The lectionary passage today is, perhaps, one of the most well-known, oft-quoted texts. Yet, it has also proved to be one of the most divisive passages in Scripture. Perhaps, more than any other text it has certainly inspired a “them” and “us” mentality. I’m sure that was not the intended outcome, but it is what has happened over time. I find it sad.
The passage is in John 3. It is the story of Nicodemus visiting Jesus with the ensuing conversation about new birth. This story only appears in John’s gospel and is not referenced in the writings of the Apostle Paul. I have often commented that when a story is repeated in all the gospels then it is perhaps wise to give it special note. This is not the case with this text.
Yet, the phrase, “to be born again” has taken on a meaning of its own. In my work on child abuse and punishment I was quoting from a survey done about religious attitudes to spanking. The categories people had to self-identify as were either “born-again” or “non-born again.” It was quite sad to see that this phrase was used in this way. Even sadder, to see that those self-identifying as “born again” were much more strongly in favour of spanking.
So, I wondered when did the phrase come into popular usage and understanding. It is relatively new. Apparently the first written reference was in October 1914 in the Reno Evening Gazette. It was talking about Christian Science, “It gives man the opportunity of being born again.”
The more specific term, born again Christians, was first in print in the Decautur Evening Herald in December 1928. The newspaper quoted, “I knew I had the new desires that a born-again Christian acquires.” (http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/71600.html)
From the late 1960s onwards the phrase was increasingly in popular usage. So much so that by 1979 when tennis star Bjorn Borg won his fourth Wimbledon title Sports head lined their front cover “Bjorn Again.” (See: https://www.amazon.com/SPORTS-ILLUSTRATED-TENNIS-FOURTH-WIMBLEDON/dp/B00VU16QCE) There was no thought that the public would not understand the play on words.
Many years ago, I had the experience of visiting a few different churches and, at some point, during that first visit, being asked, “Are you born again?” It seems to have become the crucial question for many. A person’s spirituality is often judged on the answer to that question.
Obviously, in contemporary usage, the phrase describes a particular spiritual experience. Spiritual experiences are good. They are helpful, they energize, they give purpose, they renew, they give growth and develop meaning for individuals or, even, communities. Life would be poorer without spiritual experiences. Yet, they can take many different guises and happen on more than one occasion.
So, I am challenged,
Is it possible to read this passage without the mental baggage of how it has been used over the last half-century of popular usage?
How do I read it without giving it a significance that was probably never intended?
How do I read it without pre-conceived ideas?
I want to read it in the same way I would read any gospel story. I want to recognize that there are many nuances in the tale. And, as with all gospel passages, I want to acknowledge that there are many differing and valid interpretations. Problems only arise when one thinks their interpretation is the only right one. I think the gospels are much more fluid than that. Perhaps, I should say, God is much bigger than that.
So, this week I’m not looking at the word-play between Jesus and Nicodemus. I’m pondering on a couple of thoughts.
This story is all about birth, a wonderful feminine image. An analogy of the Divine being, the spirit, giving birth. What a great picture of a mother God introduced right at the beginning of this gospel.
The text also reflects something of life, death and re-birth. A Celtic image, that which is reflected in nature. There is something of eternity in this picture. The cycle of life which goes on and on.
“Life is an endless series of rebirths. . Always forming and reforming. Always opening to greater embodiments of love. Always reaching out in a wider embrace. Always ready to receive a new heart. Always willing to be changed into fire. Born again…and again…and again” (Dr. Rob Hardies, https://www.questformeaning.org/spiritual-themes/born-again-and-again-and-again/).
Given the current political and religious climate and the way this phrase is being used to create disharmony and divisions I think it is an important subject. It is not one to ignore but one to consider and question. I hope these brief thoughts will be a catalyst to think about this passage.
(Photo: Baby Phoebes, Jun 4 2016)