Monthly Archives: February 2012

Thumpin’ It: The Use and Abuse of the Bible in Today’s Presidential Politics

Yesterday during our conversation about Matthew’s intriguing proposals on how to live in a world where the values of your faith community conflict with the values of the dominant social power, Judy asked a great question. “That’s the first century. What about now?”

This led to a brief but provocative conversation about how politicians of every era have tried to co-opt religion for political purposes. When this is done effectively, people can scarcely tell the difference between their faith and their nationality, between national patriotism and loyalty to the reign of God.

If you want to see a striking biblical example of this tactic, take a look at 1 Kings 12:26-29. This happens after the civil war that split Israel and Juda. In this passage King Jereboam builds a temple in Israel because he’s afraid that if people go to Jerusalem, which was in the southern kingdom of Judah, their religious loyalties would turn into political loyalties. For the next chapter in that story, take a look at Amos, chapter 7, and see what happens when a religious figure lodges a complaint in that temple about a political leader. Talk about a confusion of religion and politics!

Okay, but that was the 8th-century BCE, what about now? Yesterday, I mentioned Jacques Berlinerblau’s book Thumpin’ It: The Use and Abuse of the Bible in Today’s Presidential Politics. Berlinerblau thoroughly and hilariously dissects the way politicians make use of the Bible. After investigating how both parties make use of the Bible on issues as diverse as climate change and stem-cell research, he offers the following advice for politicians who want to make effective use of the Bible (note: this is different from *good* use of the Bible).

1. “Citations must be sparse and measured.”

2. “Be positive!”

3. “Vagueness is a virtue.”

4. “Avoid intellectual and theological depth.”

5. “Conceal your references.”

Clever…and discouraging! It makes me wonder how we’ll “go the second mile” here and now?

If you’d like to check out the book for yourself, here’s a link to the Amazon page:

If you have suggestions for other books the class might find of interest, please leave a comment below. 


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Sermon on the Mount – Chapter 6 – Wealth and Anxiety

The end of chapter 6 offers an extended reflection on how the faithful should regard material possessions. I always read these verses slowly, forgetting for a moment the centuries the separate Jesus' time from my own and letting loose at least briefly my always-present concern about context, context, context. Jesus addresses here a timeless tension between having and needing and speaks right to the heart of the anxiety that governs so much of human life. 

"Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." 

Let that sink in for a minute. Stings a little, doesn't it? 

"You cannot serve God and wealth."

The fifth-century theologian Augustine made a helpful distinction between things we love for their own sake and things we use for the sake of some other end. It was the difference between use (uti) and enjoyment (frui). God has given us wealth, he insisted, for our use, so that we might provide for our needs and the needs of others. It is not an end in itself. It is not a thing to enjoy or to love for itself. Wealth is for our use; God is for our enjoyment. We cannot serve both God and wealth and so, to paraphrase Jesus, Augustine might say "use wealth and serve God." 

But that is easier said than done. We feel anxious, sense that our lives are dependent and fragile. We seek security, and wealth seems to offer a hedge against our fears. Trusting God is a lot harder than trusting the balance of our retirement plans. But Jesus says "consider the lilies." Jesus assures us that if we seek the reign of God, our material needs will take care of themselves (v. 33). We know that it doesn't always work out like that. We know that some people do not have enough and that we could end up in dire circumstances if we do not plan carefully for our future. But before we rush in with a million caveats and qualifications, let's sit for a minute with Jesus' message to those of us who do have what we need, but who constantly fear that we do not. He speaks to our fears that we can never have enough, that we will never be secure. He does not tell us that we do not need material goods, he tells us to trust in the bounty of God. 

I remember heading off to college and worrying about my chosen major. I would study theology. I loved it. I loved the ideas, the arguments, the old, old texts. But what on earth would I do with it? How would I make a living? My Dad said, "Kendra, making meaning is a lot harder than making money." I'm still floored by that. He set me free to seek meaning, to seek a Good Life and not worry about "the good life." We live in a world that urges us to seek "more and more." But Jesus (and Dad!) says, "enough." 

"Strive first for the kingdom of God," and your material needs will fall into place. It's an intriguing proposition that some have turned into a "prosperity gospel." Blech. Maybe Jesus meant something else. Maybe he spoke to the whole community of faith. Consider this: if those of us with plenty sought the reign of God, then wouldn't everyone have enough? 

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Sermon on the Mount – Chapter 6 – Acts of Piety

Chapter six covers two important themes that are still very much alive today. First, Jesus discusses three acts of piety. Second, he discusses wealth and anxiety. I’ll discuss acts of piety in this post and wealth in another post later this week. 

Jesus begins by describing three acts of piety: giving alms, praying, and fasting. These are ways for the religiously devout to enact their faith. But they are also disciplines that strengthen our faith and orient it properly toward God and others. Many of us have negative associations with the term piety. Who wants to be called pious? It suggests a prim and proper, rigid self-righteousness. It doesn’t sound at all like something Jesus, that “drunkard and glutton” would approve of.

One Reformed theologian, James Gustafson, has rescued this term for me. He describes piety as “a persistent disposition of reverence, awe, and respect.” Now that I can live with! An act of piety, then, trains us in reverence, awe, and respect. The disciplines of piety orient us toward our world, our neighbor, and our God in a way that makes us eager to act with compassion, to be bowled over by beauty, and to respect each other in our differences.

Even in Jesus’ own time, there seemed to be a temptation for those practicing their piety to become self-righteously pious, to be showy about their devotion, and so Jesus offers instruction in how to engage in these disciplines so that they make us pious — not pietistic! 

Look carefully at 6:2-4. What does he say about giving alms? What does this suggest about our own practices? 

