Why Study the Bible? A Progressive Case for Biblical Literacy

This Sabbath, I began leading a seven-week exploration of the Gospel of Mark in my church. Sunday morning at 9:30, many of us with coffee in hand, about a half dozen fellow congregants and I shuffled into our church parlor, sat in a circle, and looked at one another. Bibles were opened and situated on laps; some were stacked on the coffee table sitting in the center of the circle. As I felt all eyes on me, I realized something horrifying: I’ve sold this class as “Bible study for people who don’t like Bible study.” Have you really thought about what that means, Aaron? I asked myself as I circulated handouts outlining background information on Mark and highlighting central themes that emerge in the first chapter. You’ve really done it this time, I thought as I opened my mouth to begin the class.

People in my church are incredibly well-educated and smart. Even if they do not have advanced degrees, they are intellectually-curious, thoughtful people. So part of my approach is to lead the discussion in the same way I do when I am teaching my university courses: I point out critical details, and then ask for interpretation. This approach worked well in the church class, for everyone spoke and seemed engaged. But my internal voice was shouting, You’re letting them down, Aaron. You’re not offering anything new or exciting. Then, as we were wrapping up, one of the participants–a loving saint of the church who has quickly become a dear friend–turned to me and said, “I was expecting something different.” Uh-oh, I thought. This is what I feared. “This is supposed to be Bible study for people who don’t like Bible study. So, maybe next time, we can discuss why we should study the Bible. I mean, why not some other text? Why this?”

I must admit that I was taken aback, not because of the content of his question but rather because he has a point. Why the Bible? Why not more updated texts, ones that don’t require hours of associated study and information? If one does not have an appreciation for the contours of Roman occupation during the first century, one will most likely miss key aspects of the Gospels. So what is the point for us in the 21st century–especially those of us who find parts of the Bible to be very difficult to interpret or accept–studying this text? I left the class a bit shaken, but smiled to other congregants, claiming that the meeting went well and that it is off to a good start. Inside, though, I was wrestling with the question. Why study the Bible?

I believe that I have an answer. We study the Bible because is links us, across space and time, to the billions of Christians that have preceded us. When we open up the Bible, we are connected with billions of fellow Christians who are practicing their faith simultaneous to us. We draw from the same well; we drink from the same cup; we are nourished by the same Living Waters. We read it because it is the basis of our tradition; further, we read the Tanakh because it reminds us of our Jewish roots. This is something Christians too often forget.

But we also study the Bible because the stories belong to us as well. I make no secret that I have great difficulty with biblical literalism. Along with being a rather new form of exegesis, biblical literalism reduces the Scriptures to a false paradigm: true or false. The “God wrote it; I believe it; that settles it approach” pays little respect to the depth and beauty of biblical texts. Must the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son be “real” people in order for Jesus’ parables to have meaning? Of course not. So why do we put it past the power of the Bible’s authors to use metaphor, simile, and figurative language? The Scriptures invite us into relationship, with ourselves, with others, with God. The Bible is a brilliant–and, yes, frustrating–collection of texts that chronicle the greatest of human questions: Why am I here? What is the purpose of life? How should I live? What does God expect of me? If there were only one answer to each of these questions, there would be only one religion, one church, one denomination. But there are not. Religions are Legion, as are interpretations, especially within the Christian faith. So while we Progressive Christians are lambasted for desacralizing the Scriptures, we are doing nothing of the kind. We are following the lead of Origen, who believed that a literal reading of the Bible would drive a person mad. Allegory, he argued, is part and parcel of biblical hermeneutics.

But I do not want this to descend into another “culture wars” discussion. And I most certainly don’t want to say, We read Scripture so we can triumph over those with whom we disagree. That leads nowhere.

Ultimately, we read Scripture because we seek transformation; we desire to see how living in a new way can bring about healing, can produce a more authentic way to love, and can bring us into meaningful relationship with an increasing number of people. We read Scripture because a passage from Romans changed St. Augustine’s life. We study the Bible because Martin Luther was so convinced that God was communicating to him through Scripture that he nailed 95 Theses to the church door at Wittenberg, setting into motion the Protestant Reformation (or Protestant Revolt, depending on the side one takes). This same collection of texts inspired Henry Ward Beecher to oppose slavery; allowed the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to utilize biblical principles in order to change the minds of people, as well as to demand a non-violent approach to change; and has been the source of inspiration for people around the world to speak truth to power. We read Scripture because in the pages of the Bible, we encounter the Living God. We see how commitment to love, compassion, justice, and forgiveness produces an alchemical response: We can turn lead into gold by changing hearts. If one loves one’s enemy, that person ceases being an enemy. This is a lesson that never, ever is outdated.

