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A Christmas Primer for the Curious

Celebrating Jesus’ birth first began in Egypt around 200 c.e. with an emphasis on the visit of the Magi and the holy family’s time in Egypt.  Christmas on December 25 began in Rome about 336 c.e. with the expectation it would replace the traditional festive holiday honoring the sun gods. It didn’t work. The sun gods may be gone but the old Roman festival is still with us as the secular side of Christmas. We can enjoy both.

The Christmas story will be told time and again over the next few weeks.  The most familiar will be the children’s pageant that packs in every gospel theme rolled into one story. Others will be entertained by Hallmark movies revealing the true meaning of Christmas with sentimental romance, lots of magic, and not a mention of Jesus.  Skeptics will proclaim the whole thing is a fabrication third century Christians made up to explain where Jesus came from.  After all only two gospels have a birth narrative, each quite different from the other. 

I doubt that any follower of Jesus used their imagination to make up the Christmas story. The record indicates determination to tell the true story as best they could with what they had available. Let’s take a brief survey to see what was going on at the time.  

Neither Mark nor John has a birth narrative.  Mark’s gospel is short and spare. He wrote it five or six years after the execution of Peter and was possibly the one who had recorded Peter’s teachings. It was in the middle of the Jewish war or rebellion against Roman rule and shortly after the destruction of the temple.  My guess is that the writer was unsure whether he would live to complete a full gospel narrative so concentrated on sketching out the core facts as he knew them. Whether or not he intended to fill it in later, he didn’t.  

John was written very late in the first century.  He was well aware of what Mark, Matthew and Luke had written and saw no reason to repeat them.  More important to John was to expand on events and teachings to clearly illustrate that Jesus was the Word of God made flesh. 

Matthew and Luke did not make things up using their imaginations.  They knew Jesus was born in Bethlehem of an unmarried virgin.  They knew that Mary’s pregnancy was not natural and came through the power of God’s presence taking form in her womb. Skeptics have a problem with that because it introduces the supernatural, and it doesn’t even follow the myths about gods seducing women to produce semi-divine godlets.  Well, that’s their problem. Our religion is supernatural and understands the indwelling of the supernatural with the natural. 

That Jesus, the Word of God made flesh, would enter the world in the most vulnerable way possible, dependent entirely on Mary to nourish him with her own body and blood, and on Joseph to protect him when he was a defenseless baby and toddler is a really shabby way to invent a new myth about the savior of the world. No one would write it if there was no truth in it.  The whole idea is too preposterous.

True, Matthew and Luke have different versions.  In Matthew, Joseph is the lead character.  He has little to say but makes all the decisions. The Annunciation comes to him, not Mary. There is no mention of Nazareth as the starting point.  Jesus may have been two or three years old when the Magi visited.  After a sojourn in Egypt the holy family did settle in Nazareth.  Who knows? Nazareth may have been the starting point and Matthew just didn’t mention it. 

Luke’s birth narrative is more familiar because it’s the foundation of our modern day “Charlie Brown’s Christmas.”  Mary is the lead character in Luke.  It is she to whom the Annunciation is made; she travels south to visit her kinswoman Elizabeth, pregnant with John the Baptist.  The journey to Bethlehem, the birth in a stable, the visit of shepherds and angel choirs singing in the sky are in Luke’s account. 

I believe Mary and Joseph stayed in Bethlehem for at least forty days or so.  Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day and thirty days later Mary, Joseph and Jesus were in the temple for the rites of purification for a new mother.  Luke says nothing about whether they stayed longer or went to Egypt before going home to Nazareth.

We take the two accounts as bearing truth according to facts as the writers were able to gather them. Frankly, for all the differences, the two stories are more coherent than some of the stories my wife and I tell about events we’ve attended together.  The two versions do not have to be the same to be true.  

In the end, what bothers skeptics the most is God’s invasion of ordinary human life. It just doesn’t make sense, but God is not bound by human limitations and what makes sense in the ordinary way of things.  Well, so be it.   When will we learn that God does not conform to our expectations?  We are expected to conform to God’s expectations as best we can. As for our household, we rejoice in celebrating the nativity of Jesus Christ who came to serve and save in the most improbable way possible.

