The Use and Misuse of Images

The Second Commandment prohibits the use of images to represent God. Have you ever wondered what constitutes a misuse of images today in worship? I address this issue in Ten Essential Words, concluding:

So we are given permission to use images that expand our view of God and draw us closer to God.  But at the same time, we are warned of the dangers of holding any one image so tightly that it limits our view of God and risks replacing God altogether.  That is the very definition of idolatry.

Here is an excellent post on this same issue, from a Catholic perspective. The author similarly concludes:

So, am I saying that images are necessary? No, you can strip away practically everything from candles to the tabernacle (and believe me, somebody out there has already done that) but as long as you have the Gospel (and good liturgy), you are fine. Am I saying you should incorporate images into your private or corporate prayer and worship? No, but if you want to try, go ahead. Am I trying to turn you all into idol-worshippers? Most definitely not. Am I saying that images should never be used because of the potential for falling into error? No. The moral of the story is not no images because they can be abused, it is that we can make idols out of anything, even good things. If images are a scandal to you, then keep far from them. If you venerate images and your weaker brother finds them to be a stumbling-block, then be tender to his conscience.

For the full post, read A Window upon Heaven.

The Name of God

The First Commandment states, ““I am YHWH your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.  You shall have no other gods before me.”  In an excerpt of chapter two of Ten Essential Words, I write that it is not the second part of that command that is important, but the first part, “I am YHWH your God.”  God is introducing himself to his people.  He is establishing a relationship with them by giving them the personal name of God.

I am reading a fascinating book by John Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament.  In this book, Walton purports a further nuance to this introduction by God.  This introduction does not necessarily indicate they have never heard the personal name of God before, though being dispersed throughout Egypt this many have been true for some.  Rather, God is introducing his new role among them – God is introducing “a function that they had not as yet experienced.”

The name YHWH can mean “to be” or I Am, but in that same sense it can mean “the God who creates” or brings into being.  When God says, “I am YHWH your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery,” God is literally calling Israel into existence: “I am the God who is creating at this very moment!”  In the Ancient Near East, something did not exist until it had been “separated out as a distinct entity, given a function, and given a name.”  So it very well may be that by separating them out from Egypt, giving them the name Israel, and establishing a covenant with them, God is announcing his creation of them as a people.  “I am YHWH, the God who is creating.”  The Hebrew people may have existed before in the physical sense, but God was announcing that from this time forward, they would start living and having purpose.  He was bringing them into existence!

Top 5 Books That Have Influenced Me

I recently happened upon a website called Goodreads, which allows you catalogue and rate books you have read, and gives you the ability to share your interests with others whom you have friended.  Predictably, this site only fueled my book addiction.  While compiling my library and rating my books, I began to wonder which books have impacted me the most – which books get a 5-star rating in terms of rocking my world?  I thought it would be an interesting list to share, so here they are in no particular order.

Walking The Bible by Bruce Feiler

  • Why It Impacted Me – I had just returned from a trip to Egypt and Israel in 2005 and this book absolutely fueled my desire to further experience these ancient places you read so much about in the scriptures.  Feiler sets out on a pilgrimage to many of the places mentioned in the five books of Moses, visiting the sites, talking with the people, and gaining an understanding of the cultural backdrop of the Hebrew Bible.  The television program of the same name is itself a spiritual journey.
  • Why You Should Read It – If you want to read familiar stories in the Bible in a new way, paying attention to oft overlooked details, this book is a great primer – written in narrative, non-academic language – in the importance of cultural context for a full understanding of scripture.

Jesus and the Victory of God by N.T. Wright

  • Why It Impacted Me – I read parts of this book in seminary, but then again, I read a lot of books in school and didn’t always have time to process what I was reading.  But I remember this was a book I wanted to pick up again.  So a couple years later I read through it again.  N.T. Wright is one of my favorite theologians/thinkers and this book really showed me how much there was in scripture to understand beyond the surface reading.  Much of the New Testament was written not just from the Hebrew worldview, but also the Greek and Roman worldview as well.  Stories and references begin to take on new meaning when processed through these multiple lenses.  Wright in many ways rekindled my love for scripture.
  • Why You Should Read It – Unless you reeeeeeally love the topic, this may not be a book you want to read – it is over 700 pages and it isn’t easy reading.  Fortunately, Wright’s popularity has grown and he has written a number of more accessible books for those wanting an introduction to his work.  Try After You Believe or Surprised by Hope.

Abba’s Child by Brennan Manning

  • Why It Impacted Me – At a time in my life when I was tired from maintaining an image of having it all together, I read Abba’s Child and Manning gave me permission to get real with myself.  To use Manning’s words, we all have inside of us a struggle between the impostor and the beloved.  When we have the courage to quit living as an impostor, we are freed up to truly be embraced by God.  It was a message that had me in tears more than once and I have returned to this book many times since.
  • Why You Should Read It – Manning has a way of giving you permission to be yourself and embrace the love of God.  If that isn’t something you need, then skip this book.  But if you ever struggle to live in the freedom of authenticity, this book will help you embrace the beloved inside.

Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross

  • Why It Impacted Me – There are times on your spiritual journey when God’s presence seems more distant than near.  And then there are those times when God’s presence feels completely absent.  I have encountered the latter on my own journey and it was very disconcerting.  Reading this book both gave me words to describe that experience and hope that it doesn’t last forever.  It helped me relate to God in new ways and in many ways normalized the entire experience.  For that I am thankful!
  • Why You Should Read It – For hundreds of years, this writing has encouraged people through dark times in their lives.  I would almost recommend not reading it if you are in a good place.  Rather, keep it in mind if you ever find yourself feeling distant from God.

