“Dirty little secret”: Our Johannine church

P03-24-14_15.53We are in late Lent. The weekday Gospel readings are now all John, all the time.

And why not? We are bearing down on Holy Week, and John’s Jesus lives in a “Wanted” poster. They’re always trying to kill him, but can’t quite grab him; they seek to arrest him, but the hour hasn’t arrived. And so on. The liturgical point is that the hour will come.

I have a confession. I don’t much like John’s Jesus.

He has beautiful moments: “I am the resurrection and the life” (11:25). Or: “This is my commandment: love one another as I love you” (15:12). Or: “I am the vine, you are the branches” (15:5). Or: “I pray…so that they may all be one” (17:20-21).

Or this one above all: “Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?’ She thought it was the gardener and said to him, ‘Sir, if you carried him away, tell me where you laid him, and I will take him.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’” (20:15-16).

But overall, John’s Jesus can be…well…tedious and arrogant. He expounds on his oneness with God. He demands that everybody and their grandma acknowledge it. He is disappointingly prone to context-free utterances about his exalted mission. At face value, he seems the type to stride into some random diner in some random part of town, shouting “Do you not know that I am he?!” when you just want to eat your pie and pay your bill. No wonder everybody had enough. Continue reading

My favorite Baptists

How many progressive Christians grimace a little whenever they hear about Baptists? To be fair, some of the most vocal among them present a less-like-Christian and more-like-Republican worldview, so this reputation is not terribly surprising.

But as is often the case when we generalize, we miss out on the image of Christ in our neighbors. Behind all the politicking, gay marriage-banning, you’re-going-to-hell preaching that we hear about in the news, there is a sincere desire to do what all Christians want to do: follow Jesus.

Baptists hold a belief system that I cannot subscribe to. I do not see the Bible as the inerrant, complete Word of God. I do not believe that congregations should hire and fire their clergy. I believe in a unified liturgy. Yet though I disagree with these and other fine points of doctrine, I refuse to enter that debate over whose faith tradition is better. And I will also listen when Baptists have good things to say, and they very often do.

So in the spirit of ecumenism, here are some Baptists who have done good work for God. Continue reading

Interdisciplinary book review: The Jesuit and the Skull

“Where there is no vision, the people perish.”  Proverbs 29:18 (KJV)

A man of complicated contrasts, French Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) was a mystical scientist and an obedient rebel. And after reading Amir D. Aczel’s The Jesuit and the Skull, you are left with the decision to either admire him, scratch your head in bemusement, or both.

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A human animal ponders Creation

In God’s image?

“Who warned you, you serpent’s brood, to escape from the wrath to come? See that you do something to show that your hearts are really changed! Don’t start thinking that you can say yourselves, ‘We are Abraham’s children,’ for I tell you that God could produce children of Abraham out of these stones!” – John the Baptist, St. Luke 3:7-8 (J.B. Phillips)

I was listening to an Assembly of God pastor give a sermon on the radio Sunday, and he said something that struck me. During his closing prayer, he told God that “some sociologists seem to think that we’re animals.” He followed by assuring the Divine that his congregation knew better.

I’ve heard this said before in not so many words, but this time it came on the heels of my completing Amir D. Aczel’s The Jesuit and the Skull (review coming soon!), a wonderful read about Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit priest/archaeologist. Teilhard was a part of the expedition that discovered a Homo erectus skull in China in 1929, but most of his writings about evolution and how it can be reconciled to Christianity were suppressed by the Jesuit order and the Vatican until his death in 1955.

Part of what has made – and continues to make – the theory of evolution so hard to swallow for biblical literalists is that it demonstrates that humans are a species of the animal kingdom, which puts us in the same category as chimpanzees, polar bears, anacondas and sponges. Genesis 1:26-27 tells us three times that God created Man to be in his own image, and literalists have a problem with the image of God looking like Peking Man. But it is the notion of Man’s “dominion” over the creatures of the earth that gives rise to the belief that we cannot be labeled as animals.

