Monday, September 16, 2013

The Bible and the Problem of Literalism

God has made us ministers of a new covenant, 
not of letter but of spirit;
for the letter kills, but the spirit gives life.

II Corinthians 3:6

Recently, a woman from Georgia wrote a letter to United Methodist Insight, an online journal of news and commentary, to protest the promotion of literalism in United Methodist Churches. In the letter, she writes:

As Methodists, we vow to support the Methodist Church. Doesn't that support include teaching and preaching that which is in harmony with the Discipline and John Wesley's teaching? Why aren't preachers who call Holy Scriptures the Word of God and who dismiss reason brought before the Judicial Council? I can understand members being confused and mistakenly calling The Bible The Word of God and promoting the litany "The Word of God for the People of God. Praise be to God" after Bible readings. I can't understand why the clergy either remains silent or actively encourages those statements and ideas.

She contends that calling the Bible “the Word of God” and “dismissing reason is destroying the very core of Methodism.” Literalism, she argues, “leads to a deep pit of ignorance and radicalism.”

As any student of the Bible knows, from a biblical perspective, the biggest problem with literalism is not that it dismisses reason, (although that can be a huge problem) but that it is unbiblical. When the biblical writers speak of other passages in the Bible, they interpret them symbolically and theologically rather than literally. The Bible is about meaning; not history or science. The Bible is about deep things of the spirit, and literalism means swimming in the shallow end of the pool.

The woman from Georgia is clearly right in her basic points. Literalism is a menace. And reason is “the very core of Methodism.” The great Methodist preachers of the twentieth century, Henry Hitt Crane, Ernest Freemont Tittle, Harold Bosley, Halford Luccock, and a host of others, would be appalled to see the ways in which biblical literalism has displaced reason in many of our United Methodist churches, and in Protestantism generally.

Her letter also contains a mistake which is highly instructive; one which pastors and worship leaders should take seriously.

She assumes that preachers who call the Bible “the Word of God” are endorsing biblical literalism. But when we call the Bible the Word of God, we do not mean that it is literally “the words of God.” We mean that it is inspired.

Ironically, our letter writer takes the “Word of God” statement literally, when it is meant to be taken symbolically.

When the liturgist concludes the reading of scripture and says, “The Word of God for the people of God,” and the congregation responds by saying, “Thanks be to God,” that is not an affirmation of biblical literalism. But the problem is that to many of those in the congregation it sounds like an endorsement of biblical literalism.

For many years I did not believe this. I was sure that “everybody” knew that when we used that litany we were giving thanks for the inspiration of the Bible, not declaring it to be inerrant or meant as “literal” truth.

Eventually on a study retreat a colleague convinced of what my wife, Elaine, had been telling me for decades: “People don’t think that means what you think it means.”

Now, after the Bible is read, the leader says, “As we hear what the Spirit says to the church,” and the people respond, “May our hearts be open.”

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Lord, When Was It that You Were on Food Stamps?

“Then the Lord will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Matthew 25:41-46

Last night I was at an emergency meeting for Project Outreach, a community service organization based at The Open Table of Christ United Methodist Church in Providence. Project Outreach is the largest single food distribution program in Rhode Island. In a typical month they distribute over 20,000 pounds of food to 450 unduplicated families. This includes 1400 individuals and about 200 visits per week. In addition to food distribution, Project Outreach also works with partners to provide medical care, job training, life skills, and advocacy.

The meeting, like many of our meetings, was focused on money. Compared to the work that gets done and the people who are helped, the budget is tiny, less than $75,000 per year. But raising money is never easy and raising money to feed poor people is particularly challenging, and we are behind. Way behind. Reluctantly, we had to make reductions in our staffing. The reductions will not balance the budget, but they will slow the flow of red ink.

This morning, I received an urgent message from Bread for the World, alerting me to a plan now before congress to cut the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, SNAP, formerly known as Food Stamps, by $40 billion over the next decade.

According to Bread for the World, this will mean:
  • Across the country, 2 to 4 million adults without dependents would lose benefits. SNAP already has strict work requirements but this proposal would require individuals to find work at times when jobs are scarce. 
  • Nearly 2 million more people, primarily seniors and those in low-income working families, would lose benefits due to changes in eligibility rules. 
  • In 2011, private churches and charities provided approximately $4 billion in food assistance, compared to $98 billion provided by federal nutrition programs. Churches and charities would have to nearly double their current food assistance to make up the difference
Lately it seems that Congress seldom lacks for bad ideas, but this is one of the worst. Food Stamps are good for the country in at least three ways. First, they reduce hunger and provide a modest safety net in a time of economic uncertainty displacement. Second, they stimulate the economy. One of the reasons that the current recession has not been worse is that government subsidies like Food Stamps have helped to limit the drop in consumer demand, which stimulates the economy. And Food Stamps are a particularly effective stimulus, since we know that they will be spent and the money will go back into the economy. Some estimates show that every dollar spent on Food Stamps stimulates a boost to the economy of $1.73, far more than the estimated gain of $1.23 from tax cuts. Finally, Food Stamps help the country by helping children grow into healthier adults who will contribute to society.

Food Stamps are, almost literally, the best thing since sliced bread.

But beyond all of that, for Christians this is a no-brainer.

Matthew tells us that in one of his last public appearances before his crucifixion, Jesus told a parable of judgment. The message was simple. We will meet Christ in “the least of these,” the homeless, the hungry, the sick, and the imprisoned. And we will be judged by how we treat those who are suffering.

The House of Representatives will vote soon. If you want to influence that vote you can go to the Bread for the World website and use their convenient link to contact your representative.