Theological rants
of a liberal Christian

Book review: You Don’t Understand the Bible Because You Are Christian

Saturday, October 25, 2014 in Book Reviews | 0 comments

Book review: You Don’t Understand the Bible Because You Are Christian

by Richard Gist

★★★★★

Definitely a candidate for the Dubious Disciple top ten award this year. I can’t recall when I last enjoyed a book this much. Gist brings the Bible alive as ancient Hebrew storytelling, and though there’s sometimes a bit of speculation involved, the flavor of his interpretation is so fascinating that it must be spot on.

Gist describes himself as a “still growing, though retired, minister, who enjoys what he is continuously learning about the Bible.” He does not pretend to be a biblical scholar, yet he brings a common-sense approach to understanding Jewish literature. One fun example is his discussion of the difference between Hebrew prophecy and Christian prophecy. Hebrew prophets were never future-tellers the way we want to believe they were; they were actually more likely to go around playing music, falling into trances and stripping naked.

So why don’t we understand the Bible the way ancient Hebrews did? Because we’re Christian. Within two or three generations after Jesus, Greek-speaking gentiles took over the church. The early Christians did not understand Jewish literature, they began to distance themselves from Jews, and soon even became enemies. People began to read scripture literally, which buried the subtle messages within. The Jesus movement, instead of promoting the prophets’ dreams, somehow turned into a religion.

Nowhere is this more evident than in comparing two early Christianities, which Gist labels Pauline and Petrine. Pauline Christianity won the race–it’s what we all are familiar with today–but Petrine Christianity is more loyal to its Jewish roots, and thus surely more loyal to Jesus.

So if we’ve been wrong all along, is there hope for us to learn what the Bible really means? Yep, I think so, if we can outgrow this tendency to read scripture like a literal history book, and Gist is the person to help us! His approach is loads of fun, his writing is engaging, his research is fascinating, and most important of all, he simply makes sense.

Buy this one for sure.

FriesenPress, © 2014, 176 pages

ISBN: 978-1-4602-4272-8

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Matthew 25:33, What’s Wrong With Goats?

Friday, October 24, 2014 in Bible Commentary | 0 comments

Matthew 25:33, What’s Wrong With Goats?

And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.

//What’s wrong with goats? Why do they get separated from the sheep? The sheep go on the right … “come, ye blessed” … and the goats go on the left … “depart from me, ye cursed.”

Is it because goats are stubborn? Naw. Goats have had a bad rap in scripture from the beginning. It’s interesting to note that anytime you have a goat and clothing in the same story in the Bible, it’s a tale of deceit.* Some examples:

  • Jacob fools his blind father and steals his brother’s birthright by wearing his brother’s clothes and putting goat hair on his arms, so he’ll be hairy like his brother

  • Joseph’s brothers smear Joseph’s coat-of-many-colors with goat’s blood to fool their father into believing Joseph was killed by wild animals

  • Tamar dresses up like a prostitute and fools her father-in-law into having sex with her, charging him a goat’s kid for her services.

Back, now, to today’s verse. The “goats” ask Jesus what they did to deserve everlasting fire, and Jesus answers “I was naked, and ye clothed me not.” There’s the theme again: goats and clothes, and this time, the goats finally get their comeuppance.

* Examples taken from Richard Gist’s new book, You Don’t Understand the Bible Because You Are Christian

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Genesis 6:14, What Is An Ark?

Thursday, October 23, 2014 in Bible Commentary | 0 comments

Genesis 6:14, What Is An Ark?

Make thee an ark of gopher wood; rooms shalt thou make in the ark, and shalt pitch it within and without with pitch.

//The word tevah, translated into the English word Ark, occurs in two stories in the Bible. Today’s verse is one of the two: Noah’s ark, in which all life on earth was saved from the flood.

Can you guess the second occurrence of the word? If you said the Ark of the Covenant, you’re…

Wrong. That’s an entirely different word in Hebrew. The other occurrence of tevah is the little basket that the baby Moses was placed in when his mother turned him loose in the Nile.

This is not a coincidence. We are meant to tie the two stories together. Recall that Moses’s mother, in a desperate attempt to keep him alive, carefully prepared her “ark”:

And when she could not longer hide him, she took for him an ark of bulrushes, and daubed it with slime and with pitch, and put the child therein; and she laid it in the flags by the river’s brink.

Did you catch it? Both arks were waterproofed with pitch. They were named the same (tevah), waterproofed the same, and held a similar purpose … to protect their precious cargo from the raging waters. Any ancient listener of the story of Moses’s rescue would know it’s patterned after the rescue of Noah.

Just as Noah was the savior of the world, so is Moses heralded from his birth as a savior of his people.

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Genesis 29:26, Jacob Gets His Just Desserts

Wednesday, October 22, 2014 in Bible Commentary | 0 comments

Genesis 29:26, Jacob Gets His Just Desserts

And Laban said, It must not be so done in our country, to give the younger before the firstborn.

