“But, Chris, the Bible Isn’t Political”: Part 6

Diana Butler Bass says it better than I could, so I’ll just let her lead off.

Hi.

I’m one of those who grew up under exactly what you just read. So, when President Trump announced the new policy of the United States to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, I knew exactly the work and the players moving behind the scenes.

(By the way, before we go any further, I’m under no illusion that President Two Corinthians Trump has any knowledge or passion for Jerusalem, let alone the nuances in the book of Revelation that we’ll be addressing today. However, what he is acutely aware of is that he is slowly losing support of the white evangelical voting base that single-handedly got him into office and got me started on this blog series.)

From a distance, this discussion to many nonreligious people seems trivial at best, and really kind of odd. But, as Bass correctly asserted, President Trump’s decision is the sad result of assenting to a very small evangelical Christian community who are absolutely terrible at reading the book of Revelation. I say that, and will not apologize for it. They are terrible.

And that’s tragic. This is a more obvious example of something that happens more often than religious and nonreligious people are usually aware: bad theology puts lives in the balance. In fact, most of the problems in our world really do start with, or at least continue because of, the terrible ideas of southern evangelical Christians.

Which is why I tell nonreligious people all the time that the real battle to make our world less violent, make our societies more just, afford opportunity to all, and protect our environment is not on the streets or in political parties but in churches. The rich and the powerful have found great use in churches, and the progressive, forward thinking, and truly compassionate have wondered why their efforts elsewhere have been so fruitless. When nonreligious people advocate for the poor, protest war, and organize for community justice, we evangelicals call their work “worldly”. On the other hand, when religious people vote and act to all but ensure that the most vulnerable among us remain so, but nevertheless get someone baptized, theirs is “kingdom” work.

(I’m angry as I write this.)

So, lets go to Revelation.

First of all, we would be better off if preachers were required to obtain a special license before they could preach from that book. In the hands of people who still operate under a simplistic and flat reading of the Bible, it is truly a dangerous book. And that is a major shame.

Revelation is a triumph of literature. Of ingenuity. Of courage.

And 21st century American Christians are apt to claim that it is the most relevant book in our time. But, the fact that I agree with them is rich in irony.

Revelation is a political book.

Yes, that’s right.

Eugene Peterson, in speaking about Revelation, says, “The gospel of Jesus Christ is more political than anyone imagines, but in a way that no one guesses.” Revelation is almost always used to talk about the afterlife and where your soul will go for eternity. But Revelation has virtually nothing to do with the afterlife and everything to do with the inevitable destruction that comes to nations that understand greatness to mean military superiority.

Know any nations like that?

I know of one.

The images you see in Revelation are not images of what Heaven looks like. In Part 6 of the Bible that Borrows, I wrote extensively on how the author of Revelation brilliantly borrowed specific and identifiable military and cultic propaganda devices from the Roman Empire. His purpose? Not to describe what Heaven looks like, but to shame them. If you never read that post, I highly recommend doing so. It’s long, but I’ve probably received more positive feedback from that post than any other.

Almost everything you read about in Revelation is either (1) a propaganda device from the Roman empire, which the author uses to mock the Roman empire, or (2) one of the wild images from the Old Testament book of Daniel that its author used to denounce the beastly, exploitative empires of his day.

If I had to summarize the book of Revelation, it is the story of the world ruled by and in the image of the Beasts (the Caesars and their military, exploitative might), but is coming to be made more in the image of the vulnerable slaughtered lamb (Jesus). John uses a lot of wild imagery to tell that story, but that’s basically the story. At the end of the persecution from the mighty, scary monsters of the Empire, the followers of the Lamb win. Not by warring back, but by following the moral arc of the universe that is being made in the image of Jesus.

There’s one word in Revelation that you need to not miss: down.

At the end of the battle, a city—the New Jerusalem—comes DOWN to earth. This is because this is the big story of the Bible. Not going up to Heaven when we die, but Heaven coming down to Earth while we live. This is the New Jerusalem, where all are invited to come, even those outside in the lake of fire—those who cling to the ways of Caesar. We see lots of people in the gospels and in Actwho left allegiance to Caesar and formed their allegiance to Jesus Christ. This is what you are reading in Acts 10.

After all, we are told, the gates to the city are never shut.

The differences in these modern readings of this ancient book from Patmos are not small. They are the difference in whether you think investing in the well-being of this world is important. Whether the “new Earth” is actually a place in the clouds or the renewing of this Earth. Whether you believe this earth is being renewed—as Paul once said, that God would “reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven”—or whether everything on earth is simply going to be destroyed one day and who cares what happens here.

What I’m saying is that the way you read Revelation is more or less the difference in whether you are the type of Christian who makes the world better or the type of Christian who doesn’t give a literal damn about the world.

Armageddon

Few passages of the book of Revelation get so toxically abused and yet advance the point I’m trying to make than an obscure passage in chapter 16 about Armageddon. If you’ve spent much time at all in conservative Christian circles, you’ve probably been taught that before the end of time, there will first be a massive war at some place called Armageddon and all evil will be destroyed. In fact, as I was taught, Jesus cannot come until a series of global cataclysms make way for a final megawar.

“And the demonic spirits gathered all the rulers and their armies to a place with the Hebrew name Armageddon.”

Revelation c16

Then comes the “fury of God’s wrath”, which sounds pretty scary. In fact, it has provided the substance of untold numbers of bad fiction books. Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth was the best-selling novel of the 1970s, and by a wide margin.

But what’s actually happening here?

Does Jesus renounce the Sermon on the Mount and go on to kill billions of people in the Middle East?

It turns out that Armageddon, like the lake of fire, is another potent image that the author uses to describe the fate of empire that I’ve been talking about in all of AD 2017. “Armageddon” is a Hebrew word that literally means “valley of Megiddo.” A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is located in northern Israel and today is called Tel Megiddo (a “tell” is an archeological mound).

תל_מגידו

That’s where evangelicals say a war will happen.

Okay, so why is that important and why is this location an archeological mound?

Because the city has been destroyed and rebuilt twenty-six times.

You read that correctly.

Twenty.

Six.

Now do you see why the anti-empire book, Revelation, in the anti-empire collection of books, the Bible, might have found poor Megiddo as the perfect illustration of what comes when we worship the Beast?

Megiddo’s location in the land bridge between the Assyrian and Babylonian Empires to the north and the Egyptian Empire to the south made it all but inevitable that it would suffer the worst at the hands of the world’s most powerful and ambitious. It’s important that you not let your mind simply make in this number, twenty-six, just some new historical trivia to recite.

This is about people.

This is about communities.

