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hermeneutics

Yesterday I found a forgotten essay that I wrote for a class I took over the summer. The class, Poverty and Restorative Earthkeeping, explored the intersectionality of race, class and gender in relation to poverty and the environment. This short piece was written as a reflection on a theme found in Larry Rasmussen’s Earth Community, Earth Ethics.

Are there other metaphors or avenues for engagement that you have found to be particularly helpful for dialogue between Christian practice/ethics and care for the Earth? How does our being embedded in and embodied on the earth influence or shape our theology?

The essay is embedded below, but if you’d rather read it as a pdf, you can do so here: Earth as Oikos

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Final Reflection 1

Final Reflection 2Final Reflection 3
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Mark Driscoll has weighed in on Washington’s recent legalization of marijuana. As Driscolly as ever, he writes:

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“Also, many will attempt to treat marijuana usage as analogous to alcohol. But while the Bible does speak of alcohol, it never mentions marijuana, which means the issue requires a great deal of consideration before arriving at a thoughtful Christian position.”

Source: http://theresurgence.com/2012/12/06/puff-or-pass-should-christians-smoke-pot-or-not

Unfortunately for us, the Bible doesn’t mention a LOT of stuff. We might be living in sin because we have not thoughtfully considered the ramifications of engaging in things that are not specifically mentioned in the Bible.
Here is a list of things that are not mentioned in the Bible, and which we must arrive at a thoughtful Christian position about.
  • Crock-Pots

  • Litterboxes

  • Cars

  • Netflix

  • Electricity

  • Cheesecake

  • Executive pastors

  • Coffee

  • Yoga (totally evil)

  • College

  • Christmas

  • Gluten (conveniently)

  • iPhones

  • the Internet

  • Brita filters

  • Magazines

  • 401k plans

  • Pizza

  • Eyeglasses (aw shit)

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Hopefully this has been an edifying list that gets you thinking about just what is and isn’t biblical. Feel free to add to this list things that are not mentioned in the Bible. Because what is the BIble if not a big book of things we can and can’t do?

bible-Sunlight

I’ve been writing lately about the image of God and some of the dominant theological interpretations and approaches to understanding what it means to be human. In doing so, I’ve explored the substantive/structuralist view and the relational view, and am ready to dedicate some time to the royal-functional view of the image of God. While not as popular and flashy as the relational view is among theologians and faith communities, this view is prominent among biblical scholars. Here is the short and sweet version of this model: human persons reflect the divine (God’s image) in as much as they serve as God’s representatives, or viceroys, on earth. Scholars who favor this view tend to do so based on the depiction of God as creator in the opening scenes of the Hebrew Bible. This God speaks creation into being from outside it, necessarily exercising power and authority over it. For humans to be created in the image of this God would mean that power and authority is transferred to them to extend over the creation on God’s behalf. Humans essentially become middle management, overseeing the earth and non-human life, but reporting to and answering to God.

This model is heavily reliant upon the divine injunction to “have dominion” delivered in Genesis 1:28, and other ancient Near Eastern (ANE) literature and culture for further clues to its meaning. Biblical scholar J. Richard Middleton presents one of the fundamental arguments of this position:

“We are on firmer ground with the wealth of comparative studies of Israel and the ancient Near East that cite” Mesopotamian and Egyptian documents “in which kings (and sometimes priests) were designated the image and likeness of a particular god . . . a designation that served to describe their function (analogous to that of a cult image) of representing the deity in question and of mediating divine blessing to the earthly realm”[1]. So based on what is known of ANE culture and its influences and similarities found in the Hebrew Bible, many understand the image of God to parallel a religious symbol of colonization; the transcendent/far-off deity is represented by an image/statue that functions as a reminder of the deity and its divine rule over that territory.

The syntax of the Hebrew in 1:26, Middleton says, “points to ‘rule’ as the purpose, not simply the consequence or result of the imago Dei.”[2] That humanity extends dominion and rule over non-human life and the earth is the reason for creation in the divine image, instead of simply a role adopted by humanity because of their association with God. God designed humans specifically to exercise divine rule over creation. For Middleton, “the human vocation as imago Dei in God’s world thus corresponds in important respects to Israel’s vocation as a ‘royal priesthood’ among the nations (Exodus 19:6) . . . confirmed by the ancient Near Eastern background of the image”[3].