In verses 5 through 15, Jesus discusses prayer. What does he say about public prayer? I wonder what this might mean for practices like praying before a meal in restaurants. I love the critique of Gentile prayers that “heap up empty phrases” and wish Jesus had gone on to say “leave a little silence in your prayers for heaven’s sake!” 

Look carefully at the Lord’s Prayer. Pay attention to the structure. It begins with an invocation, with reverence to God, and then moves into petitions. What does Jesus ask for? Look carefully at the petition “your kingdom come.” What will earth look like when God’s kingdom is complete? Think about having enough bread and being free from debt as conditions of the reign of God. 

What does Jesus say about fasting? See a pattern with what he said about alms and prayer? What does that suggest about how Jesus understands piety? Now, think about fasting as an act of piety. How might it help to reorient us with “reverence, awe, and respect”? What, how, and with whom we eat communicates fundamental values. What do our food practices say about what we revere and who we respect? 

Can you think of any other acts of piety that the contemporary Christians might undertake and how Jesus might interpret them?

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The Sermon on the Mount – Law

In Matthew 5:1-14 we hear Jesus describing the qualities of the new community. It is populated by the “poor in spirit,” those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness,” and who are “persecuted.” But the members of this community are also salt and light who preserve and illumine their world. 

In verse 17, Jesus turns to consider the morality that will govern this community. He takes up the question of what status the laws of Torah will hold. Read verses 17 through 20 carefully. Here Jesus treats the law as a concept. What does he say? Why would this have been so important for Matthew’s audience? Think back to the writings of Paul. What status does the law have in, for instance, Galatians or Romans? Does Matthew agree?

Next Jesus considers four specific provisions, three of them from the ten commandments. Remember, this is apodictic law, which lays out universal principles (do not murder), as opposed to casuistic law, which applies to specific circumstances (is it murder if you kill a thief who broke into your home?). Jesus considers murder, adultery, divorce (not one of the commandments), and the swearing of oaths.

Jesus’ commentary on the law is very much what you would expect of a Rabbi/Pharisee, except that he claims more authority than simply that of the commentator. He modifies and expands the law using the formula “you have heard it said…but I say to you.” In each of the four cases, what does he do to the law? Does he make it easier or harder to follow? 

In the final two pericopes of chapter 5, Jesus continues the “you have heard…but I say” theme, but these interpretations begin to shift direction.

We’ll treat verses 38 through 42 in class following a theory offered by theologian Walter Wink. These verses have often been used to argue that oppressed communities and persons ought to accept their lot, but we’ll see that they in fact offer a powerful, nonviolent means of resisting oppression. We might think of these verses as Matthew’s (or Jesus’s!) strategy for coping with persecution.

Verses 43 through 47 begin with an admonition not actually in the Torah, the command to hate one’s enemy, and conclude with a summary of what Jesus expects of his followers with respect to the law: “Be perfect.” Hmm…we’ll have to think about that! 

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Reflections on Faith and Sexual Identity – Biblical Perspectives

I hope you’ll join us this Sunday at 12:30 for the second in IPC’s series on Faith and Sexual Identity. The last presentation, led by Dr. Jenny Vaydich was very informative and sparked many good conversations. This time, Kendra is leading, and we’ll focus on biblical texts. Below you’ll find a copy of the handout from the PowerPoint presentation. Here’s a link to the flyer explaining the series:

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Lecture by Amy Jill Levine – MARCH 15 ~ 7:00 PM

University Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies
Nashville, TN

An Orthodox Jew and professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt University, Dr. Levine finds “a fear of scholarship” in many people of faith today. For her, a “faith marked by fear and narrowness” instead of “openness to the complexity, mystery and majesty of the divine,” and “a faith that looks only to the Bible and not also to personal experience, to the teachings of various religious communities, and even to science, is a faith that has turned the Bible into an idol.” She grew up in “a predominantly Portuguese Roman Catholic” neighborhood, and her parents explained ways in which “Christianity was very much like Judaism.” Also, as she notes, “the New Testament is a very good source for reconstructing the history of the Jewish people in the first century,” so “the more I study the documents of early Christianity, the better Jew I become,” and better I’m able to “promote informed, respectful Jewish-Christian relations.”


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The Sermon on the Mount – The Beatitudes

The Sermon on the Mount, which can be found in Matthew 5-7, is the first of five sermons Jesus delivers in the book of Matthew. That number — 5 — is important. There are five books of the law of Moses, the Torah. In Matthew Jesus is portrayed as the new Moses, who preaches with authority that exceeds that of Moses, and he gives a new Torah. Here in chapter five we find him atop a mountain — like Moses — giving a new law.

On Sunday, February 5 (and probably for several Sundays to come!) we’ll focus on this new law and on the community that received it. Keep in mind that Matthew wrote for a largely Jewish Christian audience living in diaspora after the destruction of the Temple.

Start by looking at the beatitudes in verses 3-11 and thinking about the eight characteristics that mark membership in the new covenant community. Remember that after the destruction of the Temple the Jewish community is in the process of redefining what it means to be faithful to the covenant. Matthew thinks that Christianity — his particular interpretation of it — represents the path forward. Can you see places where he is disagreeing with the newly emerging rabbinic traditions?

Also remember that the Romans would have been newly suspicious of sects that seemed to favor revolution. Is there anything in these verses that suggests how Matthew might have related to the Romans and their suspicions? Remember that Christianity would be suspect for two reasons. First, it’s founder was executed for sedition! Second, it was new. By definition that made it a superstition and not a religion. Religions were regarded as ancient, venerable traditions that were accorded great respect and protection. Superstitions, however, were absurd and sometimes subject to persecution. That reality adds urgency to Matthew’s desire to connect Jesus to Moses.

See you Sunday!

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