Month: February 2011

documents of faith, not history

After centuries of analysis, many biblical scholars now tell us that the gospels cannot be taken as gospel. Why is this so?

First, scholars explain that the gospels were created as documents of faith, not documents of history. They were not written as accurate historical biographies of the human Jesus who lived and died in the first century of the Common Era (CE). The gospels are more a record of the early church’s beliefs about Jesus than a true historical record of what Jesus actually said and did. They were written to present the message of the early church—its teaching and preaching about Jesus—and to give an overview of Jesus’ life and death to people who already believed that Jesus was the son of God and savior of the world.

The author of John’s gospel states plainly that his purpose is faith, not history.

But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. (John 20:31)

Each gospel has a particular way of seeing Jesus. The gospel writers were not objective reporters (in fact, scholarly consensus is that none of the writers were eyewitnesses), but instead they were creative theological editors one or two generations removed from the events. They took elements that were handed down to them and told the story in a particular way to make a particular point. Each gospel presents a particular interpretation of Jesus: his identity, message, and mission. For these editors, their faith in Jesus as their savior colored their interpretation of his stories and sayings. In other words, their theology preceded the story. And their theology shaped the story.

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acceptable worship

In his letter to the Christians at Rome, Saint Paul suggested that an ethical life of compassion, service, peace, and justice is the single form of worship that God desires. According to Paul, it is the only form of worship that God deems good, acceptable and perfect.

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1-2)

Here is how Eugene Patterson paraphrases these two verses:

So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.

In an unpublished essay, Dr. Lesly Massey, a Disciple of Christ pastor in Dallas, Texas, quoted Ernst Käsemann (1906-1998), an eminent Lutheran theologian who was a part of the Confessing Church in Germany during the reign of Adolf Hitler. Käsemann, who after World War II spurred a renewed quest to understand the historical Jesus, saw in Romans 12:1 an unequivocal summary of Paul’s view of worship as a follower of Christ.

Christian worship does not consist of what is practiced at sacred sites, at sacred times, and with sacred acts. It is the offering of bodily existence in the otherwise profane sphere, as something constantly demanded. This takes place in daily life, whereby every Christian is simultaneously sacrifice and priest.

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the easter chicken

In the first three centuries of the Common Era, Christians were strongly counter-cultural and anti-imperial. It is no longer so. Christians and their churches have become accommodated to and assimilated into their culture.

In his autobiographical book, Brother to a Dragonfly, Will Campbell tells this story of an exchange between himself and P. D. East, a former newspaper editor who had disavowed the Methodist Church of his youth. Speaking of P. D. East, Campell writes:

He referred to the Church as “the Easter chicken.” Each time I saw him he would ask, “And what’s the state of the Easter chicken, Preacher Will?” I knew he was trying to goad me into some kind of an argument and decided to wait him out. One day he explained.

“You know, Preacher Will, that Church of yours and Mr. Jesus is like an Easter chicken my little Karen got one time. Man, it was a pretty thing. Dyed a deep purple. Bought it at the grocery store.”

I interrupted that white was the liturgical color for Easter but he ignored me. “And it served a real useful purpose. Karen loved it. It made her happy. And that made me and her Mamma happy. Okay?”

I said, “Okay.”

“But pretty soon that baby chicken started feathering out. You know, sprouting little pin feathers. Wings and tail and all that. And you know what? Them new feathers weren’t purple. No sirree bob, that damn chicken wasn’t really purple at all. That damn chicken was a Rhode Island Red. And when all them little red feathers started growing out from under that purple it was one hell of a sight. All of a sudden Karen couldn’t stand that chicken any more.”

“I think I see what you’re driving at, P. D.”

“No, hell no, Preacher Will. You don’t understand any such thing for I haven’t got to my point yet.”

“Okay. I’m sorry. Rave on.”

“Well, we took that half-purple and half-red thing out to her Grandma’s house and threw it in the chicken yard with all the other chickens. It was still different, you understand. That little chicken. And the other chickens knew it was different. And they resisted it like hell. Pecked it, chased it all over the yard. Wouldn’t have anything to do with it. Wouldn’t even let it get on the roost with them. And that little chicken knew it was different too. It didn’t bother any of the others. Wouldn’t fight back or anything. Just stayed by itself. Really suffered too. But little by little, day by day, that chicken came around. Pretty soon, even before all the purple grew off it, while it was still just a little bit different, that damn thing was behaving just about like the rest of them chickens. Man, it would fight back, peck the hell out of the ones littler than it was, knock them down to catch a bug if it got to it in time. Yes sirree bob, the chicken world turned that Easter chicken around. And now you can’t tell one chicken from another. They’re all just alike. The Easter chicken is just one more chicken. There ain’t a damn thing different about it.”

I knew he wanted to argue and I didn’t want to disappoint him. “Well, P. D., the Easter chicken is still useful. It lays eggs, doesn’t it?”

It was what he wanted me to say. “Yea, Preacher Will. It lays eggs. But they all lay eggs. Who needs an Easter chicken for that? And the Rotary Club serves coffee. And the 4-H Club says prayers. The Red Cross takes up offerings for hurricane victims. Mental Health does counseling, and the Boy Scouts have youth programs.”

Like an “Easter chicken,” Christians all too readily become undifferentiated from the dominant culture around them. The Christian church has become a chaplain to the status quo. And the status quo in America is far removed from the kingdom of God.



born of the virgin Mary

The general reader of the New Testament assumes that the four gospel portraits of Jesus are historically accurate accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry. Most Christians have been taught that the scriptures are divinely inspired and thus unquestionably accurate. Therefore, if there are differences between the gospels, they cannot possibly be significant, and the four accounts can be easily blended or harmonized with one another. For instance, the two different birth stories in the gospels of Matthew and Luke have been blended for so long that the average Christian is not aware that they are entirely different and inconsistent accounts. Nor is the average Christian aware that the gospel of Mark—the earliest written gospel—not only says nothing about Jesus’ birth, but it also says nothing about Jesus’ resurrection and ascension into the sky.  (Any reputable translation of Mark’s gospel will note that the last twelve verses of the final chapter—Mark 16:9-20—are not part of the earliest copies of this gospel, and are therefore a later addition.)

A close reading of the gospels creates a problem for the reader. They simply do not agree. The virgin birth of Jesus is a good example of the inconsistency and errors found in the Biblical texts. Continue reading

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