I need to talk about a painting.
Have you ever heard anything as ironic as a nationalist politician enlisting a foreign government to win a domestic political battle? Even an autocratic one with a history of meddling in other countries? I sure have.
I’m talking about Francisco Franco, dictator of Spain from 1937 until 1975.
(What? Who were you thinking about?)
From 1936 until 1939, Spain suffered a civil war between Franco’s nationalist party and Spain’s pro-democracy party, and, to win, Franco enlisted the help of the Nazi military.
On April 26, 1937, it was Monday Market Day in the Spanish city of Guernica, a day when more than ten thousand people were out buying and selling in a city that was well known not to be housing soldiers or military equipment.
Despite this, and without any warning, the Nazi Luftwaffe unleashed a blistering aerial bombardment that destroyed virtually all of the city. It was horrific. Barbaric. Unjustifiable. And we now know that the Nazis considered this humanitarian tragedy as nothing more than target practice.
This bombing deeply affected a Spanish man living at the time in Paris. His name was Pablo Picasso (you may have heard of him). Picasso was the pioneer of “cubism”, a modern art style that deconstructs an object and puts it back together in a way that explores meanings below what might appear on the surface. Because cubism isn’t limited by the strictures of visual realism, it expands the expressive choices available to an artist. Because sometimes the best way to express an idea is to make someone’s head . . . an upright phallic symbol?
By 1937, Picasso had already been perfecting his method for three decades, and after the bombing, he took all that passion and genius and poured it into one massive project. He named it simply Guernica.
First of all, Guernica is huge. My friend took this picture the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía. The painting is twenty-five feet from one end to the other.
Guernica certainly makes bold statements. Clearly depicted are civilians who have been distorted in ways that emphasize their suffering, defenselessness, and agony. Everything these people had invested into their city and into their lives was now gone thanks to a senseless and arbitrary German bombing round. “Didn’t I tell you that everything is meaningless?” you can hear Qohelet saying.
But, for every one statement Guernica might clearly make, it raises many more questions.
First, about the two animals: the horse and the bull. The horse near the center of the canvas appears in agony, but the bull to the left appears calm. In fact, the bull is the only calm-looking thing in the whole picture. Does the bull communicate hope for the Spanish people? Or does he represent the callousness and inhumanity of Franco? Or does he represent Picasso himself, who watched from Paris, but was powerless to do anything for his people? Is the bull the Spanish nation emotionlessly shocked? Does this bull have anything to do with any of the many previous Spanish bulls he had already painted?
(You could say there are a few bulls in Picasso paintings.)
Or is the bull just a bull?
As Picasso himself said (though no one believes him):
“…this bull is a bull and this horse is a horse… If you give a meaning to certain things in my paintings it may be very true, but it is not my idea to give this meaning. What ideas and conclusions you have got I obtained too, but instinctively, unconsciously. I make the painting for the painting. I paint the objects for what they are.”
“For what they are” might strike you as an odd way to describe anything that might appear in a cubist painting. But that’s the point. This is Picasso’s snide way of rejecting the need to paint something with visual accuracy to convey the truth of what the thing is.
(And yes, Picasso was perfectly capable of realism)
Regardless of what was going through Picasso’s head, I can say for certain that he wasn’t interested in telling you what the painting is “about.”
If nothing else, that’s boring.
But more importantly, that’s a claim that rarely stands up to any scrutiny.
The same horse and the same bull and the same eye or sun or whatever it is at the top with a lightbulb in it (the art police just read that and are making an arrest right now) can be hundreds of things. And should be hundreds of things. Even simultaneously. That’s what makes a great work of art great. It inspires many more questions than it does answers. And it allows different people to be impacted in unique ways—ways that allow the piece to explore the depth and breadth of the whole human experience.
(which is why contemporary Christian art and music are so bad)
It’s been nearly a century since Picasso painted Guernica, and we’re still asking questions about it. It still impacts people, though oftentimes in very different ways.
I believe this has something to do with the Bible, and that’s how I want to conclude this series.
You may have gotten the impression that I have a low view of the Bible. You may think I’m just trying to wiggle out of it. That I see no room for the Bible in our postmodern world. That hidden behind this big project is nothing more than a lame and long-winded attempt to do whatever I want. That I want comfortable and safe religion. That all ideas are equally valid.
Without question, that’s certainly where I fit within the theological constructs that billions of dollars have been spent propagating, but the real truth is nothing like that at all.
When I think about the Bible, only the most soaring words come to my mind.
Most Biblical traditionalists probably share in this list, and it’s not here that we differ. We differ on one more word.
