Absorbed

Hello to those of you who still surf by Wonderstuff from time to time.

I wanted to remind you that I’ve got a new blog and a new site, and it has basically absorbed the kind of thinking and writing you find on Wonderstuff. I hope you’ll add www.bobowenblog.com to your reading list, and check out the new site. As always, I welcome comments and enjoy the conversations that spring from them.

See you over there!

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3 Biblical Texts That Mean the Opposite of What You Think

“The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose…”

This is a line from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, but the prevalence of its quotation these days, especially from Christians, has made me wonder if a lot of people wrongly assume it to be a biblical proverb, right up there with “God helps those who help themselves,” and “Honk if you love Jesus.”

The line is often used as a warning, to watch out for people who would twist Scripture to prove their own un-biblical beliefs. There are right-wing Christians who will toss it out like a caution flag amidst the liberal “war on faith,” while others will cite Shakespeare’s line as a rebuttal to those whose favorite past-time is biblical proof-texting.

Funny thing, though, about this oh-so-wise aphorism is that when placed back in its original context, it’s purpose changes dramatically. When Antonio, the so-named “merchant of Venice,” tells his friend and client, Bassanio, that “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose,” (referring to Shylock’s biblical allusion of money-lending), he is not speaking out of wisdom, but bigotry. Antonio is an anti-Semite who bears no trust for Shylock, the Jewish moneylender, and also has no qualms about directly labeling the guy “the devil” in his presence.

My point is, just like lines from Shakespeare, a lot of folks may also routinely cite Scripture for their purposes, and not all of them are devils or even proof-texters. However, it turns out many of us have been misinformed regarding the true meaning of certain “well-known” passages.

Such as…

#3 – Sodom is Destroyed Not for Sexual Impurity but Social Impropriety (Genesis 19)

What You Thought It Was About

Judgment on a society involved in rampant homosexual activity.

In the story, Abraham’s nephew, Lot, welcomes the sudden arrival of two angelic visitors to Sodom. Unlike our modern cinematic interpretations of angels, it’s likely these two visitors are not pale-faced, moussed-hair Scandinavians wearing trench coats. Rather, Lot greets them as he would visiting lords or foreign royalty. He invites them to stay in his home, but the angels tell him they plan to spend the night in the town square.

Perhaps they were only one eligible stay away from moving from Platinum to Diamond members.

Perhaps they were only one eligible stay away from becoming Diamond members.

Lot “urges them strongly” to reconsider (there’s no evidence the Hyatt in Sodom was top-of-the-line) and they do. Later that night, all the men of the town (including young boys) show up at Lot’s door and demand he give up his two visitors, “so that we may know them.”  The basic interpretation of these words is that the men wanted to rape the angels. (The statement in Hebrew is “Yatsa yada yada,” which puts that Seinfeld episode in a whole new light.) When Lot refuses their request – to the point of offering his daughters and even himself instead – the men riot and threaten to break down his door. The angels then reveal to Lot the real reason for their visit: they were sent to destroy the city. Before initiating the divine smackdown, however, they kindly usher Lot and his family out the back.

Presumably because even when he suffered from amnesia, Loki was always a quick-thinker and incredibly cool under pressure.

Presumably because even after he began suffering from amnesia, Loki remained incredibly clever and cool under pressure.

What It’s Actually About

Bad hospitality.

Just like with Shakespeare, the Achilles heel of biblical proof-texting is a not-so-little thing called context. In this case, the preceding story in Genesis helps shed some light by way of contrast, as do the statements the supposedly rape-focused men say about Lot also.

In the story that immediately precedes this one, Lot’s uncle Abraham extends an incredibly gracious and humble welcome to three angelic visitors (the identities of which are commonly interpreted as God himself and the two angels of the Sodom account). After having a generous feast prepared for them, Abraham then journeys on with them for some distance after they stay in his home (18:1-16). The guy is such a bend-over-backwards brown-noser, you’d think he was working for tips.

Abraham in his younger days.

Abraham in his younger days.

Why is this significant?

Well, now consider the entirety of the Sodom account itself. Lot proves he’s learned how to be a good host from his uncle, and he also urges the angels “strongly” not to stay in town. It almost seems like Lot knows they won’t receive a warm welcome from anyone else – that gladly rolling out the welcome mat is not how Sodom does things. Which is tragic, because hospitality was considered to be, culturally speaking, very important. It was the litmus test for what made you a good and honorable person, or a good and honorable community. In this day and age, so much of your quality as a human being was tied to your capacity for generosity and benevolence. Welcome the stranger and the traveler, and you would find blessing from God. Reject them, or, worse yet, take advantage of them, and you were persona non grata.

