Welcome to a blog that explores the Bible as a collection of writings from the dark edges of empire and orthodoxy. It no doubt sounds strange, referring to a “book” commonly regarded as a proof text of absolute truth, infallible authority, and the Last Word on Everything, as instead a loose collection of dispatches from the borderlands of disillusionment and resistance. The supreme irony is that this voice of challenge was eventually installed as the unchallengeable Voice of empire and orthodoxy’s official god.

You should probably know a few things about me, since I will serve as courier and your guide to the underground. I was an empire-ordained professional pastor for 16 years, before I got word that my services were needed elsewhere and for a different cause. Since leaving the halls of orthodoxy for the tunnels, I have continued to explore these revolutionary papers and their relevance today.

cropped-bible1.jpgIf you are interested to learn more about my philosophical commitments, I invite you to visit my blog “Tracts of Revolution.” In that blog I contemplate the implications of saying that truth is story-bound (constructivism), relative to location (perspectivism), more a transforming process than a timeless absolute, and which, if we let it, will take us on an evolutionary arc beyond the gods of empire and orthodoxy (post-theism).

In offering commentary on these bible tracts, I do not presume to any kind of special authority. All I can do – all any of us can do – is turn the text and let its words dissolve into the unresolved questions, the burning passions, the dreams of freedom, and the ineffable mystery of living on the falling edge of light.

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MARK 9:30-37

30 They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31 for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” 32 But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34 But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35 He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36 Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

We recall that Jesus used different strategies in communicating his gospel, depending on what could motivate his audience to live more kindly toward others and more conscious of the longer view of things. Some were treasure-motivated: they were looking for happiness in what can be possessed.

Others were recognition-motivated: they were needing to know that their worth as persons was acknowledged and sustained in the pleased or envious approval of others (and God counts as an other as well, by the way).

And finally a small minority were what we might call fulfillment-motivated: these are not overly self-interested individuals, but are in fact progressing beyond the ego in giving themselves with full commitment to the realization of God’s kingdom on earth. They have grasped Jesus’ vision of the (future yet presently arriving) spiritual community of compassion, justice, peace, forgiveness, and inclusive love. And they work to see it fulfilled.

Although Jesus appears to play into the position-seeking ambitions of his disciples by telling them what they need to do in order to be first and greatest of all, what he does next opens the gate to higher awareness. He takes a child and places her in their midst. “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me,” he says.

Children are not typically sought out for their appraisals on the adult world. They don’t have a grasp on the social game of titles and degrees and reputations and hierarchies. To welcome a child you must be able to put aside your need for reward and glory and be willing to come down to the level of simple innocence, into a vulnerable trust.

That’s where real life is found.

MARK 9:30-37

30 They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31 for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” 32 But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34 But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35 He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36 Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

In his teaching Jesus employed three distinct strategies depending on what he perceived in his audience at any given time. There were a few whose abilities allowed them to grasp the highest truth of his gospel – that we have all been set free by the love of God to live the forgiven and forgiving life, to move in trust and with boldness into the farther reaches of our divine potential as children of God.

The largest majority were looking for tangible rewards, some gain that could be credited to their accounts at the end of the day or in the life to come. Jesus called upon them to set their hearts not on the treasures of earthly and passing value, but instead on the treasures of heaven and lasting worth.

Somewhere in the middle were those – and we place the disciples in this company for now – who were most interested in their own relative position of value and influence in the eyes of others. They wanted to be “the greatest,” that is, superior to the rest in importance, power, and glory.

So when Jesus told his disciples after they had been fussing and prancing about, that whoever wants to be first must be last and servant of all, it wasn’t the diamond truth of his gospel that he was giving them, but rather something that could catch hold of their interest and hopefully lead them to higher levels of understanding later on.

It wasn’t the diamond truth because it was still predicated on a self-centered motivation for recognition, for self-esteem that comes by the approving judgment and admiration of others. If you are taking last place because you believe that, when all accounts are justified, you will receive your promotion to the front of the line and the top of the heap, then ego is still in the way.

