Saturday, December 26, 2009

Outside the Bubble

Sometimes we feel as if we are walking through life alone - as if everyone else has their sense of belonging and connectedness, and we have been shut out and forgotten. This seems to happen to everyone at some point in their journey. But sometimes an individual reacts to this in a way that, in the end, perhaps without realizing it, keeps that person isolated because of his or her own actions and decisions. I may come to realize that I am no longer being shut out, but rather I am shutting myself out.

Outside the Bubble

I watched the world
And everyone
Was in a bubble of glass
And I was on the outside

They smiled
They laughed
They embraced
They belonged

My face darkened
Hands pressed to glass
Why this separation?
Why this alienation?

My loneliness aches
The world's neglect stings
Why am I outside?
Why does no one care?

Someone's here
She's tapping on the glass
She wants me to come
out of my bubble.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

A Parable in First Person

Please be advised before reading: this is not a journal entry in which I am seeking praise or pity, but a parable.

I desired to show the love of Christ to the poor and needy - to preach the gospel to the poor and bind up the brokenhearted. So I set myself to this task with commitment and resolve. I began giving, serving, teaching, sharing, spending time, and appealing to others to do the same.

Because of the generosity of the Father in giving his Son, I wanted to give generously, so that the world would see his goodness. Because of the unconditional love of God, I wanted to love others unconditionally - especially those who had so little love in their lives. Because God had poured out so many blessings on my life, I wanted to bless others. Because Jesus came in the form of a servant, I wanted to serve others. So I gave, I loved, I blessed, I served.

And the goal was accomplished! And the people I gave things to thanked me. And the people I loved gave me affection in return. And many around me declared that I was a blessing to others. And many applauded my servant’s heart. And my goal was accomplished, and I felt satisfaction, and I praised God.

Again, I desired to share God’s love with the poor and needy - to live out the gospel among the last, the lost and the least. I began giving, serving, teaching, sharing, spending time, and appealing to others to do the same.

Because of the sacrifice the Father made in giving his Son, I wanted to give sacrificially so that the world would see his goodness. Because of the unconditional love of God, I wanted to love others with abandon - especially those who are hard to love. Because God had poured out so many blessings on my life, I wanted to be a blessing to others. Because Jesus poured himself out as a servant, I wanted to pour myself out in service to others. So I sacrificed, I loved, I was gracious, I served.

And the goal was accomplished! These characteristics of God, at the heart of his requirements for mankind, were displayed in my life. But the people I gave things to did not thank me. And the people I showed affection to were cold in return. And no one ever told me I was a blessing. And many toilsome months of service went by in obscurity, without praise or applause. And my goal was accomplished - the lost and needy were served in the name of Christ. But I felt no satisfaction, and I complained about ungrateful people, and I bitterly sought for a different place to serve.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Christ and Culture in Paradox (returning to the Christians and Politics series)

Thinking Christianly has so many ethical implications. From the content of our conversations, to our business and employment, to our relationship decisions and sexual behavior, to our personal financial decisions, on to our family lives and so many other things; accepting the gospel as truth and Christ as the ruler of our lives requires us to examine our behavior in light of good theology. And some would say that the body of Christ must also work to bring godly behavior in society around them. Surely if we are in relationship with non-believers around us, our regenerate behavior will influence them to some extent (and if they become believers, to a much greater extent). But does this extend to political advocacy for Christian morals? Well, let me think about it…(and a teacher I know says, “Show your metacognition,” so I will.)
I think this issue is a subset of the larger issue of how Christianity relates to culture. I worked my way through the classic book Christ and Culture (by Richard Niehbur) last year, and as he described and critiqued the ways that the church has related to culture throughout history, three of the approaches he described were “Christ against culture,” “Christ redeems culture,” and “Christ and culture in paradox.” The non-engagement idea I critiqued in my last post would fall under Christ against culture, arguing that the culture of politics is hopelessly corrupt, so Christians should condemn that corruption and avoid being part of its activities and institutions. The second view, Christ as redeemer of culture, seems to be an incredibly popular view right now Many groups are striving to be a part of the activities of culture and infuse them with gospel significance, guided by Christian principles, so that our culture is transformed to reflect what God values and souls are saved. People in this camp love to talk about the “cultural mandate” and say things about being on mission “to the culture.”

While this approach certainly bears a lot of good fruit in spreading the gospel by engaging the culture instead of retreating from it, there’s something that bugs me about it. While it is clearly stated that we are on mission to share the gospel, make disciples, teach those disciples God’s ways, and baptize, we are not told explicitly to bring the culture to salvation. So why make it a “mandate” or “mission”? We must know culture so that we can effectively communicate the gospel to the people in it. And in a sense we are always creating culture by our activities - and especially enculturating people into Christian community, where we are guided by Christian distinctives (with a bunch of non-distinctive thrown in because they are just part of everyday life). But I fear elevating cultural influence to the same level as gospel witness. Doesn’t this make it easier to go down the path of viewing culture-shapers in art, music, literature, government, entertainment, etc as special, more valuable trophies of conversion? Doesn’t this make it more natural to think that by promoting moral values that agree with Christianity we are doing something equal to guiding people to forgiveness through the cross, regeneration through the Holy Spirit, and eternal salvation?
So reading and reflection led me to think that “Christ and culture in paradox” fit more accurately with my understanding of Scripture. In this view, we are constantly living with the (healthy) tension of being citizens of the heavenly kingdom and dwelling on the sin-scarred earth. Believers have a faith in the “not yet” kingdom of Christ so powerful that it tangibly affects the “already” (living under the spiritual rule of Christ in a fallen world). Christians live in the world, and cannot live without affecting and being affected by culture. But making national cultures into Christian cultures would be a silly endeavor, because cultural transformation will not be made complete until the “not yet” of Christ’s coming reign, and our progress in Christianization could be undone at any moment. Our cultural impact is a sign of the right living to come. Kingdom ethics and divine justice will be established, and the world knows this because Christians exemplify and proclaim this good news, sometimes with the approval of their culture-at-large, and sometimes to a resentful and downright nasty response. In this view culture is acknowledged without being demonized or glorified, and cultural influence fits into the paradox of using finite life on a decaying planet to point toward never-ending life on a restored planet when heaven comes to earth.

With this mental superstructure in place, we can now construct the office of Christianity and politics. While many thinkers throughout history have conceptualized Christendom, I think that the label should be “Christianity and evangelism.” With the assumption that evangelism means proclaiming and living the implications of the good news of God’s salvation and coming reign through Jesus Christ, we ought to assess any political involvement that will be performed under the label “Christian” or “evangelical” in terms of how it will relate to our evangelism. If we are convinced that our action will give us more and better opportunities to share the full message of God’s revelation in a loving and truthful way, then we can vote, advocate, and campaign with no hesitations. This does not mean that there should be no opposition or protest to the policies - sometimes doing what is best for society does not make its members happy. We just need to make sure our actions are making the church a more effective witness in the world, not simply promoting empty moralism or cultural values that are not distinctively Christian (e.g., low taxes and small government, prohibition of alcohol, the right to bear arms)

We ought to ask ourselves: when we oppose gay marriage, or we oppose giving out condoms, are we helping our gospel witness by working for a societal structure where sin is called sin? Or are these actions perceived as hateful or lacking compassion, and simply making sinners more stubborn and hardened because we are trying to force them to live in a godly manner before they have been regenerated and transformed by the gospel?