Twenty-six communities of real people who lost everything they had because of empire and military conquest. Because of what Revelation calls the Beast. Megiddo is a brilliant and heartbreaking symbol for what the author of Revelation is trying to convey. God cares about people and the work that people put into the bonds of their communities. He cares about how we work and live and struggle and solve problems together for the common good. And yet, the ambition of the Beast always leaves the most vulnerable and hard-working communities to suffer the fate of Megiddo.

That brings us to today.

You won’t hear any of this in your typical church service. What we’re about is positioning ourselves to leave this world—to belittle and snicker at those who have “too much” concern with rebuilding the Megiddos as just “obsessed with worldly concerns”. When the author of Revelation wrote that the rulers and their armies would meet in a place called Armageddon, of course what he had in mind was the fate of Rome. But don’t assume that prophetic message from exile in Patmos doesn’t apply today. Don’t assume that our United States of America turns out to be the New Jerusalem in the end.

We might instead be aligned with the Beast in the story. And our fate might be with those on the outside, thirsty from their proximity to the lake of fire. Fortunately, we hear those on the inside who have aligned themselves with the Gospel of Peace calling out to us:

Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life.

Revelation c22

 

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“But, Chris, the Bible Isn’t Political”: Part 5

I remember publishing “The Bible That Borrows” earlier this year and everyone freaking out when my whole series hinged on Moses not writing the first books of the Old Testament, nor giving the Torah. “But, Chris, Jesus said the law came from Moses! Do you claim to know more than Jesus?”—I remember reading over and over again. Of course, by the time I got to the part of the series when I explained everything, most people had moved on.

I find myself in this series in a familiar position. I spent the first four parts talking about how the story of Jesus was first written down as a reaction to the devastation of Rome’s war with Israel. When you read it that way, the stories really jump out. Details in the stories that didn’t seem important before really start to pop. Jesus’s teachings are carefully hewn to the language and motifs of second-temple Judaism, but in substance are a scathing prophetic witness against the war machine of Rome and the Hell-bent rebellious imagination of the Israelites.

And here we are again.

“You certainly have a great imagination, Chris, but what I have is the Bible. You’re doing what all liberals do: editing out what the Bible says about the wrath of God.” You may think interesting my writing on Jesus as the divine anti-war, anti-empire prophet, but your theology has no space or categories for that.

Meanwhile, your theological space for the angry, retributive, wrathful God is crammed full.

After all, if Jesus is so anti-war, what was God doing in the Old Testament when he was commanding his people to exterminate the Canaanites? What about God’s vengeance and wrath we read so much about?

Fair questions. Let’s go there today.

Jesus Edits the Bible

Christians generally affirm that Jesus’s ministry began when he completed his forty-day testing in the wilderness and returned to Nazareth. If you want to understand Jesus well and read the Bible well, you need to pay close attention to the first thing he did when he began there.

In Luke’s telling of the story, it was the Sabbath and Jesus went to the synagogue where he began to teach. We’ve already talked at length in this series about the distinctly earthy Messianic expectations found in the book of the prophet Isaiah, and, not surprisingly, he began by opening the scroll of the prophet Isaiah.

He turned to what we today call chapter 61, and he began to read. Here’s what it says:

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
    and the day of vengeance of our God.

This is the beginning of his ministry. This is the introduction to him. This is what he wants you to know he is about. And, so, Jesus reads:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,

because he has anointed me

to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners

and recovery of sight for the blind,

to set the oppressed free.

(I will interrupt here to point out that this is all the kind of stuff I’ve been talking about for the last several installments.) But then Jesus continues:

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and . . . . . . . he rolled up the scroll and sat down.

Okay.

Did you catch that?

(re-read it if you didn’t)

What Jesus did is the key to his whole project. The key to literally everything that happens next in his ministry. Jesus edited the book of Isaiah. He cut Isaiah off mid sentence. The text of Isaiah describes a messiah, which is a Jewish synonym for “king.” This messiah is supposed to bring in the year of Jubilee (the “year of the Lord’s favor”) and the “day of vengeance.”

Jesus gets to that language, that “day of vengeance”, but instead of reading it, he just rolls up the scroll.

And it wasn’t an accident. Wasn’t unimportant. Notice what happens next. Jesus doubles down.

“Truly I tell you,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown. I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.”

Jesus entered an oppressed community whose imagination was saturated in the early images of God that depicted anger, wrath, retribution, and violence. And the Israelites would have been happy to see that retribution dished out at its neighbors, the Sidonians and the Syrians.

But Jesus is calling into question how we read our Bibles. The Old Testament depictions of God are not the full revelation of God.

Jesus is.

The Bible is the diary of the people of God as they came to a clearer and clearer revelation of God. It begins with the illuminated Moses who went on Mount Sinai but could only see the back of God. But when Peter, James, and John saw the illuminated Jesus on Mount Tabor, they saw the face of God. Peter, who understood the revelation of God from Moses the law giver and Elijah the prophet as equal to the revelation of God in Jesus, announced that he would build a tent for each of them. He could not imagine Jesus contradicting the law and prophets.

But God announces, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.”

The story tells us that the disciples wake up, and all that remains is Jesus. The message here is unmistakeable: The Bible’s depictions of God from beginning to end are not meant to carry equal weight. The Bible is not flat. The law, the prophets, and Jesus are not equals. Certainly, the law and the prophets point us to Jesus, but they are not the perfect revelation of God.

And because the inspired Bible tells you that they are not the perfect revelation of God, sometimes they need to be edited. As Brian Zahnd says, “God is exactly like Jesus. There’s never been a time when God wasn’t exactly like Jesus. We haven’t always known this. But now we do.”

Don’t believe me? That’s fine, but neither then do you believe the Bible, which is screaming this at you.

Jesus gave them this answer: “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.”

“I and the Father are one.”

Then Jesus cried out, “Whoever believes in me does not believe in me only, but in the one who sent me. The one who looks at me is seeing the one who sent me.”

Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”

Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me.

All this renouncing of divine violence, of course, is not how the Jews saw God depicted in the law and prophets. Time and time again, the Gospel writers place Jesus in nearly identical situations as those when the Old Testament depicted the anger, wrath, retribution, and violence of Yahweh. And the people were primed to see Jesus pay them back.

Certainly the Bible comes to see the mercy of God more clearly as you advance in the Old Testament. But a flat reading of the Bible requires us to equate the teachings of Jesus with the wrath and tribalism in the Old Testament. And we love wrath directed at our enemies. We love hellfire and brimstone when it falls on them. Today, we call it “karma.”

Or the war on terror.

But, notice what happens next in the story of Jesus in the synagogue.

And all they in the synagogue, when they heard these things, were filled with wrath.

You want wrath? Luke says there it is. Not in God, of course, but in you. So, when the story says that they next tried to throw Jesus off of a cliff, it says that Jesus “passed right through their midst.”

If you open the Bible and all you can see is a God of wrath, it’s not because of God’s wrath.

It’s because of yours.

