On Sexuality, Target, the Church, and True Courage

If there’s one thing we see evidenced throughout human history, it’s that human beings have a great propensity toward fearing that which is different.

And if there’s one thing we see evidenced throughout Church history, it’s that Christians are really good at justifying and legitimizing that prejudice by claiming it is God’s will.

The fact we are so quick to ascribe to God our own discrimination and bigotry is cause enough for mourning and repentance. But watching the pain, destruction, and death it causes as it is played out in real life is a million times worse.

Laws regarding transgender people – and specifically their use of public restrooms – have been all over the headlines the past couple of weeks. And the Christian response to these laws and headlines have largely been predictable and awful.

Those who claim to follow Jesus have sadly flocked to sign petitions and join boycotts over bathroom policies — as of this writing, over a million people have pledged to not shop at Target because the store decided to be inclusive and tolerant. (Given the history of success of Christian boycotts, I guess we can expect Target to soon become the world’s #1 retailer.) Like all knee-jerk reactions, however, people decrying transgender rights – especially in the name of God – simply do not understand what they’re opposing.

The initial reaction most people have is something along these lines: guys have penises and girls have vaginas. Somebody who has a particular body part and claims to be the other gender is gross and weird; therefore, it is wrong and we should fight against “normalizing” such behavior.

It seems pretty cut and dry. I’ll readily admit: up until a few months ago, that was how I viewed the issue as well. Then, I did a crazy thing: I actually started listening to people’s stories. I heard and read their experiences. And suddenly, “transgender” was not an “issue” any longer – this became about people.

It’s so easy to be against an idea. It’s infinitely more difficult to be against a person.

The Church does a phenomenal job of holding these sorts of discussions at arms’ length, of ensuring we don’t personalize them too much. It’s a lot like how the military trains soldiers, actually: dehumanize the enemy, and you have a lot easier time taking them out. For instance, it’s so comfortable to sit back in our privilege and say gay people shouldn’t be allowed to express their love through marriage; it’s a hell of lot harder to sit across from a gay couple, listen to their story, see the love they have for one another, and tell them they don’t deserve to be able to marry one another.

The same is true with transgender rights now as well. Dudes “pretending” to be chicks (or vice versa) instead of what they “really” are is gross, and therefore is wrong. Nobody should do it. But once you shut up and start listening to people and their stories, things begin to look a lot different.

(Side note: when it comes to discussing the transgender journey, we need to drop phrases like “pretending” and what somebody “really” is out of our vocabulary. Stat.)

After hearing and being affected by people’s stories, I went and checked out the science that explains what many of them are experiencing. Guess what? There is an actual, scientific difference between sex, which is biological, and gender identity, which is how people identify themselves. Biological sex and gender identity develop separately from one another in the womb. Hormones affect the development of reproductive organs in a fetus at different times and in different ways than they affect the development of gender identity in the brain. Ninety-nine percent of the time, the two end up in the same place. Every once in awhile, they don’t – and as a result, someone’s sex doesn’t match their gender.

(Another sidenote: this is known as gender dysphoria — and not every transgender person experiences it, but it is a useful place to begin our discussion and understanding.)

If we can understand this, it might stop us from the crude, snide, and mocking comments that have infuriatingly become the norm in the discussion on the “Christian” side of things.

In fact, we could say that gender dysphoria is no different than, say, depression — there isn’t something “wrong” with someone; this is simply something that happens to people. It should not be stereotyped or crudely joked about.

Which makes it all the more maddening and shameful that Christians are doing just that. I had multiple Christian friends over the past week or so share an article from a Christian satire site which mockingly intones, “Target Announces Senior Discount For Anyone Who Self-Identifies As Age 60 Or Older.” Not only does this article betray the author’s lack of understanding, and completely misrepresent the transgender community by inferring that they simply choose which sex to be for personal gain, it invites us to have a laugh at the expense of an oppressed and hurting group of people.

The more I saw this shared on Facebook the more sad I became.

I have wrestled with this topic for a couple years now, ever since meeting and talking to two transgender women in our church (both of whom were born biologically male), and I have come to this point in my own understanding: I see nowhere in Scripture proclaiming that being transgender is a sin. And I certainly do not see anywhere in Scripture that says using a bathroom based on your gender identity is a sin. Oh, sure, there’s the verse from Deuteronomy that says women can’t wear men’s clothes — but not only are we not under the Law any longer (let’s put this verse up alongside the ones about not wearing clothes with more than one kind of fabric or the ones about having to put tassels at the corners of your clothing and see which ones we want to pick and choose), folks who quote this verse don’t ever examine the purpose for this law or the cultural considerations that went into codifying it thousands of years ago.

The best anyone has ever done explaining to me why being transgender is a sin is this: gender is fixed at birth and transgender people are choosing to not be who God made them, therefore they are sinning. Even that philosophy is rich with irony, though: transgender people would say all they are trying to do is to embrace their gender identity and to be who God made them to be.

But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that somewhere in some hidden book of the Bible God clearly said that accepting your gender identity was wrong and being transgender was a sin. (Again: nowhere have I found where the Bible says this.) But what if it did? Would that make the jokes and the mockery and insults – the awful, horrific insults – shared in the name of Jesus any more okay? Would that make it okay to call transgender people monsters? Sexual predators? Deviants? To tell them that God detests them?

I cannot force myself to believe that response is the way of Jesus or the dream of God for this world.

To make matters worse, we hide our bigotry and fear behind a banner of supposed child safety. Christians sadly make the claim, either implicitly or in many cases explicitly, that “transgender” = “child predator” or “rapist.” I want us to pause and really let the hurtful nature of this argument sink in for a moment.

There has been no increase in public safety issues in cities with anti-discrimination laws that protect transgender people. On top of that, a coalition of 250 organizations who work with sexual abuse survivors are begging people to stop using that argument. It is nothing but fear-mongering divorced from reality. Besides, we all know how much criminals care about the law. (I find it ironic that the same people who say we can’t pass gun control because criminals would get guns anyway fail to see the same argument here that criminals will enter restrooms whether it’s legal or not.)

Beyond that, it’s pretty clear opponents of anti-discrimination laws haven’t really thought this thing through anyways. For instance, I can’t understand why somebody would want to force a person like Brae Carnes, who was born biologically male but identifies as a woman, to use the men’s restroom:

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And I can’t understand why somebody would want to force Michael Hughes, who was born biologically female but identifies as a man, to use the woman’s restroom:

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(Irony alert: opponents of anti-discrimination laws would undoubtedly try to stop Michael from using the women’s restroom, when it was their own bigotry that forced him into the women’s room to start with.)