While this interpretations represents solid biblical scholarship and is likely the closest to what is meant by the notion of humans being created in the image of God, there are objections raised by several scholars. Let’s say this model, however, is in fact the best interpretation of Genesis 1:26-28 and the imago Dei, how important or meaningful is it given the relative silence on the matter throughout the rest of the Hebrew Bible? Claus Westermann is one who objects to this reading based on his contention that the royal-functional view, drawing from ANE culture, does not make sense in the context of Genesis 1. “Representation in this context is concerned with an individual in relation to a community. But this is not possible in the case of ‘man.’ ‘Man’ is not an individual, but a species . . . This could only make sense if ‘man’ (i.e. humankind) were to represent God before the rest of creation.”[4] That is, if God and creation were in sharp contrast and isolation from one another. Terence Fretheim elaborates on Westermann: “If the royal language has been democratized,” he writes, “then the royal links that may be present have been subverted and nonhierarchical perspectives prevail.”[5] That is, if the image of God is within all persons, it does not quite correspond to the ANE tradition of a king or priest singularly representing the deity; the power has been transferred to all.

Fretheim takes his objection a step further, though, and states that the text is “monarchical” at the very least, possibly even “antimonarchical,” and that the employment of such monarchical language by scholars has “contributed to an emphasis, perhaps subtly so, on divine power and control in the interpretation of Genesis 1, which in turn could negatively shape what it means to be in the image of God.”[6] This is a crucial objection to the text, and one that will continue to be absent from the radar of biblical scholars or theologians not attuned to feminist and post-colonial criticism.

For sake of space, I will wait until the next post to explore this critique in more depth, as well as try to construct a new model for interpreting the imago Dei.

Are you familiar with this interpretation of the image of God? How has it shaped the trajectory of your faith? What do you think about the objections raised to the functional model? What are your own critiques of this way of interpretation?

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1. J Richard Middleton, The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1 (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2005), 26-27.

2. Ibid., 53.

3. Ibid., 90.

4. Claus Westermann, Genesis 1-11: A Continental Commentary (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994), 153.

5. Terence E. Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005), 47.

6. Ibid., 55.

A few days ago I introduced some thoughts I’ve been exploring around the concept of the imago Dei. I’ve done a lot of research on this topic over the past three months and the more time I spend reflecting on it the more I come to realize how much theological thought hinges upon it.

To give you an idea about how much rides on what is expressed and inferred from Genesis 1:26-28, let’s make a little list.

1. In my previous post I talked about Genesis 1 being categorized as myth. This classification either frightens you and sets up a slalom course down a slippery slope, or it opens up a broader horizon for engaging the biblical text. For a while now, scholars have viewed the first eleven chapters of Genesis not as history, but pre-history. Rather than seeing the biblical creation story as a revealed account of beginnings, it has been observed to parallel and reflect influences of other ancient Near Eastern stories of beginnings. Here is a blog post from Pete Enns that talks more about this. http://biologos.org/blog/genesis-1-and-a-babylonian-creation-story/

2. If the creation narratives in Genesis are myth, then how should they be interpreted and integrated with the Christian faith? This brings into question the notion of biblical authority. When the Bible is viewed as a historical document its consistency and intent are not muddied: what it says happened actually happened. When words such as myth (or other literary genres) are thrown into the mix it presents a challenge to interpretation; context, culture, history, and judiciousness are required in order to grasp the meaning and importance of the text, and static interpretive methods fail. This raises the question, “How do myths and ancient stories that are not historically true fit into our understanding of the Bible and faith?” The concept of biblical authority is one that progressive/liberal Christians like myself have a difficult time articulating. My mainline protestant friends simply say, “We take the Bible seriously, not literally.” The issue then, as it relates to our topic, becomes one of deciding how to take a mythological story seriously.

3. Because Genesis 1 is used to support Creationism and the belief that God created the world in six days, this passage is an ideological battleground between science and religion. If Christianity were to concede that Genesis 1 is mythological in nature and that the universe may not have been created in six, twenty-four hour days, then the atheists and gays and China will destroy the United States and make everyone join Al Qaeda. This is not hyperbole. This is fact. Actually, it’s only speculation. But seriously, I don’t intend to mitigate the importance of the Bible for anyone reading this. I think that the Bible is indeed important and valuable, but not in a manner that requires it to be truly historical and always factual.

4. So if God did not create the universe as detailed in Genesis 1, are humans actually created in the image of God? The idea that humanity is created in the image of God (and everything else is not), despite its sparse biblical support, has been hugely influential in Western history and theological reflection. Walter Brueggemann writes, “The notion of humanity ‘in the image of God’ plays no primary role in the Old Testament articulations of humanity; it does not constitute a major theological datum for Israel’s reflection on the topic.”[1] This is important because I find that the notion of being created in the image of God is an important sentiment regardless of where one falls on the theological spectrum. It is deeply valued by both conservative and liberal Christians. For example, is it honest to affirm evolution (as opposed to the biblical idea of creation), yet still maintain that human persons are created in the imago Dei?

