We hazard much, often without the slightest awareness of the risks afoot. For the Christian, these involve Satan’s dominion over “the world,” which is the realm of the arts; in Asia, this can be seen as the traps of Maya, that spider web of worldly attraction and deadly illusion. Either way, cause to be wary. Need for disciplined faith.

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Go ahead and argue with the passage

I suspect most of us have been burdened by an assumption that expects us to be in harmony with everything we read in the Bible. After all, God is always right, eh? What we haven’t been told is that it’s okay to argue with God – the prophets did it all the time. On occasion, Moses even convinces God that God is wrong: destroying the recently freed Hebrews in the desert would be a stupid move, politically! (Think how it would look to the Egyptians!) Many of the stories are, admittedly, painful, even obnoxious; I suggest that modern readers approach these in the same manner they apply to Greek drama or Shakespeare: Oedipus and Lear are not the healthiest characters in the world, either! More recent literature, such as Gary Snyder’s 1951 He Who Hunted Birds in His Father’s Village: The Dimensions of a Haida Myth (Grey Fox Press, Bolinas, California 1979) and Robert Bly’s best-selling Iron John (Addison-Wesley, Reading, Massachusetts, 1990) provide excellent demonstrations of how a seemingly compact tale gains social richness, psychological depth, and cultural perspectives once we begin to unleash the latent story enfolded within the shorter manifest narrative.

To my mind, a good place to begin is in facing up to the problems of translation. As a poet, journalist, and novelist, I have an acute love of language – and an appreciation for both its opportunities and shortcomings. Expressing one’s thoughts and feelings on paper is difficult enough in one’s own language, era, and locale. There are even problems of translation in taking a story-teller’s tale, as much of the Bible undoubtedly was, and recording it in writing. For the translator, the problems and challenges are enormous: something is lost in translation! In the hands of a skilled translator, however, something may also be gained. (German philosophy students, for instance, are said to turn to English translations of the writings of Immanuel Kant for this very reason!)

On sin and salvation

Friends proclaimed that humans could be spiritually perfect, at least when they were walking in the Light. Thus, their concepts of sin and salvation differed greatly from those of conventional Christianity. Just listen to Elizabeth Bathurst (1655?-1685):

  • In the first Place, it [the Light] daily reproves for Sin, even in all Men, and excites to Holiness, during the Time of their Visitation.
  • Wherefore, saith John, Whoso is born of God doth not commit Sin, for his Seed remaineth in him, and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.
  • And yet leads into an Heavenly Order, both in Doctrine, Principle and Conversation, according to the Diversity of its Gifts, whereby Man comes not to be at Liberty in his own Will, but bound again to God, which is the true Signification of the Word Religion.
  • It must be a higher Power, that can cause to put off concerning the former Conversation, the old Man, which is corrupt according to deceitful Lusts, by renewing the Spirit of the Mind, so as to cause us to put on the new Man, Christ Jesus, which after God is created in Righteousness and true Holiness, and so old Things are made to pass away.
  • Yea, this universal Principle, which I am describing, it is a Measure of the quickning Spirit, even of that Spirit which raised up Jesus from the Dead; by the Indwelling of which in us, we come to be renewed in the Spirit of our Minds, and to have our mortal Bodies quickned, so as to capacitate us to serve the Lord with our Spirits, and with our Bodies, which are his.
  • For faithful is he that hath promised, who also will do it; he hath promised to redeem us from all Iniquity, wherefore let us hope in his Word, and not grieve his Holy Spirit, whereby we are sealed unto the Day of our compleat Redemption.
  • But if Men will not accept of Salvation while the Lord extends his Arm to save them; if they will not take hold of his Strength while they may make Peace with him; if they refuse to answer his gracious Call, and to entertain his Son whom he hath sent, but keep him out till his Head be wet with the Dew, and his Locks with Drops of the Night; if People will make their Necks as an iron Sinew, and will not yield them to the Yoke of Christ, being stiff-necked and uncircumcised in Heart and Ears, always resisting the Holy Ghost, and doing Despight unto the Spirit of Grace; setting at nought all the Counsel of God; rejecting it (within) against themselves; and will have none of his Reproof; and continue thus to slight him, till their Time and Season be over, giving the Lord Cause to complain of them, that he hath stretched forth his Hand, but no Man regarded it: Will it not be just for him then to laugh at their Calamity, and mock when Fear cometh upon them?
  • As to Original Sin, in which the Quakers are judged to be of so dangerous an Opinion, without shewing to me what that Opinion was. I answer, Though the Word Original be not found in Scripture, yet if any mean hereby the inward Corruption and Seed of Sin, which Satan hath sown in us, and wherewith we are defiled in our first and fallen Nature, I am sure this will not be denied by any true Quaker, for they know and believe, that in the first Adam all are Sinners, but in the second Adam, which is the Lord from Heaven, we are made Righteous.
  • So that it is a certain Truth, all that are, or shall be saved, are elected only in Christ Jesus, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting Life. There is no Pre exception or absolute Fore-appointment, as partially designed in relation to Persons, but upon Man’s Disobedience, wherefore it shall be said, The Fathers have eaten sour Grapes, and the Childrens Teeth are set on edge; but he that eateth the sour Grapes, his Teeth shall be set on edge:
  • Therefore let none slight or undervalue this Light of Jesus, manifest in their Consciences, by calling it, as some have done, A natural, created, insufficient Light, which will lead Men down to utter Darkness. Tho’ sometimes again these very Persons will confess, That the Light of Nature (as they call it) ought to be followed, as far as it will lead; for (say they) though the obeying of its Dictates will never bring Men to Heaven; yet the disobeying them will certainly sink them down to Hell. Hereby rendring the Lord cruel to his Creatures, as if he required them to follow a Guide that would certainly lead them amiss, or leave them short of the Place of Rest; and then would punish them for being misled, or for sitting down when they had no Guide to shew them the Way to walk in; and that from a Purpose in himself, to leave the greatest Part of Mankind without any other Guide to direct them in Matters of Salvation, but that that is so insufficient, that it must be a Miracle if it shew them the Way to Heaven, according to their common Answer, when asked, How those must be saved who have not the Scriptures amongst them? (which these account the only Rule to guide Men) Why, we leave them to the Mercy of God, (say they) the Lord may in an extraordinary Manner bring some to Heaven, if he have any Elect amongst them; but whether any of them shall be saved or not, ’tis hard for us to determine.
  • Thus Reader, have I, according to the Gift communicated to me, from the Dispensation of the Most High, described what the Principle of Truth is, which is perfect in itself, and tends to the perfecting of those that are gathered into it.