newprotest.org: Cynical Theology

Cynical Theology

Stuff you didn't learn in Sunday School

I'm concerned that people often check their minds at the door when entering attending a church service, allowing whatever opinion the pastor preaches to soak in as gospel truth. This is problematic, because any two pastors will likely disagree on any two subjects in the text.

Generally speaking, my perspective on the biblical text is that it forces us into more questions than answers. It does not tell us how to live, but rather it instructs us on how to question life. And it's only in this place of curious yearning that believers are capable of seeking God and doing His will, whatever that may be.

It's the curious yearning that inspires me to write these posts that I refer to as "cynical theology." But in fact, there's nothing cynical in them at all. It only appears cynical to the mind that has closed itself to possibilties, to questions, to the notion of learning more. But this is not cynicism. This is the jovial side of me. I feel the greatest joy and greatest revelation when I discover that what I assumed to be an answer was actually a question waiting to be asked.

CAIN'S SACRIFICE

2015-10-03 18:08:09
by: jovial_cynic


SIN and SIN-OFFERING in the Old Testament are both translated from the same Hebrew word, chatta'ath. Every time in the Old Testament where the word is used, the translators needed to use context to determine whether to translate it as SIN or as SIN-OFFERING. This is odd, because we tend to define SIN as "bad thing" and SIN-OFFERING as "good thing." SIN is the offense, and the SIN-OFFERING is price paid for that offense – they appear to be opposites.

What deepens the complication is when translators disagree on the context.

Take for example the first time the Hebrew word, chatta'ath, is used. In Genesis 4, after Cain fails to offer a correct sacrifice, God speaks:

Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”
~ Genesis 4:6-7 (NIV)


The New International Version (NIV) Bible translates chatta-ath as SIN in this passage, as do many of the modern translations. When read this way, and pushed forward as doctrine, we have an image of a personal evil presence at our door, which crouches, desiring to have us, but we are instructed to rule over it.

This is a very common way of looking at the relationship between people and evil: evil is always in front of us, but we have to make good choices to stay in God's good graces. We must rule over any evil desires that present themselves.

In contrast, Young's Literal Translation renders it this way:

And Jehovah saith unto Cain, `Why hast thou displeasure? and why hath thy countenance fallen? Is there not, if thou dost well, acceptance? and if thou dost not well, at the opening a sin-offering is crouching, and unto thee its desire, and thou rulest over it.'
~ Youngs Literal Translation 4:6-7 (YLT)


If you can get past the old-English use of “thee” and “thou,” you'll notice that the YLT translators use SIN-OFFERING instead of SIN. If you understand SIN-OFFERING to be a lamb (in a nod to the sacrifice of the Lamb of God, Jesus), the image is not of an evil force that is crouching, waiting to pounce, but rather of a personal willing sacrifice, in the form of a lamb, physically waiting at Cain's door – an offering that God would accept alongside Abel's offering.

This carries such a different meaning, and provides much more grace than the SIN translation. When translated as SIN, the responsibility for maintaining God's approval lies on our shoulders. We must make good choices and rule over any temptation and sinful desire. But when translated as SIN-OFFERING, we have a picture of God Himself making a way out; the work of grace is made available at our door. God Himself provides the lamb.

So how do we reconcile the complete differences in meaning? Who is “right” in their translation?

I believe that a proper understanding comes from another way of looking at this Hebrew word. Chatta'ath perhaps should be read as “consequence of the offense.” Rendered that way, each instance of the word, whether translated as SIN or as SIN-OFFERING is quite clear: there is a consequence for disobedience. Either we carry that consequence ourselves, or the sacrifice carries it away from us.

When the New Testament says that Jesus “became sin” for us (2 Corinthians 5:21), there's some depth to that statement that is often missed in the English. (It is important to note that the Greek text uses a word for SIN [hamartia] that can only be translated as SIN, or OFFENSE. Some translations render this as trespass. But there is no dual meaning like there is with the Hebrew chatta'ath.)

Perhaps Paul, writing this letter to the Corinthians, understood that the Hebrew scriptures described a sacrifice that was necessary to cover the consequence of Adam's disobedience, and that Jesus Himself was that sacrifice. The sacrifice on the cross described both what Jesus did as well as who he was: the covering over Adam in Genesis 3, and the appropriate offering to God in Genesis 4, both provided by God Himself and acceptable to Him.

