The New York Times ran an article describing the buzz and gaggle of folks surrounding Senator Ted Cruz as he wove in and out of pizza parlors and church parking lots seeking love and votes. It quoted a pastor waiting to pray with the presidential candidate as claiming Cruz is, “one of the few running who are still biblically qualified to hold office.”
“Biblically qualified,” is not a concept I have ever heard before. Dissect that idea and it is as scary as it is bizarre.
For one thing, there is so much contained in the bible that is absurd or horrifying that it is difficult to believe anyone who has actually read it would try to use it as a worldview. But in fact, millions do misuse it that way. Then there is the Evangelical fallacy that memorizing verses of the bible will magically connote comprehension. The pastor’s notion that the bible can be used as a political-economic litmus test to qualify someone for public office in 2015 demonstrates a profoundly ignorant misunderstanding and whopping abuse of a sacred text.
My tradition however, has another problem with the bible. While memorizing verses of scripture does not produce understanding, not knowing the stories creates an entirely different problem. Case in point.
We are having trouble this year, as we prepare for the children’s Christmas pageant, finding a child willing to be the “Innkeeper.” Somehow the Innkeeper has become a cross between Captain Hook and Judas Iscariot in the popular imagination – and it is the popular imagination I am poking at this moment.
This Innkeeper issue should have been an easy problem to solve but it never occurred to me until one of the parents asked if indeed the Innkeeper sent Joseph and Mary away. Having not memorized the bible line by line, I went to look it up.
Low and behold, it doesn’t say what the Innkeeper did nor his or her motives. Luke (or whoever edited that gospel) wrote: “And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”
In the popular imagination, because of classic Nativity dramas, the Innkeeper is a surly curmudgeon who sends the beleaguered couple away. But it could, as it was written, just as easily have been a nice-guy Innkeeper that bent over backwards to make a place out back in the stable for the young couple with child.
Therein lies the point. The bible is an artifact of the past with two to three thousand (and in some case more) years of sociological silt layered on top of it. That pastor’s comment makes it seem as if we can simply dust it off and read it like it was for the first time – without all the previous millennia of interpretation. It also presumes we know exactly what the original authors and editors meant (including the presumption that the original authors and editors knew something we don’t know and only through them can we know it).
We cannot see through history, with the bible any more than with Shakespeare or Socrates. We do not get to know what they knew because we have come into the world and into this moment with the experience, knowledge, and ignorance that form our particular cataracts – which are different from the filters and lenses of previous generations. The point isn’t to know what they knew but to use what we have with what we know, and to do it with as much openness and humility as we can muster.
What freedom! Our Innkeeper can be a really nice man or cajoling woman and it won’t violate the text. The point isn’t about the hospitality of the Innkeeper after all; it is about the poverty and oppression within which God is incarnate. Oh, woops, that is an interpretation based upon a 21st century perspective informed and activated by historical, economic, and sociological information. My bad.