In this episode of The Bible for Normal People, Chris Hoklotubbe joins Pete and Jared to discuss the concept of the trickster and the value of learning from nature. They also delve into what a few biblical stories look like through an Indigenous lens. Together, they explore the following questions:
- What is distinct about a Native American interpretation of scripture?
- Why is the concept of the trickster valued within Indigenous traditions?
- Are trickster figures found within other cultures? In the Bible?
- Is there a value in open-ended stories that don’t make the “moral of the story” obvious?
- How do various cultural perspectives interpret the story of the Syrophoenician woman?
- How might Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness be viewed through an Indigenous lens?
- What did Jesus learn from creation?
- How can nature be a vehicle for revelation from the divine?
Pithy, memorable statements from Chris Hoklotubbe that you can share.
- “A Native American interpretation of the Bible starts with the assumption that the Creator God of Israel had not simply ignored the Indigenous peoples of North America until the arrival of the Spanish and French missionaries. What a horrible introduction to the Bible if the Spanish or French preachers were the ones to bring us God’s presence.” -Chris Hoklotubbe
- “You will remember the answer that you figure out for yourself. This is just how humans work. There’s a real beauty—if not some genius—to these open-ended stories where we have to figure out what the meaning is.” -Chris Hoklotubbe
- “It really opens up this larger world of meaning if everything around us is a potential parable, is a potential embodiment and vehicle for divine revelation for thinking about our own lives if we only just went outside and watched and looked.” -Chris Hoklotubbe
- “I think about the parables—the flowers of the field, the birds of the air, the mustard seed grows into this beautiful bush—the world is full of parables and secrets of the kingdom of God if only you just sit there and look.” -Chris Hoklotubbe
- “What you think is a natural or an obvious reading of the text is actually not natural or obvious. You just haven’t questioned your own perspective or the perspective of the church that you’ve been raised in.” -Chris Hoklotubbe
Mentioned in This Episode
- Website: thebiblefornormalpeople.com
- Course: Preaching Salvation Beyond PSA
- Book: Womanist Sass and Talk Back
- Book: Becoming Rooted
- Support: patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople
Powered by RedCircleRead the transcript
Pete: You’re listening to The Bible for Normal People, the only God-ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns.
Jared: And I’m Jared Byas.
[Jaunty intro music]
Jared: Halito! Chim achukma?
I’m excited about today’s episode talking about “The Bible and Native American Spirituality,” it felt special to get to talk with Chris Hoklotubbe, Assistant Professor of Religion at Cornell College because in addition to being a scholar, he’s also Choctaw, just like me. Chris and I have been able to connect over the past year or so around Native interpretations of the Bible and how proud we are to be Choctaw, but also how much work we see that can be done in the area of Native American interpretation of scripture. So, it was a lot of fun to bring you all into the conversation.
But before we jump in with Chris, I wanted to let you all know, primarily pastors, that we have a new Pastors for Normal People course coming up. We had over 200 pastors join in our course in the spring. So, we’ve been hard at work dreaming up ways to support pastors as they try to navigate their own faith shifts as well as their congregation, often without a lot of other support. This course is called Preaching Salvation Beyond Penal Substitutionary Atonement, or Preaching Salvation Beyond PSA. If you know, you know. And it’s just in time for Easter. The live version will be on Thursdays from 8 – 9:30 PM Eastern Time, on March 17, 24, 31, and April 7. You can always watch them later if you can’t get there live, and it’s Pay-What-You-Can. We know that pastors are often on a budget, so it’s truly pay whatever you can. Just go to thebiblefornormalpeople.com/beyondPSA to sign up.
Now, onto today’s episode.
Chris: What you think is a natural or an obvious reading of the text is actually not natural or obvious. You just haven’t questioned your own perspective or the perspective of the church that you’ve been raised in. When Jesus says, “give up your riches, give up what you possess,” the implication is give up your land back to the people who you wrongfully took it from, right, or through injustice took it through.
Pete: Chris, if you introduce yourself to our listeners, briefly, how you got interested in what you’re doing.
Chris: So, my name is Thomas Christopher Hoklotubbe, but that’s how I pronounce it. I recently made a visit to Oklahoma for my research, and I introduced myself to friends there and you know, they looked at me like…
Chris: Like, what is that? I’m like, oh, no, no, no, I’m sorry. Hoklotubbe. And I tried to resist this pronunciation because it invites Teletubby
Pete: Yes, of course. Yeah. That’s the first thing I thought of.
Chris: Tubbe is a traditional suffix for the Choctaw and Chickasaw people. There’s a Tubbe chief among the Chickasaw right now. I’ll probably circle back to this, but Hoklotubbe means “he who listens to kill.” I don’t usually have a good follow up to that.
Pete: Yeah. Like where do you go with that now?
