Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Incarnation of God Redefines Our Human Existence

Another Christmas has past, and as we spend the last days of 2011 putting away decorations, returning gifts, and counting down the hours before 2012, it is good for Christians to once again spend time reflecting on the meaning of Christmas, especially after the hoopla of a busy Christmas Day. For centuries, Christians have celebrated this blessed event as the time in which God chose to be with humanity; “Emmanuel, God with us.” Yet, throughout this history, Christians have continually reflected on this event, returning to that story to rediscover what it means to say that God took on human existence.

Historians of Christianity are well aware of the fact that as Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire, the nature of Christ was always at the heart of any theological debates that developed. Yet, you may be surprised to know that in the early days after Jesus departed this earth, and after his first followers died, that the acceptance of Jesus as divine was not a significant problem. Yes, there were some groups, such as the Ebionites, who did not accept the divinity of Jesus. Moreover, a later 4th century movement that originated with a bishop named Arius also did not hold to a divine understanding of Jesus. But for the most part, the earliest Christians believed Jesus to be divine.

The problem for many Christians in the first centuries of the Common Era was accepting that Jesus was human. Such ideas that God could take on human form were deemed by many to be impossible, for how could a god become corporal, incased in a physical body? Moreover, how could a god, believed to be all powerful and all good, take on the flesh of a limited and defiled body?

It is certainly without debate that the writers of the New Testament saw Jesus as human. And yet, despite all of the evidence of his being flesh and blood, we struggle to see Jesus as a human. Perhaps it is not that we struggle to accept that Jesus existed in a human body. The problem is whether we accept his humanity. In other words, while we embrace the fact that Jesus did all the activities that humans do, we may find it very hard to accept Jesus in his humanity, as someone who, at some level, was exactly like us.

I think two significant obstacles hinder us from accepting Jesus in his humanity. One obstacle is that we somehow think we must see Jesus first as God and second as a human. When we think of Jesus, we automatically think first of his divinity. We may more readily gravitate toward the divine side of Jesus because not to do so may make us seem irreverent and unbelieving.

The second obstacle to our accepting Jesus in his humanity is because we cannot see humanity as good, but only as sinful, weak, and evil. After all, the evidence we see around us proves to us that humanity can be weak, sinful, and dreadfully evil. This view clouds our understanding of Jesus as a human and can prevent us from accepting Jesus’ humanity.

The key to overcoming this perspective on Jesus is not to look at humanity and then say that Jesus could not have been human like us. The solution is to look at Jesus in his humanity and allow his humanity to show us what it really means to be human. If Jesus was truly human, then we ought to try and understand what it means to be human as he was human.

If Jesus was human, then he had a body. This is an obvious point to make, but making it demonstrates an important truth for us. If Jesus took on human flesh in the incarnation, then we must affirm that human flesh, i.e., our bodies, are good. This was the problem with some Christian movements in the early church beginning in the second and third centuries. They could not accept that Jesus was both divine and human, for perfect transcendent divinity cannot take on imperfect and defiled flesh. Yet, this seems to be exactly what the New Testament teaches us about the incarnation. The human body became the home of God.

This has major consequences for how we see ourselves. First, rather than seeing ourselves as souls trapped in worthless bodies waiting to escape, we must affirm that our bodies are good. We have somehow been convinced that our bodies are not good, that they are defiled, and that our goodness as humans is only found in our souls that will eventually escape our evil bodies. But the incarnation of God in Jesus loudly proclaims that human bodily existence is good; we are still made in the image of God. This has many implications for how we treat our bodies and how we see life.

But to affirm the humanity of Jesus is also to affirm that Jesus faced the reality of being human. At every twist and turn in his earthly life, Jesus faced the temptation for power, security, and giving up on God’s will for him. And in each temptation there was always the possibility of his failure, and thus the failure of God’s plan for humanity.

But in loving us, God chose to face life as we face life. In the incarnation, God not only took on human flesh; God also chose to face human vulnerability. While the mighty acts of God show us a God who is powerful, the greatest power of God is seen in God’s vulnerability, in God’s weakness, in God facing our human struggle. Indeed, without this vulnerability, God cannot truly love us, for to love another is always to become vulnerable.