War, Religion & Gods

I have heard the argument that religion is the cause of war, but for religion the world could find a way to live in peace.  I find that thought lacking in merit. Since the beginning of recorded history, war has been the pastime of kings and tribal chiefs fighting to defend and extend territory from a position of dominance over their own people. To be chief of chiefs and king of kings you have to, in the words of one recent wannabe dictator, “dominate.”  It’s the driving ambition to dominate others that paves the way to war.

Religion, as causation, has seldom been more than a useful crutch. The favor of the gods was sought as a pretext for moral justification.  Did chiefs and kings take the gods seriously?  I imagine some did, but they all knew that the gods had to be paraded before the people if an army was to be raised and motivated. What ever roles the gods played in getting things off the ground was reinforced by appeals to tribal honor and the glorification of courage in battle against an evil enemy to be subjected to harsh rule or eliminated.  The assurance of a god’s help against an evil enemy is the same propaganda appeal made to the emotional fear of the ‘other’ that has motivated military conflicts in our age. 

The late medieval and early modern era European wars of religion used religion as the moral justification for plain old greed, selfishness, lust for power, and position.  If the masses could be convinced they were doing God’s work, so much the better, but that was just the hook to get things going.  There have been exceptions. 

The Crusades were, in some sense, religious wars.  The lower classes were incited by appeals to recover the Holy Land for Christianity.  The upper classes were in it for the glory.  Too much of it devolved into barbaric pillaging and murder along the way.  

The ancient Islamic empire was created on a religious foundation, but conquered peoples were seldom forced to convert and most established religions were tolerated, their adherents living in reasonable security. The empire was, in the end, about empire not religion.  The horrific wars of the 20th century were entirely about empire and global domination on one hand and rebellion against colonialism on the other. 

What about Christianity?  Political leaders and operatives have often used appeals to promote or defend Christianity to whip up emotional fervor for war. But the prophetic theme of holy scripture, the life, teaching and example of Jesus Christ, and the inspired guidance offered through the letters to the early church by his apostles go in another direction. They reveal that God’s way is for healing, reconciliation, economic and social justice that works for peace on earth and good will to all humanity.  They take the form of commandments, not sentimental platitudes.  To believe that Jesus is the Word of God made flesh who was crucified, died, and is resurrected, and to follow Christ in his way of love provides no excuse for war or the justification of war. 

Humanity, it turns out, has proven itself unable and unwilling to live in harmony. To accommodate the predictable outcome of humanity’s brokenness taking the form of greed and lust for power, the church worked out a just war theory. Yet, a just war theory cannot defend war as a moral good. It can only minimize the evil when war is the lesser of evils that cannot be avoided.

Democracy and the National Common Good.

I’ve written several times recently about the importance of a broadly shared sense of the common good in order for democracy to flourish.  It’s been the ongoing subject of conversation between me and friend Tom D., a retired professor of philosophy.  We’ve come to the recognition that a broadly understood sense of the common good is lacking and is one reason why democracy is in jeopardy. 

Many of today’s students, I am told, have no idea what a common good might be.  Apparently they have been raised in an environment that lionizes individualism to the exclusion of any sense that the individual might have a duty to consider the common good ahead of one’s own desires.  I’m unsure how true that is, but I see it pop up in higher education online posts.  It certainly doesn’t mean commitment to a common good is absent from American society.  There are many common goods, each expressed in a way limited to particular places, ideologies, and circles of like minded people.  For example, we live in a small enclave of fifty townhouses and we share a strong sense of the common good for “The Close.”  Fraternal orders and athletic teams understand what their common good is.  Communities brought together by shared tragedy understand their common good, at least for the moment.

The common good of isolated neighborhoods and small like minded groups cannot add up to a national consensus about a greater national good but there have been times when one was broadly understood. The 20th century experienced several of those times. None were uncontested and each had a lifespan beyond which it could not hold.  The Great Depression brought the New Deal which became a broadly shared understanding that “we were in it together” and the federal government was “our ally.”  It was a broadly enough shared sense of the common good that FDR won elections by enormous margins. Just the same it did not go uncontested. Big business complained about creeping socialism interfering with their right to do whatever they wanted, however they wanted to do it. Fascists organizations promoted fear of immigrants, colored people and Jews as threats to white supremacy. In the end, the New Deal triumphed.

