Notes from the Balcony

Ongoing comment and dialogue on being a new church in a new world - A Blog by John Montgomery

[The Bible] is not, for a start, a list of rules, though it contains many commandments of various sorts and in various contexts. Nor is it a compendium of true doctrines, though, of course, many parts of the Bible declare great truths about God, Jesus, the world and ourselves in no uncertain terms. Most of its constituent parts, and all of it when put together (whether in the Jewish canonical form or the Christian form), can best be described as story. This is a complicated and much-discussed theme, but there is nothing to be gained by ignoring it. - N.T. Wright

Friday, September 5, 2008

Community Organizing

Recently a colleague of mine pointed out that in the coverage of the Republican convention, how utterly homogeneous it appeared. Actually, one explanation is that all those Blacks, Latinos, Asians and youth are all there, it is just that perverse liberal media that keeps the cameras from revealing their presence. I did see two black men and one black woman. There was one Asian man but I really did not see anybody obviously Hispanic. I am sure they were there.

Not much else needs to be said. I will be glad when our two candidates actually debate each other. Maybe we can move beyond the cute side shows.

The most telling event of the evening was both Giuliani’s and Palin’s apparent ignorance about the time honored strategy of change and empowerment represented by community organizing. I will say much more in a future post. Needless to say, community organizing is about all those people who were not present at the Republican convention tonight. So I hope everybody had a great laugh. It’s one reason; I can’t and won’t vote Republican. It is the reason that tonight I made another donation online for Obama’s campaign.

Perhaps, a little background will help here. In the late 80s, following my graduation from seminary, I was hired as the Executive Director of the Institute on the Church in Urban-Industrial Society (ICUIS) in Hyde Park. I hope to come back to this work soon and talk about some of my research, but I thought I would share a paper written by young Obama on the subject of community organizing. Maybe if Giuliani had read the paper, he wouldn’t have looked so elitist tonight.

During the four years I was director of ICUIS, we focused on documenting a new trend in the traditional community organizing strategies of persons like Saul Alinsky and the work of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF). During that time, I was able to do research on the more than 100 ‘congregation-based community organizing efforts” across the country and publish several studies. In Chicago, one of the key groups facilitating such organizing was the Gamaliel Foundation that helped organize The Developing Communities Project and GREAT on Chicago’s Southside.

Obama was right in the middle of these efforts. And it is his instinct as an organizer that makes me so interested in his candidacy. I have paraphrased his comments more than once where he says, “What people don’t get is that it is not about me, but it is about we.”

That is a community organizer talking.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Olympic Trials

Does Wesley’s notion of going on to perfection include taking three-tenths of a second off my 50 meter freestyle personal best time?

The drama that went on in Omaha during this past two week period of Olympic swimming trials is ridiculous. Because of the inherent inequality present in the challenge of becoming an Olympic team swimmer – i.e. the competition only comes every four years, there are only two entries per event per country (even if the four best swimmers in that event all come from the same nation) - while in truth it is a marginal competition, world championships are twice a year – short course and long course, if you win, you are queen or king of the world. Money, endorsements, job opportunities – all are irrationally linked to making this team.

Our family has been there and our hearts go out to those who competed this year. Four years ago, our friend Peter missed the team by two one-hundredths of a second. Four years later, hours of grueling practice and intense visualizations later, several short course world records and medals later, it just wasn’t his day last Tuesday night. What was that phrase? …”the agony of defeat!”

Brendan will make the team swimming the 100 breaast. But he has been on the stage for seven years, chasing Kitajima from Japan for the number one spot in the 200. But they won’t have their final show down this time in Beijing. Last night, Brendan came in fourth. The two slots went to his training partners at Texas. Our friend Eric will swim.