More must be said…but on another day.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

A Beautiful Rage…An Epic Fury…A Loving Wrath

God’s wrath is often something we would like to sweep under the rug and ignore: it can be a bit awkward to talk about in a culture that values tolerance and niceness (or at least claims to). But as I have been thinking about anger recently for a research paper and some good in-depth conversations with smart friends, I discovered a way of looking at God’s anger that is, well, kind of beautiful. Read on.
Feelings of anger are part of the common human experience, and psychologists and counselors commonly define anger as an emotional response to threats. With this view, it’s not hard to conclude that anger is based on human finitude. Developing a Christian view on anger requires making the critical decision between identifying anger as an emotion that is tied to the limitations of being human, or as an emotion exercised by God and thus made for a good purpose in spite of the negative effects it often yields in the hearts of sin-corrupted humanity. When considering the anger of Christ portrayed in the gospels, Andrew D. Lester, in an interesting article called Toward a New Understanding of Anger in the Christian Experience, asks, “Did Jesus sin by being angry?” And he responds, “No, it was part of his humanness.” Thus Christ could express this human trait appropriately, congruent with his identity as God. But Lester never acknowledges it as an emotion characteristic of the Creator himself.

But what about the references to Father being angry? Are these merely human language to describe a God who in reality lives in a stoic and detached existence? And if anger is an emotional response to threat, what could possibly threaten God to make him angry? Lester observes in another part of his article that “We extend our selfhood into other people, such as parents, spouses, children, heroes, and friends” Anger can be just as easily aroused in a person by threats to people, institutions, or things that person has become attached to or invested in. And seriously, folks, if a bully punched a kid in the nose, took his lunch money and gave him a wedgie and the kid’s parents stood there watching, but never got angry, what would you think of the parents? Would the kid still believe his parents loved him? We can debate the best actions to respond with, but the emotion of anger in this situation shows loving concern.

I will go a step further than Lester, then, and say that anger in God is his appropriate response to sin. Sin threatens humanity, his creation, and especially the people he has chosen and redeemed out of humanity. He views these people as connected to him, an extension of himself, and so his wrath boils against sin. When unrepentant and unregenerate people act against the people of God, his anger is justly aroused, to the point that he has determined a punishment of eternal death against those who unrepentantly continue to pose a threat to the good order of Creation.

And you know what? This means that becoming angry may be one of the most touching and profound things that God does for us. He has invested himself into the people he has created and redeemed. And he cares so much about our well-being and our destiny that, even though he is not put in any danger when we are threatened, he gets angry because it threatens us! God becomes legitimately angry when the people or things that he has created, claimed and redeemed for himself are threatened - and sin is the greatest threat that can come against any of these things. By showing us a God who gets angry, the Bible shows us a God who cares.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Afraid of the Dark (and the Light)

A Prayer I penned recently:

I am so afraid of my weakness
Afraid that in some moment
Blinded by lust
Gripped by a craving to be noticed
Threatened with truth’s consequences
Squeezed toward conformity
Allured by the fleeting
Seduced by comfort
Fancying that I deceive God
I will deceive myself
Neglect the carefully nurtured shoots of
Trampling them in clumsy haste
And be destroyed by my sin

I am so afraid of my strength
Which comes through brokenness
Dying to myself to find his life
Surrendering security for hope
Trusting a God known to wound
Forsaking recognition for obscurity
Neglecting comfort for compassion
Clearing out my dearest idols
My appetites will scream with longing
Subordinated to loving worship
My ego will scowl indignantly
Bruised, crushed, nailed to the cross
But I will be satisfied with the life of the Divine

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Non-involvement: a spiritual-sounding cop-out?

Okay, let’s all get this off our chests, since it’s at the heart of this conversation. Whether you need to scream it; or heave a sigh; or close your eyes, whisper silently and cross yourself - just say: “I’m upset and embarrassed by how some American Christian leaders are acting, and I’m upset that our faith has been over politicized.” If you decide to throw in a few profanities to truly express your feelings, I'll leave that to your personal convictions. Let your emotions flow; let your anger dissipate. Feel better? I do. Okay, now let’s have a conversation. I have already expressed my main objections to the idea of a “Christian America,” but I need to fill out my thoughts on the opposite side of the spectrum: anti-political Christianity.

In reaction to the objectionable behavior of political activists who have represented Christianity in a distasteful way (or, in some cases, simply the objectionable caricatures created by the pop-culture comedians who influence our thinking more than we’d like to admit), it seems very popular to say that Christians have no business being in politics. Certainly the kingdom of God is not now a political kingdom, and our primary focus is on building the church. But the kingdom of God will be political one day: the world will be ruled by Christ in a way that will establish truly good laws, rather than the laws we must settle for today that take into account the sinful flaws and depravity of both the ruled and the rulers. Blanket statements like “politics are corrupt by nature” must always be given with a qualification, because there is One who will wield political power with perfect justice and integrity (and apparently have glorified human beings as his appointed officials - Matt. 19:27-29; 2 Tim. 2:12) Neither can we trust our great enlightenment aphorism “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Power is not the thing that corrupts. Positions of power just give greater and more public opportunities to people who were already corrupt from birth. And again, there is one who will wield power without corruption one day. When Young writes in The Shack that authority is only something necessary because of sin, he misses out on the way proper authority and righteous rule are commended in Biblical theology. Politics is not the problem; government is not inherently wicked. Sin is the problem, and it screws with government and politics endlessly.

But in identifying the problem more accurately, we still haven’t answered whether politics can be meaningfully engaged in while we wait for the part of the kingdom that has not yet come. Some would say that Jesus’ model was one of non-engagement. An acquaintance of mine did an interesting post on this recently. I recommend the post (unless you consider yourself a fundamentalist - then reading his blog will make you very angry), but I disagree with his conclusion. I don’t think that this is an area where Jesus was modeling a practice for us. Jesus lived in a political situation where any Jewish messiah-like figure had a couple of basic choices: question Roman authority and get squashed by the greatest military force on the planet at that time, or avoid confrontation and political agitation and be allowed to accomplish the rest of your goals in life. (In Jesus’ case, he managed to infuriate the Jews by avoiding confrontation with the Romans, and get killed by the Romans anyway - but he did so after he had accomplished all that he wanted to prior to that, and in order that he could accomplish victory over death, an enemy who had ruled much longer than the Romans.) Jesus did not punch a ballot in November. And I’m pretty sure that, if he had, it would not have been included in the inspired text of the New Testament, because the message of the New Testament only deals with politics incidentally, when it affects salvation, the formation of the church, and the promise of Christ's second coming. The quotes from Philip Yancey that appear on Musings of an Evangelical Mind remind us that Christianity is not essentially about political influence - but the premise is that we can determine based on what the text does not tell us about what Jesus did not do what we ought to do, when we live in an entirely different societal structure. By the same logic, we could exhort people to not pursue higher education, buy homes or invest in stocks and bonds. And none of these things are essential to a good and godly life - but we have no reason to urge people to throw them aside as useless. Doing so would not be following the example of Christ in a New Testament sense, but just being culturally quirky.

I think that each generation and each culture must work out for themselves how the truths of salvation and membership in the people of God and the impact that these things have on our behaviors play out more specifically in our unique situations. We are called to accept the same gospel, imitate the same characteristics of Christ, and obey the same central moral commands of God as at all times in church history. But it will be fleshed out a little differently for us than for Jesus and the twelve, or for Paul and the early Greek churches. This is not to say by any means that we reject their authority, but that we live out the same theology in a different situation, and thus it will look different, whether we try to make it that way or not. And since we have no command to avoid politics altogether, our concern is to engage issues appropriately, as part of our mission, without making political action an idol.

