From The Fourth R
My first vivid encounter with Jesus took place in the fourth grade, when I was expelled from Sunday School for rowdiness. My parents punished me by making me skip Sunday dinner and stay in my room. For my comfort, my mother handed me the Revised Standard Version of the New Testament, which had just been published. I began at the beginning, with the “begats,” which the RSV rendered, “was the father of.” The farther I read the more fascinated I became. Here is the most important book in the world, I thought, and yet it doesn’t make any sense. Why begin a book with this long list of ancestors? Thus was my curiosity about Scripture piqued.
The pastor of my Methodist church in Dallas, from my first awareness until I entered college, was Marshall T. Steel, a graduate of Union Theological Seminary in New York, a Harnack liberal who preached only on the gospels, and a highly diplomatic and cautious advocate of the United Nations and racial integration in an atmosphere that was extremely conservative. My whole theology was the “Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man.” I was never abused by threats of hellfire and damnation. I was untouched by fundamentalist strictures. I never heard the Pauline message; I was totally unfamiliar with the terms grace and justification. I was a Methodist perfectionist, steeped in the Sermon on the Mount, convinced that my only hope was to achieve the perfection demanded of me by Scripture and church and parents.
In my sophomore year of college I underwent an atheist phase (though I knew that the God whom I no longer believed in was still calling me to the ministry). One Sunday in church I heard a reading of Matt 6:25-34. “Consider the lilies of the fields . . . Seek first [God’s] kingdom and [God’s] righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.” Suddenly it struck me: this passage-this promise-can be put to empirical, scientific test. Rather than simply doubt God’s existence, I will make a trial of it. I will commit the coming summer to behaving as if it were true. Then I will know whether there is a God or not.
That summer I went off to Oregon to work in a lumber mill. Without any friends, thrown back on my own collapsed spiritual resources, I found myself one afternoon in a forest of virgin Douglas fir. At their feet were rhododendrons fifteen feet tall, in full flower. Previously, such a sight would have filled me with adoration of God, for the beauty of nature had always been my most immediate avenue to God. But now I felt totally alienated from what I beheld. If there was no God, there was no one to thank for the glories of nature, no way to commune with God through nature, no Other that met me in the things that have been made.
I tried reading my pocket RSV New Testament. For some reason I turned to Acts. The more I read, the more alienated I felt. The Holy Spirit poured out on the disciples, healings-none of it seemed possible. Either the whole thing was a lie, or at least most of it, or else my world was a lie, or at least part of it. As a college “intellectual” I had made reason my God. I was unaware that I had accepted the materialistic worldview while still holding on to the biblical worldview.
My doubts were, in fact, the consequence of trying to embrace two antithetical worldviews simultaneously.
After a month of wrestling in my soul, I came to the conclusion that there had to be a God. But there was no content. I said the word “God,” and something resonated as true, but I had abandoned my childhood faith and had not arrived at anything else.
About this time I received a letter from a friend mentioning a five-day spiritual retreat near Portland. It was sponsored by the Camps Farthest Out, a pietistic prayer movement headed by such leaders as Glenn Clark and Frank Laubach. The leader of this retreat was Roland Brown, whose willingness to take time to talk with me and to pray for me was for me an incarnating of the love of God. In the closing worship, Matthew 5:25-34 was again read, and I reaffirmed my empirical experiment. The summer was half gone.
A woman asked me what I intended to do next. I had lost my job at the sawmill due to an industry-wide strike, and had been a migrant fruit picker for the previous weeks, sleeping in the town dump in Eugene and a barn in Salem while picking strawberries and cherries. I said I didn’t know, but thought I’d head back to Salem. She said she owned a sawmill not on strike (so typical: a Christian with a non-union shop), and if there was a place, I had a job. But she couldn’t find out till Monday. She and her companion offered to drop me off in Salem, though it was out of the way.