Brae deserves to use the women’s room. Michael deserves to use the men’s room. And infinitely more than that, both of them deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. Sadly, a lot of Christians these days appear to be incapable of such a simple, foundational thing.

What makes this all even worse is watching Christians congratulate themselves for these sorts of responses. I’ve seen so many replies that essentially pat someone on the back for their “courage” (this seems to be the word du jour) in taking an anti-transgender or anti-gay stance — and not just for taking that stance, but for belittling, attacking, and demeaning other human beings.

That’s not courage. There’s nothing courageous about hate.

Standing “against culture” by attacking and mocking a group of hurting people isn’t courageous. And before you say, “disagreeing with somebody doesn’t mean you hate them,” what we’ve witnessed from Christians the past couple weeks goes far, far beyond a simple disagreement. It goes straight to an utter lack of compassion, a lack of desire to even listen or know or understand, and a complete disregard for somebody else’s dignity and humanity.

You know what is courageous? Standing up for love. Standing up for equality. Standing beside people whose suicide rate is ten times the general population because of the shit that gets dumped on them – including and especially from “Christians” – and loving them. Helping them. Welcoming them. Accepting them.

Young people who are transgender are oftentimes bullied to the point they end up hating themselves so much they try to kill themselves. (So yeah, tell me again how teenage boys just say they’re transgender so they can get into the girls’ locker room — it sounds like a real party to be transgender.) You know what takes real courage? Coming out as transgender. That’s courage. Christians should be leading the way in protecting those on a transgender journey. Instead, we’re oftentimes the ones causing the most pain.

Look, it’s simple: one of the foundational themes of Scripture is a choice between life and death. That choice is presented a host of times throughout the pages of this story. In the Torah, God lays out the choice: “Look! I am presenting you today with, on the one hand, life and good; and on the other, death and evil… I have presented you with life and death… therefore, choose life.” Through the prophet Jeremiah hundreds of years later, God lays out the same choice: “And here is what you are to tell this people: ‘Adonai says: “Look! I am presenting you with the way of life and the way of death.'” The book of Hebrew Proverbs is full of contrasts between choosing life and choosing death. We are specifically told that our words carry the power of life and death. The story of a Tree of Life and a Tree of Death in the Garden, and the death which Adam and Eve chose, is reimagined through the lens of Jesus all throughout the New Testament. This choice of bringing life or bringing death is a central tenet of our faith narrative and who we are as a people.

How incredibly sad, then, that we have willingly and zealously chosen the way of death – bringing death both figuratively and literally, and too often physically – when it comes to gay and transgender people.

Once again, the Church has chosen bedroom (and now bathroom) issues as a hill to die on. When will we move on from our obsession with sex and truly just love people? We’ve gotten really, really good at saying, “I love you, but…” I love you, but this is a sin you have to change before I will fully love you. I love you, but you can’t have the same rights as I do. I love you, but I cannot accept who you are. I love you, but only if you conform to my preconceived notions.

I’m so ready to instead just say, “I love you.” Period. Or, perhaps, “I love you, whether…” I love you, whether you identify as a male or female. I love you, whether you choose to transition or not. I love you, whether your biological sex matches your gender identity or not. I love you, and that means I will walk with you in this struggle as far as you want me to. I love you, and I support your fight for equality and a life free of bullying and abuse and pain. I love you and accept you and there is no “but.”

And to those of us who claim Jesus, I’m begging you: choose life. Bring life. Stop talking, stop hurting people, stop mocking, and listen. Learn. And love.

Love Trumps Fear

Fear is a powerful and efficient motivator. But it’s not a good motivator.

Fear is ill-equipped to motivate us toward Good for one simple reason: we are called into love, and love casts out fear.

This is a powerful truth that can be applied to a myriad of different situations, but the dialog and discussion ugly arguments surrounding this year’s political races has me thinking about it a lot lately.

Donald Trump has built an entire campaign on a foundation of fear: fear of Mexican immigrants, fear of Muslims, fear of black people, fear of Latinos, fear of strong women… his entire platform (to the extent which he has one) is nothing more than scapegoating minority populations to satisfy and stoke anger. It’s inherently driven by fear.

I don’t want this blog to get sidetracked with pro- or anti-Trump arguments — I point this out simply as an illustration of a larger point: where fear reigns, love cannot.

In fact, Donald Trump actually released a campaign ad on the subject of immigration that literally ended with these words: “Forget love. It’s time to get tough!”

This, then, is the message of Trump: Forget love. Embrace fear. Be afraid of the “other” and let that fear drive your decisions.

It’s not just the message of Trump, of course. Politicians have used this strategy for decades – probably for centuries – because selfless love would hamstring their campaigns. Stoking fear to gin up votes is part and parcel of the political process. Fear the terrorists. Fear corporations. Fear global warming. Pick your poison and swallow it whole, because earthly power thrives on fear. Trump just uses this more blatantly and more powerfully than those who came before him.

It was one of Jesus’ closest disciples, a man by the name of John, who wrote the famous truth that “love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). Literally, love throws out fear. Love forcefully dumps fear in the trash can, where it belongs. The two repel one another like oil and water.

As we watch this political season dripping with fear (on all sides – Trump was just the easiest and most obvious illustration), something ironic happens: people opposed to fear-driven politicians react with new fear of their own. This is how I responded to Trump’s ascendance at first – I became afraid at what might happen if he actually got elected president. It’s as if we don’t actually believe that God is all-powerful or in control – so we see a self-feeding cycle of fear that perpetually grows, effectively insulating us more and more from the liberating power of love.

This idea of fear and love applies to infinitely more than politics, of course. Choosing who to vote for based on fear results in lousy decisions in the voting booth, and choosing anything else in your life based on fear results in equally lousy decisions. Whether it’s the powerful fear of failure, the fear of losing friends, fear of making a fool of yourself, fear of getting hurt, or any number of other things we can be afraid of, we oftentimes rob ourselves of the abundant life God offers when we choose to be guided by fear rather than by a courageous, selfless love.

Here’s the dirty trick of fear, though: fear does motivate well in the short-term and it does produce fruit quickly. But that fruit spoils just as rapidly and ultimately leaves us with nothing. Love – selfless, agape love into which we are called as Christians – does much, much slower work in us. It motivates well in the long-term. It takes a long time to produce fruit, but when it does, that fruit is ripe and good and remains forever. We are called to choose the slow work of love over the deceivingly rapid work of fear.

All of which is somewhat ironic, because many of us have unwittingly subscribed to a religious system that has built itself on fear. We can be guilty of using the fear of hell, the fear of punishment, or the fear of disappointing God to motivate people — and then acting surprised when the changes they force themselves to make don’t last.

