Tag Archives: Biblical Interpretation

Uses of the Word “God”

A Definition of Theology

“God“ is a relationship word—a word of devotion similar to sweetheart, lover, friend, rock, foundation, shepherd, mother, father, and other such words of devotion. When we call the Final Mystery “God,” we are making a religious confession. If we are not making a religious confession, we do not need the word “God.” We can get along without the word “God” or any word like it, unless we are a self-conscious Jew, Christian, Muslim, or a member of some other religious community that uses ”God” as a devotion word—as a relationship word for the Final Mystery.

Honestly living within today’s culture, we find no heavenly realm of rational meanings that humans can access to make sense of the absurdity of a Big Bang Beginning, or of an evolution from the single-celled organisms that mysteriously arose on this minor planet of a marginal star in one of the hundred billion or so galaxies. The sheer Mystery of this vast expanse and of the infinitesimal minuteness of this physical cosmos is not made less Mysterious by presuming a First Cause or an Ongoing Creator of all this wonderment. As a solution to scientific meaning or contemplative awareness, the word “God” is not needed for any rational solution.

Continue reading Uses of the Word “God”

Washed of Your Era

It was in those days that Jesus arrived from the Galilean village of Nazareth and was baptized by John in the Jordan. All at once, as he came up out of the water, he saw the heavens split open, and the Spirit coming down upon him like a dove. A voice came out of Heaven, saying, “You are my dearly-beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased!  Mark 1:9-11

Faced with such writings almost 2000 years old, biblical interpretation today requires a bit more work than simply reading the stories. It is important to know that most of these biblical stories are not scientific history, but it is needful to do a bit of scientific history to find what these stories meant to their authors. But such history is only the beginning. Here are my four steps for interpreting a passage of biblical writing.

1. Scientific History: What do we know about when and where this text was written, who wrote it, and what probable meanings were being given to the specific words used by this time-bound story teller?
2. Literary Analysis: Was this a poem, a teaching, a fictional story, a historical legend, a theological myth, etc.?
3. Metaphorical Translation: Interpreting any transcendent, two-layer, story-talk with our contemporary, existential, one-layer, transparency language.
4. “Word-of-God” Suggestions: What might this passage be saying to us today about the living of our authentic lives and about the power of these Christian symbols for our own depth living?

1. Scientific History

So when was the above baptismal story written and by whom, and what do some of the words in this story mean? The Gospel of Mark was written about 70 CE by the first of the four Gospel writers we find in our New Testament. Mark was the name of one of Paul’s followers, but this Mark may be some other man or women. Whoever Mark may have been, this person was putting together stories that were perhaps three decades old. John the Baptist had built a significant movement by the time Jesus was in this late 20s, and Jesus apparently joined the Baptist movement rather than the Zealots, Essenes, Pharisees, Sadducees, or some other movement of that time. The Christ-way movement that Jesus and Mark represent was a parallel movement with the John the Baptist movement that was still part of the public memory, and was perhaps still going on when Mark wrote this gospel. The ritual of baptism, in a slightly altered form, was part of Mark’s movement. It was important to Mark to both affirm the John-the-Baptist movement and to distinguish the Christ-Jesus movement from it.

What we know about the meaning of John’s baptizing is important for understanding the Jesus movement and the above passage from Mark’s gospel. John saw himself as part of a religious culture that was deeply sick, deeply estranged from its religious foundations, doomed in fact to be utterly destroyed along with that whole Imperial era in which it was tragically embedded. The Sadducees were thoroughly compromised with the curse of the Roman rule, the Zealots were trapped in serious anger and even military revolt against this unbeatable foe. The Pharisees were reducing the whole crisis to a set of superficial moralities, and the Essenes were escaping to a mystical dream land. These are my words, but I am attempting to picture how thoroughgoing John the Baptist was with his critique. He was washing people of their whole era of corruption. He was calling for a thoroughgoing repentance from the entire state of that religious people. Things were so bad in John’s view that he expected the Final Realty of cosmic history to clean house soon, to wash the world with a wrath only rarely experienced in the story of this religious people.

