentary on the tension between settled agrarians and pastoral nomads.  We might take it as an indictment of personal property (though we’d need to find a way around Abel’s owning of sheep).

There are no clear answers within the story as to why Yahweh is displeased with Cain and his offering.  There are two passing references to Cain in the New Testament (1 John 3:13 and Jude 1:11), both of which speak to the evil of Cain killing Abel.  1 John 3:13 claims Cain was “from the evil one,” and I believe it’s from that understanding that theologians have read evil motives back into Cain’s offering.  They suggest he wasn’t giving his best, while it’s clearly stressed in Genesis 4 that Abel gave the best of his flock. That’s certainly what I was taught in Sunday School.  You’d think, though, that the Yahwist would make Cain’s attitude, if it were the issue, a key part of the story.

There’s a lot we don’t and can’t know about this story.  Here’s what we do: the Bible very clearly reflects the joys and heartbreaks of real family systems. Whatever the motivation behind his offering, Cain’s jealously at Yahweh’s seeming favoritism of Abel probably did not emerge in a vacuum.  Maybe Yahweh favored Abel as a pattern, or, more likely, maybe Adam and Eve did.

It’s important to remember that when we study the Scriptures, we’re not simply interpreting a set of neutral or sacrosanct writings.  The very act of reading Scripture is an act of encountering a diverse collection of people’s perceived, longed-for, and actual experiences with God.  There is incredible richness in such an undertaking.  Whatever else they’re meant to do, these stories, poems, parables, and teachings are meant to put us in conversation with ourselves as much as with each other.  With our own preconceived notions about God and everything else.  Understanding the Scriptures, even a little, requires engagement with other people.  That’s incredibly important, especially if you believe or want to believe in a God who’s still speaking, a God who lives beyond story and page, beyond symbol or sacrifice.

#RaisingCain

 

God As Midwife

This is the concluding paragraph from a piece Becca posted on Adriel Booker’s blog.

If our mothers had named the Holy One, would God have firstly been midwife, continually welcoming new life in even the most excruciating circumstances?  I have never found God absent in my darkest nights, even when the pain has threatened to swallow me, even when I’ve wished that I would die because the future felt too chaotic.  When my heart was utterly broken, when my body was tangled unconscious, when I bled out my first baby and was separated from my firstborn after birth, even when I’ve been in the middle of a painful conflict with a trusted friend.  God has always stayed close, putting pressure on my lower back, whispering truth to my inconsolable heart, hands covered in my blood, tears falling with my own.  She hasn’t been in control of or responsible for my pain but always present, always welcoming the most possible good, the healing, the new.

This is breathtaking and beautiful.  In the context of the life of my church, right now, at this moment, it was something I needed, and it was something I shared today as part of our look at female images of God in celebration and recognition Mother’s Day.

I want to say more about this, and it will probably be a podcast.  But someone asked me last week how we hold on to the promise that God is working all things out to our good when we experience so much bad.  (There’s a lot of physical sickness right now in the church, specifically cancer.)  Becca’s words were our answer. Thank you, Becca, and thank you, Adriel.