MARK 9:30-37

30 They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31 for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” 32 But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34 But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35 He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36 Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

In an ingenious use of irony Mark portrays the disciples bickering and debating their respective positions within the ranks – just after Jesus has disclosed to them the core teaching of his gospel. As the apostle Paul later understood, this “death and resurrection” event is not exclusive to Jesus but is the inner dynamic of salvation itself: dying to one thing (the old self, the part of us that asks wrongly) and being lifted into a higher, more integrated state (the new self).

Jesus speaks of the fate of every true follower of The Way, to be misunderstood by the world, persecuted, and betrayed; and wouldn’t you know it, but just over the next hill the disciples are already wrangling over who among them is the greatest!

When Jesus asks to know what they were talking about on the way, his disciples fall silent and sheepish, shuffling their feet and looking off in embarrassment. Sad thing is that they knew full well their behavior was in fundamental contradiction to everything Jesus taught and modeled to them. So why did they do it – why do we do it?

The answer must lie in the animal impulse that pushes up from deep in our biology and gets tangled in the obsessions, anxieties, and narcissism of the insecure ego. We can know something in our minds and have all passion for it in our hearts, but if our basic motivations are self-centered, these motivations and not the noble beliefs and affections we hold higher up will drive our behavior.

JAMES 3:13-4:3, 7-8a

13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. 15 Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. 16 For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.

Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.

Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.

“You do not have, because you do not ask.” Is James saying that we can have anything we want just by asking for it? Not quite. He goes on to accuse the readers of asking wrongly “in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.” In other words, our asking (and seeking and knocking, to quote Jesus) needs to arise out of and be inspired by a deeper awareness of our true need.

And what do we truly need? Not wealth or power or a competitive advantage over our rivals, but rather a pure heart, inner peace, and sufficient love for even our enemies. Now these are not things we typically pray for – frankly, they are counterproductive to our usual efforts toward self-promotion. And that is precisely the point James is making.

What are we unhappy in life? Why does it seem that frustration, and the insatiable appetite for excitement and accumulation that it arouses in us, is the prevailing temperament of our society today? The answer is deceptively simple: it is because the things we ask for – among them money, sex, and power (the Big Three) – are unable to satisfy the essential aspiration of our nature as human beings, which is to grow into the fullness of our God-given capacities for freedom, creativity, wisdom, fidelity, and love.

How will we ever find fulfillment if we consistently tether the upward realization of our divine potential to the obsessions and cravings of the infantile ego? Resist the devil indeed! It’s not that many or most of the things we “ask for” are inherently evil, but that our inordinate expectations (“This will make me happy!”) put demands on them which they can never satisfy.

JAMES 3:13-4:3, 7-8a

13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. 15 Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. 16 For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.

Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.

Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.

As bodies we are biological organisms animated with a life impulse that is billions of years old. Our fortunate evolution has achieved emotional, intellectual, and intuitive levels of such complexity and power, we can easily believe that we have fully and finally transcended the base urges of our prehistoric origins.

However, just because we possess abilities for artistic creativity, city planning, and abstract thought doesn’t mean that we have been liberated completely from the unconscious thrust and reflexes of our animal nature. Indeed, it is exactly this animal nature with all its urgencies that contributes the energy for such higher cultural formations and uniquely human expressions.

If all went without a hitch, this evolutionary adventure of ours would be a happy tale. But there is a hitch, and to some degree for every one of us without exception: our natural animal self-interest is compounded with a self-obsession that grows in proportion to our ego insecurity, which  makes for an often nasty, selfish, and violence-prone personality.

This human fall into selfishness is the original sin from whence spring our ambitions for superiority, dominance, and glory. In the Jerusalem church, a mere twenty years or so after Jesus had left them to carry on his message and mission, the Christians were at each others’ throats, overtaken by animal rivalries for power and position.

