“Sometimes I Wonder Which Side God is On.”

The title of this post is from “The Longest Day,” a 1962 movie about D-Day from the points of view of the American army and the German army. During the movie each commander on each side says, “Sometimes I wonder whose side God is on.” Back in 1962, this was a lightbulb-flash moment for me. Everyone thinks God is on their side, even the “bad guys.” I was thirteen.

The lectionary readings for the UCC on July 28 brought this up, once again, in 2019. The first reading was from Hosea, and is one that many of us would rather skip over because God is vengeful, cruel, and misogynist. The second reading is from Luke and Jesus describes God as a father who would care for you no matter what. Reading them together is spiritual whiplash.

Our nation, and Christianity is experiencing a fissure. The U.S. has had fissures since the beginning. Now the fissure is wider because it is now so simplistic. Evil is defined by which political party you belong to, which church you go to. In skimming Biblical commentaries I found a “RedState.something” site. Its headline: Jesus was NOT a Refugee or an Immigrant.  A Huff Post column was headed: Guess What: Jesus was a Refugee. Do these people all read the same New Testament?

Which of God’s sides am I on?

Thanksgiving dinners are no longer long heated debates about issues; they are very short: Who did you vote for? Trump or Hillary? Who is a true Christian? Jerry Falwell or Desmond Tutu. Everything after that is a shouting match.

The motto of the United Church of Christ is “God is still talking.” In which case, the Bible is still being written. What will we write? What stories will we hand down? Which images of God will we bring forth?

How will our nation, our Christianity, ever reconcile and heal? Which teachings of our faith will aid in the healing? [By that I do not mean everyone agrees on everything.] Or do we want our side to “win?” 

Miroslav Volf in his book “Exclusion and Embrace” says he was asked about cetniks, the Serbian guerrilla force who was responsible for atrocities in his native country. Someone asked if he could embrace one of these fighters.

He answered, “Can I embrace a četnik—the ultimate other, so to speak, the evil other? What would justify the embrace? Where would I draw the strength for it? What would it do to my identity as a human being and as a Croat? It took me a while to answer, though I immediately knew what I wanted to say. “No, I cannot—but as a follower of Christ I think I should be able to.” 

Him and me both.

The New New Testament, 3019 C.E.

If, as the United Church of Christ says, “God is still speaking,” it must also be true that the Bible is still being written. What will be in the New New Testament?

The present Bible was started 3,400 years ago (depending on how you count). It was completed around 90 C.E. or 1,900 years ago. So, it was written over a period of 1,500 years. The specifics are debatable, but you get the picture. A long long time.

I’m thinking ahead about 1,000 years. Should humanity have not committed suicide by then, some scholars may wonder what 20th-21st century Christianity looked like.

The Bible Bible is a wondrous book of tales, contradictory rules, questionable history, sex, ponderings about divinity and humanity, poetry, love, crime, conflict, hope, all seen through the lens of a people’s relationship with their God. So will the next one be.

Logically, the New New Testament (NNT) should begin 90 C.E., when the last one ended, but my current number of brain cells can’t cope. I will start using the method I’m most familiar with: off the top of my head.

Let’s go with the obvious first: C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Surprised by Joy, sections of at least one of his books will be included. 

Marvelous tales: Lewis’ friend, J.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings stories would fit in with David and Goliath and the Ark stories. As would A Wrinkle in Time.

No doubt the scholars will come across the Left Behind series, which would not show up in my Bible version, but will no doubt end up in some version.

And whose stories will be told? Dorothy Day via columns from the “Catholic Worker;” Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the work of Reconciliation in South Africa; Simone Weil, creepy but popular; Dietrich Bonhoeffer; MLK, Jr. 

In the Psalms section: Gerard Manley Hopkins. He is 19th century, but I love him and it’s my bible. W.H. Auden, Carolyn Forche, Denise Levertov, David Whyte.

I’d wait another 200 years to see whether Joel Osteen’s writing stands the test of time, or that of Tammy Faye Bakker, or Rick Warren, or Oral Roberts. 

My Books of the Bible are shamefully English-language centered, but that’s what lives at the top of my head.

I suspect that the NNT will not be limited to Christians. The search for the divine is not limited; the People of God are no longer a small group, but an encompassing people. 

