Saturday Night Theologian
11 January 2009

Genesis 1:1-5 (first published 8 January 2006)

The alarm went off this morning, but I didn't feel like moving. I rolled over and thought about sleeping for a few more minutes. Although I didn't actually get back to sleep, I was lying in bed listening to the radio, when all of a sudden a bright light shone in my face. A cold front blew in yesterday, driving all the clouds and fog away, so when the sun peeked over the hill on the southeast side of my house, it blazed with a vengeance. Even shutting my eyes could not block the sun, and for a few minutes after I got out of bed, I could see dark spots before my eyes. The sunlight had driven away all the cobwebs of slumber that remained, and I was up and ready to face the day. In the creation story in Genesis 1, the first thing that God creates is light. There is no source of light specified, and the sun, moon, and stars are not created until day four; what is portrayed is just pure light, in and of itself. A scientific analysis of the passage might observe that light is composed of photons, which must have a source, such as a star, or perhaps the Big Bang, but the passage is not meant to be read scientifically. The light of the first day of creation is symbolic of knowledge, of life, and of goodness and order. Humans cannot see in the dark, but light illuminates our path. Light is also used metaphorically to designate understanding, as when someone "sees the light." Light is also necessary for life. Without light, green plants cannot photosynthesize, drawing energy from light and transforming it into nourishment. Similarly, people need light to live. The Old Testament concept of Sheol, the place of the dead, included the idea that it was a place of darkness. Perhaps most pertinent to the first chapter of Genesis itself, light represents goodness and order. The creation story is all about bringing order out of chaos, and the first item of business is separating light from darkness. And what is God's comment after light is created? God says that it is good. Light is not only good in and of itself, it also represents a time for people to be involved in good deeds. The Dead Sea Scrolls contain a document called the War of the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness, where the Sons of Light are those who obey the Law and follow God. Jesus told his followers to work now, while it is light, and he referred to himself as the light of the world. As the new year gets underway, we progressive Christians need to recommit ourselves to following the light and to reflecting the light. It is time to share our understanding of the world with those around us, even if our ideas are sometimes unpopular, all the while being open to learn from those with a different understanding. It is time to speak out for life, which means, among other things, standing against war, against the further desecration of the planet, and against all forms of injustice, which disproportionately target the poor and marginalized. It is time to talk about what is good, and even more it is time to do what is good. It's not enough just to speak against the darkness: we also need to speak for the light. Light is a metaphor for the divine glory of creation (cf. also the Nicene Creed, which speaks of Jesus as "Light from Light"), and we must commit ourselves anew to share the divine glory that we possess with others.

Psalm 29 (first published 8 January 2006)

I'm not the most organized person in the world, and a little bit of chaos doesn't bother me too much. However, I understand the need to be more organized, so much so that just about every year I resolve to become more organized: I'll keep up with my e-mails better, I'll grade students' papers sooner, I'll keep my office cleaner. What is the benefit of improved organization? If I am better organized, I believe that I'll get more done, be more efficient, and produce work of higher quality. The first day of creation in Genesis separated light from darkness, and the second day separated the dry land from the oceans. For people in the ancient world, the seas were an arena of chaos and turmoil. Yes, boats could be designed to sail on the surface of the water, but it was always a risky venture. Early sailors almost always stayed within sight of land, and even the great Polynesian explorers who sailed by the stars sailed in search of new lands to colonize; they abandoned the sea as soon as they could. When the psalmist says, "The Lord sits enthroned over the flood," he is describing a deity who is capable of subduing chaos itself. No storm, hurricane, or tsunami can disturb God's throne, nor can the ebb and flow of the tides. By placing the divine throne on the waters of chaos, God is doing something that humans cannot do: conquering the mythological chaos monster. There is a great deal of chaos in the world today, but unlike chaos in our personal lives, the chief cause of the world's chaos is not poor organization. The chief cause of the world's chaos is the refusal to see God as the source of true stability. When we rely on market forces (all too often a euphemism for greed) to solve the problems of poverty, we are sorely disappointed. When we think that we can end war by increased reliance on weapons and armies, we are tragically mistaken. When we think that drug abuse and child abuse and discrimination can be fought purely through legislation, we have it all wrong. The chaos in the world will not be solved by one nation or another flexing its muscles or by imprisoning greater percentages of people. The chaos in the world can only be conquered when God's people live their lives in accordance with God's will, sharing God's love with others, and standing against attitudes and policies that, despite supercilious religious rhetoric, are in fact demonic (i.e., specifically anti-God). The answer to the chaos that reigns around us is the God whose throne sits astride the waters of chaos.