Chris: I know. I listen to my student’s arguments so that I can deconstruct them? Uhh…
Pete & Jared: [Laughter]
Chris: No, or I listen, well, this is how I think about my present research. I am listening well to my elders and to others so that I might kill white supremacist, Christian interpretations of the Bible to provide life for all. That’s my…
Pete: Well, that’s all we have time for today, Chris!
Chris: There we go.
Pete: Thanks for, uhhhh…
Chris: Thanks for having me!
But so, I come from an evangelical background in Southern California. I was not raised in Oklahoma. My grandfather, Eddie Hoklotubbe came from Oklahoma, almost in a cliche story where his own father was an alcoholic war veteran. And when his parents divorced, he moved with his mother to Southern California. So, that’s how this branch of the Hoklotubbe’s moved to Southern California.
I wasn’t raised in an Indigenous context. But this was something that my family had always told stories about and was important to us. And, you know, I went to undergraduate at UCLA wanting to, you know, zealously preach the gospel to non-Christians in a secular college. And part of that zeal made me interested in historical Jesus studies and applying to Harvard Divinity School, which Pete and I share, right, a Harvard connection.
Pete: Mm hmm!
Chris: But by the time I got in, I, you know, Scott Bartchy and the UCLA religion department had done a number of my theology where I was becoming more progressive and all those liberal Christians who were destroying the faith ended up just you know, in my mind who I was going there to disprove were just-
Pete: They were right.
Chris: Episcopalians and Lutherans. Right?
Jared: So, why don’t we jump into some of this then, Chris, around, when we say Native American interpretations of scripture, could you just drill down and say, look, whenever we say that what do we mean? What are we talking about when we talk about Native American interpretations of Scripture?
Chris: Yeah. So, what I would say is what’s distinct about a Native American interpretation is an attempt to make the Bible meaningful to the experiences, traditions and struggles of Native Americans in such a way that recognizes the inherent worth and dignity of their heritage and lives.
So, a Native American interpretation of the Bible starts with the assumption that the Creator God of Israel, who revealed that his Godself to Moses had not simply ignored the Indigenous peoples of North America until the arrival of the Spanish and French missionaries. Right, like, what horrible introductions to the Bible, if we’re thinking that like the Spanish or French and later English colonial preachers, were the ones that bring us the Bible, right? Or not to bring us the Bible, to bring us God’s presence.
And so if we start with the assumption that the Creator had long been present and had made its Godself’s mark upon the stories and rituals, land, and lifeways of Indigenous peoples, how might this open us up to think about what the Bible means for us today, and how God has spoken us in the past? Or, as Steven Charleston talks about, how we can bring our Native covenants into conversation with the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, the New Covenant that is in with a revelation of Jesus.
So, from what I have been looking at through books and through conversations with elders and leaders, right, there’s a number of things or moves that I might categorize as things that Native Americans do when they read the Bible from an Indigenous lens.
Jared: Yeah, that’s great. Let’s jump into those.
Chris: So, one might be is that Native Americans, Indigenous folk, First Nations, right—there’s a number of names we call ourselves—incorporate important stories, figures, values, and concepts that are home within our tribes and our heritage into our interpretation of the Bible. So, applying our own frameworks and categories to thinking about how we make sense of the Bible. And this is something everyone does because, again, and this is what you all have covered way in depth, I’m not going to talk about this, is that everyone always fills in the gaps with their own culture when we read these biblical texts. These biblical texts were not written to us they were not written in our time period, right? These are from New Testament texts, right? These are written in the 1st and 2nd century in the ancient Mediterranean world. This world is very much unlike the world we live in modern America or Canada.
And so, to make sense of the social dynamics or what’s at stake in these texts we’re always, in some sense, projecting what we know to these texts and make sense of what’s ambiguous. And there’s a lot more ambiguous concepts, social dynamics, concerns are in these texts than I think a lot of Evangelicals would like to admit. A lot more than I would like to admit, or would have liked to admit, as if I’m speaking about to college freshmen Chris.
So, we can think about categories or figures like trickster or vision quest, this conviction that the land is sacred. Jace Weaver and Stephen Charleston have written extensively on how the idea of the trickster in a number of Indigenous tribes is helpful for thinking about not just you know, Jacob, which is usually in the low hanging fruit when you think about tricksters. And Pete, you could wax more on this than I can, right, the way in which Jacob is being shady and shifty in the ways in which he is gaining his blessing from Esau. Right, and he goes and tricks his future father in law, right, to get a bunch of sheep. But also, how this, the concept of the trickster is actually maybe helpful for thinking about John and Jesus themselves.
