Sunday, February 2, 2014

Too much tension in your life? Maladjusted to the world? Blame it on the Bible.

Last week the Barna Group, well-known for their research into the religious life of Americans, released their latest findings. Perhaps you read about it. This time, they were ranking the most to the least bible-minded cities in America. The most bible-minded city, they said, was Chattanooga, Tennessee. The least, Providence, Rhode Island. My city, Charlotte, ranked right up there among the most bible-minded in 6th place.

You may wonder how they decided this. Well, they called people on the phone and asked them two questions: 1) Have you read the Bible in the past week? and, 2) Do you strongly believe that the Bible is accurate?

I could say a lot about the problems of such a study, but in the interest of brevity, let me point out a couple of the big ones. First of all, as is the case with most of the Barna surveys, it has a bias toward Evangelical Christians. This is the way Evangelicals think. Bible-mindedness is about reading the Bible and strongly believing it’s accurate. In Providence, Rhode Island, where most Christians are Catholics, they don’t think like this.

But, my primary problem with the survey is the criteria they use for bible-mindedness. I know people who read the Bible every day, and there’s not much evidence in their lives that would indicate their behavior is in any way affected by it. And, from my experience, many of the people who have serious reservations about the accuracy of the Biblical text are often the ones who most faithfully live its truths.

If the Barna research wanted to find the most bible-minded cities in the U.S., they might start by looking for cities where people are feeding the poor, providing shelter for refugees; where city codes show a commitment to justice; where the sick are cared for; where people make it a practice to forgive those who have wronged them. For despite the fact that we like to use the Bible to defend our own actions in a world where we live to achieve, accomplish and possess, the Bible offers us a radically different worldview that calls us to a radically different way of life.

Interestingly, it's religious types, not unlike myself , who are most likely to use the Bible to justify their own lives -- those who are part of a religious tradition that has developed controlling people through fear into an art-form by insisting that the saved are the ones who keep all the rules and believe all the right things. People who read the Bible like this, William Sloane Coffin said, use the Bible much like a drunk uses a lamp post, more for support than illumination. And yet, to self-serving religious institutions and leaders, the message of the Bible digs in its heals and says, “No!” The life of faith is not about proving how we’re in with God and others are out.
To live Biblically is to live counter-culturally. The underlying truth of the Biblical text has always challenged people of faith to resist the ways of the world, especially when those ways creep into religion itself.  
In Jesus' introduction to his Sermon on the Mount, he lays out his counter-cultural way of looking at the world, which he calls the kingdom of heaven, or the kingdom of God. Look around you, he says. It may appear to the world that the ones who are blessed are the ones who have it all together: the ones with important jobs that pull in seven figures a year, the ones who never lose, the achievers, the ones everyone admires. You might look at them and conclude that they’re blessed. They might even say that about themselves. But don’t believe what the world would have you see, Jesus says. That’s not how it is within God’s reign. Nope. It’s the people who struggle, the ones who lose, the ones who don’t fight back but give themselves in love. It’s the ones who are faithful to God and pay dearly for it. These are the people who are blessed.

Now, how could Jesus say something so preposterous? I like to think that the Beatitudes reflect the existential reality of our lives, that when we experience poverty of spirit, grief, when we’re knocked off our high horses, we’ll finally turn to God and know what it means to be blessed. But before any of that, I have to acknowledge that the truth Jesus expresses in the Beatitudes is in line with the truth he learned as a student of the Hebrew Scriptures. (He was, after all, a Jew. And he was a student before he became a teacher.)

In Jewish ethics, the whole idea of humility is at the heart of what it means to lead a life that is pleasing to God. Pride and arrogance pose the gravest threats to a moral life. In the Talmud, which is a collection of rabbinic interpretations of the Scriptures, we read repeatedly that at God’s bidding, the proud will be made low and the meek will be raised up. (If that has a familiar ring to it, it should. That reversal of fortune theme is a biggie in the gospels.)