I think the Bible is human. Inspired, yes, but also human. Very human. I want to go back to the words I included earlier of Dr. Peter Enns, who wakes up every morning and asks questions about the Bible that I would never even think to ask:
Supposedly, it is unworthy of God to speak through ancient stories of origins that are neither historical nor scientific. God is the God of Truth. He would never stoop so low. Uh…actually…yes he would. God is all about stooping low—way low. That’s how God rolls—at least the Christian God.
If God became human and dwelt among us—specifically, if the Word took human form—then why is it so surprising that God would also allow his text to take on human form?
A God that allows himself to be written about this way is a God with a high view of humans and their thoughts. A God with a high view of human progression, even when it is less than perfect and has to evolve over thousands and thousands of years.
After all we’ve seen, I don’t find it plausible that God for hundreds of years inspired people in the amazingly creative ways we’ve seen for weeks—only to end in the first century. I am in love with the text of the Bible, and I try to be faithful to it, but what I see in the text of the Bible is less a command to halt and more one to go. Less of a target and more of a trajectory.
Today, our idea of faithfulness to a text operates a lot like how a person would use an instruction manual to assemble a table. If you and I are faithful to the same instruction manual, your finished table will look the same as mine.
But what I’ve tried to explain over the last two months is this: That tribe whose name means “one who wrestles with God” understood faithfulness to the text to operate how art critics study Guernica. We treat the text like an instruction manual. They treated it like a painting. To the ancient Hebrews, the text was expansive and mysterious. Its meaning could drastically change depending on one’s perspective. Finding its meaning sometimes felt like wrestling. And it certainly could mean multiple and even contradictory things at the same time.
We often talk about the Bible as the place for “the answers”, and I agree.
Do you remember in Part 4 how Jesus would answer questions with more questions?
This is how the Bible answers questions too. It raises questions. Just like a Picasso painting, it raises questions, and that is the point.
That is the answer.
Answers support those at the top. Questions support those at the bottom.
And the Bible is not meant to comfort those at the top. In fact, this is one of the few things in the Bible on which you absolutely can rely.
If the Bible is unified on anything, from start to finish it denounces empire.
We miss this because we read the Bible from such a different place than did its writers. Brian Zahnd puts it really well.
I have a problem with the Bible. Here’s my problem…
I’m an ancient Egyptian. I’m a comfortable Babylonian. I’m a Roman in his villa.
That’s my problem. See, I’m trying to read the Bible for all it’s worth, but I’m not a Hebrew slave suffering in Egypt. I’m not a conquered Judean deported to Babylon. I’m not a first century Jew living under Roman occupation.
I’m a citizen of a superpower. I was born among the conquerors. I live in the empire. But I want to read the Bible and think it’s talking to me. This is a problem.
One of the most remarkable things about the Bible is that in it we find the narrative told from the perspective of the poor, the oppressed, the enslaved, the conquered, the occupied, the defeated. This is what makes it prophetic. We know that history is written by the winners. This is true — except in the case of the Bible it’s the opposite! This is the subversive genius of the Hebrew prophets. They wrote from a bottom-up perspective.
Imagine a history of colonial America written by Cherokee Indians and African slaves. That would be a different way of telling the story! And that’s what the Bible does. It’s the story of Egypt told by the slaves. The story of Babylon told by the exiles. The story of Rome told by the occupied. What about those brief moments when Israel appeared to be on top? In those cases the prophets told Israel’s story from the perspective of the peasant poor as a critique of the royal elite. Like when Amos denounced the wives of the Israelite aristocracy as “the fat cows of Bashan.”
The Old Testament really does take aim at Babylon and the New Testament really does take aim at Rome. I demonstrated this in Part 6 with Revelation, but you also see it strikingly in the Gospel of Mark. Virtually every word of the Bible was penned under the abuses of some global superpower, and its writers for hundreds of years focused on them like a laser beam.
However, while the Bible is concerned with Empire, the impulse of Empire takes many forms, and the word is much bigger than its most obvious one. The impulse is the same regardless of whether it is big and obvious or small and ordinary. You struggle with it in your own life.
Adam and Eve ate from the tree for power.
Cain killed Abel for power.
Nimrod built the Tower of Babel for power.
Pharaoh enslaved the Hebrews for power.
Goliath challenged David for power.
Solomon married hundreds of women for power.
Solomon built thousands of chariots for power.
Jonah sought vengeance on Nineveh for power.
Nebuchadnezzar built his kingdom for power.
Alexander the Great build his kingdom for power.
And each time the Devil tempted Jesus in the wilderness, he tempted him with power—even empire by name.