So, let me back up. So, there are a number of trickster stories and a number of indigenous traditions. We think about raven, we think about coyote, we think about spider for the Lakota tribes. And, you know, I’m seeking broadly almost in a pan-Indian way, but I also want to be sensitive to the way in which, you know, there’s over 530 tribes, right? And each of these tribes have their own distinct cultures and stories and heritage, right. And so, we do a disservice we talk about Indigenous culture as one kind of static thing. But there’s a way in which a lot of our Indigenous stories have a lot of resonances to other Indigenous stories, and we can see some broad patterns. And for a context like this, it’s helpful to kind of paint with broad brushstrokes.
But the trickster also has, we can think about sacred clowns in the Hopi traditions and Lakota traditions, the Heyoka. I’m sorry, I’m mispronouncing that. For the sacred clowns along with the tricksters, they’re boundary crossers, they destabilize what we expect, what is habitual. They make fun of our lives. They oftentimes get themselves into trouble, right?
And a lot of cultures have these kinds of trickster figures whether it’s, we’re thinking about Norse mythology and we think about Loki, right? Or, gosh, I’m even thinking about my daughter watching Hotel Transylvania: Transformania, right, where the Johnny is almost this trickster figure. He’s this like, naive kid who just, you know, wants everyone to love each other but he is just getting into all kinds of troubles. And it’s funny to watch all the troubles he gets into right, but his boundary crossing between monster and human, right, is providing new insight into what it means to be community to one another.
And in a lot of different trickster stories, between whether it’s raccoon or coyote, they are getting into mischief. But as a result of the mischief and the chaos that they are creating, we learn something about why the world is ordered in the way that it is or we learn to question the status quo. And as Steven Charleston writes about, the people who are challenging the status quo are those that live on that liminal space between order and chaos, that usually challenges the status quo come from the outside.
And that is John the Baptist, who’s coming from the desert dressed in camel skin, and in eating bugs, and just troubling the waters by preaching this end time apocalyptic message that God’s wrath and justice is going to come and everyone needs to repent. The stark contrast that he represented in his ministry to the daily Galilean that was just living their lives. And in some ways, John provides a contrast to the historical Jesus insofar as if John was this apocalyptic prophet who expected the end of the world, and I would categorize Jesus expecting that in the role too, but that this God is going to be a God of kicking butt and taking names.
And, you know, the axe is at the winnowing tree, Jesus is one who is healing the blind and sitting down with the lost and the last and least, and not really bringing the axe to the Roman Empire. Such that then John even is questioning him and saying, “Are you the real Messiah? Are you, are you there?” And both Jesus and John are troubling our expectations for what the Messiah should be or if John sets the backdrop to what may be some expectations for the Messiah should be, then Jesus troubling it.
Pete: So, Chris, I think what I’m getting from this is that the trickster theme in the Native American experience, generally speaking, is valued, and maybe even somewhat a staple. Even prominent? Is that an overstatement?
Chris: It’s prominent for a number of tribes.
Pete: Prominent for a number of tribes, and, but it’s not prominent for white people in the West.
Pete: Right. So, we’re what we’re seeing, in other words, looking at some stories where the trickster is rather obvious, like the Jacob story. But looking at those stories to value, let’s say, to value the Native American experience or for those who have that experience of the prominence of the trickster theme.
Chris: Yeah, right.
Pete: Because I never thought, I never heard the term until I was doing my doctoral work.
Pete: And I went to seminary! I never heard this.
Chris: Let me put it this way. It’s not a category that the West plays with a whole lot, right? It’s not something that’s at hand for us. But it’s there. It’s there.
Pete: Why don’t they do it?
Chris: Because it’s not at hand. It’s not part of our discourse. It’s not a part of a way in which we group things together or pattern things together, right? Because that’s not our culture.
Pete: Maybe be we don’t want to be troubled. Right?
Because we’re in power, right? And the Tricksters are for people who don’t have the power and they’re trying to get some. So, I don’t know. That’s just me riffing.
Chris: Yeah, yeah. And sometimes I wonder, some of these trickster stories, right, they’re just fun stories. They’re silly stories, right?
Pete: [Laughter] Yeah.
Chris: There’s not really a point and that’s the fun part. But I love these stories, right? There’s this Choctaw story and it’s classified as a trickster story, right, where, how rabbit loses its tail. And so, one telling of it is right. Rabbit is kind of lazy and sees coyote or fox with a bunch of fish and the rabbits like, “Hey, how can I get as much fish as you do?” And the fox tells the rabbit, “Hey, you know, if you put your tail into the frozen lake, you’re going to catch a ton of fish.”
And at this point in the story, right, rabbit has a long tail. And so, the fox convinces the rabbit, “Hey, you know, go do this.” So, the rabbit just says, “Hey, why not?” Puts his tail into the freezing water, and just sits there waiting to collect fish. And after a while, it gets really cold and he finds that his butt is frozen to the lake. And so, as he pulls and pulls his butt off out of the frozen lake, he finally frees himself but finds that he no longer has a long tail.