If God has truly loved the world, then God has become vulnerable to the struggles of this world. God, in the incarnation of Jesus, has become vulnerable to the pain, suffering, weakness, and rejection that humanity faces. And in doing so, God has redefined what it means to be human.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Singing Mary’s Revolutionary Song

The Nativity is a longstanding symbol of the Advent and Christmas Seasons depicting the holy family gathered together on that blessed night. As we view the scene of the Nativity, our attention is of course drawn to Jesus, the new born babe. Yet, we cannot help but give some attention to Mary, the mother of Jesus, and ponder what thoughts were in her mind that night.

Although Mary is a central figure in Christian history, she is perhaps one of its most enigmatic figures. Much of the problem in our not knowing Mary more fully is that the biblical texts do not offer us a lot of insight into Mary’s life, particularly after Jesus’ childhood. This has given rise to various understandings about Mary, most notably differences between Roman Catholic and Protestant views of her.

We know that the Roman Catholic Church teaches Mary to be in a perpetual state of virginity; which says a little something about some wrongheaded views about Mary’s position. Yes, Roman Catholics hold her in high esteem, but more for her supposed virginity than anything else.

And, we Protestants are no better when it comes to Mary. Instead of holding her in high esteem as the Roman Catholics do, we sort of push her aside. Oh, we celebrate her as the mother of Jesus, but that it is about it. For many Christians, Mary may simply be the incubator of the baby Jesus.

Yet, while Mary remains a mystery to us, beyond her giving birth to Jesus, there is one piece of biblical material that offers us insight into the kind of person Mary may have been. The song of Mary, or as it is known by its Latin title, the Magnificat, is found in Luke 1:46-55, and may give us enough material to help us understand her and her impact on Christianity.

From an historical critical viewpoint, we must admit that Mary may not have actually sung these words. It is probably the case that the author of this Gospel created this poem and placed it on the lips of Mary. However, this does not mean that Mary would not have sung such a song. Indeed, by placing this song on Mary’s lips, the author of Luke’s Gospel may have understood that such a poem fits Mary’s perspective on the birth of her son.

But beyond these historical issues, we are left with this narrative character singing a song that is very personal; expressing her joy for what God was doing in her life. It is a song that comes from deep within her as she responds to the mighty promises of God. It is a song she sings as a result of her hope in what God is doing both in her and through her. Indeed, it is because of the joy that wells inside her that she cannot help but sing this song.

But at the same time that Mary’s song is a song of personal spiritual fulfillment and hope in the promises of God, it is also a very revolutionary song. It is a political song. It is a song about social justice. It is a song about the redistribution of power and wealth. It is, in fact, a politically dangerous song for Mary to sing at her time and at her place in life.

She is a young peasant female who sings as an unlikely and unauthorized prophet, declaring the coming of God. Outside the religious power structures of formal Judaism, this young peasant female sings a song that is a radical shift from the religious messages of her day, and her vision of God is starkly different from that held by the religious establishment.

Her vision of God shaped her understanding that God was turning upside down the normal power structures of her society. Her song announced that the proud and powerful would be cast down from their high places, and the lowly would be lifted up. The hungry would be fed, and the rich would have nothing. She understood that God was coming to alter the economics of her world by redistributing wealth and by overturning the normal politics of her world that were based on status.

This may give us some insight into the kind of person Mary really was. For her to sing a song that is so dangerous and so subversive, and one that is focused on justice for the poor and oppressed of her time, meant that she hungered for justice not just for herself, but for all her people. She witnessed daily the pain and struggle of the marginalized and oppressed poor around her, and she found in God’s visitation of her a sense of hope that things were moving toward God’s justice and peace.

Mary may have understood, however, that it would be through the good acts done by God’s people that the values of her society would radically shift. In other words, because she knew that she and her community could not directly challenge the religious authorities or the Roman powers, she instead believed that through radical living by doing good to those around them, God’s justice would prevail. It would be through living out the ethics of the rule of God in living together as a faithful community that God would reverse the values that shaped her secular society.