When you use other people to further your own purposes, you are participating in Empire.
One of the consequences of both believing that Jesus is God and that the scriptures are a human creation that borrows heavily from human ideas is that when you get past the noise of Jesus’s indulgences of Judaism, you find an attack on this way of life.
The seduction of Empire can be found wherever you find people. It is the worst in ourselves, and it brings out the worst in others. It never tires of destruction. Virtually everything you will ever regret for as long as you live will arise out of the impulse of Empire.
I’m thankful to live in such a time of enlightenment, but this is a mystery that has eluded so many of our great minds. When we lower others and raise ourselves, when we repay hurt with hurt, when we retaliate, when we hide all weakness, when we seek revenge, when we take an “eye for an eye”, when we do the right thing only when it’s safe to do so, when we hoard our resources, when we apologize only when they apologize, when we view people only through the lens of their usefulness to us, when we engage in the never-ending toil of controlling our own world, we perpetuate the cycle of Empire.
And it kills everything in sight.
It kills our friendships.
It kills our communities.
It kills our environment.
It kills our joy.
It kills our souls.
It is our burning hellfire and brimstone. Our weeping and gnashing of teeth. Our Gehenna.
Not somewhere distant and outside of this world, but right here.
So, what is the opposite of Empire?
Love drives out all of the worst impulses of Empire.
What I’m about to say is a total cliche, but we’ve really ruined the word “love.” I use it to describe the long shadows in the late afternoon on a golf course. I use it to describe expensive Trappist beers. I use it to describe fancy tacos. Hippies since the 60s have used it to describe a world without responsibility or consequences. Elvis couldn’t help falling into it. It’s a booty call Drake used to get on his cell phone.
But love has nothing to do with any of that. Most people run far away from true love. Love is less seductive than Empire, and, while it might be the best thing, it’s also the hardest thing.
What is love, but to care for someone else as if they were you? To treat all people as if they are equally important? To sacrifice things for the betterment of people who can never repay you? To forgive people for the worst they’ve done to you as you would hope others would forgive you for the worst you’ve done? To give them the dignity you wish they’d give you?
If there is anything in this world that requires faith, it is love.
In Empire, everyone is is given a rank and is trying to advance. Everyone is always in a kind of war.
But in love, we are all equal.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails.
I Corinthians c13
What Jesus commands us to do is to love. In so doing, we tear down every last vestige of Empire.
You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
When we see all people as equals—that is to say, when we learn to love—we become distinct among a people driven by the desire of Empire.
“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.
Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.”
That said, most Christians think of Christianity primarily in terms of cleanliness and purity. Most Christians think of Heaven as somewhere else that requires being pure enough to enter, and that life on Earth is about positioning to be pure enough for Heaven.
No doubt, the literal words to support these ideas are found in the text of the Bible, but we have to decide why they are there. Is purity the thing, and love is just one part among many parts?
Or is love the thing, and purity is the vocabulary that Jesus’s first disciples knew to talk about it?
Again, I concede that if you want to find purity culture in the Bible, the words are there for you. You’re not going to catch me off guard simply by quoting a Bible verse (as many have tried to do).
But let’s recall what led us to today:
- The first five books of the Bible (and probably several more) are not historical, but were written to support the temple cult in Jerusalem.
- We inherited baptism from the Essenes. The way the pesher writers took Old Testament texts way out of context to make new points was how the New Testaments writers also wrote.
- Jesus indulged many of the ideas of the Pharisees while he taught on the Earth.
- Jesus’s teachings on Gehenna (Hell) were based on the invention of Jewish rabbis who tried to find Socrates’s ideas in their text.
- John’s vision in Revelation takes the form of Persian apocalyptic themes and describes Heaven and the battle in Heaven almost exclusively in terms of the propaganda images he had seen throughout the Roman empire.
- The idea of the Holy Spirit was a theological construct of the Pharisees, who believed that wind was spiritual.
In light of everything we have seen, I don’t think purity culture is what Jesus came down to reinforce.
That he came to talk about new ways to sin.
That what was really needed was the Jewish Day of Atonement (which was already forgiving the sins of the Jewish people) being made permanent.
Here’s a good example of what I’m talking about. Read it carefully, and notice how Jewish ideas from the Torah and from the inter-testamentary period were used to talk about love.
Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.
God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.
We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.
For John, it was completely natural to weave the ideas of love and purity together. He could not help but read into Jesus’s teachings on love the Jewish convictions with which he grew up.