David, Ahimelech and the holy bread  in 1st Samuel 21. Mary, the wedding hosts and the lack of wine in John 2. Jesus’ story about the man who bothers his neighbor for bread in the middle of the night in Luke 11. All of these hinge on the priority of being a good host, a deeply ingrained social contract of hospitality. Were you to neglect or break this contract, your reputation would be forever blackened and would lead to the inevitable suffering that comes from a reputation as a social pariah.

Unless, that is, you lived in a town full of pariahs.

Consider the way the men of Sodom react against Lot after he refuses them access to his visitors:

“And they said, ‘This fellow came here as an alien, and he would play the judge! Now we will deal worse with you than with them.'” (19:9)

You can either choose to believe that all these men just suddenly became alarmingly rape-y all at the same time (and chose to perform history’s largest gang-rape as a way to satisfy those urges), or you can believe that the attempted rape, while shocking, was a means to an end; in this case, domination by subjugation and degradation. Raping Lot’s visitors would have been both a power play and a humiliating insult, and it would have quickly established that even the most important visitors are nothing special in the eyes of the Sodomites.

When Mad Dog Tannen didn’t like Marty McFly’s look in Back to the Future III, he pulled out his six-shooter and fired at the kid’s feet, which is, of course, one of the Wild West’s go-to moves for putting strangers in their place. Let’s just say the men of Sodom had even less patience for foreigners and much crueler means of intimidation.

It’s one thing when a city is filled with people who have no sexual boundaries. It’s quite another thing when they’ve lost all trace of kindness and amity. Is it any wonder Sodom and its sister city ended up two smoldering piles of sulfurous rubble?

A far better American version of Sodom than San Francisco could ever be.

A far better American version of Sodom than San Francisco could ever be.

#2 – Jeremiah 29:11 is Less Concerned with Hopes and Dreams and More Concerned with Sitting Down and Shutting Up

What You Thought It Was About

Reach for the stars, because God’s got a personal success story written just for you.

If I had a dime for every time I’ve seen this verse printed on graduation cards, imprinted on paperweights, and scrawled in the top corner of Oh the Places You’ll Go!, I wouldn’t necessarily be a rich man, but I’d have way more dimes than even Kramer had in that episode when he tried to cook his pants.

That's two allusions to Seinfeld so far. I think I'll go for the hat trick.

That’s two allusions to Seinfeld so far. I think I’ll go for the hat trick.

It seems like such a wonderfully personalized verse right there in the middle of all that tedious, long-winded Old Testament prophecy. It’s as if God suddenly stops all his complaining about the Kingdom of Judah long enough to throw a hopeful bone out to us modern readers. For a lot of Christians, Jeremiah 29:11 is the John 3:16 of the Old Testament and certainly the most quotable line from any of the Prophets, unless you count that “mount up with wings like eagles” line from Isaiah, but that’s usually reserved for the backs of T-shirts of Christian high school track teams.

The point is, for a brief moment in Jeremiah’s heady prophetic discourse, I’m reminded that God has a special plan of success all ready for me, and all I’ve got to do is… um, well, whatever “seek me with all your heart” means. Pray, I guess. And read my Bible and, you know, keep doing my “quiet time” and stuff . The verse really isn’t clear on that part.

What It’s Actually About

The divine rescue you think is coming isn’t, so stop complaining and get used to a less-than-perfect life.

Once again, the popular interpretation burns in the light of context. It turns out that Jeremiah 29:11 is not as easy to extract from the larger passage than we would like, which is a bummer since that one verse is so darn marketable. The historical background underscoring this passage in Jeremiah reminds us that the people of Judah have recently experienced a tragic defeat at the hands of the formidable Babylonian empire; as a result, they have been exiled from Jerusalem and forced to live in Babylon, the homeland of their captors. They are strangers in a strange land.

"Hey, look on the bright side, guys. What if you'd been exiled to Sodom? You remember what those guys used to do to foreigners..."

“Hey, look on the bright side, guys. What if you’d been exiled to Sodom? You remember what those guys used to do to foreigners…”

Into these dark days, Jeremiah’s prophecy comes across not glass-half-full encouragement, but tough-love advice.

