Stuck Trying to Answer the Questions that are Beside the Point

Posted: 2019/08/26 in Bible, Christianity, Preaching, Theology

“Puked out the prophet” was surely the best line from the sermon on Jonah offered by the double-teaming preachers who led worship at the Beaver Island Christian Church this past Sunday. Although they made two points too many, thus making it hard to remember any of the three, they did a fine job, except for one thing. I was distracted by how much effort one of the preachers put into asserting the historicity of Jonah’s story. Most awkward was the rather graphic description of Jonah following his three-day stint inside a large fish, whale, or whatever. Bits of seaweed, having been tenderized by marinating in gastric juices, and the powerful stench, all offered in order to make sense of Jonah’s post-puke visage.

If one wants to look for them, there are several things in Jonah’s story that confound. There is, of course, three days inside a large fish or whale amidst gastric juices but within an air bubble large enough to provide three days of air (good thing the fish didn’t belch). And then there’s that thing that happens at the gates of Nineveh. Arriving there, apparently in much the condition he was in after becoming the worlds first puked-up prophet (or so one of the preachers told us), Jonah, in a fine snit for having to go to Nineveh in the first place, gave a brief but to-the-point oratory that went something like, “You’re all evil and you’re gonna die!” The inhabitants of the Assyrian capital, cut to the quick, responded by donning sackcloth, fasting, and repenting as they turned toward God, all very Israelite things to do for a non-Israelite people who knew nothing of Israelite religion or Israel’s God.

While I have no interest here in arguing whether these events happened exactly the way a surface reading of the Bible relates, it is quite apparent that dwelling on these problematic parts of Jonah’s story does a fine job of helping one miss the points the story makes, all of which are as relevant to us today as they were to the original audience of the Jonah story. Trying to rationalize Jonah surviving three days inside a fish might lead one to miss the point that we cannot escape God. And trying to understand how all of Nineveh’s populace in a flash gets (Israelite) religion can distract one from understanding how God gives second chances, forgiveness, and reconciliation when we turn our hearts, minds, and lives to our Lord.

All too often I have been dragged into discussions on both sides of the continuum between uncritical reading of the Bible that takes all at face-value and thoroughgoing skepticism of the miraculous based in empiricism and science. Although a world apart, both sides make what I believe to be the same basic mistake: they ask questions and offer arguments that are beside the point of what the scriptures are telling us. While the unquestioning believer is busy trying to reason the supernatural, the miraculous, or any of the creation story with the skeptic who questions all of it claiming it all to be fictional, both have forgotten to ask the more important questions: What is the significance of these accounts? And What do these tell us about God?

The most simple example of this is from the first chapter of Genesis. People often get hung up about God doing God’s creative work in six days, followed by a seventh day upon which God put up the divine feet and rested. Arguments and rationalizations try to make sense of the six days. And some have gone as far as to use the genealogies in the Old Testament to date the universe at around 6,000 years . . . Plus seven days.

So what?!? Why should I care whether God created the universe 6,000 years ago and in six terrestrial days? The 300,000,000 year old Trilobite fossil displayed in my bookcase doesn’t care.

Instead, my interest in Genesis 1 (and 2) is why God created what God created and what the account tells us about God and us. Since I wasn’t around when God created the universe, I cannot say with any certainty how it all happened. I can, however, allow myself to be distracted trying to rationalize the text of Genesis as read from a 21st century, Western, post-Enlightenment, information-age point of view, and in doing so I would be committing the interpretive error of asking questions that are beside the point. The moment I shift from how and ask why, the text opens up in way that invites more exploration and reflection about God and our relationship with God and with each other.

It’s the same for Jesus’ resurrection. Getting into a debate as to whether it really happened or is a fiction created by the early church is, to me, a worthless effort. Asking why Jesus chose to not stay dead (and I cannot make sense of God’s new creation without him doing so) leads me to a far more fruitful understanding of what God is up to as God’s salvation history unfolds.

We’ve been educated to ask the “reporters’ questions”: what, who, when, how, and why. Unfortunately, we often try to read the Bible, an ancient near-east document written over the span of 2,000 to 3,000 years ago, with the same rubric forgetting that the biblical writers were most interested in why and far less interest in what, who, when, and how outside of the mechanics of crafting their narratives.

I’m not all that interested in how the Bible’s miracles and other supernatural events took place, nor do I care all that much what people choose to believe about them. Instead, my concern is that, instead of asking questions that are beside the point, readers ask why, and then let the scriptures take them down the rabbit hole to see how deep it goes.

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