Friday, December 19, 2008

The gift of the magi

I have a relative who is extremely religious. By that I mean that she considers herself to be above the rest of us because she is devoutly Christian, believes in the inerrancy of the Bible, sees God as a judge and a father who has laid down rules that we must follow.

In my opinion, she has missed the point of the New Testament entirely, because she has a Church Lady-like attitude toward pretty much everyone and everything; compassion and love for her fellow man are not much to be seen. Unfortunately, her reading is not very deep (it's a strange sort of Bible study that reads the Bible over and over again...and nothing else, I think), so it's hard to actually converse with her about any of this - she quite easily falls back on "It's God's word" or some such to justify a raging intolerance.

I hasten to add that I have known people who weren't like this at all, whose faith deepened and informed their lives. Did it make them better people? Hard to say, but I do know they were far better advocates for their religion than the people who feed off their own rigidity. And you could discuss religion with those people, they welcomed the testing of their faith and, in general, accepted that there were inconsistencies and peculiarities in the Bible. They also tended to have read more than just the Good Book, because they were legitimately interested in what others had to say.

I've read rather more about religion than one might expect, but I find that a lot of the analysis veers into jargon and verbiage that is somewhat beyond the point to which I want to take it. I could gear up, move through theology textbooks and so forth, but it's not such a high priority for me that I want to do that (at least not at this point in my life).

That's why I welcome the discussion that Eric Zorn of the Chicago Tribune has been having with Richard Kieckhefer, a Northwestern University religion professor (you can read it here in Eric's blog). Essentially, the topic concerns the events immediately following the birth of Jesus:

The linear narrative of this story is that wise men from the east followed a star saying "Where is he that born King of the Jews?" King Herod gets wind of this, puts it together with some prophecy and figured this babe was in or around Bethlehem and was going to be nothing but trouble for him.

So they follow the star, they find Jesus and gift him. God then warns them in a dream not to report back to Herod and then the angel of the Lord appears in a dream and tells Joseph to flee with Mary and Jesus into Egypt, since Herod plans to kill him.

Matthew 2:16 --Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men.

This is all pretty disturbing, and that last part doesn't show up in too many Christmas pageants. I won't spoil the way Eric lets this unfold, but the back and forth between Kieckhefer and him is fascinating, and doesn't once rely on terms like "eschatology" or "dispensationalism." (OK, we do see "theodicy," but it's well explained here.)

To me, this is the kind of conversation that is enlightening without pulling faith out of the hat to explain away the problems. If only I could break it out at Christmas dinner with my relative, but, I guarantee you, it would not be well-received. Isn't that special?


Greg said...

Many evangelical believers seem to use the Bible to justify their conservative philosophy, rather than really studying the entire text and understanding its relevance at the time and now. It's the pick-and-choose religious buffet! How convenient.

Androcass said...

Yes, it takes a bit of work to put the Bible in its proper context, to understand (and perhaps reject) the horrors of Leviticus, to forge a worldview that is informed by faith but not enslaved by it. How sad that so many cannot do that work.

Greg said...

Not only can many not do that work, they're simply not interested in trying. They rely on faith and faith alone.

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