I grieve Brendan’s loss and lost opportunity, but I cherish Eric’s victory. Eric and my oldest have competed in that event since they were 7 years old. When Tim was 16, he was junior national champion. For all practical purposes though, he retired after earning the title. That was ten years ago, Eric is still there. Of course, today we got the word that one week before the trials he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. What a slap in the face after 19 years of training for this brief and shining moment. He's going to be okay, and I expect that he will both swim in the Olympics and beat the disease as well.

Eric is not the only one fighting cancer this year. Marin Morrison grew up impressing people early on here in Atlanta. Everybody expected her to go far in this sport. Then four years ago, she was identified with a brain tumor. After three resection surgeries, she was left paralysed on one side and given six months to live. A doctor from the Make a Wish people offered her a trip to China. She declined and indicated that she would earn her own way. She did! This summer Marin made the Paralympic team. She has had a bit of a set back as she had to do another surgery but she is building her strength and with God's help she will swim in Beijing.

We know so many of these kids – my youngest, Matt, who now coaches never fails to tell his aspiring swimmers that he almost beat Michael Phelps once – that is when they were both nine!

Apparently this year is going to be Katie’s show. Brian won’t win, but he came in 7th. Aaron and Ryan who have been trading places on top for 15 months now, both now share the world record. That is cool.

Kids? It used to be about age and youth. Remember 14 year old Amanda clutching her Teddie Bear on the deck at Atlanta. She’s back! Youth – right…maybe it's not so important this time. Dara Torres made her fifth team by winning the freestyle. She is a 41 year old mother with a kid. Gary Hall, Jr. is still in the mix. He won’t win this time around, but he made the top ten.

I hate it all. It's raw intensity squared. But I will not miss a story or a minute of the coverage.

Does G-d care who wins? Or, is it simply that at least one person does win? Is it the glory that accrues to the individual competitor or the spirit of the games that is important?

Does G-d care which country earns the most medals? American hegemony is a fading story. Am I not just as glad that the Kenyans will once again win the marathon?

Is this about the testing of each individual, or perhaps the testing of us all – our human potential? So when we compete, do we do this on behalf of everybody? When we cheer for the winner of a close race, are we cheering for the human race?

Does Wesley’s notion of going on to perfection include taking three-tenths of a seconds off my 50 meter freestyle personal best time? I know, Wesley’s notion has to do with the perfection of love, but does “being all that you can be” not have something to do with love and respect and integrity and celebration of creation?

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Standing for the Gospel

So does your congregation stand for the reading of the Gospel?

A friend who knows that I am interested in this subject put me on to this wonderful video. Enjoy! They do!

Now most of us Methodists don’t do a formal “Gospel Procession” as part of our worship, although they do one at Duke Chapel each Sunday morning. Most of us are Episcopal light (as in not heavy, as opposed to dark!)

At the same time, a lot of us have embedded in our morning worship a series of lectionary readings – sometimes three, more likely two. Following the assigned morning texts, they begin with a reading from the Christian Old Testament (not the Jewish Tanakah), followed by a reading from either a Pauline epistle or one of the later writings, and then usually we have a reading from one of the four Gospels (Gospel as in literary type).

At Glenn Memorial where I attend, we usually only do two readings, but clearly, if the second reading comes from one of the four gospels, the congregations stands. If our second reading does not come from one of the four "gospels," we seem a bit confused!


The Lutheran website that talks about this liturgical element in our worship describes the ritual as a gesture of respect, but don’t the other texts need similar respect?

Are those four texts privileged? You would not be surprised that a study of Christian responses to that question yield at least two different answers. Some say yes, the rest of the texts are commentary. Others, ofttimes the same author says, no, in the Christian Bible, all texts are potentially a vehicle for the gospel. Paul clearly talks of his teaching as the gospel, probably 20 years before Mark is written.

I prefer the latter. My current fantasy is that at the time of the second reading, our pastor will say the following, “Please stand for the Gospel reading taken this morning from the book of Exodus.”

To make things worse, in my mind, our last pastor reserved the Gospel reading for clergy! No way….