As a member of the United Church of Christ, I ultimately answer that we read the Bible because God is still speaking. And God speaks through the Bible, with stories, eloquent language, and challenging requirements that cause all of us who believe to interpret ourselves. Where am I in this story? Because we are there, and sometimes in very surprising ways.

So, to quote the child Augustine heard chanting as he sat in the garden, “Take it up and read. Take it up and read.”

“The Serving Served.” A Sermon…

Well, friends. I am off schedule with my commentary. I chalk this up to my responsibilities as a professor, coupled with continuing seminary courses and my work in the church. However, I plan to get back on track, especially since I have received some helpful feedback from a friend who is a practicing Buddhist. Until then, feel free to read the sermon I delivered last week at my home Church, Cross Creek Community Church.


Roving Eastwood: Offense on Superbowl Sunday

My father is from Detroit. Even though I am born and raised in Ohio, I grew up rooting for Detroit sports teams, especially the Tigers and the Lions. I would spend as much as three weeks each summer in Detroit, splitting time between my paternal grandparents, who divorced before I was born. While I have never lived there, Detroit is a special place to me. And my family has strong ties to the automotive industry: My paternal grandfather’s second wife, a woman I always considered my grandmother, worked at Ford Tractor for over 30 years.

So as Dad and I sat on the couch this past Sunday, sipping Guinness and eating the most delectable chili I think my father has ever cooked, it was with amazement that we viewed Clint Eastwood’s now famous Chrysler ad. We both remarked on the positive message and artistry of the commercial, and spoke about going next fall to see our Lions play at Ford Field.

I was taken aback, however, when the next day I heard Karl Rove say that he was “offended” by the ad. Rove, who is responsible for some of the most dirty and reprehensible political attacks in modern American politics,[1] said: “I was, frankly, offended by it. I’m a huge fan of Clint Eastwood, I thought it was an extremely well-done ad, but it is a sign of what happens when you have Chicago-style politics, and the president of the United States and his political minions are, in essence, using our tax dollars to buy corporate advertising.”[2] White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, responding to the claims, has made it clear that the Administration had nothing to do with the ad.[3] Common sense could have led up to this conclusion. Clint Eastwood is a well-known conservative; he was mayor of Carmel, California, and at one time George H.W. Bush considered placing him on the presidential ticket, hoping to recapture some of the conservative Hollywood magic delivered by President Reagan.[4] Eastwood himself has made it clear that he is no fan of President Obama, and that the ad was not politically motivated.[5] So the idea that this this “liberal Hollywood” taking up the charge of the liberal president just won’t hold. And Rove is smart enough to know this, so he uses another tactic.

Rove claims that Chrysler has not paid back its loan, thereby intimating that there is not a “real” success story here, or that the automotive industry is akin to the Wall Street firms that were bailed out and then issued record bonuses without repaying their own debt. In truth, Chrysler has repaid $10.6 billion of its original $12.5 billion dollar loan. While Rove may complain that this is not a full repayment—and he would be correct—the fact is Chrysler has repaid all of the money provided under the Obama Administration (about $4 billion dollars was lent by the Bush Administration).[6] Now certainly, this is splitting hairs, and a reasonable person could argue that the first money lent should be the first money repaid. If this is the case, there is still about $1.9 billion outstanding, not a paltry sum, and it falls to the current president to recoup the funds. With that acknowledged, Rove’s claim fits into a larger game: He is attempting to inflict political amnesia on the American people, associating the “auto bailout” with only the Obama Administration. This seems odd, given that GM and Chrysler are back on top, in terms of sales, production, and stock prices.[7] Why is the loan to American car companies still seen as such a horrible sin? Do we object to growing numbers of automotive jobs? Is an increase in consumer confidence about American cars something to lament? What is more American than an ad about the reemergence of American cars owed to the efforts of the American people airing during America’s greatest single sporting event?

Regardless of the differences that Mr. Rove and I may have concerning the wisdom of the auto bailout—especially given the two wars that were started during Mr. Rove’s tenure in the White House which contributed greatly to the country’s current deficit, money that can never be “repaid”—I must say that his use of language seems misplaced and, if I may be so bold, hypocritical. Karl Rove is among those contemporary Republican voices yearning for the time of Ronald Reagan. To wit, through the first ten debates in 2011, the 4othpresident’s name was mentioned 53 times.[8] While there are myriad reasons Republicans invoke the memory of Reagan—appreciation for economic policies, military strength, foreign policy positions—today the prevailing message seems to focus on the optimism of Reagan. For example, at a debate in Florida former candidate Jon Huntsman (R-Utah) waxed nostalgic about Reagan: “I like those days when Ronald Reagan…would ensure that the light of this country would shine brightly for liberty, democracy, human rights, and free markets. We’re not shining like we used to shine. We need to shine again.” Based on Karl Rove’s appreciation for Reagan’s optimism, one could assume that the offending ad calls Americans a bunch of lazy, fat, indifferent slobs. Or even worse, includes an insult to Ronald Reagan.