We are called to choose the slow work of love over the deceivingly rapid work of fear. Click To Tweet

Instead of a fear-based religious system, Jesus invites us into a selfless love-based Kingdom. The difference between those two cannot be overstated. They will lead you in diametrically opposed directions: one directly into the heart of God, and the other directly down the path of those who Jesus attacked for “shutting people out of the Kingdom of Heaven.”

We who are called into love are too easily duped into following fear. It’s why way too many Christians during these election campaigns seem to say, “Screw the fruit of Spirit. What’s their stance on brown people and gays?” No wonder the message of “Forget love!” resonates with so many people who are supposed to be following Jesus.

Lord, have mercy.

But again, it’s not just politics. If we are honest with ourselves, there are a number of areas in our lives where we’ve bought the message of “Forget love!” and find ourselves submitting instead to fear.

So let’s do something about it. Let’s choose love and dump fear in the trash can. Let’s proclaim with our words, attitudes, and actions that we believe the millennia-old truth that love dispels fear… that love trumps fear.

Will you join with me in proclaiming that truth in our lives? Here’s what I propose: whenever somebody tells us something designed to prey on our fears, let’s act to spread hope and life and love instead of fear.

With the tumultuous political scene as a backdrop, I’ve sat down with both of my boys recently and explained to them the concept of the charity Kiva – how we give money that Kiva turns into microloans so people in impoverished countries can start businesses and rise out of poverty. I showed them all of the businesses our family has helped start and all the people who have borrowed and paid back our money. Then I let them choose the next family and next business we would help. I did this as a lesson for them in giving to others, and I did it as a reminder to me that the Kingdom of God is not brought about through the presidency or through fear or through people arguing about who is “right” – the Kingdom is brought about by our small acts of selfless love.

So I invite you to join the movement and proclaim that love trumps fear. Instead of being afraid, choose instead to do something to spread love. Give to Kiva to help lift someone out of poverty or to charity:water to change somebody’s life by giving them clean water. Give to one of the many other charities spreading life and hope and love. Serve a neighbor. Take a meal to a homeless person. Invite somebody to stay in your spare bedroom. Buy the meal or coffee for the person behind you at the drive through. Bring cookies to your neighbors. Donate to or volunteer at a food bank or soup kitchen. Leave a ridiculous tip. Write someone a card or a letter just to tell them you appreciate them.

By doing these small, selfless acts of love, we are giving fear the middle finger, we are becoming who God intends us to be, we are enjoying abundant life in his Kingdom, and we are giving others a small glimpse of what that life is like. This is how the Kingdom of God spreads. Let’s call fear’s bluff and become a community of people known for love. #lovetrumpsfear

Origins, Africa, Creation Stories, and Scripture

This really neat animated map just came out today, courtesy of National Geographic in conjunction with Business Insider. It’s a map of where we, as human beings, came from, so to speak. Where we started and how we got where we are. And as they say in the article, “It all began in Africa.”

This animated map shows how humans migrated across the globe

A couple years ago at WhiteWater Christian Church, I talked about how more and more fields of science were coming to believe human beings came out of Africa — and how a collection of ancient African creation stories tied into that and spoke to the truth of the Hebrew creation story recorded in Scripture. I think it’s pretty incredible. This is an excerpt from the transcript of that talk:

And the question is — in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, and I firmly believe God created the heavens and the earth — and the question is, “How?” And there’s some really cool stuff coming out of a lot of different fields of study in the scientific realm: the fields of genetics, and anthropology, and linguistics, and archeology are all beginning to point to this idea that the first humans came out of the continent of Africa. Which is kind of cool, because for awhile we thought they came out of some sort of Middle Eastern/Asian, you know, the fertile crescent, all that kind of stuff. I’m going to geek out on you guys here for a second, so bear with me. But in the study, the field of genetics, some folks took a look at mitochondrial DNA, which is DNA passed down from a mother to her children, and by looking at this maternal lineage you can actually trace humankind back through history, which is pretty awesome. And they found out that – they came to the conclusion that mankind, all of us, came from a single female on the continent of Africa, about 200 to 250,000 years ago, according to this method of scientific research. They dubbed her “Eve” and this set off, this sparked this controversy within the realm of science because there are other people that believed what’s called the Multi-Regional Continuity Theory, which you don’t have to remember at all. But anyways, there’s this big debate in the scientific community, and the more evidence that came out over the past ten years or so has confirmed that about 200-250,000 years ago we all descended from a single female in Africa.

And linguistics is showing this, too. Some studies, some research papers that were just published in 2011 and 2012 – so this is pretty recent stuff, it’s pretty awesome to me – that all of our languages are related to one another. And if you trace the evolution of linguistics and language back through time you begin to see them converge and come together about 200,000 years ago — on the continent of Africa. Kind of neat. And there’s anthropology – paleoanthropology – who were some of the biggest people were fighting this evidence of humankind coming out of Africa, and they’ve since found more evidence to support the theory. And so everything is pointing to this idea that we came from Africa.

And I say all of that to lead up to some African creation stories that I want to tell you. Stories from the people, ancient people of Africa, and how they believe the world first began. I’m going to read a couple of these to you.

The Gikuyu people of modern-day Kenya tell the story of Gikuyu and Mumbi, the first man and woman, who were created by God and placed under a special tree of life. God then showed them the whole land and said, “This land I hand over to you, O Man and Woman. It is yours to rule and till in peace, sacrificing only to me, your God.”

According to the Yoruba people of Nigeria, God molded the first man and first woman from the ground and breathed life into them.

As the Abaluyia people tell the story, God created man first and then created woman so he would have a companion. The Lugbara people told of man being created first, then woman was created and the two were joined in marriage as husband and wife.

The Shilluk creation story says God created man from clay and took woman from man. The Bambuti Pygmies in their story say that God created man from clay, covered him with skin, and poured blood into his body — but he wasn’t alive until God breathed into him.

And I saved the best for last. This is a western African creation story. And all of these stories, you guys, predate our creation story that’s written in the Bible — I should say, predates when our creation story was written down. It doesn’t necessarily predate our story, it predates when it was written down. Including this one:

At the beginning of Things, when there was nothing, neither man, nor animals, nor plants, nor heaven, nor earth, nothing, nothing, God was and He was called Nzame. The three who are Nzame, we call them Nzame, Mebere and Nkwa. At the beginning Nzame made the heaven and the earth and He reserved the heaven for Himself. Then He blew on the earth and the earth and water were created each on its side.

