Tim ‘Theological’ Tebow

Florida QB Tim Tebow (in)famously often wears eye strips with Biblical phrases on them during every game.  For example, he’s worn John 3:16, Philippians 4:13, and Hebrews 12:1-2.

During the recent SEC Championship, Tebow wore John 16:33 which reads (Jesus is here speaking):

I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!’  (New Revised Standard Version)

This could be construed somewhat ironically as Alabama proceeded to beat the snot out of Florida.  (Who’s conquering whom we might ask?).

But I thought we’d have a little theological reflection time.

Now before diving in, I need to take a little detour.  Last time I did this kind of thing, specifically on the Gospel of John, I generated some controversy (perhaps not unlike Tebow’s Biblical quotations) and some misunderstanding.  That post dealt with the famous water turned wine story (only found in John’s Gospel btw) where I said that it should not be read as “literally” suggesting a miraculous suspension of the laws of nature.  I took some good-natured ribbing for that statement.  [Jaybird still references it].

I should have said the story should not be construed/understood literalistcally.  The “literal” or “plain-sense” language of the story is symbolic.  So the “symbolic” reading I was giving was in fact “literal”, making me a “literalist”….while those who understand it to be about an actual event where Jesus actually did do such and such are literalistic.

Here’s why this distinction matters.  If I said, “I can already hear the howls of people when I make the literalistic/literal distinction”, you would (correctly) understand me to be saying something like:  I can already predict what (some) people are going to say about this thing I just wrote.

That understanding would be the “literal” or plain-sense meaning of what I meant.  Literalistically, someone would (incorrectly) understand to me to hear actual words coming through the walls or telepathically or something.

Applied to The Bible what this means is that a literal (as plain-sense) interpretation takes into account the differences between different literary genres.  Different genres open up/reveal different worlds or world-constructions.  Within those worlds, different norms, styles, and logic apply.

One of the many literary forms in The Bible is poetry.  Take The Psalms.  When a Psalm says, “All the day long I cry unto you O Lord” we literally (qua plain sense) take it to mean something like, “this is a persistent theme of prayer.”  Or it’s something “weighing” on the person.  Weighing is in quotes there because it shows us that metaphor is intrinsic to “literal” language.  We don’t speak except with metaphor (or in metaphor or through metaphor….all those being metaphors).

Literalistically, All Day Long I cry unto You, becomes someone, rather thick-headedly, saying 24 hours a day this person was yelling.

This same basic principle applies to Law Codes, Apocalyptic, Prophetic Sayings, Gospels, Epistles (Letters), and all the various other genres of The Bible.

This neat picture can be complicated by the fact that what is “plain sense” is (in part) culturally shaped.  i.e. I have no idea if someone raised in Swahili language-culture would make of my “howling” reference.  This especially comes into play relative to The Bible as it comes from a set of cultures and languages very different (though ultimately influential upon) our own culture.

Now back to our friend Tim Tebow.  Tebow is an Evangelical Christian.  Evangelical with a Capital E means from a distinct tradition (largely Anglo-American in nature) within Christianity.  All Christians are supposed to be evangelical (lower case ‘e’) insofar as all are supposed to share by word/deed the evangelion (‘the good news’) of Jesus Christ.  Only Evangelicals, Capital E, tend to interpret and perform that command by saying writing singular Biblical verses on their athletic equipment.  (Not all Evangelicals do that obviously, but of those who do, the majority are Evangelicals).

Evangelicalism, especially in the US, is often labeled ‘conservative’ because of its dominant tendencies towards social moral conservatism and right-wing politics in recent decades.  Evangelicalism, however, is a totally modernist (and therefore in many regards classically liberal) phenomenon.  And Tebow’s Bible quotes under his eyes prove this very fact.

By modernism, I mean The Western, European Enlightenment.   It was characterized by two major philosophical expressions: rationalism and romanticism.  Rationalism was built in the belief that by analysis and observation one could discern The Laws of Nature.

Evangelicals have long argued for the “plain-sense” meaning of The Bible–at least on those issues considered most necessary and important.  See The Westminster Confession for example.  Now with my earlier point about ‘plain-sense’, you might think I was an Evangelical.

That however would be a mistake because ‘plain sense’ was almost always (if not always) understood historically within Evangelicalism, as consisting of a series of isolated propositions.  Deductions as it were from the Laws of The Bible.  This is where the ‘modernism’ of Evangelicalism comes in.  It takes isolated passages–like induction in natural sciences–and believes propositions (the laws, hypotheses, theories, etc) come from these isolated pieces.

