Tuesday, July 20, 2010

they tell me God hates puppies

If you had asked me as a little kid for the most well-known verse in the Bible, I would have quoted John 11:35, which states, simply, that “Jesus wept.” It’s the shortest verse in the Bible and therefore the easiest to remember. I had to memorize verses in Sunday School and I can remember thinking that if they were all like John 11:35, perhaps I would have a few more gold stars by my name. The Bible + Me = Laziness.

It is tempting, therefore, when I come across a really whacked-out interpretation of a Bible verse, to think that it has been translated that way because of laziness. For example, I was thumbing through a couple of “paraphrased” Bible references at the front of a Bible storybook someone had been reading to my son and I came across this little gem: “Jesus said, ‘God loved the people of the world so much that he gave his only son’” [emphasis mine].

Correct me if I am an idiot, but that seems an odd way to interpret what is, in fact, the best known Bible verse in the world—John 3:16. Odd, but not unsurprising in an evangelical church culture that puts a premium on their proprietary formula for “how to get into heaven.” In his essay, “Christianity and the Survival of Creation,” Wendell Berry points out that “people who quote John 3:16 as an easy formula for getting into heaven neglect to see the great difficulty implied in the statement that the advent of Christ was made possible by God’s love for the world – not God’s love for heaven or for the world as it might be but for the world as it was and is.”

This interpretation is directly at odds with that of Sally Lloyd-Jones, writer of “The Jesus Storybook Bible” that annoyed me into writing this piece. They cannot both be right, and while Berry’s version jives more closely with my own way of thinking, it is certainly at odds with what my childhood church subculture taught me to believe is the implicit meaning of that verse—that it is about getting into heaven and nothing else.

I decided to do some more digging and found that Lloyd-Jones is not alone in making explicit this message that is usually conveyed only implicitly. Her paraphrase is actually nearly a word-for-word transcription of that verse in the Contemporary English Version of the Bible, which is published by The American Bible Society (go figure).

So who is right: Wendell Berry—who is by his own admission not a Bible scholar, or the seething masses of American evangelicals? When John 3:16 says “world,” does it only mean “people of the world”? To answer that question, I turned to Facebook and asked former Oxford scholar and current friend Micah Snell, who informed me that the word “world” in that verse comes from the Greek, “kosmon,” which can be directly translated “cosmos.”

“Cosmos,” as the Oxford Dictionary tells us, is either an ornamental plant of the daisy family or “the universe seen as a well-ordered whole.” So unless we are willing to argue that God is really, really into a very specific sort of flower, the evidence would seem to point towards siding with Berry and the British against the Americans and their quaint little paraphrases.

While it would be conceivable to argue that “cosmos” includes “people of the world” and therefore the Americans weren't exactly completely wrong, to downgrade it in that way without any real justification diminishes the power of the verse and spits in the face of the wonderful mystery of the Bible by totally ignoring what Berry has called “the great difficulty” of the text.

This takes me back to the start, where I mused that mis-interpretations like this seem to happen because of laziness. Why, you might ask, does a little laziness matter—it’s just one verse, right? Well… yes, but it is the best-known verse in the world and, as Berry goes on to point out in his essay, our “Christian” subculture’s narrow reading of that verse has had widespread, ugly consequences.

For example, if God only loves the people of the world (or, as is more widely believed, only their souls-whatever those are) then it stands to reason that God does not give a rat’s left earlobe about, say, a rat’s left earlobe. Or a rat, for that matter… or the river that the rat is living on… or the ocean towards which that river glides. If God does not care about the earth (the thinking goes), then why should we? We are free to abuse that rat and river and ocean in any way we please. In essence, these people are messing with what the Bible actually says in order to justify abuse and destruction of the very thing God loves.

This irks me. You may now color me irked, for I am irked beyond measure. Not only are these malevolent marmosets making up despicable stuff and sticking it into the Bible, but they are also trying to teach this garbage to my kid. Here I am walking around telling my boy that Jesus is way cool and the Source of Love, and all the while there are these weasels twisting Jesus’ words—no, lying about them—to justify hatred and destruction. It’s embarrassing, depressing and infuriating; and, given the amount of money our ostensibly “Christian” country has made by trashing this planet, I find it impossible to attribute their misinterpretation of the best known verse in the entire world to mere laziness.

That’s right… I call foul. While it is understandable that a great deal of our culture will be transposed onto any text as we translate it into our own language, this goes far beyond a little cultural re-imagining. This is an ugly, ugly lie.

I can think of only one thing to do to correct this (beyond never, ever buying a Contemporary English Version).

Let’s stop reading the Bible as though it’s some sort of step-by-step mechanical engineering manual—the whole "Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth" thingy—and start reading it as it was written: a beautiful work of art, full of wisdom and truth, created in love to teach us important principles and help us draw closer to God. If we can approach the Bible with the sort of humble wonder we adopt (or at least, should adopt) when we experience art, perhaps we’ll stop reading into it so many of the ugly preconceptions of our culture and instead start experiencing the love that it can show us how to make. 

5 comments:

  1. I guess God's hatred of penguins wasn't nearly shocking enough. But God hating puppies? No...

    But in all seriousness, very interesting. I've never thought about this, and you make many good points. I have a feeling that the problem is rooted not so much in deliberate, devious manipulation of the Gospel, or even completely in simple laziness. After all, "people of the world" is much simpler to writer than just "world". I suspect it's the natural human-centric sentiment too many people have, as if God's creation is worth nothing at all apart from us. Obviously then, God couldn't be talking about anyone other than humans. Because we are the world, right? Right?

    Keep up the good work. I enjoy reading your blog. :)

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  2. EDIT: In my haste, I actually the wrote the opposite of what I meant.

    "People of the world" takes more effort to write than just "world".