For the Jews, humility comes from the understanding that we all stand on equal ground. Even those who have become successful in the eyes of the world remember that their ancestors were slaves. Once they were poor, and it could happen to them again. They are constantly reminded that their advantages are not their own doing and are easily reversed by God. And God himself chooses the way of humility by dwelling especially with the weak, the disadvantaged and the oppressed.

Apply this Jewish understanding of humility to Micah 6, and it makes sense.  Pride and arrogance were the ways of the world then, just as they are now. And loving kindness, doing justice and walking humbly with God was a countercultural way of being. Just as acknowledging the blessedness of the poor in spirit, those who hunger for righteousness, those who mourn, the meek. God’s people are called to a counter-cultural way of life that is characterized by humility as the path to mercy and justice.  

Did you hear the statistic last week about the 85 richest people in the world? The way it goes is that if you take all the wealth of the 85 richest people in the world, it is equal to all the wealth of everybody else in the world put together. One person pointed out how you could easily fit 85 people into a double-decker bus. So, you have a double-decker bus of people versus over 7 billion people. And their net worth is equal. How do you react when you hear something like that? Are you angry because of the injustice in our world? Or are you mostly angry because you’re not one of the people on the bus? Here’s a way to test that… If you were invited to be one of the 85, would you jump on the bus? I know it may be a ridiculous analogy because, if you’re one of the 85, you wouldn’t be caught dead on a bus. You’d have your own private jet!

This past week, Pete Seeger died. He was counter-cultural his whole life. He spoke truth to power in the way he lived, and most certainly in the songs he sang. Reminding us of the real values of our nation in “If I Had a Hammer.” Lamenting the futility of war in “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” We remember him for hits like “Turn, Turn, Turn” and “We Shall Overcome.” He believed that through powerful music people could change the world, and through his music, he did.

That’s the end result of a counter-cultural life, isn’t it? When you live a counter-cultural life, you change the world. It may just be a small portion of the world. It may only be the part of the world that is you. But something changes.

When I think of an example of a person of faith living a counter-cultural life, Mayim Bialik comes to mind. If you watch The Big Bang Theory on T.V., she’s the actress who plays Amy Farrah Fowler. She also is an observant Jew who keeps Shabbat and keeps kosher. She fixes vegan food for her family to teach her kids to care for the earth. And one of the big challenges for her, as a Hollywood actress, is adhering to Jewish modesty laws in the way she dresses. This issue came to a head for her several years ago when she was preparing to attend her first Emmy awards show. She needed to find a dress that covered her elbows, knees and collarbone, and wasn’t too tight, but was also appropriate for the red carpet. She blogged about her quest for the perfect dress naming it “Operation Hot and Holy.” Now, whether or not you agree with a tradition that requires that kind of modesty, you have to admire someone who takes her religious values so seriously.

Do you ever experience a tension like that between your values as a person of faith and the values of the dominant culture? It’s a tension you can feel with every decision you make: in how you spend your money, in how you interact with co-workers, how you speak to a child, how you spend your free time, the ideas you share on social media.

If we don’t feel some tension over how we participate in the dominant culture as people of faith, we’re not taking our faith seriously. Until we live in a world of boundless compassion where no one is excluded from the table of God’s abundance, until we lovingly care for all creatures of this earth, until violence and hunger are relics of the past, how can we not feel the tension? Martin Luther King Jr. once wrote, “There are some things in our social system to which all of us ought to be maladjusted.” Maybe being bible-minded could be defined as being maladjusted to the world.

It bugs me to no end when people of faith equate being bible-minded with someone who reads the Bible and strongly believes in the accuracy of the Bible.  To be bible-minded is to take this collection of writings we call the Bible seriously enough to allow those writings not only to inform us, but more importantly to transform us. Where do you experience that transformative tension in your life? How are you maladjusted to the world? What is it about the way you’re living as a person of faith that is counter-cultural?

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