Archive for the ‘faith’ Category

Christian Piatt Blog has MOVED

Friday, August 12th, 2011

Hi all:

I have moved my blog to my new website at You can link to the blog directly from the home page, and there is an RSS feed you can pick up if you would like to subscribe.

Thanks for following, and hope to greet you at the new site!

Christian Piatt

Un-American in the name of Jesus?

Saturday, July 23rd, 2011

Un-American in the name of Jesus?
By Christian Piatt
(Originally printed in PULP)

I used to go to a lot of basketball games with my dad in Dallas. We have both been enthusiastic Mavericks fans for almost three decades, so you can imagine how excited I was when they won their first NBA championship this year.


Anyhow, before each game they go through the typical ritual of playing the Star Spangled Banner, and I would always stand up, face the flag and put my hand over my heart. But then a new announcer one year asked people to “please rise to honor God and America with the singing of our National Anthem.”

“That’s messed up,” I said.

“What?” said my dad, “They do the same thing every game.”

“Yeah but this new guy says that the Star Spangled Banner honors God,” I said, “but there’s nothing in the verse they sing at the games about God anywhere. It has nothing to do with God.”

My dad grumbled something about my lack of patriotism and turned back toward the flag. But ever since, that moment has stood out in my mind as a perfect example of one of my biggest annoyances with American culture: our tendency to comingle a Christian identity with national patriotism.

So I was particularly interested to hear that Goshen College, a relatively small Mennonite school in Indiana, had decided to no longer play the National Anthem before any sporting events sponsored by the college. The reasoning, offered in a public statement issued by the college, was as follows:

“Historically, playing the national anthem has not been among Goshen College’s practices because of our Christ-centered core value of compassionate peacemaking seeming to be in conflict with the anthem’s militaristic language.”

Unsurprisingly, the decision caused a ruckus, especially once news outlets such as Fox Radio got hold of it. But even local city councilmen decried the move, suggesting that those in charge were violating “the American way,” and should relocate to somewhere like Cuba or Iran for a while until they learned to appreciate what they have here at home.

I posted a link to this news story on my Facebook page and asked people to respond. Following are a handful of comments from the many I received:

“It’s such a hard issue because the song is both a symbol and a song … I agree with the college that it isn’t a very Christian tune. It is about war. However, to ban it is, I fear, short-sighted. The song is a symbol of American unity. To ban it risks saying ‘we don’t want to be a part of the nation.’ I’m not sure that’s what they want to say.” (From a lawyer)

“I support the ban, the choice and the school’s right to make their own decision independent of the city council or any other political body.” (From a minister)

Ashley Quinn: “I wonder where the whole tradition of the anthem at sporting events started anyways. Probably something to do with the whole combative, competitive nature of many sports. I don’t think it makes any sense for a group of people devoted to peacemaking to sing it before they do anything.” (From a bartender)

Carl Gregg: “For anyone who watched the Super Bowl, there is a breathtaking mix of sports, nationalism, and military imagery. Ultimately, Christianity is trans-national, seeking to build the Beloved Community irrespective of national borders. The school is making one small step against the massive idolatry that is ubiquitous in our society of putting biological family and nation before God.” (From another minister)

“In the article I noticed people calling this anti-American. I don’t see it that way at all. Americans are at our very best when we are tolerant of others. You know, that whole ‘land of the free’ verse.” (From a retired Marine)

I’ll gladly concede that my circle for friends doesn’t represent the full socio-political spectrum, but I found the comments generally encouraging. For most of my life, it’s been sold to me that being a good Christian also meant supporting our country, wars, death penalty and all. But I think we’d be doing both our faith and our patriotism a favor if we made clear in our own minds that not everyone who is a Christian, as grateful as we may be for the freedom we’re afforded here, agrees morally with how we got here.

Christian is the creator and editor of the BANNED QUESTIONS book series, which include BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BIBLE and BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT JESUS. He co-created and co-edits the “WTF: Where’s the Faith?” young adult series with Chalice Press, and he has a memoir on faith, family and parenting being published in early 2012 called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.

For more information about Christian, visit, or find him on Twitter or Facebook.

Evangelism, Missional Church & God’s Sense of Humor

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2011

A little more than twenty years ago, I walked out of a church for what I was pretty sure would be the last time. For a decade, I held to that assumption, but it turns out that God works, even among us heretics.

I’m not going to lean on the whole “everything happens for a reason” cliche because I don’t believe everything does happen for a reason. But the fact that I’m a presenter in Nashville at the New Evangelism Workshop (NEW) on Friday, July 8th and Saturday the 9th with my wife, Rev. Amy Piatt is enough to convince me that God can use nearly anything for good.

What’s most interesting to me is that my entire ministry has ended up being built upon those years I walked away from church. What once appeared to be my stumbling block is now the cornerstone. God is good, and God has a pretty sick sense of humor.