I encourage you to create a list of Books/ Stories/ People/ Poems for the NNT. It is an exercise in Seeing Biblically. The world we live in is full of “biblical life,” that is, the stories of how people struggle with the idea of the Divine. The Bible is not dead, but passed along in thousand-year chunks. Future people will learn from us, so let’s think about it now.

Leggo My Jesus!

I was meeting a friend at a coffee shop in a very large bookstore which shall remain unnamed. From afar I saw a bright, shining cloud. I was drawn to it as if I were ascended, only horizontally. There, on the shelf of bibles, was one I had never seen before. Glowing, as if barcoded from heaven: the Lego Bible in a box. The penultimate of American Christian art! A reflection of how devout bad taste can be! And the combo set of Old and New Testaments with moveable figures for only $29.95!

A couple of years ago, I wrote about the many bibles available to Christians now {The New Color-Coded Bibles]: the Green Bible, with lines highlighted in green to show us how often dirt is mentioned; the Justice Bible, highlighted to show that God cares about the poor and oppressed “a lot,” and my then-favorite, the American Patriot’s Bible with George Washington on the cover (let the French write their own damned bible).* But this…..
On the cover, I kid you not, DaVinci’s “The Last Supper” with little Lego people. Awestruck, I knelt before it to look closer. I have looked closely at DaVinci’s version, the faces, the expressions, bodies. I’m sorry, but it does not compare to this version: cube heads, blank expressions, little plastic bodies with somewhat moveable arms, primary colors only. So easy on the eye.

Revelations of biblical scenes appeared before me: Jesus knocking all those money-changers off the table onto the floor where the dog can chew them up, a barbie-sized Goliath smiting a teeny tiny David. Are pebbles supplied for stonings? Or do we have to supply our own? I wondered how they would depict Peter cutting off the Roman soldier’s ear since Lego people have no ears.

Turns out, I am years behind the times. The original version came out in 2001. “The Brick Bible,” as it is called, was pulled off the shelves at Toys-R-Us and Sam’s Club because someone noticed the sex scenes. The Brick Bible includes, you guessed it, graphic Lego sex scenes. (This whole blog was worth writing just to be able to use that phrase.)
The creator, Brendan Powell Smith, was astonished at the censorship. The depictions in his bible were nothing compared to the Bible bible’s sex scenes. Why didn’t they ban the original? I’m not sure how his version ended up on the shelves again. Perhaps the graphic Lego sex scenes were removed.

At the unnamed store, my fingers coveted that Brick Holy Book, that igniter of imagination, that simplifier of all things miraculous, the pure Americanism of it, the graphic Lego sex scenes in it, but I resisted. However, Christmas is only eleven months away… (a hint for those who have ears to…. oh, never mind).

>https://religion-sightunseen.com/2011/09/17/the-new-color-coded-bibles-just-for-you/

The Anteroom of Heaven

Religion News Service reports an uptick in the numbers of Protestants who believe in Purgatory. Jerry Walls, a Methodist theologian is leading the rush to change hearts and minds. Not an easy task. Protestants rejected the idea of Purgatory 500 years ago. Purgatory is just too Catholic. No one can pray a sinner into heaven. It’s just a trick to sell indulgences (look it up).

Over time, Catholics have lost interest in Purgatory, but Walls is encouraging them to change their minds back to believe in (to remember) this place they lost interest in.

The article on Purgatory resulted in the longest column of “Comments” I’ve seen at RNS, including on gay marriage. Commentators are arguing whether Purgatory is scriptural. I read some of the comments. The critical thinking method here is: you first decide what you believe, and then go to Scripture to find sentences that back you up. Some people call this “theology.”

Much of the disagreement about Purgatory involves “Salvation by Works” vs “Salvation by Faith Alone.” Simply: do good and you’ll go to heaven vs receive Christ as savior and you’ll go to heaven, never mind good works.

FAITH ALONE TALLEY SHEET:

1. PRO: John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (English Standard Version)

2. CON: Matthew 25: 34-36 -‘For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ (ESV)

3. ETC:  etc., etc. (EVS)

Baffling. If you believe in Christ, you’ll probably, though not necessarily, read the New Testament where Christ tells you to love and care for your neighbor. On the other hand, if you do good things in the world, you’ll probably agree with what Christ had to say. So in my mind, it’s all six-of-one, half-a-dozen of the other.

Walls disagrees: “I think that in the next 10 years, purgatory is going to develop as a serious conversation.” I hope it is limited to a serious conversation. During the Thirty Years War (look it up), 7.5 million Europeans died fighting over these things. Let’s not go back there. Agreed?