I welcome your critiques on these ideas, especially since a couple of readers seem to be in this camp. And from here I can start filling out a positive framework of what I think should shape our views. But who wants to read posts so long that they make your fingers tired from scrolling down the screen? This is enough for today.

Friday, October 23, 2009

A few questions about Christianity and politics (Multiple choice)

Choose the best answer:

Those who promote marriage amendments to prevent gay marriage from becoming legal are:

A. Upholding a biblical view of family and society
B. Fostering hatred and intolerance
C. Denying the rights of individuals in a free nation
D. Saving their nation by fighting the decline of morals

Governments and humanitarian groups who distribute condoms in areas with high AIDS infection rates are:

A. Saving lives by reducing infection rates
B. Promoting immorality by encouraging sex outside of marriage
C. Acknowledging sinfulness while attempting to protect the innocent (like AIDS orphans and faithful spouses married to unfaithful spouses)
D. Undermining God’s pattern for society by protecting people from the consequences of their actions.

Christians who advocate implementing Christian morals in legislation are:

A. Completely missing the point, because Christianity is just about loving God and people, not about politics.
B. Preparing the way for the proclamation of the gospel by helping society to view sin as something that is wrong, not just a personal preference.
C. Hindering the proclamation of the gospel by trying to force right behavior on people who have not been regenerated and made capable of holiness.
D. Expressing love for the world by doing what is best for society, because the world functions best when people follow God’s principles for life.

I'm growing weary of what seem to me overly simplistic statements about Christianity and politics. One unsatisfying statement is that we must make our nation a Christian nation. This seems to me like it would undo all the progress Western culture has made to get to the separation of church and state and freedom of conscience in religious matters, thus restoring the problem of any corrupt, unjust or murderous action by the government being viewed as the action of Christianity.

Another unsatisfying conclusion is that we just have to love God and love people, and not worry about politics, because Christianity isn't about politics. But this places us in the position of having the right to vote (something that wasn't a part of the New Testament church's political situation), but having to believe that our Christianity has nothing to say about which boxes we will check on the ballot. This buys into the idea that religion is only something that gives meaning, significance and identity, but not something that can be applied to reality. But can something really be true if it isn't workable in life and applicable to the real world?

I will have more thoughts coming on my blog, but I have to start with the questions before I can, well, raise more questions and make them more complicated. (What, did you think I have the answers? Heck, no!)

Monday, October 19, 2009

Keeping an ear on the liberals

A couple of decades ago, a revolutionary shift happened in Biblical scholarship in North America that ushered in a different and better way of studying the Bible. The concept was simple, yet profound: read the Bible as if it were literature written by real human authors, who used literary devices and conventions to communicate their ideas. This idea shifted the focus of liberal OT studies away from picking apart the text by trying to identify which sections came from which supposed source documents (the “documentary hypothesis”). And it shifted conservative studies away from reading every statement in the text as a literal statement about reality, a proof text for a doctrine, or a rule that can “plug and play” in a church covenant or Christian school student handbook. This shift caused students of Scripture to look more carefully at what figurative language was communicating and how the genre (or category) or literature affected the meaning.

Who were the thinkers that brought about this positive paradigmatic change? The two names you hear the most in connection with this shift are Robert Alter and Meir Steinberg. Who are they? Liberal scholars. If you read Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative, you will find that he does not accept the inspiration and authority of scripture, yet gives some important insights into the author’s intended meaning. What these men, as non-believers, wrote and taught helped us, as believers, better approach and understand the text that God uses to shape our lives. This is one instance that shows why its important to keep an ear on the liberals - to check in every now and then and see what they are saying. Sometimes they can point out things that we cannot see about ourselves. Kind of like the time you walked around with a piece of spinach sticking to your front teeth, and didn’t look in a mirror for hours, then somebody pointed out that it was stuck there - no, not there…a little further over…still there…okay, now you got it.

So what have I heard from the liberals lately? Some insightful criticism about conservative Christianity and American nationalism, and how they are far too closely connected. As I plod my way through portions of Karen Armstrong’s The Battle for God, a history of fundamentalism in Judaism, Islam and Christianity, I’ve shaken my head and furrowed my brow several times over her statements about how religious ideas are not meant to be applied in any workable way to reality, but are important only in the personal quest for purpose and significance in life. What a wonder that kind of religion would be: to give us meaning from something which has no meaning for events in the real world. Like having confidence in confidence alone. But that’s another topic for another day. The insight Ms. Armstrong gave me is in the characteristics of fundamentalism, namely that fundamentalist movements are based on looking back to some “golden age” in the history of their religion and idealizing that age. The vision they build of that age becomes the goal for which they strive, the better world which has been lost and needs to be restored.

The early leaders of the fundamentalist movement in American Christianity seemed much more focused on the New Testament era as their ideal age. They wanted to get back to the Bible, to preserve doctrinal truth when it was under such severe attack, and to build strong churches that had a distinctive faith based on revelation, not a group that accommodated the culture in every respect and conformed their idea of Jesus to every idea of enlightenment modernists. These people made dramatic moves and took bold, difficult and admirable stands for truth by separating from institutions that claimed to be Christian, but did not uphold many of the basic elements of Christian belief.

But by the time the fragmented fundamentalist movement had recovered and gained momentum, they launched back into the mainstream with a different mythos - when Robertson, Falwell, Lindsey, Lahaye and others urged conservative Christians into the public arena, they called them to take back their nation. The Christian education systems they had developed taught believers U.S. history as a story of Christian people and Christian ideals building a Christian republic. By exerting their influence, evangelicals could restore the traditional values of their nation. The golden age had shifted forward by roughly 1700 years. No longer was the movement about getting back to the New Testament church; now it was about getting back to Christian America.

As I move about on the west coast, I most frequently hear about this kind of thinking when people are describing it to complain about what’s wrong with Christianity. Sometimes people talk about this problem to explain why they are not Baptist (apparently assuming Baptists to be a monolithic denomination co-founded by Jerry Falwell and a KJV-only preacher, who now direct their empire from the grave, commanding their drones to condemn people who drink alcohol and write legislation intended to cause global warming to destroy the world). After awhile, I start to wonder whether it’s a caricature of days gone by, whether there are really people who still act this way. But then I remember that just a few short years ago I sat in convocation at Liberty University the day after Bush’s re-election, listening to the loudest cheering I had ever heard there. (well, I guess there was the time the president of Chik-Fil-A came and announced he was giving us all coupons for a free chicken sandwich. That got pretty loud.) I got the distinct impression that some of my fellow students had asked George W. Bush into their hearts to save them. Dr. Falwell, a man I immensely respect for his strengths, showed one of his faults at this moment. He gave the glowing approbation that the election results were proof that evangelicalism was growing - that we were “getting people saved, baptized, and into the voting booth.” I can’t count how many times guest speakers admonished the student body that the only way we could save our country from being destroyed by God’s judgment for its moral behavior was to go out and evangelize and get involved in the political process. Is saving the greatness of America our highest end? Is Christianity simply the best way to get to the glorious days of “back when” - when people knew their neighbors, worked hard, and (supposedly) didn’t smoke, drink, or cuss in front of women? Is the command of Christ in the great commission not enough reason to evangelize, that we must throw American hegemony and prosperity into the mix? Is compassion for the lost such a weak incentive for doing the work of the church that we must add the dream of getting prayer back in schools and the ten commandments posted in courtrooms?

