- Watched the new Broadway hit show “The Book of Mormon“, and
- Finished reading John Shelby Spong’s Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism
Both of which deliver a similar message, albeit in radically different ways. That message is:
You shouldn’t take the Bible literally.
Or, as they put it in one of my favorite quotes from the Broadway show: “What? You think Joseph Smith really f-ckd a frog? That’s just a metaphor!” (Trust me, in context, this statement makes sense).
This message doesn’t mean that the Bible doesn’t reflect profound truths and real experiences of the Divine. This doesn’t mean that it can’t be a unique source of inspiration and strength. But it does mean that you have to learn the context in which it was written if you want to really understand it, and to grasp where its limitations lie.
This concept is not a new one for me, and it’s something I’ve already written about elsewhere on this blog. After reading numerous books by scholars such as Marcus Borg and Karen Armstrong, books about how to do Biblical exegesis, and simply studying the Bible itself, it’s pretty easy to see that the Bible, for all its brilliance, is a product of the time and place of its authors.
However, Spong makes a point in his book that I don’t see made often enough. Namely, that our response to the Bible is also the product of our time and place. That’s a humbling reminder that future generations will have new insights and knowledge that we can’t possibly imagine – and that in the future our current reflections on Scripture may be viewed as quaint, limited, and dated.
However, Spong argues that this possibility should not deter us from developing our own responses to the Bible. Quite the opposite. He in fact urges all of us to ask ourselves what the Bible means to us today, and in particular, for Christians, what Christ means. Or, as he puts it in the last chapter of his book (borrowing from the great German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer): “Who is Christ for us today”?
I’m really glad Spong and Bonhoeffer asked that question, because as a secular Jew who has been baptized and is now a self-proclaimed Jistian, it’s one I’ve (obviously) had to give a fair amount of thought. So who is Christ for me? Well, the best way I can describe it is that, for me, Christ is like this:
Yep, that’s right. Christ for me is like God’s giant neon arrow saying “This is the point”.
‘Cause -let’s face it. Throughout history, humanity has been trying to figure out what we’re doing here. How we ought to live. What our purpose is on earth. How to gain control of the seeming chaos and randomness of our existence. Humanity has tested a lot of different approaches to these questions, including weird things like slaughtering innocent domestic animals and offering them up as a sacrifice. And all I can think of is that roughly 2000 years ago God was watching all this and thought:
‘O – M- Me! What can I do to help you people get the point? OK –
I got an idea. HERE. Try to be like this guy. As much as you can. And listen to what he says too – especially about how even when you mess up I still love you.’
So for me – Jesus is God’s point. Actually – more than that. Jesus is THE point – the point of human existence. The point is not about blindly adhering to a set of doctrines about Jesus. It’s not about doing whatever someone tells you to do so you’ll go to the right place after you die. Jesus is not ‘The Way’ because you have to be a Baptized Christian to be God’s chosen. No. Jesus is ‘The Way’ because the way Jesus lived is the way we all ought to try to live. Just imagine for a second what the world would be like if we all were able to be as selfless, giving and loving as that. It would be like Heaven on earth. Wasn’t that what Jesus was trying to bring about in the first place?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts this so beautifully when he wrote:
Our relation to God is not a ‘religious’ relationship to the highest, most powerful, and best Being imaginable – that is not authentic transcendence – but our relation to God is a new life in ‘existence for others’, through participating in the being of Jesus. The transcendental is not infinite and unattainable tasks, but the neighbour who is within reach in any given situation.
What’s so important about this way of viewing God and Jesus is that it also frees me to view folks from other faiths, or those with no faith, as just as capable of connecting to this ‘point’ as Christians. Because it is the underlying truths of Jesus’ life and
message that are found in all great religions and philosophical systems. But
it’s just really easy for humanity to get off point, and start worshipping our own creations – whether those creations are money, power or theological constructs. At the end of the day those are not the things that matter. What matters is living for others, as much as you can. If you get my point.