Hence a person puts what he thinks to be (or has been taught to believe more likely) is a one-line summation of the entirety of the Scriptures.

Something like, I don’t know John 3:16

16 ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

What this does is make a ‘proposition’ out of The Bible.  There it is, abstracted from you or me or communities of faith (and even from the Scriptures themselves), and you either “believe” it or not.  Belief here means mental assent to this proposition.

The other great trend of The Enlightenment was Romanticism.  As the rational took over social dominance (through science, politics, and technology), the emotional was let loose in the individual’s life.  Which is why Paul Tillich called The Enlightenment Age, a “weepy” one.

In Evangelicalism this tendency shows up as Revivals, emotionalistic forms of worship, and the tendency to interpret Biblical passages in an individualistic emotional way—by which I mean taking passages, often considered “comforting” from the Scriptures, and then projecting them out onto individual lives.

Like say, Philippians 4:13

13I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

Or John 16:33

33I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!’

Tim Tebow is a classical modernist Evangelical.  Notice I don’t have to resort to trying to “divine” his inner mind or understanding of these passages to make that call.  In that sense, I’m a postmodernist, following in the line of Ricoeur and Gadamer.  I’m making sense of the intelligible public acts of communication in the lifeworld of the media not trying to read his thoughts.

My main problem with such an approach is it’s reductionistic (on the propositional side) and far too individualistic (on the emotional-salvation side).

It should be noted, there are postmodern (post-propositional) Evangelicals who are well attuned to the literary and performative genres of The Biblical text.  Two of the best of such people are Kevin Vanhoozer and N.T. Wright.

So what if we looked again at John 16:33 in the context of the rest of the Chapter and with an eye towards literary form (and lifeworld).  What happens then?

[If you don’t have a Bible, you can use this one and enter John 16)

The first thing to notice is that this takes place in the context of a final “homily” by Jesus in the Gospel of John.  This discourse beings towards the end of Chapter 13 and continues all the way through the end of Ch. 17.

The entire piece is modeled on a Greek symposium. These are the final words of Jesus in the mold Socrates’ final dialogues.  Jesus is here the coming martyr hero who is going to die for Truth.  Or who rather is (according to the story), The Truth Incarnate.

And as such, the world, or the opponents of Jesus, stand as the representation of Illusion and Falsity.  The world crucifies Truth.

So already we should approach the text in that mode.  In the mode of the final words of a Beloved headed to death.  The disciples continue to misunderstand Jesus, asking him, “Where are you going?”  Peter wants to know why he can’t follow Jesus.

Jesus, as this discourse unfolds, is headed (back) to The Father.  But he must do so through The Cross to come.

Jesus’ sufferings (and his eventual Resurrection) become the model for Christians actually suffering at the time of the writing and reading of this text.

‘I have said these things to you to keep you from stumbling. 2They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God. 3And they will do this because they have not known the Father or me. 4But I have said these things to you so that when their hour comes you may remember that I told you about them.

They will put you out of synagogues is a clear reference to a historical event of The Johannine community being expelled (as heretics) from the mainline Jewish synagogue.  Jesus in the Gospel of John, therefore, speaks of “The Jews” in the third person.  Historically this is nonsensical as Jesus was Jewish.  But written during a much later period (probably around 90-110 C.E.) the Community of John had found themselves in this place of alienation and separation from other Jews  (they, the Johannine community still considered themselves Jews).  So Jesus is retroactively (or rather proto-actively) placed in the position of the community itself….being persecuted and alienated from “The Jews.”  As a historical sidenote, when this passage’s “literal” meaning was not understood any longer and was literalistically understood as implicating all Jews in opposition to Jesus and “Christ-killers”, well then we know the horrible consequences of that history (and minsinterpretation).

The text itself even mentions this distinction between the “historical Jesus” and the “Christ of faith” in their community.  The next half-verse after that quoted above is (Jesus still speaking):

‘I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you.

And then (still in the context of persecution and the final discourse), the end of Chapter 16:

25 ‘I have said these things to you in figures of speech. The hour is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figures, but will tell you plainly of the Father. 26On that day you will ask in my name. I do not say to you that I will ask the Father on your behalf; 27for the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God.* 28I came from the Father and have come into the world; again, I am leaving the world and am going to the Father.’

29 His disciples said, ‘Yes, now you are speaking plainly, not in any figure of speech! 30Now we know that you know all things, and do not need to have anyone question you; by this we believe that you came from God.’ 31Jesus answered them, ‘Do you now believe? 32The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each one to his home, and you will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone because the Father is with me. 33I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!’

verse 25 takes us back to our literal versus literalistic duality.  The text (recursively) tells us that’s its native language game consists of “figures of speech”, i.e. symbols, signs, farewell discourses, and metaphors.