Chris: As a result, this is why rabbits have short tails. So, this gets classified as you know, an origin story for why rabbits have short tails, but it’s also a trickster tale. What’s the moral of the story? I’ve seen various retellings of it that have gone as far as to quote Bible morality out of it. There’s this cute Christianized book you can get at the Choctaw gift store that talks about the Christian principles out of this. But, and one retelling, right, it’s that the rabbit talks too much and this is why you should shut up and not be lazy, and, you know, be wise and thoughtful before you just run into things.
But that’s the beauty of these stories, right? The oral tradition, right? There’s this kind of general story, and we have different meanings we apply to it.
This is a great jumping off point to another way in which Native Americans are approaching these texts, right? We have these particular frameworks that come from our own traditions and we can use these to apply to think about how we should interpret the Bible, how ancients interpret the Bible, right? So, I just talked about these ancient oral traditions where you have these stories, and multiple people are kind of making their own meaning of it. But isn’t this also how we receive the Gospel messages, right? Like, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, well, especially Matthew, Mark, and Luke, right, tell the same story, but sometimes are doing their own spin to it.
And you know, the historical critical person in me wants to be like, well, what’s the original saying, what’s the original meaning of these texts? And sometimes they have multiple meanings, right? Sometimes, then we may have lost the meaning in some ways. And all we have is Matthew’s readings, or Luke’s readings, or John’s reading of a particular thing, and that that’s okay. And that’s, to live in that ambivalence is actually quite beautiful and fine.
Jared: Is that, would you say, Chris, then just to kind of tie that together, there’s a connection to allowing, from a Native American standpoint, and that, it’s actually one of the things that, it’s frustrating when I read Choctaw stories because of my expectations of stories, where there is often not, it’s not an Aesop Fable sort of way of reading a story, where it’s like, and here’s the point. And I just wonder if, if part of that if a Native understanding or context wouldn’t go looking for that all the time. But it’s actually valuing the story for its ambiguity, and it’s valuing the story for the multiple contexts in which it could apply. And I wonder if that’s part of this Native way of interpreting scripture?
Chris: Yes, absolutely. This is what I’ve heard from my elders and nates, and I think this is really true of just how humans learn, right? I think about this how I teach my students, right, I try to give them problems, and I look for them to solve the problem themselves. If I give you the answer, you may remember it, but you’ll forget about it. But you will remember the answer that you figure out for yourself, right? This is just how humans work. And so, I think there’s a real beauty if not some genius to these open-ended stories where we have to figure out what the meaning is, because we’re going to remember and sit with and be formed by the meanings that we co-create with the spirit in these stories than the ones that are just given to us.
Jared: That’s actually, I want to maybe talk about that a little bit. Because I think we, again, kind of from a Western standpoint, the assumption is, well, what’s the point of this morally? And there’s something to the value of stories as stories. Not that there’s no, because I think from that historical critical standpoint, there’s a sense of saying, “No, you’re missing the point, there is no moral to the story. There is just the story.” But what I hear and this is what I would say, just from again, my kind of Choctaw tradition, letting it inform how I read the scriptures. Sometimes it’s more just that there’s wisdom that’s gained from wrestling with it. It’s not that there’s no moral point, it’s that the moral point comes when I bring my story to it, or when I bring my situation to it. And sometimes I feel like in the West, it’s like discounted, like, well, that doesn’t really count because we want to know what the real, like moral to the story is.
Pete: I mean, that’s Hans Frei.
Pete: You know, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative, where it’s always about, well, you know what happened, but you’re losing the beauty of the story, which just stands on its own, and its ambiguities. It just stands on its own and that’s the point. And in the West, we’re not used to that.
Pete: It’s got to have a moral, it’s gonna have a reason, it’s gonna have an Aesop’s fable thing at the end of it.
Jared: And then that’s that point that we make, fits into this larger moral framework, that makes sense of everything. And everything has a place and we need to know where this story fits in the larger order of things.
Pete: And it’s what God wants.
Jared: And then we baptize it as though this is sort of God’s order of things.
Pete: Right, right.
Chris: Absolutely. I mean, there are a lot of stories that we’re just still trying to figure out what the heck do they mean? And so, one example that that’s especially prominent, and I have seen some really great readings from Mitzi Smith and others from African American perspective, right on the story, the Syrophoenician woman, right, where Jesus is trying to take a vacation, he’s trying to take a break. And he goes into an inn and this woman who’s not even Jewish comes up to him and says, “Hey, can you heal my daughter?” And he’s like, “Ugh. Gosh, I’m so tired.” Right? Like, “No.”
Chris: And this is not the Jesus we usually hear about.
Pete: [In frustrated tone]
“Oh, again? Oh gosh. I just want to watch TV. I don’t wanna do that.”