Anyway, if you’re going to be in or around Nashville, TN on July 8-9th, come check out what is sure to be an exciting two days of folks coming together in conversation to discuss and discern just how the church can be relevant in a 21st century world. We’ll be joined by folks like Bill Easum, Bill and Kris Tenny-Brittian, Heather Patriacca Tolleson, Geoffrey McClure Mitchell, Wayne Calhoun, Bill McConnell, Gary Straub, Dick Hamm and lots of others who will come together to share what they have learned about this common mission.


As for Amy and me, we’re sticking to what we know best: teaching people how to learn from our mistakes. Seven years into a new church start, we’re alive, well and vibrant, but the road was rife with Strategic IEDs. If we can help others find a smoother path by sharing some from our host of screw-ups, far be it from us to let our egos interfere.

Also, if you’re part of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and will be attending the General Assembly in Nashville following the NEW, come check out the groovy Missional Church learning track facilitated by Brian McLaren, Sharon Watkins, Amy, myself and others. We’ll talk about what “emerging church” or “missional church” actually mean, why they matter and what it means for our work as ministers. The setting will be dynamic, interactive and enriching, I’m sure.


Hope to see many of you there.

Two Friars, a Fool, a Book and a Beer

Tuesday, June 21st, 2011

Many thanks to Two Friars and a Fool for sharing their own thoughts on BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BIBLE. These guys are an unruly band of theologians who enjoy pub-style discourse over all things faith-related. When they asked me to share something about the new book for their forum, I was naturally happy to oblige.

Their format is refreshingly different. They have folks like me submit an article, then each of the three (two friars plus one fool equals three) share a video response. This then leads to a larger conversation in their forum, where others can jump in, offer their two cents, chuck the virtual bar stool and the like.

For me, this kind of online space is exactly what the BANNED QUESTIONS series is all about: opening the doors, opening peoples’ minds and giving permission to talk about anything we are wondering about, afraid of, doubting or passionately convicted about. If only more of our congregations reflected this kind of vibe!

Check out the article here, along with the Two Friars and a Fool video responses.

On a somewhat related note, Chalice Press, my beloved publisher, released their top-three list of most viewed titles on their website, and BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BIBLE was number two! Thanks to all who are showing an interest in the work we’re doing with this series. For those who have yet to order the book, or for those awaiting book two in the series, BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT JESUS, you can order either or both through the end of June on the Chalice Press website for 40% off the retail price if you enter the promotional code “BANNEDQJ” on the final checkout page. There is no limit on the number of book s that qualify for this discount, so stock up and give copies to your pastor, friends and enemies.

Finally, several folks have asked about additional titles in the BANNED QUESTIONS series. Right now, Chalice Press is waiting to see how their first two titles do before committing to more, but being optimistic, I’ve been wrangling an all-star roster of interested contributors for a third book, should the publisher agree to pull the trigger. More on this as I’m allowed to share, but the best way to ensure there are more titles is to share a good word about the first two.

Until next time…

Can Christians Ever Cheer for Death?

Monday, June 6th, 2011

Can people of faith cheer for death?
Smells Like Sprit
By Christian Piatt
(Originally published in PULP)

Ding, dong, the wicked witch is dead. Or something like that.

News spread like a Pueblo West brushfire that Osama Bin Laden, America’s longtime Public Enemy Number One, had been killed in a firefight with Delta Force and Navy SEAL soldiers earlier in May. I wrestled with mixed feelings as I heard President Obama break the news late that Sunday evening, relieved that the manhunt was finally over, but also disturbed by the fatal outcome.

Then I jumped online to chat it up with my fellow Facebookers to see what the pulse of my peers was. The feelings spanned the spectrum, from dismay that our government world embark on secret assassination missions in foreign territory to outright jubilation that the Bad Guy finally got his due.

The latter sentiment really bothered me, though, especially when it came from folks I knew considered themselves to be people of faith. To celebrate the killing of anyone – ever – seems contrary to the tenet that we see (or at least seek to see) God in all of creation. To cheer the killing of Osama Bin Laden seemed to me an effort to draw a line in the sand between the so-called “sheep” and “goats,” thus ensuring we’re on the side of the righteous.

Are we so sure, though? I’m not saying in any way that the horrendous acts of September 11th, 2001 are justified by any human or divine sense of justice: at least I hope not. But how sure are we that our hands are without similar blemish? And ultimately, how can there ever be peace when the transaction of justice is “blood for blood?”

I guess it raises the question of whether what we are seeking is peace, or our own sense of justice. And when we ascribe what we claim as right and wrong as divinely justified, well, how is that different from what Bin Laden did in the first place?