The disciples think they get it–“Yes now you are speaking plainly”–but clearly they do not.  For Jesus tells them that they are just about to abandon The Truth (Incarnate).

And then our Tebow line:  “I have said this to you so that you may have peace.”  The this obviously refers back to the persecution and the abandonment of the disciples.  They are to have peace because they are both A)forgiven of the abandonment (or at least the founding disciples were) and B)because they still face persecution.

Now the peace hinges on the “conquering the world” piece since the world (in this story) represents the forces of opposition to light and truth.

So what does this book-story-performance (called The Gospel of John) mean by conquering?

Not what we expect.

The “conquering” or “over-coming” of the world by Jesus occurs through his horrific murder, being hung between heaven and earth, for a time accepted by neither.  By Christ becoming, for that moment, the embodiment of our sinful state:  the alienation we experience alive on earth yet suffering, not in heaven, nor feeling the embrace of heaven in this life.  Jesus becomes The Passover Lamb whose blood seals the covenant of God and creation, thereby overcoming (or conquering) the opposition to the Divine, namely ‘the world.’

This “hour” that Jesus always speaks of in the Gospel of John is paradoxically the revelation of fulfillment.  The “eschaton” or end-times are “realized” in his death and in the persecuted lives of his followers.  They are already experiencing the kingdom of God on earth.

Christ overcomes by being overcome.  He “conquers” our normal conception of victory and heroism but being “conquered” by this world–in the normal sense of being destroyed.  In his Resurrection, he shatters the normal conception of power and conquering, of heroism and true sacrifice.

Jesus is no Evangelical Warlord Conqueror, shinning triumphantly from human glory to glory.  He receives no Glory because He IS Glory.  Glory, true Glory, is the Presence of God on earth traveling with the people of God, like a nomad—-“and the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us.”  (John 1:14)

He’s not “powerful” by our human standards.  He is the undoing of those presuppositions.  He himself is undone and we are undone in him, in God.

Tim Tebow receives a lot of unfair criticism, both as an athlete and more so as a person.  Some of that (much of it?) is due to his overt expression of his Christianity.*  He suffers a kind of persecution we might say, though truth be told it’s of a very minor sort.  He’s not actually being pulled from synagogues or put before civil magistrates with his life on the line.  He’s getting called unjust things as people project their stuff onto him.  A scapegoat if you like.  Though again in the realm of possible persecution, not the most “goated” of kinds.

The question I have is whether his performance of the text, which I’m arguing is flawed in some key manners, becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy?  The Gospel of John argues (from the experience of the community that penned it) that persecution is inevitable and the only reality.  That however is not the argument of all of the other books in The New Testament.  (And certainly not The Bible as a whole).

When the dramatic (or performative/genre-based) nature of each text is not understood–when it’s turned instead into a doctrinal propositional handbook full of proofs and assertions–then there is a danger of absolutizing any of the Biblical texts into the end all/be all of religious truth and experience.

This is especially the case with Evangelicals and their (over?)use of The Gospel of John.

Different dramas are appropriate from different times.  It’s not clear to me that lines about “conquering the world” are the best choice for public expression of faith in a pluralistic society.  Especially in the context of sports, and certainly as one as brutal as football, where “conquering” will pick up the connotation of physical prowess and violence over another, thereby overturning the text itself and giving it a meaning it expressly does not want.  i.e. Jesus as the “White” Knight Conquering Hero.

The text Tebow chose–whether he knows this or not–“performs” or “enacts” division and confusion.  It may have even confused Tebow himself for all I can tell.  It’s one thing to give voice to such contradiction, division, and confusion in a situation where such a thing is reality.  It even makes sense within the confines of say a Holy Week and the liturgical calendar, which in its broad sweep, gives voice to the breadth of human and divine “voices”.

It’s another thing to create division.  Or at least I think it is.

* Plus he’s a media favorite and while I think a very good college QB, over-rated in the eyes of too many commentators.

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54 thoughts on “Tim ‘Theological’ Tebow

  1. Please understand:

    My problem is *NOT* with your interpretation. I think that if your interpretation works for you, then you should have at it.

    What I don’t understand is why any lines you wish to draw necessarily stop where you want them to. Why is *THIS* line bright, and *THAT* line fuzzy, and *THAT OTHER* line turns out to never have been a line at all?

    I don’t see how someone could read the water-into-wine story as a literal symbolic story as something that didn’t literalistically happen without allowing that the whole resurrection thing was also something that happened literal symbolically but not literalistically.