Chris: Right. And he’s like, look, I came for the children of Israel. Right? Like, do I give the bread that’s meant for the children of Israel to the dogs and the Syrophoenician woman says, “Well, look, even the dogs get crumbs at the table.” And, you know, depending on your reading of Matthew or Mark, right, I think it’s Mark that says, you know, it’s well, “it’s by your word that you’re healed them.” And, you know, Mitzi Smith from African American womanist perspective has this wonderful book called Womanist Sass and Talk Back, and she takes this as a story to say, look, this woman talks back to Jesus, she sasses Jesus, and she gets the healing for her daughter from her word, right? That’s a beautiful way in which she’s bringing a concept or an experience from an African American womanist perspective to read this text.
I also wonder too, if from a Native American lens, we could also reshape this from the holy clown or the sacred clown, the sacred fool, right, who asks silly questions, who’s okay to be the butt of the joke, but at the end of the day, some truth is revealed, right? That Jesus is big enough to be the wrong person or to say the wrong thing in this situation, to really put the spotlight on the agency of the Syrophoenician woman, to validate and underline that, no, salvation also comes to her not just to the Jews.
And I think that the trickster concept or the trickster paradigm, or the holy fool paradigm, right, allows us maybe to see Jesus in a different kind of pattern, right? Not ask these kinds of, like, philosophical questions of can Jesus being all-knowing and all-loving, say something incredibly racist or wrong, right? Or is he wrong, right?
Pete: Mm hmm.
Chris: Like, maybe this is a performance or maybe he is taking on this role of the sacred fool who says stupid things that are incredibly mean, but it’s to elicit this new revelation from the audience, right?
Obviously, I’ve talked about trickster, but man, one of the other things I think Stephen Charleston has really inspired me to think about is the way in which a vision quests that are true at home for a lot of Plains Indians, especially the Lakota traditions, right, are really at home within the biblical tradition, and especially within even the life of Jesus, right?
So, when we see Jesus going off and spending 40 days in the wilderness, like, from Western perspective, we just think, oh, well, he’s just going there and doing his seminary lessons maybe or just whatever he’s doing. We don’t have a real concept, we speed read through that part to get to the real juicy part of his ministry. But from an Indigenous lens, we look at this as like, this dude’s going off to nature for 40 days, what is he doing?
Chris: Maybe it’s a vision quest! Maybe he is getting some revelation from the divine, the angels, or even as I would argue, right, he’s maybe learning something from creation. And this is the second part of what I see Indigenous people doing in interpretations of the Bible is taking their values and their ways experience of thinking about the divine, and projecting that back on the Bible to make sense of it. You know, we take Luke seriously that Jesus grew in wisdom, that Jesus didn’t come out of the womb knowing every secret of the cosmos, right? I mean, it even says, “Even the Son of Man doesn’t know when the end of time is coming.”
Pete: Right. I mean, he didn’t die that way, either.
Pete: He never got that, right? So.
Chris: What if we actually imagined that Jesus learned stuff?
Chris: And the question is, how did he learn things? And so, what if in those 40 days he wasn’t just sitting there meditating or zoning out or fast playing, you know, fast forwarding his time period, but he was sitting there and watching nature and learning from nature? What if nature was a vehicle for God’s revelations of Jesus or God’s instruction to Jesus as he watched the snakes or as he watched the native birds of Israel there, or the grazing deer or antelope that that go through there. It’s a whole paradigm shift.
Pete: Yeah. Well, he did have his parables, right, that are all, many of them are nature based. Right?
Chris: Well, it reshapes how you think about that, right?
Pete: Right, exactly. Right. “Oh, those are those stories,” but why tell those stories? And why do we not hear them in church?
Jared: Well, not only why’d we tell those stories, but where did he formulate the connections between the kingdom of God and the things of nature?
Pete: Right, yeah. Right.
Jared: And then kind of tying into what you’re saying, Chris. Like, maybe he spent time contemplating and thinking and learning through the ways in which creation works.
Chris: Yeah, maybe he spent time amongst flowers and said, “Man, these are beautifully clothed!”
Chris: Like, think about the vanity with this world, all the effort we are spending to do to buy and purchase and consume things that will make us look beautiful and these plants do nothing. They do nothing and they are beautiful, more beautiful than Solomon, right? So, we can come at this two ways. We can think about this as Jesus said, thinking to himself, man, humans are really stupid. How do I talk to them as babies? Okay, here are flowers, they like flowers. Yeah, tell, let me tell them a flower story, right? Or we might think of Jesus in His humanity in his learning, thinking, and maybe processing, and spend time with flowers and learning something from flowers and then applying that, to his imagination of what God’s Kingdom is like.