The whole thing causes me to think back to a story I once read in an August 8th, 2008 post on the Christianity Today website about theologian and author Dietrich Bonheoffer and his opposition to Adolf Hitler. The article says the following about Bonheoffer:

“To this point he had been a pacifist, and he had tried to oppose the Nazis through religious action and moral persuasion. Now he signed up with the German secret service (to serve as a double agent—while traveling to church conferences over Europe, he was supposed to be collecting information about the places he visited, but he was, instead, trying to help Jews escape Nazi oppression). Bonheoffer also became a part of a plot to overthrow, and later to assassinate, Hitler.”

Bonheoffer later was hanged along with other Jewish sympathizers before he could participate in any assassination attempt. But Bonheoffer himself acknowledges the hypocrisy of trying to kill another human being, no matter their evils, in the name of a faith that ultimately calls for peace and reconciliation.

It was in his humanity, not in his faith, that he found the compulsion to kill Hitler. All the while he recognized the discrepancy with what he claimed as his beliefs, yet felt helpless to resort to any, less violent, solution.

In the pop culture sphere, I think of the scene in Star Wars when Luke Skywalker chops off Darth Vader’s hand with his light saber, only to look down and realize his own hand had become that of his enemy.

How, after all, do we respond like our enemy without becoming that which we hate? Is it even possible?

The answer to that, as I’ve said in columns past, is above my pay grade. But suffice it to say that Proverbs 24, Verse 17, sums up my feelings about how we’re called to react to such a killing;

Don’t rejoice when your enemy falls. Don’t let your heart be glad when he is overthrown.

Freedom not to be free?

Friday, May 13th, 2011

Freedom not to be free?
By Christian Piatt
(Originally published in PULP)

We’ve all watched history revealing itself in real time with the remarkable events in the Middle East. From Egypt and Libya to Yemen and Bahrain, individuals and small groups of protesters are challenging the iron grasps of decades-long dictatorships. It’s enough to give even the most cynical observer a moment of awe-filled pause.

For the most part, the protesters focus on wanting to bring democracy to their respective countries, a situation that would seem to be a natural for American support. The trouble is, we’ve had economically and strategically beneficial relationships with many of these dictators for a long time. By placing our allegiance with the people in the streets, we run the risk that the revolutions may fail, and that we may be left with a tarnished, if not irreparable, relationship with a former partner.

Does the United States support democracy? Sort of. When it’s in our best interests, to be sure. Yes, we’ve stuck our necks out in some cases where we seemed to have little vested interest, but suffice it to say we drag our feet when there an oil pipeline or American military base involved.

But there are other issues at play here, and I’m not sure any of them are discussed at the level where real decisions are made. One came to light for me when co-editing a recent book for Chalice Press called “Split Ticket: Independent Faith in a Time of Partisan Politics.” In it, a pair of self-proclaimed Christian anarchists made the compelling claim that voting, in itself, is an act of violence.

What? The system we’ve come to hold near and practically worship is inherently violent? It took me a while to come around, and though I don’t entirely see eye to eye with them, they make a good point.

The essence of the argument is that, in a democracy, 50 percent of the people plus one more can subjugate the will and rights of the rest. By not making room for the minority’s interests to be heard and acted on in these instances, the minority is marginalized. This, the authors claim, falls within the definition of inflicting violence from the majority onto the minority.

Kinda like Churchill said, it’s a tragically flawed system, but it’s the best we have. But what about in a context where religious ideology is poised to use majority rule to impose potentially severe limits on many of its people? And what if these leaders, though democratically elected, might set out to impose a legal system that is inherently un-democratic?

Some protest groups seek to impose Sharia, an Islamic system of law based upon truths revealed in the Quran by Allah, and through practices embodied by the prophet Muhammad. Sharia, like many ideological systems, has been interpreted in a number of ways by different people, but in some cases it can seriously limit the rights of women. For example, under some understandings of Sharia, men can have up to four wives, women are told what they can and can’t wear in public, and in some cases, they may not be allowed to vote.

So, do we put our material and human resources at risk to support those seeking democracy in their country, all the while knowing that they fully intend to implement a legal system that many believe violates human and civil rights? Or do we keep propping up the dictators who, by fear and threat of violence, may keep a relative peace in the land where the oil runs freely?

Talk about a moral dilemma. Some might even say it’s a lose-lose scenario. Theologian Walter Wink suggests that any violent or oppressive system that is replaced by violent means run a great risk of becoming that which it despised, changing the rulers but not the rules.

Provided the dictators are overthrown, we can always offer to serve in an advisory role on how to effect safeguards that prevent laws that violate individual or collective rights. But if democracy is really just a means to another ideological end, the new powers that be may have no interest in what we have to say.

If we try to implement certain strictures by force, we run the risk of further solidifying our reputation as an imperial power, intent on taking over the region one country at a time. So do we support the uprisings, knowing that what may emerge is another system of governance with which we have fundamental differences? Or do we stand on the sidelines, convincing ourselves that tyrants like Gaddafi aren’t really so bad?