Now those who know me understand that the real reason behind these comments is my suspicion that there lurks a subtle assumption that Christianity supersedes Judaism and post-holocaust, most of us find that doctrine an abomination. Still, every morning, we begin with a reading from the OLD testament before moving to the NEW testament and then we eventually liturgically climb up the stairs of the temple to exalt the Gospel. Now don’t get me wrong, I am a Christian and for me Jesus is the key source of my understanding of the Word of God, but what that means practically is quite another question.

This all got brought to a head this week because our pastor preached on the Isaiah text and the second reading came from Psalms. So when we were ready to stand, instead we just sat there.

I’ve got two ways of dealing with this. First, why don’t we stand for every reading? Second, perhaps we should put the main reading for the day in the first position and follow-up with one or two related readings. During Advent, we experimented with the key text of the day functioning as the call to worship. I likes that model, it set the tone for the whole experience of worship.

So, what do you think? There is more where this came from…..I will be back.

Friday, March 14, 2008

A Parable

The advent of the American Idol Top 12 and the first season when selections from the Lennon-McCartney songbook are available for performance, reminded me of a parable.

There once was a young man named Paul, who played his guitar backwards. He fingered his chords with his right hand and strummed the strings with his left. Many, who saw him, said that this was wrong. It says in the instruction manual that one should hold the pick between the right hand thumb and the first forefinger. Some said that we all know that a guitar should be tuned according to E, A, D, B, G, E notes on a scale and in that order. Some pointed out the fact that musicians had been holding their guitars in this fashion since the guitar was created. Soon, an impasse was reached.

Paul was kicked out of the band and the Beatles never happened!

Let those who have ears to hear.....

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Being Honest About the Bible, Pt 4 - Reliable Sources

Reliable Sources

I think I got my first personal copy of the Bible when I was in fourth grade. I still have it although now the copy generally sits on a shelf. It served me well through high school. In college I bought my first Oxford annotated. Later, I was introduced to JB Phillips translation and somewhere in those years I first met Clarence Jordon and his Cotton Patch renditions of the Gospels. In the 80s, I was first introduced to the inclusive language lectionary. I was in seminary before I got my first copy of the Tanakh. Frankly, I didn’t even know it existed, which is sad, but bespeaks of the general lack of Bible knowledge among most Christians.

All this is to say that scripture is very important to me. While my training per se during graduate school years was in theology and not Biblical studies, as I grow older I return more and more to the classic texts. I am struck how in the gospels, the religious leadership of the day keeps asking Jesus, “by what authority do you teach what you teach” and I am constantly asking myself the same question. At the same time I am constantly amazed at what my study finds and I love to share those learnings.

One recent comment about a post concerning the continued discrimination in our denomination against our LGBTQ sons and daughters, friends and colleagues was quite telling. He (am I surprised that it came from a man?) said, “Those pro-gay (interesting label) forces see the Bible as un-reliable.”

He’s got that right! At least sort of…

Concerning the discernment of the sinfulness of sexual identities other than straight folks, the six odious verses don’t further the conversation one bit and they become repeated justifications for very negative behavior.

Frankly, I am simply not willing to causally ignore the findings of the American Psychiatric Association, the witness and service of GLBTQ people, and the emerging consensus in mainline academic and ecclesiastical circles.

There are many places where the Bible is un-reliable. Just as there are several approaches to its interpretation that are un-reliable as well.

The Bible is not a helpful place to learn about “the birds and the bees.” Folks who wrote the Bible had not a clue about sperm and eggs. Babies were planted just like barley. The man’s seed was sown into the woman’s womb and you waited until the harvest! If no heir was produced, it must mean that the woman’s field was barren. No hint that the man’s sperm count might be low, it is all her fault. So, it’s time to sleep with your slave girl!

The Bible is apparently not a very reasonable source for understanding the details of the “historical Jesus.” One might think that such a quest would be important. We know more about Paul than we know about Jesus. Albert Schweitzer, in his famous study on this subject more than 100 years ago examined all of the various “lives of Jesus” published at that point in the academy and he reached the conclusion that the portraits looked a lot like what the authors wanted to find in the first place.