//Here’s the story. Jacob, the second-born child, sneakily cheats his brother Esau out of his birthright. Esau, as the first-born, deserved special privileges that Jacob stole through trickery.

The day comes when Jacob and Esau leave the nest and go in search of wives. Esau seems to have no trouble choosing a mate. Jacob, likewise, finds the perfect one. Her name is Rachel. But Laban, Rachel’s father, insists that Jacob serve him seven years before he can have her.

Jacob does the service, and after seven years he requests his wife. A feast is prepared in celebration, and that evening, Laban brings his daughter to Jacob, who is waiting for her in his bed.

Morning brings a shock. It’s not Rachel whom Jacob slept with, but her sister Leah. Furious, Jacob confronts Laban. “What have you done to me? Why have you beguiled me?”

Laban answers with today’s verse: The firstborn must marry first. You, Jacob, thought you could subvert the system, stealing the first-born’s privilege from Leah. Now you must serve me another seven years to get the wife you really want.

What goes around comes around I guess.

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Matthew 28:19-20, The REAL Great Commission

Monday, October 20, 2014 in Bible Commentary | 0 comments

Matthew 28:19-20, The REAL Great Commission

Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.

//Am I allowed another rant? I’m so tired of hearing people say they are following the Great Commission in spreading the Christian religion. Read the Bible, people!

Jesus never asked us to convert anybody to any religion. He does not ask us to share our theological doctrines. He probably couldn’t care less whether the religion we call Christianity grows or not. The “great commission” isn’t about converting people, nor is it about telling people they are sinners in need of God, or convincing them that their own religion is false, or calling down the judgment of God on them.

The “great commission” Jesus requests is that we teach others his commandments. He wants followers of his commands, not believers of your religion. If you need a reminder about what Jesus asks of his followers, see the Sermon on the Mount where he lays them out one-by-one.  Love your enemies, forgive one another, stop judging, give secretly to those who need, drop your hostilities, quit lusting after what belongs to another, let your candle shine, and meet aggression with non-aggression. There are more, but you get the point. The great commission is about changing this world for the better, “baptizing” others (literally or not) into a new way of life, a philosophical stance and practice where treating one another with respect and kindness is of primary importance.

Maybe if you witness to others in this manner, they’ll become curious about your religious beliefs. Then you can have an interesting and respectful discussion about God. If the conversation never turns in that direction, well, that’s not the important thing anyway, according to Jesus.

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Book Excerpt: The River of Life

Saturday, October 18, 2014 in Book Excerpt | 0 comments

Book Excerpt: The River of Life

In our Bibles, there are four Greek words that are commonly translated into the word “hell”. These words are Sheol, Hades, Tartarus, and Gehenna, and each is described briefly in Lee Harmon’s new book, The River of Life. The following is an excerpt from this book describing one of the four.

Hades - This may be thought of as the Greek version of Sheol. By the time the New Testament was written, Sheol had morphed into Hades, which is much more colorful than its Hebrew counterpart. The Greeks had many legends about this land under the earth, and actually did imagine it to be a place of eternal existence after death. Portions of Hades were pleasant and portions were not so pleasant. The most famous reference to Hades in the Bible is the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. In this parable, told by Jesus, both descend to Hades after they die, but Lazarus gets stationed in a pleasant place across a chasm from the rich man, who is in torment. They call to one another across the uncrossable chasm.

Did Jesus really present this story as an accurate picture of life after death? Few Bible scholars think so anymore. The story bears an uncanny resemblance to Greek, Jewish and Egyptian stories known by all in Jesus’ day. Scholars have discovered many such similar parables. A doctoral dissertation at the University of Amsterdam identified seven versions of the parable circulating in the first century.

For example, stories of the dead “carried by angels” into “Abraham’s bosom” can be found in the Talmud, as can the idea of communicating across the gulf between Paradise and the place of torment. Jesus is not revealing any new secrets about hell, here. Bible scholar Craig Blomberg writes that “Jesus may have simply adopted well-known imagery but then adapted it in a new and surprising way.”* Jesus is merely drawing on a common legend to make a point about the justice of God in the age of God’s rule on earth. The poor and the rich trade places.

Hundreds of years ago, it was common to interpret this parable literally, but this line of thought has largely been abandoned by Bible scholars. Hades is not meant by Jesus to be a literal description of any form of an afterlife.


* Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, 1987, p. 22-23

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Book review: The Way of Serenity

Thursday, October 16, 2014 in Book Reviews | 0 comments

Book review: The Way of Serenity

by Father Jonathan Morris

★★★★★

Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Repeated by millions worldwide, this simple prayer has transformative power. Father Morris first began to contemplate its healing power when he found himself sitting in an open Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and hearing it shared aloud. Says Morris, “It was the purest and most genuine act of self-abandonment to God’s will I had ever witnessed. Their prayer wasn’t especially pretty, or clean; it was real, and gritty. It was the opposite of religious showmanship; it was intimate, existential, and wholly indifferent to any outsider’s praise or reproach. It was prayer, plain and simple.”