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (29:4-7)

Did you get that? The instruction for the people of Judah, caught up in the darkest period of their history and forced to toil and tarry in a land not their own is … to deal with it. To accept it. To make the best of a bad situation. And to not expect a rescue anytime soon, no matter if some other prophets claimed salvation was imminent (29:8-9). So go ahead and settle in for the long haul, because things ain’t changing until long after you’re dead.

That’s right. That plan for a hope and a future, while being directly concerned with an entire race of people (as opposed to each individual high school graduate at a baccalaureate service), was actually about a future generation that would see the Babylonian empire fall to the great King Cyrus of Persia, a messianic-like figure who would later decree that all exiled people were allowed to return to their homeland.

So, yeah, it’s a nice verse, but unless you’re willing to concede that God’s perfect plan for your life might be seventy years in coming, I’d stop using it as a testament to God’s interest in earthly successes.

"Good luck with the liberal arts degree, young man. Babylon's unemployment rate is currently 34%."

“Good luck with the liberal arts degree, young man. Babylon’s unemployment rate is currently 34%.”

#1 – The Passage That Allegedly Elevates Men as Household Leaders Actually Describes Them as Household Slaves

What You Thought It Was About

God has ordained males as the unequivocal head of the household, and wives must dutifully submit.

Toward the end of Paul’s letter to the Church in Ephesus, he spends some time giving behavioral advice regarding specific social and familial systems in that city. Now, when we males were still little boys, we were more interested in reading about that whole armor of God metaphor that comes after these verses. However, as we matured, entered college and began attending Sunday School classes and small groups geared toward young singles, we encountered a lot of marriage-centered curriculum that was focused on the family stuff rather than the helmet of truth, the sword of salvation and the crossbow of congeniality (that last one may be apocryphal). Specifically, what we learned is that according to Ephesians and a few other sprinkled passages attributed to the Apostle Paul, when it comes to establishing a Christian marriage, men are the boss and, well, you ladies just gotta deal with that.

Still, I'd take this guy over Mark Driscoll or Matt Chandler any day.

I’d take this guy over Mark Driscoll or Matt Chandler any day.

It seems pretty straightforward, doesn’t it?

Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior. Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands. (5:22-24)

There you have it. For most preachers espousing what is known as a complementarian view of marriage, it doesn’t get any clearer than that. Men are compared to Jesus, and women are, well, something between a gaggle of believers and an individual in need of a head.

And once you find it, ladies, make sure you keep it covered. Them's the rules.

And once you find it, ladies, make sure you keep it covered. Them’s the rules.

What It’s Actually About

Full-fledged service to one another.

Context, context, context. Even if you believe complementarianism to be the correct way to structure the family unit, looking before and behind these three verses reveals there is something much bigger being described here. The Apostle Paul seems less concerned with mandating men to be the masters of their domains…

He shoots, he scores!

He shoots, he scores!

and more concerned with encouraging a lifestyle of servanthood among the entire Ephesian congregation. Though a lot of modern Bible translations slap a big chunk of space and a subtitle in between verses 21 and 22, take a look at how Paul opens this whole “be subject” part of his letter:

Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. (5:21)

One another. Be subject to one another! Now, consider the way he describes the character of Jesus Christ as he extends the metaphor in verse 25:

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her… (emphasis mine)

And in verse 28,

In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.

There is something much more sacrificial being insinuated in this passage, especially since it starts not merely with instructing females to “submit” to males, but for all the people to “submit” to one another. The Greek word is hypotasso, and it means, among other synonyms, “to subordinate, obey, yield to advice.” Paul is not focused on husbands and wives so much as shedding new light on the relationship between Jesus and the Church. He has taken the traditional patriarchal structure of a family and applied it – with a caveat of full-fledged servanthood by both parties – to the Savior and those who would believe in him. And in case you missed it, he even says in verse 32 that this is his real point.

So, yes, guys, according to Paul you are the head of the household. Congratulations! However, the next time you think this means you get to call all the shots, set the dinner times, control the calendar, schedule sex, and leave all those annoying “inside chores” for that obedient bride of yours, think again. If the salvation you claim is to have any genuine influence in your home, you’ll find yourself relinquishing a lot more of your attention, time and energy than that which you keep for yourself.