Either way, I believe that trying to figure out the best, easiest way to get yourself a ticket to heaven seems, I don’t know, like trying to outsmart God. Think?

God’s Opinion on Everything (for Dummies)

 

God has proved himself (herself) very clumsy and a bit vague on what his (her) opinions are, including whether he or she is he or she. On topics as varied as abortion, capitalism, the environment, child-rearing, Occupy Wall Street, women, yoga, apocalypse, same-sex anything, God sends confusing and contradictory rules and regulations.  What kind of God is that?

God (let’s go with “He”) tried to narrow things down with Ten Commandments, but that doesn’t seem to help much. What exactly does “covet” mean anyway? He probably thought “Thou shalt not kill” fairly straightforward. But translations (“kill”? or “murder”?) and a wealth of interpretations (i.e. “Just War Theories”) muddied the issue. I imagine Him banging His head on His desk.

Maybe the problem is the language He chose. What Christians call the Old Testament was written in Hebrew with a little Aramaic thrown in. Other than a few Yiddish phrases, I’m at the mercy of translators. “Oy vey” doesn’t appear often in Scripture.

Leviticus offers a wealth of mysterious commandments. “You shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed.” So much for companion planting. Carrots are forbidden to lie with tomatoes. But Leviticus is too easy a target. Any book with instructions on exactly how a man should sell his daughter just isn’t going to hold any father’s respect. Except perhaps when she’s in her teens.

After God’s done banging His head on His desk, I imagine Him calling in His Leviticus scribe, “What the hell were you thinking? Who cares if a coat has two fabrics?” By then it was too late. Humans had already taken it as the word of the God – the God of mysterious ways.

I love that the slogan describing the UCC` faith comes from Gracie Allen: “Don’t put a period where God has put a comma.” Those of us struggling to hear God’s voice can take another cue from Gracie when she was channeling God:  “Try to understand me. Nothing is impossible.”

Auditions for the Voice of God

In an attempt to help my ESOL students master the pronunciation of the past tense, I explain the difference between “voiced” and “unvoiced” sounds. I put my hand on my throat to show them how to feel for the vibrations. I will carry the looks on their faces forever. I think I can sum up the look  as: “You English speakers are weird.” Which is, of course, true.

.

Which brings me to the Bible. When I was a child I thought God spoke a special God-language, similar to English, but using words like “Thou,” and “Thee” and “Hail” and Shalt,” and that most intriguing of Biblical words: “begot.” Jesus certainly spoke that way. When I was in college, The Good News for Modern Man was published, revealing that Jesus spoke in language as cool as yours and mine. I admit to a vague disappointment.

.

During the “English-Only” in schools debate, Ma Ferguson, governor of Texas, was reputed to have said, “If English was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me.” Which brings up the disturbing audio image of Jesus speaking with a Texas accent. Everyone knows he spoke with a New York accent; I heard it myself every Sunday.

.

Mark Roberts of Beliefnet.com says: …I do think the language of Jesus matters. Knowing which language or languages Jesus spoke helps us understand his teaching with greater accuracy. Moreover, it reminds us of one salient fact that almost everyone affirms: Jesus did not speak English. [Note: almost everyone.]

.

Fine, but what did it sound like?

.

Jews and Hindus regard the sound of words as sacred, or more sacred, than the meaning. The sound of the word is the life of the word. After chanting a Hindi chant, the worshiper apologizes to God for any mispronunciation.

.

Our chance to hear Jesus or Isaiah is long gone. We must make due with the written word. A poor substitute for hearing, but we work with what we’ve got.

.

For audio Bibles, James Earl Jones is by far the most popular God-voice. His voice is deep, rich and resonant, with a Mid-West accent. Cary Grant just wouldn’t cut it. Claire Bloom does the voice-over for the Old Testament for BBC. Her English pronunciation is impeccable, but strangely detached.

.

For other female voices, I vote for either Emma Thompson or Maya Angelou. Should the Bible be read with a crisp, open voice, with subtle intonations and all the t’s distinct, a la Thompson? Or the lower, smoother, melodious voice of Angelou? How differently we would hear the words.

.

Which would you take more seriously:

Jones intoning the King James version: “Thou Shalt Not Kill” or

Thompson reading a modern translation: “Don’t murder anyone” ?