Does this sound familiar to you? It should. For what we find buried in Mary’s song is the message of her son, Jesus. Though I have no strong evidence for this, I believe that more than any other person who shaped Jesus’ central message of justice for the poor and freedom for the oppressed, it was Mary’s world view that had the greatest impact on him.

Although we might piously think that Jesus came into the world programmed to know what God desired, I suggest that Mary shaped his way of thinking about God and the world more than any other source. Given what we find in Mary’s song, we cannot help but consider her impact on his thinking, his message, and his actions.

But all of this raises a significant question for us this Christmas Season. While we sing the popular carols of Christmas, do we dare to sing Mary’s song? And if we chose to sing Mary’s song, can we envision and enact a new economy that embodies simplicity and generosity, and a new culture that is characterized by welcoming strangers and loving our neighbors and our enemies?

How would singing Mary’s song alter our American values so that we would instead embrace the values of God and of God’s son Jesus?

Mary’s song is not just her song, and she should not sing it alone. It is a song followers of Jesus are to sing throughout all generations. But we cannot just sing this song, and continue to pay lip service to God. It is a song we are called to live in defiance of the norms of our culture until God’s revolutionary hope for the world is fulfilled.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Living in God’s Kairos

One of the interesting things about the Greek language, which is the language of the New Testament, is that it can use more than one word to describe ideas and things. The concept of time is one of those ideas that is described by two separate words. The Greek terms for time are chronos and kairos, each of which is translated by our English word time. But, there is a difference in these two Greek words.

Chronos is time that continually moves from the past, through the present, and into the future. It is the time that we measure by our clocks and calendars. It is the time that dictates our lives. It is time on the move that cannot be slowed or stopped.

But kairos, the other Greek term for time, describes a present moment in time. It is the now. Kairos is a moment in which something special takes place.

Indeed, a major distinction between these two ideas about time is that, unlike chronos, kairos is no measured by quantity. In speaking of kairos, we are not speaking of the quantity of time, that is, the amount of time. Rather, we are speaking of the quality of time.

For example, if you tell me you went on vacation, I would not ask you how much time you had. I would ask you what kind of time you had. Of course, you could answer the first question with a measurement of time, such as one week. But that is not what is important. What is important is the kind of time you had. That is what you will remember most, not the amount of time.

In Mark 1:14-15 the author gives us a summary of Jesus’ preaching. This is the succinct summary of Jesus’ entire message, and indeed his life and ministry. And, in that message he announces that “the time is fulfilled.” What did Jesus mean by this?

Of the two Greek words the author of Mark could have chosen, he uses kairos, and not chronos. While the statement certainly implies that time has moved forward to this appointed time, we cannot neglect the intentional use and meaning of kairos here. In using kairos, Jesus is thinking not so much about the movement of time to this point, but rather he is speaking in terms of the now. This particular time is THE TIME. This is a special moment in time, and this moment carries with it a sense of urgency.

But, again, the question that concerns us is what did Jesus mean by this statement, “The time is fulfilled”?

Part of our understanding may depend on what Jesus meant when he announced that “the kingdom of God has come near.” In stating that God’s rule has come near, Jesus is saying that in his coming the kingdom is near, but it is not fully here; the kingdom remains somewhat elusive.

This is one reason why Jesus tells his listeners in Matthew 6:33 to “Keep seeking first the kingdom of God.” It is not something that just happens or something that just comes to us. We do not just wake up some day and there it is. Yes, it is present, as Jesus proclaimed it to be. But it is near, and it must be sought with all of our being.

I think this understanding of the nearness of the kingdom of God helps us understand what Jesus meant by his statement that “the time is fulfilled.” Jesus is indicating that the time is now. And though what is taking place in his coming has been promised in the past, the present is what matters. And, although the future is promised by God, the present is what matters.

The past is remembered, and the future is hoped for, both important concepts for faith. But, it is the present, this moment, that is of utmost significance and urgency. This is why Jesus calls us to repent and believe. Now is the moment of salvation, and now is the opportune time to repent and believe.

