bible · culture · Philosophy

A Response to John Reynolds

John Mark Reynolds notes that “chronological snobbery” is often employed when reading the Bible.  Reynolds reminds us of the importance of language when “people forget the progression of ideas and they assume every concept and word available to them was available in the past. They forget that language and ideas also develop (the Platonist of today is not the Platonist of yesterday) and imagine that the ancients thought like moderns without the technology.  But Abraham was not an American with sheep and no Ipod.”  I applaud Reynolds attempts to make sense of the Bible.

In his article, Reynolds attempts to show God never really acts outsides the cultural norms of their country.  He is not-like Stalin or Robespierre-a revolutionary in the sense of radical change.  In fact, God can only communicate “with people in language and concepts available to them, if He is to allow them to mature. Even attempting to describe the inner workings of the atom to a tribal people would be useless, since they lack the mental vocabulary to make sense of the message. Of course, God could directly reveal all this to humanity, but this would not allow for a natural cultural development.”  Cultural development is important to Reynolds because “if a culture does not learn for itself what is good, true, and beautiful then it will not be an adult culture. It will depend forever on priestcraft and develop a magical, instead of rational, understanding of reality.”

It is at this point that I must digress with Reynolds.  Reynolds first admits that “Abraham was not an American,” but then swings the other way suggesting that cultures must move beyond “magical” to the “rational” to be “an adult culture.”  Rationality, as it has been defined by contemporary society, really is the totality of American culture in its finest clothes.  If Abraham is not an America, then, why does he need rationality?  He needs rationality because this is seen by Americans as the ultimate good-a life freed from passions, the supernatural, and the spiritual world.

Reynolds goes onto the note that the Bible is “the story of the education of mankind.”  In other words, Israel was kind of a baby, Israel in exile was a kind of teenager in adolescent years, and Israel finally grew up to understand “truth” at the time of Christ in their early adult years, but even life at the time of Jesus was not perfect.  Slavery was still in full swing, the understanding between men and women was incomplete, and the understandings of community and rationality would not be fully realized until the renaissance.  But this begs a question, are we any better than the ancient Israelites?  Is outsourced slavery still generally allowed by American companies to make the maximum profit?  Are woman still treated like second-class citizens in most of the world?  Do most nations still hold somewhat of a tribal entity?  Shawn at lo-fi Tribe notes that:

“The consumer driven church of North America is largely a suburban movement. It is a suburban movement driven by upper/middle class economics and mobility. Seriously, would you even be a consumer if you had no money? Would you even be superimposing a consumer mentality over Christ’s Church if you had not already forged such a mentality in three-cart-wide isles of choice-filled shopping malls? That said, there is nothing at all wrong with upper/middle class economics! If only we all could live in such realities (with a better sense of stewardship, of course)! The problem or difficulty arises when we strap the way we actually “do” church to an upper/middle class sensibility and limit the Gospel to expressions born therein. The problem becomes a monster when those limited sensibilities are confused with ministry philosophy and our way “doing” church becomes an extension of the suburban church movement, in spite of context.”

As Shawn points out so well, we are still connected to a context and we are hard pressed to get out of it.  Reynolds goes on to note that in the Bible God had to “tolerate enormous crudities and barbarisms” and that “it is easy for the critic, at the far end of centuries of mostly Christian cultural development to be critical of the Patriarchs and of the Mosaic Law. They forget how stunning and difficult the very idea of a universal law was when God revealed it to Moses. It took hundreds of years for even one people group, the Jews, to grasp the ramifications of a law that applied equally to king and commoner.”  One only had to watch CNN last night to hear Lou Dobbs complaining about the Bear Stearns fiasco to note that the rules that apply to individuals do not necessarily apply to larger companies.  We are still struggling with many of the same issues.  To say otherwise makes it seems like we are morally superior to our Jewish predecessors of faith.

All of this leads up to Reynolds thoughts on “the conquest of Canaan by Joshua…[where Go commands] the ‘genocide’ of the Canaanites.”  It is interesting how Reynolds puts the words genocide in peculiar quotes as if killing a whole group of people then was different than killing whole groups of people now.  He notes that much secular genocide has happened in the past 100 years, so the problem is not peculiar to Christianity, but he goes on saying “the difficulty for the skeptic is that he is applying modern categories of morality, often based on centuries of Jewish and Christian thought, to ancient men. They had no language of justice and no concept of ‘non-combatants.’ Primitive man was . . . primitive. He thought in terms of tribe and battled with tribal ferocity.”

This is where I must again disagree with Reynolds interpretation of history.  The word “primitive” is a loaded word to show a loaded principle.  In what ways was Israel primitive?  That they fought wars based on nationalistic fears of losing their territory?  That is still happening today in America.  Is that that we do not kill all the people that we fight?  Well, we have found better economic uses for such people.  We are not blind altruists.  We realize that a living Iraqi is better than a dead Iraqi to create a better economy to influence the world trade market positively when their oil reserves become operational.  If we were truly altruistic, we might help the situation in Tibet.  I simply cannot agree that we are more “advanced” than the Jews in that sense-only more efficient.  I would like to here more about why Reynolds believes we are not-in many senses-still a primitive people.

I have many more qualms, but I would like to keep this post short for any responses people might have to this.

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3 thoughts on “A Response to John Reynolds

  1. “In a sense, God was faced with an educational problem. He had a group, the Jews, which He was trying to teach the heard lesson of the supremacy of law over passion and of monotheism over polytheism. Old Testament history shows how difficult and arduous this process was to be….God, uniquely in Scripture, ordered “total war,” because it was the best of the bad options available in the time and with the people He had.”

    I don’t even know what to say to that. I’m sure he’s smarter than me, but if we take this view of Scripture, can we ever use it to give us an accurate picture of God’s nature, and not just the cultural needs of the day? God the totalitarian seems to run straight up against God the Son. Not sure what to do with that.

  2. Hi Michael,
    Thanks for the comment on my blog. I’m glad that you are interested in finding the “accurate picture of God’s nature” (as difficult as such an aspiration may be). Scripture is really quite deceptive. It was written from a variety of perspectives from a variety of people from a variety of different times. Reynolds is doing us a service in the sense that he is trying to show the complexity of scripture.

    I agree with Reynolds in the sense that God really does work within the cultural needs the day. God met Abraham where he was and gave him a promise in keeping with the cultural traditions of that day–children and land would have been the best promise he could have given at such a time (it would have given him land to work and labor with which to do the work).

    I think many Christians have done a serious disservice to the Bible by making it a book of “timeless truths” as if truth never changes. Virtually all the moral and cultural norms of society have shifted radically since the Bible has been written (whole books could be written on this subject, but I digress…). We have to read the Bible, as much as possible, putting on the minds of those who read it.

    My major point of departure from Reynolds is that the mindset we have is, in many ways, similar to the mindset of these ancient Jews attempting to stand up against empire. Although the empire has changed, although new philosophies, theology, and ways of thinking about God have changed, there is still a fundamental duty of obedience to God in spite of what culture tells us. The people of God are called to be totally and fully “other” from society.

    Our constant struggle is a struggle against culture, but at the same time entering into and incarnationally meeting that culture as agents of change against empire. I hope that gives you something to think about. I would love to hear more of your thoughts on this matter.
    Danny

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