Scripture, Idolatry, and Bumper Sticker Theology

I saw a bumper sticker today that just turned my stomach. It wasn’t  just the vitriol that it possessed, though that was an issue. It wasn’t just that it used scripture to do so, though again that is problematic. The issue was that blatant misuse of scripture, the ripping of it from any semblance of context and placing it, and it alone, as the inerrant, irrefutable, unassailable word of God.

Psalm 109 is a psalm of David’s. King David wrote it. It is a cry out to God to deliver him from his enemies. David’s enemies are ridiculing him, but more than that they are threatening his rule and his very life. They want him dead and gone. They want him eliminated.  So David cries out to God to deliver him, and in doing so tells God what his enemies are saying.

Verse 8 is a part of this cry. Verse 8 says, as the bumper sticker on the automobile that passed my bike on the way to campus this morning was so keen to point out, “Let his days be few, let another take his office”.

Now that is not a particularly bad statement in and of itself, particularly within our culture where leaving office means having been voted out, most likely. But of a king that means a violent coup, and most likely a messy end. Verse 9 reveals this intent when it says “Let his children be fatherless and his wife a widow”. That is not a particularly “Christian” view one should have of one’s political enemies.

The context is clear. The person (and this person is not alone, there are billboards to go with these bumper stickers) who displayed this bumper sticker is clearly wishing ill for the President. Perhaps not overtly death, there is an election coming up and death is no longer the normative method for removal from office, but certainly ill.

And again, that’s okay I guess. I did not want our previous President to be re-elected. There’s nothing wrong with wanting governance by people who are more ideologically aligned with you. That’s not what rubs me the wrong way. It is the blatant disregard for the original text. It is the blatant and willful ignorance of context and the violent ripping out of one verse to score political points.

David was the author of the text. David, in verse 8, is obviously not calling for his own removal from power, nor in verse 9 does he call for his own death. David is writing from the point of view of his enemies, the ones he is crying out to God against. This context is lost on the bumper sticker. That sentiment, that the ruler should be remover from office, is the point of view of the bad guys. They are the enemies whom God is called upon to rebuke. This, to me, is indicative of a larger problem, one of how we read scripture.

“What is your favorite Bible verse?” This is a question I have been asked more times than I can recount. T-shirts feature verses, as do (obviously) bumper stickers. Little quips. Small phrases removed from a much larger text and wielded with precision to score political and theological points.

The problem with this being a normative way to view and read scripture, is that there are an awful lot of verses in the Bible. Not just verses but chapters and books as well. It is a big book. In fact, the Bible is less a book and more a library. To read one sentence, one verse, out of this entire library and have it claim to speak for the entire thing absent any external reasoning or context is the height of irresponsibility. You can literally, when using this method, make the Bible say anything.

I have, as you would know if you follow me on twitter or Facebook, been spending a lot of time in Job of late. I think the book of Job is an excellent one to illustrate this point. In the beginning of Job we are shown, by no less an authority than the Lord God, Himself, that Job is a righteous man (Job 1:8). Yet, despite that, if you lift the bulk of Job away from this context you would probably become convinced that, far from being righteous, Job was a proud, arrogant, unrepentant sinner. The reason for this is that most of the text of Job is written from the perspective of his friends whose theology makes perfectly clear that God only punishes the wicked. Since Job has been uniquely afflicted he must be uniquely bad. They spend well over half of the text arguing this point. Any passage out of that would describe a God that only punishes the wicked and a Job who is clearly wicked.

To draw that conclusion from that book would be to get the book exactly backwards. We can see that not from the middle text, which stands alone mostly as Job’s friends present their arguments, but from that section read with the beginning and end of that book in mind. As it sits within the context of God declaring to the Satan that Job is a uniquely righteous man and God revealing Job’s standing as God’s servant, and a righteous one at that, to Job’s friends, the idea that Job brought calamity upon himself through unrepentant sin is not just wrong, but laughably so.

The passage on the bumper sticker today poses the same issue. To declare the message (“Let his days be few, let another take his office”) as your own, within the context of this passage, is to, in essence, declare yourself the villain. Of course that’s not what the bumper sticker’s owner intends to do. It just arises out of a reading of scripture that is completely absent any context. It arises out of a reading of scripture that I would argue is idolatrous.