But for so many of us, we live most of our lives in the chronos, the time that moves on. We move with time, or perhaps we allow time to move us, and we allow chronos to dictate how we live our lives. To a great extent, we allow chronos to devour us.

Jesus, however, calls us to live in the kairos of God’s rule, in this moment, seeking and searching for God with each breath we take and with each moment that passes.

Living in the kairos of God carries with it an emphasis on being in the present. In being in the present, we are fully present to God and to others, putting away the distractions that pull us away from God and that lead us to live insular and selfish lives.

Jesus models this very way of being present. In his healing of people, he was empowered by his sense of presence; a sense of God’s presence, for sure, but also a sense of the presence of those in need. He did not view them as people who were longing just to be healed. He recognized their longing to know the presence of the divine, and he became that presence to them. Those healed and restored experienced this sense of the divine in the presence of Jesus, while those standing around watching Jesus perform these healings asked, “Who is this?”

Jesus’ central message was that the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is near. New Testament scholars coined a phrase many years ago to capture the idea of the rule of God being here, but not fully realized: “Already, but not yet.” The idea is that the rule of God is here, but it is not fully here. We live, then, between the times; the time of Jesus’ advent as the earthly Son of God, and the time of Jesus’ advent as the coming Son of Man.

As God’s chronos moves on and as we live between these times, let us live in God’s kairos, modeling the life of Jesus by being fully present to God and those in need of the divine presence. And, as God’s kairos is continually being fulfilled, and as God’s rule continually draws near, let us continually repent and evermore believe in the good news that God has come.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

What Does It Mean to Say that Scripture is Inspired by God?

In response to a recent article I wrote on the subject of biblical interpretation that appeared on, a person identifying himself as a professor of biblical studies wrote to me in an email in which he said that he was going to use my article in his class on biblical interpretation as a demonstration of “the fallacy of the liberal hermeneutic and mindset.” I took that as a complement, and not as a criticism, which I assume he intended.

Though I do not know this person, I assume that he and I have many different views about the nature of Scripture and how we ought to read Scripture and to what extent Scripture should be authoritative in formulating Christian theology and practice. At the heart of the matter, I would assume, is perhaps our differing views on what Christians mean by the inspiration of Scripture.

In talking about the inspiration of Scripture, the go-to text is Second Timothy 3:16, where the author writes, “All scripture is inspired by God.” The word translated as “inspired” literally means “God-breathed,” and although the author of these words would have been speaking specifically about the Hebrew Scriptures, Christians have long recognized that inspired Scripture also includes the New Testament.

Of course, saying that the texts that make up the Canon of Scripture are inspired raises the question concerning what this means. Addressing such a question has led to various theories that have been proposed to describe the action of divine inspiration. From those theories that view the Scriptures as produced by gifted human authors, to the idea that God gave a message to the author, who then used his own words in writing the text, to the theory that God dictated every particular word of the text, each hypothesis has been debated by theologians across the spectrum of Christian thought.

While the verse from Second Timothy clearly states that “All scripture is God-breathed,” this does not mean that we must accept the idea that every word was dictated by God to each human author, who then recorded those words. Many may hold to the idea that God inspired every word of the text, but this is a matter of one’s personal faith. It is certainly not compulsory to believe this, and one’s critical approach to Scripture or to any theory of divine inspiration does not in and of itself negate one’s faith in God. To suggest that the text is as much a human creation as a divine one does not make one less faithful in one’s belief in God.

In fact, since we must work in the realm of historical probability, the texts of the Bible actually give more evidence of human involvement in their production than they do of divine inspiration. This does not mean that we need to throw out divine inspiration altogether; but it does mean we ought to rethink what we mean.

A fundamental question that I think we must ask which may help us rethink the nature of the inspiration of Scripture concerns why the writers of the books of the Bible wrote these texts, and why they wrote what they wrote. What we have are these texts, and from these texts we can, at least at some level, try and answer the question of the purpose for the existence of these texts, which may help us understand how these texts came forth from the religious experiences of the authors and communities that formulated them. To answer these questions it might be helpful to consider why the two communities that produced the two portions of what is now the Christian Bible would have done so.

