Bible


On a side note…

This isn’t really part of the sequence I’m working on, but it is related to the overall topic. Lately I’ve been kind of challenged by some folks over what I believe (or, more precisely, don’t seem to believe). I’m trying to avoid an inquisition, but the basic issue seems to come down to interpretation of Scripture. So a few thoughts on Bible and interpretation seem to be in order.

Many Christians, and practically all evangelicals, regard their position vis a vis the Bible to be the real litmus test of authentic Christian faith. Sure, Jesus is important. But on any issue, whether its what we think of Jesus, or of ethics, or of science, or anything else, when the rubber meets the road, it comes down to “well, what does the BIBLE say?”

And this is where things get dicey. Often the straight up, literal answer can only be “Nothing.” The Bible doesn’t talk about abortion. It has little to say about homosexuality. It has nothing to contribute, positively or negatively, to evolution. It certainly is completely unhelpful in determining what translation we should read. And so on. Most of us realize this, which is good, but we are then forced into the realm of interpretation; even though the Bible doesn’t talk about the scientific theory of evolution, it does provide a story about how the universe was created, and so it’s possible to line these two things up (so the thinking goes), and then start labeling people as “in” or “out” based on their opinion of Cretaceous fossil remains. “Real Christians” don’t believe in evolution; they believe in the Bible’s creation story. In rejecting the evidence of science, we are also rejecting interpretation(s) of the Bible that we do not share.

Whether we realize it or not, we all bring to the interpretive table a certain perspective on the Biblical text. Evangelicals like to use words like “Bible-believing,” a pop version of the more technical theological concepts “inerrancy” and “infallibility.” Another important theological label in the “bible believing” understanding is the Bible’s homogeneity, the notion that the Bible uniformly speaks with one voice on every subject.

Last year I taught Logic at a local college, and we spent a considerable amount of time working with the distinction between inductive and deductive logic. For those who aren’t familiar with this, deductive logic works by applying a known general truth or idea to specific situations or experiences. It is known to be generally true, for example, that cats enjoy catching mice and birds. Armed with this knowledge, then, we can predict that if we put a cat in a room with mice, the cat is most likely going to at least try to catch a few. Or take the example of a GPS device: we know going in that the GPS is going to get us where we want to go, and so when it tells us to turn left, even if we think we should perhaps go straight, it will still get us to our destination.

Inductive logic works the other way around. In inductive thinking, we work from the specific to the general. In the example of cats from above, let’s assume that we don’t, in fact, know that cats are good mousers. But if we watch our cat catch mice every day, and then we hear from our neighbor that her cat catches 6 mice every evening, and then my mother calls me and tells me that her cat caught three this morning, we can make a general conclusion that “based on all this evidence, cats are good mousers.”

Now, where am I going with this? In general, Christians who believe in Biblical inerrancy are approaching the Bible deductively. The general truth here is God is all-powerful and perfect, and so if he were to write a book, it would also be completely authoritative, reliable, and, of course, perfect, meaning free from errors, inconsistencies, discrepancies, and the like. Usually Christians will then turn to 2 Timothy 3.16 (often in the King James, which is more poetically powerful than more modern translations, at least on this point) to prove the point: “All scripture is given by God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for inauguration in righteousness.”

I feel obligated to point out here, that this verse doesn’t really mean what people think it means. All the writer is saying here is that the Hebrew Bible / Old Testament should continue to be read as scripture by the church. Secondly the word translated as “inspired” or “god breathed” (theopneustos) simply refers to Scripture’s ultimate origins and has nothing to do with God writing or dictating the texts of the OT. Finally, there are almost 90 direct quotations of the Hebrew Bible in the entire Pauline collection, and Paul is notorious for rewording, adjusting, and otherwise “fixing” his quotes from the Old Testament to suit his arguments. So which would be “god-breathed scripture?” Paul’s wording of it, quoting from the Greek translation of the Bible, or the Hebrew text? It certainly does NOT include what we know as the New Testament, because a) there WAS no New Testament; b) the letters of Paul and pseudoPaul were not “scripture” and c) the Gospels hadn’t even been written yet.

