how Yertle the Turtle reads the bible

"All mine!"  Yertle cried!  "Oh, the things I now rule!

I'm king of a cow!  And I'm king of a mule!

I'm king of a house!  And what's more, beyond that,

I'm king of a blueberry bush and a cat!

I'm Yertle the Turtle!  Oh, marvelous me!

For I am the ruler of all that I see!"  

from Yertle the Turtle, by Dr. Seuss

The Bible never, ever "clearly says."  We always read through our culture.  We're incapable of doing anything else.

If you don't believe me, go read Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, by Kenneth Bailey, and find out a whole world of stuff you never, ever knew about Jesus.  Because we've read the story through modern Western eyes.  

That's not our fault, because these are the only eyes we have.  

But if we deny the reality of our own cultural bias, we miss out on a whole lot, misinterpret a whole lot more, and run the risk of terribly mistreating the ones God loves.

In the American evangelical church, we have largely read the Bible through the lens of patriarchy.  Patriarchy is our cultural tradition handed down to Western society via veneration of classical Greek and Roman culture. 

Patriarchy is about power being retained at the top of the hierarchy, and distributed downward as the patriarch desires.  

Patriarchy assumes that the person at the top of the hierarchy is right, by virtue of their position.

This is the Yertle the Turtle way of life:

"I'm Yertle the Turtle, oh marvelous me, for I am the ruler of all I can see." 

So let's say that Yertle reads the story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar.   (Genesis chapters 12-21)

Yertle will assume Abraham must be the good guy and that whatever happens must be completely justified and okay with God 

In the Yertle-culture of my youth, this is the way I grew up hearing the story of Abraham:  there had to be a reasonable explanation for giving his wife away to other men (twice), owning slaves, having sex with slaves, and allowing said slaves to be driven away into the wilderness to die (twice).  Not quite sure what the explanation was, but there had to be one.  

Actually, we mostly ignored the story except for that one good line Hagar throws out:  "You are the God who sees me."

It was just too messy and difficult to understand Abraham and Sarah and Hagar through the lens of patriarchy, so mostly we didn't try.  We just assumed it was all fine with God.

And I think that assumption, that patriarchal assumption God was fine with what happened to Hagar, that he just patted her on the head and sent her back to live in her correct place within that system, has been the justification for epic boatloads of abuse against women by the church.  

In the last few decades, patriarchy has taken a nose-dive off its throne, for me and for a whole bunch of people who don't think it's okay to be automatically in charge just because your skin is white and you  happen to have certain sex organs.  

Monty Python captures it all perfectly with this line:  "Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government."  Patriarchy doesn't make sense any more, and it hasn't for a long time.

The fall of patriarchy leaves us with a problem when it comes to reading stories like Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar.

Our temptation is to abandon patriarchy and take up current cultural ethics instead.  If we read through that new cultural lens, Abraham becomes a pimp, a sex trafficker, a rapist, an accessory to attempted murderer.  In modern-day America, Abraham would find himself locked away in jail for life.  

So what are we to do with Bible stories like this?  Is there any value to them at all?  Should we even be reading this stuff any more? 

I think we have to try to look at these stories the way that God looks at everthing.  

We have to try to look through Love.

This is really hard for us, because we judge everything.  Remember Greg Boyd's idea from Repenting of Religion that the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil gave us the capacity to judge, but without God's ability to love completely.  And that's put us in a place of us vs. them ever since.

But we can try.  Try to look through Love.

If we try to look through Love instead of patriarchy or modernism, here are some things I see in the story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar:

  • God loves everyone in the story, the right and the not-right, the good guys and the bad guys, the perpetrators and the victims.  That's hard to swallow, but that's Love.
  • God places himself on the side of the victim (Hagar), to preserve her life and give her a hopeful future with her son, Ishmael, even when the "good guys" in the story can't or won't.
  • God is patient with the cultural blindess and personal failings that lead Abraham and Sarah to act so far outside of Love.

When I look at the story this way, it leads me to a big question that I can't answer very well:

Where is God exercising patience with my own cultural blindness and personal failings?

See, the thing is, we don't have a clue about our own cultural blindness.  

Often we're in a lot of denial about our personal crap, too, but that's easier to figure out.  Usually someone will tell us.  

If you read the story of Abraham and Sarah and Hagar, you'll see that people objected to Abraham selling Sarah down the river.  That was deceitful and out of line in their cultural context, a personal failing.

But nobody saw anything wrong with treating Hagar as an object to be used at will.

Nobody stood up for Hagar.

Nobody except the angel of the Lord, the God Who Sees.

And I wonder if we have problems like that in our culture, too.  Sure, there are things people do wrong that we recognize and can confront.  But I think there are a whole bunch of things that we think are just normal.  

Ways we objectify others, enslave others, exclude others, and fail to even see it.

And where is God when we do that?  Exactly where He was with Hagar.  On the side of those we abuse.

For several years, we lived among people who share their possessions completely.  Someone may own a machete, but anyone else can come and ask for it, and that person will give it up.  It is wrong in that culture to say no when you're asked for a possession.  

That kind of sharing is completely the opposite of my western capitalist perspective, where what's mine is mine, and I'll drive past people living under bridges on a Sunday morning in order to put my offering in the plate so we can start building that brand-new multi-million-dollar ministry complex.

If the Arosi people someday get to be the people who write church history, then you and me are going to have some explaining to do.  It won't be pretty.

Cultural blindness.  We've all got it.  I guarantee it. 

On some level, we are all Yertle the Turtle, out for ourselves and happy as long as it works for us. 

So what do we do with our cultural blindness?

  • Be willing to acknowledge that it exists--for everyone.  No shame.  Just reality.
  • Be open to self-understanding about cultural biases.
  • Receive new information non-defensively.

And, when it comes to our faith, ask ourselves these questions:

  • Who is excluded from our community--rightfully so, because they're wrong?
  • Who is marginalized within our community--with justification, because they are undeserving?
  • Who is driven away into the desert to die, while everyone looks on and approves?
  • Did you know that in the wake of the LDS church's crackdown on gay marriage in November--calling those in same-sex marriages "apostates"--that 32 young people have committed suicide?
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