Obviously, we must speak here in generalities when we talk about ancient Israel, from whom we received the Hebrew Bible, and early Christianity, from whence comes the New Testament. Across the history of both of these communities, but particularly the longer history of ancient Israel, there was much diversity that is woven into the text of Scripture; diversity that offers us somewhat differing views about God.

The people of Israel viewed themselves as different from the other nations that surrounded them. Indeed, they were distinctly different from these nations, particularly when it came to religion. There is no known ancient civilization that was not religious, but Israel may have been the first ancient people who were monotheistic; although some have argued that Zoroastrianism, another monotheistic religion, may have predated Israel’s adoption of monotheism.

Israel believed their god was supreme over other gods, and that their god had created the physical world from nothing and had chosen them as a covenant people. This belief certainly influenced their understanding of the world and other peoples, and it most assuredly influenced the texts they produced.

To put it succinctly, the text of the Hebrew Bible came forth from the people of Israel in response to what they believed about God and what God was doing. In other words, they were theologically interpreting their own history, and they were telling their history from a theological point of view.

Their understanding of God and the world influenced the way they told their stories, from the creation story, to the flood story, to the Exodus story, to the stories of conquering the land of Canaan through violence, and the stories of their Exile and their return.

In approaching an understanding of the writing of the New Testament books, we must remember two things. First, the earliest followers of Jesus were Jewish, as was, of course, Jesus, and hence any faith that would develop from their experiences must have some connection to ancient Israel and its texts. Second, because these earliest followers of Jesus believed him to be God’s Son, the promised Messiah of Israel, they must be able to explain this in relation to what is expressed about the Messiah in the Hebrew Bible.

In holding onto these two important ideas, the authors of the books that would become the New Testament searched the Hebrew Bible in an attempt to understand and explain Jesus. While some like to think that the Hebrew Bible foretold the coming of Jesus, it is probably more accurate to say that those earliest believers in Jesus saw in him what they believed was described about the Messiah in the Hebrew Bible.

These early Christian authors were doing what one scholar refers to as “messianic exegesis”, which means that they were creatively reading the Hebrew Bible in ways that were probably not intended by the original authors of those texts. These early Christians formulated their stories about Jesus to define his life, teachings, death and resurrection as the fulfillment of God’s ancient promises to Israel. Thus, their experience of Jesus influenced their reading of the Old Testament and their writing of the texts that would become the New Testament.

What all of this means is that the text of Scripture, what we call the Bible, is the inspired Word of God in the sense that it contains the stories of how God’s ancient peoples believed God to be working in the world. The Bible is the explanation of the mysteries of God envisioned by these historically situated humans. Their religious experiences, whether these can or cannot be verified, led them to write these texts in response to what they believed about God.

This means that the Bible that comes down through history to us was at every point along its development a human enterprise that is limited in what it can define about God. A book cannot contain all there is to know and say about God and the various texts that make up the Bible reveal God and God’s will differently. That is, none of them see God in exactly the same way, and none of them can express the full nature of God’s being.

This does not mean that we should throw out these ancient texts, for they still serve to reveal many things about God, particularly for Christians who see Jesus as the revelation of God. But, it does mean that as modern readers of these ancient texts, who have different kinds of experiences, and who see the world vastly different from these ancient authors and communities, we must approach these texts critically in order to assess how they are God breathed today.

Monday, December 5, 2011

God on the Loose

People tend to be control freaks. We like to control our circumstances, and we certainly like to control other people. From a religious stand point, we Christians may also be guilty of trying to control God. We like to put God in a box, as they say, defining God on our terms. Our reasons for doing this may vary, but I think two stand out.

First, we like to control God because that helps us make life, and its many ups and downs, manageable. We say things like, “God will work everything out” or “I know God will take care of me.” There is truth to these statements, of course, but, they are still ways that we seek to control God.

But perhaps the chief reason we seek to control God, or at least the definition of who God is, is that it assures us that we believe in the right God, as opposed to others who believe in the wrong God. This too gives us comfort to know that we are on God’s side. But it also allows us to believe we have control over others, particularly their eternal fate.