The deductive approach is attractive for its simplicity, but as I taught my logic students, there are no simple answers because there are no simple questions. This is especially true with the Bible, a book written over nearly a thousand year period by many writers from different societies dealing with different experiences and crises. It simply will not do to recite “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” But the simplicity of the deductive logic behind inerrancy overpowers the problems it presents to the point that when I engage with those who hold to it, I am told that “you’re making it way too difficult” or “you’re just being too academic. Just give me a simple direct response.” For interrantists, if you have to explain why you don’t subscribe to the inerrancy of scripture, you’re too academic, apparently.

The simplicity of the deductive, inerrant approach though is also what causes all the trouble. Obviously, on purely deductive logical ground, if there are reasons to believe that the Bible is not, in fact, “perfect,” “inerrant,” or what have you, those who defend this position will immediately accuse you of not believing in a perfect sovereign God. But the fact is that there are problems. How many times did Jesus clear out the Temple, and when did he do it? John records it at the beginning of Jesus’ career, while the synoptics place it near the end. In order to protect inerrancy, it must have happened twice. (Not likely.) Another classic case here is the Last Supper; John places it the day before the others.

At the end of the day, the logic is circular, and the conclusions are already written into the premises of inerrancy. Contrary evidence, errors, and inconsistencies in the text are ruled out before even a word of it is read.

The other approach, however, helps a great deal. An Inductive approach to the Bible starts with the texts themselves and lets THEM teach us about the rest of the Bible and its Author/s. Only through thorough reading of individual texts can we formulate opinions about the entire Bible and about the God and the Christ it presents. An inductive approach doesn’t presuppose a result to which the Bible must conform, and it certainly isn’t intimidated by inconsistencies, factual errors, unscientific presentation of the origins of the cosmos, and so forth.

And that’s all I have to say about that. For now, at least.

 

Last night I had a great evening talking with my friend the Ultrarev, and among other topics covered, the idea of Scripture came up. The Ultrarev actually blogged on the topic after he got home (here), and my mind kept turning on the topic too. A lot of the discussion revolved around the old standard evangelical categories on scripture: Is it infallible? Is it inerrant? Is it inspired or God-breathed?

These terms are, as I’ve argued in my classes and in job application letters (eek…) and elsewhere (I think even on this blog), modern terms.  For example:

For Christians, Scripture must be the plumbline, the norming norm that guides each individual and community of faith to the Kingdom. I believe that in the modern world, the technology of the word has contributed to an understanding of Scripture that provides Christians with an effective means of expressing the authority of the Bible for the life of the church and its role in the world. While terms such as “infallible” and “inerrant” are modern terms alien to Scripture, I believe that they are dynamic equivalents to ancient understandings of the power of the written word that permit the force of that power to be understood and appreciated by modern Christians.  Early Christians and the writers of the New Testament understood the Word to be the message and proclamation of the Gospel and the person of Christ, a point that I believe has largely become lost in contemporary fetishization of the Scriptures among many in the Church today. The written word is witness to the Living Word that is Christ, and provides the only model for the church that, through its pages, teaches us the model of Jesus and of living a Christian life within the Church committed to bringing the Kingdom of God among us. Scripture is the pneuma of God that gives life, the essence of the same breath or inspiration that gave life to Adam from the dust of the earth and that animated Christ, the second Adam, from the dust of the grave.

But for many, this isn’t enough; somehow God has to have his hand in it, even if it’s not a mechanical, “hands-on” approach to the formation of Scripture (and I regard “scripture” and “Bible” as two different categories).  Ultrarev and I were talking about Arminianism and evolution and a bit of process theology. Subscribing to the basic elements of each of these, to hold to a mechanical, dictation-model of God’s role in scripture is, to say the least, pretty contradictory. I suggest, then, that we think of God’s hand in scripture not like we think of our hands at a keyboard or with a block of wood and some tools, but as the hand of the priest who touches and blesses the elements of the Eucharist. Like the priest over the ordinary elements of bread and wine, God similarly blessed an ordinary book or, more precisely, a collection of books that advances his Kingdom.

