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The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart by Peter J. Gomes

June 12, 2015

TGB2Having done theology for my first degree, I didn’t find anything new in this book. However, it explains, in a popular language, the findings of biblical scholars which many in the pews seem to be unaware of.

Some reviewers have made a big fuss about the author being gay, suggesting that he is twisting scripture to fit his lifestyle. They obviously haven’t thought that it is, maybe, they who are twisting scripture to fit in with their conservatism. It is good to read ‘theology from the underside’ – from a black, gay man. (Though he also seems to be a republican supporter!)

Those who discount any interpretation of the Bible seem to forget that Jesus himself interpreted it in his first sermon. So did Philip to the Ethiopian eunuch.

He has a chapter entitled ‘The Use and Abuse of the Bible’- though I wonder if he knew that somebody had already written a book with that title. (Dennis Nineham – though Henry Wansborough has since written a book with the same title.) Scripture was used, and still is in some quarters, to justify slavery, anti-Semitism, homophobia and the subjugation of women for example. Those who take the Bible literally on such topics fail to heed Jesus’s words to the rich young ruler to sell all his possessions and give it to the poor.


 the Bible and the social and moral consequences that derive from its inter­pretation are all too important to be left in the hands of the pious or the experts, and too significant to be ignored and trivialized by the un­informed and indifferent.

Our understanding of what it says and means evolves, and so too do we as a result. This transformation does not always repudiate what was before, but it does always transcend it. The Buddhists say, “Seek not to follow in the footsteps of the men of old; rather, seek what they sought.” To understand the dynamic aspect of scripture, we must appreciate the fact that “what they sought” seeks us, and in fact, “what they sought” is apprehendable to us in terms and times that we can best understand.

Scripture is filled with an attempt to interpret, to make sense of the things of which it speaks. In fact, Jesus’ first sermon, in his hometown, was a-reading from the prophet Isaiah upon which he expounded in good rabbinic fashion. For an account of this, see Luke 4:16-30. This is what teachers did: They took a text and drew their listeners into the interpretive triangle.

“The Bible is not a therapy program nor is it a human success story, or a moral tale with an inevitably happy ending. It is the account of a faithless people and a faithful God who seek constantly to renew their relationship each with the other. Perhaps we are prepared to hear that story for the first time.”

“If we are to think of scripture not so much as we would a book of history, theology, or philosophy, but as the human experience of the divine at the thin places of encounter, then perhaps we may enter into a book that is perhaps less elusive and more accessible than we might have at first been led to believe.”

“on a second rate second-grade Sunday school education.”

“A sermon that does not attempt to address the Bible is in fact not a sermon.”

“. . . our context is the only one that really matters,”

Lydia has a conversation with Paul, and responds to that encounter by receiving baptism; and then she opens her house­hold to Paul and his colleagues, a rather gutsy enterprise. As the first European convert of Paul and the founder of her own house/church, Lydia is taken seriously by the author of Acts, and is meant to be taken seriously by all who read about her; and in her house/church we can assume that she did more than merely provide refreshments and sit at the apostles’ feet.

The Revised Standard Version of the Bible translated diakonos as “deacon­ess,” but most contemporary commentaries regard that as an incorrect translation. The term “deaconess” implies a Greek word not known to have been used in first century Greece, and it further implies a later usage in which a deaconess ministered almost exclusively to women and was in a subordinate role to men, who were deacons. Paul’s clear use of the term “deacon” in reference to Phoebe implies no such restrictions. He applies the term to her in the same way he applies it to himself and to other colleagues in his ministry who preached and taught.

