Thursday, 23 October 2014

Meditation: ON READING THE BIBLE by John de Gruchy


John 5:39-47
"You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf.  Yet you refuse to come to me to have life."

I recently gave a talk at the Hermanus United Church on Israel and the Church in which I also spoke about the current situation in the conflict between the State of Israel and the Palestinians.  In the course of my talk I referred many times to the Bible, especially to the great prophets of Israel like Amos, Hosea, Jeremiah and Isaiah, the teaching of Jesus about God's kingdom, and St. Paul's writings about Israel and the Church.  Afterwards, someone in the congregation said that he totally disagreed with what I had to say and, moreover, I had not quoted Scripture!  When asked what Scriptures he had in mind, he referred to those in which God commands Joshua and the tribes of Israel to go into the land of Canaan and slaughter all its inhabitants, taking possession of their land, their livestock, their vineyards, even taking some into slavery and women to be their possession.  It is all summed up in a passage in Joshua (11:16-23), only one of several scattered about in that OT book.  Let me read a few verses which will give you an idea of what Joshua believed God had told him to do:

"So Joshua took all that land...He took all their kings, struck them down, and put them to death.  Joshua made war a long time with all those kings.  There was not a town that made peace with the Israelites...for it was the Lord's doing to harden their hearts so that they would come against Israel in battle, in order that they might be utterly destroyed, and might receive no mercy, but be exterminated, just as the Lord had commanded Moses."

My critic at the United Church evidently also said that if only the Israelites back then had really obeyed God and killed all the Canaanites when they had the opportunity, there would be no problem today.  There would be no Palestinians left in the land! 

There are many who claim to be Christian around the world today who think the same, and not a few Israelis!  This is how they read the Bible.  God commanded Israel to slaughter their enemies on the basis that they were also God's enemies!  God even hardened the Canaanites hearts in order that they would be utterly destroyed -- no mercy, only extermination! So God had no hesitation in ordering war, pillage, butchering, raping the Canaanites.  God is a tribal God of a war-like clan hell-bent on grabbing someone else's land and possessions.  

So it is understandable that many people dismiss the OT and its portrait of God.  And because many Christians claim that every word in the Bible, every story from the creation narratives to the end of history, is inspired by God they must believe that it is all literally true.  It must be so because it says so in the Bible!  No wonder many people reject not just some parts of the OT, but the Bible as a whole and  think it reprehensible that children are taught such stories in Sunday School.  And I would do the same if it were not for the fact that I do not regard the Bible in that way, and neither do any Bible scholars I know. In any case, such an understanding of God is contrary to everything that we know about the God revealed in Jesus. 

History is generally written by the winners.   In older histories of the British Empire its generals are all portrayed as if they were not just heroes but also saints, and Britain was fulfilling a divinely appointed role..  Was not the expansion of the British Empire blessed by God, no matter how many people were slaughtered in the process and how much land was stolen!  Did not chaplains bless those going into battle, praying that God would give them victory, and quoting passages from the Bible to justify what they were doing?  God was the tribal God of the British and therefore they could do no wrong.  Hopefully we all recognise that this is nonsense.  You can still read that account of history in the old history books, but we can no longer take them at face value.  They are interpretations of history and not very reliable when it comes to the facts.  And that is also true of the story of the conquest of Canaan by the Israelites.  In any case, they never did succeed in the way that the story is told in Joshua, in fact there are other accounts in the Old Testament itself that paint a different picture.  Not only that, but there are many passages in the OT that portray a very different understanding of God, not God as the tribal deity of the warring Israelites, but God as the creator and redeemer of all peoples and nations, the God who calls Israel to be a light to the nations, to do justice and seek peace, to be compassionate, in fact, the God Jesus called his Father.

The bottom line is that the Bible is a dangerous book in the hands of those who do not know how to read and understand it, and especially dangerous in the hands of those who use it to serve their own purposes, including killing enemies and stealing their land.  You can, in fact, find a proof text for just about anything in the pages of the Bible if you really want to.  So beware the Bible if you think that every word is divinely inspired and must be taken literally as the truth.   How much damage that idea has that done to people and nations over the centuries, and how many people have lost faith in God because of it!  The tragedy is that in trying to defend the Bible as divinely inspired and without fault, people lose sight of what the Bible really is about, and the truth to which it bears witness. "You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf.  Yet you refuse to come to me to have life."

