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Friday, November 13, 2015

Mind-Blowing Interpretions for 2 Familiar Bible Stories

Image description: group of women dancing at a club or some such location
Image source.
I read a couple of really interesting posts about bible interpretation this week. They were about bible stories I've read a million times, but interpreted in mind-blowing ways I've never heard before. This is so cool! Here they are:

First, there are these two posts that the Slactivist (Fred Clark) wrote about the parable of the prodigal son: Invisible dancing after an invisible famine and Come hear the music. Come join the dance.

In the first post, Clark talks about how many American Christians can hear this story many times throughout their lives and never notice the famine. We see it as a story about how the younger son made bad, sinful choices and wasted his money, and so of course he ended up suffering for it. That's just how it works. It was 100% his own fault.

But... the famine. Does the story actually say the son suffered for his own sin? Or he suffered because there just happened to be a famine in that land?

Furthermore, the post cites a study comparing American readers to those from other cultures. As it turns out, Tanzanians focused on the way that residents of that "distant country" refused to help the younger son during the famine. They exploited him when he was in need. Wow, isn't that terrible?

You guys, wow, I never would have thought that. Wow. And you know what, modern American culture is very individualistic- everybody is supposed to take care of themselves. But in other cultures, hospitality is a really big deal. I live in China, and, well, being white in China is really complicated and I'll blog about it someday, but one thing that happens fairly often is people treat me special because I'm a "guest". In the Ancient Near East, caring for guests was also a big deal.

So when Jesus' original audience heard "So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything," did they think "well yeah, these are the consequences of sin"- which I always assumed was the clear meaning of this verse- or did they think "isn't it terrible that nobody helped him?"

Wow.

And this whole section from Clark's post is fantastic:
Emphasizing the younger son’s prodigality and ignoring the famine and the fact that no one helped him is also, of course, a self-serving reading of this parable — or, at least, a self-reassuring reading. It carries all the fear-turned-to-self-congratulation of white American Christianity’s just-world fallacy. That starts with the fear of destitution and calamity, staved off with the reassuring hope that such things can be avoided by diligence and moral rectitude. That curdles into the notion that those facing destitution and/or calamity must therefore be lacking in diligence and moral rectitude — that they must, somehow, deserve their poverty and deprivation. To think otherwise would be to allow that fear to return in greater strength. This victim-blaming notion of deserved destitution, in turn, reinforces the reassuring idea that we must, somehow, be exemplary creatures with superior diligence and moral rectitude.
In his second post, Come hear the music. Come join the dance., Clark imagines American Christians who condemn LGBT people are the older son in the story:
In the story, he’s all alone out there, but he’s hardly alone in the white evangelical churches of America. Millions of good, obedient Christians are standing with him out there in the dark, angry and refusing to join the party.

Many others are out there, too, but they don’t share the older son’s anger. They can hear the music and dancing inside and they want to go in to join the party. They really wish they could. But they’re convinced they’re not allowed to.

They’re convinced the Bible says, unambiguously and emphatically, that they’re not allowed to. And they’re convinced that they must therefore obey whatever the Bible says, whether they like it or not. So while they may not be quite as angry, they still refuse to go in, remaining out there in the dark, furtively tapping one foot to the music occasionally and then feeling guilty about that.
Clark mentions J.R. Daniel Kirk as an example of a Christian who, after a long theological struggle, finally decided to "join the party." Kirk, a New Testament professor, recently published a post where he explains why he believes in the full equality of LGBT people in the church. It's good stuff.

I find it interesting that Clark would compare the party in Luke 15 to accepting LGBT people just as they are. The way I always read the prodigal son story, the most important part was the younger son's repentance. He confessed his sin and told his father he's unworthy- THAT is what you need to do to get God's blessing. The older brother was unhappy because it's not fair to forgive and throw a party for him- regardless of whether or not he has repented.

But in Clark's analogy, God has accepted and embraced LGBT people without any repenting going on. Without any "oh I lived a sinful lifestyle before, but now I'm coming back to God." The entire point is that it's NOT a sin to identify as LGBT, to have a relationship with someone of the same gender, to undergo gender transition, etc. And the evangelicals are unhappy because how dare those people think that God approves of them breaking God's rules.

So is the prodigal son clearly a story about "if you sin, you suffer, if you repent, God throws a party and accepts you back, no matter what you've done"? Is it only a story about repentance? Or could it be something else? Could it be about celebrating people, no matter if we think they're "breaking the rules", because God has already accepted them?

The other post I read was this one, by David Henson: 6 Reasons Why Ben Carson’s Tax Plan is NOT Biblical (The Exploitative Politics of the Widow’s Mite). Here's what he says:
The widow’s mite is a symbol of economic exploitation, not of sacrificial giving.

The widow is not an icon of generosity, but a victim of the wealthy.
Wow.

He links to a post, Rich scribes and poor widows: reading Mark 12.38-44 with Ched Myers and Addison Wright, which has all the long and bible-scholar-y reasons for this interpretation.

Basically, Jesus had just said "Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation." Then he sees this widow and tells his disciples, she gave all she had to live on.

In other words, "Look at this widow giving her last coins. This is what I was talking about when I said 'they devour widows' houses'."

Wha...?

I always read the story in this way: "Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on. Isn't that great?" I'm just now realizing the "Isn't that great?" is nowhere in that passage.

I thought it was a story about how we should give our money to God, even if we have very little, because God sees how much it cost us and is pleased with our sacrifice.

But Henson explains that it is a story about how the concept of the tithe exploits the poor.

Wow.

Wow... I'm speechless. I mean, seriously, wow, just go read the whole thing.

In a post I wrote a while back, I said "My point is, for those of us coming out of this "traditional view of hell", we need someone to teach us an entirely new way to read the bible." And yes, exactly, that's what I need. I've read the parable of the prodigal son so many times, and I always imagined its message to be the same as that of the bridge diagram. It was an our-sin-separates-us-from-God-so-you-need-to-hit-rock-bottom-and-repent story. It was a gospel presentation. Clearly. And the widow's mite was clearly saying we need to give sacrificially even when we don't have enough money.

I'm really happy to discover there are other ways to read these stories. I've read the bible many times and I know it all so well, but I need to relearn the entire thing.

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