The irony here is that in both the Jewish and Christian cases, the “kingdom” was a literal one; for the Torah, it was the Persian Empire and then the post-Maccabean Hasmonean Dynastic would-be empire; for Christians, while the process took a while, it was the post-Constantinian empire of Rome. I’m in full agreement with Ultrarev here; today’s Christians need to two two things with regard to our Bible and idea of Scripture. First, we have to come to terms with the truly imperial origins of it, and somehow come to terms with all the connotations of empire that have accreted to the Bible over the last 1600 years (specifically colonialism, industrialism, western superiority, and consumer capitalism). This is a daunting task. Secondly, we need to let go of the mechanistic model of inspiration and replace it with something along the idea of God’s blessing of the Bible in much the same way that the priest blesses the bread and wine, or the penitent, or the baptized; in every case, it is the common, the ordinary, and the transformed for God’s Kingdom work that is blessed, not the already holy.

More work needs to be done here. The obvious question is “Why?” I hope some discussion might bring some ideas on this.

Stan, Reg, Francis, and Judith discuss Stan's right to have babies.

Stan, Reg, Francis, and Judith discuss Stan's right to have babies.

“I’m not oppressing you, Stan, you haven’t got a womb!”

So says Reg, the apparent leader of the PFJ in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, to Stan, who wants to be a woman so that he can have babies.  Confronted with the reality of biological reproduction, Stan feels that anyone who disagrees with his “right as a man to want to have babies” is oppressing him; Reg, of course (played by John Cleese) thinks that this is just as ridiculous as the idea of Stan (Eric Idle) wanting babies in the first place.

I recently had some conversations with a few of the evangelical student leaders on campus over the weekend that reminded me of this scene. One guy was commenting on how he expects the College “is counting the days until [the evangelical campus chaplain] retires,” seeing as how when he does the Chapel won’t have any “real Christians” to minister to the students.  Another, one of the leaders of InterVarsity here, told me that he would never counsel “his students” to take any courses in religion here, and especially not any in Bible or Christianity, and he was shocked when I told him that, actually, our main Bible scholar is in fact a very active Presbyterian who has an M.Div from Southern in Louisville, and that I have taught this course for the School a few times as well.  “Still, it’s just really dangerous.” A third individual, a friend of mine in fact, gave a talk to the InterVarsity group that revolved around various “dangers and pitfalls” for “Christian students” to be on their guard against in their classes, especially classes on the Bible and the History of Christianity.

In all these conversations, I got the sense that these Evangelicals think of themselves as being oppressed, and that they like it that way. And the students (who I don’t think believe that they are under any form of oppression) are being taught and encouraged to think that they are.

As Reg says to Stan later on in that same scene: “What’s the point?”

It would seem that on college and university campuses evangelical students are being told by their mentors that everyone outside of “our” way of thinking about Christians and Christianity and, in fact religion in general are oppressing “us.” Come on. There’s no oppression here. When Professor X discusses the Documentary Hypothesis, students raised on the conservative (both Jewish and Evangelical Christian) belief of single, Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch are not being oppressed, persecuted, or anything of the sort. Why cultivate this?

“What’s the point of fighting for his right to have babies when he can’t have babies?!”

Yes, that is a quote from 1 Thessalonians 5, so you can skip looking it up. No thanks necessary.

Received this email from a student, re: my Religions of the World course.

It is very difficult for me to take
these religions seriously. I honestly feel that most people in this
course are pretty much BS-ing when they talk about how amazed and
fascinated they are about these things. It’s writing what the
professor wants to hear instead of how they really feel. I have
actually talked to some students who have agreed this is the case. I
thought that by being honest and giving my genuine point of view was
better than sugar coating it, but that is often not the case in
school, as I have learned over the years. I will put my own feelings
aside in the future and only state facts. Hopefully that will help. I
honestly do not appreciate these other religions because I am a strong
Christian and God is a jealous God and does not find these other
“religions” to be at all appreciative. That’s just how I feel. I
cannot praise a religion that worships any God but the one I believe
is the ONLY one who exists. That is my struggle. I hope you understand.