    Indeed, I don’t see how God Himself, under those readings, couldn’t be something that *TOTALLY* exists in the literal symbolic sense of the deity without a deity existing literalistically.

    I don’t see how Christianity doesn’t become something like the American version of Christmas where the children believe that Santa literalistically exists and older children go through a phrase where they think that Santa literalistically doesn’t exist before they mature into a more literal symbolic understanding of Santa Claus’s existence (better explained by Miracle on 34th Street than I can probably do here).

    I don’t understand why this god *MATTERS*.

    I am trying to put together an argument for why someone who believes as a child ought move to this far more sophisticated belief in Santa rather than the petulant disbelief in Santa and the stuff I’m coming up with is a variant of the whole “try to not talk about controversial things at the dinner table” thing that moms tell their gay/atheist children.

    *THAT* is my fundamental problem. It’s not that you believe as you do. I think it’s great that you got what you got going on. The world don’t move to the beat of just one drum, after all.

    I don’t understand why your god matters any more than table manners matter.

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    • Maybe it’s the medium of the blog that gives off a more imperious sense? But I think of what I’m doing as more playful, if still at times critical. I’m more into trickster-type gods and saints.

      But the reality is I’m just offering (as I see it) an alternative way to view things. The by far dominant view is much more in the line of a Tebow or anti-Tebow fight.

      As a beginning (and only beginning) answer to your question as to why this god over say Santa Claus, I would say: justice.

      The “real” St. Nicolas gave away money to women who were too poor to get married so that they wouldn’t end up living on the streets as hookers. That got turned into kids get presents and fighting over whose got the best gizmos.

      So yes in terms of the developmental scheme you laid out, as an interior phenomenon the trajectory can be roughly the same in either. I think anyway.

      And of course people can go there own way (and will whatever I think being irrelevant). I’m trying to poke around for some synthesis or post-secular/post-religious (as we normally understand the term) way of being. I’m not there yet. I generally see religion as having hidden its side paths those necessary jems, but historically practiced in a way we don’t want to return to (whether that means in a pre-modern or pre-liberal context or in the more Enlightenment-form of Evangelicalism).

      But I still think there’s “something” (mysterious I suppose) that happens in the material world that very much matters. That’s my critique (generally) against Evangelicalism’s tendency towards individualism.

      Still I’m only advocating a way.

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      • Maybe it’s the medium of the blog that gives off a more imperious sense? But I think of what I’m doing as more playful, if still at times critical. I’m more into trickster-type gods and saints.

        I dig, trust me. People point out to me all the time that I phrase my “I don’t really care but if you want my opinion, I’ll give it” opinions the exact same way that I phrase my “this is not a matter of taste, but a matter of morality!!!” opinions which can lead to knock-down, drag-out arguments over such things as whether a particular movie was faithful to the spirit of the book upon which it was based.

        Please understand that I am full-to-overflowing with good will for each and every one of y’all Gentlepeeps and even the most violent disagreement should be read as if I were smiling wryly.

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  2. There’s a problem here that I’m sure is unintended. The term “modernist”, at least in Catholic circles, refers to a type of relativism that wouldn’t be found among Evangelicals. I don’t know if the term is used that way by other Christians. The term might be confusing to people who would see theological modernism as contrary to propositionalism.

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    • p,

      Modernism as used to refer to early 20th century Roman Catholic is not relativist I would say, so much as more symbolic. “The Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man.”

      In that sense, modernism is like liberal 19th century Protestantism inside Catholicism. It had its own form of propositionalism, it just wasn’t “fundamentalist” or “literalistic” or whatever term prefers for that strain of Christianity. It was “liberal”. It eventually leads to religious pluralism, but usually not pure relativism.

      It’s interesting that originally Evangelicalism and fundamentalism were not aligned. Fundamentalism was a movement within seminaries (very heady) to prevent the influx of liberal German theology, a la Pope Pius X squashing Catholic Modernism and the whole move to define as proposition papal infallibility and then Marian doctrines (Immaculate Conception and Assumption) within Roman Catholicism. Though they are different in many regards, I would term that move a kind of Papal Fundamentalism.

      Evangelicalism, in contrast to fundamentalism, was a Billy Graham crusade, an affair “of the heart”. He wasn’t a big fan of the fundamentalists.

      But more and more (among the so-called neo-reformed), fundamentalism and evangelicalism (as well as even Pentecostalism now in many circles) are basically merged.

      And to confuse things a little more, now you have postmodern evangelicals (called The Emerging or Emergent Church). They tend to be going back to (their version of) Patristic Christianity, looking in some ways more “Catholic” and “Orthodox” by the day.