But such is not the case. Clint Eastwood, in classic Dirty Harry fashion, growls, “It’s halftime in America, too. People are out of work, and they’re hurting. And they’re all wondering what they’re gonna do to make a comeback. And we’re all scared because this isn’t a game. The people of Detroit know a little something about this. They almost lost everything. But we all pulled together, now Motor City is fighting again.” What, exactly, is offensive here? Is it Eastwood celebrating the ongoing recovery of one of the most hard-hit, economically depressed cities in the country, that so stokes the ire of Mr. Rove? What, pray tell, could offend Mr. Rove about the optimism and celebration of strength voiced in the ad, which rightly declares that this great country cannot be knocked out by one punch?

Karl Rove has now found himself in the curious position of denouncing an ad which is meant to rally the American spirit and encourage optimism, Reagan’s most celebrated quality. [9]

Well, I’ll tell you what offends me, Mr. Rove: Corporations being given rights to unlimited speech when an independent filmmaker is arrested at the U.S. Capitol Building at the request of Republican lawmakers.[10] I’m insulted by how, as a result of the Citizens United decision,[11] your Super-PACs American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS are able to fill our airwaves with factually shaky ads, while you are legally protected from disclosing the sources of your contributions. And, honestly, Mr. Rove. If we are going to talk about being offended, let’s be serious. I am offended that children go hungry in this country; I am offended that the reproductive rights of women are under increasing assault. I am offended that the cost of a college education–which you never bothered to complete–now means that a growing number of people in my generation are saddled with debts we may never repay. I am offended that certain Christians claim to be a minority under assault, while at the same time persecution of and violence against LGBT persons continues at alarming rates. I am offended by the loss of statesmanship in this country, by how politics has become an out growth of professional wrestling. And while I readily admit that I like to spend my free time watching classic rasslin’, I like to leave it to the in-shape professionals and not our elected officials. American politics should not be WWE, but it has descended to such a level.

To me, Rove being offended boils down to this: It seems that an American car company cannot be patriotic. Or a conservative cannot take part in an ad celebrating the recovery of the automotive industry because political forces such as Karl Rove regard it as apostasy to party loyalty. It never ceases to amaze me how many times the words “liberty” and “freedom” are bandied about in GOP politics—generally as a way of intimating that we no longer have either—yet “freedom” and “liberty” don’t include the right to acknowledge a reality: Chrysler is back, and our country is trying to recover. That is not a partisan message, it is a sentiment that we all need to hear. We have gone through one of the most trying periods in American history—the most trying in my lifetime—and while we have not yet emerged completely, things are getting better. I think Ronald Reagan would approve of this optimism, regardless of policy opinions.

[1] For a full accounting, see James Moore, Bush’s Brain: How Karl Rove Made George W. Bush Presidential. The documentary film of the same name is also worth a view.

[10] politico.com/news/stories/0212/72298.html

“‘What’s this? A new kind of teaching backed by authority?’: Mark 1:21-28”

The Purpose of Exorcism Stories

A central theme of Mark’s gospel is the question of Jesus’ authority. As we shall see, Jesus’ opponents—along with his own followers—frequently wonder from where he derives his power. The listener/reader of the gospel knows that it comes directly from God (this is the primary purpose of Mark 1:1-3). However, in the story world, many do not have this information and, as a result, Jesus comes into conflict with various groups of people.

It is important to note that Jesus’ power is demonstrated first by the content of his teaching. The people are amazed by his words (v. 22), then by his words and deeds (v. 27), in this case an exorcism. Exorcisms are a common element in Mark’s gospel (5:1-20; 7:24-30; 9:14-29), and generally follow a predictable pattern: Jesus encounters the afflicted person, who has been overtaken by a demon (v. 23); there is a verbal exchange between the two parties (vv.24-25). resulting in an exorcizing action by Jesus; and the demon departs, vanquished by Jesus’ divine authority, leaving the previously afflicted person healed (v. 26). While a simple story type, exorcisms allow the Markan author to explore and develop several central themes.