5. Metaphorical language is embedded in the idea that humans are created in the image of God. I’ve written elsewhere about the ways in which metaphors are woven into our theological statements, and here reveals another example. When Genesis 1 states that God created male and female in God’s image, the text is using metaphor. Christians do not take from it that God is a gendered, physical being. Christianity has assumed it to mean something else, something non-physical and immaterial. That Christianity assumed the image of God to mean something spiritual rather than physical emerged via the influence of Greek dualism which draws a sharp distinction between what is physical and what is spiritual; the spiritual constitutes what is good and pure, and the physical represents what is weak and at odds with the spiritual. This has governed how Christianity has historically interpreted what it means to be created in the image of God: the imago Dei represents something invisible, spiritual, and essential to the human person.

6. Also entwined in this discussion about the image of God is the ways in which Christianity views non-human life. Because the image of God embedded in the human person is often related to the concept of dominion over animals and the earth, Christianity has often viewed the natural world as unimportant because it is physical rather than spiritual. Nature has often been deemed the backdrop of human history. Humanity is seen as distinctly separate from nature as opposed to something intricately related to and involved with it. The intellectual shift brought on by the Enlightenment further cemented this thinking in the West, viewing nature as something to be controlled and manipulated by humanity. According to Francis Bacon, the natural world was handed over to humanity by “divine bequest,” which gives humans the right to “establish and extend the power and dominion of the human race.” Thus, it becomes humanity’s duty to flex its muscle over the non-human world. This way of thinking deeply influenced Christianity and was used to justify colonialism and the misuse and abuse of non-human life and the earth.

You can see by this short list that there is a lot of theological thought and implications rooted in the Genesis 1 text. Theology is a tricky endeavor because of all the interrelated parts involved in any single concept.

What did I leave out of my list that you think is important to mention in relation to the text?

In the next post I will jump into the first of the major interpretations of the image of God, known as the substantialist model.

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Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 452.

The late American novelist Kurt Vonnegut made some observations about the shapes that popular stories would create should they be crafted into a computer graphic. Standing at a blackboard, he draws X and Y axes and indicates that the Y-axis (the “G-I” axis) moves upward from ill fortune to good fortune, and the X-axis (the “B-E” axis) moves left to right, from beginning to end, naturally. With this simple template for inputting the shape of stories and clever strokes of chalk that follow plot lines up and down along the axes, Vonnegut categorizes and deconstructs the most popular stories in Western culture, labeling them as drab, uninspired and boring. Vonnegut then contemplates whether the chart he has devised can evaluate literature based on the shape of the story, and begins his experiment with Hamlet. As he retells the story, Vonnegut points out that although Hamlet is an excellent piece of literature, it shares the same essential story shape as the fairy tale Cinderella, with similar plot line peaks and plummets. “But there’s a reason we recognize Hamlet as a masterpiece,” says Vonnegut. “It’s that Shakespeare told us the truth, and people so rarely tell us the truth in this rise and fall here. The truth is, we know so little about life, we don’t really know what the good news is and what the bad news is.” For Vonnegut, to tell the truth about persons and about humanity in the form of story is art of great consequence. 

Thinking theologically about human persons from the perspective of the Christian tradition directs our attention to stories found in the biblical text. The question we then ask is, “Do the stories found within the biblical text reveal truths about human persons by which we can make theological claims?” Specifically, this discussion revolves around just one story, found in the opening verses of the Bible. What does it mean for human persons to be both intentionally created by and created in God’s image? For the limited space such an idea occupies in the biblical writings, there has been an awful lot said and written about this subject across the centuries. By limited space, I mean that it is explicitly mentioned only three times––Genesis 1:26-27; 5:1 and 9:6––and twice in passing in the Second Testament, in 1 Corinthians 11:7 (with a patriarchal twist that blends the two creation accounts) and James 3:9 [There are also deuterocanonical reference to the image of God: Wisdom of Solomon 2:23, Sirach 17:3 and 2 Esdras 8:44].

For reference, here are the three Genesis passages that explicitly reference humanity’s creation in the image of God, or God’s likeness.

Genesis 1:26-27

“Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth. So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”

Genesis 5:1-2

“This is the list of the descendants of Adam. When God created humankind, he made them in the likeness of God Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them ‘Humankind’ when they were created.”