Nzame made everything: heaven, earth, sun, moon, stars, animals, plants; everythng. When He had finished everything that we see today, He called Mbere and Nkwa and showed them His work. “This is my work. It is good.”

Wow. Do you guys understand what is happening here? If people came – if mankind came out of Africa, and we have these ancient stories that were written down before our story was written down, that all sound a lot like our story, then here’s what I think happened, guys: God creates the first humans in Africa and they begin telling the story. And you know, humans were not born with the capability to write. Writing was something we developed later on, and so they begin telling the story of how they were made. And they begin passing it down orally through the generations. And as people moved out of Africa they took that story with them. They took the story of how God created them and they took it with them to Egypt and Palestine and China and Europe and all these other places. But the stories in Africa are so similar, they all had to have the same beginning. And that lends so much credence, to me, to the story that we have in our Scripture.

You can listen to the rest by clicking here.

On Transparency

A Vice President here at the University at which I work once told me, “Nothing scares me more than someone who acts like they have their shit together.”

Wise words, to be sure. Implied in them is the fact that none of us has our shit together (or “poop in a group,” if you are disinclined toward swear words). The question, then, is what we do with our non-put-together selves.

This is nearly universally true, but especially in areas where culture has, at one point or another, demanded a subsection of the population become experts. Faculty in a university setting, for instance. Or, perhaps more challenging, teachers and pastors in the Church.

Once upon a time, pastors were viewed as, and expected to be, experts. To have all the answers. I’m not sure if that was ever a good idea to set that expectation of them, but what I am sure of is that today, that expectation is infinitely more harmful than helpful.

It’s harmful because it demands something impossible of church leaders. Nobody can be an expert on God. It’s inherently impossible, unless you shrink God down from his infinity into something manageable, which in itself is a heresy (and perhaps the largest and most popular heresy of the modern church).

It’s harmful because it makes pastors and teachers in the church deny their own questions and doubts and failings, which makes them less human and less honest.

It’s harmful because at some level (in a healthy or unhealthy way), church congregations view church leaders as a model to which to aspire, which then forces them to deny their own questions and doubts and failings.

It’s harmful because it turns away the billions of unchurched people who echo the words of that Vice President. They view the church with some degree of skepticism, ranging anywhere from dismissiveness to disgust to contempt, and at least a portion of it (I would argue a large portion) is derived from our untenable sense of certainty.

Study after study shows that people today don’t have any interest in learning from “experts”. In the university setting, those who are open, transparent, and honest with their students have been shown to be far more effective teachers than those who set themselves up and answer-dispensing experts. And if that is true in the college classroom, how much more true is it in the church pulpit?

May we followers of Christ lead the charge down the path toward authenticity, openness, and transparency. May we welcome and encourage the difficult questions and doubts and be honest about our own struggles. May we learn the power of asking the right questions rather than having all the right answers. May we remember that leading doesn’t always mean being out in front of someone; that often it means walking alongside of them. And may we be pleasantly surprised at how Christlike this makes us.

Things We Act Like the Bible Says (But it Really Doesn’t)

On persecution:
“Blessed are you when you are persecuted, for you have the full power of the Roman army behind you to start a war with and kill your enemies.”

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On identity:
“By this, all people will know you are my followers: that you all believe the same doctrine.”

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On vengeance:
“‘Vengeance is the military’s,’ saith the Lord.”

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On helping people:
Ten lepers came to Jesus and asked to be healed. Jesus asked them, “Have you already been to the synagogue down the street asking for help?” When they answered affirmatively, Jesus replied, “Then I can have no compassion on you, for I would be enabling you in the lifestyle you have chosen for yourself.” And he would not heal them.

-=-

On salvation:
“On that day, God will separate the earth like a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. To the sheep on his right, he will say, ‘Come, take your inheritance, for you accepted me into your heart as your personal Lord and Savior by saying a prayer.’ To the goats on his left, he will say, ‘Depart from me, for you never prayed the sinner’s prayer and accepted me into your heart as your personal Lord and Savior.'”

-=-

On matters of first importance:
“And so what I have received I have delivered to you as of first importance: you must stop the homosexual agenda, according to the Scriptures, and you must refuse to protect or show common decency to others so that they will know they are sinners.”

-=-

On the beginning:
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth in six literal, historical days less than 10,000 years ago, and there is absolutely no way this could in any way be poetic or allegorical. Anyone who believes otherwise should be taken outside the camp and stoned.”

-=-

On clarification for those weird rules:
“That stuff about slavery, stoning people to death, genocide, and infanticide? I didn’t really mean all that. But that stuff about the gays? Totally meant that.”

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On loving your enemies:
“If you love those who love you, that’s good enough. You’ll fit right in with the world and not rock any boats. Why would anyone love those who hate and persecute them? Just bomb them and get rid of the problem.”

-=-

On Christmas:
“And lo, the baby lying in swaddling cloths in a manger came to usher in an era where every cashier said ‘Merry Christmas’ instead of ‘Happy Holidays,’ and where plastic dolls bearing his likeness would be placed on every public space. In such a way, the Kingdom of God would be spread over the entire creation.”

-=-

On the rich:
“Blessed are the rich, for they work harder than everyone else and God’s hand of blessing is upon them.”

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Add your own in the comments.

Evolving Faith: What Does it Mean?

If we now understand that all the authors of the Bible did not believe the same things as one another on some pretty foundational issues such monotheism, the afterlife, and morality, what impact does that have on our faith?

One could look at all of this and conclude there is no way the Bible can be true. It’s obviously written by humans, and this whole “given to man by God” thing is made up. Fair enough. But the other option is to conclude now, more than ever, the Bible must be true. After all, it’s obviously written by humans, and this whole “given to man by God” thing is made up.

Let me explain.

There are some religions and faith systems out there who claim their holy book or books were delivered to mankind straight from the mouth of God. For those faith systems, it is troublesome and embarrassing to find inaccuracies and errors in their holy texts, because it necessarily means their deity was incorrect. And who wants to follow/worship/devote their life to an incorrect deity?

The Bible never claims to be delivered straight from God to man. Instead, it is a collection of writings, written by human beings to other human beings within specific cultures, specific times, and specific settings. Now, Christians believe that somehow these stories that these human beings wrote down were inspired by God, but somewhere in the last few hundred years of modernity we’ve come to the extra-biblical (unbiblical?) conclusion “inspiration” means “dictated directly from the mouth of God.”

For some reason, we’ve taken the Bible and made it out to be something it never even claims itself to be.

Largely, religions do this to settle the matter of authority. If their book comes directly from the mouth of God, people will then need to heed it — or else they are choosing to not listen to God. It infuses their belief system with an extra large dose of legitimacy in their eyes.