One, Jesus is locked in a spiritual battle with the forces of evil. The demons recognize Jesus primarily because of Jesus’ altercation with Satan (recounted in Mark 1:12-13). While Mark’s gospel does not go into great detail concerning the content of the original encounter with Satan, three primary details are developed: A) Jesus remains in the wilderness for forty days and forty nights, recalling Israel’s wandering for forty years as a result of the people’s rebelling against God; here, Jesus stands as a new Israel, propelled into the wilderness so as to stun the forces of evil and allowing him to bring the message of God to an afflicted people; B) The wild beasts and angels minister to Jesus; in this way, the heavens and the natural world pay homage to Jesus, who has divine authority and has been anointed by God as both Son and Christ; Jesus stands as a new Adam (a point first developed by Paul in I Corinthians 15:45-49), a new form of humanity that represents salvation rather than alienation from God; and C) We know from the encounter in the wilderness that Satan—literally, “the adversary”—is stunned; while he is not defeated completely, he has lost the current fight; as a result, Satan’s minions—the demons and evil spirits—recognize him (v. 24).

Two, while Jesus has complete control over the evil spirits, he does not have control over human beings; therefore, turning to Jesus involves a choice, a volitional action. The people witness the power of Jesus’ words (v. 22) and deeds (v.27), and news about him begins to spread (v. 28). All the evil spirits know who Jesus is as a result of Satan’s momentary defeat, but the people do not. We will want to pay attention to how people respond to Jesus, all the while asking the same question to ourselves.

Three, Jesus does not appeal directly to the power of God. He does not invoke God’s name, an element we normally might expect in an exorcism story. Again, this shows that, for Mark, Jesus’ exorcisms are not merely performed for their own sake. The exorcisms highlight that Jesus has an authority not shared by others. How we are to understand this authority, though, remains to be seen. What should command our attention now is the setting in which the exorcism occurs: a Sabbath synagogue service in Capernaum. Biblically and historically, we know very little about Capernaum. It seems to be Jesus’ home turf, as it were, since he calls Simon and Andrew (1:16), as well as James and John (1:21) from in or around Capernaum, and in 2:1 Mark describes Jesus as being “at home” In Capernaum. The town itself—which archeologists maintain was populated by no more than 1500 people who mainly made their living from the fishing industry—lay between the territories of Philip the Tetrarch and Herod Antipas, two sons of the despotic Herod the Great.[1] That Jesus enters into a synagogue in Capernaum on the Sabbath day is not surprising; the distance between Capernaum and Jerusalem is around ninety miles as the crow flies, so weekly worship at the Temple would be impossible. Besides, it is symbolic that Jesus begins on the periphery of the empire. He starts on the outskirts, both in terms of geography and the nature of the people whom he calls (tax collectors, sinners, etc). Jesus violates the expected norms that are upheld in the synagogue and the Temple. He violates the strictures concerning clean and unclean, Jew and Gentile, male and female. And as we shall see, a good number of people question on what authority Jesus does these things.

In the end, what this pericope represents in a thematic prolepsis (flash-forward) to the whole of Mark’s gospel. What Jesus says and does represents a challenge to the status quo. Jesus will amaze people in both word and deed, but while he is understood by the demons, he will not be understood by most people, including his own disciples. Mark is able to reach out from the page and grab the reader by the metaphorical lapels, inquiring, Do you know who Jesus is, and will you follow him, even to the cross?

Siddhartha Goes to the Bodhi Tree

When we last left Siddhartha, he was abandoning the tutelage of Ālāra Kālāma. As we rejoin him, Siddhartha has his five followers in tow and joins another teacher, who is unable to satisfy the pressing questions that still gnaw away at him. Siddhartha begins to wonder if purely ascetic practice will lead to liberation from desire (tanha; thirst) and suffering (dukka). As many forest-dwelling monks believed that ascetic practices would burn off negative karma, Siddhartha dedicates himself to these pursuits. During this time he travels nude, sleeps on spikes, eats his own urine and feces, holds his breath until he almost suffers an aneurysm, and dwindles down to such a size that when he attempts to touch his stomach he feels his own spine. Yet, according to Siddhartha, he still feels the clamors of desire; his body still yearns for attention and he is more aware of himself than ever. Frustrated, he gives up ascetic practices as fruitless toward realizing the Ultimate Truth.

What if the Self that is so sacred to Hindus is part of the egotism that one must abolish in order to enter into Nothingness? Feeling that the traditional ways toward enlightenment have failed him, Siddhartha declares, “Surely, there must be another way!” What emerges is the Middle Way, a definitive aspect of Buddhist philosophy and practice.

