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Biblical Gymnastics

Friday, August 10th, 2012

Fellow Passengers: This week’s Pastoral Passage* (Romans 4:18-21) transports me to London’s North Greenwich Arena, where the drama of Olympic competition, complete with the thrill of victory and agony of defeat, played out this week in the gymnastics competitions. It is incredible what the human body can do on first one apparatus and then another. The bending and stretching and twisting and contorting never ceases to amaze. It just doesn’t seem like the body should be able to do what it does on the balance beam and the bars and rings and vault and floor. It’s back to Pilates class for me, so I can continue working on holding the plank for more than 30 seconds, and do a forward bend to touch my toes.

Abraham and Sarah were well past the age of Olympic athleticism, but they experienced some amazing bodily contortions nonetheless. These centenarians remembered a hopeful promise that they would have children and become father and mother to nations, but that hope seemed all but lost. The passage tells us that Abraham hoped against hope, though, fully persuaded that those good as dead bodies would once again twist and turn and bring about new life. Like one of the London gymnasts holding a still pose on the rings, we read that Abraham never wavered through unbelief regarding the promise of God. The promise was fulfilled; they gave birth to a nation, a people, and eventually one of those people, Aly Raisman, performed her gold-medal winning floor routine to the Hebrew folk song Hava Nagila, commemorating the lives of the 11 Jewish athletes killed by terrorists 40 years prior in the Munich Games.

Gymnastics are probably my favorite Olympic competition, partially because the moves are so far removed from anything I can do. I mean, I can run, swim, dive, play ping pong and badminton, row a boat, play volleyball, etc. But I can’t do anything that these gymnasts do. Just thinking about a backbend makes me hurt. In another sense, though, I am a gymnast, or at least I have been accused of being one. Several times, when I have written about a passage dealing with sexuality, or economics, or interfaith issues, someone has pushed back, accusing me of engaging in “hermeneutical gymnastics” with the Bible. It’s not meant as a compliment. The suggestion is that I am twisting and turning the text, contriving and bending it to say what I want it to say. I’ve thought about the charge, and have decided that it’s true. I am a biblical gymnast, but only in the sense that every one of us who engages scripture does gymnastics with it. The presumption of those making the accusation is that it is possible to live in this culture and read a passage that is 2000 to 3500 years old, that has been applied to various cultural contexts for the last 2000 years, and approach it in a simple and straightforward way, without any interpretive apparatus. God said it, I believe it, that settles it. That’s about as likely as me doing a double somersault with a half twist. It just doesn’t happen. We are all engaging in hermeneutical gymnastics every time we approach scripture. That doesn’t mean the conclusions we draw are any less true. The question for me becomes, what apparatus are we using? I’ve considered the options, and narrowed it down. The balance beam is out. I can hardly stand to watch this event, always fearful that someone’s going to miss the beam and break a neck. Trying to balance life and do flips over a thin beam of sacred literature is too dangerous. Then there are those bars. No, it seems like these gymnasts spend too much time just going round and round in circles. How about the rings? It’s a test of strength, for sure, but no, I don’t want to engage scripture with the goal of striking a pose and not moving at all. Or the floor exercise. As beautiful as the dance moves and leaps and flips can be, I don’t like the idea of having to fit everything within a box. That leaves the vault. That’s it. I love the vault. I love seeing scripture as a vault, as something we come to with great energy and enthusiasm and preparation, and when we hit it, it sends us flying, hopefully with a good landing. After all, scriptural texts are called passages, right? They take us somewhere. Even if we’re injured and limping, like the heroic Kerri Strug, we can still muster up the courage to run to scripture and see where it takes us.

How about you? Where does this Pastoral Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.

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Comments

  • August 10, 2012 at 10:19 am

    God said it, I believe it, that settles it

    Comment by Bill

  • August 10, 2012 at 12:26 pm

    Some passages of scripture are straight forward with clear, concise meanings and implications to our life. Those are easy for everyone. But we have all noticed other passages that are being interpreted in a variety of ways. Quite often there is an interpretation that just makes far more sense than any of the others. There is no doubt that heavy gymnastics will be required to make a vault attempt with some of the other very unlikely meanings. I believe that it is our duty to seek the intended meanings and God’s purpose with the Holy Spirit as our guide and teacher. May He always be our guide. How wonderful is it that we have Christ living within us?

