Dr. Arvind Vasavada, my guru and friend, my gentle, generous mentor from my seminary days, used to advise me and his analysands (counseling clients), “Be…
It ain’t necessarily so,
no it ain’t necessarily so.
The things that you’re liable to read in the Bible
It ain’t necessarily so.
Mathusala lived nine hundred years,
yea, Mathusala lived nine hundred years.
But who calls that livin’ when no gal will give in to
No man what’s nine hundred years.
I’m glad to be in a religious tradition where both aspects of this naughty song can be sung in church: the Bible might not be true, and a sex joke. Both fit here, but I want to dwell only on the former today.
We live in a culture that takes the entire Bible as true and laudatory. Yet many of the stories in it are neither, and we need to get past the stuck ness in our thinking and doing because of how we read and use the Bible. We keep getting caught in mental, social and technological dysfunction by giving up our own minds and consciences. We have been taught to be religious we should believe, not behave. Preachers wave their Bibles as if it trumps all other texts – other scriptures, school books, science texts, everything. We are to look to it for meaning, no matter what our needs. This is not just needlessly limiting, it is misleading, even dangerous.
A small Christian church in my neighborhood recently staged a growth campaign by distributing a flyer connected to a light bulb, saying something about Christ being the light of the world. I took it as an innocent and quaint effort, especially in that the bulb was a regular old incandescent type, not the newer energy-efficient compact florescent variety. A really hip church would go beyond even that, directly to a LED light, which takes radically less energy than the compact florescent and emits almost no waste heat.
I do not rail against this church for its dated technology any more than I rail against it for its dated theology. Both are of a by-gone era. But both are indicative of how entrenched old ideas and ways can be. How we get and use our energy and who we are, tending to how we’ll be, tends largely to be stuck in the past.
From our outer technology to our inner intensions, we need a dramatic shift. Old light bulbs and the mostly coal-fired energy that runs them are a thing of the past. Old ideas about who we are and how we’re to be are as well. We need to update both, and quickly. But it is easy to see how misguided and stuck we are when we read the foundational myths and stories that the three theistic religions all read religiously. I have no interest in changing what it says; I want to change how we read and regard it.
Our own Unitarian and Universalist religious traditions are part of the Protestant Reformation founded upon reading the Bible. When very few people could read they left it to the priests to tell them what it says. When printing and reading came along, many discovered what they had been told was wrong. The trinity and hell are the main concepts grown in the traditional orthodoxies but not in the Bible. This cleaving to The Book is a remnant of the early Reformation. However, while many other religions put the Bible as the Word of God, superior to our thinking, our religious traditions advocated we bring our thinking to the Bible.
Bible scholar Bart Ehrman reminds us that more people are committed to the Bible than are knowledgeable about it. Theologian Karen Armstrong reminds us that Americans tend to take religion to be a matter of belief, when it would better be about behavior. Put these two together and we have adamant belief in the Bible without knowing what it says, and what it says isn’t always admirable. I won’t claim to be a biblical scholar; every time I try to read it I get mad at how unethical and cruel the stories are, especially given the automatic response that one should “believe in the Bible.”
When we couldn’t rely on believing those who told us what was in the Bible we began to read and cleave to the book itself. Now, though we could read it for ourselves, we don’t. And when we do read it, we’re prone to fall prey to those who insist it is God’s Word, complete and inerrant, not to be questioned, but believed. Children and adults are taught to bend their thinking to it, not bring their thinking to it, as the UU tradition holds.
Take the book of Genesis. I often note in Genesis One the crucial attribution of “good” is applied by God to all of natural creation at each evolutionary step, but those goods are alienated from us by the confusion of Genesis Two and Three in the Garden of Eden story. I don’t believe any of these are historical; rather, they are mythical. They tell important truths about our psychological and social makeup. I maintain the crucial interpretation of the so-called original sin is exactly backwards, a hundred and eighty degrees off course. We lost God’s goods when we opted for our version of them, alienating us from our own bodies, each other, our garden and our God.
If we pick up the story right there, we find generations of dysfunction. Rather than continue to eat the fruit of knowledge the snake religions offer by telling us to wrap our minds around these lessons, I would have us remember the underlying reality and potential of innate goodness built into nature and us. This is easily missed if we submit our minds to these stories as if lessons from God. The dysfunction isn’t laudable; it’s laughable or lamentable. We shouldn’t put our own minds and consciences aside in order to strengthen our faith; we should sharpen and strengthen them as an act of faith in the innate goodness we were built to develop.
I can see how the conservative mindset would take these stories to demonstrate how fallen and wretched we are. They create and confirm our selfish, sneaky, cruel ways as natural. This creates and rationalizes such ways. We need to be on guard for others acting this way because we know we are this at core. “Do unto others before they can do unto you.” Thus, we create society outside the garden, out where work, toil, pain, shame, and blame all reside, remedied not by acting right, but believing right. The point is to have faith, not be good; it’s belief over behavior. Exactly backwards.
Another way to read these stories is to see them as lessons on how the fallen goods and evils of our misguided knowledge result in generations of trouble, and how we can learn to not do that which we know violates the good we are. Let’s quickly review the stories of the descendents of Adam and Eve.