Please don’t miss my point. The point of this post is not about George W. Bush or Jerry Falwell; it’s not about quirky cultural rules or rage against my alma mater (I have more good memories than bad from LU). It’s not about making an opposite and equally wrong reaction by identifying with the political left and their vision of America instead (as some in my generation have been eager to do). It’s about remembering the mission and identity of the church, and placing those things high above political power, national pride, patriotism, or moralist visions of society.

Last week, I heard a lecture from a liberal who had something to say about this. John Dominic Crossan pointed out that Christianity survived the fall of the Roman Empire because it was not dependent on an empire for its identity. He declared, “If Christianity in America only supports the American empire, then it will go down with the American empire.” If Crossan’s vision of Christian belief survives, it will not survive because of its truth, but in spite of its error - I strongly disagree with how he defines Christianity. But his comment about conservative Christianity is right on. Let’s remember our identity.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

I wonder as I wander...

Ahh, the wanderings of Summer. I walked the streets of Portland and Vancouver, BC this Summer, taking in the sights, watching the people, observing culture. Of course, this was in addition to the more regular visits to the nearer cultural (or maybe counter-cultural is a better description)centers of Seattle and Olympia, plus a random visit to the Midwest, reconnecting for a few days with my small town church roots. And I wondered as a I wandered about the future of Christianity in North America.

First, the urban environments promptd me to note that, as the culture at large in the U.S. has shifted over the past decades to an urban focus, Christianity has gradually followed suit. Think about the cultural perceptions: there was a time when TV shows like The Waltons and The Andy Griffith show presented us with the small-town environment that was thought of as typical, classic American life. But when the mainstream TV shows became focused on people living in apartment complexes in downtown (fill in a city name here), the cultural shift was becoming more evident. I think of Seinfeld, Friends and King of Queens as examples, but I acknowledge that I'm about ten years behind and I don't know half of what truly hip people are watching on hulu these days. But in visiting cities, I have seen where urban revitalization projects have brought fine downtown living in cities across the continent. And in each city officals are proud to point out the success of their redevelopment projects (as they busily work to shuffle the poor and transient populations to different fringe areas that will be out of the eyeline of visitors and upscale residents).

Christians have caught onto the fever, it seems: community transformation and reaching the urban poor have become trendy ways to do ministry - although, if we really follow the demographics, it may be that white, suburban Christians who have become missionaries to impoverished urban areas may simply be taking the place of black, urban churches that were fixtures in those neighborhoods for years, and gradually saw the next generation of members gain wealth and move away from the poverty and crime that their parents struggled to help them overcome. So this shift may involve trading places more than adding urban numbers.

Churches are not focused only on the urban poor, but also are trying to crack what has been a tough nut: the urban, educated, professional and artistic crowds. Pastors like Mark Driscoll and Tim Keller, in Seattle and New York, respectively, have developed a bold new image of the intellectual, culturally aware preacher at the head of a church that appeals to university students, creative minds, culturally diverse audiences, and the kind of crowd that takes for granted the idea of getting a master's degree. The modernist takeover of universities, public education systems, governement and the arts sent Christians reeling at one time, pulling back to develop their own Christian institutions. But now in cities where many neighborhoods are reputed to have more dogs than evangelicals, a fresh energy has arisen to move eagerly into these environments and give an intelligent presentation of Christianity, working in the face of the hubris of a skeptical elite.

Does this attitude seems to me to reflect an acceptance of the idea that Christianity is quickly losing cultural dominance? Skepticism and vitriolic rejection of any role for Christian beliefs and ideals in the public square are not new attitudes. But if you look at what Barna and books like Unchristian are finding in their research, this outlook seems to be gaining popular momentum, . Perhaps some are adapting to the idea that building Christian institutions for education, entertainment, and every area of life may not be as possible in the changing climate, but hanging on to the call of the church to speak and live the gospel, no matter how dark the environment is essential. But the overall numbers of evangelicals have not actually had a significant decline in the American population at large, only in younger age brackets. If this trend continues, then the dramatic changes will take place.

But these changes may appear more dramatic because of a different concept of how the church should affect culture. TO use a metaphor, its as if one generation gathered all their wood together and built a big bonfire, bright enough to be seen from a distance. Some accepted the invitation to join the party; I grew up in the fire's warmth myself. Others outside the church simply complained about the noise the group around the campfire makes, and stayed as far away as they could. The bonfire crowd gives ideas like, "If Christians would all have six or seven kids and raise them right, and if Christians would move their kids out of the secularist education system, the public system as it is would crumble, and we could take back America." Building Christian education institutions, a Christian music industry, Christian publishing houses and political action committees were very important - there must be rival institutions for the liberal, secular edifices.

But I see a number of people who have decided to instead take their flame and carry it, even if it is only a small, flickering candle, into a very dark place, delighting in the contrast of light with darkness, even while enduring the chill of the climate around them. The candle crowd says, "If only we would step into the broader culture, be a part of public institutions and organizations, and pair active witness with work for the good of those around us, we can see lives transformed in even the darkest of situations." This crowd wants to have their kids in public schools so that their voice is heard in the education system, to see Christians influencing both political parties from within, and to be Christian in their neighborhoods and homes, without having Christian activity confined to brick and mortar structures or have their work categorized, labelled and marketed as Christian. Christianity will show from a genuinely changed life without the labels, and it's not expressed in knowing the right phrases and niceties of organizational culture, but in simple and sincere love in a hateful world.

So will the demographic trends play out to make us a "post-Christian" society? I can only hear so many alarmist appeals before I start to wonder whether it's rhetoric rather reality. How many other times have people sounded the alarm? Perhaps people in my age bracket are absent because they are walking away from their faith and imbibing skepticism. Or perhaps they just envision Christianity very differently, and so aren't on the radar of what have been the institutions of Christianity in our culture. There's probably a lot of both.

But if we do truly become post-Christian, I think that could bring about some good things in the life of the church. Here are a few things I would love to see from a marginalized church in our country:

- More efficient Christian institutions: more money invested in people who speak and live out the gospel and make disciples, rather than self-help books to use Jesus to make us feel better and clean entertainment for Christians to passively consume.

- More sacrificial giving, as we stop relying on a lot of people dropping $5.00 in the plate ever Sunday, and have to really think about what we can give up to keep the important Christian works alive.

- More expressions of Christian faith that say why we believe what we do and how we hold to it in the face of the pressures and criticisms of the world. Feeling good about amen-ing cultural assumptions and blindly affirming catch-phrases without having any clue what they mean probably doesn't change many lives.

- More awareness of historical and cross cultural communities of faith, as we are willing to look to other sources and gain a broader perspective on our own faith. Urban settings foster multicultural exposure, and minority status makes us more willing to look outside ourselves for answers.

- More focus on essentials beliefs and behaviors of the faith - the things that distinguish us from the world - rather than traditional American culture packaged in religous language.

- More emphasis on faith through good works that shows the world Christianity brings something good in people. Rather than measuring devotion by attendance and knowledge alone, calling people to play a meaningful part in something worthwhile, so that they have a commitment worth considering.. If all we are asking people to do is show up, what reason do they have for showing up?