As we entered Salem, she asked if I’d mind if they stopped to see an old friend, the head of the Chamber of Commerce. She asked him if anybody was hiring, and he said, “Well, Carl Hoge is having a sale at his furniture store; maybe he could use a hand.” Just then the doorbell rang, and in walked-Carl Hoge. Yes, he needed someone to restock furniture and be janitor. I had a job.
“Now, where will you stay?” the woman asked. I mentioned that someone visiting the retreat had offered to put me up at his place. The women demurred; they insisted that I let them put me up in a hotel. But it seemed logical to stay at my friend’s home, so I had them drop me there, even though it was 9:30 p.m. and no one was at home. After an hour’s wait, my friend and his father arrived-from the funeral home. My friend’s mother had died just that day, and there I was, in the right place at the wrong time.
Next day I determined to listen more closely to the guidance I seemed to be getting. I set out with the rental ads in hand to find a room. In an uncanny way, it seemed almost as if the houses were speaking to me: “It’s all right to stay here;” “No!, not here;” “Possibly.” Suddenly I saw a house with a sign on the porch: “Rooms.” Something said, “This is it!” A man was watering the lawn. I went up to him and said, “I have to stay here.” He was sorry but the house was full. “That’s impossible!” I blurted out. “Could you go look? Maybe someone moved out overnight.” Well, he said, he could look, but he was pretty sure.
Just then his wife came out on the porch. I hailed her, saying I had to stay there. She said there was nothing-unless I were to sleep on a cot on the basement landing. I took it. She hung a bedspread for privacy, and gave me a lawn chair by the furnace. That would be my home for the next six weeks.
Next morning the landlady came walking down the basement stairs as I sat in the lawn chair. Without even turning her head toward me, she announced, “God has sent you here to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” That’s all she said. Within five days I had.
This was in 1954, several years before the earliest beginnings of the “charismatic movement.” I knew nothing about the Holy Spirit, only what I had read in that virgin forest in Acts. One of the roomers, though in great pain in a body cast, took me to the Pentecostal church five blocks away. What happened next is set down in a letter I wrote immediately after the event in July 1954:
Imagine me in a room full of people all singing choruses-simple sincere songs about us-and Christ. The people all have their eyes shut, singing in prayer, some clapping, some reaching their arms up, yearning with all their hearts to have more of Jesus. Over on the side is a piano, a bass fiddle, and accordion. As we stood singing suddenly my fingers began to burn, tingle as if they’d gone to sleep. But they weren’t! Circulation was unhindered. This burning spread to my arms. I wanted to lift my arms to Him, but pride held me back, and now pride chained by arms to my sides. Not thwarted, the tingling ecstasy spread to my knees, my feet, my back. It was as if some power had shot me through with electricity. I couldn’t stand it! It was like nothing I’d ever felt before. I was crushed to my seat, mystified, confused-and still the echo of the tingling remained. I knew that something Real, something more powerful than dynamite had been playing over me.
Then the minister rose and said “Let’s worship the Lord.” On all sides people started singing, saying “Praise the Lord,” “Hallelujah,” “Thank you Jesus,” making up the strangest experiences I’ve ever witnessed happened. People began prophesying and speaking in tongues.
The most important thing is what happened after the service. At the close we’d risen again to worship the Lord, and the power of God was so strong in that group that it cascaded from heart to heart like pounding surf. Again that strange, overpowering tingling. I was crushed to my seat. I was dimly aware that the service was over, that those who desired to could stay and pray, but I couldn’t move. I was knotted by conflict. One minister said, “Somehow I feel that there is someone in this room tonight whom God has something special for.” As I was still under the surge of this electrical tension one of the preachers came up to me, took my hand and asked me if I was ready to serve the Lord no matter where it led me. When I murmured yes, he led me to the platform. Then the three ministers stood around me as I knelt, praising God and speaking in tongues and raising the most glorious din you’ve ever heard. Suddenly all my fears, pride, doubt, all my holdouts slipped away. It was just God and I, and the praising was a barrier to keep all else out.