Who is Jesus’ grandfather? Luke says Heli, Matthew says Jacob!

I’ve been doing a study on the Gospel of Mark. It is on hiatus for a while as I do additional research. But I will be back soon. Geography is very confusing in Mark. Jesus and his entourage travel across the lake. They put into shore and they step onto solid ground at the Geserene cemetery. The problem, of course, is that the territory is really thirty kilometers inland. That is a pretty big step. I find it interesting that the translators of the King James Version of the Bible dealt with this anomaly by simply re-naming the town, the territory of the Gaderenes.

So if you really want to learn about who the Pharisees were and what they believed, you might want to go to a different place than the gospel accounts which are at best caricatures.

Hebrews is not finally the place to figure out the Jewish temple systems, for what one finds there is polemics.

So…must we jump to the conclusion that scripture is completely un-reliable? Completely useless? Mere fable? I’ve not heard anyone saying such a thing, at least not in the progressive circles to which I relate.

But isn’t it fair to say that if we don’t take it all as true, then we can’t take any of it as true I don’t think so.

I would hope that the motto guiding the studies that emerge on this blog and the conversations that follow would be in Reinhold Niebuhr’s words, that We Take the Bible Seriously, But Not Literally. Anglican Bishop and noted Evangelical scholar, N.T. Wright, has this to say about the Bible.

[The Bible] is not, for a start, a list of rules, though it contains many commandments of various sorts and in various contexts. Nor is it a compendium of true doctrines, though, of course, many parts of the Bible declare great truths about God, Jesus, the world and ourselves in no uncertain terms. Most of its constituent parts, and all of it when put together (whether in the Jewish canonical form or the Christian form), can best be described as story. This is a complicated and much-discussed theme, but there is nothing to be gained by ignoring it.

Our children sing (and I hope we join them singing), “Tell me the stories of Jesus.” I take this to mean, not only the stories of what Jesus did that the hymn begins to describe, but the stories that Jesus told like the “Good Samaritan.” I would also add the stories that Jesus was told as well. Why do you think he went “awol” from his family on the trip to Jerusalem when he was 12 years old? He wanted to hear the rabbis make arcane arguments about legalistic stuff? Right - or did he really want to hear about the heroes of faith and learn about their great deeds?

That tale in itself is an interesting story. The gospel writers don’t tell us what happened when Jesus and his family got home, they just said that in the future he did get taller and he developed more wisdom than was exhibited on that first bar mitzvah trip.

The relationship between the oral and written tradition is complex, but many scholars have pointed out how the written texts reflect oral strategies. For example, the Synoptic passion narratives with their repeated sets of three scenes represents well known story telling formats.

I have heard people quote 2nd Timothy more times in my last six months on 7 Villages than I have heard it referred to in my last several years. Scripture “is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” Of course, this was not about the Bible as we know it, but Paul was voicing a general consensus that these more widely accepted texts are pretty helpful. I don’t disagree.

There has been some squirming lately, when one points out that what is in our canon is there because of a series of votes. I am not interested in re-opening that question. But it is important to remember that the canonical list represents the minimal resources, not the only texts that a congregation should own.

We are learning how the non-canonical materials also help us to understand more fully the canonical materials. For example, I find it interesting that the new Judas text seems to raise questions about the practice of constantly seeking martyrdom in the early church. In today’s world, we might be all advised to reflect on the argument that is presented.

In truth, while there was a series of votes. We all cast our votes for what has been called the “canon within the canon,” i.e. key texts that we use to interpret other texts. Luther considered Paul’s letters central. He put Hebrews and Revelation at the end, because he thought they were flawed. Wesley voted for “the Sermon on the Mount.”

And finally, we add our vote to the consensus every time we pick up a text and seriously study it.

But back to where we started, didn’t Paul condemn homosexuality?