Genesis 9:6

“Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person’s blood be shed; for in his own image God made humankind.”

Of these three, the Genesis 1 text is by far the most cited, and is typically used to declare the presence or existence of something inherently special about humans that is not possessed by any other species or living creature. This notion of human specialness as the bearers of God’s nebulous image is generally linked with Genesis 1:28, in which the first humans are instructed to “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” Being made in the image of God, therefore, means that humans rightfully exercise an authority over all things non-human. These ideas serve as the fundamental beliefs about humanity, and lay the foundation for a Christian anthropology that attempts to answer the question, “What does it mean to be made in the image of God?”

So as we begin thinking theologically about human persons within the Christian tradition our attention is directed toward a story. Many who study the Bible classify this particular story––and all the stories found in the first 11 chapters of Genesis––as myth. So for the creation story to be a myth simply means that it is a story that makes an attempt at explaining how things came to be. Every culture has such a story. Myths, like stories, function to communicate basic realities of the human condition or life experiences, or communicate lessons and morals. They attempt to capture something universal about life. When these stories can transcend the community and context in which they were created they have achieved something special. Stories are told, and find longevity, for the fact that they imaginatively capture something that continues to be true for each generation and inspires some kind of reorientation that grounds the hearer in the fundamental reality the story/myth describes. Stories take on a reality of their own, and shape values, lives and beliefs in powerful ways. I’m curious whether our particular origins story from Genesis 1 has lost its power to communicate something about the nature of humanity, non-human life, and the relationships between species and the earth. That is, does Genesis 1:26-28 tell the truth about humanity, in a way that Vonnegut claims is so rarely accomplished? What might it mean for humans to be made in the image of God in the twenty-first century? Is this an idea that still tells a particular truth and proves to be helpful and inspiring? Is it something that needs to be nuanced or re-imagined? Or is this a concept that we must move past and refuse to make theological claims upon?

Over the next few posts I’m going to explore some of the different ways that some have interpreted the imago Dei throughout the Christian tradition, and put these interpretive models to the test. Personally, I think that our understanding of the imago Dei needs to be reoriented and have its scope widened in order for us to make viable theological claims. How we understand the imago Dei does not only determine how we understand the purpose and nature of human persons, but also how we interpret and understand the character and identity of God, and how we then come to understand our relationship and responsibility to the earth and all its inhabitants. The next few posts will attempt to work toward an egalitarian, inclusive, and ecologically oriented method for understanding the imago Dei. 

What are your initial thoughts on this endeavor? Is the imago Dei something central and vital to theological discourse? Is it expendable? How do you understand the concept of the image of God?

Remember learning about similes and metaphors in 5th grade and writing all sorts of strange sentences to practice the concept? Metaphors are actually more important than your 5th grade teacher led you to believe. Metaphors, and language in general, are really powerful. Metaphors spark our imagination and influence how we interpret and see people, places, and as I will demonstrate, God.

Metaphors are so deeply woven into our language and culture that we often fail to realize their presence and prevalence. Even the Bible is replete with metaphors for God, for humanity and for creation. Metaphors ignite our thoughts and emotions and help us to relate to other subjects or understand others. This is partly why film, art or poetry are so powerful. They express things through image or language that hold far deeper meaning than the mere words themselves. Words can hold immense power, and two or three words strung together can radically influence how you interpret something. Allow an experiment. The following list of metaphors make statements, but the statements are jam packed with assumptions, questions, beliefs, and biases.

1. The Bible is truth

2. This bread is the body of Christ

3. God is love

4. God is King

Far from an attempt at deconstructing these theological statements, it becomes apparent that our theological statements and beliefs are deeply entangled and even dependent upon particular metaphors. What does it mean, then, that the Bible is truth? What is truth and what does it mean to equate the Bible with such an idea? What does it mean that bread is the “body of Christ”? What is love? And what does it mean to equate God with it? Lastly, what is a king? Who are kings? How do kings function, and what does it mean to refer to God as a king?

This monarchical––and gendered––metaphor is a glimpse into the patriarchal language embedded into Christianity that dominates theological discourse, worship, the ways in which people relate to God, and even anthropology. Such monarchical metaphors may simply express a reverence for God, but the reality is that such reverence subtly speaks to our views of both men and women in ways that align divinity and power with men over and above women. Feminist critiques of Christianity have driven this point home for decades, but dominant Christianity has been unable to disengage its beliefs and declarations about God from its traditional, historical metaphors created by patriarchal cultures. In other words, Christianity has allowed imperfect images and language to determine the boundaries of acceptable ways to talk about God, humanity, and the universe. By imperfect images, I am referring to the ways in which our language always falls short of fully encompassing reality. This is no more true than within our language about God. What we say about God can never fully capture who God is, but are attempts at describing the Divine.