Now the Power pulsing through my blood, my nerves, increases. My feet burn, tingle, as do my hands. Suddenly my legs are touched by heat. It spreads. (This is all the physical reaction. Actually this is dimly remembered, as my central consciousness was with Jesus in Paradise. That’s all I sought. The rest-just happened to me.) I remember the glorious release as, kneeling, I stretched my hands to God. Then I remember being on my feet. Then I felt myself falling backwards as I stretched deeper and deeper into the burning light, as all my flesh throbbed with the wind of His passing. They caught me, but I didn’t care. I was in Jesus’ hand. I went down perfectly relaxed and lay there.
Then the power increased yet more. Now single spots were touched-my neck at the throat, my back, my tongue, my head, and always my hands, my feet . . . A preacher said, “Praise Him, open your mouth.” And suddenly I found myself singing, stronger, stronger still, making up melodies in complete release, complete abandon, complete love. Then I spoke a little in tongues, but fear held me back. I didn’t believe in it, you see. I sang, and sang, and praised God. Then I was swept with such joy that I began laughing where I lay. Still I tingled. Then the waves subsided. . . . .”
My landlady suggested that a fast might be a good complement to the experience, so I undertook a seven-day water-only fast. A powerful image came to me during that fast: a nail was being driven into an anvil. Such a thing is impossible, of course-unless the anvil is superheated. That is what was happening to me in the fast. Since then I have never been able to doubt the reality of God. During the “death of God” fad, I felt I should at least try to doubt God’s presence, but I couldn’t even muster a mild skepticism.
When I returned to Southern Methodist University and tried to share this experience with my friends, all but two thought I had flipped out. Yet I had never felt so sane. In some ways, however, the experience threatened to split me in half, between reason and experience. I found very quickly that I couldn’t stomach Pentecostal fundamentalism. I had, after great struggle, offered my intellect to God, and had the very clear sense that God had handed it back, with the injunction to use it for God rather than my own ego. Those instructions said nothing about making a sacrifice of my intellect. So now, with very little help from church or seminary, and from only a few friends, I was faced with the arduous task of trying to integrate this concussive experience with the rest of my life, and to figure out how to think about it in the context of science, history, politics, psychology, and theology. That journey has been long and exhilarating, and I am grateful God found a way to make it even more complex.
For many years I shared that experience with no one else. Even now I feel a twinge of embarrassment at my nineteen-year-old exuberance. But that experience has colored everything I do as a biblical scholar. Historical research depends on analogy to understand the past. If we have limited analogues-if for some reason our life experience is truncated, or too narrow, or filled with anxiety about overstepping the permissible, then our capacity to understand the past will suffer as a result. A person raised in a rationalistic, scholastic religion, a religion circumscribed by deadly fears of heresy and dogmatically confined to an oppressive orthodoxy, is not going to be able to enter empathetically into the spontaneity and boundary-shattering milieu of the early church. As a result of my own experience, I have no trouble believing in the plausibility of some events that to some of my fellow scholars simply seem impossible.
Spiritual healing, for example, was part of the Camp Farthest Out and the Pentecostal experience. So when I became a pastor of a church in Texas, I inaugurated a healing service. Ministerial colleagues that I shared this with thought I was crazy. (This was 1964, before spiritual healing had made a comeback through the efforts of Agnes Sanford and the charismatic movement.)
The Friday before our first healing service I received a call from a woman in our church who had just been told by her doctor that she had a tumor in her uterus the size of an orange. I cheerfully told her that would be nothing for God to heal, and to show up Sunday night. (I have never done that since!) Being of a literal cast of mind, she believed me. We laid on hands and prayed, and the next week she went back to her doctor. “I have the biopsy report here on my desk,” he said, “but first let’s have a look at you.” Then, “Who’s been messing with you!?” “Why?” she asked. “It’s gone. Your tumor’s gone!”