Sincerely,

J. Doe, who really wants to get an A in the course without compromising her beliefs.

And, for what it’s worth, my response:

Well, I do understand. I myself am a licensed minister in the American Baptist Church of Vermont/New Hampshire. I don’t want or expect anyone to necessarily “like” any of these religions; there is much in them that doesn’t jive with Christianity. I want people to engage them, but we cannot engage them unless we know about them and look at what there is in common, as well as what the differences are. Like it or not, this is a world that is far more complicated than we Christians typically like to admit. Practitioners of religion – any religion – have got to learn to be sensitive to people of other faiths, even if they totally disagree on points of theology. This course is NOT a theology course. There is a difference between studying theology and studying religions; studying religions is studying how humans express in their own cultures their relationship to whatever is sacred to them. Studying theology is studying what humans say about God. We haven’t been doing that, although it has come up in discussion posts, which is fine, but I am not encouraging this. I do not believe we can have productive conversations about what humans think about God unless we know something about what they say and think about their world.

Part of being a Christian is being able to recognize the good. No less than Paul tells us to “Question everything, but hold on to the Good” (see 1 Thessalonians, chapter 5 I think). We can’t do that unless we learn where goodness and beauty lies, and I am of the persuasion that it does not only lie in Christianity; far from it. Genesis tells us that God the creator created our world as very good. I am trying to train students to recognize the good wherever it appears, and in this course in particular, being able to see the good and the beautiful in other religious traditions. Of course there is much that is not good; the dark side of religion is present in all of them, and this includes Christianity. I don’t know about you, but I have seen enough Christian-bashing to last me a lifetime, and I believe that throughout our history, we have deserved much of it. It is not a perfect faith. It is not “just fine the way it is.” God himself may be perfect and completely good. But Christianity is not, and I would prefer not to turn the faith into an idol that replaces God himself. It’s bad enough that this happens to the Bible.

In being critical of other religious traditions, we don’t have to resort to sarcasm and vitriol. That’s what automatically happens when we don’t understand something, usually due to our own unwillingness to be challenged or shook up a little, whether it’s in the voting booth or in conversations about religion. I hope to be giving students the tools to be critical of what they disagree with without coming across as bigoted know-it-alls who think anyone who thinks otherwise can go to hell, because they aren’t going anyplace else anyway.

So I do want you, and others in the class, to be honest. If you honestly can’t see anything the reflects the good and the beautiful in Shinto or Islam or whatever, I want you to tell me that. But you must be very specific. Condemning a Shinto garden simply because it’s not a Christian one isn’t going to cut it. Condemning the Qur’an without reading any of it simply because it’s not  New Testament isn’t going to work.

[some specific comments about student’s essays]
Peace, Benedict

Many of you may well have received an email that reputedly originated with Dr. John Tisdale, a popular biblical interpreter, that “interprets” Revelation 13 in such a way as to equate Barack Obama with the Beast of the Last Days/End Times. There’s not really any shortage of critical debunking of this foolishness, but since it’s come up again, and since some of my buds are actually using this whole situation as an example in a book they’re writing on the way religion is used and abused in this country, I need to take aim not only at “Tisdale’s” initial email, but at the reactions to it as well.

At the risk of perpetuating the myth, here is the email:

From: —
Subject: interesting
To: —
Date: Monday, October 20, 2008, 10:53 AM

If any of you are Obama supporters — this is not meant to offend just thought it was interesting. 🙂

Subject: Fw: Rev. 13- (about the beast)

This will make you re-think: A Trivia question in Sunday School:
How long is the beast allowed to have authority in Revelations?
Revelations Chapter 13 tells us it is 42 months, and you know what that is.
Almost a four-year term of a Presidency.
All I can say is ‘Lord, Have mercy on us!’
According to The Book of Revelations the anti-Christ is: The anti-Christ will
be a man, in his 40’s, of MUSLIM descent, who will deceive the nations with
persuasive language, and have a MASSIVE Christ-like appeal….the prophecy says
that people will flock to him and he will promise false hope and world peace,
and when he is in power, will destroy everything..
Do we recognize this description??
I STRONGLY URGE each one of you to post this as many times as
you can! Each opportunity that you have to send it to a friend or media outlet..do it!
I refuse to take a chance on this unknown candidate who came out of nowhere.
From: Dr. John Tisdale
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Dear Friends,
As I was listening to a news program last night, I watched in horror as Barack Obama made the statement with pride. . .’we are no longer a Christian nation; we are now a nation of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, . . .’ As with so many other statements I’ve heard him (and his wife) make, I never thought I’d see the day that I’d hear something like that from a presidential candidate in this nation. To think our forefathers fought and died for the right for our nation to be a Christian nation–and to have this man say with pride that we are no longer that. How far this nation has come from what our founding fathers intended it to be.
I hope that each of you will do what I’m doing now–send your concerns, written simply and sincerely, to the Christians on your email list. With God’s help, and He is still in control of this nation and all else, we can show this man and the world in November that we are, indeed, still a Christian nation!
Please pray for our nation!