So none of what I have said means that we should not read the Bible, or take it seriously. What it means is that we have to learn how to read the Bible, understand how it came to be, and what it is all about, just as we have to learn how to read Shakespeare or poetry, newspaper reports about Oscar Pretorius or the Rugby cup final  and, not least, the small print in our insurance policies.  I have a great love for the Bible otherwise I would not be here today doing what I am.  But I also know that it is not always easy to understand and that you can't just take it at face value.  It is comprised of many types of literature including myth and poetry, tribal oral stories as well as majestic hymns of praise and heartfelt cries of pain and suffering, of people of faith struggling with doubt and seeking to be faithful to God's call to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly.  I am not saying that only scholars can understand it, after all  there are accounts of people who have picked up the Bible and found both redemption and comfort.  But generally-speaking you can't just plunge into its pages and expect to know what is going on.

With all this in mind that Bernhard and I have been talking about the need for a series of workshops here at Volmoed on "reading and understanding the Bible today."  If you think this is a good idea and would like to participate some time during next year, let us know.   This does not mean that you have to wait for next year to read the Bible.  But I suggest you jump over Joshua and other bits where God seems to be acting like a tyrant, not because they are not there for a purpose, but read the gospels instead.  Not the bad news of a God who does not love our enemies and wants us to slaughter them, but the God of Jesus who tells us to love our enemies because he is their God also.  After all, did not Jesus himself tell us to be careful in searching the Scriptures because we think that in them we have eternal life, and refuse to turn to him who is the One in whom we find life?

John de Gruchy

23 October 2014

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Meditation: DELIVER US FROM EVIL by John De Gruchy


Matthew 6:7-13
"Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil."
"Save us from the time of trial, and deliver us from evil."

Every now and again I attend services where the old version of the Lord's Prayer is said and we pray that God will not lead us into temptation.  But why on earth would God want to do that in the first place?  Yet in countless places this very day, the prayer is said by unruly schoolboys at church schools and Catholic cardinals saying Mass in English.  And what temptations do we not want to be led into? There is quite a range from those associated with sex, food and money, to pride.  Please God, we have prayed all these years, don't tempt us with these things, rather let others do so!  The truth is, God does not lead us into temptation, so we don't have to ask God him to refrain from doing so.  But God does want to save from the time of trial and deliver us from evil.  The problem lies in translation.  So what did Jesus have in mind when he told his disciples to pray not "Lead us not into temptation," but  "save us from the time of trial, and deliver us from evil?"

In the year 4 CE, Roman legions crushed a wide-spread Jewish revolt in Judaea and Galilee.  Village after village was sacked, and many towns including Sepphoris, the capital of Galilee, were razed to the ground in a frenzy of fire and blood.  Resisters were crucified, beheaded or burnt to death.  Inhabitants who could not hide were slaughtered if male, raped if female, and the young were taken into slavery.  Sepphoris was not far from Nazareth, the town where Jesus grew up shortly after this terrible Roman onslaught. Nazareth survived but as a young boy Jesus would have been familiar with stories told about those awful days, about people who had died and heroes who had resisted, and he may well have seen with his own eyes the ruins of houses and farms that had not yet been restored.  It was a time of tribulation well remembered but which nobody would want to experience again, though it did happen, again at the hands of the Romans in year 64 CE and finally in 132 CE.  When Jesus taught his disciples to pray "save us from the time of trial," he and they knew exactly what he meant.  His generation knew what previous generations had experienced; they certainly did not want to go through that again. "Do not bring us to the test as you brought our parents!"

We are not strangers to such times of tribulation and trial.  What happened in Palestine in Jesus' era happened to millions of people during the Second World War.  Even if we did not experience those awful events, we have seen images of the world at war, and  throughout the past half century the scenario has been repeated in countless places across the world.  And now we witness on the news the barbaric advances of ISIL forces as they capture one town after another across northern Syria and deep into Iraq, beheading, raping, plundering.  How many right at this moment in such places are praying "save us from the time of trial."  This is not just a prayer which Jesus composed in order to teach his disciples how to pray; it is a prayer which arises from the depths of human experience, a universal petition of every generation, a cry of anguish from the heart.  When we pray these words every day and again this morning, as Jesus told us to, we are joining all our fellow human beings who cry out "save us from the time of trial."

But there is more to consider.  For parallel to  the words "save us from the time or trial" is the phrase "rescue us from the evil one" or "deliver us from evil."  Notice that these two translations have a different nuance.  The first personalizes evil.  "Rescue us from the evil one."  Which immediately conjures up the image of the devil, the symbol of personal evil and brings to mind passages such Jesus' temptation in the wilderness, or the letter to the Ephesians: "Put on the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.  For our struggle is not against enemies of flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places." (6:11-12)  Yes, we do, and rightly personalise evil.  There are evil people behind the scourge of drug addiction, the manipulation of the stock markets, sex slavery, war and the advances of ISIL in Syria and Iraq,  just as there were evil Roman emperors in Jesus day and tyrants throughout history.  