When we read scripture in these little nuggets and use it to craft a message that is consistent with our own political ideologies we place those ideologies above the word of God. We make ourselves and our own beliefs more important than the word of God. We craft an idol out of what we want the word of God to say and we use that idol to replace the Living Word. We make our ideas about God greater than God. That is idolatry.

Now maybe that seems a little harsh but I just can’t help but see it any other way.

And honestly, if you’re praying for the demise of the President, I think maybe you could use all of the prayer you can get. Because you are doing it wrong.


Job’s friends’ theology

I’ve spent a lot of time in Job lately, and I’ve come to a realization. This hits me every time I read Job and yet it always seems fresh. I like the theology of Job’s friends. Really I do. A lot.

I will flesh this out more in a “real” post soon, with scripture citing and everything. This is something I was just going to put up on Facebook but it seemed too long for that.

Job’s friends’ theology is great. It is comforting to believe that God universally rewards the good and punishes the bad. It is comforting to believe that the wicked have theirs coming and have neither blessing nor contentment in this life.

The only problem with this theology is that it doesn’t reconcile itself to conditions on the ground. The world doesn’t work the way they say it does. And they do great harm to a blameless man in the process.

It’s good to be idealistic, I think. But to demand that the universe conform to your ideals is quite another thing. And when those ideals cause you to assume the innocent are guilty and punish them for their suffering… well… Now you’re just being evil.

Identity theft

If you know me in real life you probably already know this, but my office closed at the end of last month leaving me without full time employment. This has left me with some time to think and, given the nature of what just happened and the makeup of our culture, most of this thought has been about identity.

When you first meet someone often the first thing asked is some variation of, “So, what is it that you do?”

Vocation and employment are, at least for men, the defining attributes of identity. You are what you do. You are where you work. Obviously this is an issue if, like me, you find yourself without employment.

Not only did I just lose my job but, with it I have lost my identity. It is frustrating. It is embarrassing. It is demoralizing. It is dehumanizing. When identity is tied to employment, or anything else that can be taken away, you are constantly at risk of losing yourself.

So I have been thinking a lot lately about who other is, exactly, that I am. Who am I, really? I could list some things about me as a kind of answer.

I am a husband.

I am a father.

I am a musician.

I am a worship leader.

I am a photographer.

I am a bicyclist.

All of these things are true about me but are no more secure than my employment was. I could lose my wife, my kids, my ability to play music, my role in the church, my camera, my bikes, my guitars, my health, and everything else that goes into making me the things this list says that I am.

I am a child of God.

I am redeemed.

I am forgiven.

I am loved.

These things cannot be taken away.

So why is it, then, when we construct our identities, do we so often build them around the things that do not, that can not last? Are these things more tangible to us? Are they more real?

You can’t really touch salvation. I’ve never physically seen Jesus’s face nor audibly heard Jesus’s voice. Am I ashamed? Am I embarrassed? Do I believe I might be mad to believe what I claim I do?

I can’t wrap this up in a neat package. I can’t tie it up with a neat bow. I don’t have answers, nor can I honestly claim any epiphany. I’m not breaking through. I’m not changing. I have a void where my identity was and I know what I should fill it with, but the void remains.

I could kick myself for this but that won’t fix it. What I’m going through is only natural, as am I. To ask for more would be to ask too much.

Something lost

We went on vacation over Memorial Day weekend to my wife’s family farm in upstate New York. As all vacations go the drive was entirely too long and our stay was entirely too short. I took a lot of pictures of the farm and posted them on Picasa. One thing that I very intentionally tried to do is shoot around the interstate that cuts through the middle of the farm. As you can see from the shot above, which is not in the album I posted, I was not always successful in that mission.

I have mixed feelings about this interstate. A few years ago I talked to Shannon’s grandmother about it and got the story on when it went in. I wish I could remember all of the details of that conversation but, alas, they escape me. I do remember that the family decided not to fight the imminent domain and settled rather quickly. Apparently a lot of other farmers in the area did not do so. They ended up getting the same price for their land but had to go through the hassle and expense of legal proceedings. There was no sense in paying extra to delay the inevitable.