Jesus joined this movement. He came to John to be washed of his entire era. When John the Baptist was beheaded, Jesus picked up where John left off with his own style of response to these grim times. Jesus announced a dawning of a positive alternative; the Kingdom of God, he said, was arriving in the very ministry he was conducting. John was a forerunner of his work, but Jesus and his disciples viewed John as a fabulous forerunner. The washing of baptism remained as a ritual that Mark’s Christ-way movement was still performing. A washing of this entire evil era was still seen as the first step in the journey of spirit that Jesus was leading.

2. Literary Analysis

This passage is part of the opening pages of a new literary form—the gospel. Mark, we might say, invented the gospel. This writing is not a scientific history. It is not a fictitious novel. It is not a historical novel. It is a piece of theologizing put in the form of highly symbolic and artistically constructed narrative. This is a religious work with all sorts of fancy symbols: “up out of the water;” “the heavens split open;” “the Spirit coming down upon him like a dove;” “A voice came out of Heaven, saying, ‘You are my dearly-beloved Son.‘ “ These story elements are meant to get our attention, and to provoke us to ask this primary question: “Who is this guy, reality?”

3. Metaphorical Translation

Almost every phrase that Mark includes has some sort of secret meanings. “Up out the water” can pass unnoticed if we do not associate this immersion with dying to the evil era. If we do see the allusion to dying, then “up out of the water” is an allusion to resurrection. In this story Jesus is becoming the resurrected one.

“The heavens split open” is an even more cryptic piece of poetry to a modern person who does not know what to make of the word “heaven” and certainly finds it very odd to speak of seeing “the heavens split open.” Translating that phrase from its transcendence metaphorical imagination to an existential transparency type of poetry takes a bit of thoughtfulness. “Heaven” means the realm of Absolute Mystery, and Mark is picturing that dynamic as right above our heads. There is a sort of big punch bowl with stars on it and if that bowl were to split open we would see right into the Eternal heaven. I believe that Mark is thinking more metaphorically and less literally than that may sound; seeing into the Eternal is the meaning of the text. As Jesus comes up out of the watery tomb in which John has dunked him, the punch bowl of Awesome Absolute Mystery splits open. What a story!

Next, this profound-eyed person Mark sees another signal of profoundness: “the Spirit coming down upon him like a dove.” Spirit, for Mark, is the Absolute Mystery itself manifesting as a state of our whole life sometimes called “Wonder” or “Awe.” And for anyone who has the courage for a dreadful, fascinating state of Awe, this happening is a gentle thing, like a dove settling on your head or shoulder.

Finally, Mark gives us one more symbol for how this baptism was an outstanding event: “A voice came out of Heaven, saying, ‘You are my dearly-beloved Son.‘ “ We need not believe that a tape recorder would have heard this voice. Mark included this bit of poetic flair to complete his view of the significance of this baptism for this simple roof-repair man’s son from the nowhere of Nazareth. And what does “Son” mean here? It means that Jesus is having a new birth, not of a father in Nazareth, but of a Spirit from Eternity. This is Mark’s “virgin birth” narrative. Mark is implying a virgin birth for Jesus, a birth sired from heaven that was now taking over his whole life from his biological birth in Nazareth.

The Awed One (Jesus) is filled with Awe (Spirit) sourced from the Awesome (Eternal Mystery.) This whole secret Trinity of Divinity is happening among us, to us, to humanity in these opening pages of Mark’s story. For the rest of Mark’s strange narrative, Jesus is the washed one, the resurrected one, a beloved of Reality one who is born among us to lead us into our own profound humanness. For the rest of Mark’s gospel we will see what a person of resurrected humanity looks like—walking, talking, calling, teaching, healing, feeding, eating, celebrating, living, suffering, dying. Women coming to honor him in his tomb find nothing there but their own resurrection.

