Sometimes a Grape is Just a Grape

From the Gospel According to Bob 12:21-34

“Then, they went aside to a quiet place, and in the shade of a sycamore tree they rested.  Jesus spied a wall covered in vines, heavily weighted down by wild grapes.  Taking one, he placed it in his mouth, and an ecstasy came over him as he chewed.

“Hey, guys,” he said.  “You gotta try these grapes.  They’re delicious.” And so saying, he plucked a large grape from the vine, turned, and gave it to Peter.

Peter took the grape, raised it to the sky and proclaimed, “Look upon the grape of the Lord!  I will keep and treasure this grape, and it will be a sign to us of the goodness of God.”

“No.  No keeping, no treasuring,” said Jesus.  “I want you to eat it, right here, right now.”

Reluctantly, Peter ate the grape and sheepishly said, “Wow, you’re right, it is really good!”

Then, James and John pushed their way to the front of the line, saying, “Master, are you displeased with us?  You gave a grape to Peter, but to us you gave none!”

“There are plenty of grapes for everyone!” cried Jesus.  “Get your own!  What’s the matter, you think I came to serve everyone?  I’m not your mother.”

James and John plucked grapes, popped them in each other’s mouth and proclaimed, “Yea, these are the finest grapes we ever tasted!”

Thomas, standing to the side, said, “Unless I touch the grape and taste it for myself, I refuse to believe they are the best grapes ever!”

“Oh, give it a rest,” muttered Jesus.  “They are just grapes, for crying out loud. You can be such tools, sometimes.”

As usual, Nathaniel, Bartholomew and the other Judas said nothing.”

People who follow my blog are pretty divided over the Gospel of Bob — some find it funny and insightful, some find it sacrilegious and offensive.  No offense is intended.  It is a satire as much on us and how we read the Bible as it is a satire of scripture.  I have been reading some “spiritual” writings in preparation for a spiritual retreat and I am struck by an approach to scripture that troubles me deeply: spiritualizing every word and ascribing hidden meanings to simple phrases.  One example is the claim that Jesus did not exist in a “physical environment,” but in “a Holy Mystery.”  This writer also employs hyperbole and speaks in absolutes — all pilgrimage is sacred, every encounter is an encounter with God.  It brings to mind a time when a colleague of mine led devotions at Epiphany.  Telling the story of the magi, she concluded that Matthew 2:12 offered a “coded message.”  She said that obviously, when Matthew said that the wise men were warned in a dream of Herod’s plot and that they returned home by “another way,” what he really meant was that the wise men had been transformed through a spiritual awakening!”  No he didn’t — he meant they physically travelled another road so they wouldn’t have to answer to Herod.  Plain and simple.

One woman in a church I served used scripture as a scrying bowl to divine God’s will for her life.  Whenever she had a decision to make, she would close her eyes, ask her question out loud, open the Bible, read wherever her finger pointed, and interpret it as God’s will for her life.  When asked to make a donation of funds to a questionable Christian cause, Matthew 25 told her to do for the least of these, so she gave money.  When asking should she risk icy winter travel to come to church, she took Jesus admonition that the temple would be torn down in three days to mean that she had better go to church immediately in case it burned to the ground later in the week.  No matter how I tried to tell her the Bible doesn’t work that way, she lived by its magical charms.

And there are so many more sophisticated ways we abuse scripture.  I attended a service not long ago where the preacher said that it makes no difference what the writers meant when they wrote their portion of scripture; the only thing that matters is how we read it today.  Calling his approach “post-modern” he claims that scripture is alive and the historical context is irrelevant and unhelpful.  He also claimed that not all scripture is worth wasting time on.  Genealogies, poetry, redundancies and contradictions should be ignored, for they simply act to make scripture “boring and confusing.”  The congregation — quite large — ate up every word the preacher preached.

We have preachers who use The Message to preach from, without letting people know that it is one man’s interpretation of scripture and not a translation.  We have thousands of preachers who have no familiarity with Hebrew, Greek and Latin, and who disdain scholarly commentaries.  We hold very lax and ambiguous standards for what constitutes “divine revelation” or the “guidance of the Holy Spirit.”  Both inadvertently and intentionally, we make the Bible say what we want it to, with blatant disregard for what it actually says.  The way we teach and preach parable is often inspirational and ingenious, though it lacks any connection or integrity with parable as a literary form (there are rules that govern the style and the reading of parables.  The only thing that differentiates parables from fables is that parables use human subjects and fables use animals.  The reader/hearer is to place him/herself in the role of the subject of the first sentence, and there is a clear, precise moral/value to each story).  Thus, for example, what we call the parable of the prodigal son should actually be the parable of the prodigal dad, and the parable of the good Samaritan should be the parable of the lucky victim.

