Interpreting Scripture

For my Realistic Living Pointers this month, I am sharing with you the last half of the introduction to a new book that I am publishing on our Realistic Living blog site.

The Creator of Christianity
a commentary on the Gospel of Mark
by Gene W. Marshall

The entire book can be purchased for $10 on this site:

https://realisticliving.org/blog/

While you are there, look around. We are also publishing the 8 spirit talks that Gene gave at the June 2018 Realistic Living Summer Program, plus a Study Outline for the above book, and Study Outlines for The Unbelievable Happiness of What Is by Jon Bernie, and Dangerous Years by David W. Orr. All this is in addition to the monthly Realistic Living Pointers.

Following is the second half of the Introduction to the Mark Commentary.

Interpreting Scripture Today

Today, Christian theologians, who want to go to the roots of the first century Christian “revelation,” face the reality that people in the first century used the now obsolete two-tier, story-telling metaphor. That old manner of talking about ultimate matters had been the way of talking about ultimate matters for as long as anyone could remember.
In spite of the fact that their way of talking is no longer adequate for us today, we cannot claim to be Christians if we fail to interpret our scriptures. Therefore, to do scriptural interpretation adequately, we must translate for our era of culture what those early writers meant in their own lives when they used that old form of metaphorical talk that is now basically meaningless to us. Throughout this commentary, I will be illustrating what such metaphorical translation looks like.

Christian theologians today also face a second challenge. Within our current culture we tend to overlook metaphorical meanings altogether. We tend to view all statements literally. We learned to be literal from the current prominence of the scientific mode of truth. In the scientific style of thinking, words mean something only if words point to something in the realm of facts, observable by the human senses. Influenced by this overemphasis on facts, both religious agnostics and religious literalists fail to see the poetic or contemplative type of truth that is contained in the wild stories of the Bible. The agnostics are right to see that many stories of the Bible are preposterous when viewed literally. And religious literalists, who think they are defending Biblical truth with their literalism, are actually ignoring the profound truth that is hidden in these wildly creative stories.

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The Creator of Christianity

For my Realistic Living Pointers this month, I am using part of the introduction to a new book that I am publishing on our Realistic Living blog site.

The Creator of Christianity
a commentary on the Gospel of Mark
by Gene W. Marshall

The entire book can be purchased for $10 on this site:

https://realisticliving.org/blog/

While you are there, look around. We are also publishing the 8 spirit talks that Gene gave at the June 2018 Realistic Living Summer Program, plus Study Outlines for the above book, The Unbelievable Happiness of What Is by Jon Bernie, and Dangerous Years by David W. Orr. All this is in addition to the recent Realistic Living Pointers posts.

So here is the first part of the

Introduction

to the Mark Commentary.

Living in Aramaic-speaking Galilee twenty-one centuries ago, Jesus and his first companions constituted the event of revelation that birthed the Christian faith. But without Paul’s interpretation of the meaning of cross and resurrection for the Greek-speaking Hellenistic Jewish culture, we might never have heard of Christian faith.

Mark, whoever he was, lived during the lifetime of Paul and was deeply influenced by Paul. In about 70 CE, Mark, like Paul, was a major turning point in the development of the Christian religion. Mark invented the literary form we know as “the Gospel.” This remarkable literary form was then copied and elaborated by the authors Matthew and Luke, and then revolutionized by John. These four writings, not Paul’s letters, are the opening books of the New Testament that Christians count as their Bible (along with the Old Testament). “Gospel” (Good News) has become a name for the whole Christian revelation.

We might say that Mark was the theologian who gave us the Christianity that has survived in history. The Markian shift in Christian imagination was important enough that we might even claim that Mark, rather than Paul or Jesus, was the founder of Christianity. However that may be, Mark’s gospel is a very important piece of writing. And this writing is more profound and wondrous than is commonly appreciated.

Of first importance for understanding my viewpoint in the following commentary is this: I see the figure of “Jesus” in Mark’s narrative as a fictitious character—based, I firmly believe, on a real historical figure. I do not want to confuse Mark’s “Jesus” with what we can know through our best recent scientific research about the historical Jesus of Nazareth. For our best understanding of Mark, we need to view Mark’s “Jesus” with the same fun and sensibility we have toward Harry Potter when we read J. K. Rowling’s novels about this unusual character.