The WWII era united the country in a focussed determination to real threats to national security and Western democracy. What gave it a deep and lasting moral purpose were the Four Freedoms illuminated in FDR’s January 1941 address to Congress: Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, Freedom from Fear.  They were embedded in the American ethos by Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post covers depicting each freedom – paintings that even today remain icons of American values.

The war was followed by two decades during which the American Dream of ever greater prosperity for each succeeding generation became a possibility for all, a reality for many, and a sense that it was among the unalienable rights of (white) Americans.  If the era was symbolic of a broadly shared sense of a national common good epitomized as The Life of Riley, Nelsons and Cleavers it was shattered by Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement. Nixon’s ignominious administration managed to corrode trust in the federal government as well. What has followed are decades of government portrayed as the problem that keeps Americans from enjoying what is rightfully theirs.  What are rightfully theirs are their individual rights. Individualism has long been an American trait, but in recent decades it has become a dominant theme of political life.  Rights are understood to adhere to the individual, not the community.  What is rightfully mine is mine to be shared only with people like me.  Communal rights accruing to the entire nation can lead only to communism, or so the propaganda says.

The trend is obvious.  In a nation as diverse as ours, a sense of a national common good emerges when a genuine threat to national security or the livelihood of all is present.  Such is a time we now face.  The possibility that American democracy could fall to an authoritarian regime is a real and present danger. It would impose on the nation a demand to submit to a restrictive ideology demolishing the freedoms we have so long cherished and fought to retain. Some of its first victims would be the very people who now make up the MAGA base, lumping them in with unwanted immigrants and people of color.  Moral justification  would be achieved through the imposition of Christian nationalism replacing the traditional creeds of the church with an oath of allegiance to a political power.  The obligation of orthodox Christians to see the face of God in every person, no matter who or what they might be, would become a threat to authorities, as would adherents of any other religion.

Uniting to defend American ideals behind the shield of a new broadly shared sense of the national common good would require that it be articulated simply, clearly, and be easily understood.  Something drawn from the Declaration of Independence, preamble to the Constitution, the Gettysburg address, and FDR’s Four Freedoms would be a good place to start building a 21st century American dream in which it is broadly understood that one’s individual welfare depends on the general welfare of all, without discrimination.

Government of the people, by the people and for the people is the product of democracy, not authoritarianism.  It must be fought for and defended, not with swords but words. Consider lessons from the run up to the adoption of the Constitution.  It wasn’t clear that a strong democratic federal government could be a broadly shared common good.  Proponents used the social media of the day to make their case.  It took the form of speeches given in every possible venue and pamphlets put into the hands of as many people as possible. Newspapers were inundated with guest columns. Today’s social media must be employed with the same determination.  To do less is to surrender.  The alternative is to cede the battle to the propaganda skills of the MAGA leadership and their allies. Truth is never self evident.  It must be made known through bold stands on behalf of the people.

Freedom of Speech & the Christian Way

The current atmosphere surrounding questions about what the limits of free speech might be and to whom they should apply has taken center stage in the public debate. The argument rages on college campuses, in legislatures, in courts and campaigns.  It’s especially important that Christians recognize they have two moral obligations respecting speech.  On the one hand, they are to honor the constitutional guarantee of free speech.  On the other they are to observe the greater obligation to to follow godly commandments about the use and limitations of speech.

Constitutional freedom of speech aside, Christians are to respect the dignity of every human being in what they say even as they confront evil without apology.  They are to let their yes be yes and their no be no.  They are to be ever aware of the power of speech to bless and to curse, to help and to hurt, to speak truth in love.  Jesus is the exemplar that Christians are to follow as best as they can.  If nothing else, Christians must remember the commandment to bear no false witness against a neighbor (the neighbor being anyone about whom one might talk).  St. James offered particularly wise advice when he wrote:

  • Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect as though able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.
  • How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. (James 3)

Paul’s letter to the Ephesians reminds Christians that everything they say is to be a part of building up the body of Christ, not only for the church but for the community in which they live.

  • Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. 31 Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling. (Ephesians 4)

There are echoes in each of Paul’s letters of Jeremiah’s advice to the exiles in Babylon that they should pray for the welfare of the city to which they have been sent because in its welfare lays their welfare (Jeremiah 29).

The public debate we are now engaged in is, in a sense, a civil war in which words are the weapons.   At stake is whether we will remain a democracy of diverse people with diverse views, or are we to become an authoritarian state that claims to be democratic, but only for the few and privileged. 

Xenophobic white and Christian nationalism attract followers who are willing to surrender everything liberal democracy stands for in the expectation that a new authoritarian regime will save a way of life they believe is theirs by right. Christians must engaged boldly in the public arena  with verifiable facts.  They must be firmly grounded in God’s commandments and apostolic wisdom. They must be keenly aware of the difference between words that intentionally humiliate or threaten and words that are observations of verifiable truths.  The Christian way doesn’t mean feelings won’t be hurt or umbrage taken: consider how Jesus confronted religious leaders with uncomfortable truths.  The Christian way is not without risk.  Nevertheless, the way of the cross is the way of life and peace.

Life, Liberty, the Pursuit of Happiness & Trumpism

The Declaration of Independence declares that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are unalienable rights accruing to every human. How do we know they are?  It’s self evident says the Declaration.    It’s a bold assertion hinted at by Enlightenment philosophers but never before stated in such a powerfully concise way.  However, it leaves unanswered what life, liberty and happiness mean.  For the purpose of this brief piece I want to focus on happiness because life and liberty are elements of it.

Popular usage suggests that happiness is experienced either as a joyful or elated feeling or maybe a state of deep well satiated contentment.  Both are moments that quickly pass.  Neither is the kind of happiness intended by the Declaration.  Its happiness is a condition of life in which one’s basic needs are adequately met, insecurity is minimized, and opportunities to fulfill ambitions are present and available.  It is not an unalienable right to have that kind of happiness, it’s only a right to pursue. Measures of individual happiness can be had but only when the happiness, or common good, of whole communities are also ends to be pursued.

The Constitution, especially the Bill of Rights and the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, Fifteenth and Nineteenth Amendments define and establish in law the conditions the state must guarantee for happiness to be pursued, life lived in reasonable security, and liberties protected. It’s guaranteed not always honored yet always pursued – like happiness.  The short list includes the right of:

  • Free Speech
  • Freedom from unwarranted searches
  • Speedy trials by a jury of peers
  • Freedom to practice the religion of one’s choice, or none
  • Free Press
  • Freedom from bonds of slavery
  • Full citizenship for all persons previously denied it
  • Freedom to vote in every election

Each contributes to conditions for unalienable and self evident rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to be given a chance for an adequate level of success.

The United States is not the only country with similar constitutional rights.  Many of the most autocratic countries do also, but it is only in stable democracies where they become the enforced law of the land and a significant part of the national ethos.  Surrendering democracy to autocracy always and everywhere ends with political, civil and human rights defined as the exclusive Provenance of the ruling autocrat.  It’s distressing, therefore, to learn how many Americans prefer a publicly self proclaimed autocrat like Trump who promises wondrous prosperity he never delivered before and cannot deliver in the future. The plans he has personally voiced out loud would reduce the United States to an isolated, belligerent, second rate dictatorship in which political opponents would be rounded up and imprisoned. He  is openly contemptuous of working class and rural Americans while claiming to “be their retribution.” I wonder if his true believers think that with him in power they will be whisked from the lower tiers of society to the very top from where undesirables and the undeserving could be kept in their places.

True America’s democracy may not be the best one.  After all, it’s fragmented, messy, saddled with oddities like the Electoral College, and is often more of a Semi-United States than a fully united one. It needs reform.  Our health care system is the most expensive and least efficient of all advanced nations. Post secondary education does not have to be so expensive.  Declining life spans and increasing infant mortality are inexcusable.  Border and immigration reforms are held in check by a Congress that would rather use them as political weapons than reform them.

