THE PART YOU THREW AWAY
I want to start by saying, I love Atheists. Even though I’m a Christian I love how Atheism continues to ask the hard questions. My personal experience with Atheism is that in America it seems to be primarily a backlash against Institutional Christianity and how Christianity is preached and practiced. I would add that I think there is good reason to agree with some of the arguments Atheists make. A favorite story I recently came across was this one by magician Penn Jillette who talks about why he is an Atheist – and it generally expresses what I’ve heard from all who are Atheists.
So why this introduction on Atheism? Well I think he makes a very important point when he says,
“What we get told about the Bible is a lot of picking and choosing…. When someone’s trying to interpret something for you they always have an agenda.”
And I think that this is important and offers a clue why institutional Christianity has gotten so out-of-whack. When I started reading the Bible for myself and stopped depending on what others told me about what I believe and why – I found so much more. I found stories, concerns and issues that, in my 50+ years of existence have never been taught. Now reading the “source material” has not led me to Atheism like Penn Jillette but it has made me see what has happened to my spiritual tradition over the last 1700 years.
Now about the text I really wanted to talk about. And yes I have an agenda but it’s not to reinforce institutional tradition and understanding; I want to offer up some questioning, discussion and exploration. My text today is from Apostle Paul’s letter to the Galatians. First chapter. In this letter he comes out swinging. In verse 7 he writes,
“Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ.”
He then goes on to say later in verse 9,
“If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!”
Now I could focus on Paul’s strong combative language but that would miss the point of what Paul is saying. I could also say that we need to support our religious institutions – but again, that would be missing the whole point of what Paul is saying. It’s not about defending ones position or traditions. I want to focus on what Paul refers to as “the gospel of Christ” – notice, he says gospel OF christ which suggests the content and subject of Christ teachings and revelations. He does NOT say the Gospel ABOUT Christ.
I’ve written before and would like to refresh here that sometimes the archaic language is problematic for contemporary readers. The word “gospel” literally means “good news” straight-forward and simple. And Paul says that the message we should cling to is the same good news that Jesus taught. As I’ve said before, in another post, the good news that Jesus taught was that the kingdom of heaven is within you (near and here now), you are forgiven, and you are loved without exception. But ever since Christianity was adopted by Rome (312 AD, under Constantine) as the state religion the message has been the good news ABOUT Jesus Christ, the person. It’s a subtle prepositional change from “of” to “about” but it is significant. Even a popular Bible dictionary defines the word “Gospel” saying it’s about
“all that God has done, is doing, and will do in his risen Son, Jesus Christ.”
Never once does this dictionary define the “good news” as Jesus defined it. Never once!. The message was changed from what Christ actually taught, and how he lived out his teachings, to WHO he was. This is where the problem starts. It’s like Jesus was the envelope for the message and the message (or letter) in the envelope was the good news for humanity – ALL of humanity. But when the focus changed from the good news that Jesus taught to the man himself it was akin to saving the envelope and discarding the message that was in the envelope. Or maybe a better analogy in these technological times is – It’s like being thrilled that you got an email and moved it to a special folder but never opened the email or read it. And Paul also addresses the issue of letting others tell you what the bible means. It’s like letting someone read the letter you got in the mail, picking out and telling you the parts they think are important and/or acceptable then discarding the rest. Meanwhile you have no real clue as to what the entire letter said. And when one person, priest, pastor etc does this for a whole group of people – this is how the message becomes institutionalized. This individual is gone. One person is now telling other what the experience looks like and the individual has no say if they want to continue to be a part of that group. I think this is what Paul was talking about when he said that the Galatians had allowed someone to tell them what the good news was about and they lived according to that message as opposed to based on their own individual experience.
The institutionalized church has treated the word of God like SPAM long enough. The only way to get around that is for each person to read the source material for themselves (as Penn Jillette would encourage). Understand the context in which it was written and then make your decision. Understand the flow of history and how the ideas have changed. One thing that Apostle Paul points out in this letter specifically is that he discovered this stuff on his own. After his conversion he did not associate with the other Apostles or become indoctrinated by them. He specifically says,
“I did not consult any man.” (vs.16)
In his own life Paul was so overcome by the good news that Jesus taught that he went immediately into Arabia and only later returned. In fact it was 3 years before he went back to Jerusalem to meet Peter. (vs.17-18) So Paul had 3 years of just getting acquainted with Jesus teaching on his own. No seminary, no school. Just life and living. In fact if anyone could have disputed the whole thing it would’ve been Paul because he came out of the institutionalized Jewish tradition. When he met Peter, Paul only stayed with him 15 days and then he left again and didn’t return for another 14 years to meet the other Apostles. There is not a single institution that would allow this today. The faith of Paul was incredibly personal and he had a connection to God that allowed him to develop on his own to practice and reveal the good news in a way that was unique to his life experience. Today you would be sent to classes (“sunday school” for the lay person) or seminary (for those who want to make money doing this) for further indoctrination. I know I’m questioning authority here but I believe it is necessary. We MUST question authority that is both political and religious. This attitude toward individualism is echoed in the book of the Bible known as I John, where the author says,
“…you do not need anyone to teach you. But his anointing teaches you about all things, and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit – just as it has taught you, remain in him.”
Now “anointing” is another archaic word. It simply means to pour or rub oil or ointment on a person or thing and that’s how it was used in the Old Testament. But its meaning changed in the New Testament to signify a divine appointment as a result of a relationship between the physical and metaphysical (or man and God). Through this one-on-one relationship a person learns directly from the Bible through their own individual reading and is responsible for applying principles to their life. The choice is always ours. This anointing, this relationship, is free and available to everyone regardless of their beliefs. This openness in the Christian belief system is rarely (if ever) taught these days as institutions try to keep their people “on point” or “on message” always trying “bring it back home” when they feel it starts to get too individualistic.
So, I’ll put this in plain English – Don’t let anyone tell you what the bible should mean for you. Read the Bible for yourself. Ask questions of the source material. The answers are there. They may not be revealed all at once. And because it uses some archaic language it may take some time to understand it. Don’t get sidetracked by the envelope or package the message came in but read the message for your self. Peace.
- THE HOLY BIBLE (New International Version), published by Zondervan Publishing.
- THE HOLY BIBLE (King James Version – Thompson’s Chain-Reference ), published by B.B. Kirkbride Publishing
- THE REVELL BIBLE DICTIONARY
- Penn Jillette interview courtesy of Youtube
- CHRISTENDOM: A Short History Of Christianity And It’s Impact On Western Civilization, by Roland H Bainton
What happens when we let other pick and choose what we read and comprehend? I think the overall tune is forgotten like dropped notes teh melody eventually fades. Tom Waits say’s in his tragic song, “You’ll soon forget the tune that you play, ’cause that is the part you throw away.”
Tom Waits – THE PART YOU THROW AWAY