Acts 19:1-7 (first published 8 January 2006)

I recently taught a course in church history, and I was reminded of how many wars throughout human history have been based on religion, or at least the pretext of religion. Wars between Christians and Muslims, Hindus and Muslims, Catholics and Orthodox, Catholics and Protestants, Protestants and churches of the Radical Reformation--when one-sided persecutions of Jews, Jehovah's Witnesses, various Christian groups, and members of other minority religious traditions are added, the list seems interminable. It's certainly intolerable. Although I'm a big believer in religious tolerance, I've come to the conclusion that any religion that advocates violence or repression of those who don't accept their specific tenets should be rejected by thinking, caring people as an illegitimate expression of religion. Furthermore, any religious tradition whose image of God suggests that God is in the business of killing those who reject a particular set of beliefs or principles is also illegitimate, at least in its image of God. Pat Robertson, who always seems willing to paint the most unflattering picture of both God and Christianity possible, suggested this week that God had afflicted Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon with a stroke because Sharon expelled Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip several months ago. (It didn't occur to Robertson that perhaps the reason Sharon suffered from a stroke was that he is 78 years old, and strokes are not uncommon in people of that age.) In critical ways, Pat Robertson's system of beliefs is more similar to that of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden than it is to that of many other Christians. All three worship a God who is eager to kill those who oppose them. None of the three is able to admit that he may not understand God correctly on important points. In sharp contrast to these narrow-minded religious zealots, note how Paul deals with a group with different religious beliefs. In today's reading from Acts, when Paul arrives in Ephesus, he encounters followers of John the Baptist. Paul talks with them and persuades them that John would want them to accept Jesus as the Messiah, and he baptizes them in Jesus' name. This is the approach that today's believers, of whatever persuasion, need to take in their dealings with people of other faiths. There is nothing wrong with trying to persuade someone of your firmly held beliefs, as long as your approach is respectful and honest. At the same time, we also need to be humble enough to realize that we might be able to learn something from people with different perspectives as well.

Mark 1:4-11

During the Second Great Awakening in the U.S., which began in earnest about 1800 with outdoor meetings on the American western frontier at places like the Creedence Clearwater Revival Church in Kentucky, tens of thousands of people flocked to hear preachers excoriate then for their sins. Masses of people publicly renounced their sinful pasts and vowed to live new lives with the help of God. It is impossible to tell how many of these "conversion experiences" had long-term effects, but it is evident that many did. The abolitionist movement had its roots in the Second Great Awakening, as did temperance movements, women's rights movements, Bible societies, foreign mission societies, and early efforts at ecumenism. Faced with challenges to their way of living, thousands responded by making sometimes difficult changes to their lives. The Gospel of Mark begins its story of Jesus' life by recounting the preaching of an early frontier preacher, John the Baptist. John challenged all who would listen to make radical changes to their lives in light of his expectation that God was on the verge of entering the world in a surprising way. According to Mark, multitudes of people responded to John's call and pledged to reform their lives. Several years ago Episcopalian bishop Shelby Spong issued a call for a new reformation among Christians, and others have since made similar challenges to Christians. I too believe in the need for a new reformation. Although the exact picture of what this new reformation should look like vary from person to person, all have a common starting point: repentance. Repentance requires an admission of sin or failure, followed by a commitment to positive change. Another word for this change of direction is conversion. I use this word in a specific way, not in reference to a once-for-all shift of direction but in reference to a change of perspective, belief, or activity that can occur multiple times in a single person's life as one's understanding of God and God's work in the world grows. The need for a new reformation is all around us, but one of the most compelling arguments in its favor, in my opinion, is the continuing state of war that exists in so many places around the world and, most appallingly of all, the support of many Christians for these various wars. I can think of nothing further from the central teaching of Jesus than an enthusiasm for war, and our continued support for the prosecution of war clearly demonstrates that Christians remain in need of serious repentance. Of all the world's conflicts, I can think of no better place to start than my making peace between Israel and Palestine. Radical Israelis and Palestinians seem to have taken charge of their respective countries, and chaos is the result. It is time for Christians to repent of past prejudices in favor of one side or the other in this conflict and work for a true and lasting peace. Among other things, such efforts should include suspending all arms deliveries to both sides in the conflict, insisting on a neutrally verified ceasefire of both parties, and the immediate shipment of humanitarian aid to those who need it. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a long-standing issue, and it will not easily be solved, but it must be solved, starting with this new year. A true conversion on the part of all who are interested in seeing peace is a good starting point.