PSALM 1

Happy are those
    who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
    or sit in the seat of scoffers;
but their delight is in the law of the Lord,
    and on his law they meditate day and night.
They are like trees
    planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
    and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.

The wicked are not so,
    but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
    nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
for the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
    but the way of the wicked will perish.

Why would anyone want to “follow the advice of the wicked, take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers”? Well, because that advice, that path, and that seat are often avenues to some of the more desperate wants of our insecure species: superior power, limitless wealth, and safe sex. C.S. Lewis wrote that no one who does evil does it for its own sake, but for the sake of some perceived or anticipated value that is deemed “good” by the perpetrator – pleasure, satisfaction, relief, dominance, notoriety, significance. According to the Bible, we were created for good and to do good, but our anxiety over being merely human and our fantasy to be gods caused our will to fall off-center.

The great task and key component in the process of salvation is for our will (the psychological center of motivation, voluntary action, and free choice) to be realigned to its original or ideal position. By “meditating on the law day and night” we retrain the will to more worthy and lasting aims in life. The “law of God” in this case is much more than the Ten Commandments or their equivalent; it is God’s wisdom and way in the world – the way of God for human wholeness.

“The way of the wicked will perish,” as must be the inevitable outcome of anything that departs from the evolutionary path of its intended fulfillment.

PROVERBS 31:10-31

10 A capable wife who can find?
    She is far more precious than jewels.
11 The heart of her husband trusts in her,
    and he will have no lack of gain.
12 She does him good, and not harm,
    all the days of her life.
13 She seeks wool and flax,
    and works with willing hands.
14 She is like the ships of the merchant,
    she brings her food from far away.
15 She rises while it is still night
    and provides food for her household
    and tasks for her servant-girls.
16 She considers a field and buys it;
    with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard.
17 She girds herself with strength,
    and makes her arms strong.
18 She perceives that her merchandise is profitable.
    Her lamp does not go out at night.
19 She puts her hands to the distaff,
    and her hands hold the spindle.
20 She opens her hand to the poor,
    and reaches out her hands to the needy.
21 She is not afraid for her household when it snows,
    for all her household are clothed in crimson.
22 She makes herself coverings;
    her clothing is fine linen and purple.
23 Her husband is known in the city gates,
    taking his seat among the elders of the land.
24 She makes linen garments and sells them;
    she supplies the merchant with sashes.
25 Strength and dignity are her clothing,
    and she laughs at the time to come.
26 She opens her mouth with wisdom,
    and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.
27 She looks well to the ways of her household,
    and does not eat the bread of idleness.
28 Her children rise up and call her happy;
    her husband too, and he praises her:
29 “Many women have done excellently,
    but you surpass them all.”
30 Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain,
    but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.
31 Give her a share in the fruit of her hands,
    and let her works praise her in the city gates.

With the rise of women’s liberation and feminist awareness, a woman’s place in society has undergone profound changes. In the meantime we have been confronted with our traditional male-dominated (patriarchal) values and assumptions, and the way these disregard or denigrate the female perspective and her unique aspirations in life. For the past fifty years especially, women have been finding their places in careers and making contributions that in previous centuries would have been considered not only unbelievable, but even unnatural.

Back in the days of the Bible a woman’s concerns and principal tasks were domestic in nature – keeping a home, raising children, preserving family traditions, and promoting into the next generation time-tested wisdom for  living well. And however “oppressed” we might judge their lives to have been, it was precisely these domestic responsibilities that carried forward – and still carries forward – our core values and sense of the world as a species.

When the write extols the qualities and inner beauty of “a capable wife,” then, we must resist the impulse to accuse him (we presume the author is male) of preaching patriarchal standards. He’s not saying that the only good woman is the one who quietly discharges her duties in the (husband’s) home; it is the glory and importance of her complex responsibilities that he is praising. She is faithful, trustworthy, diligent, strong, compassionate, graceful, wise and multi-skilled. Higher praise is hardly possible!