In the opening of Mark’s Gospel we find a story that is common to the first three Gospels. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all three tell the story of John the Baptizer, who is, as his title describes him to be, baptizing in the wilderness. Many are coming out to John to receive this baptism, and, as we know very well, Jesus also comes out to be baptized by John.

While all three of the Synoptic Gospels speak of Jesus coming out to be baptized, and all three tell of a voice coming from heaven, there is a stark difference in the ways that Matthew and Luke tell about the opening of the heaven, and the way Mark narrates this cosmological phenomenon. While both Matthew and Luke tell us that the heavens opened, Mark uses a word that is more vivid and expressive of what he believes about the coming of Jesus.

Mark tells us that when Jesus comes forth from the baptismal waters, the heavens are torn apart. The verb that Mark uses communicates that the heavens were not simply opened, only to close again. No, the heavens are ripped apart, which implies that they can never be closed again.

What does he mean by such a dramatic picture of what happens at the baptism of Jesus? What is Mark trying to tell us about the coming of Jesus through his colorful narration of what happens to the heavens when Jesus comes out of the baptismal waters?

To begin to answer these questions, we need to have an understanding of the way the ancients saw the world. The ancients had a different topographical perspective of the world than we do. They saw the universe as existing in two realms. Humans and other created things existed in the world of the physical earth.

However, beyond the realm of earth, in the firmament, or what we call the heavens, God lived and reigned. God, being holy other, could not exist among sinful humans, and thus God remained separate and distinct from the rest of creation. And, it would have been unheard of for God to cross the boundary.

Indeed, such ideas about the boundaries that separated the holy from the profane characterized much of Judaism at the time of Jesus. The Pharisees, as we see them in the Gospel narratives, were enforcers of the law to the extent that they enforced strict interpretations of the law. This is why Jesus raises their ire when he does things like healing on the Sabbath or eating with tax collectors and sinners. Jesus’ actions passed over and even tore down the boundaries between that which the Pharisees saw as holy and pure and that which they viewed as profane and unclean.

We can also see boundaries in the temple. The temple was set up with physical boundaries that were intended to keep the temple sacred, but in reality those boundaries separated and left out many folks from the temple and its religious significance. This is the reason that Jesus storms the temple, calling it a den of thieves, when its purpose is to be a house of prayer for all people.

In fact, in Mark’s narration of Jesus’ death, the veil, that grand boundary marker that hung in the temple to separate the Holy of Holies from the rest of the temple, a place that no one but the high priest could enter and only once a year, was torn apart when Jesus takes his last breath. The word used to narrate this tearing of the veil is the same word used to describe the tearing open of the heavens at the baptism of Jesus. The veil is ripped from top to bottom, never to be repaired again. The tearing of the veil opens the way for all to enter into the holy presence of God.

Mark’s purpose in all of this is to say to his readers, including those of us who still long for God to be near, is that God cannot be found in heaven, hidden behind the clouds, and God certainly cannot be found in a temple, hidden behind a veil. In fact, God cannot be contained in any bordered area of existence. God will not be closed in. God has crossed over. God is now on the loose.

Where is God on the loose in our world? In a world that seems torn apart by the chaos of evil, where is God on the loose? Has God returned to the safety of heaven, where God can choose to ignore the chaos that evil causes in our world?

As Christians, we hold to the belief that in the coming of Jesus, God has come to our world. Jesus is called Emmanuel, God with us. And the same spirit that descended from the tear in heaven onto Jesus has been given to us.

God is not in heaven. God is here. God is in you, and God is in me.

God is on the loose in the faithful and radical living of the followers of Jesus, who refrain from controlling God, and who are open to God’s continual and unexpected movement in our world.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

A Critical Interpretation of the Bible Shapes Meaningful Theology

There are many reasons people may read the Bible, but for people of faith, the ultimate and constant reason for reading the Bible is theological. Most who read the text, or hear the text read, believe it to have something to say about God and God’s engagement with humanity.