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Being Buddha

A number of Buddhist teachers insist that everyone is already a Buddha (The Awake One.) Underneath, we might say, all the falsifications about who we think we are, there exits our Buddha-hood. I believe that something similar can be said about being “in Christ Jesus.” If Jesus, as the Christ (Messiah), is understood as a revelation of our profound humanness, then all of us are already “in Christ.” Our profound humanness has never been missing, and it is still there. We simply have to get our alien self-images out of the way. That is a serious business, for we our sociologically conditioned to a human build world that is a far approximation of what is really real.

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When Total Obedience is Perfect Freedom

Realism means obedience to reality. Such obedience entails giving up building mind-castles of false realities to take the place of Reality with a capital “R.” This capitalization assumes that there IS a really real Reality that is not made up by human beings. However the capitalized word “Reality” is capable of misunderstandings. For some it can mean a second realm that stands over-against the ordinary realm of existence. If we are inclined to a more down-to-Earth view of Reality, it can mean those parts of our experience that are pleasant, excluding those parts that are unpleasant, horrific, challenging, grim, or perhaps boring.

But the “total obedience” I want to describe is a devotion to the mysterious all-powerful encounter that includes everything that happens to us in every event we face. Such realism means taking in what is actually happening to each of us and to us as societies. This includes possibilities as well as limitations. It includes the consequences of human choices as well as the processes of nature over which humans have no control. It includes the horrific as well as the glorious. In addition to our everyday content, the Reality we actually face includes the Abyss of No-thing-ness from which each thing, including our own lives, have come and to which each thing, including our own lives,will return. Reality also includes the Every-thing-ness of that Expansive Sea of Mystery within which each identifiable thing exists for now. Reality includes the Awesome Otherness that we encounter as well as the Awe that the Awesome occasions in our inner being.

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Power

Many authors today have often contrasted the power-to do things for people with power-over other people. Indeed, there is deep contrast between the use of our power in service of others and the use of our power to gain status for our selves or as a means of oppressing others for our own benefit and sense of worth.

Nevertheless, power-over is not in itself evil. Parents have power-over their children. This benefits the children, if such power is well used. Our political leaders (however they are selected) are granted power-over a wide scope of citizen life. Such political power can also be used in service of the citizenry, and such power can be misused very badly.

Power is an important factor in all social actions. As Paul Tillich spelled out in one of his most creative books, there is no Justice without Power and there is no Justice building Power or empowered Justice without Love (Tillich, Paul; Love, Power, and Justice).

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The Good Shepherd Lives

Here is a much mistreated passage from the Fourth Gospel about shepherds and sheep.

I have come that human beings may have life and may have it is all its fullness. I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hireling, when he sees the wolf coming, abandons the sheep and runs away, because he is no shepherd and the sheep are not his. John 10 :10-12

Those who give sermons on the good shepherd often assume that this ancient image applies to a contemporary pastor who tells his flock what they should believe and how they should act. Such a view also assumes that most people are sheep in the sense of being gullible, go-along, authority-addicted dumbbells.

I do not believe this was the meaning intended by the original author of these verses. The original shepherd image was grounded in the experience of noticing highly dedicated persons working on a hillside with a flock of sheep, providing them grass and water and protecting them from wolves. Being a follower of Jesus means being such a leader.

So where can we actually experience this Good Shepherd in our lives today? Let me answer this with a fictitious story—a story made out of my own experiences. In my story, Sally McGillicutty teaches an adult class in the Sunflower room of the Umpity Ump Christian Church. Sally trusts the Ultimate Message that the Infinite Silence we meet in every event of our lives loves Sally and every other person (and creature) on this planet or any other planet. Because of her trust in that Eternal Wholeness that is faced by Sally and by us, Sally is thereby an embodiment of the Ultimate Message from Eternity.

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Giving Back our Gifts

The traditional model of Christian sainthood goes all the way back to Abraham. Actually, it goes all the way back to the stories of Abraham and Sarah. The fragment of historical truth beneath those stories refers to ancient migrations from what is now Iraq to Palestine—events that happened centuries before these biblical stories were written down.

