13 March 2014

Living the Questions—Review 4

In this series, we’re reviewing the book, Living the Questions: The Wisdom of Progressive Christianity, by David M. Felten and Jeff Procter-Murphy. In this post, we’re starting the second section, Reconciliation. We’ll be reviewing chapters 8 - 10.

Chapter 8: Restoring Relationships
Felten and Procter-Murphy start this chapter by looking at the word religion. On page 73 they write,

The Latin word re-ligio means to relink, to reconnect. To reconnect, relink, and restore people to relationship with one another and to the Divine is the heart of religion. Our stories, rituals, ceremonies, and traditions grow out of our collective effort to understand just what it takes to be re-ligio-ed. Central to the biblical tradition is the notion that truth doesn’t come to us primarily as fact, creed, or scripture. It is best conveyed through story.

Fantastically stated! When we think of “religion” today, we have images of extremes — either Christian or non-Christian. And I really appreciate how they point to what religion is really supposed to be about. I’m not suggesting, and I don’t think they are either, that “religion,” as it has taken shape in our time and space, is about this reconnection. Today, religion seems more about disconnection, de-linking, and severing relationships with each other, the Divine, and our planet. But, like most things, it didn’t start out that way. And in a lot of places, for many, many people, religion is a reconnection to G‑d, each other, and creation.

Felten and Procter-Murphy continue on with this idea in the way of story. They claim that there are “three major [biblical] themes”:

[Marcus] Borg explains that for the ancient Hebrews enslaved in Egypt, the problem was bondage. Since what was needed was liberation, the tale of the Exodus became one of the most important stories for ancient Israel. For those removed to Babylon after the destruction of Jerusalem, the problem was exile. The solution was maintaining a sense of identity in a foreign land, and if possible, a journey of return. For those grounded in the institution of rituals of the Temple, the problem was sin and guilt. The solution was forgiveness. Individually and collectively, says Borg, these stories serve as the thematic wellspring from which stream the major stories of the biblical tradition (pg. 73).

Felten and Procter-Murphy then spend a few pages on each of these themes.

Emilie Townes likes to talk about liberation as a journey. She says, “For me liberation become the process of coming into awareness that there is definitely a better life for people to be had, not just for myself but really for all of us, and that the church should be part of that and where it is not, it is not the church” (pg. 77; emphasis added).

Exactly. This was one of the hardest concepts for me to grasp (and many others like me). When one is brought up in a religious setting that’s primarily focused on the “afterlife,” one doesn’t really think about making things better for others in this life. But Townes is spot on. Just a cursory reading of the gospels will show that this was one of the main points of Jesus. When we, as people who claim to follow The Way of Jesus, don’t have that as one of our main points, then I agree with Townes, we aren’t being the church. At least, not in the way those earlier followers were.

Next, Felten and Procter-Murphy pick up the theme of exile and return. I particularly like their treatment on this theme, as I believe this to be one of the major themes that carries throughout the entire biblical narrative. I wish they would have spent more time on it (but, I suppose, that’s why there’s people like Tom Wright!).

After exploring ever so slightly the idea of exile and return with the Babylonian conquest and subsequent captivity of Israel in 587 BCE, Felten and Procter-Murphy observe:

This, however, is not the only biblical story with the theme of exile and return. The authors of Genesis explored exile and return in the story of Eve and Adam’s banishment from the Garden. The newly self-conscious humans were not only evicted from Eden, but were cast into a world of anxiety and alienation from one another and the Divine. The journey of return is then played out over  the length and breadth of the Bible as human beings seek to reconnect with the idyllic vision of life in Paradise (pg. 78).

So true. The book of Isaiah takes up this theme with references to Yahweh’s return and the restoration of creation (Isaiah 65-66), as does the book of Malachi. The New Testament picks up on this idea as well from the remarks of Jesus in Matthew 24 (and parallels) to Peter in the second letter to John in Revelation 21.

For the remainder of this chapter, Felten and Procter-Murphy deal with “sin and forgiveness” and the idea of “atonement.” They define “atonement” as, “The theological concept that describes the healing of the once-estranged relationship between God and humanity” (pg. 78). The go on to say that atonement was “[said] to be achieved for Christians through the ‘work’ of Jesus (not his life and ministry, but his self-sacrificing death)” (ibid.).

I disagree with their parenthetical statement here. From my reading of the New Testament, it was the entire life of Jesus — his “life and ministry” and “his self-sacrificing death” that makes up atonement. In Philippians 2, Paul stated that Christ, “emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings. When he found himself in the form of a human, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (2.1-11). From this we see that it’s both his life as a servant and his obedience “to the point of...death on a cross” that encapsulates the whole way of atonement.

Felten and Procter-Murphy don’t go into much detail about the different views of atonement because they’ll be addressing it more fully in chapter 11. Needlesstosay, they disagree with the majority theory of “substitutionary” atonement in most American churches today. They conclude this chapter emphasising the “biblical witness offers us diverse solutions to our diverse problems” (pg. 81). That’s absolutely right and something I’ve stressed over and over again.

