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Beauty and the Beast and the Bible

Well, the latest version of the story of Beauty and the Beast starts today and I already know several people who are planning to see it ASAP.  For me, and my wife Peggy, we will probably wait until it comes out on Netflix before we see it.  I am guessing that retirees are not their primary audience and I am still not quite over the trauma of seeing Frozen a few years ago in a theater filled with little girls singing along on all the songs and even saying the dialogue along with Elsa and Anna.

But I’ve been reading all the reviews today – which are mildly favorable – and also two different reactions to the movie that started even before it came out and find that the movie, or at least the commentary on it, tells me something important about the Bible.  Let me explain.

One group of people reacting were Christians, Franklin Graham for example, who were outraged that an “openly gay character” was to be in the movie and called for a boycott.  I suppose “reacting” is not 100% accurate as this all happened before anyone actually saw the movie.  Is “preacting” a word? (Secular reviewers I’ve seen say that there are “hints” of a same sex attraction but nothing overt.)  In any event, this group is mobilizing to encourage us all to be outraged. One commentator called it a “gay movie.”

The second group that was “preacting” with outrage was those who are concerned about the abuse of women by male partners.  I kind of see their point.  I mean “boy meets girl, boy imprisons girl, boy verbally abuses girl, girl’s sweetness eventually changes angry boy” is not your usual romance.  Some advocates for abused women are also encouraging a boycott because it, as one advocate said, “glorifies domestic abuse.”

My guess is that neither of these boycotts will be particularly effective.  I also doubt that there will be many little girls who come out from seeing the movie and suddenly decide they are gay or come out yearning to be in an abusive relationship.

I’m not criticizing either group.  They have the right, perhaps even the duty, to speak up with their concerns.  But there is one thing that stands out.  Each group “saw” in the movie something that their personal and cultural background taught them to look for.  One, the culture warriors, interprets the movie as gay and the other, advocates for the abused, as abusive.  I can’t blame them, particularly abuse survivors.

But here is the question I have to ask myself, and other Bible readers – are we so very sure that we do not bring our own biases, our own cultural assumptions, and our own personal experiences into our reading of Scripture?  This is why I advocate (again and again) reading the Bible with humility and openness to be shown we might be wrong.  We all say we are open, but when was the last time any of us actually has admitted we’ve been reading scripture wrong?

Could it be?

It all started with this tweet about immigration policy from Rev. Al Sharpton:  “Before you head to church today, remember to thank God for his son Jesus, a refugee who fled to Egypt.”

This set off a huge firestorm of critics furious with Sharpton, including Fox News which said:  “There’s one problem though: Sharpton’s tweet is not exactly accurate, at least according to the Bible.”  Here is a sample of other critics:  “After all these years, Al Sharpton still doesn’t know his Bible!”

Here is what the Bible actually says in Matthew 2:13-14:  “When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. ‘Get up,’ he said, ‘take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.’ So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt…”  (Boldface mine)

Here is the dictionary definition of refugee:  “A person who has been forced to leave their country in order to avoid war, persecution or natural disaster.” (Boldface again mine)

It certainly seems to me that what Joseph, Mary and Jesus did exactly fits the definition of refugee.  Could it be that Sharpton actually read the Bible correctly?  Could it be that his critics freaked out because they just couldn’t stand that Sharpton may be right on an interpretation?

The larger issue is different though.  Could it be that the story of Jesus fleeing to Egypt was never intended to teach us the “correct” position on 21st century refugee issues?  Can there be a difference between what the Bible says and what the Bible teaches?  When we move away from explicit instructions/commands (i.e. “You shall have no other gods before me”) into shaping our principles on Bible examples we are doing something laudable but can we can’t claim we are inerrant as we do.

Jesus says…

I’m told that this week the Republicans are getting ready to roll out their replacement for the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare.  Already people are rushing to prepare defenses of and attack on the plan that they have not yet seen.  I saw an article by Dr. Roger Marshall, newly elected Republican representative from Kansas, why his state did not accept the Medicaid expansion that was included in Obamacare and why it is not needed in any replacement.  What caught my eye was the way he quoted Jesus:

“Just like Jesus said, ‘The poor will always be with us.’  There is a group of people that just don’t want health care and aren’t going to take care of themselves.”