I like the interstate when I am travelling. It’s convenient. I recall some trips through North Carolina as a child where there was no interstate. Mostly I recall being extraordinarily car sick in the back of our station wagon. But when we stay on the farm my feelings for the interstate move from appreciation to resentment.

When I was shooting on the farm this past visit I tried to capture the sense of peace that comes from being out in the country. The interstate is a big disruption to that peace, and so I tried to frame every shot such that its presence was not felt. But its presence is there. It is inescapable, as is the presence of the Wal-Mart that has brought with it the very tangible absence of the family stores and groceries that used to be the foundation of these communities.

In accidentally capturing the Wal-Mart truck roaring down the interstate behind my father-in-law’s antique tractor I couldn’t help but notice an odd beauty there. There is a connection between Wal-Mart and the interstate. Interstate travel is convenient. One stop shopping is awfully convenient. Low prices are a plus, especially if you can ignore the reasons for the low prices. And yet there is a tangible cost to the convenience. Farms are fractured or lost completely. Family businesses close. Life changes. Some for the better, sure. But at a cost. One we often ignore.

I like this shot. I want to, like Bob Ross,  label it a happy little accident. I certainly did not intend to take this shot. And if I did I’m sure I would have missed it. But it’s not happy. It’s a little jarring. Something just doesn’t belong. And everywhere I look I can’t help but see a lot of things that don’t belong.

Capturing beauty part 3

My parents’s house is littered with roses. There are roses everywhere. 37 of them, to be exact. Because yesterday they celebrated their 37th anniversary.

Every year for their anniversary my dad comes home with one rose for every year he and my mother have been married. I have always chalked this up as being just a relatively typical romantic gesture. Sure, it’s nice that he’s still doing it after all of these years, but then again that’s what he’s always done. It’s normal. Romantic, sure. But normal. It’s what he does. That’s life.

You never think about how traditions get started. Embarrassingly I had never really considered this tradition’s origins. Sure, it had to start somewhere. With a single rose, I guess. It must have seemed like a good idea at the time and it kind of snowballed to the point where now my mother, every May, has roses in every room of her house. What I did not know, and never considered, was that this tradition was born not from that first single rose. It was born, of all things – as my dad told us last night, one year before that single rose, out of a bowling alley and a lack of flowers for a wedding.

My parents met in a bowling alley. I have always known that but never really considered it. I still don’t really get the logistics. My dad bowled in a league and I guess my mother was there with some friends of hers once. I really should know this story but, for all the stories we Bakers seem to tell, personal ones are never at the top of the list.

However it transpired my parents hit it off, obviously, and eventually decided to marry. Mom’s parents, or at least her father – I’ve never been too keen to probe on this issue, were not thrilled with the idea that their daughter would be marrying someone like my dad. You know, the kind of long haired guitar playing guy one might meet in a bowling alley. To insure that her parents would be attending her wedding my mother decided that it would be best to get married the weekend that she graduated from college. They’d be coming anyway. They might as well stick around for the wedding, right?

It just so happened that the weekend of graduation was also Mother’s Day weekend. The demand for flowers for Mother’s Day was such that there was not a single florist that could provide flowers for any last minute weddings. But it just so happened that my dad bowled in a league with a couple of brothers who owned a flower shop.

Exactly how this transpired I still don’t exactly understand – Dad was rather cryptic, but somehow it came to be that people from the bowling league played poker together after their big end of the season get together. One thing led to another an ultimately an arrangement was struck with  a couple of brothers who were apparently not as good at poker as they should have been to provide flowers for my parents’ wedding.

The following year my dad went to their flower shop and bought a single rose for my mother on their first anniversary. And then a tradition was born.

After hearing this story I decide to take a picture of some of the roses my mother is proudly displaying. I decided, from this story, that I really like the image of that single rose. So I shot this with a very shallow depth of field focusing on the rose in the center of the arrangement.

This isn’t a bad shot but it is made much better by the story. A good image with a good backstory is a thing of beauty. I should probably ask more questions. You never know what you’ll learn.

