Friday, September 30, 2022

The Gospel of Ruth

I am presently part of an online Bible Study at our church. I am not the leader, just a participant. So I get to throw in my “two cents” along with all the other two-centers. It is the first time since I retired six years ago that I am participating in a study at this church. God bless the present pastor for welcoming me!

We are studying the Old Testament book of Ruth. Ruth is a favorite of many Christians. It ordinarily presented as a love story about a righteous man who meets a virtuous woman and live happily ever after. While focusing on the romance, the radical nature of the book is often overlooked.

It is one of only two books in the Old Testament that has a woman as the main character. The other book is Esther, which was likely written at about the same time. The Book of Ruth is written from a woman’s perspective. The husbands of Naomi, Ruth and Orpah, are killed off in the opening verses before we get to know anything about them. The other men – except for Boaz – are minor characters in the story.

Because it is written from a woman’s perspective, it is thought by some biblical scholars that the Book of Ruth may have been written by a woman. That would make it unique in the Bible. Of course we don’t know the book’s authorship for sure. The book is anonymous, which is what we would expect if it had been authored by a woman. If it was known to be written by a woman, it never would have made it into the canon.

Not only is the central character a woman, she is a Moabite. Moabites were the historic enemies of the Hebrews. This Moabite marries Boaz, who is the son of Rahab, a Canaanite prostitute from Jericho, a “sinner” in the eyes of religious society.  Yet the genealogy at the end of the book informs us that Ruth and Boaz were the great-grandparents of David, the greatest Jewish king.

That genealogy in the final sentence of the book is the reason Ruth was written. It reveals that foreigners were an integral part of the history of Israel. In doing so, it challenged the teaching of the Torah, which said that no descendant of a Moabite could enter the temple. Yet David had such ancestors, and his son Solomon built the temple.

The book of Ruth is “protest literature.” It was written at a time when anti-women and anti-foreigner moralists had taken over the government in Jerusalem. It is probable that the Book of Ruth was written in the fifth century BC, when Ezra was purging Israel of all foreigners – Moabites in particular.  Ezra required all Jewish men who had married foreign women to divorce them publicly and send them and their children away.

Nehemiah followed up on Ezra’s reforms with a building program to construct a wall to keep foreigners out of Jerusalem. It does not take much thinking to see parallels to policies popular in American society today. The Book of Ruth was written to challenge the narrative that religious fundamentalists were preaching. It was pointing out that if one looks into the history of Israel one can see that diversity did not threaten Israel but rather strengthened it.

I call the Book of Ruth radical. The etymology of the word “radical” means “root.” We get the English word “radish” from it. The root of true Biblical spirituality is not about building walls to keep people out but drawing the circle wider. It is not about priding ourselves on being God’s chosen people and excluding others. It is about seeing that God’s people have always included all types of people.

That is the root of the gospel of Jesus, who reached out to foreigners and sinners. Jesus declared that a Roman soldier had more faith than anyone in Israel. He said that “sinners” were entering the Kingdom of God ahead of the Sadducees and Pharisees, who were the heirs of Ezra. This is the Gospel of Ruth. It is as controversial today as it was when the Book of Ruth was written.

Sunday, September 11, 2022

Living in the Moor

This summer my wife celebrated her seventieth birthday, thereby joining me in exploring the eighth decade of our lives together. I have another seventy-something birthday coming up in a few days. The other day we were chatting with a friend about this milestone of life. This friend said her mother used to call this stage of life “living in the more.”

She explained that Psalm 90 describes the human lifespan as “threescore years and ten” (seventy years) and if “by reason of strength” we are granted more, it is an added blessing. She called that additional time “living in the more.”

When she said “living in the more” I thought I heard “living in the moor.” I immediately imagined the moorland of Britain. Sherlock Holmes’ case of The Hound of the Baskervilles came to mind. In that tale a demonic hound was said to inhabit the moors. 

Dr. Watson describes the moor as “gloomy,” “sinister,” “so vast, and so barren, and so mysterious,” “like some fantastic landscape in a dream.” It is an “enormous wilderness of peat and granite,” where squalls drift across the russet face of “the melancholy downs” and “heavy, slate-coloured clouds” trail “in grey wreaths down the sides of the fantastic hills.”

Brrrr! I feel like pulling up my collar and turning down my deerstalker cap just reading about it! In a personal letter to his mother, Arthur Conan Doyle called the moor “a great place, very sad & wild.” In Wuthering Heights the moor is described as “unleashed, mad and dangerous.” Hmm! Perhaps I better go back to the Shire.

When I looked to the dictionary, it defined a moor as “a tract of open uncultivated upland; a heath.” That sounds a bit better. My experience of my seventies is very much like that. It is an uncultivated land filled with possibilities and pitfalls. There are not many roadmaps for this territory. Everyone seems to blaze their own trail. My type of place.

When they age, some people seek to relive their earlier decades, warding off old age by trying to recover their youth. It is the senior equivalent of a midlife crisis, except in our seventies we are not midway to anywhere. No one lives to be 140. 