Ironically, that line of reasoning is the same thing that delegitimizes the faith.

By attempting to shoehorn the Bible into this foreign shape, we set it — and our faith structure — up to fail from the beginning. Instead, what if we began accepting the Bible for what it truly is? If we start approaching, reading, and understanding the Bible as a collection of stories rather than a deity’s dictation, how much more does that open up beauty and truth to us? How much more might we understand the very heart of God this book is attempting to communicate?

When you view Scripture as a dictation from God, it is a huge problem that the Bible advocates for henotheism at the beginning and then transitions into monotheism. It’s a serious issue that the book teaches there is no afterlife at first and then adds one in later on. And it is an incredible dilemma that the mark of “good” morality continually gets adjusted throughout.

But if you see this as a collection of stories, suddenly those become no big deal at all — because these are stories about people trying to figure out who God is and how they relate to him. These are stories of people who lived in ancient, barbaric times and grew up with the rest of the world into a civilized society. These are stories of people trying to figure out better ways of doing things, of treating people, of understanding the world, of living. And so it comes as absolutely no surprise that the stories and beliefs change and grow over the years.

In fact, to me, it makes it even more likely that the stories are true. Not necessarily literally and historically accurate (Jonah and Job, I’m looking at you), but true. I’m much more interested in a story where the characters evolve and grow and change — and expect those who come after them to do the same — than I am in a fabricated story that appears in a moment of time and remains static forever after.

Again, it is so ironic to me that we’ve managed to take the Bible out of that first living, breathing category and shoved it haphazardly into the lifeless second.

Just because it grows and evolves along with the people who are writing it and living it doesn’t mean the Bible is just like any other book. In fact, the Apostle Paul believed Scripture to be so special and unique that he invented a brand new word to describe it: theopneustos. Literally, “God breathed.” That’s the word we interpret in English as “inspired” — it comes from God. But notice the connotation: it’s God-breathed, not God-dictated. It’s life-giving, just like God’s breath at the moment of creation in the Garden, not lifeless and static. It’s gently influenced with a breath, not tightly held under a heavy thumb of direction.

The Bible is true. It is authoritative. It is inspired. It speaks to the human condition, to the core of who we are, and directs us to continue this journey of discovering who God is and how we relate to him. And when we stop trying to make the Bible something it’s not, we will be free to experience the joy, the freedom, the grace, and the incredible sacrificial love through which that journey leads us.

Evolving Faith: Biblical Morality

From where does morality originate? How do we know right from wrong? For many Christians, the answer to that question comes in the form of the Bible — but how moral would we really be if we followed all of what the Bible taught?

Many Christian leaders call people to a standard of “biblical living” — but do we really want to be “biblical”? Should we aim for being biblical?

Are the morals presented in Scripture really timeless truths and the foundation we should build on? Or are we comfortable enough with the concept of evolving faith to admit that our ancestors’ sense of morality also evolved over time as culture grew? That their sense of what God may have been telling them was okay is not to be the blueprint any longer for us today?

Grab that discomfort you’re feeling and let’s go on a journey to explore biblical morality. To begin, it is biblical to own slaves. It is biblical to own other human beings as personal property. (Ex 12:44; Ex 21; Ex 23; Lev 19; Lev 22; Lev 25:44-46 [“You may buy slaves… you can bequeath them to your children as property…”])

On the flipside, it is biblical for a father to sell his daughter as a sex slave. (Ex 21:7)

It is biblical to kill innocent women and children. In fact, complete infanticide and genocide are approved as biblically moral acts. (1 Sam 15; Deut 2; Deut 3; Deut 20)

It is biblical to force a woman to marry her rapist. (Deut 22:28-29)

It is biblical to openly discriminate against handicapped people and exclude them from serving God. (Lev 21:16-20)

The list could go on and on with dozens of examples… and to be clear: by “biblical” I do not mean something that is simply found in the Bible. It would be one thing to say the Bible included stories of people doing these things, but that they were not endorsed or commanded by God. However, these are things the writers of Scripture felt were specifically endorsed and commanded by God! It’s not just Old Testament laws, either– for instance, slavery was endorsed and accepted in the New Testament as well (Eph 6:5; 1 Tim 6:1).

When I look at the morality presented in the Bible, I can’t help but think: God forbid we ever aim to live biblically.

What about marriage? We keep hearing these calls to return to “biblical” marriage, usually defined as a covenant between one man and one woman. Let’s take a look at what biblical marriage really is, though:

The first time we see the word “marriage” in Scripture, it is in reference to Jacob and his multiple wives (Rachel, Leah, and both their slaves). The next time is in reference to Moses and his (at least) two wives. Biblical marriage appears to be one man and as many women as he wants. It’s even codified that way in the Law — “If a man has two wives, and loves one but not the other…” In other words, God did not say, “Don’t have two wives.” He never offers condemnation for having two wives, but rather accepts and endorses it. This particular law quoted above goes on to define how to divide the inheritance among polygamous marriages.

So no, the Bible does not define marriage as being between one man and one woman. It legally codifies marriage — supposedly from the lips of God — as being between one man and as many women as he wants. (Following this law, Caleb had 5 wives, Gideon had ‘many’ wives, Saul had two wives, King David had at least 18 wives, Solomon supposedly had a thousand wives, and nearly every other biblical hero practiced polygamy.)

But it gets even worse from there: biblically speaking, in a marriage relationship women were property, just like slaves. They were bartered and sold and owned. They were second class citizens (if they were people at all) to be used in largely arranged marriages. In the books of Joshua and Judges, women were even given in marriage as prizes and rewards to male Israelite soldiers.

I look at all this, too, and I think: God forbid we ever aim to have biblical marriages.

Humanity existed for thousands of years with this polygamous-property understanding of marriage. Recently, a better way of understanding marriage, a monogamous-equality understanding, has come to be accepted. (This development is surprisingly recent, dating back to just the 19th century.) In other words, we as humankind finally realized in the past two hundred years or so the old way of doing things may not be the best way to do things…

Just like the best way to do things might not be owning slaves… or forcing women to marry rapists… or discriminating against people… or committing infanticide or genocide…

I’ve written before about how the Bible and Jesus are two separate entities, and how our highest calling as Christians is to follow Jesus, not to follow the Bible. Many have asked how I could possibly separate the two, and it is topics like these where I ask, “How could you possibly not?”

See, just like monotheism and afterlife theology are not static, timeless consistent truths presented all the way from the beginning of our faith narrative, morality is ever-changing and evolving as well. I think it’s pretty impossible to flip through the pages of our Story and honestly come to any other conclusion. The morals presented in the early Old Testament writings are shocking, brutal, and entirely immoral by today’s standards. If you want to hold to the position that Scripture presents timeless morals for us to follow, then you are implicitly admitting that the world has better morals than God does.