Call me a starry-eyed idealist, but I still believe that the greatest change for the better comes from leading by example. For us, this begins with advocating for truly equal rights across the board in our own back yard, including those who love differently or look differently than we. Until that time, our calls for freedom and equality ring hollow in a world that sees the truth beneath the thin veneer.

Which is it? Eye for an Eye or turn the Other Cheek? (BANNED QUESTIONS)

Friday, April 1st, 2011

How do we reconcile the Old Testament command for vengeance (eye for an eye) with Jesus’ command to turn the other cheek and love our enemies?(Order BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BIBLE, now available at Chalice Press and other booksellers.)

Becky Garrison:

Our hatred of the “other” is nothing new. At the time of Jesus’ birth, the Samaritans and the Jews had been at each other’s throats for literally hundreds of years. At the time when Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37), the concept of a Samaritan coming to the rescue of a Jew would have been considered just as incongruous as if, say, a Focus on the Family follower marched in the New York City LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender) Pride Parade today.

But as the parable made clear, the Samaritan was considered the Jewish man’s “neighbor.” By implication, that means the definition of “neighbor” has to be expanded to include all of God’s children, including those of different social classes, races, creeds and political affiliations. When Jesus commanded His followers to “go and do likewise” by following the example of the Good Samaritan, he challenged the early church to look beyond its comfort zone. His disciples were required to obey the Greatest Commandment by showing His love and kindness to all people, because everyone was their “neighbor.”

The early Christian church cut across the various hierarchical lines that divided people. It did not seek to dominate the political establishment or maintain the status quo; rather its goal was to spread the universal love of Christ. In doing that, it transformed the world.

Jarrod McKenna:

I had just finished running a workshop for Greenpeace, The Wilderness Society and an anti-nuclear organization on the history and power of nonviolent direct action where I had explored and trained people in the transformative nonviolence of Gandhi, MLK and to the surprise of many gathered, Jesus. Afterwards a well-respected activist approached me away from others and asked with tears in their eyes, “Why was this Jesus not found in my experience of church?”

This question goes to the heart of the Gospel. To the heart of mission. To the heart of discipleship. Why is it that people can’t find the hope of the world in our churches? I think it’s directly connected to the lack of schooling in letting God’s love through us by “loving our enemies.” To be merciful as The Triune God is merciful. Fierce Calvary-shaped love is how God has saved us and its how we are to witness to our salvation. Grace is both how God has saved us and the pattern of kingdom living the Holy Spirit empowers us for.

“Eye for an eye” is not about vengeance but the limitation of retaliation. In Christ, violence is not only restrained but transformed. On the cross God does not overcome evil with evil but with good (Rom. 12:21). There is nothing passive about Jesus turning the other cheek in the face of injustice (John 18:23). To turn the other cheek is to practice the provocative peace that embodies the healing justice of the Kingdom that exposing injustice with the presence of Love (Col.2:15).

We don’t need to reconcile vengeance or violence with loving our enemies. Instead we need to be open to the Holy Spirit’s empowerment to witness to God reconciling the world to Godself through the nonviolent Messiah, Jesus.

Rebecca Bowman Woods:

In Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know and Doesn’t, Stephen Prothero shares the story of a 1995 Colorado murder trial. During deliberations, one juror pulled out his Bible and quoted Leviticus 24, the “eye for an eye” passage that concludes with “He that killeth a man, he shall be put to death.” After the juror instructed his fellow jurors to go home and prayerfully consider this passage, they voted unanimously for the death penalty.

The state Supreme Court ordered a new trial, ruling that jurors were not allowed to consult the Bible. Some Christians, led by Colorado-based Focus on the Family, protested the higher court’s ruling. Perhaps rightly so — can a court really prevent people of faith from including scripture in their decision-making?

But the real injustice, in Prothero’s opinion, was that the jurors failed to consider the rest of the Bible, particularly Jesus’ views on retaliation in Matthew 5:38-42.

“There are very few passages from the Hebrew Bible that are explicitly refuted in the New Testament, but Leviticus 24:20-21 (echoed in Exodus 21:23-25 and Deuteronomy 19:21) is one of them,” writes Prothero, a professor of religious studies at Boston University and a staunch advocate of religious literacy.

Christians should rarely fall back on the ‘New Testament supersedes the Old Testament’ argument. In Matthew 5, Jesus warns that he has not “come to abolish the law or the prophets” but to fulfill it. He teaches an ethic that “embraces and extends” the law in several instances, and refutes it in a few.

Amy Greenbaum, a friend who is in the process of becoming an ordained Reformed Jewish rabbi, says the ‘eye for an eye’ text in Leviticus 24 would not have been taken literally, even in ancient times.