If you want a God of wrath, he will pass right through your midst.

“But, Chris, the Bible Isn’t Political”: Part 4

It was nine in the morning when they crucified him. The written charge against him read: “The King of the Jews.”

Mark c15 v25-26

We’re entering the Christmas season—the colossus of capitalism and the American way. The season of calories, Fox News, and the Bumpuses’s hounds. Sweaters and iPads, bows and ribbons, socks and pink bunny pajamas . . . all, of course, for Jesus. Surely no time of year provides more steam to power the locomotive of your heaviest cynicism.

Nevertheless, this year I want you to plunge into the Christmas songs. Go all in. Specifically, I want you to notice how many time the word “king” gets used.

Joy to the Earth, the Lord has come; let Earth receive her King.

Hark! The Herald Angels sing, glory to the newborn King. 

Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel, born is the King of Israel. 

Come and behold Him, born the King of Angels.

You get the idea.

Today, we’re going to talk about that sign they nailed above Jesus. Its inclusion in the Gospel stories was not sentimental. Not poetic. Not metaphor. You’ll find a lot of that in the Bible, but not here. However, this specific verbiage, “King of the Jews”, can seem a bit random without some historical context. Why would Pontius Pilate insist on hanging that sign above Jesus? Why not instead simply write the Jesus claimed to be the King of the Jews, as the Jews protested? 

Let’s talk about Herod the Great.

Herod’s father, Antipater, supported Julius Caesar in his civil war against the Roman Senate to become Emperor of Rome, and, when Julius ultimately consolidated power, Antipater was appointed Prime Minister of Judea. Antipater’s son, Herod, was subsequently appointed governor of Galilee.

Very early in Herod’s appointment, Herod demonstrated such an inclination to brutality that he was summoned for trial before the Jewish Sanhedrin. The events of this trial proved formative in Governor Herod’s young psyche. He became obsessed by fear of the Jewish people and Judaism’s institutions.

This fear of the Jewish sages drove him to seek the cloak of protection from Italy.

Josephus records that Herod traveled to Rome and, convinced Mark Antony and Octavian to make him the supreme leader of Judaea. Apparently, he made such a great presentation, that Antony personally appealed to the Roman Senate to ratify their decision. When the Senate gave its approval, they gave Herod this title: “King of the Jews.”

Heard that?

Josephus then records Antony and Herod leaving the Senate for a Roman temple, where Herod offered a sacrifice to the Roman gods, Jupiter and Mars. Once he returned to Jerusalem, he undertook massive building and infrastructure projects, while simultaneously maintaining an unswerving loyalty to Rome. This is the subtext of what you are reading when you read about the sign they hung above Jesus: the battle between two competing kings of the Jews.

Here’s a tip. When the early Christian texts strikingly borrow words and phrases that originated in the Roman Empire, it’s because they are mocking the Roman Empire. It’s their way of saying if you want to know what this thing is, let’s start by saying it is not like that thing. If you’ve been reading my blog for any length of time, you should be seeing that by now.

Before the savior of the world had been alive more than a few days, Matthew tells us that Herod felt so threatened by this baby—A BABY!—that he ordered the death of every child younger than two years old in and around Bethlehem. What do you think the gospel writers want you to conclude about supreme military power from the fact that King Herod was threatened by a baby? Do they bless our fear of everyone we as Americans deem threatening? Do they not speak to the tendency of those in power to descend into paranoia? To obsess over threats to our power?

This, by the way, is the Old Testament story of King Solomon. The “wisest” man in the Bible became became so powerful that his reign as king was inflicted with paranoia and treachery.

There has only been one War on Christmas in all of history. It had nothing to do with Starbucks or Target. It had everything to do with competing kingdoms.

King Herod’s War on Christmas reflects the moral arc of the gospels. The gospel writers want you to know that that the King of the Jews who received the blessing of Rome and the King of the Jews who hung on a Roman cross were on a collision course. They weren’t merely coinciding historical figures. Herod capitulated to the Roman military superpower, and the Roman Senate coronated him king. Jesus preached the gospel of peace, and the Roman cross and a crown of thorns coronated him king.

But about that sign…

The Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate, never took seriously Jesus’s claim to being a king. That is why he tried to use Jesus as a bargaining chip to not have to release Barabbas, a violent revolutionary. However, when it became clear that the release of Jesus would not satisfy the violent Messianic ambitions of the Jewish leaders, Pilate wanted impress upon them that the full weight of Rome would stamp out any serious challenge to the superiority of Rome. That is why, despite the Jewish leader’s protests, Pilate hung the title “King of the Jews” atop the cross, Rome’s most famous symbol of intimidation.

Please tell me you’re beginning to see Mark’s ingenious ways of depicting Jesus as the alternative to the Superpower of Rome and the violent revolution of Israel.

In our day, we should not assume that the mighty United State of America isn’t Rome in this story. Nor should we assume that the church hasn’t become Herod the Great, sacrificing on the alter to Jupiter and Mars. Rome chose as its King of the Jews the one who would be loyal to Rome.

At one point, Pilate asked the Jewish leaders, “Shall I crucify your king?”

When we as Christians give our allegiance to and put our trust in the ways of Jupiter and Mars, as Herod did, we echo what was said in reply: “We have no king but Caesar.”

“But, Chris, the Bible Is Not Political”: Part 3

“I am Richard II, know ye not that?”

This was Queen Elizabeth’s famous remark about William Shakespeare’s Richard II as she clearly observed many of her popular stereotypes humorously reflected in the play’s title character. Importantly, her observation spoke to a truth common to many if not all of Shakespeare’s histories. Their power is most richly experienced when viewed beyond just “history” and more as commentary on his present day. That is to say, Shakespeare was less interested in “accurately” depicting his subject characters and more in crafting stories tailored to his observations of 16th and 17th century England and the house of Tudor.

The iconic Queen Elizabeth was both successful as the monarch of England and yet frequently criticized for lacking decisiveness. So, Richard II was depicted strikingly with similar indecisiveness. Sometimes the complicated political nature of Elizabeth’s day required making concessions that arguably lacked principal. This too was how Richard II was depicted. Elizabeth was accused of murdering Amy Dudley, the wife of Lord Robert Dudley, but never ended up marrying him, despite their courtship. Correspondingly, Richard II’s indecisiveness made him look guilty in the death that is the central problem within the plot.

Of course, criticizing Elizabeth I for excessive caution was wildly unfair. Elizabeth I was the product of both a complicated political climate and quiet years observing the hasty mistakes of her Tudor predecessors. Mary was completely decisive, but lead England into religious, economic, and military disaster. On the other had, Elizabeth I made caution work for her. By the end of her reign, England was the dominant political and military force of a fractured European continent. So, when she was accused of being indecisive—usually on account of her sex—the Bard of Avon whipped up a play that depicted a man with exaggerated versions of her supposed flaws without—unlike Elizabeth I—any accomplishments to show for it. Fun stuff.

