Hell Fire and Damnation*

Three Keys to Understand the Old Testament | CBN.com

At theological college one of the tutors who was most engaging for me was our tutor in Old Testament. He made these 39 books (46 if you are Roman Catholic) come alive.

As a teenager in church I was taught that the Old Testament was OK but was sub- Christian. Reading the Old Testament was like reading a cheap novel whilst the New Testament was like reading great poetry.

Sadly I feel, that the this is a common misconception about the Old Testament that pervades the church today: that it’s too violent, not relevant to our contemporary lives, and we’re better off focusing on the New Testament. The Old Testament is often left to right-wing fundamentalist churches that cherrypick which passages to use to bolster their arguments.

Abandoning the Old Testament to these misconceptions leaves us without its robust texts and insights with which we can approach some of the most serious problems we face in the world today

Whenever we face crises or issues, they are occasions for us to re-read the Bible with fresh sets of eyes, looking for words of hope, guidance and comfort, and in these days, several key texts are important. For economic and racial justice issues, it’s hard to do better than the Book of Amos, and the articulate statement of God’s judgment that’s found there that’s specifically oriented around social injustice and economic disparity. That could have been written last week. God’s wrath and judgment does not portray an angry or vengeful God but portrays a God who is not indifferent to the injustices of the world. So when you watch the news bulletins with Amos, you too can’t be indifferent. You have to care.

The Psalms have always been important to the life of the church for worship and liturgy, but more than that they are a resource for articulating grief, sorrow, anxiety, and deep anger.

The cursing Psalms may cause us problems but they are a poignant resource when we think about the enemies that we face. Those enemies don’t have to be just human beings, they can be institutions, they can systems like racism, sexism or homophobia. What the cursing Psalms do is take all that wrath and anger that has to be uttered but allows it to be uttered within the confines of prayer. It’s very different than uttering it in the public square which can often lead to confrontation and even violence. It’s a way to let it go and hold it back at the same time, and to bring it in the context of worship with fellow believers who can hear it and then wonder perhaps how they might help.

The Book of Ecclesiastes offers wisdom for contemporary Christians, encouraging them to savour the small gifts they can experience. The Book of Genesis gives Christians a framework for understanding the image of God as a call to emulate God. Genesis calls us to be creative, to make room, to bless, to be generous, particularly toward animals and the land and other created things and to take better care of the world than we’re doing right now.

The Old Testament was the symbolic world within which the New Testament authors lived. If you want to understand anything about the New Testament, you have to understand that symbolic world. But the same is true for us now: if we want to understand God’s ways in the world, we need to understand the symbolic world of the entirety of Scripture, Old and New Testaments.

Not only must we read Scripture we must pay attention to Scripture in the Christian tradition and expect to hear from it a word of God to the reader and to the community of faith. That attention to God’s Word is so crucial. Although it is something that can be taught, it also has to be cultivated; it’s a practice, it’s a discipline, to come to Scripture with a trusting attention and listen for address.

Even when we encounter various problems within Scripture, such as outdated gender roles or the problem of priestly law, this attention and trust toward the text means we may yet still hear a word of address to us that can change us for the better.

The best interpretation of Scripture always results in better love of God and love of neighbour. The early church thought the more difficult a text was, like say, some violent text, some disturbing text, it must mean more than what it seems to mean—something deeper that helps us love God and our neighbors.”

The survival of the Old Testament is critical for Christians to stay honest, in touch with reality to ensure we have a community of Christians who are not interested in denial about their wrongdoing or anybody else’s wrongdoing, and are not tight-lipped about what deserves praise and glory to God, but are candid about both things; who realise that their best speech about God will have to be bound in beautiful imagery and high metaphor because how else are they going to begin to describe the infinite in finite language? A people who are in firm touch with their belongingness to a larger community of faith that is truly vast, highly diverse, global— not just across the globe, but also across time, spanning many generations and millennia.”

God bless and take care,

Alan.

*Often muttered under the breath during a church council!

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