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’ll be reviewing chapters 17-18.
Chapter 17: Incarnation — Divinely Human
While this chapter is title “Incarnation,” Felten and Procter-Murphy start out unraveling the birth stories we have about Jesus. They start by saying, “We really don’t know the what, where, or how of Jesus’s birth” (pg. 175). And while that’s true in one way, it’s definably untrue in another. That is, if we take the biblical record into account and hold that it matters.
For example, on the next page, Felten and Procter-Murphy state:
We haven’t even begun to consider the multitude of other Gospels that didn’t make the cut into the canon of scripture. Some were left out for theological reasons, some for political reasons, but most were dropped when the church was trying to develop an identity and, in modern terms, spin the story of Jesus in the third and fourth centuries.
And while this is (basically) true, it’s the way they state it that leaves a bad taste in my mouth. When they claim that the church “spun the story of Jesus,” they must be aware that to “spin” a story is a negative thing in most people’s minds. It’s like the ones doing the spinning are trying to cover up something, to hide something that would be better off not coming into the light of public scrutiny (think of any political story where it was spun to hide a discrepancy or crime of a politician).
Furthermore, to my mind, Felten and Procter-Murphy are guilty of that very thing in the above paragraph, i.e., spinning the story. All they say about the canonization of the Bible is found in the above paragraph. To be fair, they should have fleshed out their different categories. What do they mean by “theological reasons,” “political reasons,” and “church identity”? They don’t elaborate, leaving one only to speculate (if one’s so inclined).
Felten and Procter-Murphy then go on to discuss various birth stories in the “other Gospels.” But that just makes the issue more frustrating. As quoted above, they claim that we don’t really know a lot about the birth of Jesus (because, supposedly, the canonized Gospels aren’t reliable), but then quote “other Gospels” to show where we supposedly get a lot of our traditional ideas about the birth of Jesus. So which is it? Do we really know about the birth of Jesus or not? Why do they place more emphasis on the “other Gospels” than those found in the canon? Again, no answers are provided to these questions. And, although there’s not an “intentional effort to deceive” people (pg. 178), they quote Culver “Bill” Nelson stating that when the Hebrew scriptures were being translated into Greek, “the Greek translators...made a mistake” (pg. 178). Nelson goes on to explain:
When they were translating the Hebrew writings into the Greek Septuagint and similar translations, they converted the Hebrew word almah as the Greek equivalent of our English word for virgin. Almah appears nine other times in the Hebrew scriptures. In each case it means “young woman.” When the scriptures referred to a virgin (and they do over fifty times) they always used the Hebrew word betulah. So Isaiah appears to have referred to a young woman become pregnant, a rather ordinary event (pgs. 178-179).
So, again, if this was “an honest mistake,” why spend so much time quoting the “other Gospels” to ascertain the birth story? If it’s just an “honest mistake,” show that, correct it, and move on. But, with one stroke, in my view, Felten and Procter-Murphy set themselves up for a bigger problem with the New Testament writers — namely the New Testament writers quote extensively from the Septuagint! That was the version of the scriptures they had! To me, it brings the whole New Testament into question. Which is fine for some people. But it begs another question: Why be a follower of Jesus at all? How do we “know” anything about his life? Why would we want to emulate him? Follow him? Did “Jesus” even existed? Some would argue that this is their whole point — that Jesus didn’t exist. And, again, that’s fine if others want to believe that. But that’s not Felten and Procter-Murphy’s point. Their point is to show that one doesn’t have to believe in the “virgin birth” story of Jesus to be a follower of Jesus. And I agree. But, it begs another question — why should we follow him and his way of living and being? Because he was a “good person”? Because he was an exceptional teacher of great wisdom? If that’s all he was, then what’s the point? I mean, the New Testament writers paint a very different picture of Jesus than that.
In addressing that very point — the view that the New Testament writers saw Jesus as something more than “just a man” — Felten and Procter-Murphy state that Jesus himself would have been appalled at such an idea. On page 182, they wrote:
As a monotheistic Jew himself, it doesn’t make any sense that the historic Jesus would have even considered such a claim. It’s not surprising, though, taking into account the propagandistic nature of the New Testament writings, that Godlike status was soon attributed to Jesus...The humble mortal we call Jesus would likely be horrified at his deification by generations of well-meaning followers.
First, who is this “historic Jesus” and how do we know of him? It’s these back and forth positions that leave me seasick! Maybe I just don’t like their writing style but it seems that Felten and Procter-Murphy want to “eat their cake and have it, too.” If the source material is questionable, and so far, they’ve questioned almost everything we “know” about Jesus, how can they even claim there’s such person as the “historical Jesus”?
Second, concerning monotheism — The Hebrew scriptures, right from the beginning, bring in a mystery. They state that “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth...and the Spirit of God hovered over the surface of the water” (Genesis 1.1-2; CJB*). And, “Let us make humankind in our image, in the likeness of ourselves…” (Genesis 1.26; CJB; emphasis added).They go on to talk about G‑d as Wisdom personified (Proverbs 8), as Yahweh taking the form of a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night (Exodus 13.21), and some Jews even hold that the Torah is a manifestation of Yahweh (see here and here and here). Does this mean that they were/are not monotheistic? No. Neither does this mean the New Testament writers weren’t monotheistic when they state that Jesus is the “visible image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1.15; NLT). Those writers, who were primarily Jewish and thoroughly monotheistic, were struggling with how to wrap their minds around the idea that the human Jesus was somehow only doing and being what Yahweh was supposed to and be (forgiving sins, returning to the Temple, rescuing the people, etc.). As St. Paul wrote to the followers of The Way of Jesus in Corinth:
There is one God the Father.