These are not insoluble problems. The nation has faced worse and come through stronger than ever to resume its place as a leader among nations and to be a beacon of hope.   It can again by rejecting Trumpism and every candidate allied with it.  We need to elect liberals and conservatives committed to the good of the people and the restoration of truly competitive private enterprises that do well for themselves and the good of the nation.

Trumpism v. Biden & the Future of the U.S.A

Biden’s biggest problem, it seems to me, is that he is quietly producing everything Americans say they want but his story telling grandpa personality doesn’t instill confidence. He can’t quite convince the public that the economy  is good when they’ve been brain-washed by others that it isn’t.  A majority of the voting public wants a younger, more dynamic, more charismatic president who will do what Biden is doing. It’s a high hurdle to get over.  Age is no predictor of competence and Biden has demonstrated presidential competence in most everything he does.  Still, his public persona gives critics ammunition to question his abilities base on nothing more than his folksy way of talking and life long speech impediment. He’s an easy target for those who accuse him of losing mental acuity in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary: he has a firm grasp on dozens of complex issues.  It’s time to pass the torch of leadership to younger generations and Biden may be the agent of transition who will bequeath a healthier, stronger nation to them.

More disheartening is the sizable minority of voters who want Trump and trumpism.  That he is ahead in critical polls is astounding and somewhat frightening.  A man whose entire life, including his four years as president, is a tale of bold moral and criminal malfeasance in every facet of life.  He is a sly, foxy street smart operator with a low level intellect and no sign of wisdom. He appears to be losing whatever grip on reality he has had.  As the nets of justice close in on him there is a possibility that his candidacy will collapse.  But trumpism will not.  It will be picked up by another who has less personal baggage to carry.  My guess is that trumpism’s appeal stems from fears and anxieties and simple solutions fixing blame on imaginary communists or vulnerable immigrants.

So what is trumpism?  There must be dozens of narratives attempting to define it, yet it’s an elusive target.  Trumpism is emotion without substance, a political movement of grievance real and imagined, begotten of fear mongering and decades of propaganda masquerading as news.  Its authors and manipulators are after power, absolute power.  Its voting public adherents are willing to believe in promises that ghosties, ghoulies and things that go bump in the night will be defeated. They are willing to surrender democracy to authoritarianism in the expectation that the freedoms they most cherish for themselves will be preserved. What happens to others and their freedoms is of little consequence.

What kind of America do they envision?  I doubt they could say.  The 1998 film “Pleasantville” might come the closest.  Life in Pleasantville was calm, ordered, undemanding, and undisturbed by unwanted changes or conflicts elsewhere. Most important, it was a place free from fear of economic hardship, property confiscation, immigrants undermining the social status quo, and not one violent street criminal – all the threats liberals represent to them.   For whatever reason, they don’t trust representative democracy elected through universal suffrage to give them their Pleasantville.  It’s nothing new.  There’s always been a sizable minority of Americans who long for a nostalgic past, are resistant to social change, and distrust government.  What makes the current crop different is they’ve become a powerful political movement nurtured into existence by self serving persons who are certain they could, if given the chance, run the country for their own personal benefit, which would somehow be good for the country.  None of this muddling through stuff for them.  Quick authoritative decisions made by people best equipped to make them, that’s the answer.   Who were they?  Mostly hard core libertarians and anti taxers who spent years plowing, sowing, and fertilizing a political movement grown from voter discontent.  

Perhaps the recent elections indicate recognition by more of the public that trumpism is a threat to democracy driven by greed, fear, ignorance and delusion/. We shall see.

Armistice Day, Veterans Day & Lessons Not Learned

Armistice Day became Veterans Day in 1954. It is right and good to set aside a day to honor military veterans with an emphasis on those who served in times of conflict, but it’s also helpful to recall the significance of hope in which Armistice Day was originally celebrated.  It was a hope that is yet to be realized.