Kathy Escobar:

I started seeking God on my own when I was a little girl, apart from my family who were not Christians.  I can’t explain it, really; I was always drawn to Jesus but couldn’t quite make sense of the Old Testament and a lot of the crazy things that were in there–whole communities being wiped out, God’s vengeance being poured out left and right.  I tried to skip over those parts and somehow erase them from my mind and just focus on Jesus because that was a lot more comforting.

Later, as I began to mature in my faith, I realized I needed to wrestle with this disparity.  I admit, I still do. I rest on the new order that Jesus created through the incarnation, turning the old ways upside down.  I think the contrast is important; the radical difference between vengeance in the Old and New Testament makes God’s point.  Jesus changes everything, teaching what the Kingdom now means.

The Sermon on the Mount clearly sets the stage for this new way that completely demolishes the idea of “an eye for an eye.” I don’t think I have to pick apart all the reasons why the Old Testament contains certain stories or examples that are utterly confusing and seemingly contrary to God’s heart for people. I try to rest on the reality that through the gospels, all that changed.   The commands shifted, the law got summed up, and the Kingdom principles Jesus taught were going to be much harder to apply than the old laws by a long shot.

Are some sins better or worse than others? (Banned Questions)

Monday, March 21st, 2011

Are some sins worse or better than others?

(From the book, BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BIBLE by Chalice Press, edited by Christian Piatt. Order either BANNED QUESTIONS book on the Chalice Press website during the month of March, enter the promotional code “BANNEDMAR” at checkout and receive a 40% discount.)

Nadia Bolz-Weber:

It’s important to recognize the difference between big S Sin and little s sins.  Big S sin is the human state of being “turned in on self” without a thought of God or neighbor.  Big S sin is putting ourselves on God’s throne and not allowing God to be God for us.  The fancy Latin that Martin Luther used was se encurvatus en se.  The self turned in on the self.  That is that state of big S sin in which every human being on the planet lives.

Little s sins are the result of big S sin.  But even if someone managed to pull off not committing little s sin they would still be plagued with big S Sin.  Yet a lot of Christianity tries to come off as a way to avoid little s sin so that you are progressively sanctified until – poof – you are without big S sin.

For the record, Lutherans such as myself do not think this is actually possible, even though it sounds real nice. This is why a lot of other Christians don’t like Lutherans, but that is another story entirely.

Now, back to the question.  Are some little s sins worse than others? Yes. Are some little s sins better that others? No. (Leave it to a Lutheran to make something a paradox). But here’s the thing: the sin of murder is more harmful than the sin of, say, stealing a salt-shaker from Denny’s. But the big S Sin of the sinner who stole the salt-shaker is no less than the big S Sin of the sinner who killed another sinner.

Being Christian does not mean that we follow a really great Sin Management Program. It means that we confess that the grace of God is sufficient.

…if grace is true, you must bear a true and not a fictitious sin. God does not save people who are only fictitious sinners. Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly. For he is victorious over sin, death, and the world.[1]

-Martin Luther

Gary Peluso-Verdend:

Yes, but first let’s define sin. In the U.S., we tend to think of “sin” and “sex” together. That pairing is most unfortunate, both for a healthy understanding of sex as well as a healthy understanding of sin. This limitation of “sin” to “sex” and, secondarily, to some vices (e.g., gambling, drinking, smoking) leads us Christians to over-attend to sexual sin and under-attend to other areas of sin.

For example, in a recent national election, most Americans polled did not understand war as a moral issue.

Sin is a condition of broken relationship, the act of breaking a relationship, living in broken relationships, and acting in ways so as to perpetuate a broken relationship. By this definition, murder is sin, insulting a colleague is sin, and passing laws that perpetuate injustice is sin. I’ve heard some interpreters quote Paul to the effect that, since “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” all sin is equal. Paul’s statement might be rightly used to argue all human beings are sinners but not that all sins are equally weighty. Catholic moral theology has long argued that some sins were more (mortal) or less (venial) severe.

Certainly, murder is a worse sin than stealing a piece of candy. Abusing a child is a worse sin than flipping off the driver who cut you off in traffic.

Consider this principle: the more people are affected, the more permanent are the negative consequences, the deeper and broader and more irreparable the broken relationships, the worse the sin.

Joshua Einsohn:

Well, some sins are a lot more fun than others!  (Rim shot, please!).

I’m not really one to worry about the afterlife. If there is one, I think everyone pretty much has it wrong. A favorable judgment isn’t going to come from specifically taking, say, Jesus into your heart. Taking love into your heart, sure. But all the exclusionary rules that fall under the category of “sin” are far too inconsistent to be what actually happens.