No Man Is An Island by Thomas Merton

  • Why It Impacted Me – I have to confess that there isn’t any one thought that jumped out at me in this book.  I just know that I read it three times before I was able to put it down.  It is so full of small profound insights into navigating this life that I had to include it.  Merton, though not necessarily in this book, speaks quite a bit about contemplative prayer and the role that contemplation can play in your daily routine, and I have benefited much from a more contemplative life.
  • Why You Should Read It – Don’t let the title fool you.  Though this book uses the language of men, there is plenty for both men and women to take from it.  It is broken up into manageable chapters that make it easy to read a handful of pages and process that reading throughout the day.  It is a very insightful book into navigating the spiritual life on a daily basis.

So there you have it.  If I were compiling a list of the best written or the most interesting books, perhaps the list would look different.  But these are the books that have influenced me the most.  So what about you?  Have you read any of these and if so, what did you think?  What books would you include on your list of books that influenced you the most?

Do the Ten Commandments Marginalize Women?

This morning, I was playing around with Google Alerts – a service that sends news stories to your email relating to specific key words. I had just set up an alert for “Ten Commandments” and sure enough, within the hour I got my initial list of of newly published stories that related to the Ten Commandments. Most were only loosely related, but there was one that caught my attention. Christopher Rollston at the Huffington Post wrote an article about how the Ten Commandments and the Bible in general are guilty of marginalizing women. Because his article both demonstrates the continued impact the Ten Commandments have on our culture and highlights something that I cover in Ten Essential Words, I wanted to use this oft-cited example to demonstrate a very fundamental mistake people make when talking about the relevancy of the Ten Commandments.

Rollston writes,

The Decalogue is a case in point. “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house, you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male slave, his female slave, his ox, his donkey or anything which belongs to your neighbor” (Exodus 20:17; Deuteronomy 5:21). Because the Ten Commandments are so well known, it’s quite easy to miss the assumptions in them about gender. But the marginalization of women is clear. The wife is classified as her husband’s property, and so she’s listed with the slaves and work-animals. There’s also a striking omission in this commandment: never does it say “You shall not covet your neighbor’s husband.” The Ten Commandments were written to men, not women. … The Ten Commandments embody much that is foundational for modern society, but egalitarian they aren’t.

He goes on to assert how the Old and New Testaments continue this theme of the marginalization of women.  Rollston is not wrong when he notes that in ancient Israelite society “the wife is classified as her husband’s property.”  I write the same thing when addressing the seventh commandment: You shall not commit adultery.

It could be correctly supposed that the intent behind most of these laws was not the welfare of women or even the protection of marriage, but rather the safeguarding of property.  For in most ancient cultures, a wife was largely considered to be the property of the husband; thus some form of protection was needed for that property.  To commit adultery was to essentially steal what belonged to another man.

It should be noted that the laws I am referring to in the quote above are numerous Ancient Near East legal codes that address adultery and not simply the seventh commandment.  Mosaic Law actually contains many safeguards for women who otherwise would have been left abandoned.  But while Rollston concludes that the Bible marginalizes women, I reach a much different conclusion.  So where do we differ?  How do we reach quite the opposite conclusion?

  • First, Biblical theology has long asserted that scripture reflects the commands of God – the words of God – and yet at the same time those commands were recorded by human beings.  And those human beings resided in certain places and lived at certain times.  The Bible can be both the words of God and yet reflect human opinions, different personalities and genres, human rebellion, and numerous ways that, despite our best efforts, humans fall short of God’s commands.  In fact, the story of the Bible is largely the story of humankind struggling with and failing to live out these commands of God.
  • Second, and similarly, while God’s commands transcend culture, their application will always resides within a distinct culture.  The Old Testament is full of wars, kings and queens, prophets, and many other things that were normative in a culture three to four thousand years ago.  The New Testament is set largely in the context of the Roman Empire.  So the commands of God will necessarily reflect what was happening in those cultures.  When God gave the Ten Commandments, those commands represented the timeless moral standard of God, but at the same time they had specific cultural meanings and applications when Moses received them on Mount Sinai.  So, yes, the command “Do not covet” is a command from God, but at the same time coveting had different applications to an Israelite society 3,500 years ago than it does for us today.
  • Third, the challenge for us then, is not to come up with a new set of Ten Commandments that reflect our day and age, but to properly apply the timeless truths of the original Ten.  In other words, we don’t need to toss out the command against coveting because it may have been applied imperfectly in Ancient Near East culture.  Instead, we are responsible to speak to what it means to covet today.  This is exactly the cultural journey that Ten Essential Words navigates.  What did each command mean in their original context, what light does Jesus shed on each command in his day, and how might we apply each command to our modern context.

It shouldn’t surprise us then, that the Ten Commandments don’t give women the right to vote any more than they don’t address iPhone etiquette.  We can choose to see the marginalization that was present in every ancient culture (and many modern ones!) or we can see the ways the Bible actually gave women a voice they didn’t normally have at that time.  Rollston barely acknowledges a woman named Deborah that served as a judge over Israel and fails to mention that Esther served as a deliverer of the Hebrew people, that Jesus’s prominent benefactors were women, or that women also served as the primary witnesses to his resurrection – all unheard of at that time.  It could also be argued that the Apostle Paul calls women to tone it down in the new Christian movement because women had a new-found voice they hadn’t been given elsewhere and were taking many liberties with that voice.

If we fail to take these steps of moving God’s commands from an ancient cutlure to our own culture we will no doubt make the same conclusions that Rollston has made.  And by his own standards, because no previous culture is as enlightened as our culture today, there isn’t much that any ancient history or religion has to teach us.