What about, “He maketh me lie down in green pastures…” I’d prefer Thompson with her controlled emotion savoring the poetry…Wait a minute. Am I doing auditions for the voice of God?

.

Did Jesus pronounce his t’s (or the Aramaic equivalent)? Was his voice high or low, smooth or crisp? What were the intonations? Was his voice fire-and-brimstone or gentle, sarcastic or straight-forward? Was he smothering a laugh when he said some things? Did his voice crack with grief? All of the above? How do we know? We don’t.

.

Years ago, my cousin was struggling with mental illness. On his closet door he had a sketch of Jesus with his head thrown back, laughing. Now that’s a laugh I’d like to have heard. I’ll have to settle for listening for it in the laughter I hear around me.

.

For me, the most memorable sentence in the New Testament is, “Jesus wept.” No words spoken, no “Thou” or “Thee” or “Thine,” no Texas or New York accent. Jesus wept.

.

Maybe it’s the coming Christmas season, but if you ask me, God speaks in words of the King James Bible with an 18th century British accent and Handel’s music as score. The voiced sounds of “Messiah” fill us with joy and sorrow and calls for justice. After the last note, we are left in the unvoiced silence of God’s true voice.

The New Color-Coded Bibles: Just for You!

In “The Merchant of Venice,” Shakespeare’s  Antonio warns us, “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.”  That puts reading the Bible into the danger zone. The Catholic Church of my youth took the warning seriously and simply forbade the faithful from reading it. (I suspect because there is too much sex.) The Bible is a thick, complicated and contradictory book, on occasion offering questionable advice, i.e. wives should be subject to their husbands.

Thanks to the Avery Dennison Corporation, inventor of “Hi-Liter”, we are now in the age of the “highlighted Bible.”  No need to struggle with all those contradictions, just don’t highlight them.

 We can now choose a Bible highlighted by people we agree with and skip all those inconvenient passages. We do not have to read or wrestle with anything we don’t like, thank God.

For instance, I gravitated toward The Poverty and Justice Bible.  On the cover is the face of a child and a broken chain. Here’s what the marketing says:

poverty bibblThe publishers of the Poverty and Justice Bible went looking and highlighted almost 3,000 verses in the scriptures to show that God has something to say about injustice and oppression. With bright orange highlighting, a quick glance is all you need to see that God cares about the poor a lot.”

Good thing the highlighting is bright orange, I might have missed them. And I only need to commit to a quick glance to convince myself that God cares about the poor “a lot.”

 I flipped through The Green Bible. It is ecologically correct, and here is the reason to buy it:

green-bible “The Green Bible will equip and encourage people to see God’s vision for creation and help them engage in the work of healing and sustaining it. With over 1,000 references to the earth in the Bible, compared to 490 references to heaven and 530 references to love, the Bible carries a powerful message for the earth.”

  Guess what color ink for the favored passages?

 Three thousand references for poverty and justice and only one thousand for the earth. Poverty wins  by two thousand! Love loses; heaven comes in last.                  

amer patriots My personal favorite is The American Patriot’s Bible. It has the most eye-catching and colorful cover: the American flag waving, the founding fathers signing something, the Washington Monument. The publishers of this Bible are the most ambitious of all. This one proves that the Bible is actually the story of America. This one isn’t actually highlighted. In columns next to the text, the story of America is told, beginning with Adam.

“The American Patriot’s Bible reveals how God has been and will continue to be a part of this great nation.”   -Ralph Reed

This helpful trend is not limited to print. According some websites, Adam was white. Not satisfied that God was clear enough on this point, someone added a passage to Genesis stating that Adam was indeed white.  Unfortunately, highlighting in white makes the words invisible, so it may not make it to the bookshelves.

            Our town had a littering problem recently. Supremely white people threw what is politely called literature  on lawns. Those anti-Semites really know how to make a mess. My English-language classes were reading two books at the time: a  biography of Anne Frank and one about Rosa Parks.  In my head that week, anger and hope wrestled with each other, like they do in the Bible.

This may catch on. I like the idea of Moby Dick highlighted. With a few swipes of a blue highlighter, we could have The Fisherman’s Moby Dick: a short guide to catching the big one.  The possibilities are endless.

Right now I can see Dorothy Day and Jerry Falwell fighting over a highlighter in the afterlife.  Whichever one wins gets into heaven.