I have to believe that the sin of stealing your stapler from work isn’t going to compete with the sin of hypocrisy. I have to believe that the people who claim to do God’s work by making miserable the lives of those who are different from them aren’t really allowed a free pass when it comes to cleansing their conscience.

Even within the Ten Commandments, some are quite obviously good guidelines, but some are a little hazy. Don’t kill anyone. Don’t take shit that’s not yours. Don’t lie.  Stop checkin’ out your neighbor’s firm butt because you might try to do something about it.

Solid advice. Telling your buddy that the hideous item of clothing that they’ve fallen in love with looks good on them…well, yes that’s bearing false witness, but it comes from a good place, so that’s gotta be ok, right???

The whole “sin” thing seems to be on a sliding scale to me, but I’ve always operated under the idea that all sins are not created equally and that the best we can do is avoid the big ones and try to learn not to commit the smaller ones…often.

[1] Weimar ed. vol. 2, p. 371; Letters I, “Luther’s Works,” American Ed., Vol 48. p. 281- 282

BANNED QUESTION: Should a Biblical Hell be Taken Literally?

Monday, March 14th, 2011

The following is a passage from the book, BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BIBLE. Visit Chalice Press, order the BANNED QUESTIONS books online or by phone and use the promotional code “BANNEDMAR” for a 40% discount.

Hell, Sheol, Hades, Gehenna, and Tartarus are all labeled as “Hell.” By most Christians. Are they really the same? Are they all places of fiery torment? Are such things to be taken literally, metaphorically, or as myth?

David Lose:

These places aren’t all the same, but they’re similar enough that you can understand why people lump them together. In brief, Sheol and Hades represent the realm of the dead, the place where both good people and bad go after death. Gehenna and Tartarus, on the other hand, are reserved for wicked people and are places of punishment. Hell, a word that comes from Old English, has become a catch-all phrase for the others, but for the last two, especially.

On the whole, the Bible doesn’t talk a whole lot about any of these places, and so I’m a little leery of giving them much significance in our own theology. In fact, I get downright suspicious of folks that seem to like talking about eternal punishment, as that seems out of sync with Jesus’ emphasis on God’s love.

Too often in the Church’s history, hell has been used to scare people into doing what the church wants them to. For this reason, some people think we’ve outgrown the usefulness of concepts like hell and damnation. Others, however, would argue that we wouldn’t appreciate heaven without the threat of hell.

In so far as hell depicts ultimate separation from God, I tend to think that whether it’s an actual physical place or a metaphor, it’s a good place to avoid. On that score, I take hope from the Apostle Paul’s declaration that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39). Sounds good to me.
Gary Peluso-Verdend:

No, the meaning of these words is not the same. Rather, we have different symbols from different symbol systems.
Sheol is a Hebrew word, found in the pre-6th century BCE portions of the Old Testament. Ancient Judaism did not conceive of human beings as part body and part soul. Rather, human beings were understood as flesh animated by the breath of God. Whatever existence a person has after death was thought to be in a place called Sheol, a place of shades, where there is no consciousness. Sheol contains neither pleasures nor torments.

During Israel’s captivity in Babylon, Jews were exposed to Zoroastrianism, a religion that includes a belief in resurrection and a two-place afterlife—the equivalent of heaven and hell. By New Testament times, belief in resurrection, heaven, and hell were widespread—albeit not universal—in Judaism.

Hell as a place of torment and stink became well developed many centuries after the Bible by the Christian writer Dante Alighieri, but sometimes the roots of a mythical or non-physical place are found in real places. Gehenna, as a place of torment for evil people, was associated with the Valley of Hinnom, south of Jerusalem, where the city dumped its garbage.

Very important beliefs are associated with hell, such as sin, judgment, consequence, resurrection. Christianity—or any other religion—is like a language; one must understand each symbol within a greater grammar.

Jason Boyett:

No, they are not the same. Four words—the Hebrew word sheol and the Greek words hades, gehenna, and tartaroo—have been translated as the English word hell. We think of hell as a fiery place of torment for sinners, but only gehenna fits that description.

Sheol was an all-purpose term referring to the shadowy realm of the dead (“the grave”), and earlier Old Testament books seem to indicate that everyone goes there—not just the wicked. In the New Testament, the Greek word hades is used interchangeably with sheol—it’s the place of the dead. Tartaroo appears only once in the Bible, in 2 Peter 2:4. It refers to Tartarus, the dungeon-like netherworld in Greek mythology filled with suffering and torment. The context indicates it is where demons reside.

The hell-as-torture-chamber idea comes from gehenna, which Jesus described as a destination for sinners. This word originates with a Hebrew name, Ge-Hinnom, which refers to the Hinnom Valley, a garbage dump outside Jerusalem. Trash, animal carcasses, and the bodies of criminals were dumped there, and the valley burned continuously—an evocative image of hell.
Do we take the idea of a burning hell literally? Jesus certainly spoke as if it were a real place. But keep in mind that the idea of a dualistic afterlife—a hell for sinners and heaven for the righteous—was a relatively new idea to Judaism, possibly due to the influence of Zoroastrianism during the Babylonian Exile. It was a theological departure from the ancient faith of the Jewish patriarchs.