The personal embodiment of evil symbolized by the devil is a reality, but we must be careful how we understand the word devil.  Christian faith rejects the idea  that there are, in fact, two Gods, the one good and the other evil.  There is only one God and that God is all-loving, all-good.  This does not mean we don't recognise the awful reality of evil, or that we do not experience that evil power in personal ways, as C.S. Lewis graphically describes in the Screwtape Letters.   But to believe in God means that we do not believe in the devil, that is, we do not put our trust in evil or believe that evil has the final word.. To believe in God means that even in times of trial we trust the power of God's love, grace and forgiveness.  That is why we pray both "save us from the time of trial" and "deliver us from evil!"  Save us from ourselves becoming instruments of evil as we face the evil in the world today.  Save us from the despair that leads us to doubt God's love and care for us.  Save us from doubting that Jesus' way is the way that leads to life. 

Jesus himself faced this challenge at the beginning of his ministry and through his life even up to the cross.  He was tempted by the devil, and encouraged by some of his followers, to seize power and lead an insurrection to overthrow the Romans and establish God's Messianic kingdom on earth.  In times of trial we are always tempted to hate our enemies, taking vengeance and embarking on acts of retaliation.  That is a natural reaction, but for Jesus it was being led into evil, acting in ways which are as barbaric as those performed by our adversaries.  The way of God's kingdom or rule is one of love for enemies and forgiveness of those who persecute us.   So we pray to God: "Save us from those times of trial  when we are tempted to lose our faith and act in ways that deny your will; but if and when we have to face them, when we find ourselves in the Wilderness and confronted by the devil, deliver us from doing evil ourselves lest we become evil.  "For yours is the kingdom, the power and the glory."

John de Gruchy
Volmoed 16 October 2014


Monday, 13 October 2014

Meditation: TWO LANGUAGES by John de Gruchy


Luke 10:25-37
"Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus."

Early last Sunday, Isobel and I, together with Iain McGilchrist, a visiting friend from Scotland, climbed up to the cross that stands tall on the central peak above Volmoed.  On a clear day such as Sunday the views are spectacular.  You can see the coastal road to Hangklip and beyond; the whole sweep of Walker Bay; right up the Hemel and Aarde Valley; and well into the Fernkloof Mountains.  One way to capture the scene is to take a photograph that accurately records what you see.  Another way is to write a poem that captures your experience in metaphors that go beyond the literal and touch the soul.  The photograph records the clouds over the distant mountains as though frozen in time;  the poem describes the clouds moving across the sky like sailing ships on an ocean.  Literally and scientifically speaking the clouds are dense collections of water molecules, just as the rocks are made of Cape sandstone, and the flora is described as fynbos.  All this is true, but none of it actually expresses  the beauty and wonder of the scene that surrounds you on the mountain top.  We knew that the earth turns on its axis around the sun, for that is the scientific explanation, the literal truth; but we actually spoke about the sun rising to dispel the darkness, and it we had stayed long enough we might have experienced a magnificent sunset. 

Iain McGilchrist, with whom we climbed the mountain, is a world renowned neuroscientist whose book The Master and his Emissary has made a major contribution to our understanding of the way in which our brains work.  He was also, at one time, a professor of English at Oxford, and is well-versed in the language of poetry and art.  So he understands well both the language of science and that of the arts; the way in which the left-hand and right-hand sides of the brain function together in grasping the truth through reason and the imagination.  We need both languages, that of science which gets at the literal truth; and that of art, the language of metaphor that speaks to our imagination and soul.  When the two sides of our brain are in conflict with each other, or when the literal language of the one and the poetic language of the other are in conflict, then our grasp of reality is either reduced to facts and figures, which is the literal truth, or we live solely in a world of fantasy that has lost touch with reality.  We need the language that tells us the clouds like our brains are comprised of busy molecules, and the language that describes their beauty as they sail across the ocean sky or process our experience of the setting sun.  

The language of Christian faith takes both seriously.  So, for example, we can, do and must speak at the same time about the evolution of human life and rejoice in the science that helps us understand it better,  as well as the language of the mystery of being human created in the image of God.  Michelangelo's painting of the creation of Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel can be analysed in terms of the paint and pigments he used, and the techniques of which he was a master craftsman, and we might debate the proportions of Adam which are clearly not accurate or the image of the Creator as misleadingly anthropomorphic.  But if this is all we do we have missed the majestic point of the scene that dazzles our eyes as we look above us.

