A u c k l a n d A o t e a r o a N e w Z e a l a n d
a n g l i c a n c h u r c h
Temple or Tent: What Are You Living In?
December 18, 2005
Advent 4 Rom 16:25-27 Luke 1:26-38
One of great disputes in the Hebrew Scriptures was between ' Temple ' and 'tent'. Although the authors tried to paper over the differences it is clear that one faction preferred to keep with the tradition of the Ark of the Covenant being located in a tent and the one other preferred it to be in a Temple. The Ark of the Covenant was said to be holy, where God's presence dwelt.
The Temple group saw the need to centralize worship. A temple in Jerusalem would bring worship into a central locality, close to the King, and under his watchful eye. The Temple, when it was eventually built, functioned as a “royal chapel”. This befitted a monarchy and the hierarchical arrangement that went with it. Such an arrangement had God on top, then the King, then the priests, and then the people. Religion served the state, legitimizing its activities. The state funded and sanctioned the religion. This royal mode of religion dominated Israel from 1000 B.C.E. to 587 B.C.E.
Temple theology was therefore centred largely on the aspirations of the King. Conquest of foreign lands, wars and the like, were 'God's will'. The King was seen as warrior, leader and priest. Power coalesced around him. The Temple priests were to carry out rituals, do the holy housekeeping, but not to question the King's rule. Indeed to question the King's rule was to question God's rule. Religion served the stabilization of power and knowledge around the monarchy.
David, the first king to really unite the tribes of Israel, saw the need for such a Temple and theology. Yet it would fall to his heir, Solomon, to do the constructing. This building project receives numerous accolades in the Scriptures. However, between the lines, we can also read how it was financed by severe taxation and press-ganged labour. It was not surprising that following Solomon's death there was upheaval, and the Kingdom divided in two.
Those of the 'tent' faction, on the other hand, remembered the days without a king. They favoured the independence of the tribes. When the need arose, like an external aggressor, God would raise up a leader to unite the people and drive away the problem. The leader would then return to his or her home. There was no hereditary dynasty. The tent leader par excellence was Moses. If we date him to 1250 B.C.E. this theology and practice dominated until David ic rule in 1000 B.C.E. Israel was nurtured and shaped in this period by the Exodus story – that concrete disengagement from the monarchical power structures of Egypt. It was a radical and costly break from the dominant social reality.
For 250 years there were no stable institutions or civic leadership. It had to make everything up as it went along. It was a community that had to improvise. They borrowed enormously from the cultures round about, but transformed what was borrowed according to their central passion for liberation. It was also a segmented community of extended family units and tribes. There was no central authority or treasury. Nor were there necessarily blood ties. They were communities bound by a common commitment to a central story and a distinctive social passion.
They were also communities that were socio-economically marginal. One of the central metaphors was the wilderness. The tribes depended in times of threat on the movement of the Spirit to give energy, courage, and power sufficient for the crisis. Tent theology had a God committed to a story and liturgy of freedom. God was on the move. God was on the side of slaves. God was doing new things. Leadership was based on merit, not class or connections.
Symbolically tent theology spoke of questing, vulnerability, and transience; whereas Temple theology spoke of stability, power, and permanence. It was during the time when Temple theology was in the ascendancy, and only during that time, that prophets arose challenging and criticising the powerful.
In John 1:14 we read “And the Word became flesh and lived among us”. A more correct translation of 'lived' is tented. There was a deliberate attempt within the Christian Scriptures to not only infer that Jesus was the presence of God, in the way that the Ark of the Covenant was, but to align Jesus with tent theology.
Although some tried to give Jesus a Davidic lineage, the truth is that he wasn't related. Nor did he receive the throne of David in any literal sense. Indeed despite the efforts of those who still want to put a crown on his head and enthrone him in majesty, Jesus subverted and parodied the whole notion of kingship. He never was a Lord and he never owned a sword.
Like in tent theology, however, the liberating Spirit of God did the unexpected. She chose a young girl, without money or connections, unmarried even, to be the mother of the new leader. The Spirit chose Mary. The Magnificat, known as Mary's song, is one of the earliest pieces of Christian writing and hymnody. It is thought to have been written by socially marginalized followers of Jesus, the anawim, who saw him as the new liberator who would cast down the kings from their thrones and raise up the underclass. It is overtly political.
Much of the Jesus story correlates with tent theology. God was on the move. God was doing a new thing - a surprising, upside-down thing. God was pushing the powerful, the priests, or the pious off the top of heap; then flattening it, so the little ones, the least, and the last could have access. God was liberating those in political, social, and spiritual slavery. Jesus was openly critical of Temple theology and the hierarchical arrangements that excluded women, the sick, and the poor. He did not aspire to a leadership role within Temple thinking, but sought to overturn the pervasiveness of such thinking for the sake of the marginalized.
Nowadays I've heard the juxtaposition between tent and Temple thinking explained in personal, apolitical terms. Temple has become wealthy mainline churches, like Anglicanism, that has property, robed clergy, and elaborate rituals. Tent has become t-shirt worshippers who gather in any old warehouse where a drum set will fit. Temple has become university theological degrees, and tent the joy of self-interpreting your own bible.
Regardless of where and how you want to worship or study, such a private interpretation misses the point. The prophets of old, steeped in tent theology, sought to keep its radical edge but criticising those who exercised political leadership. The prophet Nathan, for example, who fronted up to King David, wasn't criticising his music, his worship, or even his money. Nathan was criticising the way David robbed from the poor and stole a soldier's wife. Nathan was declaring that David was accountable to the wild, free, liberating God who led the people out of slavery. This was not a God who was a pet for David to pat, admire, and then ignore. Both Temple and tent theology are overtly political. Both have a vision of the world. Both have a place for the rich and the poor, the powerful and the weak. Both have a place for the pious and the prophets. Different places mind you!!
Almost invariably when a political leader or party allies themselves with religion it is of the Temple variety. And those who pretend to be apolitical, who think their religion is solely a private matter not to be mixed with politics, usually end up doing likewise. Almost invariably, however, movements for social change, when allying with religion, choose the tent variety. Just like Jesus.