Indeed, the Bible exists, both in its parts and in its whole, not primarily for historical or literary purposes, but because both the parts and the whole of the Bible offer the historically situated authors’ views on God and how God relates to humanity. In other words, the authors of the different books of the Bible present primarily a theological perspective of life from their own world.

But the very existence of the Christian sacred texts from any and every tradition indicates that the stories of the Bible are not just about the events, characters, and times of their own era. These stories extend beyond their own frames of reference to communicate a belief in God’s good future in which each generation can find hope in the midst of the challenges of human existence.

So, if the primary purpose for writing the books of the Bible and for reading these books is theological, then how should we read these ancient texts that were written by historically situated humans who would not have envisioned the world in which we live? Do we take what they say about God at face value, or should we be open to fresh understandings of God?

One important step to reading the Bible theologically is to embrace a critical approach to biblical interpretation. Fundamentalist Christians and some conservative believers refuse the findings and methods of modern biblical scholarship, believing them to be human created methods intended to refute and corrupt what the Bible says. But a critical approach to reading scripture is not only appropriate, it is also necessary when one is seeking to develop relevant theological thinking.

A critical approach involves several components that contribute to viable and meaningful interpretations. Reading the Bible critically means giving close attention to the historically conditioned nature of the biblical texts and the authors who penned them. These authors, and the texts they produced, reflect a different worldview than ours. They viewed the cosmos differently, history differently, and the experience of the divine differently than we do today. Thus, any faithful readings, and the theology that develops from those readings, must take into account the assumptions these authors had that we no longer have.

This means that we cannot always read the Bible literally, for the Bible is not necessarily historically or scientifically accurate in everything it says. While developing our theology from the scriptures must demonstrate integrity with the historical meaning of the text, our readings are not bound by those original meanings as we seek to bring theological relevancy to our own context.

For example, to read the creation story from Genesis as a literal telling of the beginnings of our universe and human existence is no longer valid. Not only is the story not scientific, to read it as answering questions that science is more capable of answering, really takes the focus off of the poetic and theological richness of the story.

Another very relevant example would be those texts that encourage and even command inequalities, oppression and violence. To continue to support the validity of those passages that legitimate prejudices, violence, or oppression against groups based on gender, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation is no longer acceptable.

Yet, as we read and interpret the text of scripture in order to shape our theological thinking in our own context, we must also recognize our own presuppositions. Each of us reads from our own ideologies that are often culturally transmitted to us. When we approach the biblical text, we do so with these presuppositions and ideologies, which often find their way into our reading texts of scripture without realizing it.

We often do not recognize such ideologies and presuppositions, and in not doing so, we cling to misunderstandings and misinterpretations of biblical passages that are not true to the text or a critical approach to its interpretation.

Indeed, such misinterpretations may be so deeply embedded in our cultural locations that they may be hard to set aside. They are often like a pair of old spectacles that have become a part of who we are and through which we see everything. If we are to read the texts faithfully in order to shape a more relevant and meaningful theology, we must take them off, at least for the purpose of seeing the text differently.

A primary step in doing this is to read the text of scripture in a community that may offer challenges to our individual understandings. A text of scripture does not have a single meaning limited to authorial intent, and no one person has greater authority in interpreting a text of scripture. A scriptural passage may have a multiplicity of valid theological meanings, and reading in community can help us see other meanings.

Yet, while we can read them in the communities we call our churches, this may only reinforce the same presuppositions. Others from our community wear similar glasses, for we typically associate with those who look like us, talk like us, and are from the same social and economic situations.

Reading the text with people from other races, other religions, other cultures, other genders, other sexual orientations, other social and economic conditions, and other ways of thinking about God and humanity can help us recognize our presuppositions and assist us in seeing the text vastly different.

We need not be defensive of our faith and particularly of the Bible when someone challenges our thinking. Rather, we should listen carefully and be open to different points of view from others who understand God quite differently than we do, or from others who do not believe in God at all. Reading the text with those both inside and outside our community can offer us a way of seeing fresh interpretations that shape a theological thinking that is more relevant to our world.