I tell you this because Bible history and Shakespeare history have a lot in common.

The Old Testament history you find in Genesis and Exodus is less videotaped history as it is commentary on life in Israel after war with Babylon. The book of Daniel, the last-written book of the Old Testament, is less the “true” story of Daniel in Babylon and more commentary on life in Israel in the 2nd century under the abuses under Antiochus IV that ultimately lead to the Maccabean Revolt. You could say I’ve written about this at length.

But this creative use of “history” doesn’t end with the Old Testament.

The story of Jesus was not told in written form until immediately after the destruction of Jerusalem. Not surprisingly then, it reflects and speaks to the most important things that people were thinking after losing everything in that war. Jesus’s story and stories are tailored to speak to its time and agony. This means that our cultural and temporal distance from the Bible require us to retrain how we read it.

The Bible is mostly the product of war.

War is the subtext of virtually its every subversive word.

Including the angry Gospel of Mark.

In the fifth chapter of Mark, Jesus encounters a man said to be possessed by demons—so many that they would later enter two thousand pigs—and these demons apparently gave him great strength and made him terrorizing in the countryside. In fact, the story tells us that “no one was strong enough to subdue him.” However, when Jesus encounters him in the region of Gadara (modern-day Jordan), this all-powerful man immediately kneels down before Jesus.

We make this a spiritual story.

But, to those who lived through the terror of Rome’s War on Terror, the message was far less a spiritual one, but a tangible one. They had just experienced the relentless power of the Roman legion, a force that no one on Earth was strong enough to subdue. No one had the audacity to claim they were greater than the Roman military. But this story not only depicts this all-powerful being kneeling before Jesus, but begging—yes begging—to enter a herd of Judaism’s most famously unclean animal, pigs, and descend down a lake to their death.

Oh.

And—did I mention?—the man’s name is “Legion”.

Haha.

Guys.

That one is a dead giveaway.

Last, but not least, Gadara (or the “region of the Gerasenes”) was where a diplomatic mission was sent to the Roman general, Vespasian, as he was destroying the countryside around Jerusalem before his later siege. The details aren’t clear, but, apparently, they made some show of allegiance to the empire in order to protect their investment.

Josephus tells us in The Wars of the Jews as follows:

However, [Vespasian] was obliged first to overthrow what remained elsewhere, and to leave nothing outside of Jerusalem behind him that might interrupt him in that siege. Accordingly, he marched against Gadara, the metropolis of Perea, which was a place of strength, and entered that city on the fourth day of the month of Dystros for the men of power had sent an embassy to him, without the knowledge of the seditious, to treat for conditions of surrender; which they did out of the desire they had of peace, and for saving their effects, because many of the citizens of Gadara were rich men.

Just in case the reader might think this story about anything other than Rome, Mark tells us in his story that when the men of the region lost their huge investment, they pleaded with Jesus to leave their region.

What do you think Mark saying about those who pledge allegiance to the empire?

Does he think you can pledge allegiance to the empire and to Jesus?

Does he think war-making and “fire and fury” makes the world safer?

I simply cannot accept that Mark—after the bitter destruction Israel had experienced at the hands of Rome—told this story with any other motivation than to say that the way of Rome was dying to the way of Jesus. That Jesus was greater than Caesar. That war destroys those it conquers as well as the conquerers.

Again, we fundamentalists spiritualize everything in the Bible, and we do so to the benefit of only one man, Caesar. This is unfortunate. The “miracle of the swine” is a dangerous story about quite visible empire, not a fun story about some amorphous devil.

Which brings me back to Shakespeare. I can imagine the powerful Romans—whose understanding of the world was tethered to the might and security of their Empire—listening to the story about Legion and asking themselves:

I am Legion, know ye not that?

“But, Chris, the Bible Isn’t Political”: Part 2

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of PeaceOf the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end.

Isaiah c9

We American Evangelical Christians have problems with the Bible. They remind me of our problems last year with #BlackLivesMatter and this weekend with #TakeTheKnee.

Every time we hear those words, what we really hear is “only black lives matter.” With an assist from Breitbart (which still features a section on its website entitled “Black Crime”) and from Fox News (which capably blows up the television screens of white America every night with every black person it can find whom it can use to fit its narrative), we proudly and arrogantly understand those movements to mean that black people don’t want to work hard or follow the rules like white people do. We puff ourselves up and imagine them hating us and essentially wanting to burn down our way of life. We imagine the same things that Christian slave owners imagined a hundred and sixty years ago and that Christian parents of children in desegregated schools imagined sixty years ago.

However, every other person in the universe hears something that is nowhere to be found in the wildest imaginations of white people. They see blacks incarcerated at stunningly higher rates than whites. They see blacks consistently charged more harshly than whites for the same crimes. They see qualified blacks less likely to get job interviews. They see hard-working blacks struggle to escape poverty. They see hard work reward mostly whites and poor choices punish mostly blacks.

And it is out of that struggle and injustice that they clearly hear the cry that “black lives matter too.” What everyone but white people soberly observes is that the American system treats black lives as if they don’t matter.

This—by the way—is the vacuousness and irrelevance of white, suburban America every time it thinks itself so enlightened when it angrily shouts “All Lives Matter.” No, duh.

And this is being out-of-touch. This is life on top.

At number one.

Privilege.

This is the people of Rome as they sneered at the Israelites whom they conquered in war. If you listen, you can hear the citizens of Rome complaining that “they should have just followed the law.”

And it’s exactly how we read the Bible in 2017.

When we read the Bible we have to make choices about what it means. When we in White America make our choices, we have to realize that our interests are aligned with Pharaoh, with Nebuchadnezzar, and with Caesar. We have the materials. The resources. The access. We are at the top of the system. Hard work more consistently rewards us than it does others. And there are some ways of reading the Bible that ask us to risk, if not sometimes give up, those things.

So we spiritualize everything in the Bible.

We interpret everything in a way that circumvents God’s deep care for the systems of earth that work to the detriment of its most oppressed and vulnerable. We miss everything it says about social justice. About peace. About poverty.

And that includes politics.

If you ask a modern evangelical Christian to articulate Jesus’s role as the “Messiah”, they would state roughly as follows: People’s sins separate them from God. Jesus came to die on a cross as a sacrifice for people’s sins so they can be pure enough to enter Heaven with God when they die.

If you ask what the purpose of life on Earth is, it is to do whatever—according to their denomination’s interpretation—is necessary to receive the benefits of that sacrifice. Otherwise, the Earth and what happens on it to its most vulnerable people isn’t really that important. At some point, it will simply go away.

I am a white evangelical Christian, and evangelical Christianity has devastated my soul this year.