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  3. Hey Josh,

    I must say that I am rather perplexed by this post in two ways. First, I happen to think Sally Lloyd-Jones and the folks who translated the Contemporary English Version of the Bible got John 3:16 right. You see, language is a slippery thing and the primary key to understanding what a writer intends by the words he uses is not found in a dictionary but in the context of the writing itself. As Jesus explains the nature of the kingdom of God to Nicodemus, he tells him that “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son,” but he doesn’t stop there. He goes on to tell him the purpose for which the Son was sent to the world – “that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Now I agree that there is much more to this eternal life thing than a ticket to heaven. But eternal life is the focus here, and it applies to “whoever believes in him”. The way I understand the world, rats, rivers, oceans, puppies and penguins do not have the capacity to believe in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the realm of humans – made in the image of God, tainted by sin, and the special recipients of God’s grace (Furthermore, if you check a Koine Greek lexicon you will see that the word kosmos has a rather broad range of meaning. BDAG has 8 entries for the word, one of which is “humanity in general.”).

    And now I come to the second source of my confusion. Even standing where I do on the translation of John 3:16, I really can’t figure out how you make the jump from “God loves the people of the world” to “God doesn’t care about the earth.” That just seems completely unwarranted to me. Are there American churchgoers who abuse the earth and call it their God-given right? Sure there are. Have you ever met one who used this verse as his excuse for that? I sure haven’t but I would be interested to hear if you have. The way I see it, this verse should not be used to combat earth trashing, but instead should confront another issue you have expressed much frustration over. I actually think that Christians should pay more attention to the fact that God so loved the people of the world. He didn’t send His Son because he loves the good and beautiful people of the world. No, he sent His Son for all people, which includes the dirty, unlovely, sinful, needy and broken people of the world. Those of us who claim to follow Christ need to take note of that and stop putting labels on people that allow us to define who we like and who we despise.

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  4. Thanks for the comment, Aaron.

    Even though I gotta admit I get suspicious whenever anyone says they are "confused" by what I write and then proceeds to tell me exactly where I'm wrong, I will take you at your slippery word :) and try to clarify.

    First, I think you're right that to understand intent you have to look at context. I also think that the manner in which you choose to go about interpreting context and the breadth of context that you bring to your reading will affect the way you read. I know I only quoted the first half of that verse, but it's not because I was unaware of the rest.

    See, from MY understanding of the world and the broader context of the whole Bible, I think you could also easily see the verse in its entirety as saying that God so loved the whole cosmos, that it seemed a frickin' shame to have these creatures that were capable of appreciating and enjoying that cosmos going out and abusing and destroying it instead. They were made for more than that, and God hated to see them living only a fraction of their lives.

    So because of this love, God put on human form and then showed people how to stop being idiots. It was ridiculous, the plan Jesus outlined, but it was the only thing that could work. Without unconditional love and self-sacrifice, it all eventually turns to hate. God did not need to do this for the animals, trees, or rocks because they were not aware of evil and destruction or capable of doing it. But they sure as heck suffered from it - groaned, in fact, for the day when people would stop hurting them with their evil.

    This is, of course, only me randomly spouting off whatever comes to the top of my head. I certainly wouldn't want anyone to start believing it.

    The difficulty we start running into, Aaron, is that when you throw out words like "sin" and "eternal life" and "made in the image of God" and "special recipients of God's grace" I feel like the implication is that you know what those things are and how they work. I do not, and don't think that I can. I see them as mysteries that make faith what it is - that make faith worthwhile. I try to figure stuff out because it's fun, but I also try not to take my conclusions very seriously.

    I guess another place where we're not likely to meet in agreement is that I am moving rapidly away from the idea that following Christ is about making a decision to agree to certain propositions. I think, rather, that it is about an infinity of decisions about a way of being - a process - a journey - and an indescribable mystery. I tend to think that to believe otherwise is to give pride of place to a very select group of people with a very specific set of circumstances over which they have no control. In my opinion, double predestination is the most internally consistent Christian worldview, and possibly the only way you can logically maintain such a "pride of place" while arguing that it doesn't make you any better than anyone else - but I also think it implies a pretty evil God... one that I am not particularly interested in following.

    contd...

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  5. Thanks for your comment, Aaron.

    My computer just ate my response to your first point, and I don't feel like re-typing it. As to your second point... Yes, I agree, it is a completely unwarranted logical jump. I thought about going further into it and looking up the technical name of the logical fallacy that such a jump commits, but it wasn't really my point. My point is not that they consciously make that illogical, fallacious jump, but that their actions inherently demonstrate that they have reached that conclusion. If the only thing that lasts is souls, they reckon, then souls are the only thing that matters - as if longevity is any indicator of real worth. This is stupid, but it is what they do - and it is how so many of them have justified the wholesale destruction of the earth that came hand in hand with the Industrial Revolution. I don't think it's in anyway a rational viewpoint - but people hardly ever appeal to reason when they're thinking about getting rich.

    Ramble, ramble, ramble. I doubt I cleared much up here. I smashed my finger with a wrench this afternoon and the pain of typing is addling my brain.

    I will add, finally, that although I think with your final point you are in fact saying this, but I want to make sure MY opinion is perfectly clear: I don't think there are any good people of the world - or evil people, for that matter. There are just people. Every aspect of every one of us is tainted by our selfish, fearful, greedy brokenness, yes. But every aspect of every one of us is also beautiful and wonderful and worth loving.

    I agree that this isn't necessarily the best verse to argue for earth care. It just happens to be one that I believe has been tainted by the wicked-dirty theology of poo-poo heads. But even if you and I never agree on that, I hope we can agree that it IS a wonderful argument for the fact that people - ALL people - are lovely and lovable.

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