Whether we “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act is a subject that is up for debate but I am rather annoyed to see Jesus being brought in to bolster Marshall’s case; particularly because his use of Jesus’ words is, well, wrong, wrong, wrong.   In fact Marshall only quoted half of a sentence from Mark 14:7 which reads as follows:

For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me.”  (ESV)

Clearly Jesus is not saying “don’t worry about the poor” he is saying that we can always be ready to help them; the opposite conclusion to that which Marshall gives.  But it gets worse.  As Mark (and Matthew who also records the statement) knew, and the people that Jesus was talking to knew, Jesus was actually quoting from Deuteronomy.  Here is Deuteronomy 15:4-11

“But there will be no poor among you; for the Lord will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess if only you will strictly obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all this commandment that I command you today. For the Lord your God will bless you, as he promised you, and you shall lend to many nations, but you shall not borrow, and you shall rule over many nations, but they shall not rule over you.

“If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be.  Take care lest there be an unworthy thought in your heart and you say, ‘The seventh year, the year of release is near,’ and your eye look grudgingly on your poor brother, and you give him nothing, and he cry to the Lord against you, and you be guilty of sin. You shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging when you give to him, because for this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.”  (ESV)

Note the verse in boldface.  Our English translations bend it slightly as they translate from the Greek and Hebrew in Mark and Deuteronomy but the phrase is the same.  The entire section is a command to care for the poor.

Should we do this through government programs?  If so, what kinds?  Or should we do this as individuals?  Through our churches?  What type of help do we give?  These are all good questions to debate.  If we want to come up with our own personal WWJD answer to these questions I think that is a good idea.  But if we insist on quoting Jesus we need to do it right.

Things I’ve learned at Bible study

Last night at our church’s men’s Bible study we came across this verse:  Greet one another with a kiss of love.”  I Peter 5:14.  After a short silence, followed by a little awkward joking we put our minds to it and were able to come up with an interpretation of the verse that didn’t require us to actually kiss each other.  This experience affirmed one of the things I have learned at Bible study, namely:

We are all capable of explaining why we don’t have to take literally any verse that makes us uncomfortable.

Here are a few more things I’ve learned at Bible studies:

Most evangelicals place a higher degree of importance on the New Testament letters, particularly those of Paul, rather than story or poetry passages.  This includes the life of Jesus.

We tend to interpret the latter through verses and books we see as theological teachings rather than those we see as stories or poetry.

Every once in a while we are all confronted with Biblical interpretations made by people who disagree with us that make sense.  This is very troubling.

It is at those times a nagging little voice in our heads wonders if we are wrong.  Fortunately it is usually easy to ignore that voice.

When someone says that “no prophecy of scripture is of private interpretation” what they usually mean is that any interpretation that disagrees with them is wrong.

I wish I could say I am immune to that but I am not.

I have an annoying habit of meeting intelligent, godly men and women who clearly love the Lord but differ with me on some theological points.

For example, I’ve met some incredible Christians who are young earth creationists, old earth creationists, and even a few theistic evolutionists who love the Bible, are serious about reading it, and live godly lives.  The same is true of issues like predestination, sign gifts, baptism, eschatology, etc.

One of the great joys of Bible study is when, after a spirited, even heated, debate that comes to no agreed conclusion you realize that you still love and respect each other.

Hard Work

My wife and I have been married more than 45 years.  Almost from the beginning we’ve been told that “marriage is hard work.”  I wasn’t comfortable with that phrase 45 years ago and I still don’t like it.  While it is certainly true that being married will mean that a significant portion of your time, emotions and energy will be devoted to your spouse and family; and while it will lead to actions and decisions that are vastly different from your old single ways, I feel that calling marriage “work” starts you off on the wrong foot.

When we call marriage work we create an unhelpful dichotomy.  We are effectively given two choices.  We can spend time, energy and emotions on the “work” of marriage; or we can breeze into marriage feeling that little or no changes in the way we live our lives are needed.  The choice presented is hard work vs. little or no work.  I can’t imagine anyone being naïve enough to believe that, at the moment they say “I do” their lives won’t drastically change.

Think of it this way; I know a lot of people who have significant hobbies.  Some love to rebuild and race cars, others love fishing, or singing in church choirs or with worship teams.  Still others enjoy travel or singing in barbershop quartets.  The list could go on.  To be good at any of these activities consumes time, money, and emotional energy.  Yet I don’t think I have ever heard someone say “fishing is such hard work.”  Simply put, when we really love someone (or something) whether we should put energy into it is the last thing on our minds.  Using a financial metaphor, the investment in a good marriage produces a rate of return untouched by anything in our world.