I am speaking in broad generalizations about things I have seen in cultural Christianity, and don't intend my words to be harmful to the many people who are already working hard to bring these changes about in their churches and ministries. I am drawing conclusions from what I have seen of various slices of Christianity, knowing that others have seen some very different things. I want to hear your perspectives in the comments or in response blogs. But here you have the musings of this Impoverished Sage, wondering about what's next as I wander through life.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Relativism lurks on the street corners.

I used to work a street corner in downtown Tacoma a couple years ago. One night I got slapped in the face on what was an otherwise peaceful evening. To quickly clarify, my job on the street corner was to valet-park cars for a 4-star restaurant. And the slap was a metaphorical slap, delivered in the form of relativistic philosophy.

What exactly was the slap, you ask? Well, let me explain. You see, valets tend to have a lot of time standing around at work, and I got into an interesting conversation with the lady I worked alongside that particular night. She had been part of an evangelical church at one time, she informed me, but she stopped going because the leaders at the church kept telling her that her interpretations of the Bible were wrong, and they acted like they had the right interpretation figured out. For example, this lady was a vegetarian, and had been her whole life, because she didn’t want animals to die on her account. So when she read the ten commandments and saw, “Thou shalt not kill,” she took that to apply to all living creatures, not just humans. She was insulted that the teachers at her church would be so close-minded as to say her interpretation was wrong, when the teachers’ views were just their own interpretations anyway.

As a seminary student who had already completed two classes with Dr. Willsey, the Yoda of hermeneutics in the Pacific Northwest, I felt pretty prepared to give a good explanation to her. I pointed out that in other parts of Moses’ writings, we see that all animals were created by God’s spoken word, but humans were fashioned specially in God’s image. After the flood, God made a covenant with Noah that permitted humans to eat animals as food, but warned that anyone who killed another person would be killed by another person. In addition, the people of Israel were expressly instructed to kill some animals as sacrifices in other parts of the Law. While this doesn’t say that being vegetarian is necessarily bad, the command not to kill can’t accurately be applied to animals as well as humans. After I finished my careful exposition, my coworker looked at me, smiled sweetly, and said, “That’s just your interpretation.”

I was dumbfounded. Thankfully, a customer called for us to get a car at that moment, so my lack of words wasn’t as noticeable. I went home that night turning the conversation over in my mind, with my figurative cheek figuratively smarting. I knew something was seriously wrong with what she had said, but I didn’t know how to answer without making dogmatic assertions that just further proved her point. I’ve done a little thinking and discussing since then on how to answer the great postmodern skeptic’s catch-all phrase, “That’s just your interpretation.”

I realized that some fundamental flaws are associated with this statement. First, “interpretation” is used in such a way that the word “misinterpretation” would become extinct if we all followed this definition. Doesn’t it seem that, if anyone knew what an author meant by what they said, the most likely person would be the author? So if we find other statements from the author that help us to understand the statement in question, an interpretation that takes these into account should be given more weight. Claiming to have a more accurate interpretation may get me labeled as arrogant, because I am ruling out other people’s interpretations. But if we rule out the author’s explanation of his or her own meaning in favor of our own interpretations, isn’t that arrogant as well? Try this simple test: interrupt your best friend or significant other when they are talking, tell them that you know what they mean and explain an idea in your head that’s loosely related, but very different. Then, if they try to explain themselves further, rudely ignore them by saying that you rinterpretation is right for you and they can’t tell you it’s wrong. Interpreting when an author is not present to speak up and clarify is obviously more difficult, but let’s give merit to what they have said in writing, not completely ignore it and pretend that won’t affect our understanding of their message.

I’m not arguing for absolute certainty, I’m just saying there’s a limit to the range of interpretations that are valid. In many cases we don’t know for certain which interpretation is completely accurate, but we do know that some are definitely better than others. Take a math equation for an example. You can take the same numbers and arrange them in a lot of different ways, performing different operations on them. As long as we agree on the values of numbers and follow rules like the order of operations, we can get to an answer in a variety of different ways.


But if a math student misunderstood a problem and changed the symbols around, they could use the same numbers to get to a very different answer.


“Checking our math” on interpretations is a good thing. In a variety of interpretations, each person can help spot the others’ “miscalculations” or misappropriated symbols. But, please, if someone tells you 2(4)=24, don’t just smile and tell them that they are entitled to their opinion. That’s the kind of stuff that will make computers, airplanes, and financial markets crash. Put the interpretation together how you want within the range of merit and validity, but don’t be so arrogant as to defy reality when someone points out the problems with your approach.

Am I too late? Perhaps postmodernism is too far past for this to be relevant. The fact that we can label and describe a way of thinking may well mean that it has past its prime, at least in academic trends (even if the label is rather non-descriptive). Even though the evangelical world is still enthralled with the terms and it makes us feel cutting edge to add “post-“ to the beginning of our cultural descriptors, we may see ths issues pass off the scene just as we’re developing some really good answers for them. But the ideas will still have impact on people for years to come, whether through acceptance or reaction.

Using logic and words to refute the claim that logic and words are meaningless may seem like an exercise in futility. A truly consistent relativist would reject it. But the reality is, there aren’t truly consistent relativists. Skepticism of knowledge and meaning is limited to a couple of categories – literature and religion - and most people who use our phrase in question are just repeating something they heard, and haven’t really thought through its implications. For example, try questioning whether evolutionary theory or global warming science are credible, and see how relativistic your skeptic becomes. In reality we have to make decisions about how we will behave and function, and when we make most of those decisions, we don’t do it with the mindset that any path is as good as any other, but we weigh how the options will affect our circumstances, finances, emotions, future, etc. While none of us can predict or control the future, yet we look for a warranted belief that the course of action we are choosing will have desirable outcomes. And this is what we are looking for in evaluating interpretations of a text. We want to eliminate misinterpretations as invalid, not even giving them the dignity of the title “interpretation” or placing them within the range of validity. And we want to look at the warrants of the other interpretations, knowing full well that there may be a couple with virtually equal levels of warrant, which we can never decide between with certainty. But that doesn’t mean they’re equal to all others.

Do we have the proper interpretation of Scripture locked in a dogmatic box? No. But do we have grammatical, literary, historical and cultural evidence that places our interpretations within a range of validity? I certainly hope so. If there are no warrants, be like Hus, Wycliffe, or Luther and question authority. If there aren’t, quit locking up your own mind without any warrant.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Scribal Errors, Christian Doctrine, and the Preservation of Scripture