Ok. First off, there is a problem of perception that one of my friends has dubbed “apocalyptic narcissism,” as good a term as any for the idea that every generation of Christianity, including the first century of the New Testament and the events it describes, has believed that it is the one that will experience the events of the last days and the return of Christ. In fact, I’ve seen it now a couple of times in my life time, and I’m only 35 years old. No doubt I’ll see it a few more times, God willing I live long enough.

Here’s the point. Revelation is a prophetic book in the Jewish sense that it speaks to the current situation by use of metaphor and hyperbole. It is not a book that foretells the future, “prophecy” in the Christian sense. It is, however, a blistering critique of empire in the tradition of the prophetic “oracles against the nations.” If Revelation foretells anything, it is what “empire” always has coming, which is ultimately collapse and usually replacement. Revelation is better understood as a kind of psychedelic, Jack Kerouac-ian vision of the author’s present, which was around 90-100 AD/CE.

More importantly for Barack, though, is this business about the anti-Christ being in his 40’s and of Muslim descent and who will deceive the nations with smooth-talking. First of all, there’s nothing in Revelation that the anti-christ has to be in his 40’s. Secondly, Revelation does not predict Islam, let alone a Muslim anti-Christ. All of my studentsknow that Revelatio, as a text describing the end of the first century realities of early Christians, predates Islam by over 500 years. Islam is nowhere predicted in the Bible, although many Muslims hold that Muhammad is anticipated in the gospel of John (where the “spirit,” pneuma in Greek, is translated as “‘ahmad” in Arabic). the point is that there is no evidence at all in any book of the Bible that the Anti Christ will be a Muslim. Frankly, it angers me that this myth is gaining more and more steam, it seems. It needs to be debunked, and fast. There have been many anti-christs in western history, and I would venture to say that most of them have claimed to be Christian.

Here’s another point. I actually provided the link from which the initial respondant commented on about Barack “proudly” commenting that we are no longer a “Christian nation” in a blog earlier in the summer. As i tell my students, the country was never founded as a Christian nation. And whatever Christian principles influenced the Deist founders of the US were there, they were not the same discursive points of contemporary American evangelicalism, which is what this email assumes. Evangelicals may presume that God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow, a point that may well be the, but they also seem to have an assumption that Christianity is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow, which is most definitely NOT the case. In any event, this quote actually misquotes (deliberately, probably) Barack in the Call to Renewal speech. I don’t know where the emailer gets the idea that Barack is “proud” of this. But Obama actually said that we are not only a Christian nation. This changes the meaning completely, and he is exactly right. In the 1700s, insofar as people were religiously diverse at all, it was all a variation of Christianity; Puritan, Catholic, Church of England, and so on. Obama’s point is that this is no longer the case, and in fact has not been the case for a long time. Read the actual speech for yourself and you’ll see what I mean.

As another colleague of mine points out, concerning the idea of the US having any kind of official religion (which, Constitutionally, we do not), the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli expressly prohibits acts of hostility between the US and any Muslim nation. Note the first clause here:

“”Art. 11. As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.”

1797. Think about that. The Founding Fathers, who supposedly established a Christian nation, were still in the halls of Congress.

Barack Obama is not the Beast, he is not the Anti-Christ, and he is not the fulfillment of any biblical prophecy whatsoever.

Thy Word is like a seductress at my feet?

Thy Word is like a seductress at my feet?

