Life is tough. But Nuns are tougher. If you need helpful advice just Ask Sister Mary Martha.
Monday, January 16, 2012
It's a Jungle Out There
Ur? This is not a text! For the next twenty minutes, please write the word "your" on the blackboard.
It's not just me. Because the Catholic Church realizes that a lot of the language and imagery in the Bible is loaded with symbolism and layers of meaning, the Church in Her wisdom would rather you didn't dig around in there on your own.
On top of which, which Bible are your reading? Which translation?
Digging around in the Bible on your own is rather what caused the giant mess of denominations that now crowd the planet. Martin Luther was mad at the Church, thought the authority was corrupt and advised everyone to skip the 'middle man' and just interpret the Bible for yourself. As soon as that happened, everyone had their hands up, yelling, "I think it means this! I think it means that!" And the next thing you know you have Calvinism and Puritans, Methodists and Seventh Day Adventists.
Hence my admonishment "a recipe" for disaster. You can follow the recipe by reading any history of the origins of the various Christian denominations. One group of people sitting in pews doesn't agree with one little thing that some of the other people sitting in those same pews think that one little passage in the Bible means and the next thing you know they've built their own pews and before you know it, you have Jim Jones preaching in a remote jungle to get away from everyone else's interpretation.
Yes, we'd like you to actually read the Bible, by yourself even. But before you find yourself in a jungle drinking Kool-Aid, please then go back and read about how the Church interprets what you've read. And if you're going to sit around in a group and discuss it all, make sure to do some research about tonight's passages before you have a bunch of hands in the air, yelling, "I think it means...."
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Poor Kool-Aid. Jim Jones actually used the knock-off drink mix Flavor-Ade, but Kool-Aid's been paying the P.R. price for it ever since.
But I digress.
Sister, can you help me sort out some things regarding the Hereafter? On the one hand, we've got Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory, with the assumption that people go to one or the other of these places when they die. On the other hand, we've got the Last Judgement, when Christ will come and sort everybody out to the place they're supposed to go for the rest of eternity. My understanding is that "everybody" means both the living-on-earth and the already-dead-on-earth-but-whose-souls-are-living-someplace-else-now. Am I wrong? Will Christ only sort out the quick and not the dead? Or am I just confused all the way around? Because I don't get how people can now be in heaven or hell AND have Christ later make a last judgement on their souls when the end times come.
Speaking of the Bible, I have been reading it (but also the footnotes and Catholic interpretations!) and I am sort of flummoxed by one book: Joshua. In it, Joshua and Co. go into the future promised land, kill everyone (young and old, man and woman) and take the place for their own, all because God told them to. I've tried to find a Catholic answer for how this is okay, but no one seems to answer the question. Some apologists have said "God gives life and can take it away", which is fine by me, only God isn't doing the taking. God is telling people to invade another land and commit genocide on the inhabitants! It's not even a war of defense. How are we to understand this book? Did God really tell the Israelites to do this to the letter? Did Joshua misinterpret Him? How could God command his people to do something evil? Am I missing something? Please help!
Lily, my middle school students ask things like that all the time. We teach that God is loving and forgiving, so it seems crazy that often in the Old Testament God is responsible for killing people who just happened not to be Jews.
But as always, context is really important. My pastor back in my evangelical days always said, "The Bible wasn't written to us, but for us." This means that the authors of the bible - divinely inspired as they were- were writing to people in an entirely different time and place. Their audience would have a whole different understanding than we do, so it's important to keep that in mind.
Also, we need to remember that while God himself doesn't change, God revealed his full nature to his people slowly over time, in order to keep pace with their changing capacity to understand God. A cuddly-loving lamb-holding Jesus figure would have been utterly foreign in Abraham or Jacob's time; back in the time of the Patriarchs military conflicts were seen as not just earthy battles but heavenly feuds between the gods of the people who fought them. When tribe A won over tribe B, it meant that tribe A's god/gods were stronger.
So when Joshua and the other Israelites conquered other nations, the accounts we read are not just meant to convey the military might of Joshua and friends, but of God's supreme power over all the other nations' "gods" (which were in fact demons setting themselves us as false gods). While it seems "mean" to us, the message getting across to the original audience was that God, the God of Israel, is the real deal, and everyone else was just a cheap conterfeit. In the culture and language of the time, treating your enemies/captives that way was normal and expected. To do less would undermine the leader's credibility in the eyes of his people and other tribes/nations. Remember that God works within the context of the human experience so people can meet him where they are.
Does that help a little?
It sort of helps. My biggest question is, the writer of Joshua has God word for word saying to kill everyone except for a few (Rahab and her family in Jericho, some of the livestock in Ai, etc.). So did God actually tell them to decimate the place, or was that their interpretation of his words as a warrior people? If an Old Testament writer says "the Lord said", should we just chock it up to their culture and assume we're seeing it through a historical lense? And if so, should we do that every time, or not?
I think it's dangerous to get into a guessing game of "what God really said." First of all, 2 Timothy 3:16 says, "All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness,so that one who belongs to God may be competent, equipped for every good work." (Paul was writing about the Old Testament here, because the New Testament didn't exist yet at the time he was writing to Timothy!)
So I think (again, not a Scripture scholar, but I'm trying to help) that yes, God did say that stuff to Joshua; if Joshua just made it up that would be 1) horrible 2) undermining the credibility of the Bible and 3) would throw everything else God says in Scripture into question.
But remember God reveals his nature slowly over time depending upon the context of the people and their understanding and ability to know him. So I'm pretty sure he wouldn't tell someone TODAY to go and conquer Jericho and kill all its inhabitants, but that was appropriate for those people at that time.
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