But, hey, don’t take my word for it. President Bartlett feels the same:

Bearing (Bad News) with One Another

“The first step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one…”

Ever feel compelled to deliver bad news to a friend? If you’re like me, on the rare occasion that you act on such a conviction, doing so is never easy. One of the main reasons this is difficult is that no one likes to receive bad news, and neither do decent people revel in delivering it. Another reason is that human beings have this odd and innate capacity for denial, and we can activate it in a myriad of ways. We can reject the bad news outright. We can refuse to listen. We might also project our uncomfortable feelings outward – call the messenger uninformed, uneducated, duped, or just a flat-out liar. We can even find ways to disprove what we don’t enjoy hearing, even if the bad news that’s come to us is spot-on accurate. On such occasions, logic becomes a doomed toy suspended in a tug-of-war between two fussing sides. Continue reading

Life in Ten Minutes

Every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday morning, before my first period American Literature class, I am allotted ten minutes for what administration calls “devotionals.” At 8:50, the electronic bell warbles, the students take a seat, and the morning announcements click on over the PA. Depending on how many talking points the principal has for the student body, I get the remainder of the 8:50 to 9:00 slot, and I am meant to spend these fleeting minutes offering my students some form of wisdom or insight in regard to our life in a God-centered reality, perhaps reading something from the Bible, and then wrapping up with some meaningful prayer. No problem…

The lightning round begins... right... NOW!

As a teacher, I am plagued by the curse of honesty. One of my biggest problems is teaching something (especially something out of history or ancient Scriptures) without giving a lot of background to make sure the information being received makes sense in the grand spectrum of life. I know the reason for this stems partly from some of the teachers I had growing up who skipped over contextualization in favor of barrelling right into application. Unfortunately, it is not as easy for me to leave out “where this concept comes from” or “how this belief arose” – I find such information vital. After all, if I’m going to base my life on something, I want to know the details!

Needless to say, ten minutes is not quite enough time for me to impart all the wisdom (ha!) that roils within, no matter how strong a communicator I may be (or that I also teach Public Speaking). I am able only to point to the tip of the iceberg, and hope the students catch on that there is much that lies beneath. Perhaps I’m being too dramatic, or trying to bite off more than I can chew, but, seriously, ten minutes?! It’s hard to offer anything worthwhile in that amount of time. I feel like I’m in those old Al Franken skits on SNL – Daily Affirmations with Stuart Smalley (“Because you’re good enough, and you’re smart enough, and doggone it…”)

Don’t get me wrong, I manage. However, like prisoner from shackles, I can’t help but want to break free from the time restraints. We’ve become a soundbite-obsessed culture, drunk on talking points and eager for more ways to water down the wine of truth. Life cannot be summed up in ten-minute increments each day, nor can our devotion be encapsulated so easily. This may be making the proverbial mountain out of a molehill, but I worry that such brevity perpetuates the system.

So, down falls the gauntlet. Life in ten minutes. Can it be done?

Syllabus

Wouldn’t it be great if life came with instructions, some kind of course map that outlined all the major events (and the corresponding dates) scheduled to take place? You could consult it whenever you needed to – confirm a coming test or trial, brush up on the rules, jog your memory on the expectations and the objectives. You would know exactly how much weight each occurrence or incident would have on the overall outcome of your life. There would even be a phone number or e-mail of who you should contact if you get lost or confused.

Something like this, but, you know, less boring:

Ahh, clarity!

Back in class today, standing up in front of my students while coping with jet-lag and its nefarious pal, the pounding headache, I quickly recognized how off-track you can feel when you don’t have a detailed, balanced syllabus to consult. In my new electives this semester, I have not had a chance to complete the corresponding syllabi; thus, any directions or instruction I offered seemed to float about the room like fog, clearly present but making everything hazy. No matter how free-spirited you are, when things get confusing, all you want is order and organization. Order helps you keep a steady pace – organization spares you stressful surprises.

Some people refer to the Bible by the acronym Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth – they feel this is a great way to summarize the content as well as the purpose of what they consider to be God’s Word. I’ve always found the insinuation dull, that it robs Scripture of its mystery and controversy and strangely compelling influence. Treating the Bible like it’s a syllabus for living on planet earth is like believing The Lord of the Rings is a how-to guide for crafting and decorating jewelry. Sure, you may be able to glean some tips and a significant amount of inspiration, but the extent of what you have missed could fill the Bay of Belfalas.

We need more than a mere syllabus to embrace this life. We need confidence in our own story, and we need to see how thousands of other stories long past can still mirror our own ambitions, fears, hopes and anxieties. We need friendly classmates who make good partners, and we need to be responsible with the resources of which we are given charge. We need to understand that the more intentionally we analyze and evaluate and probe for truth, the wiser we will become.