However, since the seventeenth century it has increasingly been the case that the Bible has been read by many people, both believers and unbelievers, only through the left hand side of the brain which analyzes and organisers reality in literal terms.  So the Bible it has to be "literally" true or else it is false.  The creation story in which God made the world in six days is either scientifically true or the Bible has got it wrong. When the Bible says the sun stood still for a day, it is either literally the case or nonsense; Jonah either swallowed a big fish or the story is childish fantasy; the virgin birth must be literally true or it is not true at all.  Pushed to an extreme, we would have to accept that Jesus is a loaf of bread, or a vine stock, that we are salt, and that God is an oversized male with eyes that see and ears that hear.

Or, to come to the passage we read today, we would have to assume that Jesus' story of the Good Samaritan was a newspaper report of something that actually happened, and not a parable that leads us into the truth through imagination and story telling.   I once heard a tour guide tell a bunch of gullible tourists that he would show them the very place on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho where the man was beaten and robbed, and where the inn was located.  Just as another tour guide showed me the very place where Jesus had ascended into heaven, pointing to a large rock that had markings on it that been scorched by the heat of Jesus taking off like a space craft!  Early Christian commentators on the Bible certainly did not think in such literal terms.  In fact, quite the opposite.  They often interpreted bible in an allegorical way to get at its spiritual significance.  So every detail in the parable of the Good Samaritan had some theological meaning. Gregory of Nyssa, for example, said that Samaritan was actually Jesus himself, that the donkey he rode referred to his humanity, that the Levite passing by meant that the Jewish law could not save, and the two pence paid to the innkeeper meant the law and the gospel.  Jesus himself would have been surprised at St. Gregory's ingenuity, as he would be by many of the literal interpretations of the biblical stories.  He used the language of the imagination to help us grasp the meaning of faith and, in this parable, the meaning of love. 

The lawyer asks a very precise question, as lawyers do in court. He wants a straightforward literal answer.   OK Jesus, if I must love my neighbour, who is my neighbour?  The literal answer is that our neighbour is the person living next door.  In my case Bernhard Turkstra.  So, Jesus, are you telling me that I must love God and Bernhard in order to inherit eternal life?  Well, yes, Jesus could say, if you love Bernhard you certainly will have earned eternal life!  In fact, you will have earned a darn side more!  But Jesus does not say that to the lawyer in the parable.  He moves away from the literal truth and and in a surprising twist to the tale he concludes by asking the lawyer to answer his own question.  "Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?" Suddenly the truth dawns on the lawyer not in the language of the court room, but in the language of faith.  "The one who showed him mercy!"  Yes, the lawyer has seen things differently that he did before.  He  himself is the neighbour, everyone's neighbour.  The literal truth remains true, Bernhard is my neighbour; but on its own it is inadequate.  The language of faith, hope and love, takes us beyond the literal not only in helping is to understand what it means to love my neighbour and therefore God, but in helping us to grasp the truth, beauty and goodness of God, to see the world and ourselves through different eyes.  This is not the language of facts and figures, of molecules and pigments, or the language of lawyers and the courthouse, however necessary and precise that may be; it is the language of wonder and worship, of grace and forgiveness, the music of the soul without which we would lose our humanity and be incapable of expressing our gratitude and love. 

John de Gruchy

Volmoed 9 October 2014

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Meditation: PROSPERITY GOSPEL? By John de Gruchy


John 10:1-10
"I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly."

Long before the collapse of the hostel of the Synagogue Church of all Nations in Lagos, Nigeria, resulting in the death of eighty South Africans, I had heard that many of our compatriots were regularly going there for  services.  I had also heard about its wealthy prophet, T.B. Joshua who, after church services, flies off in his private jet from an airstrip behind his church to return to his mansion in a smart resort town.  And I had heard about the ways in which he makes his fortune, from selling books and holy water to insurance policies and the tithing of his flock.  The church's official website claims that T.B. Joshua is a genuine prophet with a global ministry of healing, performing miracles and forecasting the future, and that the church has programmes to help the poor and sick, educate the young, and pursue deeds of mercy.  More critical websites list T.B. Joshua's faults, question his integrity, claims and accountability. They say that the hostel collapsed because two new floors were being added on inadequate foundations. Nigeria is notorious for bad building regulations and dodgy construction. 