So he broke the simple prayer into its three parts and wrote a three-part book. It is a Catholic perspective, but without heavy-handed religion; just inspirational encouragement and practice suggestions to develop our serenity, courage, and wisdom. You can guess the first suggestion we should put into practice: Pray this little prayer every day.

Serenity arises partly from knowing that we have done all we can and the rest is up to God. The “problem of evil” can be daunting. Why are their earthquakes, floods, birth defects, terrible diseases and calamities if God loves us? The only satisfying explanation is that God is able to turn evil on its head and bring good out of it.

Courage, too, arises from faith in God. Have you ever noticed how many of Jesus’s parables have to do with getting out and doing something–and how displeased he seems when we fail to act? Doing good is, in essence, the meaning of Christianity. Our purpose is to change the world around us, and the first to change must be us.

But the hardest part of the prayer may be the last part. The wisdom to know what to change and what to accept. Morris encourages us to listen to the whispers of God.

This is a book that can make a difference, one day at a time.

Harper One, © 2014, 231 pages

ISBN: 978-1-06-211913-1

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Matthew 5:13, Doing Good: The Meaning of Christianity, Part II of II

Wednesday, October 15, 2014 in Bible Commentary | 0 comments

Matthew 5:13,  Doing Good: The Meaning of Christianity, Part II of II

Ye are the salt of the earth

//Yesterday I mentioned that the difference between the sheep and goats was merely that the goats performed no kindnesses to those around them. Yet some Christians consider it proper to take a defeatist attitude and pretend that we can do nothing to change this old evil world. It’s hopelessly corrupted and we shouldn’t waste our time trying to make it better.

To this, I respond with three comments by Jesus: Ye are the salt of the earth, Ye are the light of the world, and The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven. When Jesus describes his followers, he uses three images. He calls us salt, light, and leaven.

Know what these three things have in common? Their entire purpose is to have an effect on other things. Light lets us see what’s around us, salt flavors the taste of our food, and leaven makes our bread rise. Their purpose is simply to change the world around them. It’s worth thinking about.

Thanks to Father Jonathan Morris’s latest book, The Way of Serenity, for this insight. We’ll be reviewing this book tomorrow.

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Matthew 25:33, Doing Good: The Meaning of Christianity, Part I of II

Tuesday, October 14, 2014 in Bible Commentary | 0 comments

Matthew 25:33, Doing Good: The Meaning of Christianity, Part I of II

And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:

//My latest book about Liberal Christianity (titled The River of Life) has opened up conversations with a couple people about whether Jesus really did want us to focus on making life better on earth. I think all Christians recognize that we are to do good, but still imagine that their focus should be on eternity, not on this life. This focus fuels the debate regarding works vs. grace, by relegating good works to a minor role.

Why do we think this? Today’s verse tells how the Son of Man will divide all humanity, separating sheep from goats. The sheep enter into life, while the goats are cast into everlasting fire.

What did the goats do wrong? Answer: Nothing at all. They did nothing wrong. They simply didn’t do any good.

For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not. Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee? Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.

How have we come to believe we’re expected to sit idly by, just believing and enjoying grace? More tomorrow.

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Book review: The Beckoning

Monday, October 13, 2014 in Book Reviews | 0 comments

Book review: The Beckoning

by Michael Minot

★★★★

Well-written and touching, here’s another “atheist lawyer finds Jesus” story. Minot hooked me early in chapter one with this claim: “I was amazed to learn how the Scriptures read like a lengthy letter from the Creator to the objects of His love.” If Minot could impart this perspective to me, I would finally have what I’ve been searching for: a real reason why apologists should imagine that the God of the Bible is our creator.

The book didn’t quite take me there. In fact, bits of it feel a little presumptuous, even naive. Minot ignores the research of Bible scholars and historians, repeating instead the claims of amateur apologists, such as the idea that the Bible is full of unexplainable prophecies and truth-proving, recently-verified historical claims. Sometimes Minot pits Christianity against evolution or against science in general. There is a chapter-long warning against the wiles of Satan, who often “works through the voices of philosophers, political leaders, educators, scientists, or even those claiming to be experts in religion” … in other words, anyone who has studied a topic enough to know more than we do.

But there are definitely worthwhile sections too, because the journey Minot narrates rings of authenticity. Minot’s story of how he found a church that fits him is heart-felt. His feelings of love and awe and appreciation are surely sincere. He has experienced the goodness and comfort of Christianity, and rightfully wishes to share it with others.

It’s best, then, to read this book as Minot’s personal journey rather than scholarly research. It contains the arguments and discoveries that spoke to a new convert and urged him toward his brand of Christianity.  Some readers will find Minot’s perspective convincing and some will not, but all will be inspired by Minot’s 180-degree transition from committed atheist to joyful believer.

Morgan James Publishing, © 2015, 195 pages

ISBN: 978-1-63047-124-8

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