Wednesday, July 13, 2016
My own introduction
I'm throwing my hat over the fence. On Saturday, I'm leaving for my sabbatical in Wisconsin where I'll be doing research for a book I'm calling Holding the Bible Hostage: How our culture shapes and distorts our understanding of the Scriptures (or maybe The Bible Held Hostage, I'm not sure yet). I've written about half of the first chapter, so I thought I'd post my introduction. Your feedback is welcome. I thought I'd call it "My own introduction" because instead of introducing the subject to the reader directly, I'm telling the reader the story of how the subject was introduced to me, with hopes that my interest will be shared.
The thin, red spine was only one centimeter wide and there was nothing written on it. But somehow, I happened to pull it off the shelf just far enough to see the title written in gold across the old red cloth cover. I saw “The Nazi . . .” which was an intriguing beginning for a book in the religion section. So I took it all the way out. The title read, The Nazi Christ. How can you put back a book like that? What in the world was a “Nazi Christ”?
I was floored
It was late on a Thursday night on the third floor of the Moody Memorial Library at Baylor University. I was there because I didn’t have any homework left to complete for Friday. Well before my Senior year, I had figured out that when I went to the library, I almost always ended up staying until closing time. I just couldn’t help it. And when I was there, it was usually on the third floor, browsing through the religion section.
I would wander down the aisles (typically BR through BX in the Library of Congress cataloging system), running my eyes along the spines of dusty old hardbacks and broken-spined paperbacks. When something would catch my attention, I’d thumb through the book. And when it had sufficiently engaged my curiosity, I’d sit right there on the floor and start reading.
It was there that I had essentially become an Episcopalian. I had been on an ecclesiastical pilgrimage of sorts since high school. As I was fulfilling my own personal pledge to actually read through every page of the Bible, I began to find that the words on the page didn’t always match up exactly with what I was had heard from the Baptist pulpit of my younger days (nor from the non-denominational pastors of the church I attended during high school). My church-shopping first led me to become a Lutheran shortly before I left for college, but I was still on a journey.
New questions about church order and apostolic succession parked myself in the ‘Church of England’ section of Moody Library many a night. I was particularly captivated by the collection of addresses given at the Anglo-Catholic Congresses of the 1920s and 30s. I was not your typical Baylor Bear. Although I am told that the first professor at the university back in the days of the old Republic was an Episcopalian himself.
When I came across this little tome on the theological proclivities of National Socialist Christians, I was again floored. It was only 53 pages long and except for the title page, looked like it was typed on a type-writer. It must have been a dissertation. I sat there on the cold linoleum, leaning next to books about Christians harassed by il Duce in pre-war Italy and books about the struggle of the church in Norway, turning page after intern-typed page. I am a slow reader and had only gotten about half-way through the book.
At 10:40, the lights began to dim and there was a call for final selections to be brought to the check-out desk. On November 14, 1996, I checked out The Nazi Christ and took it with me to my grandmother’s house in Shreveport, Louisiana over the Thanksgiving holiday break, where I read through it again. When I got back to Baylor, I checked it out again, finally surrendering it to the university in time for Christmas.
The Nazi Christ was written by Eugene S. Tanner, Ph.D. and published by Edwards Brothers in 1942. Dr. Tanner was an Assistant Professor of Religion at the University of Tulsa, a small Presbyterian college in Oklahoma. He wrote two other small books after this. What I didn’t happen to notice at first is that Tanner was essentially reporting on this new Christian movement in Germany that was reinterpreting the biblical Jesus as a non-Jewish figure of Nordic myth—a German savior for the German people. It was not a sensational exposé (though the topic was no less sensational) but a very timely and scholarly contribution. All but one of the sources Tanner used had not been available in an English translation.
At the time (1942), The United States was just entering World War Two and Germany was at the height of it’s strength. The Axis powers had yet to stall and it looked like even if there were no thousand-year Reich, Nazism would at least dominate the life of Europe for generations to come. Tanner was documenting what looked like the wave of the future.
What had me floored was my introduction to the concept that faithful Christians in Nazi Germany would have their own version of Christ. I was fully aware that Germany was what one would rightly call a Christian nation both before and after the war (as were all the other nations of Europe). And I was also quite aware that both the major sects of German Christianity, Lutheran and Catholic, were characterized by an anti-Semitic strain that was both pervasive and commonplace.
But I had always blithely assumed that the truly rabid anti-Semites, the really serious Nazis, were Christian in name only. They would have been those who were irregular church-goers at best, those who were not converted in their hearts, those who were cultural Christians, those whose interest lay much more in politics and nationalism than in the worship of the Jewish God-man.
Well I was right about one thing. They were in fact cultural Christians, but not what I had in mind. Tanner was introducing me to the real-life example of sincere Christian believers whose beliefs were shaped, even distorted, by the culture around them.
These were not Christians who rarely went to church on a Sunday. These were Christians who were in church every Sunday, who took up the offerings, who ran the Sunday Schools, who served on governing boards, who were the pastors and theologians of the German Christian Movement.
It still seemed rather baffling. How could people be so blind? How could people who read their Bible and knew their Bible have such unbiblical views. With the extreme nature of Tanner’s subject, we need not kid ourselves. This was not a simple matter of interpretation. This was a matter of people being totally blind to words on a page printed in black and white.
After all, how could a body of believing Christians accept the biblical concept that God revealed himself to Abraham and his descendants, chose the Hebrew people as his own, gave them a land of promise, miraculously rescued them from slavery in Egypt, established them as a nation, dwelt in a Temple in Jerusalem, and then became incarnate as a Jewish man to be the Savior of the world . . . How could they believe all that and have anything to do with Nazi ideology or with Hitler, much less a final solution to the Jewish “problem”?
