Disclaimer: First, let me say that I am no theologian. I approach the bible the same way I do other literature. I read it. Think about it. Read it some more. Compare what it says in one place with what it says in another. I read what a wide variety of scholars say about it. And then I write about it. There’s no magic in it. I’ve not studied Hebrew or Greek. I trust my education, discussion with other Christians, my spirit, and the Spirit of God to lead me where it will. When something comes to my attention or interests me, I start the process over each and every time. The results are articles like this one.
Over the Christmas holidays all the scripture passages were focused on one thing: the incarnation of Jesus. While they were being read, I kept thinking about what that meant for me, as a woman in the 21st century, that God came down and incarnated into Jesus of Nazareth. What did that have to do with me?
In the Gospel of John we read:
John 1:10 He came into the very world he created, but the world didn’t recognize him. 11 He came to his own people, and even they rejected him. 12 But to all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God. 13 They are reborn—not with a physical birth resulting from human passion or plan, but a birth that comes from God. 14 So the Word became human[d] and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness.
The incarnation is a key element in Christianity and the one thing that Christians feel separates their religion from all others. If not for the belief that God came down in human form in order to bring salvation through his birth and subsequent death, Christianity would be like any other religion. (One could argue it is not a unique dogma of religion, but that’s for another post) However, fundamentalists narrow the incarnational message even further and leave whole segments of the human race out of the sphere of salvation. As I see it, the only way that the fundamentalism’s incarnation is good news at all (or even relevant) is to extend the effects of the incarnation to include everyone, no matter which gender, race, age, they happen to be. Some think this kind on inclusiveness waters down the message. I don’t think so. To me reading scripture metaphorically instead of literally makes the message richer and fuller. Jesus’ message was revolutionary politically, socially, and personally and was meant to transcend social structures and prejudices in place at the time.
The passage in John is clearly a description of what happens when God makes her home with human beings. Jesus is the fulcrum of this incarnation into humanity. He is said to have existed before creation (taking on Sophia’s role) and has now appeared at the proper time. Each spiritual rebirth is Jesus once again making his home with us in our hearts and our lives. However, others would limit this incarnation to such an extent that there would be much less good news for many in our society; particularly women, the poor, and the socially ostracized or taboo. This is far from good news and seems to me to limit Jesus’ saving action to only a few.
If we took the bible at its word, as inerrantists ask us to do, only men could be saved and become priests, elders, teachers, etc. because Jesus came as a man not as a woman. This is the standard Roman Catholic/Orthodox argument against women priests. This limits the message to having the right body parts. If we took the bible literally as many inerrantists do, women would only be saved through giving birth to children (1 Timothy 2:15) (despite multiple protests about NOT taking the passage literally). Again we are limiting the message to bodily functions, particularly sexuality. If we took the bible literally, slavery would not only be legitimate, but slaves would be encouraged to remain slaves (1 Timothy 6:1-2; 1 Corinthians 7:20-21) and enjoined to stay in the position in which they were called. This limits the incarnation to certain persons in particular social positions; the wealthy, the male, and the free. If we took the bible literally, we would be forced to limit Jesus’ saving role to whatever limited his physical appearance and social norms while on earth.
As I listened to the words of the bible being read from the pulpit, promising salvation for ALL people, I wondered what would really happen if everyone took all the words of scripture literally as fundamentalists do now (and as certain first century sects did then). We’d have multiple denominations and multiple interpretations and unbelievers who pooh-pooh the message altogether because of the inconsistencies inherent in literal interpretations. But, if the message is meant to be applicable to all, universal for not only both sexes but to all ethnicities and cultures, we would have to make sure no scripture was ever taken literally. Otherwise, the incarnation and salvation and circumcision-rhetoric inherent to first century Judaism would be meant for men and men alone, and God’s kingdom would be held for ransom by those men in power, just as it is now.
At that Christmas Eve service, I could only come to one conclusion: the only thing keeping me from joining the rank and file of unbelievers is the fact that I DO NOT take the bible literally. Like all adults, we are meant to grow out of a literal phase and learn the art of subtlety, figurative language, and nuance. I don’t believe God literally came down from his (sic) perch in “heaven” and took with his two hands a sacrifice of meat and grain away from priests out in their fields at night. The appeasement was never meant to be that literal. But that’s what the Jewish scriptures imply. I do believe that although we, as human beings, took our role way too literally, God may have “reached down” and accepted the metaphorical “sacrifice” of a right heart and a clean conscience. God just merely gave us a task to do, knowing that without it, we’d quickly lose interest. God was “satisfied” and the people ate the sacrifice. As with all myths, the people are assured they have “communed” with God.
So how does one bring the incarnation of Jesus out of a local, clannish setting and into the world? Is that even possible? Sure it is. We can make the sacrificial language metaphorical and hope that as a culture we won’t degenerate back to the days of offering living victims: human or animal. Rather than believing that a perfect human sacrifice was found, killed to kill, and eaten so that we might live through its blood, we need to realize that the stories are mythical attempts to explain the impossibility of God with us NO MATTER WHAT WE DO. We need to realize that if God did indeed become “flesh” and dwelt among us, the story is only a picture of a larger vision of God becoming “flesh” in each of us; male or female, culture or no culture. Each one of us must reinterpret the story for our own time and our own places. This is the only way that includes everyone in the salvation story.
Others have tackled this subject much more admirably than I ever could. But, it would seem to me that if Christianity can even hope to be taken seriously, the bible must be wrested from those with the child-like tendency to take every jot and tittle literally and moved into a more adult view where the message is truly good news for all, not just for a few. The bible as myth still contains rich material on which one can build a plausible faith and that fundamentalists in every religion literally miss the forest for the trees.