Siddhartha, acting on his own authority, changes the traditional methods used to pursue Enlightenment. The five prohibitions forbid “unhelpful” (akusala) activities: lying, stealing, violence, intoxication, and sex. However, Siddhartha believes that one must go further and cultivate the opposites; true Enlightenment cannot be achieved through simple avoidance; one must also engage in positive practice. He therefore transforms the yama(prohibitions) into kusala (wholesome states).

The Five yama:

  1. Do not lie
  2. Do not steal
  3. Practice ahimsā (harmlessness, nonviolence)
  4. Avoid intoxicants
  5. No sexual activity


Siddhartha’s wholesome (kusala) states:

  1. Engage in “right talk,” and be certain everything one says is “reasoned, accurate, clear and beneficial.”
  2. Receive alms, whatever they are, with gratitude and positivity.
  3. Cultivate thoughts of loving kindness to counter any violent inclinations
  4. Be vigilant about what one puts into the body
  5. Avoid lustful thoughts



Siddhartha realizes that exposing the body to extreme ascetic practices is fruitless, and that one should work with human nature rather than fight against it. Having lived a life of sensual pleasure in the palace, as well as a life of extreme denial, he knows that neither work. As a result, his “Middle Way” arises from experience, but flies in the face of traditional Hindu beliefs.

He asks two village women, Gamo and Gatopma, to bring him kummāsa, what the sacred text Majjhima Nikāya (part of the Theravadan Pitaka) describes as “a soothing milky junket” or rice pudding. According to some traditions, this is what his stepmother made for him when he was a child, and he had been craving it for some time. Upon taking solid food, Siddhartha is abandoned by his five companions, who fear that by eschewing the ascetic lifestyle, he has abandoned the pursuit of Enlightenment. After finishing the meal, Siddhartha throws the dish in the river saying, “If I am to become a buddha today, may this dish float upstream.”  The dish floats upstream and disappears into a whirlpool, “descending down to the palace of a serpent king, where it landed on top of the dishes used by the previous buddhas, making a clicking sound.”[2] Siddhartha then journeys to “an agreeable plot of land, a pleasant grove, a sparkling river with delightful and smooth banks, and, nearby, a village whose inhabitants would feed him.”[3]

He sits down under a bodhi  (enlightenment) tree, vowing not to move until he has attained nirvāna (Nibbana), extinction of the self that leads to Enlightenment.  The god of desire, Māra, attacks Siddhartha with nine storms and the forces of ignorance, anger, and lust. He remains unmoved. Māra then sends his three daughters, Lust, Thirst, and Discontent. The women take on a variety of forms to tempt Siddhartha, but to no avail. Finally, Māra, challenges Siddhartha’s right to occupy the space under the tree; Māra says that it belongs to him.

The prince, seated in the meditative posture, stretched out his right hand and touched the earth [known as the bhumi-akramana position], asking the goddess of the earth to confirm that a great gift that he had made as Prince Vessantara in his previous life had won him the right to sit beneath the tree. She assented with a tremor, and Māra withdrew.[4]

No longer facing temptation from the forces of evil, Siddhartha is able to begin his final path toward Enlightenment.


There are some shared elements that command our attention. Both Siddhartha and Jesus face an opponent. For Jesus, it is Satan, the “adversary,” whose minions are spirits that possess people, taking over their lives. How easy is it for us to see that these spirits are all around? The spirits of addiction and selfishness, of violence and greed? The spirits of indolence and apathy, indifference and anger? These can possess us, can cause us to thrash about in our own lives, not seeing the ways in which we are thrown off balance. Just as Siddhartha is attacked by Māra’s nine storms and the forces of lust, thirst, and discontentment, Jesus enters into a world similarly ruled. Yet, these men were able to rise above these temptations, focused on the spiritual goals for which they were destined.

We should also see that both Siddhartha and Jesus face issues of authority. Siddhartha leaves two teachers; he has five of his own followers abandon him because they do not understand how he can forsake tradition. Jesus, too, encounters those who seem flummoxed by who he is, what he does, and the manner in which he teaches. He is misunderstood, seen as a threat.

Finally, Siddhartha and Jesus both are led to a tree, and in so doing change the course of human religious history. Siddhartha sits under the Bodhi Tree and brings into the world a new way of escaping the endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth (samsara). Jesus goes to the cross for having spoken truth to power, and in so doing sets the stage for the radical transformation of God’s covenant with human beings. As we continue to walk with Siddhartha—who is soon to transform into the Buddha—and Jesus, we will pay close attention to the ways in which they act on their own authority, but in so doing extend compassion, love, and hope to all who are open to the call.









[1] For a full discussion of the Herodian family, see Mark 6:14-29.

[2] Lopez, 39.

[3] Majihima Nikāya 100

[4] Lopez, 40.