Craig Detweiler:

While death is a certain fact, it is also prompts an air of mystery. What happens when our hearts stop beating?   Is there something on the other side of life?  Descriptions of hell (and heaven) are all rather speculative, more poetic than precise.

The Hebrew word, “Sheol,” describes the grave that awaits us all.  It is a shadowy place, something we’ve all glimpsed at a funeral, but never experienced from the inside. Our bodies are all bound for Sheol, irrespective of our beliefs or practices.   None escape physical death.

When the Hebrew scriptures were translated into the Greek language, the word “Hades” was chosen to describe the ground or pit our bodies are bound for.  The Greek notion of Hades was more of a shady, mythological place than a physical grave.

Within Greek mythology, Tartarus, is a place of judgment and torment, a pit much farther down than the more benign Hades. Only once does the word Tartarus appear in scripture.  In 2 Peter 2:4, God punishes sinful angels by throwing them into Tarturus, a dark pit reserved for judgment.

When the Bible was translated into English, Hades and Sheol were translated as Hell. Unfortunately, such a reference comes across as much more loaded than “the grave.” It had eternal associations rather than tangible, temporal or physical meaning.
The associations of hell with a fire, torment, and eternal anonymity start coming into play with a term like “Gehenna.”  It is a destination we would all want to avoid.   It is a place where people who lack family, resources, and significance are discarded.   No one wants to feel so unloved, unacknowledged, or unnoticed.

What does the Bible really say about homosexuality?

Tuesday, March 8th, 2011

From the upcoming book, BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BIBLE. Order sets of five copies at Chalice Press, enter the promotional code “BANNEDQ5″ at checkout and get 40% all five books. 

What does the Bible really say about homosexuality?

Christian Piatt:
Perhaps nothing sparks more heated debate over scripture than the Biblical position on homosexuality. First off, it should be pointed out that there is no reference whatsoever in any Biblical scripture about homosexuality; rather, it refers in some instances to homosexual acts. And depending on your understanding of sexual orientation, there can be a big difference between the two.

The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is perhaps the most famous – or infamous, based on where you’re coming from – but it’s important to understand how homosexual behavior was used in the town from which “sodomy” was coined. When a town was conquered, one way that the victorious army would demonstrate their dominance was to rape the women of the village. Sometimes, to add further insult to the defeat, they would even rape the men.

Rather than an intimate act, this behavior actually was a military strategy, though brutal and repulsive, to break the spirits of the defeated culture.

Other references, including those by the apostle Paul, condemn men for lying with men as if they are women. Again, some context helps us understand that certain non-Christian religions of the time conducted ritual orgies as a tribute to their god or gods, and though it can be argued either way, it’s possible that Paul was referring to what he considered heathenous religious practice rather than consensual gay couples.

As for Jesus, he never spoke about homosexuality or homosexual acts, so for those who look principally for him for guidance, we’re left with our own consciences to guide us.

Kathy Escobar:
The passages that are commonly used as an argument against homosexuality are Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13.

However, like all the translations of the Bible, there are all kinds of different meanings from the original words that people use to prove their divergent points. In the 1 Corinthians 6 passage, for example, which is often used, the word for “homosexual offenders”– arsenokoitai–has a wide range of interpretations. In fact, every passage does.

That is one of the crazy parts about being more honest about Bible interpretation; it is subjective and always open for scrutiny if we respect our human limitations and inability to be 100% certain that this what God means. Regarding this issue, it is interesting to me that Jesus was never recorded in the gospels as mentioning homosexuality, yet clearly this has become one of the most significantly “Christian” issues of our time.

I come from a conservative evangelical tradition and have made great shifts in what I believe over the years as I began to realize that I primarily believed certain things because that is what people in power told me. As I started to do my own biblical research (and cultivate close relationship with gay and lesbian friends) my heart began to feel far less certain about what I had been taught. Because my church, The Refuge, is an inclusive community, sometimes people of a more conservative persuasion will ask me, “What we do about the gay people who are part of our community? Don’t we tell them the truth about what the Bible says?”

My answer has become so clear and freeing; I tell them “I know that you see the scriptures that way, and I understand there are some passages in the Bible that point to homosexual behavior as a sin, but it would be a good idea for you to know some other people who see those passages differently, who read the same exact words as you and have solid convictions – as solid as yours – that are completely different from your viewpoint. Maybe you can learn from each other in true community instead of argue over the teaching of biblical truth.”