How are we to evaluate these conflicting reports?  For starters we do well to recall that Jesus' disciples once came to him and said that there were people healing and casting our demons in his name who did not belong to their circle.  Let them be, he Jesus.  He also said that we should not cast the first stone.  So let's leave God be the judge of T.B. Joshua.   In any case, over the centuries some mainline churches have become enormously wealthy.  Consider the real estate controlled by them, the enormous trade from pilgrims to Rome, and the dubious transactions of the Vatican Bank.  No wonder St. Francis of Assisi turned his back on the ill-gotten wealth of the popes, cardinals and bishops of his day, and tried to rebuild the church according to the gospel of the Jesus who for our sakes became poor.  No wonder Martin Luther as a young and pious monk castigated the religious trafficking in indulgences when he visited Rome.  No, we dare not cast the first stone at Joshua and his Synagogue Church.  In any case, our first response should be to pray for all who died and were injured in that terrible tragedy and for their loved ones left behind.

But there are questions to be asked.  Is the "prosperity gospel" the prophet proclaims attracting the poor and sick, cancer sufferers and those with HIV & AIDS, with promises that cannot be met, raising false hopes, even if  some are healed and a handful become wealthy -- which might have happened anyway?  Is not the gospel of Christ about taking up our cross, endurance and faithfulness, rather than financial prosperity and worldly success?  Is  T.B. Joshua's message  one of cheap grace, though it costs his followers a great deal of  money?  Yet his followers go to him in droves because they believe he delivers on his promises.  They vote with their feet at considerable cost, while many walk out of our own churches and do not pay their dues in any case.  So could it be sour grapes and envy that makes us condemn T.B. Joshua and his gospel of prosperity?  Maybe we need to take another look at this "prosperity gospel" he and others like him preach.

The bottom line -- an appropriate phrase -- of the "prosperity gospel" is that God wants us to be  healthy, wealthy, and successful in every area of life.  No wonder many celebrities have found a spiritual home in churches that proclaim this gospel whether in Johannesburg, Nigeria or Cape Town. So the primary question is not whether T.B. Joshua is a charlatan, or how he makes and uses his money, but whether the "prosperity gospel" is the gospel of Jesus.   Have the "prosperity gospel" churches got it right?  Have they recovered something that we have lost?  Are they attracting the masses because the gospel they are preaching actually meets their needs? 

Some comments in one of Bonhoeffer's letters from prison prompt me to think that the "prosperity gospel" churches have, in fact, discovered something in the biblical message that we have neglected. He reminds us that God's blessing "encompasses all of earthly life,"  Too often we over spiritualize the gospel, Bonhoeffer says, or so emphasize suffering and the cross and the rewards that await us in heaven that we exclude God's promise of earthly happiness, blessings and prosperity here and now.   Surely God does not want people to be poor, sick, illiterate and unsuccessful.  Did not Jesus heal the sick and deliver those possessed by demons? Did he not come so that we "may have life, and have it abundantly," as we read in the gospel for today?  So is it not understandable that people who are in need, whatever that need may be, should go in their thousands to churches that offer them abundant life?  Or that those who are poor should seek out preachers who say God wants them to be prosperous, and can demonstrate that God has blessed them with abundance so that they can even own private jets?  Is it not reasonable that many politicians and sports men and women should go to churches that tell them that God wants them to do well and even win? 

Of course, this is not the whole gospel, and it is easily perverted to serve dubious ends.  But it is surely an important element in the gospel.  God wants us to be whole and to succeed in life, not walk around looking miserable, claiming that our  failures are a sign of holiness, or preaching that the poor should be happy because "theirs is the kingdom of heaven."  Otherwise why do we in Christ's name seek to help the poor, educate the young, and seek ways to ensure that our kids and grandchildren succeed in life?  Is this not God's will?  Yes, the gospel is about taking up our cross, it is about suffering love and struggling for truth and justice.  Yes, the Sermon on the Mount challenges ostentatious prosperity values, just as Jesus challenges those who put their hope in riches.  But this does not mean that there are no blessings attached, or that disciples of Jesus should be miserable, guilt-laden losers. 

To make dubious promises to people that they can be healed or become wealthy and succeed in order to make prophets profit may be deplorable.  But so too is preaching a gospel of promises in heaven when people are seeking abundant life here and now.  Or conveying the message that God does not want people to succeed in order to keep them humbly in their place, or feel inferior in order that God will seem greater.  So maybe before we cast stones at T.B. Joshua we need to recover the good news that Jesus offers us life to the full here and now.  We do not have to go to Lagos to discover or experience the prosperity of the Christ's gospel.  It is available everywhere, even here at Volmoed where we don't take a collection or sell bottles of blessed water from our river. But when we build, let us make sure we lay good foundations.

John de Gruchy

Volmoed 2 October 2014