All things come from him, and we belong to him.
And there is one Lord Jesus Christ.
All things exist through him, and we live through him.
Furthermore, and I guess I’ve really pressed this point enough, how would we know what the “humble mortal we call Jesus” respond to this affirmation? And how do we know he’s “humble?” It’s because the gospels tell us so. And in those same stories are stories of Jesus being worshipped (see, for example, Matthew 21.9; 28.9; cf. John 20.28).
Well, enough of this. As I stated above, the whole point Felten and Procter-Murphy are trying to make is that one can be a follower of The Way of Jesus and not believe in the “virgin birth.” They rightly, in my opinion, state, “Christians who want to take Jesus seriously need to take his humanity seriously, for Jesus has revealed what it means to be fully human” (pg. 185). Yes! A thousand times, yes!
But, and this is key, one doesn’t have to separate one from the other. That is, one can believe that Jesus was/is “fully human” and, “‘in some incomprehensible way,’ [believe that] the mystery of God was perceived to be incarnate in Jesus” (pg. 186). That’s what “incarnate” means. That in some strange, mysterious, beyond human understanding way, the Creator god, Yahweh, “took the form of a slave by becoming like human beings” (Philippians 2.7; CJB). Just because something can’t be figured out, doesn’t make it any less true.
Chapter 18: Prayer — Intimacy with the Divine
“Prayer is in dire need of a makeover,” Felten and Procter-Murphy claim on page 189. And I certainly agree. They show how some of us go from childhood prayers like, “Now I lay me down to sleep,” to “name it and claim it” types of prayers based on passages taken out of context (eg., Luke 11.9; Matthew 18.19). This leads on to a misunderstanding about prayer because it’s often based on a problematic view of G‑d:
As many people still perceive the Divine to be in the reward and punishment business, when the prayers aren’t answered, people beat themselves up with guilt because they're obviously not good enough or faithful enough for God to answer in the affirmative.
Such an attitude is easy to understand when one reads a passage like James 5:16: “The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.” If my prayer is not effective, I must not be righteous enough (pg. 190).
Felten and Procter-Murphy bring out the idea that prayer is more about one’s relationship with G‑d:
Far from being willy-nilly guarantees of whatever you want, [those verses cited above] are instead about making the reign of God real on earth through acts of healing, reconciliation, and justice. When the disciples ask Jesus how to pray, they are taught the “Lord’s Prayer,” a prayer to sustain and guide them in doing whatever work is necessary in bringing about the kingdom (pg.189).
They go on to point out:
It is a common temptation among faithful Christians of all stripes to believe — deep down — that if we’re good, God will protect us and rescue us from life’s difficulties. But being in relationship with God does not create some sort of divine force field protecting us from harm. Being in relationship with God strengthens us for living life, come what may. We are in covenant with the Spirit that remains with us whatever happens along life’s journey (pg. 194).
“So,” they say, “pray for healing — not because you will always get well, but so that you can connect with the still mysterious and natural power of healing” (pg. 192). Continuing in this paragraph:
Pray for safe travel — not because God will necessarily catch your place, but so that you can be prepared for whatever happens. Pray for the end of drought, for a job, for a “fill in the blank” — not because prayer is going to control the weather, a future employer, or anything else, but so you can avoid the temptation to despair of God’s goodness in time of difficulty (pg. 192).
Felten and Procter-Murphy then connect the act of prayer with that of paying attention, of being here, now, in this moment. On page 195, they write:
Buddhist monk and author, Thich Nhat Han, advocates pursuing “mindfulness,” a practice that includes paying attention to even the most mundane of activities. Instead of rushing through life to get to something else, try concentrating intently on every aspect of brushing your teeth, climbing stairs, or washing dishes. Each activity has the potential to center a person in the moment and overcome the tendency to let the self-chatter of the mind drown out an awareness of the now.
Spot on. In the Lindisfarne Community, one of our Rules outlines our practice of “Mindfulness — The practice of finding God in all things and being thankful; becoming aware of the creation as we live in the light of God over all and in all.”
In the Celtic Christian communities of the 4th to 7th centuries, there are many daily prayers for “mundane...activities.” In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Alexander Carmichael collected the prayers, poems, and invocations from the vanishing culture of the local Scottish people. These oral traditions were captured in their native Gaelic and translated by Carmichael and were collected into the Carmina Gadelica. In the table of contents, one finds prayers for bathing, sleeping, kindling the fire, and milking the cows.
Felten and Procter-Murphy note that prayer isn’t “simply a matter of being trained in ‘Five Easy Steps to Intimacy with God’” (pg. 198). Instead,
Those who seem to have the most profound relationships with the Spirit tend to practice what most people would call meditation. Disciplines like Tai Chi, Yoga, and Buddhist meditation practices have proven to be helpful for those seeking a deeper connection with the Divine (pg. 198).
That has certainly been my experience and the experience of many, many others. There’s been a “revival” of Centering Prayer (also called silent meditation) sweeping through a lot of the church in recent years, based in ancient Christian contemplative practices. At one of the Lindisfarne Community’s annual retreats, our Abbot stated he was incorporating more silence — a deep listening — in his “prayer time.”
“Prayer,” Felten and Procter-Murphy conclude, “is a lifelong courtship” with G‑d. “When Paul tells the Thessalonians to ‘pray without ceasing’...they — and we — are to seek an attitude toward life in which prayer is seamlessly integrated into our very being, where we can give thanks no matter what happens” (pg. 199).
And G‑d’s people said, “Amen.”
In the Love of the Three in One,
Br. Jack+, LC
* Complete Jewish Bible (CJB), copyright © 1998 by David H. Stern. All rights reserved.
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.