Because of that, and many similar experiences with spiritual healing, I have no difficulty believing that Jesus actually healed people, and not just of psychosomatic diseases. Other scholars, who have never experienced such healing, either in themselves or others, may find themselves totally rejecting the historicity of the healing stories. They might even defend their understanding of reality by deciding that the story I just told is untrue. This judgment, however, would be made not on historical grounds, but on the basis of their worldview, which is materialism. Historical discussion is often made to bear the weight of what are essentially differences of worldview, which cannot in principle be settled by historical method. Worldviews are constituted by what one believes about the nature of reality, and therefore by what one conceives to be possible. People with an attenuated sense of what is possible will bring that conviction to the Bible and diminish it by the poverty of their own experience. Consequently, one of the best preparations for historical work on the Bible is continually to expand the horizons of our experience, especially our experience of spiritual reality.
In that blue-collar parish near Houston I quickly learned that my inability to explain some aspect of faith or theology to my congregants was not the fault of their lack of intelligence or schooling, but of my not understanding it well enough. This learning has had enormous impact on my writing, not just in striving for clarity, but in overcoming the conceit of technical vocabulary and esoteric references that plague the academic field. I have come to the point now where I will write only what the average intelligent person can read, no matter what the subject or occasion (even if it is a gathering of scholars). This has resulted in the rejection of articles by the Journal of Biblical Literature and the Journal of the American Academy of Religion because my work it too “chatty” or “popular.” But I refuse to abandon as my readership that vast and hungry throng of non-specialists who wonder why scholars only talk to each other and won’t include them in the conversation. I can only admire Bob Funk’s development of the Jesus Seminar Associates and his continually prodding the Fellows to speak and write in a way that includes them.
After five very educative years in the parish I returned to teach at Union Seminary in 1967. These were the years of the student revolution, the Black economic development crisis, and the Black Panther bail fund, all of which brought Union into incredibly exciting and vitriolic turmoil. New forms of governance were sought that were more democratic and participatory. It was a time of heightened consciousness about racism and patriarchalism. Through all of this I was attempting, with only small success, to relate the Bible to the upheaval we were undergoing. It had become clear to me in the parish that most biblical scholarship was irrelevant to the lived concerns of everyday people. The vast majority of scholars were now interested only in answering questions they were asking each other. The community of accountability among biblical scholars had ceased to be the church and had become the academic guild of professional scholars. Now, back in an academia under siege, I sensed all the more powerfully the impotence of the detached, objective approach to Scripture for dealing with the real issues of life.
I began searching for a better way to do biblical work, one that would place the relevance of the text for contemporary life not at the end of the endeavor, but include it from the outset. I began exploring the various technologies of the “human potential movement,” finding much that was helpful to me personally and professionally in a general framework of narcissism and naivete about the depth of human evil. But the real help came when I discovered the Guild for Psychological Studies in San Francisco. Led by a remarkably creative thinker, Elizabeth Boyden Howes, the Guild focuses through seminars on the life and teaching of Jesus, aided by a Socratic, questioning approach and the depth psychology of Carl Jung. I had already been in Jungian analysis and had used the Socratic approach, though not in seminary, so I found the Guild a perfect match.
More important, however, was what began to happen to me. I began to sense that I had to do something about the poverty of my own self. Otherwise, I would be unable to proceed closer to the mystery in Scripture, but would simply continue to circle its perimeter, accumulating ever more information without myself being changed by the encounter.
I am beginning to understand that no scholar can construct a picture of Jesus beyond the level of spiritual awareness that she or he has attained. No reconstruction outstrips its reconstructor. We cannot explain truths we have not yet understood. We cannot present insights that we have not yet fathomed. Our picture of Jesus reflects, not only Jesus, but the person portraying Jesus, and if we are spiritual infants or adolescents, there are whole realms of human reality that will simply escape us. In Revelation 1:19, the seer John is ordered, “Now write what you see.” The problem lies precisely there, in sight: we can only describe what we see, and if we haven’t seen it, we may miss the revelation entirely. It is my spiritual blindness that is the greatest impediment to my scholarship.