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OF LIKE MIND

2010-04-25 21:21:51
by: jovial_cynic

image: Fractal Blues (cc) Fábio Pinheiro

I've recently started playing my electric violin for worship services at my church. We've been attending Redeemer's Church in Reedley, California, and it's nice to be involved with another church that is interested in taking care of the poor, and whose leadership believes in challenging theological assumptions. It's comforting to worship with my music and spend time with people who share some of my theological perspectives.

Between the two services this morning, I chatted with some of the other members of the music team about last week's guest speaker, Bart Campolo (son of Tony Campolo, whose writings were the catalyst for the creation of this blog). One of the things that came out of that chat was the idea of a gospel message that's relevant to today's culture, and at the same time isn't trapped in today's culture. This idea was best illustrated when the band leader said that, when he was growing up, his Christian parents taught him that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was evil, on account of being black. The white-only culture in which his parents were raised dominated their worldview, to the point of poisoning the gospel message. The Christianity of his parents' time was so entrenched in the culture that it couldn't see past the expectations of white society.

It's really from this notion of cultural poison that post-modern Christianity emerged. Believers who gravitate towards an anti-establishment worldview look for a theology that's free from the constraints of relative cultural norms, while at the same time cling to the moral objectivity that's found in the scriptures. The post-modern Christian generally rejects limitations on expression of faith (electric guitars, tamborines, and interpretive dance are all acceptable), and "sinful" lifestyle choices are seen as a consequence of sin, and not simply isolated cases of sin themselves. For example, the post-modern interpretation of Romans 1:18-32 sees a people arrive at a normative view of homosexuality as a result of the rejection of God over a period of time; God's response to a culture who turns away from Him is to "give them over to shameful lusts." (vs. 26) While traditional Christianity tends to focus on the the individual's homosexuality, post-modern Christianty would suggest that rise of homosexuality is a symptom of a widespread cultural problem, perhaps starting with a previous generation of believers who failed to live by faith.

I tend to agree with the post-modern view on many issues. I will say, however, that there is a clear difference between an healthy post-modern Christianity and an unhealthy one. As one of the singers of the band said during our chat, we are just as susceptible to being chained by the norms of our post-modern culture as the people in the previous generation were to their own; the gospel of Christ has the power to be relevant to every generation, and it can also be rendered ineffective by every generation by our manmade traditions, theologies, and idols. It is critical that post-modern Christians see themselves as Christians first; that is our primary identity. If cultural expectations run against our Christian faith, our first order of business is to dump the culture; we don't redefine our faith to fit social norms.

A healthy post-modern Christianity sees a Jesus who eats and drinks with tax collectors and prostitutes, and sinners of all colors, Jews and gentiles alike. The Redeemer's Church community speaks to this, and I look forward to continuing to grow in this community.

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GOOD NEIGHBORS

2009-06-11 11:28:48
by: jovial_cynic

image: Neighborhood (cc) R. Cao

Carman, from Revolution, wrote this brilliant and cuts-to-the-heart post regarding the shutdown of a San Diego Bible Study group, which picked up nationwide attention.

The incident in San Diego where the authorities demanded that a home Bible study shut down because it was in violation of local codes has attracted nationwide attention. The last I heard was that the authorities backed down because of the firestorm that was created by their prohibition of the Bible study.

This Bible study was brought to the authorities' attention when neighbors complained about all the cars that were parked in the neighborhood by those attending the Bible study. It was far too congested as far as the neighbors were concerned.

I wonder if those who are hosting the Bible study have any healthy relationships with their neighbors. Do they host anything for their neighbors, like backyard barbecues, Super Bowl parties, birthday parties, etc.?

What would happen if all the people who were driving into this one neighborhood for a Bible study would start gathering with people in their own neighborhoods, developing friendships whereby some of their own neighbors might become interested in checking out the Scriptures together with them? One thing for sure, there would be no congestion or parking problems because everyone lives within walking distance of each other's homes.