Over time, I have come to the conclusion that I don’t really know, but I don’t really need to know. I don’t have a simple way to reconcile these passages or dismiss created design and the differences between male and female anatomy. Regardless, I can say all of the unknowns, various interpretations and perspectives do force me to keep turning to and relying on the bigger story, and the bigger story is about Jesus alive and at work, restoring, rebuilding, healing, challenging, moving people of all shapes, sizes, colors and sexual orientations.

Joshua Einsohn:
The Bible says a lot of pretty mean things about homosexuality: “You shall not lie with a man as with a woman; that is an abomination” (Leviticus 18:22). (I know that the Lord was speaking with Moses here, but the subtle sexism should be noted…it overlooks woman-on-woman action.)

Leviticus goes back for more: “If a man has intercourse with a man as with a woman, they both commit an abomination. They shall be put to death; their blood shall be on their own heads” (Leviticus 20:13).

And lest we forget the New Testament, Romans 1:26-27 says that men and women who have homosexual relations are considered “unnatural” and pretty much have it comin’ for their “perversion.” Nice to see that women were acknowledged here, though. Progress of a sort, I suppose.

However, there are many laws that aren’t followed today because they are considered antiquated or irrelevant. In Leviticus 19:20, it says that it’s ok to doink a slave-girl as long as she hasn’t been freed and that you feel pretty crappy about it afterwards. And there’s also: “When any man reviles his father and his mother, he shall be put to death” (Leviticus 20:9). I’m sure that the parents of many teenagers are game for that one, but modern law prohibits it and that’s probably a good idea. We see very few stonings these days that aren’t frowned upon, but it was quite the fad back then.

Many ancient laws, from keeping Kosher to circumcision, are considered up for interpretation. Pro-gay rights advocates claim that there have been mistranslations and inconsistent enforcement of laws. Many conservatives argue that these passages should be adhered to strictly.

All I know is that when I hear these words hurled at me and people that I care about, they hurt. A lot.

Jason Boyett:
The Bible explicitly condemns homosexuality, but these few passages leave room for interpretation. For example, Genesis 19—the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah—is traditionally thought to have been a punishment on the cities’ rampant homosexuality. After all, that’s were we got the term “sodomites.” But Ezekiel 16:49 says the sin of Sodom was arrogance, apathy, and neglect of the poor. So was God punishing Sodom for homosexuality in general? For something specific like rape or inhospitality? Or for something else?

Likewise, Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 describe “[lying]with a man as one lies with a woman” as “detestable.” Seems pretty clear, right? But it also describes sex with a woman during her period as being detestable. These verses are part of a holiness code to separate the Israelites from neighboring cultures. Some scholars suggest it doesn’t condemn a homosexual lifestyle as much as it prohibits a specific pagan temple practice.

What about the New Testament? Romans 1:26-27 identifies homosexual activity as “indecent,” but the passage seems to address ritual behavior or pagan orgies. 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 denies God’s kingdom to “homosexual offenders,” based on a confusing Greek word that probably refers to older customers of young male prostitutes (pederasty).

What’s the point? The Bible condemns specific homosexual acts, but doesn’t address what we typically think of as homosexuality today—homosexual orientation or loving, committed homosexual relationships. This doesn’t mean the Bible approves of it, but only that it is silent on the subject.

José F. Morales, Jr.:
What does the Bible say about homosexuality as we understand it today? Homosexuality as orientation, not simply as choice? Nothing. Well, maybe something.

In the Levitical Code (Leviticus 17-26), homosexuality is called abomination, but so is eating shrimp and wearing mixed fabric. But we somehow don’t get our cotton-blend panties in a bunch whenever we go to Red Lobster. We highlight one verse about “homosexuality” and ignore the rest, and have wrongfully used it to discriminate against homosexuals. Interestingly, most scholars admit that these verses are some of the hardest to translate and understand.

Then comes Paul. Paul reduces homosexuality to pederasty (men using boys) and cultic male prostitution. He had no concept of faithful, monogamous, same-sex relationships, or of sexual orientation. Therefore the Bible says nothing homosexuality as we under…

But wait! Christian biologist Joan Roughgarden argues that we’re looking in the wrong place. She says we need to see how the Bible treats eunuchs, for the term “eunuch” also referred to “effeminate” men, men with both sets of genitals, and men with same-sex attraction. This last one comes closest to contemporary understanding. “For some are eunuchs because they were born that way…” (Matthew 19:12).

In the Law, eunuchs are condemned. But in Acts 8, a eunuch is baptized by Philip and portrayed in the text, and in later Ethiopian Church tradition, as a righteous leader in the Church.

And most powerfully, in Isaiah 56:4-5,8—
“To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
who choose what pleases me…
to them I will give within my temple and its walls
a memorial and a name…
I will give them an everlasting name…
I will gather still others to them besides those already gathered.”

God is gathering the gays…awesome!