My thought spun to this last night in our Bible study.  We were looking at 1 Peter 5 and the discussion of elders.  We were told that being an elder should be assumed willingly, even eagerly, and not by compulsion.  Having been an elder in five churches I am well aware of the effort and emotions it takes and, yes, even some of the heartaches that come.  But I can’t help but think that what Peter was saying was “if you view this as work you are already in trouble.”

I tend to think that this applies to all Christian ministries, be it evangelism, serving on church committees, helping the poor, the elderly or ministry to children; or even serving behind the scenes on things like cleaning the church building.  It is hard work only if we compare it to doing nothing at all.

Peter, Jesus, Paul and the rest of the Bible introduce us to something entirely different.  We are given marching orders that the world had never seen and still has trouble understanding.  We are to be humble servants who trust in God to use all that we do in ways that please Him.  With this mindset we can not only avoid the burden of “work” but find that we can be shaped and changed to the better in ways that we’d never have imagined.

There are some young married couples in our church and just a short time ago another couple got engaged right in the morning worship service.  If I would give any advice to them it would be this:  Never think of all the time, effort and emotions you put into your marriage as work.  Think of it always as a life-long adventure with all kinds of peaks and valleys; and think of the partner God has given you for this adventure as your greatest treasure.

Both Sides Now

I saw this tweet last night from conservative commentator Ann Coulter, who considers herself a Christian, following yesterday’s press conference by President Trump:  “Trump is already head of state.  After that press conference, in my eyes, he’s now head of church.”

Responding to this, one Christian writer (admittedly a bit tongue-in-cheek) speculated that the “Left Behind” description of the Antichrist as a “deceitful ruler rising to power who would bridge the longstanding gulf between the United States and Russia, and would get religious people focusing their attention on himself instead of Jesus” fits Trump to  T.

I’m no Left Behind expert or enthusiast and I am not even sure that the antichrist (in the specific singular) can be proven from the Bible but it is odd that two people could come to such diametrically opposite conclusions.

Or maybe not.

I also saw these two post-press conference headlines:

  1. Trump sticks it to partisan press crop
  2. Trump press conference chaotic and full of easily disproven assertions

You could make a solid case to prove that both are right but it might also be that there were two press conferences and I missed one.

But I suspect that the real answer is that people will always read these things through their own biases and preconceived notions.

Except me of course; I am always objective and unbiased.  You probably are too, unless you disagree with me on these or any other issues.

Everybody Loves Lily

Well, you probably do even if you don’t remember her name.  Lily is the AT&T Wireless commercial spokesperson we’ve seen in ad after ad.  She is perky, enthusiastic, nerdy, a hopeless romantic and sometimes a little awkward.  She has done over 40 AT&T commercials. She was originally supposed to do one but people loved it so much that she has gone on and on.  Lily is almost like a member of the family.  She is that sister or cousin that everybody likes.

But do you think you’d like Milana Aleksandrovna Vayntrub?  She and her family fled Uzbekistan hoping to find religious freedom and asylum in America.  It was a long, multi-year process to get here because, contrary to what some believe, it never has been easy to come to this country as a refugee.  The screening always has been pretty intense.  I know because in my missionary days I worked on getting visas for Christians from other countries that wanted to work with us.  Even short-term tourist or religious worker visas took a lot of time and a great deal of screening; residence visas often took years.

I have to wonder if Milana, who you probably have guessed by now is the real person behind Lily, and her family showed up today how many of us would welcome her.   How many of us would view her with hostility and suspicion?

Beyond AT&T commercials, Milana has been active in trying to change the world; to help refugees like herself.  She is part of the “Can’t Do Nothing” movement that has inspired nearly a quarter million people to crusade for the rights of refugees around the world by using those AT&T smartphones to make You Tube videos of themselves helping refugees.  Lily would be proud.

I will let you in on a secret.  Not only is the American immigration process long and arduous, it is humiliating.  It is guilty until proven innocent.  It can be deliberately insulting just to see how you react.  While I have no problem making it more secure, particularly if we can make it more efficient, don’t make the mistake of thinking it is lax now.

As we work to better screen out the few who might do us harm, let’s not forget that there are thousands of Milanas out there too.