Changing the subject

Friday, December 23, 2005

God as passive “approver”

My love of the Bible began in earliest childhood when my grandmother read the Psalms to me, but I had no serious knowledge of it until I studied it in college. The courses I took were academic, with little theological emphasis; the “documentary hypothesis” ruled and I quickly mastered J, E and P as well as Q and Proto-Luke. I don’t despise this period of my life at all; any way to become familiar with the Scripture was better than no way. Besides, the 50s was a decade relatively innocent of political correctness; there was more willingness to take the text on its own terms than there is in scome circles today. At least that was true for me.

Today, however, the overwhelming emphasis on “tolerance” and “the triumph of the human spirit” and other such cliches seems to dominate every approach to the Bible in the educational arena. Take for instance an op-ed piece in The New York Times this week entitled “Preach, Don’t Teach, the Bible.” It was written by Bruce Feiler, author of several books including, most recently, Where God Was Born: A Journey by Land to the Roots of Religion. Mr. Feiler is much to be commended for his enthusiasm for the teaching and learning of the Bible in high schools. In general, I support his argument, since I myself benefited so greatly from study of the “literary and historic qualities” of Scripture. It is tragic that the content of the Bible is unknown to most Americans today, especially in view of its central and formative role in our history.

However, it is very important for Christians to recognize the vacuum at the center of such presentations, so that worshippers understand how to reverse a non-theological interpretation. Here, for example, is an excerpt from Mr. Feiler’s article:

“In the Book of Isaiah, God embraces the Persian king Cyrus and his respect for different religions, even though Cyrus does not know God’s name and does not practice Judaism. By calling Cyrus “the anointed one,” or messiah, God signals his tolerance for people who share his moral vision, no matter their nationality or faith.”

This is all wrong. In Isaiah, God does not “embrace” an already-acting Cyrus. God has set Cyrus in motion even though the Persian king does not know it. Cyrus plays a “messianic” role, not because he “respects different religions” and “shares God’s moral visions” (!!!), but because God has chosen him and for no other reason. There is absolutely nothing in the text about Cyrus’ personal attitudes, let alone his respect for other religions and sharing of God’s values. Feiler has managed to remove God from his role as the active, purposeful agent and has substituted Cyrus, making Cyrus the mover and God the passive approver who “signals his tolerance.” This is a pathetically reductionistic picture of the Lord God of Sabaoth, and we need more preaching and teaching in the Church to explain why this is so.

Here is another excerpt from Feiler’s op-ed piece:

“In the Book of Jonah, God offers a message of forgiveness and tolerance when he denounces his own prophet and spares his former enemies, the Ninevehites, when they repent and turn toward him.”

But the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob does not “offer” anything. He is the mover and shaker of events, towering over the drama as the One who whose purposes cannot be evaded by a disobedient servant. Turning the story of Jonah into a moralistic tale teaching 21st century pop values is a disastrously wrongheaded view of the Word of the living God.

This is important, because these pervasive shifts of the Biblical emphasis has led to an insufficient understanding of God in the mainline churches. That in turn leads to timid preaching and little or no confident Biblical teaching. This weakness is causing no end of trouble in the mainline congregations as we watch our members drift into apathy or depart for the evangelical church down the road. Only a recovery of the voice of God, as he wills the Spirit to speak it through his human messengers, will halt this attrition. Nothing less can stop the Christian Right, with its generally inadequate understanding of social action and its unimaginative approach to Biblical interpretation, from continuing to be essentially the only Christian voice being heard in the land.

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