Here is a simple exercise in how this plays out and why we must rethink the ways in which we speak about God. Claiming that God is King assumes that God is male. Do you believe God is a man? Probably not. Do you believe God is a woman? Of course you don’t. However, you are likely to be far more comfortable relating to God as a man than as a woman because centuries of tradition, art and worship have declared God to be male, and for God to be more feminine than masculine would denude God of power. Consequently, this associates women with inferiority, weakness and a lack of power. Unfortunately, this is exactly how Christianity has treated women for the majority of history. This subtlety in language about God shapes a multitude of cultural assumptions and biases about men, women, power and equality that always tip the scales of privilege toward the male experience. Christianity must recognize this, resist it, and refuse to be constrained by a limited vocabulary, and in so doing begin to move closer toward mutuality and gender equality. Rethinking our language is a vital step in the process of rethinking our images, our identities, and who God is.

The powerful metaphors “God is King,” “Jesus is Lord” and “the Kingdom of God” are not only unhelpful, but damaging because of the assumptions they make about who God is, God’s relationship to the world, engendered power structures, and because of the problematic association with a hierarchical and royal relationship which is no longer relevant in the 21st century West and elsewhere.

So what do we do and where do we go from here? It is important to rethink how we speak of God. We cannot escape gender, but we can escape gender exclusivity in a way that matches our language to what we believe about who God is. While one option is to avoid gendered pronouns altogether (using God, Godself, etc.), I think it is important to make use of both male and female pronouns together. That means we need to get comfortable referring to God as She and praying to our Holy Mother. Next, we come up with better metaphors and images and language by which we capture and describe participation in the life of God that makes sense to and values all of our gendered bodies and experiences and reconcile them to Christ. It is through this movement that we will begin to reconcile ourselves to one another, living in mutuality, love, and honor for others.

Lament, Resistance and Prayer

Last week I took on Jesus’ teaching on worry and anxiety in Matthew 6. One of the reasons behind why I think we need to be suspect about this teaching is that it is in tension with the tradition of lament in the First Testament. The psalter contains some phenomenal examples of lament. For reference, look at Psalms 22, 39, 42, 43 and 139 (there are plenty more). The lament psalms create friction with Jesus’ command to not worry or be anxious. Ultimately, the thrust of what Jesus teaches is that God is in control, therefore, one need not be concerned about daily matters and the stuff of life. Sit back. Relax. Take a deep breath. If God clothes the lilies and feeds the ravens, you will be more than taken care of. The problem, though, which I tried to highlight in my post last week, is that there are many many people who are not taken care of. When people are not fed or clothed, or are without a home, do we simply throw up our hands and trust that God is in control while accepting the reality that many will remain hungry and poor? Is that part of God’s plan? We must say no. The lament tradition helps us to relate to God in the face of poverty, hunger, oppression, suffering or darkness. These things are not part of God’s plan. It is not right to claim that the suffering and pain and hurt that mark the human experience is the will of God (or caused by God) and we must resist theological statements that resign to accepting the status quo and the darkness of life as ordained by God, which makes them good, and which insists that God must be praised. Lament calls on God to change the trajectory of history.

The lament tradition insists that:

1. Things are not right in the present arrangement.

2. They need not stay this way but can be changed.

3. The speaker will not accept them in this way, for it is intolerable.

4. It is God’s obligation to change things.[1]

Commenting on Psalm 39, Walter Brueggemann states: 

This Psalm characteristically brings to speech the cry of a troubled earth (v. 12). Where the cry is not voiced, heaven is not moved and history is not initiated. And then the end is hopelessness. Where the cry is seriously voiced, heaven may answer and earth may have a new chance. The new resolve in heaven and the new possibility on earth depend on the initiation of protest. [2]

This changes the face of prayer. How we view God’s interaction and involvement in the world seriously affects the reasons why we pray as well as how we pray.

The following link is to Walter Brueggemann’s article, “The Costly Loss of Lament,” from which the above quotations were taken. Read it. It’s phenomenal.

http://www.friendschurchsw.org/uploads/mod5_brueggemann_on_loss_of_lament.pdf

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1. Walter Brueggemann, “The Costly Loss of Lament,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament vol. 36 (1986), 62.
2. Ibid., 66.