Pete: Or it’s more, it’s another sort of option, which is maybe a variation on your first is, here’s a really neat sermon illustration I found in a magazine or something, rather than a deep connection with the created order, so to speak, and learning something about God, about life, about faith from the natural world. That’s like Psalm 19 almost, like into the heavens declare the glory of God, that kind of thing. It’s, you learned things from looking at nature. And boy, talk about something, Jared, that’s lost in the West. We don’t have any time for that.
Jared: Mm hmm.
Chris: No, not at all. And if we project that on the Jesus, how’s that then project back to us for how we think about how we might connect with the divine. Right? This is a plug for Randy Woodley’s Becoming Rooted, right, 100 days following him in his new book, thinking about how can we become rooted to ourselves, rooted to the divine by spending some time in nature.
One of the stories I really appreciate, part of my research is I’ve been attending an online church called the Good Medicine Way led by Casey Church. It’s an Indigenous church and part of their liturgical structure, let’s call it, is they have time for giving testimony and telling stories about what they learned from creation that week. And so, usually, they’ll have one member of their community come and talk about how she was looking out in her garden and saw a frog jumping and being chased by a larger raptor, a larger, maybe eagle or hawk and it was jumping from left to right, left to right. And she was watching this frog’s movement as she’s thinking about her own life and how, you know, she would prefer an easy, straight life, but what she feels like in her life right now is that her life is going back and forth, back and forth.
You know, and this is just one small thing, but it really opens up this larger world of meaning if everything around us is a potential parable, is a potential embodiment and vehicle for divine revelation for thinking about our own lives if we only just went outside and watched and looked.
Jared: That made me think Chris, is there and I don’t know the answer to this. It’s just a curiosity. Is there an emphasis within Native American interpretation on a focus on the natural environments and what’s happening in nature in these narratives and texts where we might center nature and creation and the things around us—the plants and animals and not just the people.
Chris: Man. So, two stories I want to tell. One is from, Jared, you and I, Choctaw Cultural Center, right? So, if you go to our cultural center, which I think is really neat, you’ll see a bunch of diamonds throughout the cultural center, right? And these hold these diamonds are meant to represent the rattlesnake and the importance of the rattlesnake to our Choctaw tribe. And according to the tradition, right the rattlesnake taught the Choctaw some really important lessons, two lessons in particular.
So, one is that the rattlesnake rattles its tail before a stupid human runs, walks by it right? It says, “Hey, don’t step on me. Otherwise, I’m gonna bite you.” But by watching this and thinking about this, the Choctaw thought about, you know, we really ought not to just wantonly run into warfare, right, that we ought to warn people that we are dangerous or that we are not to be tread upon. And there’s this wonderful story in our tradition, where early contact times as French ships were going around to the Mississippi coast where our tribe originally was before we relocated to Oklahoma.
A ship was about to port in a Choctaw territory area. You had all these Choctaw lined up in a huge row, right? All these Tubbe’s, all these warriors lined up doing the rattlesnake stomp dance. Now, one’s not very intimidating, but you have a line of hundreds of Choctaw doing a rattlesnake stomp dance, right, that ship’s going to turn away. And that ship did turn away, not wanting to mess with the Choctaw.
But second, right, that they learn from the rattlesnake that oftentimes when it bites, it risks breaking its fangs, and thus its own livelihood, its own survival. And this taught the Choctaw that we need to be thoughtful before we go to warfare, right? Anytime we go to fight, we are risking the lives of our own people. And so, we ought to always seek peace before warfare.
You know, these seem rather banal, but these are really meaningful and huge for communities that are trying to live together, right? And we’re still trying to figure out how to live peacefully with one another. And how do we bring this to the text? How do we bring this kind of reading to the text? You know, again, I think about what did Jesus learn from creation? Right? I think about the parables that of the flowers of the field, I think about the birds of the air, right, his watching the birds and thinking about what that shows, that God cares for even the least of these, Jesus watching how farming agriculture is done, right, and how plants grow. The mustard seed grows into this beautiful bush, right, that there that the world is full of parables and secrets of the kingdom of God, if only you just sit there and look.
I also look to Romans 8, right, which is arguably the climax of Paul’s arguments where he’s thinking about, now what is the sorry state that we’re in as human beings that we know the things that we ought to do, but we can’t do them. The law tells us all these ethical principles to do, and the flesh is weak, the spirit is willing, God help us, but thank goodness for the Holy Spirit that’s going to help give us the energy and motivation to do it.
But as he’s wrapping up his argument for why we need Jesus and why the law itself isn’t good enough to make us righteous before God, he has this grand vision of the end. And he talks about how creation itself is moaning with us, right, that the Christian creation itself is in birth pains, waiting for the culmination of time where everything is going to be restored. And that in some way, right, create, he talks about how creation didn’t get into this trouble by itself. That we did this to creation and creation is here with us moaning for its restoration, for peace for the coming of the Kingdom of God.