MARK 8:27-38

27 Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28 And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 29 He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” 30 And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel,will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

After rebuking Peter for his adversarial role against the forward advance of the gospel mission, Jesus turned to the crowd and defined in the clearest terms possible what it means to be a Christian (literally a disciple or follower of Christ). Confirming the universal fact that what people everywhere want and are looking for is life in its fullness, Jesus also confirmed what is equally universal – our human tendency to grasp at things that have only the semblance of life, but which are paltry forgeries and hollow counterfeits of the Real Thing.

As we listen to Jesus, we are reminded of Wisdom’s invitation to authentic life in Proverbs 1. Beneath the crisscrossed surface of our wandering path through this world lies the developmental guiding line of the Human Ideal – the sequence of steps, stages, and seasons of life that define our evolutionary progress toward fulfillment, just as the growth phases of the oak tree unfold according to a design genetically encoded in the acorn.

We depart from this deeper path to our own frustration and possible peril. “If you seek to save your life” by clinging desperately to your attachments or running after the next promising thing, you are certain to lose the full meaning and joy of being alive.

The prescription for finding genuine life – abundant, real, authentic, eternal life – requires the self-surpassing act of “losing yourself” for the sake of what truly matters. For Jesus, the gospel of the kingdom of God and its way is the ultimate foundation of value, meaning, and human fulfillment. Now we can see that this gospel prescription is exactly the same thing that Wisdom also was inviting us to find. In fact, very early Christian traditions identified Jesus with divine Wisdom (cf 1 Corinthians 1:22-24).

MARK 8:27-38

27 Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28 And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 29 He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” 30 And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel,will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

Jesus was what we would confidently call an authentic person, someone who was deeply attuned to the Wisdom or essential purpose of his life. He never compromised his path for the sake of comfort or security, which is not to say that he didn’t wrestle against the will of God (another name for Wisdom) from time to time.

Neither did he play down to the expectations of others or allow them to qualify his passion for what was right and true and just. His love for the world came pure and strong out of a center of peace with God and compassion for the suffering other. So when he asked his disciples what judgments they were entertaining in their minds concerning his identity, Peter, profoundly grasped and moved by what he saw and felt in his master-teacher, confessed: “You are the Messiah!”

But then, after Jesus revealed to the group what fate was gathering for him down the road, Peter blurted out, “No way, Lord!” (Actually Mark’s Gospel only tells us that Peter “took him aside and began to rebuke him”; later writers couldn’t resist putting the words in his mouth.) What Jesus says next has exercised and troubled the Christian imagination for centuries, but it need not perplex us. What Jesus meant when he called Peter “satan” was simply that the disciple, who ought to have been following him, was presently standing in his way as an adversary to his true and higher purpose (satan literally means adversary).

JAMES 3:1-12

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.

How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. 11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.

According to the Genesis myth of creation it was the word of God – “Let there be!” – that brought forth light, matter, and the myriad creatures. Rather than reading this story literally we can interpret it as “an ode to the word,” capturing in a narrative portrait the profound power in speech for bringing forth worlds – or destroying them, as the case may be.

As creaturely reflections of God, human beings have the creative capacity in language to call intelligent order from the sensory chaos of experience. And as the agency of communication, the word carries into audible and textual signs the otherwise hidden intentions of our minds and hearts.

Seeing as how much of human culture is really the technical transformation of material energy into structures of meaning, and how totally meaning is a product of language, and finally how much of language is about words and the relationships among words, we begin to appreciate the real insight in what may have seemed like exaggerated warnings in the Letter of James regarding the tongue and its power.

The greatest of human capacities – to create and live within word-worlds of meaning – can be turned in either a godly or demonic direction. It can name and tame the beasts of the wilds, and it can curse, malign, and condemn our human neighbor. We can stand up on Sundays to recite the prayers and historic creeds of the church, but once back home we can pick up again with the destructive family patterns of the things we say to one another as well as the things we tell ourselves.

There must have been a toxic dose of hypocrisy moving about the circulatory system of the early church!