    Comment by Joey

  • August 10, 2012 at 12:58 pm

    Joey, thanks for the insightful comments and the spirit in which you give them. While I tend to agree with your statement on face value, here’s the rub: the passages that are clear and concise to some are not so clear for others. For example, I read the Bible to give clear and concise warnings to avoid the dangers of material wealth, while people who are captive to the American Dream and its ideology of capitalism and profit motive don’t see it so clearly (I’d love to have inerrantists reading Jesus’ teachings about wealth and poverty to affirm “God said, I believe it, that settles it, but unfortunately, they usually squirm and seek a way around them). I read clear and concise mandates to love our enemies and not respond to them with violence, while people invested in gun rights and military solutions don’t see it so clearly. I read a clear and concise mandate to welcome the strangers who come into our midst and treat them as we would Christ, while those who want to deport undocumented immigrant families don’t see it so clearly. Likewise, some people read the Bible to say clearly that people of different races should not marry, or people who have been divorced should not remarry, or people of same gender should not marry, or women should be silent in church, while I do not interpret the passages to have those clear applications. There are timeless truths that I hope we can all affirm – the greatest commandments, for example, to love God wholeheartedly and to love neighbor as self. Again, though, even as we agree on those mandates, we begin traveling different paths when it comes to applying those truths. You are right, Joey, in celebrating our gift of the Holy Spirit as guide and Christ living within us. May every scripture passage we read be a vault to catapult us toward a more Christ-like life.

    Comment by Stan Dotson

  • August 10, 2012 at 2:08 pm

    I don’t think there is near the level of disagreement with the passages you mention as you seem to believe. If I believe in the American dream and think that God sometimes chooses to bless his people I can still at the same time understand the dangers of material wealth and finding my security there.

    Many Christians who believe in welcoming the stranger (and practice it) also understand the necessity of governmental protection to many types of danger and not just at the border. Groups (I won’t label them) almost make them out to be evil at times even when they fully believe and practice the biblical truth of which we speak.

    In addition, the belief in gun rights certainly doesn’t indicate that one does not understand and agree with God’s mandate to love our enemies.

    There are exceptions on both sides of the fence and always will be. I hope you are in agreement that there will always be false teachers among us until the day of Christ. That fact alone will create division and differences. Those who are faithful will still accept our duty to allow the Spirit to teach us what He has authored.

    Comment by Joey

  • August 10, 2012 at 2:40 pm

    Joey, thanks for giving such good examples of biblical gymnastics around biblical texts that are clear and concise! Yes, I agree, there will always be false teachers. Prosperity theologians, advocates of violent responses to enemy threats, and people who would interpret Matthew 25 as to say we should not allow undocumented children to live here among us come to mind.

    Comment by Stan Dotson

  • August 10, 2012 at 3:18 pm

    The Prosperity gospel – sinful and shameful. I’m glad we agree on that.

    Would you take no action if you had a small child or even spouse in danger of being killed by a intruder? Hand on throat, knife in other hand raised to kill? Has God not charged us to care for and protect our families?

    Liberal politics prevent you from seeing that there is a process to welcoming the stranger into nations. You may be able to welcome 20 people into your home to live. Can you welcome 200 just as easily? How about 1000?

    You are quite the gymnast if you seek to make people with the beliefs I have mentioned out to be false teachers.

    Comment by Joey

  • August 10, 2012 at 6:43 pm

    Joey, since we’re talking Biblical ethics, can you find the chapter and verse where Jesus would protect his family with a gun? I’m conjecturing from the context in which he lived, that there were actual Roman soldiers who did threaten and do violence to the Jewish people. And there were people of faith, like those you describe, who believed in arming themselves against the perpetrators of violence. They were called Zealots. As far as I can tell, Jesus did not join their movement. If you can show me the passage where Jesus teaches or acts in a way that gives you the idea that guns are the way to protect ourselves, I’ll be happy to read it. I grew up in a family that did not depend on arms to provide protection. I’m sure there were threats to our family; we had people in the neighborhood who robbed us more than once, we had alcoholic folks in the neighborhood who were prone to violence, and I don’t remember my dad ever saying we needed to arm ourselves. Someday I’ll be glad to tell you the story of one of those robbers who came back and repented, and one of those alcoholics who got saved. Likewise, if you can find an example where Jesus would have supported sending children back to Mexico or Guatemala to live in squalor and terror, I’ll be happy to read it. I’ll be happy to take back my assertion that people who teach such things are false teachers, if you can give me some teachings of Jesus to go by.