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      • Chris, I was trying to give a three-sentence explanation, so I didn’t get awfully precise. Modernism is next to impossible to define, anyway. It’s one of those things that defines itself by what it isn’t. Actually, it’s even tougher than that: it defines itself by its way of thinking outside traditional definitions.

        I wouldn’t describe the events you mention in the past hundred fifty years or so in Catholicism as fundamentalism. Fundamentalism is characterized by a limiting of the number of essentials.

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  3. Didn’t Plato and the boys give us the metaxy where the tension of existence is experienced between the poles of immanence and transcendence, and this condition explicated the ground preached within Christianity as the answer to the questions about the meaning of existence?
    It seems to me that a “Enlightenment-form of Evangelism” explains one aspect of the immanentization of the Logos and the collapse into doctrine of the Christian faith.

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  4. This sounds like the most boring paper from the most boring grad student in a particularly tedious seminar. In fact, maybe it is? Did you read this in a class or something?

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  5. While most of this read to this atheist like a Star Wars nerd explaining why Darth Vader can’t shoot force lightning like the Emperor* it was all worth it when I got to this:

    “When the dramatic (or performative/genre-based) nature of each text is not understood–when it’s turned instead into a doctrinal propositional handbook full of proofs and assertions–then there is a danger of absolutizing any of the Biblical texts into the end all/be all of religious truth and experience.”

    That’s what’s so obnoxious about Tebow and the other Evangelicals that wear their faith on their eye patches (or sleeves): They don’t even seem to understand the text that informs their entire worldview.

    * (Vader’s got no limbs and force lightning needs living flesh to work!)

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  6. Obama was not born in the US.

    Now, please understand me, when I say that I am hoping that you don’t take me literalistically. I am not discussing the actual, physical whereabouts of the crowning Barack Obama when he first was slapped by the doctor and screamed in outrage. I’m more discussing the literal symbolic issue of whether he is an American Citizen in any important sense of the word.

    (When I considered phrasing the next paragraph, I quickly came to the conclusion that “that’s quite enough of that, thank you.” Let’s all pretend that I wrote another one (or two) and move to the point.)

    I’d like to think that we all agree (even those who think that Obama was born elsewhere!) that the above is somewhere on the range between “disingenuous” and “nonsense”. Obama is someone that happened. He was born. When he was born, he was somewhere. That somewhere is somewhere that we could go to now and take a picture. We could go to the room where Obama was born and do a little dance (and sing “love love love love”).

    When you start making the distinction between literalist and literal symbolic (where “literal symbolic” means “maybe it did happen, maybe it didn’t, but that’s not the point”), you’ve got a problem.

    Fundamentally, the problem is this: Both P and ~P can be literally symbolically true at the same time.

    This reduction to absurdity ought to give pause.

    Either the Archangel Gabriel did whisper the Koran verbatim to Mohammed or he did not.
    Either Jesus turned water into wine after calling his mom “Woman” or he did not.
    Either David Koresh was a reincarnation of Jesus or he was not.

    There is no way that this did not happen “literalistically” and then, a hundred years later or so, well, it turns out that he did do it, except he did it literally symbolically.

    The truth of the proposition “the Heaven’s Gate folks’ spirits flew up to that comet after they all killed themselves” is true or it is false and it will remain true or false for all time whether or not people believe that it did happen or that it did not.

    Metaphysics precedes epistemology.

    Even if we are talking about Jesus or Obama.

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        • JB, you find yourself immersed in the debris of deculturation and the question of existence grows opaque..”faith ” must be made accountable “in terms of an answer to questions about the meaning of existence.”
          You certainly may tell me to shove it but allow me to recommend Voegelin’s essay “The Gospel and Culture,” found in Vol. 12 of the Collected Works, assuming you’ve got a large library and/or the interlibrary loan program.
          I believe he’ll answer many of your points of inquiry!

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          • Mr. Cheeks, I know what answers *I* have forged to these questions. (May I ask you to check out http://www.ordinary-gentlemen.com/2009/07/the-vector-a-post-theist-moral-framework/ ? It’s one of the works of which I am most proud and the comments were mostly arguments over whether Bentham’s panopticon was ever properly implemented… and, yes, Gentlemen I *KNOW* that me, of all people, complaining about comment sections not going the way I envisioned is really rich.)

            I cannot understand what answer Chris is able to forge, however.

            The argument for literal symbolism leaves me with a number of questions that give different answers than literalism does.