Others retreat into the past, reliving old memories. Still others spend their later years entertaining themselves with television and small talk until the undertaker arrives. A few reinvent themselves with a “second act” or perhaps a “third act.” Good for them!

The seventies are not without their physical limitations as the body ages. Instead of going to the doctor for cures, more often we go to manage symptoms. Either that or opt for new bionic joints, which are not without their problems. 

So far I have found my seventies to be a time of spiritual adventure and discovery. In retirement the restraints of theological norms and ecclesiastical pressures are gone. I am free to be “unleashed, mad and dangerous.”

Classical India understood the latter part of life to be a time to put aside the concerns of earlier stages of life and dedicate oneself to spiritual concerns. Having spent my whole adult life in religious concerns, I find this stage to be doubly spiritual. Old dogmas fall away in the light of direct spiritual awareness. Prejudices and divisions are seen as petty exercises in egotism. There is no longer any time to waste in fear and anger. The psalmist sang:

The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away…. So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.

It is important to number our days. Whether our years be threescore years and ten or “by reason of strength” fourscore years or more, one day they will be cut off, and we will fly away. As the gospel hymn reminds us: “One glad morning, when this life is over, I'll fly away.”  In the meantime I am “living in the moor,” and I have found it to be the Kingdom of God.

Monday, September 5, 2022

The Preacher as Gadfly

Here in New Hampshire we have a healthy population of biting flies. In fact we have a season named after one variety: black fly season. It comes after mud season and before tourist season. In May and June one cannot walk down the street of our village without being swarmed.

But black flies are nothing compared to deer flies and horseflies, which can really take a chunk out of you all summer long. Biting flies hurt! They are a nuisance. For that reason I think they are a good metaphor for a preacher. Good preaching should have a bite! Preachers should function like horseflies in a congregation and community.

There is a well-known adage that the pastor’s job is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” I agree, but there is a lot of comforting going on in churches these days and very little afflicting. In this time of declining church attendance, pastors are afraid that if they engaged in prophetic preaching, pew warmers might take their checkbooks and leave. So pastors pamper the remaining church members instead of challenging them.  That is why so many adult church members have not advanced beyond Sunday School faith.

It is time for some prophetic preaching from Christian pulpits. Better yet, some Socratic preaching. Socrates famously said that his role as a philosopher was to be a gadfly, which is a generic term for all varieties of biting flies. He saw his mission as causing discomfort to his fellow Athenians. He was so successful that he was put on trial for “impiety.” He "failed to acknowledge the gods that the city acknowledges." The Greek word for impiety is asebeia, defined as "desecration and mockery of divine objects" and "irreverence towards the state gods." 

He was also charged with “corruption of the youth of the city-state.” The Greek word is polis, from which we get the word political. It does not take much thinking to see current applications. This reminds me of the charges brought against Jesus by Jerusalem’s religious and political leaders. Both Socrates and Jesus were found guilty of blasphemy and treason and were executed. Both could have escaped execution but chose not to.

Socrates carried out his teaching mission by the now-famous “Socratic Method.” Socrates did not provide answers. He asked questions. Lots of questions. No statement went unchallenged. He questioned every belief of his students and insisted that every assertion be backed up with evidence. This technique exposed a person’s unexamined presuppositions and assumptions. It revealed that most people live by borrowed ideas.  

Practicing this discipline of critical thinking makes us very aware of how many of our cherished beliefs have been unconsciously adopted from our families and communities, rather than tested and proven by reason.  The process of Socratic thinking is much needed in our time when conspiracy theories are rampant in America, especially in Christian churches. 

I find myself using the Socratic Method more and more in my preaching and teaching. By posing rhetorical questions while preaching and asking pointed questions when conversing, I encourage people to question everything in their spiritual and political worldview. In other words, I commit asebeia (impiety) and “corrupt the youth [and elderly] of the state” and church. I "fail to acknowledge the gods that the city acknowledges."

I question the false gods of all religions, especially my own Christian religion. As I said in a recent podcast episode entitled “Smashing idols,” I demolish false gods, of which there are many in American Christianity. To use the apostle Paul’s term, I “demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God….”

Not the least of Christian idolatries is bibliolatry, which is the deification of Scripture. There is also the divinization of doctrine and church tradition. Finally there is the idolizing of Jesus himself. The God worshipped in many churches is a false god fashioned in our cultural image and likeness. As the gadfly Voltaire famously said, “In the beginning God created man in His own image, and man has been trying to repay the favor ever since.”

The Socratic Method goes against the current trend of American culture. We live in a post-modern and post-truth society. There is no search for truth, just opposing self-interests. There is little self-reflection or self-examination these days. Every discussion degenerates into a debate, rather than being a shared search for deeper truth. Preaching has become polemic, and dialogue is replaced with diatribe.

Amid this decaying American culture I seek to play the role of the gadfly. Be careful! I bite! I preached a sermon recently in our community church entitled “Hiding from God,” showing how churches develop elaborate systems for hiding from Divine Truth. It is the preacher’s task to expose such self-deceptions. 

It is gadfly season in the church. It is time for some preaching with a bite. We preachers are to afflict people so they have nowhere to turn but to the Balm of Gilead, the Living God.