One of the early exercises in the first seminar I attended at the Guild in 1971 was to take the story of the Healing of the Paralytic in Mark 2:1-12 and internalize it by making in clay my own inner paralytic. I had a PhD and a prestigious academic appointment; I “had” no paralytic. Life was careening along just fine, I thought. But to be a good sport I tried it. Shutting my eyes as they suggested, I let my hands have their way. After a period of time had passed, I looked to see what my hands had done. They had made a beautiful bird-with a broken wing! I am no artist, and was simply astonished that my hands had done this. More significant still, I suddenly knew precisely what that broken-winged bird was in me: an atrophied feeling function. Thus began the task of recovering my capacity to feel that was to last, in earnest, for the next eight years.
I immediately adapted what I was learning to my classes at Union. The students loved it, but my colleagues were a bit put off by the notion of graduate students working in clay and pastels like Sunday school kids. Nor did they appreciate it when we bellowed the Lord’s Prayer at the top of our lungs (in order to do justice to the imperative force of each of its petitions). When I published The Bible in Human Transformation (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1973), with its infamous opening line, “Historical biblical criticism is bankrupt,” my fellow biblical faculty greeted it politely, with demurrers, but largely simply waited for my tenure to come up. When it did, they voted it down.
Since that book had also incensed large numbers of other biblical scholars, I found myself virtually blacklisted. Bob Lynn of the Union faculty was also overseeing the operation of a small continuing education and research center in the Union buildings, Auburn Theological Seminary, and took me on half time. The other half was assumed by Hartford Seminary, which had closed shop as a degree granting institution and was engaged in a project to improve church ministry. Thus began my new career as a peripatetic leader of continuing education events.
In time, my wife June and I began to do workshops together, using not only clay and pastels, mime and role playing, but also her own unique blend of meditation and movement. Now I am doing what I wanted from the time of my experience in Oregon: to lead people in an encounter with Scripture that can be transformative. God had also been providentially at work in my being refused tenure.
My concern with Bible study method was only the pedagogical side of my life in that period, however. On the scholarly front, William Stringfellow’s Free in Obedience (New York: Seabury, 1964) had provided me a vision of how the biblical category of principalities and powers could serve as the basis for a social ethic based on the New Testament. The received wisdom till then was that the New Testament is only concerned with personal ethics; if one is interested in a social ethic, one must turn to the Exodus or the prophets. Work on the Powers series, first conceived as a single volume, grew into three, and occupied 28 years. The titles in the Powers trilogy are Naming the Powers, Unmasking the Powers, and Engaging the Powers. A related volume, Cracking the Gnostic Code, rounds out the understanding of the Powers in the early centuries of our era.
As a part of my preparation for writing about the Powers, June and I decided to spend a sabbatical semester in Chile in 1982, so that we might experience what it is like to live under a military dictatorship. I became increasingly convinced that nonviolence was the only way to overcome the domination of the Powers without creating new forms of domination. I decided to test this hunch in South Africa, where we spent part of a sabbatical in 1986. On our return I wrote a little book, Violence and Nonviolence in South Africa (Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1987) which urged the churches of South Africa to become more involved in nonviolent direct action against the apartheid regime. With the financial help of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, our little church in the Berkshires of Massachusetts individually addressed 3,200 copies to the black and white English-speaking clergy of South Africa. Later, the South African Roman Catholic church sent out another 800.
The book infuriated some: how dare a white American male tell those who are already suffering to suffer more, voluntarily and deliberately. Even more anger came from those committed to a violent solution. But the book had its intended effect. Someone from the outside had to say what few inside could say without losing credibility. The book redefined nonviolence (which was heard there, thanks to the white missionaries, as nonresistance and passivity) in an active, militant sense, and did so by appeal to Jesus’ own teaching. Within a year the debate had completely reversed itself (my book was only one of the factors) and the head of the South African Council of Churches, Frank Chikane, was calling on the churches to engage in active nonviolence.