We remember that God saw Adam covering his nakedness. “Who told you you were naked?” He asks, for there was nothing evil about nakedness. Adam blamed Eve, who blamed the serpent. Expelled, they have two sons. Cain, the farmer, kills his brother Able, the Shepard. He is marked but not punished. Adam and Eve’s third son Seth fathers Enoch who fathers Noah. The incest question as to how they propagate is never asked or answered.
Noah faithfully follows inextricable instructions from God to build an ark so that his seed will prosper. He has no apparent concern for his neighbors. He fathers Han, Shem, and Yafat. When Ham stumbles upon his drunken, nude father, it is Ham (the father of Canaan), not Noah, who is punished and made to serve his brothers for even seeing his father’s nakedness. Again, shame for nudity, and exile, though in this case there is no questioning of the backward ethic, and Ham inherits punishment for an innocent act. Later, Joshua will conquer the people of Canaan. Fratricide grows to genocide.
Abram becomes Abraham and is promised land for his seed. Arriving in Egypt, he lies about his wife, saying she is his sister, whom the pharaoh takes (but does not touch) as a consort. Abraham benefits from this, eventually growing rich, though Sarah remains barren. Thinking he would have no heir, they agree to let him have Hagar, their slave girl, who mothers Ishmael, described as a “wild ass of a man, against everyone.” But then, in her nineties, Sarah births Isaac. Now with a “real” son, Sarah and Abraham exile Hagar and Ishmael to the desert, with only some bread and water, who go on to Egypt and what is now Saudi Arabia. Racism and class-ism pay off for Sarah and Isaac, while Hagar, Ishmael and their descendents contend for justice and success from outside in a tragically stubborn ongoing story.
Abraham believes he is instructed to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac, and starts to, only to find a ram in the bushes to serve as a substitute. But the near act blinds poor Isaac. He marries Rebecca and they have two sons, hairy Esau and mild Jacob. The mother favors the mild boy. She instructs him to trick his blind dad by pretending to be the hairy first born son. This works, and he gets the blessing. His cunning and ambition work. Some twenty years later he encounters his estranged brother. Fearing retaliation, he gets an unexpected forgiveness. Yet Esau’s own initiative and forgiveness are not rewarded or tracked, for the story goes on to follow Joseph to Egypt.
Over and over, the lesson seems to be that lying, trickery, cunning, cruelty, and genocide are all part of God’s plan. Audacity wins the day and sets the course of history. God favors the obedient and forgives the errant. Loyalty and amoral initiative are rewarded. There is no justice. There are the chosen and the damned. The lesson seems: be bad; everyone else is. Create a society balanced by badness. Use shame, blame, and pain as if godly.
One of the early Christian books banned from the New Testament claims the God of the Old Testament is actually evil. We are shocked by such a thesis because of two thousand years of trying to wrap our minds around the odd lessons and inscrutable ways of these and other early scriptures. In Christianity and Islam we are conditioned to believe and submit. We aren’t led to think for ourselves, develop our conscience, and lift up the whole human family. We aren’t reminded we were built to be good, that we can creatively work together for mutual betterment. We aren’t reminded we were born to live in the Garden together, happy, healthy, wealthy, and wise.
Even the brave kindness of Jesus is eclipsed by the faith fanatics like Paul and his line. Compassionate healing and brave forgiveness were modeled by the One Christians claim to be God, yet how easily and eagerly Christianity has reverted to judgment, exclusion, and unjust advantage. From the banning of those early Christian sects and books to the old Crusades to the new ones, we’re subject to be trapped by a frame of mind and the institutions that wield it. We’ve been repeatedly tricked out of our own garden by the subtle deceivers, snakes in vestments. Our humanistic and environmental better impulses are part of the goodness we were built to actualize, yet they’ve been cast as alien to faith. Ironic, eh?
Perhaps the progress we are challenged to actualize is growing up ethically in spite of our scriptures and traditions as much as because of them. The inner God, the God of Nature, calls in us to grow up and live well on our good Earth. Gradually, from within the religious traditions, and from outside them via the Enlightenment and all the science and progressive politics it gave rise to, we learn to transcend the dysfunction is in our scriptures, traditions, institutions, and families. We inherit stubborn momentum in all. We also inherit the abilities to fix them.
My family has its share of dysfunction built in. Irresponsible n’er-do-wells are repeatedly rewarded, while caring, hard-working contributors are used, then abandoned. Kindness is praised but shrewdness pays. Old tensions travel down through the generations. The struggles are hard for some and never there for others. But it’s a functional dysfunction. We learn how to deal with difficulty. We learn how to live well and love well in spite of injustice. For all the problems, my sisters, aunt and mother would get together to be the Funfunctionals, a gathering of women just having fun anyway. In a way, this is representative of humanity transcending the thoughts, systems, and institutions estranged from its own garden.
Yes, we need light in our world, but not hot, wasteful incandescent bulbs run on world-ruining power systems, not when cool, efficient lighting run on welcomed and transformed sunlight is now available. Yes, we need food in our world, but not frankenfood, designed with suicide genes built in, not when we have the resplendent wisdom of organic varieties grown in synergistic ecosystems. Yes, we need wisdom in our world, but not coerced and gullible obedience to blind faith in preposterous notions of the divine, not when we have brains built for ingenuity on top of hearts wired for connection.
Reverend Brad Carrier
For the Unitarian Universalists of Grants Pass
Grants Pass, Oregon
©April 12, 2008