(I say this not ignorant of the few reasons for my black readers having any sympathy for my “plight”)

Every time our government has used some vulnerable minority group—Muslims, young immigrants, blacks, transsexuals, gays, lesbians, or whomever else—as a political pawn, the church has been absolutely nowhere.

Absolutely. Nowhere.

“Jesus wasn’t concerned with fixing all the problems of his day,” I’ve heard in more sermons than I can count. “After all, this world is going to go away and what really matters is where your soul goes on Judgment Day.”

And I watch as the church of America says “Amen.”

Let me repeat. Caesar would have loved this theology. Nebuchadnezzar would have loved it. Pharaoh would have loved it. A faith that is only concerned for “my” salvation has no space for “group sin” as is articulated so often throughout the Bible.

It’s a faith with no concern for systems.

For social justice.

For peace.

For the environment.

For politics.

And it is completely foreign to the way of Jesus, the Messiah.

(though it was quite convenient for slave owners during the Civil War and segregationists a hundred years later in Little Rock, Arkansas)

As non-white Americans face greater discrimination and segregation, as the world edges closer to nuclear war, as our polar ice caps melt beyond repair, we sing gnostic songs like “This World Is Not My Home” and “I’ll Fly Away” because we’ve embraced the Gospel of Caesar—a gospel that is oblivious and unconcerned with justice and peace in this world. Our Gospel is a comfort to the powerful and little help for the oppressed.

We’ve ignored what the prophets of the vulnerable nation of Israel were concerned with when they envisioned the “Meshiakh”—a liberating figure on whom would rest the government. Guys, the freaking government. Isaiah actually uses that word!!

Not some invisible place in the sky.

But, now.

Here.

In this world.

Among these people.

With our problems.

With our systems.

With our economics.

With our government.

A judge who would make things right where they are wrong. Real things.

Suffering.

War.

Discrimination.

Nationalism.

Starvation.

Empire.

Poverty.

This is what Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem:

In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established
as the highest of the mountains;
it will be exalted above the hills,
and all nations will stream to it.
Many peoples will come and say,

“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the temple of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us his ways,
so that we may walk in his paths.”
The law will go out from Zion,
the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He will judge between the nations
    and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
    and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
    nor will they train for war anymore.

Isaiah c2

 

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and of might,
the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—
and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.
He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
or decide by what he hears with his ears;
but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
    with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.
Righteousness will be his belt
and faithfulness the sash around his waist.
The wolf will live with the lamb,
  the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
    and a little child will lead them.
The cow will feed with the bear,
    their young will lie down together,
    and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
The infant will play near the cobra’s den,
    and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.
They will neither harm nor destroy
    on all my holy mountain,
for the EARTH will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord
    as the waters cover the sea.

Isaiah c9

These statements of hope from the Hebrew prophets are universally known and embraced by everyone in the world (even among non-Christians)—but white Evangelical Christians. Frankly, these statements aren’t relevant to our spiritual theology of being saved so we can leave this world and not burn for eternity in fire wherever we end up.

Listen to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and you’ll find a man who was fluent in the Hebrew prophets. I wonder why.

In one scene, Jesus comes to Jerusalem—a place fomenting with violent, rebellious imagination—and this is what we read.

As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls.They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.

When Jesus talks about “what would bring you peace”, he’s not talking about the “Sweet By and By”. He’s talking about war. Jesus knew that Jerusalem’s belief in peace through violence and warfare would be its undoing. As our nation edges closer to atomic war, if we want to hear the message of Rabbi Yeshua, we need to place ourselves in the shoes of the poor Yitzhak ben Abba, whose story I told you in the last installment.

He brings me to the book of Mark, one sentence of which I quoted in that installment. Mark was the first time the story of Jesus, the Messiah, was written, which is amazing considering that Jesus had died forty years earlier. That said, I find it no accident that whoever wrote that book found it most relevant to tell the story of Jesus right after Israel’s devastating war with Rome—while the Roman military propaganda machine was announcing “gospels” of Israel’s destruction throughout the empire.

Mark uses the word “gospel” way more times than any other book of the Bible, but it doesn’t talk very much at all about the afterlife. What it does talk about is a valley outside of Jerusalem, called “Gehenna”, where thousands of dead Israelite bodies were buried and burned up after their devastating war.

However, in keeping with our reflex to spiritualize everything in the Bible, we usually translate the name of this valley “Hell.”

You and I confess that Jesus is the son of God—God in the flesh. Among the people to whom Jesus came to Earth and identified, the Jews, the statements of hope we just read in Isaiah and the other prophets were their sacred expectations of the Messiah. These were Jesus’s prophets. These were his texts of the Messiah.

And nowhere in the book of Mark are these Messianic expectations disturbed.

Nowhere does any book of the Bible take away from the Messiah’s work in making the world—this world—better.

Where Mark defies Hebrew (and Roman) expectations is its loud and radical statement that the world will not be made better through war and violence. Jesus was the Prince of Peace. Not peace from Hell.

Peace from Gehenna.

Notice how Mark uses the symbols of peace from Rome and Israel in his opening statement.

“The beginning of the Gospel about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet.”

In so making this statement, the Gospels take aim in no uncertain terms at both sides of the conflict—the Empire of Rome and the rebels of Israel. Unfortunately, our modern-day lives of comfort prevent us from hearing the political messages of the Bible—literally from its first page until its final page. Please understand how crazily political and subversive this statement was.

When the early church said “Jesus is Lord” the message they heard was “and Caesar is not.”

“But, Chris, the Bible Isn’t Political”: Part 1

It’s a summer day in Caesarea, the great Roman port city in Northern Israel. Weaving in and around your fingers is a Denarius—a coin you specifically remember earning years ago—and, in recent years, the only coin you’ve owned more than a day. It’s a rarity, so you’ve kept it. It’s also the only tangible memory from your previous life.

On the front is a picture of Augustus Caesar. On the back are the words DIVVS IVLIVS (“Divine Julius”) and a picture of Julius ascending among the gods as a comet. Augustus, who called himself “the Son of God”, died long ago, and you’re not completely sure which new son of Jupiter currently sits on the throne in Italy. You’ve never been to Rome, so coins have long been your only glimpse into its happenings.

If this were a normal summer, you would be at the completion of the barley harvest and enjoying a time of relative rest as the Jewish holiday of Shavuot approached. The year is 74 AD, and the rest you enjoyed after the harvest in all the summers you’ve known since childhood has been replaced with despair.

In fact, despair is all you’ve know for years.

Your name is Yitzhak ben Abba, and work on a farm just North of Jerusalem was life since your teen years. You had been lucky not just to have work, but to work on this farm. The landowner was one of the best to work for as far as you knew. Your friends in your village seem to have always had a worse time with their employment. No doubt, times have been tough for as long as you could remember, but at least you could always count on the luxury of a fair day’s work for one Denarius.