Central within the Abraham and Sarah stories is a story about Abraham’s journey to the top of a mountain to sacrifice Isaac—his only son, the son miraculously given to him and Sarah in their advanced age. In this strange story, Abraham is giving back the gift of Isaac, who was Abraham’s only evidence for a promise made to Abraham by the Giver of Isaac—a promise to make the descendants of Abraham and Sarah as numerous as the sands on the sea shore.

Centuries after the Exodus from Egypt, when these stories were being widely told, written, and read, this promise to Abraham was still not realized. The Hebraic people who claimed Abraham as their forefather were not yet numerous. Today, we might assume that all the Jewish people, all the Christian people, and all the Islamic people are somehow descendants of Abraham. If so, then Abraham’s descendants are indeed in the billions. All these people are not biological descendants, but they are at least people who remember Abraham and Sarah and Hagar. Only a few of these billions, however, embody Abraham’s model of sainthood.

Why should we honor the Abraham stories or his model of sainthood? These stories are fiction after all, and rather gross fiction as well. And especially, why all the fuss over this strange story about human sacrifice? Why did a fully sane and renowned 19th century philosopher and theologian, Søren Kierkegaard, write a whole book about this story?

This essay will be much simpler than Kiekegaard’s book. I am going to reflect on one idea: “Giving back to Reality all that Reality has given to us.”

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The Depth of Christian Social Ethics

All social ethics takes place in a context of history. Christian social ethics is no different: as Christians we do not have a set of principles that apply to every generation of history. The ethics of Leviticus and the ethics of Deuteronomy were shaped for those times in history. The same applies to the ethics of Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Luther, and H. Richard Niebuhr. Time moves on and social ethics moves on with the times.

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The Flight From Freedom

Freedom is a component of our essential nature along with trust of Realty and care for self and neighbor. Yet we flee from this freedom, just as we distrust Reality and neglect care for ourselves and others. Flight from freedom is an estrangement from realism.

The Primal Merging with Freedom

When we have been blessed to see beyond our self images, personality structures, and social conditioning, we discover our intentionality, our initiative, our freedom to act beyond those self-inflicted boundaries. Too easily, we tell ourselves that we can’t do what we can do. The truth is we don’t know what we can do. We think we are determined where we are not. For example, if I am by habit a shy person, I can still discover my freedom to risk myself in gregarious contact with others. If I am by habit a boisterous person, I can still discover my freedom to calm down into being sensitive to others. Personality impulses exist, but so does freedom, unless we have squelched it.

Our essential freedom does not control the future—almost always he future comes to us as a surprise. Our freedom is not absolute control, but a participant in options. And this freedom is a gift—a gift that must to be received and enacted by us. Freedom is our profound initiative to make a difference in what the future turns out to be. Our free initiatives mingle with massive forces beyond our control to form a future that is both a surprise to us and a result of our initiatives.

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The Revelation of Moses

What happened to those slaves that Moses led out of Egypt?  Why do we remember an event that is centuries more than 3000 years old.  Furthermore, this event is now covered with layers of story, myth, and interpretations to the extent that any scientifically historical accuracy about what factually happened is obscured in all the fuss that has been made about this event.  Let us suppose that the following bare-bones approximation of the outward historical facts, gives us an impression of what we need to guess in order to begin understandings why this event was revelatory—yes, revelatory of the nature of every event that has ever happened or ever will happen.

Here is my guess:  An unusually aware, sensitive, and perhaps educated member of the Hebraic slave community was moved to lead a significant number of his Hebraic companions out of a severely hierarchical Egyptian society into the wilderness where a new vision of law-writing was established that was based on a vision that the Mysterious Realty allows free action to change the course of history.  This was a huge shift in life interpretation for these Egyptian enculturated slaves—so huge that it took Moses and others 40 years, so the story goes, to wash Egypt out of this people and prepare them to fight for a more promising place on Earth for their revelation and their emerging peoplehood.

A more personally rooted story-time rendering of this transformative event begins with how a man named Moses got so angry over a member of his people being mistreated by an Egyptian soldier that he killed that solder, and then had to flee to the out-back into a life in hiding.  Then one day, so the story goes, Moses came upon a bush that was blazing with a strange type of fire.  Temporal bushes burn up, but this bush was not being consumed.  It remained the same old bush in spite of this strange conflagration. This was surely a bit of Moses’ poetry for a very real inner happening to Moses himself.   His own “who-he-thought-he-was” was being burned up, yet he was not consumed.

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