4. Word-of-God” Suggestions

So, what might this passage be saying to us today about the living of our own authentic lives and about the power of these Christian symbols for our own depth living? Perhaps we might give Christian symbols a second look. Perhaps we might view these long-preserved stories as being clues to our own most profound matters of living. Perhaps we might ask of Mark and other resurrected witnesses, what must we do to inherit this life abundant. Perhaps we are drawn to read further in Mark’s story to see where our own particular healing is required to be washed of our own grim era—washed in order for us to enter here and now into this communion of the saints, this Kingdom of God, this Reign of Reality, this commonwealth of profound realism. Perhaps such an enigmatic interior baptism is the first step for each of us in beginning a walk with Jesus for the rest of our own life story. Who knows what our next steps will be?

I am in the process of rewriting a detailed commentary of the Gospel of Mark. I have completed the last three chapters on crucifixion and resurrection. Here is the downloading code for those pages.


New Testament Living

How does a viable and vital next Christianity need to be grounded in the originating revelation witnessed to in the New Testament texts? In our contemporary culture we honor or we need to honor both the scientific and the contemplative approaches to truth. How does this affect Biblical interpretation? Following is a four-point summary of the biblical interpretation methods I am promoting.

(1) Scientific History: What do we know about when and where a text was written, who wrote it, and what probable meanings were being given to the specific words used by this time-bound story teller?

(2) Literary Analysis: Was this a poem, a teaching, a fictional story, a historical legend, a theological myth, etc.?

(3) Metaphorical Translation: Interpreting any transcendent, two-layer, story-talk with our contemporary, existential, one-layer, transparency language.

(4) “Word-of-God” Suggestions: What might this passage be saying to us today about the living of our authentic lives and about the power of these Christian symbols for our own depth living?

Continue reading New Testament Living

Theological Commonalty

I am assuming that the common culture of a vital next Christianity will include basic methods of theologizing. I am assuming that it is possible to create forms of Christian organization and practice that avoid the common flaws of: biblical literalism, doctrinairism, sentimentalism, moralism, institutionalism, ineffective witnessing to the core truth of the Christian revelation, and social neglect of economic injustice., ecological devastation, racism, sexism, and more. I am assuming a victory over all these obsolete cultural elements through creating a movement that features a better culture. A new style of theologizing is one aspect of that better Christian culture.

I am using the term “theologizing” rather than “theology,” for I want us to be clear that the theoretics of a vital next Christianity needs to be an ongoing thoughtfulness, rather than a settled “theology.” Nevertheless, there are theological qualities and methods that need to be observed, if we are to have a vital next culture of Christian religion of the sort that I am assuming when I employ the term “a next Christianity.

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The Darkest Day of the Year and the Virgin Birth

Medieval Christianity wrapped almost everything in a Christian ritual: birth, adulthood, vocation, marriage, death, the first day of the week, the seasons of the year, even the hours of the day.

The original Christmas rituals wrapped the darkest day of the year with the birth of a tiny light in this very dark season of Advent judgement—a single candle, a new star in the midnight sky, a tiny babe born in extreme poverty, an intrusion of something dangerous to the dark powers of degraded government. Even this inconspicuous tiny beginning of hope, the powers of darkness sought to kill.

The good-news narrative of Matthew envisioned the true wisdom of the world coming to visit this birth. And the good-news narrative of Luke envisioned poor nighttime sheep keepers joining the party.

This has been an especially dark Advent season for me. The biggest, richest, greediest corporations on the surface of the planet are doing cartwheels of delight over the president-elect of my nation, a man who claims that the climate crisis is a hoax. But I groan in grief that adequate action to moderate the most horrific crisis humanity has ever faced may be still further delayed. In addition, I see the prospects for relieving poverty and low wages being neglected and billionaires. further empowered I also see backward motion on finishing the overthrow of our unacknowledged and unconfessed minority enslavements and patriarchal oppressions.

