31 August 2009

"Uff Da" Was Invented For Questions Like This

Sometimes the privilege of being a pastor runs side by side with much fear and trembling about people for who you care a great deal. Had one of those moments this morning:
I am _________'s [parent]. I have been wondering for years if they taught you that the Bible is 'just a book'? Did they teach you that Noah wasn't real? That Adam and Eve weren't real people? When Pastor ______ told the adult Sunday school group those things, a sickness came in me. It was what I call a red flag. There are several of us at _____ that are upset with this teaching - XX and YY to name a couple. Do you believe that way now, too? Pastor did talk to me about these teachings. He said he was the last one to change his mind and believe the way the seminaries are teaching now. This has been bothering me for a long time. When ____ told me last night that you were on Facebook, I felt that at last maybe you can ease my heart. I feel that at last, God has guided me to you. Please reply. Z___ Z___

So much for a nice easy Monday morning. After strapping on the theological kid gloves, I wrote my response:
Hi, Z_____ - how nice to hear from you!

This is a very hard question to answer in one email. I'll do my best, though. The short answer to your first question is, no, no pastor in the ELCA is ever taught that the Bible is "just a book," including Pastor _____. We believe the Bible is the inspired word of God, as Paul writes, and that the Bible is "the cradle where the Christ child is found" as Luther once said. The Bible informs our lives, shows us where we are sinful, and reminds us that God's grace in Jesus Christ is the gift that brings us into the family of God.

Now, having said that, there are some questions about the historical value of the Bible. These questions have nothing to do with whether or not the Bible is God's word - it is and remains God's word. But there are some differing opinions among Christians about what is historical and what would be best considered mythological. This is where it gets complicated.

Most ELCA pastors, including myself, believe that everything from Genesis 1-11 is not historical, or at least not historically reliable. Other cultures have tales of a great flood in the Ancient Near East, so it seems that there was a flood of some sort in the days before Abraham, but we're not certain that a man named Noah ever lived. Or, at the very least, if there was a Noah, records of him have not been found. The same for Adam and Eve and everything up to the beginning of Genesis 12, which is the beginning of Abraham's story and, we believe, the first historical figure in the Bible.

That doesn't mean, however, that we don't value Genesis 1-11. To the contrary, those stories are VERY important for our faith. Adam and Eve show us how we are always testing the boundaries and trying to become more than we're meant to be. Cain and Abel shows us the deadly consequences of broken relationships and violence. Noah shows us the importance of faith and perseverance when the world around you becomes more and more dangerous. These things are important because they are true reflections of humanity, even if they aren't historical fact. It's sort of like the story of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree, then refusing to lie to his father about it: even if it didn't historically happen, it's still an important illustration of the kind of person Washington was. The same is true for the Bible: even if all the things within its covers aren't historically verifiable, they are still important illustrations of the way God has continually cared for humanity, and even rescued us from evil and from our own worst tendencies.

I don't imagine this is the answer you were hoping to receive, but it's the best I can do. If you have more questions, please feel free to email me again - I'd like to help as much as I can. Say hi to ____ for me!

Grace & peace,
It's one thing to lob your theological hand grenades at people you don't know well, folks you can yell about and never feel the ill effects personally. But what do you do when someone you know, someone your parents know, your siblings know, someone you're likely going to see the next time you go home, comes with such a heartfelt question?

Those of us who follow the Revised Common Lectionary heard from James yesterday: "your anger does not produce God's righteousness." (James 1.20) Some of us in the church would come thundering down with hellfire and brimstone to defend the idea that God's word is inerrant - others would thunder just as loudly against anyone simple-minded enough to believe in such rubbish. Both would be wrong. Believing in the rightness of your theological position doesn't give you room to be an ass about it.

Now I'm going to get back to my coffee and cleaning off my desk. I think I've done enough theological heavy lifting for the morning.

Grace & peace,


  1. You handled that just right, Pastor.

  2. The analogy with the Washington & the cherry tree is brilliant!

    Well done. And good for you that you tackled it on Monday morning (says she who is avoiding answering the question on her email, "so what's so important and special about Sunday worship?")

  3. The best example of pastoral care I've seen in a while. Good job!

  4. Well done, good and faithful servant. It's not always easy to speak truth with compassion, but you did so right here.