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.

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.”

-=-

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

-=-

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

-=-

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.”

-=-

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.”

-=-

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.

Evolving Faith: A New Series

Somebody once told me, “I don’t trust anybody who believes exactly the same things they did ten years ago.” That idea seems good to me, partly because I’ve left a lot of beliefs behind in the past ten years, and mostly because it accepts and expects that people grow.

My faith has evolved in countless ways since 1998 when it became the most important thing in my life, and through the magic of the internet I know I’m far from the only one for whom that is true. I was originally taught back then that all truth was timeless; once you landed on truth, it was a Very Bad Idea to ever move again. Evolving faith was viewed with suspicion at best, and charges of backsliding and heresy at worst. So finding stories all over the place of people experiencing the same questions, doubts, and journey I am experiencing brings me comfort and peace.

Recently, I’ve begun finding those same stories of evolving beliefs in a rather unlikely place: the pages of Scripture. Turns out, not only is it okay and expected that our individual faith stories grow and change, but our entire faith heritage is actually built on that foundation! So this week, I will be exploring how the ancient Jewish people and early Christians shifted their understandings of God in some pretty dramatic ways — and how those shifts found their ways into the pages of Scripture. I think a lot of times we miss the forest for the trees when we approach the Bible, and stepping back and viewing its contours from a distance reveal some potentially remarkable things.

The first post will go up tomorrow, with one following everyday this week. The topics are just inconsequential ideas like monotheism, the afterlife, and morality. You know, light and easy stuff like that. To start with, this morning I want to introduce what might already be an uncomfortable idea to you: many of the truths about Christianity and God haven’t always been truths. Following God, whether as a part of our Jewish or Christian heritage, has undergone shifts as the culture shifted around it. It seems to me you can choose to do one of two things with that idea: fight against it or accept it. And if you come to accept it, you have two more choices: to believe that means the Bible cannot possibly be true, or to believe that means the Bible is more true than ever.

For me, I am living in the beauty of the latter.

So I invite you on this ride with me this week and look forward to some incredible discussions and dialog!

Evolving Faith: A Reflected Riddles Series
Tuesday: One God to Rule Them All
Wednesday: Of Souls and Gardens
Thursday: Biblical Morality
Friday: What Does it Mean?

Of Inerrancy, Truth, Labels… and a Book

I set out to write a blog about my specific position on some doctrines about the Bible, sparked by a conversation on Facebook last week — but the more I wrote and the more I thought, that blog post morphed into the following. Rather than fight about specific trees, I want to zoom out and see the forest we’ve created… and ask some potentially uneasy questions about its existence. Enjoy…

Of all the litmus tests we apply to one another (in order to pursue the misguided goal of maintaining the “purity” of our tribe), none have grown so outsized and over-important as those surrounding the Bible.

We’ve developed quite the adjective-ridden vocabulary for describing our scriptures, our version of a holy book: Inerrant. Authoritative. Literal. Inspired. We wield these words like weapons, calling down theological mushroom clouds upon those we disagree with. We throw these words around with intense suspicion, pulling our glasses down to the tip of our noses, peering over the rims and asking in accusatory tones, “Yes, but do they believe the Bible is ______________?”

It’s reductionism at its finest — a simple and easy way to reject those not as pure as ourselves, to avoid messy conversations and having to think too much about what and why we believe.

Each of those adjectives are weighed down with such heavy and intense baggage, and it makes me wonder if they’re even worth it… if it’s a noble goal to use the awful limitations of humanly-invented words to try and protect pages which contain the very breath of God. With each new label we slap on the beautiful and rich story of God and his people, it seems that we sterilize it a bit more. Strip away a layer of its mystery. Rob it of a little more power.

I wonder that, and I wonder if the labels aren’t just another form of control. A way to tame a dangerous story and the dangerous God who authored it until we feel safe enough to handle it ourselves. We offer big talk of reckless abandon and then betray the concept by emasculating the very narrative which inspires us to it. “Oh, yes,” we say — “I understand exactly how this crazy supernatural tale was woven together by the Creator of the Universe and what it means for us thousands of years later.”

What hubris! What modernity-inspired arrogance!

To be sure, we must say something about this book, because it is set apart. Different, somehow. So we must use some kind of words — but I wonder if those words are the best we can do.

Is the Bible inerrant? Authoritative? Literal? Inspired? That depends what baggage you attach to those words. It’s time we drop our flimsy protective guard (which we imagine to be so impenetrable) and admit a few things that have been obvious to everyone else for quite awhile. The Bible contains inaccuracies. The human authors of this book made some errors – historical or scientific or otherwise. Not every word on these pages were intended to be timeless, authoritative truths to be followed through the ages. Some parts of this story are literal and some are not – and it’s okay to realize something you thought fell into one category might actually belong in the other. And not every word in this book was dictated directly to man by God.