But, since the year 67, lack of work has been only one of your problems. On this afternoon, as you stare numbly at your coin, you hear it announced that Rome has just completed its war with Israel—the culmination of eight years of devastation. Frankly, everything you ever knew and thought you could count on has been destroyed in that time. At one time, you had a wife, a son, a mother, and had even a few sheep.

But no more.

Your first memory of the war happened seven years ago when a worn-out teenage boy from Jotapata in Galilee arrived in your village. He had obviously been on the run for several days. You will never forget the exhaustion in his voice and the fear in his eyes. This boy had seen the look of Hell.

Apparently, the Roman general Vespasian had laid siege to the elevated town, and this boy had gotten out in time. Of course, his story brought dread to the whole countryside. Were the Romans concerned only with Jotapata, or all of Judea? Might the Romans ever come here? Can Jotapata defend itself? If Jotapata succeeds, might the Roman army give up and turn back to Syria?

Months later, you let out a great sigh of relief when you heard that the general Joseph ben Matiyahu, now named “Flavius Josephus”, had successfully held off a massive bombardment up the steep rise to the town. This was good news. Surely the Romans would give up. The village threw a party.

Months later, the Roman army crushed Jotapata.

And several legions of Roman soldiers were marching due south.

In your direction.

Vespasian’s strategy was to route out rebels throughout the countryside and then stage a final showdown at Jerusalem. This left you with two bad choices: Either remain in the village and almost surely be crucified as a rebel (you’ve witnessed multiple crucifixions in your lifetime) or take your chances within the walls of Jerusalem, just like the residents of Jotapata had already attempted and failed.

So, you and your family fled south to Jerusalem.

That was years ago, and here in Caesarea you are still haunted by the choice. At least death would have ended you and your family’s suffering on a cross within an afternoon.

But the Roman siege—then led by Vespasian’s successor, Titus—of Jerusalem lasted forever.

And life trapped within those walls was as saturated in misery as humanity had ever known. Homelessness, banditry, malnutrition, starvation, treachery, fear, sleeplessness, cold, rain, disease, and ceaseless death. Factions of Jews fought each other within the walls over who would be in charge of this or that. Over who would get to eat this or that.

Sometimes the “this or that” were people.

Your nation was under attack from the mightiest military power in the history of the world, but the Romans could do little that the Israelites weren’t already doing to themselves.

Finally, five legions of Roman soldiers breached the wall.

You escaped with your life but little else. Your mother had already died from malnutrition. There was nowhere to bury her. Your son died during the fighting in a fire. Your wife was stabbed multiple times.

Her killer, too, is dead.

You saw people sliced open, children thrown hundreds of feet down onto rocks and burst open, women raped. You’ve smelled thousands of rotting carcasses. In fact, hundreds of thousands died within those walls.

You haven’t slept well in years.

And that brings you here to this day in Caesarea. You sit in the shade of the mighty Roman aqueduct—a technological marvel of this day—along with several homeless and your one companion-coin. The shade protects you during the hot of the midday before you go out to beg at the ports in the later evening.

Every once in a while someone will drop a coin into your bag.

More often than not someone will call you “Sikarion!” (“terrorist”).

Within a short distance of your spot is an arena. It’s close enough that you can hear the sound of its gladiatorial games. Today, as if Yahweh personally dumped a handful of salt in your already gaping wounds, the Romans are re-enacting the war you regret to have survived. Just a few hundred yards from where you sit, Jews with whom you had shared scraps of food in Jerusalem are being hacked beyond recognition.

To the sound of cheering.

Deafening cheering.

And drunken shouts of “Pax Romana!” The joy of the crowd. The laughing. The happy fathers with their happy sons.

With every eruption, your stomach feels like you had just swallowed a stone. You feel the pain of the man or woman being slaughtered because you were slaughtered too. With every cheer, you relive another day of the war.

And now the crowd goes quiet, except for one voice. An announcement. Something called a “Euengelian” You ask one of the men huddled up near you what that means. “Good news”, you are told. This “Gospel” announcement is that the mighty Roman Empire, with the help of the gods, has finished off its final campaign in the war against the barbarian Judaites in Masada, the mountain city in Southern Israel. The world is at peace again.

“Pax Romana!” cheers the crowd in unison. “Euengelian!” cheers the crowd next. You can imagine the gospel being announced at hundreds of arenas throughout the empire. Thousands and thousands of families cheering to the news that the world was now safe from people like you.

You just want to die.

In this arena would be fine.

It’s the late afternoon now and you have transitioned from the aqueduct to the coast again, where you sit in a kind of trance. Would this be my last day? Would Yahweh have mercy on me in the life to come? And then your trance is broken. A fairly well-to-do woman and two male personal assistants has approached you and your companions on the port. She offers bread and a message from a “Rabbi Yeshua.”

You’ve heard that he was a controversial rabbi who died four decades ago on a Roman cross outside of Jerusalem, but its hard to know what is or isn’t true about him. To this date, nobody as far as you know, has ever written down his story.

Until today.

The Yeshua Movement, or “the Way” as you’ve heard it called, remains a distinct minority in Judea. And it’s not clear exactly what Rabbi Yeshua even taught that made him so controversial. Today, however, you get to hear what all the fuss is about. She has a parchment scroll to read. The language of the freshly finished ink is Greek, but the woman has said she would translate it for us into Aramaic.

You haven’t eaten normal food in months, and yet, as she opens up her scroll, your imagination is fully invested in what’s inside. You’ve even forgotten about your bread.

She begins.  You can feel in your bones the warmth of the words in the scroll before she even reads them, and the first line brings feeling to your body that you haven’t known since your childhood.

The beginning of the Good News about Yeshua the Messiah, the Son of God.” (Mark 1:1)

She pauses and looks up, her face revealing determination, even . . . defiance.

NOTE: An earlier version of this post stated that Jesus had died “centuries” earlier instead of “decades.” Writing is hard.

Sexy Solomon

Today, I want to talk about what it means to be human. Below your skin, below your bones, below your nervous habits, and favorite Netflix shows. Like normal, we have quite the ground to cover.

Whips and Chains

The Bible is a diverse anthology, and yet one book stands out a lot. I think you know which one I mean.

Readers of the Bible have long struggled with Song of Solomon. The book is a back and forth between two lovers—the Israelite King Solomon and an unnamed (and probably teenage) girl. And, by “back and forth”, I mean mostly of erotic poetry. Some of its eroticism is right there on the surface; much of it comes by euphemism. But it is highly sexual, highly lustful, and ridiculous—even for erotic poetry.

When the two lovers are away, they descend into obsession. They see each other in trees, and towers, and goats, and . . . the pools of Siloam?