            “Will I someday be Judged?” is the first big question that comes to mind. Literalismists would say “Yes. Someday you will stand before God and be Judged.” What would a literal symbolismist say? I could see one saying “well, you have to understand…” before writing a paragraph or three that would result in probing questions that would result in more questions that would result in more questions that would finally result in the answer “not as such, no.”

            And I don’t know why one would not ask “why is your literal symbolism preferable to their deontology?” as a follow-up.

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    • Relative to the Gospels….the Gospels are a genre that doesn’t put the kind of litmus (truth?) test on them that you are talking about.

      Those concerns you mention are our contemporary concerns (really over the last 300 years or so in the West). They may or may not be valid, but we should be honest that we are reflecting our values onto that story, which the story itself doesn’t have.

      The Gospel of John states, “These things are written so that you may believe.” (or in another translation: “continue believing”).

      That’s pretty upfront about why it’s being written. Not: “these things are written because they all happened exactly like I said they did.”

      The other three gospels don’t mention the water/wine story. If it was the sine qua non of belief, how come it didn’t end up in them?

      As I said before, for a contemporary analogy I think a better way to view The Bible (Gospels especially) is as a script for a play. Obviously to be religious requires that in some fashion God be the “director” or “playwright”…or inspiration for the play.

      But it’s a much more helpful frame (theater) than the context of science. Modern (scientific-influenced) ways of reading The Bible always look through The Bible to some other thing….e.g. whether it was historically accurate or not, whether miracles transgress the laws of nature and such. In so doing, it elevates a way of thinking/doing that we (modern) humans have come to practice as the ultimate truth. That may be right (it may not), but if that’s the case it should be stated as such. Doing so, I think, reveals it to be founded ultimately in belief (trust, worldview, lens on the world).

      The way I’m suggesting is not look through the text to some other authority source, but to “go with it” (as it were) and let the text reveal its own world to us. That may be done “only” as literature or play (i.e. not really religiously), but it at least is better than treating it as a scientific handbook or historical biography (neither of which it is).

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      • I can very much appreciate the argument that the point of the water-to-wine story is *NOT* that water was turned to wine but a more subtle point that Christ’s love changes us from something into something else.

        I absolutely appreciate that!

        My problem, again, is that I do not see how one can avoid issues such as the point of Christ’s resurrection isn’t whether a physical body came back to life or not but whether we can stop being our old “bad” selves and become reborn into “good” people and from there get to “the point of the deity isn’t whether there is a creator who has taken notice of you personally but that it’s nice to think that there might be” and from there get to “morality is founded on nothing (NOTHING!) more than consensus”.

        I don’t know why or how, under this particular framework, “justice” is any less watered down than the wine we agree never existed.

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        • Jaybird, I don’t know exactly what you’re going for, but your comments remind me of a passage in 1st Corinthians. That book is about church unity, against scandalizing the faithful and factionalism. Near the end, Paul says that they should remember what he taught them about Jesus’s resurrection. If it was false, then all their teachings and faith would be pointless. But, Paul says, what he taught is true.

          That’s not the way a Hindu would talk about the Mahabharata (as far as I know). It’s more the way a Muslim would talk about the Koran. The question of historicity is important to them. Elsewhere in the Bible, there are references to witnesses. So I disagree with Chris Dierkes’s take on the subject. The Gospels were recorded so that people will believe that what they say is true.

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          • This attitude makes sense to me.

            I don’t share it, mind, but I understand (goodness, how I understand!) how someone could hold it in good faith.

            What I don’t comprehend is the very real sense in which the Wedding at Cana story is literally true symbolically not leading directly to God’s existence being equally literally true.

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          • Pinky,

            You can see below re: resurrection. But again generally I’m just saying that when we say “true” we mean certain things that I’m not at all certain where what someone like a Paul meant by “true”. This is because we live after the rise of science and the dominance of materialist philosophies. This is why I said Christian fundamentalism is a very Western, modern (and now globalized via the West) phenomenon.

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            • Chris, I can’t make that jump. I’m sympathetic to the notion that our post-Enlightenment thinking can affect our understanding of earlier cultures, but the Roman era was a very concrete time. They were practical. Judaism had its mystical side, but the Jews prided themselves on God’s revelation in their history. They had an Ark and a temple and believed in a conquering Messiah. Jesus’s followers spoke in terms of dragons, but also of witnesses. Fishermen are not mystical.

              There’s an old Jewish notion of the four levels of understanding scripture, known by its Hebrew acronym “pardes”. Christians apply a similar thinking to the Bible. There is a direct meaning (water became wine), an implied meaning (for instance, Jesus doesn’t shun the world of physical pleasure), an allegorical meaning (for example, the birth of the new Covenant from the old rituals), and a mystical meaning (say, the fact that it occurs on the third day bookends Jesus’s public ministry with his death and resurrection).