Capturing beauty part 2

This past weekend my wife graduated from college. Since her family was not able to make the 700 plus mile drive down for the event I knew that I wanted to get some shots, some good shots of the commencement. The longest lens I use regularly is a 250mm f/4-5.6 lens. While that is a nice lens, and a relatively long one, it was not going to get the job done in the 20,000 seat area the commencement was taking place in.

We tried to rent a longer lens, but this being the first weekend in May in Kentucky every long lens in the state was already rented out for Derby. No dice on a long lens.

Or so we thought.

We happened to find, among the plethora of gear that we have acquired via eBay (another story for another day) a 500mm lens. That’s the good news. The bad news: It’s an off brand lens with an adapter for a Canon SLR that has no image stabilization or auto focus abilities. It also has a fixed aperture of f/8. Suffice it to say it’s not a great lens. But would it do? It had to. It’s all we had. I decided to take this lens out to the baseball field to get a feel for using it before the graduation.

The pictures above are some shots I took with the 500mm. There are more posted on Picasa.

Now, these shots aren’t the best. Part of that is operator error and part is the gear. I can look at them and see that they’re a little noisy, especially considering that they were shot outdoors in broad daylight. But I needed to crank up the ISO because I couldn’t adjust the aperture to allow more light in and I didn’t want to sacrifice shutter speed as I was shooting athletes who were, as athletics would imply, in motion.

Also image stabilization would have really helped in framing these shots and auto focus would have made it a lot easier to get a tight, crisp shot. I was trying to manually focus on the fly and, let’s face it, I’m just not that good.

But these flaws are probably not what catch your eye. I’ll bet, instead, you noticed the pitcher.

Yes, he’s just got one leg.

His name is Adam Bender. I used to help coach him when he was seven and played on my son’s team. He is an amazing person. You can learn more about him at his website. I had no idea he would be playing that day and even less of an idea that he’d be pitching. But I’m awfully glad I was there and awfully glad I had my camera with me.

These shots capture Adam getting the third out of the inning that he pitched. His team won that game and he was a big part of the reason why. He’s an amazing player in his own right. Not amazing for a kid with one leg. Just amazing. I think the most amazing thing about him is how unamazed he seems by it. He’s just playing ball. It’s a normal thing. It’s just what he does.

These shots, technically, aren’t that great. Heck, I don’t even think they’re good. But they are beautiful. They are beautiful because of their subject. Something truly amazing happened (everything Adam does is amazing – if not to him) and a camera was there to capture it. A big part of capturing beauty is just being there. And being ready. I was there and I’m awfully glad I was.

Capturing beauty

I like gear. As a musician I love new guitars, amps, pedals, heck I even like trying out different picks and strings. Anything new. Anything exciting. Anything to get the blood pumping. Sure, I like my old reliable stuff, too. I just like stuff. I like gear.

The same thing goes for photography. I got to try out a new lens this past weekend and the experience was exhilarating. Far more so than the shots I took. I got to try something new. I got to test limits and boundaries. I got to explore and be creative. I got to think of framing images in a whole new light.

I love things that I don’t have. I want them. I NEED them in a way that makes me more than a little uncomfortable. Sometimes I even talk myself into the idea that, in order to do whatever I have in my head, I have to get some new gear. I need that stompbox. I need that effect. I need that filter. I need that lens. I need that mic. I need that new stuff. I have to have it or my “art” will suffer. I won’t be able to do what I feel like I was made to do.

And then I find myself at the baseball field without any real camera to speak of. I see a beautiful image and I capture it on the only thing that I have available, my tablet and its crappy built in camera. And you know what? It’s beautiful. Crappy camera, good camera, doesn’t matter. Beauty happened and the lens caught it. The camera didn’t make it beautiful. It just captured that beauty so it could linger on this Earth and in our hearts and minds a little longer.

A good song is not made good by a Taylor guitar. It’s the writing. It’s the performance. It’s not made but the right use of EQ and compression. It’s not made by the tastefully applied reverb. It’s not made by the production that is just so. These things help. But a good song is a good song and a bad song is a bad song. Gear won’t change that.

There are things in life that are just beautiful. Gear doesn’t make them happen. Good gear is a tool, but it is never  necessary. Beauty is. The gear just captures it so we can hold on a little longer.