That paragraph will likely make the Gatekeepers of TruthTM really uncomfortable or really angry, or both. But listen, friends: admitting those things does not make us heretics, it makes us honest. You can continue twisting yourself in contorted, unnatural knots attempting to explain away every issue contained in the pages of the Book if you’d like. You can continue inviting the laughter and derision of the skeptics. You can go ahead and divide the body of Christ along man-made fault lines that God never asked or demanded of us. But as for me, I’m surrendering.

I’m surrendering to the fact that it’s the theme of the story that matters, not the minute details…

…to the idea that the pages of these stories and letters and poems were all written with a purpose, an agenda — and that the truths contained in those pages are inerrant in that purpose

…to the idea that the authority of these pages derives solely from the fact that they point us to The Authority. We as a people were never meant to follow a book, we were meant to find ourselves in its narrative and follow the wild God at its center

…to the notion that “inspired” means “God-breathed,” and to reading scripture with that kind of gentle influence (rather than harsh control) in mind…

I’m surrendering, and as I do, here’s my plea: let’s stop smothering the story. Get up off it and let it breathe, let it move, let it flow. Let it be alive with the life-giving breath of God.

Take off the crushing baggage we’ve piled on top of it, and stop trying to make it something it never claimed to be.

The Bible is the story of God and his people — of him relating to them, to us. Of them relating to him. Of sometimes getting it, and oftentimes not. Of figuring out what in the world it means to be God’s people, what it means to be in this story as it is written around us.

The truth contained in this Book is greater than simple facts – it is the truth of the human condition, which binds us all together. It is a truth that resonates deep within our hearts and souls, a truth which allows us to see ourselves in the story and a truth which connects us with our God. It is the truth of sacrificial love breaking a curse and paving the way to redemption and wholeness and why in the world would anybody want to dilute the power and poignancy of this tale by saddling it with stale and lifeless dogma?

Maybe instead of arguing about the trees, it’s time to cut a few down. Then it will be easier to see, approach, and appreciate the tree of life in the center.

Defend This

For decades, western Christianity has been, in large part, defined by a defensive stance. It is something we’ve brought upon ourselves as a chosen response to a shifting culture around us. We see things changing and our inclination is to hunker down and attempt to protect the things we hold dear.

And so for decades we’ve loudly, publicly, and pointedly made a habit of defense. We have called one another to defend the faith. Defend Christianity. Defend God. Defend the traditional family. Defend doctrine. Defend orthodoxy. Defend traditional values. Defend the Bible. Defend defend defend.

All the while culture and society pass us by, shaking their heads as they confusedly watch us wrap our arms around and cower over those things; watching as we mumble with increasingly wild eyes like Gollum protecting his precious.

The problem isn’t necessarily that we have assumed this defensive posture, though. What I find interesting is what we are attempting to defend.

Do you know what Scripture instructs us to defend?

Orphans.

Widows.

The oppressed.

The poor.

The needy.

Notice what Scripture does not instruct us to defend: Doctrine. Heterosexual marriage. Scripture. Traditional values. Christianity. Anything in that first list above. And as I thought about the contrasts between those two lists today — what we like to defend and what God instructs us to defend — I was struck with a realization:

I realized that we expend our time, energy, and passion defending things rather than defending people.

We defend belief sets and dogma and ideas and theologies with such intense fervor. But we leave people by the wayside.

May we engage in the challenging endeavor of letting things go and embracing people. May we realize that doctrine is never more important than humanity; that heterosexual marriage is not in need of protecting; that it doesn’t really matter what relationships a secular, civil government recognizes; that 1950’s America (if it ever really existed in the first place) isn’t what God is calling us to; that religious institutions aren’t the same as the Kingdom of God; that if we truly believe God is God that we ought to believe he can defend himself.

May we pray to see and recognize and seize opportunities to enter into the mess of people’s lives and defend them, giving them the dignity of knowing they were created in the image of God and the love which sets them free.

May we defend people, not things.

The Wedding at Cana

I have a blog up today over at a new project with some great guys called Seder Kegger. Here’s a snippet:

American culture does not understand alcohol, and that tragedy rests largely at the feet of the American church.

In America, it seems we by and large have two ways to react to alcohol: act like it was bottled in the depths of hell and destroys everyone who touches it, or get shitfaced with it and hurt ourselves and the people around us. It’s pretty easy to see that one extreme begets the other: the more the teetotalers rail against the evils of alcohol, the more society wants to engage in it. The more they engage in it and do stupid or hurtful things, the more the teetotalers rail against it.

It’s a vicious cycle that keeps people from enjoying the best things about what alcohol represents: freedom and life. And I say it is the job of the church to lead the way into this holy enjoyment of alcohol that culture can’t quite understand.

Check the whole thing out over at sederkegger.com!