But here’s the deal: morality didn’t stop with the early writings of the Old Testament. It continued to grow and evolve. By the time we reach the end of the Old Testament, after — again, what else? — the Babylonian captivity, we see a more evolved sense of morality from our ancestors. When the prophets were looking to learn the lessons of the Babylonian exile, they landed on the idea that the Israelites were being judged for not caring about people. For not taking care of the poor. For not offering hospitality to strangers. For not loving their neighbors. For mistreating their servants. For not caring for the sick and the outcast.

Suddenly, morality was shifting. Evolving.

This was the message of prophets like Amos, Micah, Jeremiah, and Isaiah. For instance, Isaiah opens up his message to God’s people by essentially saying, “Yes, you’re great at keeping the finer points of the earlier Old Testament morality. You offer sacrifices and go through all the rituals and festivals and everything you think I want. But you should have been doing better.” Isaiah goes on to specifically identify this new evolved morality:

“Stop doing wrong. Learn to do right: seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless. Plead the case of the widow.” (Is 1:17)

Morality was shifting away from ancient brutality to a greater focus on people. Specifically, the people who generally were not taken care of by society as a whole. The people who fell through the cracks. Because Israel didn’t help them, they were being judged — and that’s what allowed the Babylonians to capture them.

Of course, Jesus comes on the scene and this sense of morality evolves even further. By the time Jesus came, the Jewish people had all but abandoned most of the brutal ancient morality. For instance, the prescribed punishment for breaking most every Law in the early Old Testament was stoning someone to death. When Jesus walked the earth, that practice had fallen by the wayside already. They inherently understood that morality was not a fixed thing, that it would grow and evolve — and when some prideful moralists approached Jesus supposedly ready to stone an adultress, he called their bluff and introduced a new evolution in morality at the same time.

Jesus essentially said, “Yeah, you guys don’t stone people any more. But if you really want to devolve back to that, you who is without sin, go ahead and throw the first stone.”

Ancient morality gave way to a justice- and people-focused reality, which then gave way to the complex morality of Jesus: love. Black and white became gray, which became multi-colored beauty.

It’s this positive trajectory of morality we ought to be focusing on when we talk about the Bible. Atheists rightly point out the ugly brutality of the early Old Testament morality, and even some of the brutality remaining into the New Testament (such as slavery). They point out that the Bible is an absolutely lousy place from which to derive morals, and for Christians stuck in the world of timeless black-and-white morality, they are correct.

Instead, what if we approached the Bible as what it is: a story. In this story, ancient people lived in a brutal world and had brutal morals. As time went on, they became more focused on justice and people, and when Jesus came on the scene he became the catalyst for the greatest moral evolution toward love.

So rather than pick out proof texts to back up a black-and-white understanding of morality, it seems good to me to take the trajectory of the story as a whole and continue that trajectory today. It is by embracing that evolution that we are able to come to the quite obvious conclusion that things such as genocide and infanticide and slavery, which are endorsed in the pages of Scripture, are in fact not okay. Just because that’s the old way of doing things doesn’t mean it’s the best way of doing things.

The Story doesn’t stop with the last page of Revelation. We are intended to continue living it out today — not stuck in the morality that existed 2,000 years ago, but evolving. And if we allow ourselves to follow that trajectory and continue allowing our morality to evolve along the path of Jesus’ love, it will lead us into even greater freedom and equality in the future.

Evolving Faith: Of Souls and Gardens

What happens after we die?

The answer to that question has been, perhaps, one of the greatest driving forces behind religious thought — and it should come as no surprise the answer to that question has evolved in incredible ways as well.

Back in the days when the Israelites were still henotheists (see yesterday’s post for more on that), the concept of an afterlife seemed to be the furthest thing from their minds. The covenant they made with God was all about the Promised Land here on earth, all about the present. Never once did God demand they do something so they could get into heaven or enjoy an afterlife of any kind — instead, the promises of following God’s Law included things like “so it may go well with you in the land.” In fact, the notion that any human could ever “go to heaven,” which was God’s dwelling place, was absolutely ludicrous to them.

The ancient Hebrew people believed in a state called Sheol after you died — not Heaven or Hell. (“Sheol” is translated in our English versions of Scripture as “the pit” or “the grave.”) The idea that a part of you would continue living after your body perished would have been laughable. Instead, Sheol was the final resting place for everybody – good, bad, or indifferent. It was a place where there was no consciousness, no pleasure, no pain. Sheol was the great equalizer, and their wisdom writings treated it as such. Sure, they would say, you could lie and cheat your way through life and be lazy, but ultimately you’ll end up in Sheol, so what good was it? Sure, you can acquire massive amounts of wealth and lord it over folks, but once you die your wealth will rot — and so will you, in Sheol. Kind of a “you can’t take it with you” philosophy to the extreme.

Of course, in some deeper moments of reflection, that also led to the obvious flipside of the issue: you can live a virtuous life and deny yourself worldly pleasures and do all the good you can, but when you die you will still end up in Sheol. This disquieting line of reasoning is what led the ancient Hebrews to write the incredibly reflective book of Ecclesiastes, where they bemoan everything as meaningless because ultimately everyone ends up dead in Sheol anyways. (“The fate of the fool will overtake me also. What then do I gain by being wise? I said to myself, ‘This too is meaningless…’ Like the fool, the wise too will die.” -Ecc 2:15-16)

Now, in Hebrew belief it was possible to reanimate someone who had gone to Sheol. Doing so would cause them to come back as a ghost-like entity, and this was specifically the power held by those who practiced witchcraft. This was also the power that was forbidden several times in the Old Testament Law from ever being used, because when folks died and descended to Sheol that’s where they were supposed to stay. Forever. We see a striking example in 1 Samuel 28 of a witch using this power to call the prophet Samuel up from Sheol. Samuel’s question when he appears is telling: “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?” That verb “disturb” literally means “to excite” or “agitate” — or in this context, something akin to “reanimate.” And notice he’s being brought up, from the grave where he was resting, not down from some heaven-like location.

So that was how our earliest faith ancestors viewed the afterlife: in essence, there wasn’t one. As time wore on, however, the unease with that whole philosophy began building… and it reached its apex and boiled over during — what else? — the Babylonian exile.

Just as the Babylonian exile was the catalyst for the shift away from henotheism into monotheism, it was also the largest driving factor behind the development of afterlife theology. It should be no surprise that this was the case, because the very idea of an afterlife is predicated on one foundational principle: justice.