Okay, I advertised it and I'm finally going to deliver. How can we have confidence that the Bible we have is the one that accurately portrays Jesus and really gives us the words he wanted us to hear? How can we defend the idea that the Bible we have today is actually authoritative and reliable, when so many intelligent people claim that its contents and the doctrines of Christianity were merely manipulated and controlled by the politics and money of a melded church and empire?
This is where the doctrine of the preservation of Scripture is important. No, I'm not talking about what you heard a Textus-Receptus worshipping, KJV-only dogmatist endorse, that time when you went to church hoping to be edified and left church really freaked out. I'm talking about the idea that a sovereign God who was willing to reveal himself through a written account of his workings would ensure that the message of that written work would be preserved well enough that readers through the ages could understand what God wanted them to know from it. As evangelicals, we approach the Bible with the assumption that God wanted to reveal himself so that we could know him, that he wanted to reveal his method of salvation so that we could be freed from sin and condemnation, reconciled with him and regenerated. And in our view of God as sovereign Lord of the universe, it seems ridiculous to think that a few scheming ecclesiastics and politicians could foil the plans of the Divine Master by editing and rewriting the Bible.
Makes perfect sense, right? Yet people inside and outside the church are being tormented with doubt as they hear the ideas in the dramatic, well-marketed presentations of Bart Ehrman, Marcus Borg and others following the prevailing winds of academic skepticism. So I propose, first of all, that we bring textual criticism out of the closet. Just explain openly and honestly that there are differences in the text and that the story of the woman caught in adultery and the longer ending of Mark probably aren't original, so that people know the church isn't trying to hide these things. It can easily shock people to hear that those two bigger, more familiar chunks of Scripture are contested. But what essential doctrines do they affect? To question the resurrection, you still have to do a lot of work to undermine the other gospel accounts. And the many other textual variants? Well, there is some interpretive significance for those texts, depending on which view of the variants you take. But do the essential doctrines of orthodoxy change based on variants? Nah. When one variant reads "Jesus Christ" and the other "Jesus," we're not dealing with earth shattering issues. Does the salutation of the letter we call Ephesians actually address the church in Ephesus, or was it a more general, circular letter with a blank in the text? Make your decision for interpretive purposes, but don't tell me that should make me stop believing that Jesus saves. With most of the variants, you just have to look at what the alternate readings are and it's plain to even the dullest knife in the drawer that they don't involve foundational issues.
So in reality, the fact that we have so many variations in copying details, yet uniformity on the texts our core doctrines are based on shows stronger reliability, not weaker. The message was transmitted by errant scribes, but the big ideas remain intact. I know that the story of the woman caught in adultery is a powerful and memorable anecdote, but let's prepare people to hear about the dubious nature of its inclusion in the text so that a skeptic's shock and awe campaign doesn't leave them confused and overwhelmed.
Now there is this pesky issue about the other gospels, the media-hyped "new" gospels that give the accounts rejected by the early church councils when they identified the canon of the New Testament. I think the simplest way to deal with these is to actually read from them. Then you run into stories about Jesus as a boy killing other kids who tattled on him or made fun of him, or the aphorism at the end of the gospel of Thomas that says a woman cannot be saved unless she becomes a man, or the account of a passerby just after the birth of Jesus stepping into the cave to verify that Mary was still virgo intacto after giving birth to the miracle child. A friend of mine read sections aloud to the teenagers at his church, and they responded by laughing at the contents of the other "gospels," not walking away from their faith because they were thrown into doubt. The historical details and time/place markers found in the canonical gospels show that they have a very different nature than the other writings.
Not only is their nature different, but the number of manuscripts and their nearness to the historical events is remarkable in comparison with other texts that are considered to be reliable. Daniel Wallace, in a really great journal article that I highly recommend (Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, March 2009, ), points out that "We have more than 1,000 times as many copies of the New Testament as we do of almost any Greco-Roman author. And the earliest of those copies comes within decades of the completion of the NT, while the average Greco-Roman author's surviving MSS do not show up for half a millenium." (p. 88) Yet how often do people question whether Livy wrote his works of history, and asking how we know it's what he meant to say, not an alteration that certain Romans produced to make their culture look better in history? It's when we're talking about divine revelation that this skepticism grows so much stronger and more caustic.
There's so much more involved with these arguments, but I'm writing a blog post, not a book. I think we ought to have thought about these issues because it seems likely that we and those we teach will encounter them in coffee-shop and over-the-fence conversations. And I guess this hunch is made more certain by the fact that it came up in one of my coffee-shop conversations today...

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

I've given a few youth talks recently where I emphasized that living for the glory of God is the most satisfying way to possibly live. I worked to convince teenagers of the fact I've tried to shape my life decisions around: there is no way of doing life that brings greater joy than surrendering completely to Christ so much that we are willing to give up anything for his sake. Around the same time I was giving these messages, I found myself in the midst of a few days ruled by weariness and a complaining attitude. I reflected on the sad humor of going through a day scheduled like this:
7:25 Worry over my morning cup of Ethiopian Yirgachaffe whether I am really making progress in my ministry
9:45 Complain to a friend about not being able to afford the next thing I need because I make so little money and pay seminary tuition
10:15 Wonder on my morning walk whether I'll ever overcome the "horrible suffering" for Christ called singleness
12:00 Brood over my reheated rice and beans about whether I'll ever figure out just what specific kind of ministry I'm called to, what country I should move to next, and what school I should go to for my next degree
12:45 Pretend to read theology while I make a mental list of all the things I wish were better about my life.
3:45 Stand in front of 20 teenagers and tell them that a life changed by the gospel and lived for the glory of God brings the greatest joy, no matter how circumstances look and no matter what other people say.

And on an honest day, this follows:
5:00 Drift across American Lake in my kayak asking myself whether I really believe what I just taught. If I do, then I will serve for the joy of blessing my savior, not boasting about results; I will be grateful for the advantages of my present situation while praying and looking forward to the joys that would come with a future change; I would relish the opportunity to serve Christ where I am, right now, and be awed by the fact that my simple, everyday actions have eternal significance; I would be grateful for any sacrifice - comparatively small or great, real or perceived - that was made out of love for our coming King.

Life is simpler when I live what I believe.

There is no way more satisfying than living every day for the glory of God.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Defending the authority of the Word

As I grew up in a homeschool family, educated by faithful, conservative Christian parents, my learning included a lot of education in Creation science. Teaching in this vein is enthusiastically received by many who have been and are being equipped to respond to the intellectual challenges of our post-Darwin world. When scientists with degrees put together observations to craft sound arguments for a worldview that falls in line with the Genesis account, we find new courage to face an establishment of scientific scholars and professional educators who adamantly insist that evolutionary theory answers the question of human origins and treat anyone who dares to bring up other options as ignorant obscurantists. I am grateful for those who have worked hard to show that the Bible and science are not irreconcilable.
At the peak of the modernist assault on Christianity, fundamentalists had to respond to the great assertion that "science has proven the Bible wrong."(And even those of us who cringe at that term and quickly substitute terms like "evangelical" that have less negative stereotypes attached would have been proud to call ourselves fundamentalists in that day.)Marshaling the scientific evidence for a created world rather than an evolved world to show that it's not quite so ridiculous as scientific scholars and scholars of higher criticism would have you think. I heard enough good lectures during my formation as a thinker that it's pretty natural to my mind to take Genesis 1 at face value and accept the days as literal days. I'm glad we can have confidence that in accepting the Bible we are not throwing all intelligence out the window. I prefer reasoned faith to blind faith. (Sorry, Kierkegaard)I hope that we have come far enough that we can now hear sermons from texts about the glory of God's creation that focus on the text and what it conveys about God's power and majesty. The text of Genesis is not meant to be a springboard into a lecture on creation science, and the figurative language of poetry about nature is meant to paint pictures on the canvas of your mind, not describe scientific realities.
Even as many struggle to break the stalemate in the battle to allow teachers in public education (at any level) to question evolutionary theory, new challenges to the authority of scripture come up. The most popular objection in my experience has been that the Bible we have "isn't really what was written. How do we know what's been changed from the original?" So wonderful...just when Christian (and non-Christian) thinkers are putting together some really good arguments against evolution so that I can hold to inerrancy and not be viewed as complete ignoramus because I accept the Creation account, the objection changes to something that does a complete end-run around that issue. My neatly-wrapped package of ideas - the original documents of Scripture were inerrant, and plenty of credible scientists are fine with its account - has been unwrapped and the contents tossed aside as unconvincing and uninteresting. In this case, why does it matter that the autographs were innerant? Nobody has any idea what they actually said, because surely the text was corrupted and changed and selectively edited since then.
The generational thinking that caused the questions to change is fascinating to watch. Modernity said, "Progress, new ideas, and new research have the answers." So when Darwin's new research came out, this gave a clear basis for rejecting the Biblical account. The truly intelligent people went with the new, scientific answers. The Bible simply wasn't new enough to keep up with intellectualism.
When perspectivalism shook up some of the tenets of modernism, along with it came a craving for that which is authentic, pure, and back to the original. Now the Bible isn't quite old enough to be accepted. A.D. 367? Athanasius, you're a cool guy, but you lived a little too long after Jesus, Peter and Paul to really be able to say what their teachings were like. Then you get hundreds of years of medievial catholicism holding responsibility to preserve the text. What could have happened then? If I don't eat all that processed food because it's full of preservatives, covered with high fructose corn syrup, and touched up with synthetic dye instead of locally-grown, organic real food, why would I take anything less than the very parchment on which Luke scrawled his historical accounts as real, authentic, from-the-source revelation? Tell me about autographs being inerrant all you want...blah blah do you know all the other gospels written weren't the actual authentic ones?
Okay, I've written enough to raise this question. More thoughts to come...