    Comment by Stan Dotson

  • August 10, 2012 at 7:31 pm

    I understand from your reply that would not do everything in your power to protect your family in a situation such as I mentioned. It may be a fist, a bat, bottle, broomstick, or whatever. Those that would try to use whatever means possible are most assuredly your friends, family, and brothers and sisters in Christ. Your characterization of their beliefs may not be that important at such a time.

    As far as specific teachings of Jesus, I also am willing to accept the ideas you mention on same sex intimate relationships. But first please give the chapter and verse where Jesus taught this specifically. I think we both realize the problem with your approach.

    Comment by Joey

  • August 10, 2012 at 7:36 pm

    There are times when in Romans 13 where God gives authority to govts. to carry out war. Throughout the o.t. God allowed the israelites to go to war to drive out the enemy. Govt. is there to carry out justice for its people thru courts and thru protection for its citizens. Jesus used force to cleanse the temple in His righteous indignation. To protect your family is not wrong, it is an innate sense of right and wrong and to prevent harm to your family is a good thing. And thanks to bro. Bill, for his input. A few years back, I read this and it sums it up for me, The bible says and that settles it, whether you or I believe it. Psalm 119:89

    Comment by jim

  • August 11, 2012 at 6:10 am

    No Joey, you misunderstand my reply. Whether or not I would use a gun, stick, knife, semiautomatic rifle, or nuclear warhead to protect my family was not the subject of this conversation. It’s about whether any of those things are in line with what Jesus taught, and where we get the foundation for our ethics. Whereas Paul taught in Romans 13 to give governments respect, he didn’t go join the Roman army, and when he himself, and others like the apostle Peter, were victimized by violence in the book of Acts, we don’t see them resorting to guns or sticks or knives to defend themselves. Others, like Jim, might want to base their ethics on the Old Testament stories of conquest and genocide, but I prefer as a Christian to take Jesus as my example. As for that example, I’d recommend you read some books by New Testament scholar Walter Wink, who demonstrated clearly that active non-violence is not the same as pacifism. There are active methods of non-violent resistance shown in the New Testament that we can draw from when we are faced with violence in our lives. The choices are not fight or flight – violence or do nothing – we can engage in battle using the whole armor of God, and I trust you believe that the weaponry God has equipped us with is far superior to the weaponry of the world. As the prophet said, “not by might or power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord.”

    As far as chapter and verse where Jesus recommends and blesses same-sex marriage, no problem – it’s the same verse where he blesses interracial marriages, and second marriages for women who left abusive first husbands, and marriages for old people past child-bearing age, and infertile couples. On a more serious note, I understand Jesus’ teaching that all the law and the prophets hinge on two simple commands – love God with all your heart and soul, and love your neighbor as yourself. I also derive from Jesus’ teaching and the New testament teaching that there are some timeless core values to marriage – fidelity, compassion, monogamy. And I see people in same-sex relationships who are following the two great commands, who are also living out and demonstrating the timeless core values of a good marriage, and who are doing absolutely no harm to anyone in the process. Just the opposite – they are doing great ministry in the world. So, I take from this that they are not the kind of people Paul was describing who rejected God and God gave over to all sorts of despicable behaviors. I’m grateful to read that you are open to the idea of God blessing same-sex intimacy, Joey, that’s hopeful.

    Comment by Stan Dotson

  • August 11, 2012 at 7:25 am

    I don’t think that Jesus walked into the temple and said, hey would you all mind leaving now. It’s pretty clear he drove them out and there were many in the crowd. So there is an example of force used to protect His temple. Also, the o.t. and n.t. are all God’s word and nowhere o.t. or n.t. is same sex unions ok. Matthew ch. 19 which is Jesus words talks about a man and a woman and no other scenario.

    Comment by jim

  • August 11, 2012 at 7:39 am

    You must have misunderstood all the way around, Stan. If we are asking each other for specific teachings, which I understood we were, I was looking for a scripture reference. Instead of “Stan’s understanding” I just wanted the scripture. That may be a problem because I think you know that Jesus never spoke directly to the matter of homosexuality. if he did, please provide the verse because I can’t seem to find it. It was well documented as sin in the writings of the Old Testament and Jesus was focusing on some of the sins tripping up people and continue to do so today. Homosexuality was understood as sin. It would be so foolish to assume that the loving same sex relationships you mention today were not also present during the days when Christ walked the earth.

    Maybe we had different subjects in mind when I wrote about protecting our family. A person who practices love for enemies can still protect their lives from danger. To not do so would be similiar to the biblical example of neglecting parents in giving what ever help they would have received as an offering. It’s an excuse to not do what we should do.