But, in light of the many times that Jesus would use Jewish ideas to actually stray from Judaism, I have strongly concluded that we as 21st century Christians are heirs to those to whom purity was the language they knew to talk about what was actually the real thing.
If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.
1 Corinthians c13
Paul’s conception of God was thoroughly grounded in his years of study under Gamaliel. His training was of a depth and sophistication that modern readers can scarcely comprehend. He would have memorized Leviticus by the time he was eight. By the age of fourteen, he would have answered questions using a Jewish technique called a remez, which is the use of an incomplete part of a text, assuming the audience’s knowledge of the whole text would allow them to deduce for themselves the fuller meaning of a statement. Students of the text like Paul were so grounded in the text that they would have entire conversations in remez. People don’t grow up under that kind of system and simply abandon it.
As much as I say my understandings have evolved, I will never completely abandon my upbringing.
Likewise, Jesus was a Jew and the first interpreters of his teachings were Jews. Jesus used the language they knew, and his first advocates filtered his teachings even further. So it shouldn’t surprise us that the first things people wrote down about following Jesus arose out of the language of Judaism. Our heritage is important, but our heritage is not the thing.
On the surface, it would be easy to assume that I read the Bible the traditional way (and that is how most non-believers classify me). I participate in many of the traditional rituals associated with Christianity. I’m part of a church congregation. I was baptized, and agree that we should baptize new believers. I believe in sin. I believe in punishment for sin. I take communion every Sunday. I pray enough to demonstrate that I think there’s something to it. And I even strongly prefer old church songs to new ones.
But I’m careful to avoid making Christianity about any of them. As Jesus once said, “The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath.” We were meant to live in community, and “the church” was the counter-narrative to the cult of the Roman Empire. But Jesus Christ did not die and raise so we could replace old rituals with new ones.
Jesus died and rose again to show that the old understanding of power and dominance was going away, and that a new kingdom of equality was rushing in.
In the last two months, I’ve done the best I can explain an understanding of the Bible that (1) I think is more true to what it actually is and (2) certainly is different than its traditional understanding. I’ve loved doing this, and I already miss it.
But, if what I’ve written has resonated with you, I want to offer a few parting words of shalom.
First, you are going to encounter resistance. I see a lot of “us-versus-them” in our churches, and, unfortunately, I often get placed into the category belonging to “them.” It is vital that you not become the very thing that you are working against.
It’s not unreasonable to interpret the Bible in the ways I’ve argued against. Don’t assume that people who do so are dishonest or less intelligent than you. The words to denounce what I’ve argued are in the Bible, and when we talk about translating the culture within which the words of the Bible were written, we’re not dealing with an exact science. Everything we do is always our best guess.
Engage with those who find you threatening. For the rest of your life, you can never stop listening. You must always assume that you are wrong about something. For one thing, people won’t listen to you until you’ve listened to them.
But also you are wrong about something!
Second, even if you radically change your idea of the Bible, I think you should consider maintaining the same fellowship you had before. I have, and I don’t regret it.
Of course, when you invest yourself in a congregation that views you as suspicious, a lot more is required of you. You will have to be on guard always. Anything you do wrong will be reduced to “that goes to show how everything he thinks about the Bible has been a sham this whole time.” It means constantly and actively listening to ideas you disagree with. When I listen to other people express their thoughts, I’m constantly converting them in my head so that I can agree with them.
If I’m being honest, this takes enormous amount of energy.
But, we as a society are too polarized. We spend far too little time around people who disagree with us. We’re not good at talking with people with different views. Remember, even when you don’t change an opinion, you frequently change a mind. When you give someone the dignity of listening to them and genuinely seek to understand them, and when you then intelligently and boldly explain your view, you create an impression in the other person’s mind that they should do more listening too. You sow mutual respect.
And, in a small way, you make the world a little better.
Finally, it’s important to remember that everything we do is about people. People will generally do what they believe they should do, and this means that our ideas require a lot of attention. I’m not impressed when people suggest that we should just spend our lives “doing instead of thinking.” But, nevertheless, we don’t live for ideas. Ideas are not the thing. People are the thing.
This means you need to shut up sometimes.
Don’t remain silent because you think your ideas will challenge people. Don’t remain silent because you think people won’t like you if you tell them what you think. Don’t remain silent because people might hurt you.
But some people aren’t in the right place for this whole thing. Sometimes it’s the right time even when it will cause you pain. Sometimes it’s the wrong time even when it will elevate you. It’s not about you, it’s always about them
As Jesus constantly demonstrated to his disciples, Jesus has great faith in your ability to discern how to love. Set your mind to it, and you’ll know what to do.
Peace be with you, friends.
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