              The reason I bring it up is that each of these levels exists without contradicting the others. The symbolism of Jesus calling Mary “woman” doesn’t change the fact that Jesus did call Mary “woman”. The Jews and Christians have traditionally viewed sacred scripture in this way, so I don’t see any need to set up an either/or now.

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        • One thing I could bring up would be the practice of mysticism within Christianity, something I’ve studied (and practiced) a great deal.

          But even that I suppose could be subjected to your criticism Jaybird.

          It’s absolutely true that Christianity fundamentally follows from the claim of the resurrection of Jesus. And in that sense, later believers have to trust/believe the testimony of people who claimed to experience the resurrection.

          That’s what forms the basis of the entire religion. “Christ is Lord, He is Risen.”

          Now of course resurrection is a very tricky thing itself. Paul is usually (mistranslated I think) to say he “saw” the Lord when I think the better term is he “had a vision of the Risen Lord.” Bible translators I think too often interpret their understanding on the text.

          He had a vision of the Risen Lord complicates the picture (as we normally understand it). Does that mean (here we go again) literalistically, literally? What?

          The Gospels are written for a liturgical audience. They are written for a calendar built around a yearly celebration of the Resurrection. They are, as the commentators say, Passion/Resurrection Narratives with long introductions.

          In other words, they telescope what undoubtedly was a process that took much longer (in real life). The angel tells the disciples to go to Galilee and there Jesus will be revealed. They didn’t get back to Galilee in 2 days after the Crucifixion.

          So I imagine what occurred was a series of visions over time after the Crucifixion. The texts betray moments of real despair and a sense of failure on the part of the movement and its leaders. That takes more than 48 hours to happen.

          The texts later try to portray this by stories that combine elements that suggest that the Risen Body is not like a human body (i.e. walking through walls) and continuous with it (i.e. the scars from the Cross).

          There’s no “reason” outside the tradition that I can give you as to why the resurrection and not others. Rather the resurrection is the start of the tradition and the only way it maintains itself over time.

          There are other ways, and I’m not saying Christianity or Eternal Hell. But I think you’re asking for a standard outside the tradition itself and the tradition is making a claim that it forms its own standards from within.

          Again this is that philosophical question.

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          • I have no real arguments against a mystical understanding of any thing. Compared to a mystical experience, words and logic and reason are so much chaff. If that’s the foundation, there’s nothing really I can say to that.

            However, my argument isn’t “you need to change” as much as “I don’t understand why *I* ought to change”. Your mystical God is not one that I’ve insight into, your mystical Risen Christ is not one of which I have had a vision. In the absence of your deeper understanding, I am stuck with only my shallower one and it doesn’t lead me to see this particular deity (however manifested) as particularly interesting to me (indeed, even *WHY* He should be particularly interesting).

            Now, of course, the counter-argument of “hey, whatever floats your boat, floats your boat and whatever don’t, don’t” is a great counter-argument but it sort of also implies that we are in a “matter of taste” territory (which, quite frankly, is not somewhere I expect to be when discussing the Deity).

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              • I am attached to many Aesop fables. I believe that they point to, yes, a deeper truth even though there were not, in fact, two guys and a donkey.

                Aesop, however, does not have, as a foundation to his fables, a deity with which one may have a relationship.

                Christianity, it seems to me, is predicated on the (Jewish) idea that we may have a personal relationship with the deity. Our Creator is someone with whom we can argue morality, duty, justice, and so on.

                If this deity is something very much like the water that was not really turned to wine, I don’t see how this would not lead to (okay, are you ready?) Nihilism.

                I would (seriously, I am asking!) like it explained to me how it would not.

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                • Don’t ask me, Jaybird. I think it’s wrong to dismiss the claim to reality that Christianity makes. Ten out of eleven of Jesus’s apostles were willing to die for the story (they say that John lived to old age), so I’m guessing that they considered it to be true. And no disrespect meant to Aesop. Folktales and myths carry a lot of wisdom in them. Just don’t expect anyone to martyr themselves for them.

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                  • I didn’t say God is the same as the wine in the John story. So I’m not saying the Gospels or God is a fable. Only that some stories in The Bible are symbolic in nature. Symbols nevertheless are real things and have real reality and value in my book. Symbols change the world. I have the phrase, “It’s only symbolic”.

                    That’s the world we live in, where symbols are robbed of their inherent power. Symbols are profound and more “real” than reality I would say.