    I really want to pursue celebrating and spreading God’s love and loving people. All people. We all have different struggles. We have to help each other grow closer to Him. I really don’t want our dialogues to tarnish that aspect of our faith. Please join me on FB and Twitter to share the love. I fear that we are no longer glorifying God in these exchanges. I ask for God’s forgiveness, your forgiveness, and anyone else who has read these words. God Bless.

    Comment by Joey

  • August 11, 2012 at 8:50 am

    Hey Jim – thanks for that reference to the Temple cleansing. Isn’t it interesting that the one time Jesus used any physical force, it wasn’t in self-defense or to exact revenge on violent enemies or to make a pre-emptive strike against terrorist threats, but to combat the economic exploitation of the wealth seekers! In all other instances, he used the forces of nonviolent direct action.

    Comment by Stan Dotson

  • August 11, 2012 at 8:57 am

    Joey, I thought you would have recognized the verse I quoted, when Jesus answered his critics with the two greatest commandments. That is a specific scripture reference, not “Stan’s understanding.” As far as well-documented sins, remarrying after divorce, with the one exception clause, is well-documented as sin. It was called adultery. We don’t call it that now, if a woman leaves an abusive husband and finds the blessing of a new chance at happiness in a second marriage. Since Jesus never said a word about homosexuality, I seek to take his teaching and apply it to the situations I see today, which are apparently not, as I demonstrated with Paul’s text in Romans, the situations he was addressing. I believe it does glorify God to give thanks for the graceful joy same-sex faithful followers of Jesus are experiencing in their Godly and God-blessed life-long relationships.

    Comment by Stan Dotson

  • August 11, 2012 at 8:31 pm

    Hey cuz, found this on youtube in Asheville, might want to go here and get your biblical gymnastics straightened out.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6QqR3S-OfE8

    Comment by jim

  • August 13, 2012 at 12:29 pm

    Hey Jim, thanks for sharing that clip. I know that church, and have some kin folks who are active in it. It does my heart good to see the breadth and depth of diversity Asheville has when it comes to Christian preaching and ministry. We still have the old timey “suck and blow” preachers like brother Townsend, pouring the salt on (I kept waiting for the organist to break out in a verse of “Honey Let Me Be Your Salty Dog”) and helping drug addicts find salvation, and right down the road from this church there’s a lesbian preacher proclaiming the gospel and doing the same thing- helping drug addicts find salvation. It takes a village of preachers to reach the hurting of our world, and I’m grateful to live in a community that has that village of preachers. I did find it interesting that Trinity Baptist, where brother Townsend was evangelizing, has a “Land of Sky Jubilee” meeting every year. My understanding of jubilee, from the Bible, is that it is a radical re-distribution of wealth concept instituted by God for the newly formed covenant community. I love the idea of Jubilee, and would love for the good folks at Trinity to get behind that idea for our nation today, to restore us to our Judeo-Christian principles when it comes to economics. Every generation starts over from scratch, with no inherited concentrations of wealth. Wow, that’s radical. I’m not sure Trinity is using the word Jubilee in the biblical sense, though, since part of their festival is the annual Jubilee Golf Tournament!

    Comment by Stan Dotson

  • August 13, 2012 at 12:44 pm

    stanley, all I can say is you are definitely a case. You get under some strong bible preaching might get you back on track. Anyway, hope hope you are doing well.

    Comment by jim munsey

  • August 13, 2012 at 2:51 pm

    Jim, I am, as you say, under some strong biblical teaching and preaching, with one of the best Sunday School teachers I know, my brother Jerry, teaching my class, and a terrific pastor, Steven Norris, who is as solid as anyone I’ve heard in his biblical preaching. While I doubt that solid biblical preaching and teaching will ever get me on the “track” you are hoping for (far right fundamentalism), it does continue to direct me to the “track” of the Way of Jesus, and my hope, prayer, and desire is to continue walking closer and closer to that track throughout the rest of my life.

    Comment by Stan Dotson

  • August 13, 2012 at 5:01 pm

    well i’ll be praying that the lesbian preacher gets saved too!

    Comment by jim

  • August 13, 2012 at 7:46 pm

    You’re prayer was answered long ago, Jim, since she was saved quite a while back, and then answered the call to preach. I’m just disappointed and sad that you don’t have it in your heart to celebrate the good news that drug addicts in Asheville are getting saved, after hearing the gospel from preachers all across the ideological spectrum, all part of the Body of Christ, which is bigger than any of our little cultural convictions.

    Comment by Stan Dotson

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