True, we want to ease our pain during the grieving process, and a belief in the afterlife greatly assists in that. But zooming out a bit farther, the concept of justice looms much larger over the development of this theology. We inherently want there to be a difference between what happens to a good guy and what happens to a bad guy. We join with the author of Ecclesiastes in saying that Sheol is not enough. And once we begin travelling down that road, all it takes is one major example of injustice to kickstart our afterlife theology into high gear.

Enter the Babylonians.

The Hebrews were God’s people. They had a special relationship with him. They were the good guys. The Babylonians were the bad guys — wicked heathens who did awful things like oppressed people, sacrificed their children, and went on bloodlust-fueled killing sprees. So when Babylon began marching on Jerusalem, is it any wonder that the Israelites believed they would defeat them? The good guys were supposed to win! Here, now, on earth, the good guys had to win. If they didn’t, everyone would end up in Sheol and life would be, well, meaningless.

So imagine the shock when Babylon conquered them, destroyed their cities, and took them captive as slaves. Oppressed, mistreated, and more defeated than we will ever understand, they stood asking: Why? How could this happen? How were they supposed to make sense of this? What was the point of life if the bad guys won?

It was in this context that they began developing an increasingly complex afterlife theology. In fact, the first time anything about an afterlife is directly taught in Scripture is during a vision that the prophet Daniel had while in Babylonian captivity:

“Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever.” (Dan 12:2-3)

The perfect response to the gross injustice of life is erased with this new, evolving theology of the afterlife. The idea is introduced here that at some point in the future, the dead will be resurrected, and a final justice will be served. The bad guys will face everlasting shame and contempt (not fire, yet…) while the good guys will face everlasting life. Sheol isn’t dismissed or tossed aside — the dead will still reside there, unconscious, until this resurrection — but Sheol is now amended with a rather massive footnote.

Eventually, even if it doesn’t happen in this life, everything will be made right. The meaninglessness is fixed with a future hope to which the righteous can look forward.

But this new amended view of the afterlife introduced a whole slew of new, unintended questions, the primary one being: what determined whether you were resurrected into shame and contempt, or life? Where was that dividing line?

What really happens after someone dies?

Enter the Greeks, who took over Galilee and Judea as part of their expanding empire, and who introduced a more refined set of beliefs about the human soul. According to the Greek philosophers, humans were dual creatures with a body and a soul, one of which is temporal and the other which is eternal. We’ve been interpreting afterlife theology through that Greekk lens ever since.

The idea of this eternal soul, coupled with the Hebrew people’s newfound interest in the afterlife as a way to see justice done, led to a theological explosion of ideas for the four hundred years leading up to Jesus. By the time Jesus comes on the scene there was little in the way of orthodoxy on the subject. Most rabbis at least taught that there would indeed be a resurrection of the dead, but when that would occur was up for debate. Some taught it would happen when the Messiah came and some taught it would happen to individuals shortly upon their death. Others still maintained that there was no resurrection at all. Some rabbis suggested that people spent up to eleven months, maybe twelve if necessary, in Sheol as a place of purification upon their death. At the end of that time, if the dead were purified, they would enter Eden (the everlasting life Daniel wrote about) and if they were not able to be purified, they were annihilated. Others started to teach that there was a place of conscious torment after death for the bad guys, although nobody could come close to agreeing on what would land someone there.

Some rabbis taught that adultery would send you to this new location of “Hell.” Others said denying the resurrection was what got you the one-way ticket there. Still others claimed being an Epicurian philosopher was Hell-worthy. And a larger group of rabbis taught that even if you ended up in Hell, nobody would live there forever. Everyone would eventually be purified and ascend back to Eden.

The Garden of Eden was one of the foundational principles the Jewish people latched onto while they were evolving this new afterlife theology. To them, it represented God’s original plan for creation. To them, God was restoring the brokenness of his creation and making it back into what he originally intended. To them, “heaven” was still God’s dwelling place and humans didn’t go there — but God was remaking the earth into the Garden of Eden for the good guys.

So we went from no afterlife and Sheol, to an amended version of Sheol that included a resurrection, to a confusing heterodoxy of afterlife ideas. This was a massive evolution of faith, and when Jesus stepped into the mix he continued advancing new ideas and thoughts on the subject. This post is already far too long, so we’ll have to save the conclusion of this discussion for another day. The point of this post isn’t to definitively answer the question, “What happens when we die?” — just to show how the answer to that question has evolved over the centuries. (Suffice it to say, however, that Jesus’ ideas on the afterlife look pretty different than the conservative evangelical view of things today.)

The point is this: Scripture is a story. It is a story of a people trying to figure out who God is and what their relationship to him is. It is not a set of timeless principles laid out to be the same from beginning to end. There is a trajectory and evolution that occurs through its pages, and rather than inviting us to use it as a set of doctrinal proof texts or rules, it invites us instead to join in that story. To continue the trajectory. To continue the evolution. We’ll talk more about that idea later this week.

Evolving Faith: One God to Rule Them All

The Bible clearly teaches that there is only one God. Open and shut case. Black and white. Right?

Not so fast…

In the primitive cultures of the ancient world — the setting in which most of the Bible was written — religion (oftentimes with little to no differentiation from superstition) was paramount. The religious orthodoxy at the time included a pantheon of gods who controlled everything. Human civilization at the time was tribal, and these gods belonged to, or ruled over, individual tribes. Each group had their own god, and it was their responsibility to ensure they worshiped him correctly and stayed on his good side.

Enter the Israelites, who believed the same things in their early days. For instance, a passage in Deuteronomy describes this primitive belief system to a T:

“When Elyon [God] divided the nations, when he separated the sons of Adam, he established the borders of the nations according to the numbers of the sons of the gods. Yahweh’s portion was his people, Israel was his allotted inheritance.” (Deut 32:8-9)

There is an incredible amount of theology packed into those two sentences, so let’s unpack it carefully. First, we see the existence of two gods: Elyon and Yahweh. (These names are translated as “God” and “LORD” in English.) We explain that today by saying Elyon and Yahweh are actually the same God, or they are two persons of the Trinity. But let’s look at this from the perspective of the ancient people who wrote this: there was clearly a supreme deity named Elyon and another deity under him named Yahweh.

In fact, there are more gods than just those two, evidently, because we see Elyon here parceling out the entire world and giving deities certain tribes to rule over. This is not only compatible with ancient pagan beliefs, it is the exact same. If you look at ancient Canaanite writings, for example, you’ll find they believed in the same pantheon of gods with one supreme god ruling over them all. The name that the Canaanites ascribed to this supreme god? Elyon – just like the Israelites.