Chapter 9: The Prophetic Jesus

It’s no accident that the words most frequently recorded in Hebrew scripture are, “Do not be afraid.” Neither is it an accident that the second most frequently recorded passage in Hebrew scripture is the admonition to “care for the orphan, the widow, and the stranger” (pg. 82).

So begins this chapter and it’s fantastic! It’s a marvelous chapter and could’ve been a book all by itself. Continuing on:

[Speaking] out on behalf of people who have no power or advocates has never been popular with respectable society. The prophets and other biblical sources make it clear that care for the downtrodden is the duty of the people of God. But is has always been much easier to make the spiritual life about following specific rules and embracing whatever priorities the community deems as reputable. Confronting the shortcomings of one’s culture of society has never been a popular path (pg. 83).

They go on to talk about how Jesus was that prophetic voice in the first-century. It was because of this that they call him “a troublemaker” (ibid.) and bucked the systems of his day.

He offered a firsthand relationship with the Divine that bypassed the religion of ritual that was the Sadducees’ bread and butter. He ignored the Pharisees’ interpretations about what was acceptable to do or not do on the Sabbath. He flew in the face of the Deuteronomic Code of divine earthly retribution and forgave people’s sins. And most troubling of all, he not only associated with the wrong kind of people — sinful, impure, disreputable — he even ate with them (pg. 84)!

After so many good points, Felten and Procter-Murphy  once more make a derogatory statement. On page 85 they say, “If you haven’t been made uncomfortable by the teachings of Jesus, you probably haven’t read them” (emphasis added). I think this is unnecessary. Perhaps they’re trying be funny (and we all know how that works in written format!). But again, just because some have a differing view doesn’t meant that they’re not reading the text. It just means they view the text differently. They bounce back like previously and that makes these little jabs so unfortunate. They’re not needed. We can disagree with people without being disrespectful.

On page 89, Felten and Procter-Murphy have a great summation of Jesus, in my opinion. It’s one that I wish more of us have. They write, “Jesus always points beyond himself. He invites people to follow him, to imitate him in his commitment to the least and the last, and in his passion to put the mystery of God at the center of one’s life.” Beautiful.

Chapter 10: Evil, Suffering, and a God of Love
This is such a tough subject. And Felten and Procter-Murphy handle it very well. They start off with this quote from Robert McAfee Brown,

Whatever the status of evil in the world, I know that the
only God in whom I can believe will be a God found
in the midst of evil rather than at a safe distance from it;
suffering the evil rather than inflicting it.

And while they do offer some really good examples of people enduring extremely difficult situations (Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel and Rabbi Harold Kushner) with powerful insight into G‑d’s presence in the midst of suffering, they conclude, “Bad things happen — often without explanation” (pg. 96). They use Luke 13 and the “two calamities” that appear there as the basis for this and place in Jesus’ mouth the words, “Look, they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.” The problem with this assessment is that’s not Jesus’ meaning in Luke 13. Not by a long shot. There, it’s written:

Some who were present on that occasion told Jesus about the Galileans whom Pilate had killed while they were offering sacrifices. He replied, “Do you think the suffering of these Galileans proves that they were more sinful than all the other Galileans? No, I tell you, but unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did. What about those eighteen people who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them? Do you think that they were more guilty of wrongdoing than everyone else who lives in Jerusalem? No, I tell you, but unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did.”

Jesus’ point is not that “bad things happen — often without explanation.” His point was that his contemporaries would experience the judgement of Yahweh if they didn’t “change [their] hearts and lives” because they weren’t any holier than those other people. In other words, his point was the self-righteousness of those listening to him. He used those examples to point that out; not to claim that those people “were in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

However, despite this misstep, Felten and Procter-Murphy offer some really good information when trying to understand trauma, disaster, or other kinds of unexplainable loss and pain. After showing how some view natural disasters as G‑d’s punishment or threat of some future judgement, they write:

These shockingly offensive attempts to offer superficial answers in light of catastrophes of such magnitude make it clear that if we are going to make any sense of a post-tsunami, post-Katrina, post-any-natural disaster God, then God needs to be understood quite differently (pg 97).

I couldn’t agree more. The thing is, when looking at the Bible, people who didn’t understand weather patterns or climate change “knew” that G‑d was the one who brought the drought or flood that wiped out their crops and brought devastation to the families and communities. These are the same people who believed that if you didn’t appease the right god, something worse would happen. However, we know differently. Part of our job today, as followers of The Way of Jesus, is to blend what we know about science and what we know about Jesus. As Felten and Procter-Murphy state on page 99:

Our call as compassionate people of faith is to work toward overcoming evil and injustice in whatever forms they manifest themselves and to stand as witnesses to the presence of God. As we do all we can to facilitate healing and reconciliation, offering comfort in a hurting world, we become the embodiment of an answer to the question, Where is God when bad things happen?

I couldn’t agree more.

Well, that’s it for now. Next time we’ll look at chapters 11 - 13.

In the Love of the Three in One,

Br. Jack+, LC

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.

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