Well, Paul is a pretty uptight guy. He seems to condemn anything other than the missionary position. But, scholars who do serious theology not pseudo researchers who spout ideology tell us that Paul is not talking about the issue as we know it today.

What I find interesting about Paul is less about his concrete advice to congregations and more about the story of his struggle to affirm that Gentiles might actually be considered righteous. Stanley Hauerwas spoke at a conference on Wesleyan theology several years ago that I attended. Late one night, we were sitting around and the question of homosexuality came up. Hauerwas told the informal group that in spite of all the supposed Bible sanctions, the one thing he could not do was to ignore the witness of gay and lesbian Christians that he encountered.

It seems to me, that Paul is in the same boat. In spite of what tradition says about righteousness, he can not ignore the faithful witness of the Gentile brothers and sisters he encounters, so in his treatise in Romans, he finds a way to re-image scripture.

If Paul were writing today, might he not say in addition to his belief that in Christ, there is no Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free? Might he also say in Christ there is no gay or straight?

Sallie McFague has written many fine books, but her first one Metaphorical Theology continues to be, for me, a place to return over and over again. To talk about the narrative character of scripture is to affirm the insight drawn from literary scholar’s work with metaphors that suggests that religious discourse uses myth and poetry to communicate ideas and truths that can not be communicated with simplistic literal conversation. Myth is not less truth, but more truth.

McFague’s model suggests two criteria that inform our discussion of metaphors (and in their extended form, narratives) in scripture. First, our religious stories and images can become idolatrous. Given that metaphors always include both a yes and a no – for example, war is chess – yes, it requires complex strategic thinking to win and no, chess is just a game, war is not – our metaphors deteriorate when they are assumed to be literal. The ongoing discussion of the fatherhood of God is a classic example.

The second criterion has to do with the danger of irrelevancy, i.e. they no longer speak in changing times. When particular metaphors take on a sort of hegemony, they can become dangerous. The reduction of women’s functionality to propagation, the subsequent solitary raising of the next generation and housekeeping, while some women chose this, it is certainly not understood anymore as ordained in heaven.

Both criteria stand in tension with each other and that is what makes this all so interesting. For example, in her recent book on prayer, In God’s Presence, feminist and Process Theologian Majorie Suchocki looks at the image of God as Father. While acknowledging that for many women, this image is either obsolete, or at least must be balanced with more feminine models, she finds Jesus’ identification of the divine as Father to facilitate liberation. In contrast to a more hierarchical social register based on the status of one’s family, to be able to say that I am an heir, a child of God, is to wipe out discriminating images of social distinction.

The late Fred Gailey discussed the narrative character of scripture and pointed out that how in a reading, one might identify with a variety of characters. Additionally, one will find oneself identifying with the various dialogues that typically go on in the story, between one’s self and God, one’s self and one’s neighbor, one’s self and one’s self. On any given day, depending on the existential questions that the reader brings to the text, the text might speak in entirely different ways.

Scripture does not interpret itself, but we bring the best available resources from the academy to the task. The tools of history, literature and sociology serve as resources to interpret the dialogues we find therein between ourselves and others. Psychology and the study of spirituality inform our understandings of the dialogues we find within ourselves and theology gives depth to the understandings of the relationships found between ourselves and God.

In summary, Taking the Bible Seriously, but not Literally means:

  • taking the narrative character of the texts seriously,
  • taking the metaphorical nature of the narratives seriously,
  • taking the tendency for metaphors to become either idolatrous or irrelevant seriously,
  • taking the best available resources from other academic disciplines seriously
  • and finally taking seriously the fact that one can see ourselves in the scripture.

When we do, the study of scripture can become a vehicle for hearing the living Word in our lives.

Grace and Peace,


Photo Used by Permission:

See Also:

Being Honest About the Bible, Pt 1 - Irony

Being Honest About the Bible, pt 2 - Two Books

Being Honest About the Bible, Pt. 3 - One Book, Two Views