In 1988 I was invited to return to South Africa to do workshops on nonviolence. When the government refused to issue a visa, the person who invited me, Rob Robertson, suggested that I try to enter illegally. First Richard Deats and I led a workshop in Lesotho (which I could enter without a visa), where we sang each day as our theme song “Thine is the glory, risen, conquering Son.” Then Rob and I headed for the South African border. As we entered the border post, the soldier in charge was whistling-“Thine is the glory”! It was like a biblical story: the eyes of the soldiers were blinded (by an out-of-season torrential rain that darkened the border post), they couldn’t see well enough to read, so they asked me to read my passport for them. They never even looked for the visa! Those two weeks were the only other time in my life besides Oregon that I experienced the moment-by- moment guidance of God in such complete abundance. I was never apprehended; I went cheerfully about doing workshops on nonviolence until time to leave, when we “turned me in” and I was expelled from the country.
My growing interest in nonviolence led to an appointment as a Peace Fellow for the year 1989-90 at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington. Without that year I don’t know when I would ever have finished Engaging the Powers (a book that won three awards as “Best Religious Book of 1993.”) During that year June and I also led workshops on nonviolence in Northern Ireland, East Germany, Iona in Scotland, and in London. I also made a solo trip to do the same in South Korea.
My preoccupation all these years has been to facilitate personal and social transformation through Scripture and art, movement and meditation. Now I am trying to turn full circle, back to the Jesus who has transfixed my attention all these years. I am slowly cranking up on a project on Jesus and the Son of Man. I participate with an uneasy conscience in the Jesus Seminar discussions about a database for the Jesus traditions. The discussions are so exciting and informative, the participants so brilliant and fun to be with, that I find it easy to set aside my objections to the kitschy (though decision-forcing) business of voting our preferences with beads.
My greatest hesitation about the Jesus Seminar is the idea that it is possible to build, from the bottom up, a perspective-free, objective database. Such a neutral, “pictureless” standpoint is impossible. Every analysis is value-laden. We cannot help projecting onto the texts our own unconscious needs and desires for transformation or confirmation, to say nothing of our socio-political location and biases. We need to take seriously the implications of the Heisenberg principle: that the observer is always a part of the field being observed, and disturbs that field by the very act of observation. In terms of the interpretive task, this means that there can be no question of an objective view of Jesus “as he really was.” “Objective view” is itself an oxymoron; every view is subjective, from a particular angle of vision. We always encounter the biblical text with interests. We always have a stake in our reading of it. We always have angles of vision, which can be helpful or harmful in interpreting texts. Every description of Jesus is a form of advocacy, whether positive or negative. All lives of Jesus are a kind of apologetics.
Thus liberals will tend to construct a liberal Jesus, conservatives a conservative Jesus, pietists a pietistic Jesus, radicals a radical Jesus, and atheists an unattractive Jesus. Scholars who believe Jesus was like a cynic philosopher will tend to reject as non-historical any data that suggests otherwise. When the cynic school prevailed, for example, in the voting at the Jesus Seminar, the apocalypticists quit coming; this further skewed the vote. The Seminar is denied the fresh perspective that liberationists and feminists might bring since there are almost no women or non-Caucasians in the group. So the picture that is emerging of Jesus is remarkably like that of a tweedy professor interested in studying Scripture.
I have abandoned the quest for the historical Jesus, conceived as an objective, value-free endeavor. Instead, I am in quest of the originative impulse released by Jesus, and will value traditions regardless of their source, so long as they are faithful to that originative impulse. So I intend to ignore the Seminar’s database and voting tabulations when I begin to write on the Son of Man.
What I will value, however, are the remarkable collection of papers on individual pericopes that we have all churned out, and the invaluable friendships that have developed in the course of our work together. Despite my hesitations, the Jesus Seminar has been the most rewarding experience I have ever had with my colleagues in the biblical field, and I am grateful to Bob Funk for convening us.
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