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Be hearers of the Word, and not readers only

I sat in the shade on a campground in Northern California last summer, talking about the Christian life with a fellow counselor. He told me some of the story of his spiritual growth, describing how establishing regular Bible reading habits had greatly strengthened his spiritual life. He said that he had come the conclusion that this was essential to spiritual growth, and even though he had heard people downplay its importance and shrug it off as legalism, he didn't see "how anyone could grow spiritually without consistent, daily Bible reading." I had a brief, existential struggle before I replied. Do I point out how silly that statement seems in historical perspective, when this idea had obviously impacted this young man's life in a dramatic and heartfelt way? After my few seconds of internal angst, I think the reply I gave was something like, "You know, personal Bible reading has had a powerful effect on my spiritual growth as well; it's such an amazing privilege to have considering that through hundreds of years of church history, the majority of believers didn't have a copy of God's Word in their own language." I hoped that this communicated support for the habits that had shaped him, while at the same time gently pointing out that even illiterate people and those who have lived in times and places where it was not practically possible for them to have and read their own copy of the Bible did manage to grow spiritually somehow.

This launched me into reflection on how I think of "consuming" and interacting with the content of Scripture as an American Evangelical - and what other ways I could effectively experience the the inspired literature that reveals God's person, plan and principles.

My profs have more than once pointed out that when the letters of the New Testament were sent to their original recipients, they would have been read aloud to the church, not photocopied and passed out to everyone, or put up on a screen. (Both Xerox and Power Point would have been anachronisms at that point and for a long time afterward.) This was also how the majority of Jews would have taken in the OT writing: hearing them read aloud by a Rabbi. Owning a scroll would be way to expensive. Thus there may be some things in the way the letters were written that come across better in hearing the letter rather than looking at it on a page. I decided to explore this in a Sunday evening service at my church. So I practiced reading Ecclesiastes, then read it aloud from my trusty old NIV to the group that had gathered that night. Then I opened it up for questions and comments. It turned out to be quite an enjoyable and edifying experience. A visitor's questions led to a discussion of the gospel, and of God's love and grace, even towards those who wandered away. Not really where you plan to go when you open up to Ecclesiastes, but sometimes good conversations begin in a very roundabout way. And we read the Word in community, with the collected insights and reflections of our local church community. This seems to me a step better than consuming a book with only my personal thoughts and reactions to the content.

A couple weeks ago my pastor mentioned that he had made arrangements with a Bible media group to get audio cd's of the Bible in MP3 format, intended for people to put on their ipods or other media players. Wycliffe has been putting these files on solar-powered or hand-cranked players to take the words of Scripture to a lot of places it's never been before in our world. In our context, this group reasons that a lot of people say they don't read their Bibles because either A)They "don't have the time" or B)They don't like to read. So why not take away these excuses? Surely, you say, someone who is truly spiritually interested doesn't need things dumbed down and made more user-friendly and convenient to make them willing to take in Scripture content. But wait...what if now they're going to hear the Word, in a way a bit more akin to the original audience, rather than read it like most post-Gutenberg Christians. Okay, we miss out on the community aspect here; you can't win 'em all. But I'm excited to offer this to sixth-graders I know who are painfully slow in their reading, but show spiritual interest and just may listen.

The invention of the printing press and the spread of literacy did so much good for Christianity. When people can check the pronouncements of the church for correspondence with the teachings of Scripture, we really seem to get a lot closer to who God wants the people of God to be than when power over doctrine is solely in the hands of tradition and an educated elite. Thank God for movable type, and how it has shaped the movement of Christianity that has shaped me. And thank God for digital sound files (And even for the people who listened to the Bible on cassette tapes back in the ancient days of the '80's and '90's): may they increase our understanding and appreciation of Scripture and democratize Biblical knowledge for coming generations around the world. I'll be watching the mailbox at the church, waiting for those cd's to get here....

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Why I secretly like the smell of cigarette smoke.

This is not very logical: I'm blogging. It is a swirling blend of experiences that involve faith, evangelism, and cigarette smoke. I make no apologies for the lack of cohesive argument. This is my blog - take it or leave it.

Respectable church people who have grown up in Christian homes don't smoke cigarettes. Neither do the elites of our culture who are convinced that they live superior, healthy, socially and environmentally responsible lives.

The times in my life when I am around smokers are generally the times when I have befriended someone who lives in a setting that's anything but Christian. When they come to church or to hang out with other Christians, they are a bit self-conscious about taking their smoke breaks. But when I visit with them and just hang out while they smoke, they tend to be pretty frank about life. This allows me to be frank about how Christ can make a difference in their lives.

The basic idea is this: if I'm around Christians all the time, I don't smell cigarette smoke that much. But when I connect with the lost and spend meaningful time with them, I frequently end up inhaling some carcinogens. You could say it's an occupational hazard of evangelism.

It puzzled me a bit when I attended a baptism service once where the presiding pastor asked for members of the congregation to give testimony about how they had seen the lives of the couple change. They had become Christians several months before, and been undergoing discipleship in the church. Several people mentioned excitedly the fact that both of the new Christians had stopped smoking. I felt awkward that this was being focused on as the fruit of their salvation. I inwardly squirmed, wishing I knew more about their lives so that I could mention some behavior actually mentioned in the Bible that had changed. Finally someone commended them for the love expressed in their family, and I felt a little better. But it seemed to me like an adventure in incidentalism (the degenerated form of the former glory of Fundamentalism.

Smoking seems to me a very foolish choice. Why kill yourself slowly and cause breathing problems? My Grandpa's slow death from lung cancer was not fun to watch. But shouldn't our focus be a little stronger on things like sexual immorality, anger issues, drunkenness, and other Biblical sins? When I have repeatedly heard people outside the church mention smoking as the sin they most need to change in their lives, I scratch my head and wonder whether this is their own assumption or one the church has communicated...

I once visited with a man who, after his release from prison, was gaining a new level of interest in spiritual things. He was between cigarettes at this point, so we were inside my house with only a faint trace of the smell. He told me a few nights before he hadn't been able to sleep, so he got up, poured a glass of wine ("just a small one"), and read 1 Peter. "Man, Nate," he exclaimed, "that book is some good s***!" Not quite the way I would have said it, but we read through the book again that night and he kept asking me to explain things to him, getting more and more excited. Then he said, "Let's go outside, I need to smoke." So the conversation moved. Somehow I felt like I was on the frontlines of ministry for life change at that moment. I'm not sure that his life changed as much as I wished. But cigarette smoke whispers to me of that moment, when this dear man was aware, if only briefly, of the power and grace of God that was available to him.