“My beloved is radiant and ruddy, outstanding among ten thousand.
His head is purest gold; his hair is wavy and black as a raven.
His eyes are like doves by the water streams, washed in milk, mounted like jewels.
His cheeks are like beds of spice yielding perfume.
His lips are like lilies dripping with myrrh.
His arms are rods of gold set with topaz.
His body is like polished ivory decorated with lapis lazuli.
His legs are pillars of marble set on bases of pure gold.
His appearance is like Lebanon, choice as its cedars.
His mouth is sweetness itself; he is altogether lovely.
This is my beloved, this is my friend, daughters of Jerusalem.”

“How beautiful are your sandaled feet, O prince’s daughter!
Your graceful legs are like jewels, the work of an artist’s hands.
Your navel is a rounded goblet that never lacks blended wine.
Your waist is a mound of wheat encircled by lilies.
Your breasts are like two fawns, like twin fawns of a gazelle.
Your neck is like an ivory tower.
Your eyes are the pools of Heshbon by the gate of Bath Rabbim.”

“Your nose is like the tower of Lebanon looking toward Damascus.
Your head crowns you like Mount Carmel.
Your hair is like royal tapestry; the king is held captive by its tresses.
How beautiful you are and how pleasing, my love, with your delights!
Your stature is like that of the palm, and your breasts like clusters of fruit.
I said, ‘I will climb the palm tree; I will take hold of its fruit.’
May your breasts be like clusters of grapes on the vine,
the fragrance of your breath like apples, and your mouth like the best wine.”

OoOoOoh, yeah!

In one scene, Solomon comes to her by night, but because she is a teenager, she is living in what is probably her family’s house. Solomon—who is totally not a creeper—can only peer at her through some opening. And he most certainly does.

This is Song of Solomon, and it too is in your divinely inspired Bible.

A little more than ten years ago, one of my relatives, who has been an elder in the church for decades and who was on the board of a highly conservative Christian college, confessed to me that he didn’t think Song of Solomon should be in the Bible. Seeing as I saw nothing theologically important in it, I agreed with him.

This is because I was a modern conservative evangelical, and modern conservative evangelicals are trained to read the Bible to mean exactly “what it says it is.”

Genesis begins “In the beginning,” so Genesis must be about the beginning. Joshua describes a war in Canaan, so there must have been a war in Canaan. Revelation describes a war in Heaven, so Revelation must be about Heaven. And Song of Solomon contains erotic poetry between Solomon and just one of his many love interests, so Song of Solomon must be about sex.

Which means every once in a while, you get that hip, “edgy” preacher who tries to make Song of Solomon into a great sex counseling guide for married couples. But Song of Solomon isn’t really useful for any of this (unless, I suppose, you are among the 0.000000001% of married people who struggle with whether sex is a good thing). Worse, these almost exclusively male preachers almost inevitably descend into some thinly veiled version of, “See, women, God put this in the Bible so you would know how much your husband needs sex, and that it’s your duty to God to give it to him whenever he wants it.”

(And we also start wondering what kind of intimacy problems the preacher must be having at the moment.)

Never mind the woman in the poems expresses her sexual desire more than does the man. And never mind the harm this kind of thinking has done to women.

And never mind Solomon.

You need to understand, the people who wrote your Bible were not remotely impressed with that man. Especially as Solomon ages, the Bible depicts him in ways that were meant to remind the Hebrew readers of Pharaoh—a domineering, insecure, power-hungry, ruthless egomaniac. For the same people who felt the whip of slavery in Egypt, Solomon builds a temple out of—guess what?—slave labor. He is paranoid, insecure, and vindictive. And Deuteronomy, which is outwardly styled as the second telling of the law by Moses—but which really was written during the chains of more foreign domination—takes aim at Solomon in no uncertain terms.

Notice how neatly the telling of the “law of kings” in Deuteronomy corresponds with what you read later.

The king, moreover, must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself or make the people return to Egypt to get more of them, for the Lord has told you, “You are not to go back that way again.” He must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray. He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold.

Deuteronomy c17

The weight of the gold that Solomon received yearly was 666 (!) talents, not including the revenues from merchants and traders and from all the Arabian kings and the governors of the territories. . . .

Solomon accumulated chariots and horses; he had fourteen hundred chariots and twelve thousand horses, which he kept in the chariot cities and also with him in Jerusalem. The king made silver as common in Jerusalem as stones, and cedar as plentiful as sycamore-fig trees in the foothills. Solomon’s horses were imported from Egypt and from Kue—the royal merchants purchased them from Kue at the current price. They imported a chariot from Egypt for six hundred shekels of silver, and a horse for a hundred and fifty. . . .

King Solomon loved many foreign women besides Pharaoh’s daughter—Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Sidonians and Hittites. They were from nations about which the Lord had told the Israelites, “You must not intermarry with them, because they will surely turn your hearts after their gods.” Nevertheless, Solomon held fast to them in love.

I Kings 

(that exclamation point isn’t in the real text, but it might as well be)

It’s as if the writer of Deuteronomy had a manuscript handy of what would later become the finished version of I Kings right in front of him, and he wanted to explain how Israel’s present problems with global empires looked a whole lot like their checkered past.

And, as you evaluate the usefulness of Solomon’s wisdom to your relationship with your life partner, if you still want to ignore Solomon’s shortcomings as a man, you just can’t ignore that Solomon saw no problem with taking hundreds of both wives and sex slaves—a point that should make inherently suspect anything he penned down. In fact, at one point in Song of Solomon, Solomon finds it meaningful and appropriate and I guess sexy to emphasize the superior beauty of his lover with reference to the many other women in his harem.

“Sixty queens there may be, and eighty concubines, and virgins beyond number; but my dove, my perfect one, is unique.”

(McNeal Revised Standard Version: “Gurrrrrrlllllllll, I’ve been with so many women, but you da best.”)

So, yeah, eroticism is good, but you don’t need Song of Solomon to know that. Solomon was a bad man, and there are better sources on how to spice up your love life. Which begs the question, if Song of Solomon is not a good book to discover the eternal secrets of love and romance and whoopee, then

why is that darn book in your Bible?

I have the answer: It’s the Sh’mah.

Fruit and Chocolate

On one occasion, a member of the Pharisees asked Jesus which command is the most important command of the Torah. Most Christians are familiar with Jesus’s answer here and commonly think that it was some major break from all that “rule following” of Judaism. His answer is prong one of the oft-written “love God, love people” religious views answer you find on thousands of people’s Facebook profiles.

However, Jesus’s response to this Pharisee’s question couldn’t have been more Jewish. It actually came right out of Deuteronomy c6, which reads:

Hear, O Israel: Yahweh our God, the Lord is one. Love Yahweh your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.

Jews name this command the Sh’mah—the Hebrew word for “hear”—and it is central to both the Jewish and Christian faith traditions. Jews have been reciting the Sh’mah every morning and every night for thousands of years. They even begin their worship services with it. After all, immediately after the Sh’mah, they’re commanded to.