And Paul talks about creation as a non-human person, right? A non-human person, this is how indigenous people think about animals and lands and bushes and trees, right? They may not be human in the way we’re human, but they are their persons nonetheless. That they are in solidarity with us, they are in, they are waiting for us. And if creation is waiting with birth pains for this coming end, right, it’s something that we are an ally to you that we should be concerned about and care about up until the end. We’re in this together is what I get from Romans 8 from an indigenous perspective.
Jared: Well, as we wrap up our time here, Chris, I’m curious for those who aren’t Native American, and they don’t have that, bring that perspective, what’s a way to incorporate or be sensitive to that perspective, as they go and read their own Bibles? Is there anything else? You know, we talked about the ambiguity of story as something to learn from Native American interpretation and, and the environment, nature and thinking through how creation might be revelation to us, but is there anything else that you would leave us with?
Chris: Oh, gosh. One more story here, I guess, if you don’t mind, that’s kind of on my heart.
I was talking to a good friend of mine from the evangelical tradition about what I’m doing here. And he was really skeptical about like, well, what is an indigenous interpretation of the Bible? Like, how is this meaningful to us? And how are you not just projecting things to it? And in one of the ways in which I wanted to, you know, share with my friend about this, it’s like, well, let me give you an example.
So, I think Indigenous lens with its concerns for justice with his concerns for maybe reparations, or thinking about the land rights, it actually helps us see things that are already there. So, one example might be going to Matthew 19, Mark 10, or Luke 18. Right, the story of the rich young ruler.
So, Jesus sees this rich young man who is walking down the road and he’s asking Jesus, “What do I have to do to attain the kingdom of God?” And Jesus says, “Well, have you followed all the Torah? Have you done everything?” He’s like, “Yes, yes, yes. You know, I’m following the Decalogue perfectly.” And Jesus responds back, “Well, then just sell your possessions and give everything to the poor.” And the guy is dumbfounded and walks away. He can’t do it. And then Jesus says, “Well, you know, it’s easier for a camel to go through an eye of a needle than it is for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”
And one indigenous interpretation from Tim Meyers, who is not Indigenous himself, but works with Indigenous Chumash in California, has put forward is that, you know, what was Jesus asking him when he said give up all your rich possessions? How did this rich man become rich?
And if you look at, you know, the ancient world, a lot of wealth was accumulated by giving, you know, high-interest rate loans to poor farmers. And when they couldn’t pay that back, you would take their land.
And so, if we assume that this rich person was rich, by the way, which most people were rich in the Galilean agriculture area, that is, through the accumulation of land through horrible loans that oppress the poor, when Jesus says, “Give up your riches, give up what you possess,” the implication is give up your land back to the people who you wrongfully took it from, right, or through injustice took it through and this was deeply sad.
This is none less good news, right, for Indigenous people who are reading through this lens to think, yeah, Jesus does care about the awful treaties that were written to Native Americans, or the treaties that were okay but have not been followed through on by the United States. And so, I told the story to my friend, and he said, “Well, that’s not what it’s about. It’s, it’s about idolatry. It’s about putting anything before God is going to be bad for you.” And I said, “That’s funny, because the word idolatry doesn’t show up in here.”
Pete: [Light laughter]
Chris: Right? I mean, if I was me, I might say, this is kind of a white middle-class reading, is it not? Because you’re putting the poor and the rich on the same plane? Jesus, Jesus is not saying don’t put anything before God. This is a command to say, hey, if you’re rich, you better redistribute your wealth to the poor, right? The poor are not being criticized here.
So, what you think is a natural or an obvious reading of the text is actually not natural or obvious, right? You just haven’t questioned your own perspective or the perspective of the church that you’ve been raised in. And I think it’s inherent in every reading, that we are always looking for where God’s gonna bless us, or we’re the good guys, right? But God forbid that we’re the bad guys.
I mean, Indigenous reading of Exodus, the liberation story of God, setting the people free from Egypt is a wonderful story that is the heart of liberation theology for African Americans and Latinx readings, right? But what happens next in part two, right? They go to the promised land, and they kill themselves a bunch of Indians.
Pete: Mm hmm.
Chris: Where are we supposed to see ourselves in this text? And this is something that Robert Laurier has written on is that man, we’re the Canaanites, right? Are we not? Like, how can we imagine a peaceful coexistence, a kindom of God that can respect Canaanites and Jewish people living together? Do you not Canaanites, the people of the land, have something to contribute?