The subject of homosexuality is not mentioned in the Ten Command­ments, nor in the Summary of the Law. No prophet discourses on the subject. Jesus himself makes no mention of it, and homosexuality does not appear to be of much concern to those early churches with which Saint Paul and his successors were involved. One has to look rather hard, and with a user-friendly concordance, to find any mention of homosexuality at all. This should come as no surprise, because the word homosexuality itself is an invention of the late nineteenth century and does not occur in any of the original manuscripts from which the En­glish Bible is descended…. the King James Version of 1611 makes no mention of homosexuality or of any of its cognates, and that the first use of the term in an English Bible is to be found in the Revised Standard Version of 1946…. As Jeffrey S. Siker has pointed out in the July 1994 issue of Theology Today, to argue that the creation story privileges a heterosexual view of the relations between humankind is to make one of the weakest argu­ments possible, the argument from silence. The Genesis story is indeed about Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve, as the critics of homosex­uality delight in admonishing. “Heterosexuality may be the dominant form of sexuality, but it does not follow that it is the only form of ap­propriate sexuality.” What the story does do is reflect the world experi­ence of those human beings who wrote it. Of course they would privilege the only way available to perpetuate the race, and they would do so with the aid of their own cultural lenses…. The creation story in Genesis does not pretend to be a history of anthropology or of every social relationship. It does not mention friend­ship, for example, and yet we do not assume that friendship is con­demned or abnormal. It does not mention the single state, and yet we know that singleness is not condemned, and that in certain religious circumstances it is held in very high esteem.

Even if we credit the Hebrew word “know” in the demands of the Sodomites, however — “that we might know” the strangers—in a carnal sense, we should not neglect the fact that the fate of the city was determined well before the ugly incident at Lot’s door. It was in behalf of that errand of doom, in fact, that the angels came at all. Boswell informs us that this particular form of the Hebrew verb “to know” is rarely used in a sexual sense. It occurs nine hundred and forty-three times in the Old Testament, and in only ten of these does it have the sense of carnal knowledge. More to the point, the passage in Genesis 19 is the only place in the Old Testament where it is generally believed to refer to homosexual relations. Sodom is referred to throughout the Old Testament as a place of wickedness and is synonymous with it, but nowhere does it state that homosexuality was the wickedness in question.

When people ask why preachers waste their time on the people in their pews, “preaching to the converted” or “preaching to the choir,” they fail to understand that it is those who aspire to goodness who most need to be reminded of and protected against the dangers of the moral ambiguity that is the seed of temptation. Those who are in church are like those who are in a hospital; they are not there because they are specimens of virtue or health. They are there because they know their needs. Hospitals are not healthier places than other places, but in the hospital the weapons to fight the illness are ready to hand. So too is it with the church.

This is the context and these are the considerations that compel our attention when we look at the famous series of temptations with which Jesus is confronted at the beginning of his ministry, encounters recorded in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The prominence given to these temptation stories suggests that their themes and concerns are high value to the communities of believers in Jesus. These encounters with temptation at the start of the public ministry are also meant to describe the persistence and perversity of temptation in the life of Jesus and in the life of all those who would aspire to godliness and the good ­life. The nearer one lives in proximity to God, contrary to our expec­tations, the greater is the influence of temptation.

This paradox is driven home by the placement of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness to his baptism. Baptism is seen as the high point of one’s spiritual life, the cleansing of the stain of sin, the washing away of the claims of the lower life upon the higher. Some even think at baptism as an innoculation against sin and temptation. Thus it is some­thing of an irony that Jesus is tempted immediately after baptism a not before it. The temptations are not a form of hazing before he allowed to enter the fraternity of the holy and good life. Quite the contrary. The temptations in some very real sense are the consequences a life set apart for goodness and God’s will. That is why they foil directly upon that moment of consecration and dedication; there is one more desirable to Satan, more susceptible to Satan, than the one who has just given his or her life to God. Jesus and his temptations remind us that the good life is the context of the ultimate struggle evil. I am convinced that this construction of these episodes in the ministry of Jesus is no accident, no mere formal chronology. The g writers have an acute instinct for those situations that help animate Jesus’s investment in the realities of the moral life in the real world. No Olympian recluse, Jesus must be seen to be engaged with the real forces this world that argue for evil and that appeal to the best in people order to seduce them into bondage to that very evil….His first temptation occurs at the conclusion of this season acute loneliness, physical hunger, and spiritual tension. All of the senses are on edge; Jesus is a moral athlete at the height of his training, and as all who have ever attempted a season of intense training—physical, spiritual, or intellectual—realize, the demons that one attempts to mon­itor, control, and indeed overcome do not diminish in their ferocity one develops more skills to cope with them. No. Like a deadly cancer they develop new resources to combat our vaccines and develop new and frightening resistances to our cures. Evil, like cancer, does have a mind, a will, and a strategy, and temptation is the maneuvering device that doesn’t stay still or in the same place long enough for our cumulative resistance to have any useful effect. Thus, at the end of his temptation— and the gospel is clear that these temptations occur at the rather than at the beginning of the fast—Jesus is more rather than susceptible to the wiles of the Tempter.