The Great War, the War to Make the World Safe for Democracy, what we now call WWI, ended with a November 11, 1918, armistice between the warring nations.  Never in human history had a war enveloped the entire globe and every industrialized nation in it. The horror of it was supposed to signal the end of war as a way of life between peoples.  It heralded instead a century of nearly unending war: the even greater horrors of WWII, dozens of regional wars, a Cold War, internal insurrections, and criminal cartels acting as armed militias.  In one sense it should not be all that surprising. From the beginning of recorded history, going to war was what kings were supposed to do ( 2 Samuel 11: It was now spring, the time when kings go to war…)  War was how control over land was expanded, consolidated and defended.  Perhaps there was a culture on earth where that was not the practice, but I don’t know of it. Why should the century following WWI have been any different?

There’s a reason why it should have been different.  Empire building was the intention of wars in the 19th century.  Every means of the new industrial age was used to equip armies and navies with weaponry and logistical support capable of wreaking greater, more lethal killing and property destruction.  Imperial wars were glorified by politicians and inspired national pride. At the same time there began a growing unease and emerging recognition that expanding empire by armed conquest was immoral.  Holding other peoples in imperial subjugation was immoral.  The extent and brutality inflicted on civilians was immoral.  The slaughter of young men as nothing more than cannon fodder was immoral.   By the turn of the 20th century it was broadly understood that war as a way of national life could not be morally justified.   That is what made the hundred years of war that began in 1914 very different from all that preceded it. 

Hitler, Stalin and Hirohito were the last national power leaders to cling to the old discredited ways – almost.  It appears Putin has not yet given up the old ways.  Post war nations were loathe to release their colonial empires, but they did.  Only the USSR continued the fight to build an even greater empire, and it was universally condemned by democratic nations.  For all of that, the new century of war continued unabated in regional  conflicts that were of world wide significance.  Great powers fought in some of them with “boots on the ground.”  More were labeled as proxy wars in which competing factions were financed, armed and coached by Great Powers.  Whatever the end goals were thought to be, few were ever met.  In my view, only Korea might be considered a success.

It’s to the collective dishonor of humanity that we still need to maintain  military readiness for the possible renewal of global warfare and to support allies in times of regional threats.  America’s massive abilities have too often tempted us into using them injudiciously.  It seems the most outspoken prophets warning us of the dangers of going to war too quickly are generals and admirals with long personal experience on the ground and in planning that speculates on the likelihood of favorable outcomes in every possible future scenario.  I suppose it must be so for now, but may the time not be far off when these plans are not needed. I wonder if there is something in the human psyche that is ill at ease when living in harmony with others.   If there are original sins, it must surely be among them.   In the meantime, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God” (Matt. 5)

Note: In too many conversations, peace was understood as the cessation of armed conflict, capitulation to the enemy, or the total and complete defeat of the enemy.  Peace and harmony among even fiercely competing nations was only in the imagination of the naive and gullible. 

What is a Biblical World View?

The newly elected Speaker of the House announced that he holds a biblical world view. That seems to mean a commitment to certain social and political ideologies to which the word biblical has been attached.  It’s a common claim among conservative evangelical Christians and has become a major theme of Christian nationalists.  What is labeled as conservative Christian evangelicalism describes a minority among Christian traditions, including a good number of evangelicals who have other views.  The conservative evangelical world view has less to do with theology and more to do with social and political ideas more reactionary than conservative.  It has produced a political agenda based on mythic social values of the two post war decades remembered more from advertising and television than reality.  It’s mixed with dislike for the inevitable future in which no race or ethnicity will be in the majority, and the norms of American society will be multiethnic.

Christian nationalists are a vocal subset who favor the reestablishment of United States in which their brand of social and political values would be the law of the land under the guise of a narrowly defined  Protestant Christianity.  Other religions would be tightly regulated; Christian  traditions other than their own would be suppressed to the extent possible; democracy would be redefined to accommodate rule by the few loyal to the “right” way of thinking.  It sounds preposterously unAmerican, yet it’s wrapped in the stars and stripes of patriotism.