Perhaps this San Diego incident is indicative of the mentality that is so predominate in western Christianity. We will travel miles to gather with other believers ensconcing ourselves deeper and deeper in our Christian bubble while ignoring our neighbors that live right in our own block. So how are we advancing God's kingdom on the geographical turf where he has placed us?


Brilliant.

It occurs to me that even when Jesus fed the 5,000, the disciples (good stewards that they were) did the job of cleaning up all the leftover food, which helped to ensure that a public outcry over molding bread and rotting fish never happened. Being a good neighbor seems to be part of Jesus' MO.

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ABSENT

2009-03-25 21:30:47
by: jovial_cynic

image: I wanna hold your hand (cc) batega

An old friend of mine recently posted a link to a youtube video on his facebook profile which posits the absurdity of a belief in an intangible God who appears to be perfectly absent.

Here's a link to the video. It's well done, actually, but I enjoy sarcasm.

The video includes all sorts of requirements for a deity to demonstrate its own existence -- stopping bad things from happening, having bad things happen to believers in a disproportionate manner, etc. Basically, the video provides a test of validity, and names the conditions of that test. This is fine, but given the nature of the relationship between God and those who walk with Him, I think that such a test is meaningless, much like the test one might use to "prove" one's love for another.

I love my wife. I can't prove it to her, but I continually try to demonstrate that I do. But in the same way that somebody can explain away God's plague of frogs on the ancient Egyptians as a freak natural occurrence, my wife can view my gift of assorted flowers as a self-serving act, meant only to be used as leverage for some favor; it wouldn't prove that I loved her. My words, my actions, my reactions... they could all be explained away as the result of physical and mechanical processes: chemistry, biology, and psychology. Likewise, my wife is quite capable of compiling a list of requirements for me to demonstrate my love for her (doing the dishes every day, folding all the laundry, changing every poop-filled diaper, etc., etc.)... but I could easily do those things without any sense of affection towards her. Her test of proof has no meaning; one cannot actually prove that they love someone else.

The proof requested of God to show his presence is identical to a request for proof that a spouse or friend demonstrate their love; God is love, after all.

So what does this test actually do?

I wonder if such requests for proof (impossible that they are to fulfill) are not actually a request for any such thing. Because the requester should be fully aware that such proof cannot be obtained, perhaps the request is merely seeking justification to disbelieve and to disregard. For example, the man who demands that his wife prove her affection for him, and yet remains dissatisfied at her every genuine attempt, does not actually seek her affection. He simply means to place her in front of an impossible challenge. The woman, in this example, mirrors the heart of God who pours out His love to a rebellious people who deny His very presence and His desire for them.

In the case of a healthy and loving relationship, this thing we call love is intangible. It cannot be seen, it cannot be touched. Yet we walk hand-in-hand with our spouses and loved-ones, connected by more than just the flesh that covers our bones - there is a sense of hallowed ground between the people involved. And walking with God is the same -- we are connected to our creator by this love, and it is in this love that we exist and find purpose. This love is the prime mover in the relationship, and we reciprocate that love with our actions. And yet... the actions themselves are not the proof of that love. They are simply manifestations of it.

Those who wish to explain love away as the simple turning of cold gears within the machine of the mind perhaps have never felt love's warmth. And for that same reason, they perhaps have never felt the presence of God. I don't doubt my wife's love for me, and I don't look for proof of it. Likewise, my God is not so absent.

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CHILDLIKE FAITH, CHILDLIKE DOUBT

2009-03-24 10:01:32
by: jovial_cynic


My oldest daughter is five years old. Because of her level of comprehension (stellar, as far as 5-year-olds go), my wife and I have made a conscious effort to pour a lot of reality into her head. We've taught her that there is no Easter Bunny, no Santa Claus, no Tooth Fairy, and in the process of doing so, we've taught her to be conscious of behaviors built around imaginary figures -- figures she can't touch or feel. While she still embraces imagination (we often play "adventure," which is basically like playing a tabletop role-playing game, but without the paper and dice), she's very good about understanding the difference between reality and fantasy.

This, of course, makes conversations about God rather strange. I can't help but think that the mental myth-filter we've instilled in our daughter to rule out Santa and the Easter Bunny can be applied to a deity she cannot touch and cannot see. And it's around this deity that we base much of our lives - we attend a church service, we facilitate a mid-week bible study, we pray regularly at home, and as one might expect, a crisis of belief eventually surfaced.