Spiritual pride suggests that if we practice and study, and keep steady in our moral diet and regimen, we will be equal to any force that came our way. Infected as we are by the doctrine that more is better, and by the athletic metaphors that suggest that when a ninety-pound weakling pumps up and beefs out, he will then be able to whip the bully who heretofore intimidated and humiliated him, we think that when we strong spirtually and physically we are invulnerable to attack. It is very conceit that Satan uses against us, like the tactic of using your enemy’s superior weight against him in a wrestling match.

Satan invites Jesus, in his physical hunger, to turn stones into bread. The first level of inquiry would suggest that this is little more than asking Jesus to satisfy his own need for nourishment by performing a harmless and useful trick. Satan is asking Jesus to prove that he has attained the spiritual wherewithal to solve a simple problem: “If you are the Son of God” is the taunting bait that Satan uses here. In other words, if you are who you say you are, and if your God is really who you say he is, and if your spiritual exercises have had any effect, prove it by this simple demonstration.

Spiritual pride would easily tempt us to respond in kind; it would be to the honor of God, a demonstration of spiritual superiority, and an appropriate rebuke to an audacious doubter who by the performance of this action should be won over to the faith. Christians are always eager to prove that “my God is bigger than yours,” and spirituality, that be­nighted buzzword of the late twentieth century, tempts us so often to play such games. The amateur martial-arts student is always susceptible to the vanity of smashing a plank or a pile of bricks to prove to doubting onlookers that his years of practice and discipline have paid off, and that his deprivations have been rewarded by a new and terrifying skill. The onlookers will be impressed by such a display of power, and the reputation of the would-be Karate Kid will be forever established by a single blow or kick. Scholars of the martial arts, however, remind us that the skills of karate and the other disciplines are not meant to be displayed as parlor tricks or mere entertainment. These skills are only to be employed when necessary, and in fact, their greatest power lies in their potential. Those who are powerful in these dangerous arts are so because of their capacity for deterrence rather than for their mere dem­onstration….The kingdoms of this world may in fact not belong to Satan, but it is an ancient principle of common law that possession is nine tenths of the law, and to all nts and purposes the Devil seems much in possession of the king­s of this world. He may not be the lawful owner or the landlord, but he is a very effective squatter, and there is little realistic doubt of his ability to deliver worldly power to whom he will. He has had re­markable success in this transaction to date, and so appeals to legal pieties are neither helpful nor persuasive.

What this really is about is trafficking in the tempting power of power, which in the minds of the faithful in all places and in all ages would be a preemptive strike for virtue and goodness. Think about how much time and effort would be saved on the part of the righteous if they could command goodness and orchestrate secular power in its behalf. We should remember the irony of Satan’s proposition here in Luke’s gospel. Those who first read it, the dispersed and defeated followers of a Lord whose kingdom was not of and not intended for this world, would have found the notion of a powerful religious state, Christian or Jewish, laughable. What Satan was offering Jesus was nothing that any follower of Jesus would want. It is only after the formation of a stable cultural and political force in a world not yet dissolved in favor of the kingdom of heaven that this second temptation in fact becomes tempting.

The record is not encouraging. The Holy Roman Empire was never a good example of either statecraft or of Christianity, and the modern efforts at theocracy, whether in Calvin’s Geneva or in Oliver Cromwell’s England, proved equally venial. The Puritan oligarchs of New England gave it a good try in the seventeenth century, but it became pretty clear that religion and power do not mix well, particularly when religion has the power. In contemporary America, despite the Bible’s chary attitude toward the state, many Christians cultivate civil and political power

As Thomas Linacre (1460-1524) is reported to have said upon first reading the gos­pels in an early vernacular translation at a late age in life, “Either this is not the gospel, or we are not Christians.”

“The deep things of God of which the Bible speaks in nearly its every breath are not the problems waiting to be solved but a mystery into which we are invited to enter, discover, explore, and indeed to enjoy, forever.”

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From → Biblical, Sexuality

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