I’ve had conversations with a few politically right wing conservative evangelicals.  Each has been defiant that their convictions are the real Christianity and think other traditions have fallen away from the true faith.  They echo the language of well known public figures who make their way into front page news media coverage.  Oddly, no matter how loud they proclaim the name of Jesus and trot out favored biblical passages, there is little that has anything to do with God’s word to humanity revealed in Holy Scripture or what Jesus did, said and taught.  So what is a biblical world view?

The arc of Holy Scripture begins with creation, and God saw that it was good.  Generations of prophets revealed God’s intentions for humanity that expanded the boundaries of godly justice and inclusion of formerly excluded others.  Jesus, the Word of God made flesh, sealed the plain meaning of God’s intent, affirming that everything hangs on two commandments: love God with everything you have; love others (as you love yourself).  He finished with a new commandment: love others as He (Jesus) loves you.  The love of self and others in this case means to relate with yourself and others in ways that contribute to the common welfare of each in the community of all.   For Christians, everything, absolutely everything, is subordinate to and judged by these commandments. They are illustrated in action by the way Jesus engaged in all of his relationships with others and in his teaching.  All three commandments point directly to God’s word spoken through the ethical prophets, Amos most notably, that have a great deal to say about social and economic justice. There is no authority higher than this.

Any “Christian” world view not grounded in these things is not biblical.  

Four Ways to Read Holy Scripture

I attended a presentation this week by William & Mary professor Adam Potkay on Milton’s Paradise Lost and its relationship to scripture.  A poignant question was asked in the Q and A that followed, but no answer Prof. Potkay could give was satisfactory.  My guess is that the questioner had a tightly held understanding of what scripture says and that a satisfactory answer had to mesh with that understanding.  It’s a common response in adult Christian education that seems to come from two sources.  One is a well established understanding learned as a youth.  The other is a later understanding of scripture linked to a sociopolitical conviction.  Sometimes the two are compatible; more often they contend with each other. It creates a sort of four part matrix of cognitive dissonance that resists resolution.

In my observation, an adult often needs to relearn how to read scripture in order to move into a deeper, more mature faith.   I have nothing new to suggest how that should be done, yet there’s a method of reading scripture I learned years ago. In part it is rabbinic and in part from a decade old lecture by Rowan Willians.

First read a biblical passage to see the words.  Then, if necessary, look up definitions of unfamiliar words.

Read it a second time for basic understanding of what the words mean. It helps to have a good study bible with footnotes to explain obscure or controversial phrases of ancient languages hard to replicate in English.

Read the passage a third time to listen to what God may be saying through the words.  It’s not the same thing as a “plain meaning of the text.” This method requires a bit of work in order to sit quietly in reflection with an open mind.

Finally, and most difficult,  enter the text as both observer and participant in the scene. Join with others present, talk with them, ask questions, listen for answers.  I think this the hardest to do because people are afraid of seeing, hearing, doing, or saying the wrong thing if and when they let themselves get too close to the action.  God might get angry.  Nonsense.  Scripture is robust, you are not going to hurt it or put yourself in jeopardy with God.  I think most people have had the experience of discovering themselves so deep in a book that they forget they’re reading.  They’re just in the story almost as one of the characters.  

There’s no risk when it’s just a story, and it’s a wonderful experience.  But divinely inspired scripture, the word of God”? Maybe that’s too risky.  Get it wrong and go to hell. Get over it. Scripture invites each reader into relationship with God and to explore that relationship in company with the characters in the bible.  You may never get it just right, but God in Christ Jesus will always be there to guide you a little farther along the way. The only big mistake is to decide you have it all figured out, and any movement away is in the wrong direction. Staying where you are is the wrong direction.

God’s holy Word may be eternal and unchanging but your ability to understand what God said and what God is speaking is at hand. Now is always changing.  The Holy Spirit is ever at work prodding us to go boldly into what is new, unknown and unpredictable. To go with confidence requires trust in God’s presence and love.  The poem known as St. Patrick’s Breastplate is a reminder that Jesus is beside us, beneath us, behind us and ahead of us, binding unto ourselves the strong name of the Trinity  

And that’s enough for now.