The Old Testament lectionary text for today was 1 Kings 18:20-39. This text again presents a case in which those who compile the lectionary avoid difficult texts in the way they cut the reading. Verse 39 ends with “the LORD, he is God,” while verse 40 (not read) tells us that Elijah killed all the prophets of Baal.
There are several issues that the text brings out, including the violence. It’s not an easy text to preach to a modern or post-modern audience. In looking at the text I had thought of the issue of a prophet killing hundreds of his religious opponents. That’s not the sort of thing people think of prophets doing, though they should. Elijah is hardly the only prophet to engage in violent activity. (One of the best books I know on the topic of violence in the Old Testament was written by my Old Testament professor Alden Thompson, Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God? I publish it, so I may be biased, but I picked it up as a second edition, and it’s now in it’s fifth, so I may not be far off in my bias!)
My pastor at First UMC Pensacola, Scott Grantland, chose to take the bull by the horns (couldn’t resist the cliché considering Baal imagery) and included verse 40 in the reading, for which I congratulate him. He did discuss the violence of the passage in connection with the times and also the nature of prophets. Here he addressed a common problem, that people really have a sanitized view of the character and mission of prophets. Frankly, few of us would have liked them, and if they appeared now, we’d likely be working right along with the folks who wanted them killed. They just weren’t a comforting sort of people.
But the key question was one that didn’t really occur to me. The question was simply how does one preach this text in a pluralistic age. None of what I say here should be read as a criticism of Scott. It is, however, a criticism of the age. Various of my teachers told me there were no bad questions. I disagree. I think that getting good questions is often the most important step in getting to good answers.
Now Scott’s solution is actually quite good, in my view. I think we should always first try to point the message of scripture, especially difficult scripture, at ourselves. He suggested we should take the text as challenging our own tendency to worship idols in this day and age. That is a good personal message to get from the passage. But I don’t think that fully addresses the question.
The simple fact is that no matter how you dress it up, this passage is not a pluralistic passage. It says one claimed deity is God and another is not. And if we follow the trajectory of scripture, I don’t see it tending any other way. I can find texts that guide me toward less violent solutions to problems than the one used by Elijah, and I can think of God’s revelation “in many and various ways,” revelation suited to our ability to hear. I don’t want to suggest that the Old Testament people were less able to hear God than we are. They simply had different things standing in their way.
Further, the context in the world at large is not that much different. Pluralism was quite acceptable in the ancient world. The exclusive claims of the worship of Israel went against the grain probably as much as they do the modern world.
In other words, I would suggest the text doesn’t allow one to wiggle out that much. Now a pastor needs to address such questions, because that is what people are thinking. But I don’t think the text allows a completely comfortable answer to the question.
There are, in my view, three major options with regard to religious exclusivity: Exclusion, Inclusion, and Pluralism. The third of these is fairly common these days. The first is the norm in conservative Christianity. I take a middle path, or rather, one that tends to gobble up parts of the others. I believe there is one God and that Jesus is unique. It is because of God’s reaching out that we can be saved and the gap between us and an infinite God can be bridged. Jesus tells us that God is a gap crossing God.
But there is only one of him. It is possible we may err about our description of God and yet be worshiping the one true God. It is possible that we might be accepted without our own knowledge. Those are major debates. I think the best answer is that God takes care of those things and that I trust that however God takes care of them will be just. Because I believe there is real evil in the world I am not a universalist. But I am hopeful. I can be hopeful because of Jesus Christ.
However positively stated, that is not a pluralistic position. It’s inclusive. I think there will be many in the kingdom of heaven who will say, “When did we do anything for you?” But they will be there because our God is the God who sent his Son to bridge the gap.
How does one preach a text that is not pluralistic in a pluralistic age? It has to remain not pluralistic. It has to challenge the age. But the challenge can be filled with grace, grace that gets beyond our works and our knowledge.