Ran across this piece today on Walletpop.com: Flashy ‘Bible’ seeks to inspire the ADHD generation.” Fascinating stuff, and tons of food for thought. The publisher’s basic idea is to produce a New Testament that the visual learner (and, evidently, visual reader) can connect with and relate to. No doubt a second motivation is to capitalize on the popularity of Thomas Nelson’s Revolve Bible with a rival book. The reviewer, Bruce Watson, has this to say about it:

Ab Forlaget’s Bible Illuminated seems designed for people with a total lack of imagination and only a tangential interest in scripture. The text is presented in a three-column style, with highlights around important passages, and key sections reprinted in large-type insets. All in all, the style should be familiar to any reader of Playboy, Harper’s Bazaar, or Us. Essentially, it looks like a fashion mag that has been annotated by a not-particularly-bright high school student.

Bible Illuminated is, as Watson points out, yet another example of how Bibles are produced for niche markets. But usually, these other bibles at least usually “look” like Bibles. Take the very popular Women’s Devotional Bible, for example, or the Mom’s Study Bible, or The Green Bible. These appeal to specific audiences with particular concerns and ideologies that these Bibles highlight and provide commentary on. But they “look” like Bibles in that they are about the same size as most others, actually say “Bible” on the cover, have nice, thin, crisp paper, and are formatted in easily recognized “Bible-style” layout and typeface. The media and the published form of the media tell the reader before even opening the book up that “this is a Bible, and you should read it as a Bible.” There is a material “iconicity” that these books depend on for their use and authority. (Shamless plug alert! Go to the Iconic Books Project Blog at http://iconicbooks.blogspot.com/ , another blog I contribute to, for tons of stuff on the iconicity of books in general, including this new Bible, and world scriptures in particular.)

Like these other “niche Bibles,” Bible Illuminated is oriented to a specific audience: those for whom the only reading they do is the high-gloss eye candy mass produced in pop culture. It’s iconic aspect screams out “Read me like you were reading Cosmo or Maxim!” It is a “hybrid” text that co-opts the material and iconic element of one type of reading in order to seduce the reader into reading something from a totally different iconic plane. In effect, Bible Illuminated is telling us to read the Bible the same way a sixteen-year-old “reads” Playboy or Seventeen.

What is fascinating, though, is that so much of the content in the Bible is tailor-made for a presentation like this. Good preachers interpret the text through verbal and semantic description of the content that makes the text come alive. An image accompanying the Book of Revelation, for example, depicts a young man in flames, apparently trying to hurl himself into a flooded street. One can only imagine what image from pop culture accompanies the story of David and Bathsheba; Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, maybe? Who do they tab to play Hosea’s wife Gomer? Jenna Jameson? The possibilities are endless.

The image of “the Bible” and what it is supposed to look like, feel like, read like, and so on is, I think generally disconnected with much of its content. A hybrid book like the Bible Illuminated may, in some ways, make parts of the Bible that are usually skipped over actually come to life not just for the ADHD generation, but for us old fogeys as well.

Well, the time has come. I haven’t done a seriously political piece since my inaugural post. I was asked today why I support the Democratic Party and not the Republican one, and the question was basically qualified with the suggestion that “when you don’t like either candidate, vote for the Republican one” because that’s the more Christian and trustworthy party.

No. No no no no no no no no no no! I understand the sentiment; I was myself seduced by the 2000 Bush campaign’s “compassioniate conservatism” and voted for a regime that year that has proven to be anything but. I see very little that is Christian coming from the Republican party. Taken collectively as a whole, I don’t really see much of it coming from the Democratic side either.

But I do see it from individual candidates, and when the candidate in question is running for president, I am willing to take him or her as representative of their particular party. And of the two candidates remaining, I am convinced that Senator Obama exemplifies a far more biblical position on ethics, religion, and public policy than any candidate in the 2008 campaign. For me, that is why I support the Democratic party. I believe the overarching rule that guides Obama’s position on policies and issues (to the extent we’ve seen from previous writing, speeches he’s given over the last four years, and current campagining so far) is more biblical than any Republican campaign in recent memory, perhaps since Abraham Lincoln.

I do not say “more Christian.” That is deliberate. It is my studied opinion that, at least in politics, this label is more divisive than unifying. (See yesterday’s post for an example.) “Biblical” may not be any better, but this is at least something I’m willing to take a chance on.