And so here we see, in early Hebrew thought, echoes of the same beliefs as the cultures around them. Now, even though these cultures believed there were many gods, it wouldn’t be fair to label them as polytheists. In polytheism, there is a pantheon of gods, each of whom are to be worshiped by everyone – and each of whom is over a particular area of life (sun gods, water gods, war gods, harvest gods, etc). That stands in contrast to the ancient cultures we are talking about here. They didn’t worship all the gods they believed existed; rather, they worshiped only their specific tribal god to the exclusion of all others.

This belief system is more accurately called henotheism. In henotheism there are many gods, but you are to be concerned with, and worship, only one of them. There is one god per tribe who controls everything in life. In the case of our Israelites, the supreme God Elyon saw fit to assign Yahweh as their god, and so they would worship Yahweh.

This henotheism is reflected in the earliest laws the Israelites followed. For instance, the first of the ten commandments has Yahweh telling Israel, “You shall have no other gods before me.” Notice what Yahweh did not say: not, “There are no other gods,” but, “You shall have no other gods…” Yahweh himself seems to implicitly acknowledge the existence of this pantheon when setting out the basic rules of relationship with his people.

There are more explicit references to multiple gods throughout Scripture, of course, if we don’t gloss over them or ignore them. Psalm 82 has a supreme God standing “in the assembly of the gods,” and goes on to say “In the midst of the gods he renders judgment.” Exodus 15 has Moses and Miriam leading the people in a song, one of the verses of which goes like this: “Who among the gods is like you, Yahweh? Majestic in holiness, awesome in glory, working wonders?” Again, notice they are not declaring Yahweh the only god, they are declaring he is better than all the other gods! Psalm 89 echoes that idea with this line: “Who in the skies can compare to Yahweh? Who is like Yahweh among the sons of gods, a god who is honored in the assembly, who is more awesome than all who surround him?”

In Psalm 135, they sing this: “I know Yahweh is great; he is above the other gods.” In Psalm 95 they sing, “Yahweh is the great god, the great king above all gods.” And in Psalm 97, they even sing about the other gods worshiping Yahweh.

Henotheism at its finest.

There can be little to no doubt that the early Israelites believed, just as their neighbors did, in multiple gods. But eventually, Judaism (and Christianity) became a highly monotheistic faith system. When and how did the shift occur?

The shift from henotheism to monotheism took place during and after the Babylonian exile in the sixth and fifth centuries BC. At that point in time, Jewish writings became highly monotheistic in nature, including these passages from the second half of Isaiah:

“Before me no god was formed, nor will there be one after me.” (Isaiah 43:10)
“This is what Yahweh says — Israel’s king and redeemer, Yahweh almighty: ‘I am the first and the last, apart from me there is no god.'” (Isaiah 44:6)
“Is there any god besides me [Yahweh]? …No, I know not one.” (Isaiah 44:8)
“I am Yahweh, and there is no other. Apart from me, there is no god.” (Isaiah 45:5)

How are we to explain this abrupt transition? Suddenly, a culture who had believed in many gods now only believed in one and declared all the other ones to be fakes, even mocking the idea anyone could have ever believed they existed (see the remainder of Isaiah 44). So what changed?

The best theory is two things changed: one gradual, and one shockingly abrupt. First, what gradually changed was that culture was growing up. Humankind began learning things and understanding things and acquainting themselves with knowledge their ancestors didn’t have. And as knowledge increased, there became less and less of a need for superstition and ancient forms of religion. Many cultures were outgrowing henotheism, and the Israelites were one of them. (There’s a reason, for instance, that there are only a handful of henotheists remaining today, including the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Most other cultures have moved on from that ancient way of understanding the world.)

The more abrupt thing that happened was the Israelites were defeated by the Babylonians and taken into slavery by a major world empire for the second time in their history. To say this was a big deal would be an understatement of epic proportions. From a henotheistic perspective, being conquered and oppressed by the Babylonians meant one thing: the Babylonian tribal god was more powerful than the Israelite tribal god. And that fact made for some uncomfortable philosophy: Maybe Yahweh wasn’t the greatest god after all. Maybe all the other gods in Elyon’s assembly didn’t worship Yahweh. Maybe Yahweh wasn’t more awesome than all the other gods that surrounded him. Maybe when Elyon was doling out the deities to the various tribes around the world, the Israelites got the shaft.

Earlier in Israel’s history, this was exactly how they understood military defeat. Check out 2 Kings 3, for instance, where Yahweh supposedly told the Israelites to go to battle with the Moabites, and that he would deliver the army of the Moabites into their hands. At first, the battle is going great — in fact, Israel is about to win, but then the king of Moab throws a hail Mary and sacrifices his own son to the Moabite tribal god Chemosh. After that sacrifice, Scripture records there was such a divine anger burning against Israel (implied: Chemosh got some extra fuel and motivation from the child sacrifice) that the Israelites lost the battle and went home defeated. Oops. Did Yahweh lie? Or was he just outpowered by a rival deity in the pantheon? The Israelites needed to make sense out of a shocking military defeat in a battle they should have won, and so they went with the latter. This was a henotheistic way of viewing the world.

In the context of an utter and all-out embarrassment like the Babylonian exile, however, you can see how henotheism quickly falls out of favor. Being conquered by Babylon was likely the final death knell for henotheism and the catalyst for ushering in monotheism. Nobody wants to believe they were assigned a deity who couldn’t protect them, so one of the best alternatives is to say there’s actually only one God and he allowed you to be conquered to teach you a lesson. It wasn’t that Babylon’s god was more powerful, it was that Babylon didn’t have a God at all and Yahweh willed this whole thing to happen for his divine purposes.

And once you believe that, then you start looking for those lessons you were supposed to learn. Enter Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai, Zechariah, and the rise of the Pharisees — prophets and events which close out the Old Testament and usher in the New.

So does the Bible teach there is only one God? Is our faith heritage one of monotheism? Eventually. But that wasn’t always the case. For thousands of years, our faith heritage was built on the back of henotheism and a belief in the existence of many gods. That could either be earth shattering and foundation-shaking to you, or you could be saying, “So what?” at this point. Either way, to me this seems vitally important to understand on a couple levels. First, it puts us into closer contact with the identities of those who came before us in this journey… of those who paved the way for us today. We’ve got to understand who they were and what their trajectory of belief was in order to better understand ourselves. And secondly, it’s important because it necessarily colors the way we approach, read, and understand Scripture. It helps us answer the important question, “What is the Bible?” in a better way that will perhaps not leave us with as many disappointments. But we’ll get into that in another post later this week.