                    I would say it’s not primarily that we have a relationship to God but that God has us. How I can get another to be interested in that or to see why they should be interested in that I have no answer to. Other than come when I preach and see if the worship service is moving.
                    Like Jesus says to the disciples in John’s Gospel when they ask,”Master where are you staying?” He just says, “Come and see.”

                    I think the question about the reality of God (separate from the practice) is asking for some definition/truth about where the Master (God) is staying. The only answer to which (I think) is come and see. If people don’t like that answer, then they don’t like that answer. But it does admit that I claim to have an inkling of where God might be located. Or rather where if we put ourselves God might find us.

                    But that claim is not simply my own but comes from a tradition.
                    The Gospels are (I believe) texts written for postulants studying for baptism. I think that was its original context. The Gospels are texts about how to be a Christian. They are like the script to a play that is supposed to be performed.

                    I think asking for an objective answer beforehand is like wanting someone to prove a play is really wonderful prior to putting the play on and seeing if you like it or not. I can only tell you I really love the play and that I think you should go see it (or act in a performance of it). If you don’t want to and I can’t persuade you, then that’s how it goes. I don’t see that as a matter of taste (nihilism) only, but ultimately one of choice. Taste affects choice to be sure, but does not to my mind utterly determine all choices we make.

                    All worlds are enacted by cultures-languages. Christianity is no different in that regard (score one for postmodernism over modernism). But then how do we decide amongst the various cultures/worlds that are being enacted? Why Christianity over Aesop’s fables? Both have wisdom, both bring forth worlds for the creative and attentive reader. But have moral lessons to be gained from them (arguably).

                    Pinky is right that The Bible purports to be the testimony of people claiming God. Or more correctly it purports to be the testimony to the authorship of God (as the people are claimed by God). In that sense it is different than Aesop.

                    However what we understand by God and God’s activity or authorship comes into play and eventually (I believe) leads to a mystery. An enacted mystery but mystery nonetheless. If we are going to make claims about God being real (or not)….then God, being, and real all have to be defined and not simply assumed.

                    That’s my prime argument.

                    What would it even mean to say God is speaking or acting? Not do I believe it or not, yes or no. But what does this even mean? I’m more interested in that question.

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                    • There’s an old bit of medieval philosophy that states that there are three paths by which a person may approach the Divine: through beauty, truth, and goodness. I’m a truth guy. To me, the appeal of Christianity is that it’s true. I would have been fine if the truth were nasty and uncomfortable, which is probably why I read a lot of existentialism in my youth. In fact there would have been an appeal to unpleasant truth because it would have shown my commitment.

                      Chris, I’m guessing you’re a mystic, for whom the beauty of God or the goodness of God resonates most strongly. Because God is good and beautiful (as well as true), you’re able to find a connection to Him that I don’t instinctively look for. It has something to do with the two sides of the brain, I think.

                      You don’t persuade a fact guy with a “taste and see” argument. You don’t impress a mystic with an eyewitness account from 8:50am, May 22nd, 30AD. Chris’s approach is never going to appeal to Jaybird if he’s anything like me. It doesn’t have to. If all three things point to the same God, it doesn’t matter which path is most natural for whom.

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                    • “What would it even mean to say God is speaking or acting?”

                      Can we crack the Bible and see if there are any examples of God speaking or acting? If there are, can we say “stuff like that”?

                      If it comes out that God speaking/acting in each case turns out to be something not intended to be interpreted literalistically, (and this brings me back to my original question) what prevents us from seeing God as just as literally true as Jesus turning water into wine?

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                    • And if the answer is “on a mystical level, I just know”, then hey.

                      There’s nothing I can say to that.

                      “I think asking for an objective answer beforehand is like wanting someone to prove a play is really wonderful prior to putting the play on and seeing if you like it or not.”

                      From my perspective, this is not, absolutely not, a question of “liking” things (or a question of taste).

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  7. Jaybird,

    (the earlier thread seems to not allow anymore replies within it).

    “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt so that you would no longer be slaves to the Egyptians; I broke the bars of your yoke and enabled you to walk with heads held high.” Leviticus 26:13

    A speech-act. Stuff like this.

    My question is still how are we supposed to understand the notion of a deity freeing a people from slavery? (For the moment ignoring whether this “really happened or not” and/or assuming it did happen as stated).

    What does it mean to say that are heads are now held high because of the activity of a god?

    I can tell you, as best as we can understand it from our view, what it meant within the world that proclaimed it. I can also tell you that we live in a very different world that has a lot of different assumptions than the one that spoke these lines.

    My question is still whether that line can still speak to us in our day. My issue is more: what would it mean to be formed in that text, to be influenced by that world? Less, how can I prove to someone else this really happened or not.

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