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Catholics and the Bible

Bishop Richard Sklba of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee is an internationally recognized and highly respected Scripture scholar, and he is extensively involved in ecumenical and inter-religious activities throughout the U.S. and the world. Earlier this month, he wrote a wonderful article on the change in use and study of Scripture among Catholics, and he comments on the influence fundamentalists, particularly converts to Catholicism, are having on the way Catholics read the Bible: http://www.chnonline.org/main.asp?SectionID=2&SubSectionID=2&ArticleID=985&TM=22488.24

It both frustrates and worries me that so many people use and misuse the Bible to prove their arguments without learning the history and culture of the authors, intended audience, and social location. It has rightly been said that one can “prove” anything using this text, and surely we have seen numerous examples over the centuries of how God’s inspired Word has been distorted to oppress, injure and even kill. The Pontifical Biblical Commission warns:

“The Fundamentalist approach is dangerous, for it is attractive to people who look to the Bible for ready answers to the problems of life. It can deceive these people, offering them interpretations that are pious but illusory, instead of telling them that the Bible does not necessarily contain an immediate answer to each and every problem. Without saying as much in so many words, fundamentalism actually invites people to a kind of intellectual suicide. It injects into life a false certitude, for it unwittingly confuses the divine substance of the biblical message with what are in fact its human limitations” (quoted from Origins, January 6, 1994, p. 510).

Prior to Vatican II, many Catholics rarely if ever opened their Bibles, that is if they had one, and surely had little use for studying the context of this sacred text because they allowed their priests to interpret it for them. In recent decades, Catholics have come to read their Bibles on their own more and more, but unfortunately it is rarely a study Bible that offers footnotes on history, culture, politics, symbols, etc… Reading the Bible is not necessarily an easy task because our 21st century culture is so far removed from the peasant, agrarian society of this literary, historically, and culturally diverse library (Biblia is Greek for “the books” or “library”) that spans at least 2,500 years with countless different authors and audiences.

In the U.S., where one is now just as likely to bump into a Catholic as they are an Evangelical Fundamentalist (both denominations teeter between 20 and 30% of the population), the fundamentalist influence on how Catholics read the Bible has swayed to taking passages and mere verses out of context and applying them to modern life, moral decisions and political arguments. Professors at Catholic universities speak of the change in students, both Catholic and others, over the past years, witnessing a new close-mindedness to reading Scripture form a historical and critical interpretation. Bishop Sklba, however, rightfully reminds us:

“It is Catholic to want to know the history of things. It is Catholic to insist that verses of Scripture never be taken out of their original historical and social context. It is Catholic to insist that effort be made to determine whether a passage from the Bible is poetry or history or general admonition to a specific cultural presumption. It is Catholic to distinguish direct affirmations from the unexamined assumptions of the past. Their astronomy is not ours, nor was their sense of family order identical to ours…It remains open to the judgment of the authorities in the church in order to offer assurance that a translation remains truly faithful to the original inspired text of the Bible. To help guide the understanding of individual readers, the Catholic Church insists that some explanatory notes be provided with every published translation. That is yet another way in which the Bible remains the Book of the Church!”

Bishop Sklba’s insistence that the Bible is a book for all people, and not just reserved for the elite, is heartening. It means that we all can and have the capacity to learn from and be inspired by the Scriptures to live our lives in a faithful manner. Yet we must be careful in reading it, for we do not want to disrespect God or our Judeo-Christian ancestors who were leaving us stories and lessons in their context and not ours. Bishop Sklba believes that “because Scripture is indeed an inspired work of literary art, it is open to a variety of legitimate interpretations, like all types of good literature … as long as they do not contradict or oppose the original meaning of the text itself.” So in reading and interpreting our religion’s sacred text, we must be diligent to do it justice, but we also must be open to the Spirit as She offers us new insights and lessons for our day.

Becky Schwantes, a Minnesota native, is currently a Master of Social Work candidate at Washington University in St. Louis. She earned her M.A. in Theology from the University of Notre Dame in 2008 and has worked as a parish faith formation minister, social worker and in college campus ministry. Becky also holds a B.A. in Theology and Social Work with a minor is Social Justice and Peace Studies from the University of Portland, Oregon. Her primary areas of interest are Christian Social Ethics, Eco-Feminist Theology, Mental Health and issues of Aging. In her free time, she enjoys traveling the world, walking labyrinths, singing, and laughing with friends. Her favorite saints are Francis de Sales and Jane de Chantal.