I even groan over the unconsciousness of the population of my own Texas county, of my own mostly good-hearted neighbors, 1 out of 2 of whom did not even vote, and of those who did vote, 4 out of 5 voted for the dark side. Such are my surroundings as I light my Christmas candle on the darkest day of the annual calendar,

All rituals are, of course, sort of silly. It is only the darkest day in the northern hemisphere, and those Medieval ritual makers missed December 21st by four days. But silly rituals can sometimes point beyond themselves to the dynamics of life that matter most. So what is this tiny Christmas hope all about?

Our first good-news narrative, accredited to someone named “Mark,” did not tell of a baby’s virgin birth, but of a “heavenly” second birth of a poor roof-repair man being doused by a wild man in the waters of the river Jordan. Both John and Jesus apparently gave this ritual the meaning of washing away the cruel darkness of grim estrangements gripping that out-of-the-way religious people of ancient origins. When in Mark’s story, Jesus came up out of that washing, the very heavens announced him as another real threat to the evil powers of the world. Being such a hope for the downtrodden and such a peril to the establishment hypocrites drove Jesus to undergo a long fast, in which he grappled with his possible vocations. In the wilderness, alone, with only wild nature and enigmatic angels to comfort him, Jesus decided to take on his dangerous vocation. This was Mark’s new birth of hope. The rest of Mark’s narrative reveals the “secret” of this new hope. And here it is. When we die to our clinging to all our temporal devotions, we are left with the resurrection of our authenticity.

The fourth good-news narrative, accredited to someone named “John,” told of a “virgin birth” that can happen to any of us who choose to join Jesus in his mode of living.

What then is this “virgin birth” that anyone can share? Well, it turns out that it is simply this: When we die to our clinging to all our temporal devotions, we are left with the resurrection of our authenticity. When that has taken place, we are born of Final Realty—freed from our parental upbringing and open for the real future we face. This is the virgin birth. This is the hope of Christmas. This is the core healing of the dark powers of the world, and the dawn of the Final Commonwealth of Ultimate Realism.

How is this so? If by this “virgin birth” we are freed from the powers of the past and open for the future, whatever that future may be, we are participating in the solution to any and every cruel problem that needs to be solved.

For example, here is the virgin-birth contribution to the moderation of the climate crisis—dying to the need for fossil fuels and open for a future with only sunshine to power the lives of the many billions. This will include more dying and openness that goes along with the climate crisis. We will need to die to having billionaires and grueling poverty, and be open for an economic justice that includes everybody—blacks, whites, browns, yellows, reds, greens, women, men, and any other color or gender or culture.

It may seem strange that all this begins with a few million virgin births, but that is just the way it is. Without these virgin births the same old karma carries us into the abyss of disintegration and total despair. But when the millions and billions share in the virgin birth, anything is possible. When the virgin born say, “Move!” to our mountains of wrong, those mountains simply move. The demons will cry out in wild backlashes, but they are on the wrong side of realism. Reality always wins in the end. The virgin born get to choose how they would like for Reality to win. The cosmic power that the virgin born breathe and live, can enable these surprising but ordinary folk to claim the victories that they are willing to live and die for.

Sure, the future will be a surprise, for many other forces are at play than the historical forces of the virgin born; nevertheless, the future will be very different because the virgin born live their lives and do their doing.

For more 21st Century theologizing on these core topics, I recommend the following essay on the controversial topic of “God” and Part One of my revised commentary on the Gospel of Mark:

The “Death of God” Conversation


Mark Commentary: Part One
Cross and Resurrection

a commentary on the last three chapters
of the Gospel of Mark



A good philosopher of real life begins with what he or she can know with some certainty. We know that we are stuck in time. We have come out of a now absent past, we are in some sort of continuing now, and we are now facing an unstoppable future. We have no perfect knowledge of that past, we only have fragments of memories and factual research open to many different interpretations, all of which are fragmentary at best and delusory at worst. We anticipate a future that we know will be a surprise in many, or even most, of its aspects.