It boggles the mind. How could anyone grasp such an obvious contradiction? It was no wonder that Tanner’s first chapter was titled, “The Nazi Christ is Rescued from Judaism.” He went on to describe how the anti-establishment part of Jesus’ story was played up and his heritage was ignored. Some even speculated that he had a Nordic lineage to make the Savior seem more identifiable to German people.
Jesus repudiating the hypocritical Scribes and Pharisees became the first person speaking anti-Semitic truth to power. Jesus over-turning the money-changers in the Temple became the first anti-Semite chasing those dirty, greedy Jews out of God’s sacred place. Once the spotlights start to hit their marks and the misdirection and skipped passages take root, you can see how the transformation took place. People followed the misdirection because they were already pointed in that direction to begin with. They were directed by culture before they were misdirected by fraudulent teachers. People will find what they expect to find. More than that, people will see what they want to see and hear what they want to hear.
Jesus was a problem to the authorities in his own day, as he has been in every age. They thought they had done away with him by crucifixion. Tanner concluded his book with the thought, “The crucifixion was only the first in a long series of devices by which the Western world has attempted to be rid of Jesus . . . the most subtle of these devices has been reinterpretation.”
It’s not just other people
Our Wednesday Bible study in Comanche was an intimate little group of half a dozen regular attendees. We had been discussing for some time what we would study next. No ideas seemed to stand out. I said I’d think about it over the summer break.
Every January, the clergy of the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth have a silent retreat at the Montserrat Jesuit Retreat Center north of Dallas. At the 2009 retreat, led by the later Father Ralph Walker, I had picked up Pope Benedict’s book Jesus of Nazareth from the on-site bookshop. It was the first of three volumes. This one covered the story of Jesus in the gospels from the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry at his baptism up to his transfiguration on Mount Tabor. I started reading while I was on the retreat, but I didn’t pick it up again until the summer.
It seemed like a perfect book to use as a guide for our little Bible study. It was essentially a guided tour of the gospels. I suggested it to the others and we took it up that Fall.
I’m not sure how far into the book I’d gotten during the retreat, but it was surely past page 15. And it was not until the second time through it that I found myself “floored” once again. When we looked at the book as a group, the passage on the baptism of Jesus leaped off the page because I noticed something that I had seen many times before, but never really noticed. Even though the Holy Father brought attention to it, that detail went right past me the first time around.
Speaking of John the Baptist, the Pope explained that Mark “reports that ‘there went out to him all the country of Judea, and all the people of Jerusalem; and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins’ (Mk 1:5). John’s baptism includes the confession of sins. The Judaism of the day was familiar both with more generally formulaic confession of sin and with a highly personalized confessional practice in which an enumeration of individual sinful deeds was expected.”
“. . . confessing their sins.” My cognitive process was interrupted by a hiccup that jarred my gray matter. Prior to that moment, I had read or heard something different than what was on the page. When Mark 1:5 came to my ears or eyes, what went through my brain was not “confessing their sins,” but rather “confessing that they were sinners,” or perhaps “confessing their sinfulness.”
How could I have missed this detail for so many years? I checked different translations. I checked the Greek text. The problem was not on the paper; the problem was in my head. I saw and heard what I expected to see and hear. Because my culture was that I had grown up as a Baptist. And sermon after sermon in that theological tradition had concluded with an altar call and the sinners prayer. I knew by heart that what precedes baptism was the conviction and confession, “Yes Lord, I am a sinner.” This was step one of conversion.
Even after several years in a new theological tradition where private, sacramental auricular confession before a priest was not just an accepted norm but something I practiced myself, it had not sunk in to the point where my cultural formation could recognize the plain words of Scripture. It never would have even occurred to me that the penitent and remorseful Jews wading into the Jordan River to be baptized by John would not merely have confessed their sinfulness and acknowledged their need for God’s forgiveness and mercy, but actually confessed the misdeeds they had done, transgressing the revealed will of God as written in the Law of Moses.
It was right there in black and white and it had been there all along. People will find what they expect to find. More than that, people will see what they want to see and hear what they want to hear. It was not just other people. I had done the same thing.
The parallel text of Mark 1:5 is Matthew 3:6. They both say the same thing, that the people were baptized by John, “confessing their sins.” Matthew 3:6 is read on the Second Sunday of Advent in “Year A” and Mark 1:5 is read on the Second Sunday of Advent in “Year B.” Which means that I had heard this passage in church at least ten times during Sunday worship (not to mention all the times I read or heard it outside of Sunday morning) and had even preached on the texts at least twice, possible three or four times. I had earned a four-year Bachelor of Arts in Religion and a three-year Master of Divinity degree. I had been ordained a priest and taught the faith to newcomers and those who had grown up in the church. And I didn’t notice what the Bible actually said for the first seventeen years after being a Baptist—the summer of 2009.
The discovery of the way that culture had shaped and distorted believers of the German Christian Movement gave me an awareness of how this is possible, but the personal experience of my own culture blinding me to a quite straightforward biblical passage got me thinking about how common this phenomenon really could be. Was this the paradigm that addressed the divergences in faith an practices among different Christians, not even just between churches but within the same church? It seemed to fit all the hot-button, controversial issues that have confronted Christians and their churches.
How was it that Bible-believing Christians could be slave-owners? Or supporters of segregation? Or not see a moral problem with abortion? Or support the ordination of women? Or think that faith was an energy field once could harness to create wealth and power? Or not object to the redefinition of marriage? Or accept the idea that one could be “born into the wrong sex”?
This book is my exploration of that very question—of how our culture shapes and even distorts our understanding of the Bible.