Monday, May 26, 2014
This blog is based on an article published here:
Frank Schaeffer is the author of Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back. He also wrote, Why I Am an Atheist Who Believes in God.
An ex-pat from his fundamentalist roots, Schaeffer is writing from frustration bordering on anger. I’m not an expert on his viewpoints, but he seems to be saying, “Why did you waste so much of my life with thoughtless, shallow, religious nonsense?”
In the article above, sent to me by a friend, he lists the many instances in the life of Jesus where Jesus broke the rules, mostly ritual regulations elucidated in the Book of Leviticus. These imperatives involve the purity laws in the Torah/Pentateuch [the first 5 books of the Bible]. In the Law of Moses, one could be ‘defiled’ (temporarily disqualified from being able to approach society or the locus of temple worship) by eating the wrong thing, touching the wrong thing, bleeding, being sick, giving birth, menstruating, being deformed, etc. Only certain prescribed rituals could put one back in right standing as far as ritual purity. The cleansing rituals for women were more stringent than for men.
Schaeffer points out many instances in which Jesus broke those rules by touching and healing lepers, a dead girl, and a bleeding woman. In fact, Jesus broke so many of those rules, that an article isn’t long enough to name them all. In Mark 7, he proclaims that people who abide by such rules, which are outer righteousness rather than genuine inner righteousness, are spiritually ‘dull.’ Jesus names the sins that actually defile a person before God. So in that sense, Schaeffer has an important point…Jesus set aside most of the Book of Leviticus. He wasn’t bound by any concept of it being inerrant and timeless.
But, Jesus didn’t reject the entire Pentateuch or the Old Testament! He pulled those things out of it that represent the true nature and inspiration of God. He rejected those things that represented an echo of Canaanite ways and superstitions. He pointed out to his disciples those things written by the prophets that inspirationally spoke of him and his mission as Messiah and Redeemer. Sometimes he said, “You have heard that it was said to the people of long ago…” Sometimes he said, “It is written…” There is a heartbeat of God in the Hebrew Bible, but there is the reverberation of culture, ancient superstitions, and fear. There is a baby in the bathwater. Our job is to find the baby.
I do have a problem with Schaeffer’s point of view. He writes, “The stories about Jesus that survived the bigots, opportunists and delusional fanatics who wrote the New Testament contain powerful and enlightened truths that would someday prove the undoing of the Church built in his name.” Frank, please, these fanatics passed on those stories of Jesus because by the time they wrote them down, they were beginning to appreciate the transformative cultural and spiritual import of his words. They were not gods. They were just men, like you. But unlike you, they lived two thousand years ago. Of course they still retained certain cultural notions and aspirations that demonstrate a limited understanding of the message.
As for the Law of Moses, one needs to recognize that the Israelites were not monotheists when Moses was sent to them. They began as a small family of Syrian ex-patriots, living as monotheists in the land of Canaan. By the time they had been in Egypt for 215 years, they were no longer monotheists. They hardly knew who they were anymore. The Lord had to re-introduce Himself to Moses. So after a series of miracles, Moses got to march a huge mixed mob of Israelites and other Canaanites, all worshipers of the gods and goddesses of Egypt and Canaan, all fearful that Moses was a loony magician who would get them all killed in the worst possible way.
And from whence did Moses come? He came from Midian, where he spent 40 years with his wife and family on the backside of the desert. His father-in-law was a priest and community leader. They worshipped bulls and snakes with the best of them. When Moses was overwhelmed with the administration of the huge, cantankerous community of Israelites, he turned to Jethro for advice. In the desert, Moses invited his Midianite in-laws to be their guide. When the community arrived at a location where many were bitten by snakes, a Midianite serpent deity was hoisted on a pole as a cure. By that time, Moses was 120 years old. His siblings were deceased and he was losing control. A huge Israelite apostasy followed that incident, resulting in a plague and a war.
Thus, is it surprising that the Law of Moses looks to those who study the Ancient Near East so much like the Canaanite religions? Can we be a little less judgmental of the Law of Moses? The Hebrews of the Exodus lived almost 3500 years ago.
Genocide in the Conquest under Joshua? You bet. If you picture it carefully, it’s bloody awful. How could they claim to be a righteous people when they did what they did? (Well, phase one was awful, phase two wasn’t as bad as phase one. But that’s another post.) My point is, think what Americans did to the native Americans as we moved west and trashed our treaties, stole their land, and killed them with impunity. How about the Conquistadors who raped, pillaged, and enslaved the population of South America? How about the difficult civil rights movement here in the US? I can think of sooo many reasons for the pot to NOT call the kettle black!
We need to quit blaming God for what people do. The amazing this is that God doesn’t trash all of us. He is merciful and longsuffering and gives us so much room to be wrong. He takes a long time to bring us around to a better way of thinking and living. And sometimes he uses the atheists to challenge us to rethink.