Sunday, 20 December 2009

Bad sex?

A church in New Zealand has got itself into hot water with a poster about Mary and Joseph: .

What strikes me is that it doesn't deny the Virgin Birth, as I would, but it asks questions about it. There's nothing wrong with that; as Thomas Aquinas said, God is not the answer, but the question. I suppose the conservatives would get upset. I don't understand the mentality, but to them, it's de rigeur to be offended by any questioning of religious tradition. But questioning is good. As St. Paul said, 'Test everything, hang onto the good'. If we don't ask questions, how can we sieve the good from the bad in our traditions?

We don't know anything directly about Jesus. He didn't write anything down himself that we know about, and if he did, it has not come down to us. Unlike Muhammad, nobody recorded eyewitness testimony about him; claims that the Gospels were written by eyewitness hang on special pleading and dubious interpretation. Rather, we have what some sections of the church chose to record about him a generation or two after his death. Not suprisingly, they disagree. Matthew makes him a strict Jew, insisting that every least bit of the Law [of Moses] should be followed strictly, as they interpreted it. Despite Matthew's loathing for the Pharisees, his Jesus always seems to agree with them on legal matters. Mark, on the other hand, makes Jesus abolish the food laws, and Luke is so eager to whitewash the Romans that he blames the Jews for everything. The evangelists were men of their time and place, wtiting for the diverse needs of their own communities.

That doesn't mean we shouldn't take what they say seriously. If the church wants to call the Bible a holy book - even presume to call it 'the Word of God', whatever that means - then we need to take it ultra-seriously, even the bits we don't like and don't read. It is, after all, the only witness we have to the origins of church traditions. If we want to claim that Christianity has some basis in history, then that is where we have to begin. But let's drop the practice of taking selected snippets, ignoring the diversity of the Bible's witness, and insisting that traditional interpretations are 'what the Bible says' and have to be 'believed'.

How many people out there believe that infanticide can be a blessed thing? It's there in the Bible (Psalm 137), doubtless as the witness of a community which remembered Babylonians killing their kids during the sack of Jerusalem. We can take their despair and grief seriously without making infanticide a religious duty. Why can't we be as mature in our handling of the rest of the Bible?

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