Here is the Steeple

Preached July 22 at the Congregational Church in Iowa City.

Again, no final sermon text. Speaking somewhat extemporaneously seems to be working, I finally felt comfortable and in my groove again for the first time since, really, Beverly.

But this week’s sermon had to do with the temple of Solomon, and the disconnect between the prophet Nathan, who tells David that God will surely be pleased with a Temple, and God, who tells him that it is indeed flattering, but that the temple is not David’s to build. The lesson for today is that we put a lot of stock into our church buildings. We are proud of them. They are visible reminders of our history. But God reminds us here that as surely as God can find a home in a building, God was with the people outside, too. In a tent, in the wilderness, wherever people needed God, God was with them. This is a lesson that we need in the modern era; the building is great, but only if it is a vehicle for bringing God into the community. It is not enough for the building to be there; its presence must serve a purpose. Sometimes that’s a place to gather out among the houses, sometimes it’s a place to house the needy in the middle of a downtown area. Sometimes it’s providing a convenient, highway-accessible place for AA to meet on wednesday nights. But the church must always have open doors to spread God’s love. Otherwise, the building is that envisioned by Nathan: pleasing to a king, and therefore pleasing to God.

Of History and Religion

Last week at our Cooperative Student Fellowship Student-led Bible study, we had some guests from another, charismatic-leaning campus ministry. They invited us to attend their Thursday-night event, the showing of a 30-minute film showing that the Bible is totally historically true. Husband of an historian that I am, I immediately asked, “well, it makes an argument that the Bible is true, right?” and got in reply that no, it actually did. Around that time a member of my group chimed in and said, “he’s about to tell you he went to Harvard, so you know that he’s smarter than you.” That was interesting on two levels.

First, because my student likely shared my skepticism about what the video was going to do, and yet sought to discredit my question through a public questioning of my intentions. The goal was to end the conversation before it became uncomfortable and the means was to appeal to anti-intellectualism to do so (effectively saying, “he is only raising this question to show his own perceived intelligence”).

Both responses were particularly interesting to me because I was trying to suggest that we should use the techniques of history to evaluate the arguments of a video presented in the context of an event intended to bolster students’ religious interpretations in classes with skeptical professors. So, if the event is to have its stated effect (giving students knowledge for challenging skeptical professors), it ought to survive historical scrutiny. But with the first student, the film was not part of the same historical project her professors were undertaking, it was instead part of the world of faith-affirmation. For the second student, avoiding conflict was more important than contextualizing the information about to be received. Both undermine the goal of arming students for arguments in the academy.

After studying the Bible from a heavily historical-critical perspective, I’ve gotten a good idea of the range of things that can be proved and disproved in the Bible, and also of areas where the Bible contradicts itself. So I know there is ample ground to engage with hostile audiences about the historical basis of much of scripture, but only if it is properly framed and contextualized, given that there are many, many things that are outside the realm of archaeology and history to confirm or refute. Now, if one wants to have a hermeneutical approach that harmonizes those contradictions and incorporates both the confirmable and the impossible, that is a fine religious project to embark upon. But you cannot expect academics to respect that project on historical grounds; the historical project is quite different, and it is unlikely that the religious project will be persuasive to someone standing on the outside.

Ultimately, to care about the results of historical inquiry into the events of the Bible means being open to the limitations of the results and skeptical of the assertions being made. To do less suggests that history is merely a tool to be discarded when it does not fit the model of religion in one’s mind. But history can be a valuable tool in understanding a religious text and enriching the interpretation of that text. It’s just hard to fit the findings of history into a clear and straightforward framework of belief about what the text means–it was written over a thousand years in myriad contexts, and this makes it incredibly complicated.