So, we don’t know where we have been, or where we are, or where we are going. We do have images and perhaps careful thought and plans about all of that, but none of those rational products provide certainty. The sheer MYSTERY of it all is our only complete certainty.

Christian faith includes trusting that very MYSTERY that anyone and everyone can know about and have certainty about if they will only admit their ignorance and stop assuming total certainty for their models of thought with which they express and exclude aspects of that MYSTERY. This strange certainty that there is no complete certainty graspable by a human mind is, paradoxically, a type of certainty that we can absolutely count upon.

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Prayer Always Works

Jesus spent many long hours in prayer–whole nights, 40 days in the wilderness preparing for his life mission. He probably spent hours every day in prayer. He was a busy man. Why was he spending all this time in prayer? And what was he doing with all this prayer time? Certainly, Jesus was not doing the sort of long-winded praying for which he criticized the religious leadership of his time. In his teachings, he clearly recommends solitude and sincerity.

In the opening verses of the 11th chapter of Luke’s Gospel, we find the disciples noticing that Jesus spends much time in prayer. One day, after he finishes praying, they ask him to teach them to pray. Jesus, according to Luke, gives his disciples a brief set of terse sentences we call “the Lord’s Prayer.” Then Luke continues the subject of prayer with Jesus teling his disciples a story about a man who goes to his friend in the middle of the night to get three loaves of bread for his suprise guests. The friend is already in bed and won’t get up. Jesus says that if this man persists, his friend will get up and give him everything he needs.

Jesus applies this story to the subject of prayer, “And so I tell you, ask and it will be given you, search and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you. The one who asks will always receive; the one who is searching will always find, and the door is opened to the person who knocks.” (Luke 11:9,10) These verses seem to contradict about half of what we experience in our real lives. We have all asked for things we never received. We have all done some passionate seeking without finding. And we have all done some knocking on doors that never opened.

Some interpreters of these verses have suggested that our problem is poor praying. If we were to pray correctly, we would receive what we are praying for. But such interpreters have never satisfied me; nor have they convinced me that this is what Jesus really meant. In the 14th chapter of Mark, we see Jesus himself praying all night not to have to drink the cup of crucifixion. As part of his prayer, he notes that all things are possible to God. Yet he apparently knew that God might not give him his request, for he concludes his prayer, “Yet it is not what I want, but what you want.” (Mark 14:36)

So what does it mean to say that the person who asks always receives? An answer to this question can be found in the verses that follow the verses about always receiving:

“Some of you are parents, and if your child asks you for some fish, would you give that child a snake instead, or if the child asks for you for an egg, would you give that child the present of a scorpion? So if you, for all your evil, know how to give good things to your children, how much more likely is it that your Heavenly (Parent) will give The Holy Spirit to those who ask (Him/Her)!” (Luke 11:11-13)

God gives the Holy Spirit! What a curious thing to say. The verse seem to imply that if we ask God for some fish or an egg, God will give us The Holy Spirit! And this gift is a “good thing.” The Holy Spirit is a better gift than fish or egg or whatever specific things we asked for.

Is this the way that prayer works? No matter what we ask for, God gives something better. God sends the Holy Spirit! Let me stretch this metaphor out a bit: The divine prayer-answering order-house works very simply: it only has one product, all packaged and ready to go. No matter what you order, you get this same package, the Holy Spirit. This makes things easy for the prayer-answering order house. You pray for a new car. God sends the Holy Spirit. You pray for better health. God sends the Holy Spirit. You pray for a lover. God sends the Holy Spirit. You pray for a workable, planetary social order. God sends the Holy Spirit.