And in my last point, in Indigenous reading, right, we can maybe come back to Abraham, right Abraham story, which has some lost threads that are not followed upon. I think about Melchizedek. I mean, he’s part of the Jewish story, right, but he’s not part of Abraham’s kin. And he blesses Abraham and says, you know, the God Most High is, you know, blesses, he was praying to the God Most High and then and, Pete, you know, better than I on this, right? But this is not this phrase, God Most High is first introduced by Melchizedek and then Abraham takes this name for God and makes an oath about it saying, no, I swear by this God, right. Like, there is kind of an open, pluralistic covenant that Abraham is playing with, because he recognizes that Melchizedek, in his Indigenous identity, right, knows the same God that he does and may know something that he doesn’t know, but is certainly going to accept that blessing from him.
Pete: Mm hmm, yeah. You know, I was thinking too, Chris, as we just close down here, you mentioned, you know, who are the Native Americans in the story of the conquest. And, you know, the Syrophoenician woman in Mark is a Canaanite woman in Matthew.
Chris: Mm hmm.
Pete: And I always found that to be rather striking because I mean, in my eye, I don’t know if this is true or not. I’m pretty convinced it is. But I don’t think there were Canaanites running around in Jesus’ day. I think it’s highly symbolic of maybe a corrective course on that old animosity. So, you know, in the trajectory of the biblical story, there is a redemptive way, let’s say, of including oppressed peoples in that story, because you’re absolutely right. In America, Native Americans were the Canaanites and they were, you know, slaughtered or imprisoned because they didn’t, they weren’t valued. They were just the bad people who worshipped the wrong god.
Pete: So, yeah. Anyway, I just, a dose of New Testament helps. Sometimes. Right?
Jared: Every once in a while. Not often, yeah.
Chris: You know, you kept on asking other interviews, “Oh, well, how’s this get back to the Bible?” It’s like, well, gosh, I want to flood them with biblical verses.
Pete: You sure did.
Chris: And I didn’t even get to the ways in which they look, you know, the Americans looked to validate or celebrate what they do in rituals, right. So, you know, like smudging, like putting incense over you. There’s a number of evangelical churches that have said, “Oh, man, we can’t do smudging. This is this is heresy. This is paganism.” Right?
But like Casey Church is like, go to Exodus! Look, there’s incense by the ark. They burn herbs and sweet-smelling things over the Ark of the Covenant. And it’s funny to look at the history tradition over how ancient Jews even thought about, well, what’s the purpose of incense, right. Like, it sounds a lot like how many of Americans have tried to understand what incense is doing. There is a targum of the Song of Songs that says the incense by the altar was meant to ward away demons and you know, negative energy. And that’s how you know the Native Americans talk about what sage does. So, these forms have a lot of resonance between the Hebrew Bible and what Native Americans are doing.
Chris: I just think this is all just wonderful and deeply enriching.
Jared: Excellent. Hey, Chris, thank you so much for jumping on and we’ll say yakoke.
Chris: Yeah, yakoke. Thank you!
Pete: Auf wiedersehen in German, I guess.
Jared: Get that out. Get that mess out of here.
Chris: No! Hey, hey, hey…
Pete: The Germans are a gentle people. We almost conquered the world twice. I mean…
Chris: Pete, You know what? I identify as mixed settler and Indigenous. My Native American grandfather went to World War II and met a lovely German woman who would be my Oma and so I am there with you.
Pete: You have an Oma? That’s nice.
Chris: I have an Oma and my Native American grandfather was Opa.
Pete: Oh, wow. Okay. That’s cool. All right.
Jared: Well, yeah. So, before we get…
Chris: Gosh, I hope I hope this was helpful. This might be edited out. Now, I have
Pete: No, no, no. This is going in there.
Chris: Good, and, uh
Jared: The part where pert where Pete likes you when you start talking about being German? That’s, that’s gonna stay in. That’s not problematic at all.
No, not at all. That’s just fine. I haven’t listened to a thing you said for the last hour.
Excellent. Well, hey, thank you so much, Chris, for jumping on. It really was a treat.
Chris Yeah, I hope so. I hope this is helpful.
Stephanie: Well, that’s it for this episode of The Bible for Normal People. Before you go, we want to give a huge shout out to our Producer’s Group who support us over on Patreon. They are the reason we are able to keep bringing podcasts and other content to you. If you would like to help support the podcast, you can leave us a review or just tell others about our show. You can also head over to patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople, where for as little as $3 a month you can receive bonus material, be part of an online community, get course discounts, and much more. We couldn’t do what we do without your support.
Dave: Our show was produced by Stephanie Speight; Audio Engineer, Dave Gerhart; Creative Director, Tessa Stultz; and Web Developer, Nick Striegel. For Pete, Jared and the entire Bible for Normal People team—thanks for listening.
Jared: Maybe we can put that in as the penultimate before we say goodbye, and edit it so that we say goodbye and then we’re done.
Pete: Right, right. That’s a good idea. Yeah, I agree with that. Yeah.
Jared: Okay. All right.
Pete: Don’t screw it up, Dave.
[End of recorded material]