Recently I watched the film Amazing Grace, which is the story of William Wilberforce’s career in the English parliament and in particular his crusade to end the slave trade in the British Empire. Gifted with oratory and strength of will, we see Wilberforce at the beginning of the film struggling with the decision to enter a career in politics or the ministry. Wilberforce’s erstwhile friend and future prime minister of England, William Pitt, convinces him that he can serve both God and the state by using his gifts to challenge the ethics of the empire with the ethics of the kingdom of God.

I see the Republican party as being rich in moralistic ideology, but ethically bankrupt. There is no William Wilberforce in the Republican party, or if there is, he or she has yet to reveal him or herself. Yet I do see a lot of Wilberforce in Senator Obama. While I have no idea if Obama has ever held any dreams of ordained ministry. his faith clearly informs both is private life and his public politics. I believe Senator Obama to be a model for how prophetic faith can speak to political influence, and in how political attentiveness to the Biblical tradition, shared to varying degrees by Jews, Christians, and Muslims, can help the state do a better job of aligning itself with the Kingdom of God, even though it cannot – and will never be – the Kingdom.

I contend that Obama knows this. Read his 2004 speech at the Democratic Convention in Boston. Read his 2006 Call to Renewal Speech. To accuse Obama of having a distorted view of the Bible, as James Dobson does, or to outright accuse him of not being a “real” Christian, as Alan Keyes did in 2004, is to reveal how shallow the conservative understanding of Christian faith is on the one hand and knowledge of the Bible is on the other. There is more to Christian faith than simply being “born again” (which Obama is, in the authentic experience of a life-changing conversion), and there is far more than abortion or gay marriage in the Bible (in fact, the Bible is completely silent on both issues).

So, using Obama’s own 2006 speech as a basis for how his faith and how his deep understanding of biblical ethics informs and influences his life and career, what do we see? (I’m not going to single out issues; I trust you to do your own homework…) IHow about these:

  • “The majority of great reformers in American history were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. So to say that men and women should not inject their “personal morality” into public policy debates is a practical absurdity. Our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition.”
  • “And in its historical struggles for freedom and the rights of man, I was able to see faith as more than just a comfort to the weary or a hedge against death, but rather as an active, palpable agent in the world. As a source of hope” (A Call to Renewal).

    “But kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side, I felt that I heard God’s spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth.”

  • “Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God’s will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.”
  • “If we scrub language of all religious content, we forfeit the imagery and terminology through which millions of Americans understand both their personal morality and social justice. Imagine Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address without reference to “the judgments of the Lord.” Or King’s I Have a Dream speech without references to “all of God’s children.” Their summoning of a higher truth helped inspire what had seemed impossible, and move the nation to embrace a common destiny.”

Finally, in my conversation earlier, it came up that the Democrats place no value in the family, and that Obama hasn’t done anything to change that perception. This is simply not true; Obama has two young children himself and supports a traditional one-parent-staying-at-home environment, as well as families having the final right to determine what is best for their children. But more than that, Obama is on record in his support of the family as the fundamental social unit that will ever be the strength of the nation, and it is one that is similarly grounded in the biblical family ethic.

“Of all the rocks upon which we build our lives, we are reminded today that family is the most important. And we are called to recognize and honor how critical every father is to that foundation… But if we are honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that what too many fathers also are is missing – missing from too many lives and too many homes. They have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men. And the foundations of our families are weaker because of it” — Father’s Day Speech, Apostolic Church.

I confess that I have been a fan of Obama since his Boston speech in July of 2004. I distinctly remember saying to myself “if this is what the Democratic party is about now, I’m in.” Not to say that I agree with all of Obama’s policies or even that i think he interprets individual details of the Bible the same way I do. But I do believe that his vision, like that of William Wilberforce 180 years ago, is more consistent with Biblical ethics and the Kingdom of God than the competition’s. Should the Republican party be able to trot out a Wilberforce or an Obama or another Abraham Lincoln, I will be more than willing to give the party a fair hearing. Until then, for this blogger faith and understanding lead me to break ranks with my evangelical brethren and cast my vote for the Democratic candidate for President. Barack Obama in 08.

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