Continue reading Prayer Always Works

Spirit Penetration

In the stories of Matthew, Mark, and Luke we see Jesus engaging persons whose personality habit is to think that he or she knows what is good and what is evil.  Some come to Jesus complaining about what he does on the Sabbath day.  Jesus penetrates their personality with sayings like, “The Sabbath was made for human beings, not human beings for the Sabbath.”  Or they express their shock and revulsion that Jesus is eating meals with tax collectors, riffraff, and other Jewish lawbreakers.  Jesus says to them, “It is the sick, not the well, who have need of a doctor.” 

One of the best stories about penetrating a moralistic personality is the story in which Jesus is having a meal and a discussion with a Pharisee who invited him for a visit and apparently has a modicum of interest in Jesus and his wisdom.  While they are there at the table, a woman comes in and begins washing Jesus’ feet with her tears and drying them with her hair.  The Pharisee recognizes her as a woman of the streets who has probably made her living providing bodily comforts to the male population.  He is repulsed that Jesus is permitting such a woman to touch him.  Jesus recognizes the Pharisee’s feelings and asks to speak to him.  The Pharisee consents, and Jesus tells a story about two men who owe another man a debt.  One of them owes a big debt and the other a small debt.  The lender forgives them both.  Jesus asks the Pharisee, “Which one do you suppose will love the lender the most?”  The Pharisee gives the obvious answer that it is the one who owes the most.  Then Jesus points out that this woman whose sins are very great is showing great love.  He also points out that nothing comparable is being shown him by the Pharisee.  Then Jesus makes this penetrating remark, “Her great love proves that her many sins have been forgiven; where little has been forgiven, little love is shown.” (Luke 7:47)  The Pharisee is left to ponder whether his harshness toward the woman and his lack of love for Jesus indicates layers in his own life that need forgiveness.

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The Cost of Realism

Psalm 23 has been a favorite Scripture of many people, but it has often been cheapened through a sentimentalized understanding of the word “God” or “Lord.”   The richness of this Psalm only appears when we view this “shepherd” as the Reality that creates, sustains, and terminates all realities, as the Reality that we confront in all the ups and downs of our daily lives.  So here is my very slight rewording of this Psalm in order to emphasize its original meaning:

Reality is my shepherd, so I lack nothing.
This shepherd provides green pastures,
and leads me to peaceful drinking water.
This Ground-of-all-being persistently renews life within me,
and guides me step-by-step on the path of righteous realism.
Even when I walk through a valley dark as death,
I fear nothing, for the Great Shepherd is leading me.

Dear God, my shepherd, when Your staff pushes me
or Your crook holds me back,
I see these actions as my comfort.
Indeed, Oh Final Mystery, You spread a picnic for me,
even in the presence of my enemies.
My head is anointed in Your oil of honor.
My cup of aliveness runs over.

So I say to all of you here listening:
Goodness and love unfailing will attend me,
all the days of my life,
and I shall abide happily within this Enduring Wholeness
my whole life long.

Continue reading The Cost of Realism

Cross and Resurrection

This post is part of a commentary on the last three chapters of the Gospel of Mark

It is fair to say that the symbols of cross and resurrection are as central to an understanding of the Christian revelation as meditation and enlightenment are to Buddhism. Yet both cross and resurrection seem cryptic to many, even weird.

The last three chapters of Mark’s 16-chapter narrative are about the meaning of cross and resurrection as understood by that mid-first-century author and the surprisingly vigorous religious movement of which Mark was a part. I know of no better way to introduce to a contemporary explorer of Christianity the power of these two symbols than with a commentary on the last three chapters of Mark’s Gospel.

Members of a our current scientific culture may be excused somewhat for having a weak understanding of resurrection. Most of us know, if we are honest, that belief in a literal return to life of a three-day-old corpse is superstition. Yet this meaning of resurrection has been paraded as Christian by many. Mark did not see resurrection in this light. Or perhaps we might better say, “Mark did not see resurrection in this darkness,” for a literal return from the dead means nothing deeply religious to Mark or to you or me. If such an event were to happen today, it would be open to hundreds of speculative explanations, none of which would be profoundly or convincingly religious.

Continue reading Cross and Resurrection