I am not looking to debate who is right and who is wrong, what is a good interpretation and what constitutes a poor interpretation.  I am saying I think it matters that we are aware of what we are doing with God’s Word, and that we are honest about how we use it.  There are many people who use the Bible as a tool for grace, loving-kindness, mercy and justice.  There are others who use it as a weapon for chastisement, judgment, division, and oppression.  There are those who have no desire to take a scholarly approach, who read purely from a devotional, affective point-of-view — and this is fine as long as it isn’t passed off as rigorous study.

I tackle one of the gospels every year in the original Greek, and I am constantly amazed at what the New Testament really says — how much nuance and subtlety we lose in most of our English translations.  I read commentaries for fun.  I read church history and cultural anthropology to attempt to better understand the social context from which the scriptures emerged.  I read the non-canonical writings of early Christians for perspective.  This is my approach, and I love it, and I would not think to impose it on everyone.  But I also use conditional language when I preach.  “Different scholars present these different views…”  “Some scholars believe…”  “There are those who hold…”  “In my own interpretation of this passage…”  “It is possible that the author intended…”

Pretending we are certain, that we know, that there is no room for doubt or alternative interpretations, is hurting us badly.  We are at war over words that do not belong to us.  We have not the author-ity nor the understanding to make declarative universal statements.  We are, at best, working out our own salvation with fear and trembling.  There should be no adversaries when it comes to our Holy Book.  Of course we will have differences of opinion and disagreements about meaning, but we will have them as one baptized communion, grounded and united in the Christ who dwells within us all, in my humble opinion.  When will we wake up to realize that there is no “us/them” but simply “all of us, together” called to use our gifts, knowledge, skills, and passions to love and serve all?

5 replies

  1. Thanks for these thoughts, Dan. The sentence that resonated most with me was, “Pretending we are certain, that we know, that there is no room for doubt or alternative interpretations, is hurting us badly.” Those who are the most cock-sure, especially when it comes to matters of faith, seem to me to do the most harm. And yet there are many congregations, like the one you mentioned in the post, who eat up every word spoken with such arrogant certainty. I try my best as I preach and teach to include statements that indicate and leave open the possibility that there are other interpretations and viewpoints, while encouraging people to read and study Scripture for themselves so as not to swallow whole what other people say about it, even me. I believe it’s always best when we each balance our understanding of Scripture with both our own reading, the input of others, and the best of scholarship. Thanks, again, for the post.

  2. Dan, are you saying here that certainty is the principle vice in using Scripture? Is that what bothers you about the magical lay member and the post-modern preacher? You seem to be scolding them for not being sophisticated enough in their handling of Scripture. Is for you the certainty a flaw because it is a pre-critical certainty about the proper way to approach the Bible?

    I’m just trying to see if I am reading you as you intend to be heard.

    • Hey, John, you and I have been down this road before! I think ignorance and stupidity are very different things. To not know or understand something is one thing, especially when we are self-aware. Some of the wisest people I have ever known have been some of the least educated. To pass of one’s opinion as fact, and then to demand others accept the opinion as truth is problematic, and happens all too often in religious circles. One of the reasons church exists is the reality that not everyone has a mature and sophisticated faith and that there is need for structure and support for people to progress in their maturity and sophistication. We want all our children to become well-rounded, fully functional youth, and our youth to become adults, and our adults to age and mature well. We want people to grow in their relationship with God, their understanding of God’s will, and their ability to live God’s will. We do not see it as appropriate, adequate or healthy for a mature adult to reason, behave, and believe as they did when they were four or five years old. When our teachers are less sophisticated than the students, the students go elsewhere. This is one significant reason we are a denomination in decline. There is much in our faith that is trans-rational — beyond simple reason. Justice, mercy, unconditional love, sacrifice and compassion don’t often make sense, but we tend to see a high value in these things. The problem is that we want to pretend that irrational — those things lacking reason — are trans-rational. The majority of people look at superstition, magical thinking, fear-based belief, and prejudice as low-value, negative factors. To perpetuate irrationality as acceptable is problematic to me, I will admit. And this quickly leads to the Bible meaning anything a person wants it to. So, as always, I have no problem with a simple faith. It is a simplistic faith I have trouble with.

      • Sorry to run over the same ground again. I just have a hard time mapping what I think you are saying onto people I know. Thanks for your continued writing.

      • No apology — I love the exchange, and your questions push me to clarify points I think are clear, but may not be. While I do not believe everyone will reach a certain level of “sophistication” (otherwise, why would we need seminaries?) I do believe we are all called to continuous maturing in our faith. I do not see “good enough” as a qualification of Christian discipleship.

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