These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.

Christians and Jews to this day unite around the Sh’mah. Yet, for all its importance, for all its centrality, the Sh’mah is surprisingly mysterious in a way that you would never know from your English Bible. The Hebrew word translated in most Bibles strength is me’od, but me’od doesn’t mean strength at all. In fact, it’s not even a noun.

Me’od means “very.”

Which is grammatical nonsense.

Just think about what we have in our Bibles. The Sh’mah is universally recognized as the most important command of both the Jewish and Christian traditions. Jews agree on this. Jesus agreed with this. Followers of Jesus agree on this. And yet, grammatically it doesn’t mean anything. Bonkers.

Which leads you to wonder.

If only there was a book of the Bible that illustrated what it looks like to love in a way that is as totally hysterical and nonsensical as this totally hysterical and nonsensical command. And since poetry often works so well to describe such non-formulaic, nonsensical things, if only there was perhaps some poetry—perhaps even erotic love poetry—that described the alternative universe of loving with all your . . . very.

Hi.

I’d like to reintroduce you to Song of Solomon.

More likely than not, it was written for exactly the purpose you see on the surface. But for some reason, the writing stuck around for centuries. And, as the second century rabbis of the Talmud struggled to imagine and articulate to their disciples loving Yahweh with all their very (it sounds awkward every time I type that), they saw in Song of Solomon a picture of exactly the kind of passionate nonsensical devotion demanded in the Sh’mah.

Yes, the poems are about sex. Which, for the record, is perfectly great. But what the Rabbis understood was that where there is sex there is also so much more than sex. Who could be surprised with how much we can learn about being human from the most quintessentially human activity there ever was? Second century rabbi Akiva ben Joseph, in one of my favorite rabbinic quotes of all time, put it like this: “He who sings the Song of Songs in wine taverns, treating it as if it were just some vulgar song, forfeits his share in the world to come.”

Haha. I guess in the 2nd century, they were getting drunk to songs from Song of Solomon.

So, what can we learn from it? First, let’s talk about fruit.

Fruit plays a major role in many of these poems. Fruit and gardens.

Like an apple tree among the trees of the forest is my beloved among the young men. I delight to sit in his shade, and his fruit is sweet to my taste. . . . .

I said, “I will climb the palm tree; I will take hold of its fruit.” May your breasts be like clusters of grapes on the vine, the fragrance of your breath like apples, . . .

Awake, north wind, and come, south wind! Blow on my garden, that its fragrance may spread everywhere. Let my beloved come into his garden and taste its choice fruits. . . .

I have come into my garden, my sister, my bride; I have gathered my myrrh with my spice. I have eaten my honeycomb and my honey; I have drunk my wine and my milk. . . .

My beloved has gone down to his garden, to the beds of spices, to browse in the gardens and to gather lilies. . . .

Of course, these images are saturated in sensuality (I’ll leave the specifics to your imagination), but they were also meant to strike a chord with its ancient Jewish audience who would instantly connect these images to the garden and fruit in Genesis. The fruit is insatiable desire and curiosity.

It is all-consuming desire no matter the consequences. No matter what harm may come.

For many people today, this would be like chocolate, which suddenly you’re already thinking about, aren’t you? (“No, Chris, I’ve already been thinking about it.”) Desire is not some foreign thing to you. It’s something you know well, so let’s talk about it.

Costumes and Roleplay

We desire many things, but I think at the core of the human is the desire for deep passion. I think it is the engine of our souls. Think about the times when you felt most alive. You didn’t feel distant. Isolated. Passive. Or uninterested.

No.

Your pupils dilated. Your veins surged with oxygen. Your synapses fired. You gave a damn.

As ridiculous as Song of Solomon is and as terrible of a man as Solomon was, I actually think your life should look like the two lovers in Song of Solomon. No, I’m actually not talking about going to more church, or singing louder in church, or praying harder in church, or even reading the Bible more when you leave church. Most of you are probably doing this fine—and the prophet Amos was hardly impressed with any of it.

And neither am I talking about a life of indulgence—the kind I see in so many people I observe. The life of moving from one thing to the next out of boredom is not a life of passion. No matter how fun it may be at the time.

I’m talking about making the conscious choice that some things have more weight than others.

Have you ever randomly gotten emotional at something and your friends wondered what was wrong with you? And you struggled to explain yourself? That there is so much more going on than they could see? That it may seem like this silly little thing, but it’s actually connected to this thing and that thing and that thing? And all these things together mean so much to you? That the moment felt heavy? And the more you tried to explain it, the more overcome with emotion you became? And in the end you just sounded ridiculous?

The Hebrew word for weight is kavod. We usually translate it “glory.”

A life of passion begins with the acknowledgment that some things are full of kavod and other things are not. If you still need me to spell it out for you, your favorite football team is not the important thing you think it is. I love football like every other red-blooded American, but I’ve lost no joy from not knowing the quarterback ratings of each of the last year’s starting quarterbacks in the SEC.

Most people basically live this way. It may not be a football team, but your energy is probably going mostly to things of equal uselessness to yourself and other human beings. And your soul is dying a slow death. You were made for intimacy and passion, but the real you is safely hidden in a costume, playing out a role designed and scripted by a few very rich people who profit off of your life of nothingness. Your naked self was lost when you set your desire on the tree in the garden—the tree that promised safety and power. That you would be like God.

But when you find something worth giving yourself to, you give your whole self. You put yourself out there. You make yourself vulnerable. Risk things. Even when it’s lonely. Even when people don’t “get” you. When your body becomes weary.

“Many waters cannot quench love;
rivers cannot sweep it away.”

You make the world better when you devote yourself to the things that have kavod. And you stick with those things through the best and the worst because they feel more important than you. Weightier than you. More prized. More jealously guarded. Meanwhile your friends think you’re obsessive. They start saying words like that’s nice but maybe you could tone it down and I think it’s important that we exercise moderation. You hear their words of wisdom, but you don’t care. Because you feel privileged to even have this thing. To sacrifice for it. You even feel unworthy of it, just as Solomon’s lover did. You study, learn, and observe everything about it, and even see it connect to the world around you in the most random ways (“Your eyes are the pools of Heshbon by the gate of Bath Rabbim.”).

Further, when you’re away from it, it is the thing you think about. Where you long to be. You wonder whether it will come back or be gone forever.

“All night long on my bed
I looked for the one my heart loves;
I looked for him but did not find him.
I will get up now and go about the city,
through its streets and squares;
I will search for the one my heart loves.
So I looked for him but did not find him.”

But despite all the energy it demands from you, satisfaction is always the end. This is the life of passion for things that have weight. This is loving God with all your very.

Because the most sexual things sometimes involve sex.