In our home, we are quick to apply some negative reinforcement around particular behaviors. One of the things we've been teaching our children is that lying is unacceptable, and that it merits quick and stiff consequences. In a recent event, our daughter exclaimed, "I asked God to help me to not lie, but it's hard, because I can't hear God!"

...

How do you explain the presence of an intangible deity to a child? Or to an adult, even?

Perhaps the way we read God's references to Himself in the text is enough. The text describes God as a rushing wind... as light... as a consuming fire. We can't see the wind, but we can see its effect on things. We can't see light, but with light, we can see the things around us. We can't hold a flame, but we can feel it when it is near. And while these don't "prove" the existence of God to anyone, for the ones who already believe, it accurately describes the way we relate to this God who eludes our senses.

So I explained to my child that God lets us lie. He doesn't stop us from doing things we shouldn't to do. Often, He lets us suffer the consequences of our actions so we will understand why our actions might be wrong. Sometimes, we have to see that our words and actions can hurt people. From that, we can learn to work towards strengthening relationships instead of tearing them down.

And in fact, the scriptures are not a summary of people who made good and moral decisions. It is not a book of righteous people; quite the contrary. It is a summary of God's relationship with people who make terrible decisions, and a demonstration of God's faithfulness in spite of their sinfulness. And that is the heart of the Gospel. And I think that's the heart of parenting as well -- we know our children will make poor choices, and we choose to care for them and love them unconditionally, regardless of those choices. And it's only in such a relationship that faith and trust make any sense. This is the childlike faith Jesus longs for from His people.

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2009-01-15: THE WOMAN AT THE WELL 2008-12-02: WISDOM FROM MOM 2008-10-14: RIGHTEOUSNESS 2008-05-30: THE LAST SHALL BE FIRST 2008-03-23: THE CREATION DICHOTOMY 2008-01-31: REVELATION OF CREATION 2008-01-17: FORMLESS AND VOID 2007-12-31: THE FIRST WORD 2007-12-20: BERASHIT, RE'SHIYTH 2007-12-18: IN THE BEGINNING 2007-12-11: THE ORIGIN OF THE SCRIPTURES 2007-12-07: THE NEWPROTEST TRANSLATION 2007-10-29: GOLDEN 2007-10-16: PREACHER FOR A DAY 2007-09-17: HALLOWED GROUND 2007-08-08: SONG OF CONFUSION 2007-08-06: A PERSPECTIVE ON SIN 2007-07-24: CHURCHES OF BABEL 2007-06-28: NATIONALISM AND CHRISTIANITY 2007-06-01: GOOD NEIGHBOR 2007-01-24: HOW STUFF WORKS 2006-12-24: KOMODO CHRISTMAS 2006-11-02: THE CHURCH AND THE POOR 2006-09-14: LIQUID CHURCH 2006-08-30: CORPORATE ABUNDANCE 2006-08-29: ABUNDANT LIFE? 2006-06-15: A CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVE 2006-06-14: FROM ONE AGE TO THE NEXT 2006-03-15: A DIFFERENT KIND OF JESUS 2006-03-08: MORE FREE-WILL NONSENSE 2006-01-17: THEOLOGICAL CONFUSION 2005-10-08: SILENCE OF THE WOMAN 2005-09-01: THE WICKED NATURE OF MAN 2005-06-09: LOSING SALVATION #2 (ADAM AND EVE) 2005-06-08: LOSING SALVATION #1 (JONAH'S STORY) 2005-04-06: HOLINESS AND HUMILITY 2005-04-02: SOMETIMES GOD KILLS 2005-01-18: RAPTURE 2005-01-18: LIGHT 2005-01-03: THE TRINITY 2004-11-16: HOMOSEXUALITY, POLITICS, AND THE CHURCH 2004-11-16: POLITICS AND THE CHRISTIAN 2004-11-16: MARIJUANA AND THE BIBLE 2004-10-19: PHARAOH AND ABIMELECH (GEN. 12 AND GEN. 20) 2004-10-18: ENOCH