Respectable Christians don't smoke cigarettes. That's probably a good thing. But maybe sometimes they should smell like cigarette smoke.

In Romans 15:20-21, Paul says that his ambition is to preach the gospel "not where Christ has already been named,...but as it is written,
Those who have never been told of him will see,
And those who have never heard will understand."

I'm miles away from unreached people groups in the true sense of the word: cultures that have no gospel witness or knowledge of God's special revelation. But the fact is we all pass within miles, yards, or feet of people who run in entirely non-Christian circles: little sub-cultures of unreached people who need Jesus' love so much. I think of my friend Mike, who signs about the love of God to deaf teens who have no other Christian witness in their lives. I think of Kevin Klas talking after an ultimate frisbee game with the hippie college students he played with. I think of Austin and Heather knocking on their neighbors doors with homemade food in hand. I think of the middle schooler whose dad warns him not to bring home Campus Life flyers and takes him to native american spiritual ceremonies instead. People right under our noses.

Be careful, guys: when someone smokes next to you, it's like you smoking half a cigarette because of the secondhand smoke. But I think it's worth the risk. In some cases, it's the smell of effectiveness.

I secretly like it...

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Pet peeves about theology textbooks/commentaries:

1. Untranslated German.

Just because I know Greek or Hebrew, that doesn't mean I also know German.

2. Endnotes instead of footnotes.

Why are you making me flip so many pages? If it's worth noting, it's worth noting at the relevant place in the book, not hundreds of pages away.

3. Transliteration instead of Greek or Hebrew letters.

If I know the language, transliteration is an unnecessary nuisance. If I don't know it, does it really add to my understanding to say the sounds that the word makes?

4. Transliterations and Greek or Hebrew letters.

The above, plus this objection: If I know the language, why do I want to read the word three times?

Can anybody identify with these? Do you want to add to the list?

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Problem with Bible Verses

Bible reading has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. The funny thing is, it’s hard for me to imagine a Bible without chapter and verse numbers marked into it. Why is this funny? Because these divisions were only added in the 1500’s. Think about it: for about 75 percent of church history (not to mention a few thousand years of Israelite dealings with the Old Testament before that), people didn’t look up Bible verses.
Bible study is made so much easier by having numbers to communicate exactly where in the text you are referring to. In fact, it seems that it makes reading portions in community much easier, since it helps everyone get on the same page (metaphorically speaking, since invariably people will have different editions, translations and study Bibles that make the page number that contains the text different). But I think there are some potential hazards to the way it makes us think about the Bible. Avoiding hazards begins by becoming aware of them, so here I go:
Dividing the text into verses makes it easier for us to think of the Bible as a bunch of little pieces to be pulled out and used independently. Thus we get athlete’s devotionals and business motivation seminars claiming that Philippians 4:13 gives the power to win championships and build Fortune 500 companies, when actually, if we read carefully around it, we find an example not of accomplishing great changes in our circumstances that bring money and fame, but of having joy and contentment in any situation. But in light of the current economic situation, we wouldn’t want to do away with this mindset, because then the companies that sell verse-a-day calendars would go out of business and jobs would be lost, and those people would have to be reeducated for green-collar industries... I’m still waiting for the Bible verse Demotivators calendar to come out, with verses like James 4:9 on every page. Somebody should make one, with big pictures of hilariously tragic incidents: I’d buy it and give it to Dr. Vreeland to put in his office.
Lest we think that the problems that comes with picking out individual verses occur only among the lowly common-folk (tongue-in-cheek) of Christianity, let’s talk about systematic theology for a moment. My peers in the Donald Miller-Rob Bell-Brian McClaren generation seem to love throwing mud at the whole idea of doing systematics. And they have some very good criticisms. Sometimes theologians take neat logical systems and nicely organized charts, pick some verses that fit into them, publish it as truth, and hold tenaciously to it as the truth. The verses are selected apart from their context, obscuring tension, paradox and uncertainty. And using professional words doesn’t make this any better than the verse-a-day calendars.
But can we please remember that systematics being done poorly sometimes doesn’t mean systematics should be done away with? Systematic theology allows us to ask the questions our culture is asking, and seek what light the Bible sheds on these topics. It is part of the process of contextualization. The thing I like least about systematic theology is how much work it takes to do it right. Grappling with the author’s intent in a passage’s meaning, developing a Biblical theology of that author’s writings, then looking for how those teachings fit consistently into a framework that helps us live our lives well and make sense of the world around us is a lot of work. But if we never go through the whole process, do we have anything more than just some interesting literature and sermons intended for audiences that lived centuries ago. And without thinking about coherency, we can teach exactly opposite things that make our worldview unintelligible and unlivable. (Not paradoxes, but contradictions)
I don’t want to only go as far as detailed exegetical analysis and never think about how the message of the Word transforms my life. And I don’t want to look at the Bible based on a system of ideas that only sees the pieces of it affirm the way I already view the world. But I want careful interpretation of each text that takes into account how the message of that text contributes to a cohesive view of life. I want a Biblically-derived system that teaches me how to approach my life and look at the world.
I need to read the Bible, not just verses.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

In Defense of Academics

There is a purpose for academics. To my seminary friends, this may seem like a self-evident statement, but I have encountered many people in my life, from east coast to west coast, who speak with contempt of how academics is so impractical, how theology is just a bunch of big words and useless knowledge, how anyone can read and understand the Bible and doesn’t need an educated elite to interpret it for them. There is a degree of truth to this: the beauty of the gospel is that the essential message is wonderfully accessible. It was not merely a message for an intellectual elite. To think that academics and clergy sit as arbiters over the meaning and application of the Biblical text and define its meaning would send us back to the Dark Ages (and I mean that more literally than you may think). To say that Scripture is entirely inaccessible without going through a certain curriculum to achieve a special status is a huge problem.
At the same time, the revelation was given to us in a process involving historical records, literary creations, and in a language and culture foreign to and distant from ours. And the beautiful thing about Christian scholarship since the days of reformation is that it has been mostly done with the goal of making Scripture more accessible. Those who reject the need for scholars to help them understand their Bible forget that the fact they can hold a Bible in their hands and read it in their own language is the result of the work of, well, scholars - people who were willing to “waste their time” parsing verbs and learning vocabulary and grammar and doing linguistic research. And all we have to show for it is that millions of people around the world can read the words of God’s revelation for themselves. This is no small accomplishment.
Here are a few observations that I think deal with some of the real problems that can come up in Biblical/theological scholarship – problems based on improper use of education, not the education itself:
1. Academics done right does not pursue impractical questions: it makes a very thorough and assiduous effort to more accurately answer practical questions.
2. Big words make the work easier for those who immerse themselves in the conversation, because they allow us to be more efficient in our conversations. They should not be used to express snobbery and make conversations esoteric. They help us process and define issues so we can get to the end product: understandable theology, in audience-appropriate language, that helps us all live better Christian lives.
3. Most Christian scholars really want to help others with their knowledge. If you hate studying, especially studying languages, literature and history, be glad for people who are nerdy enough to like it, and be humble enough to let them help you.
4. God uses work and study as the means to help us know how to love and serve him better. Just as it is foolish to think that since God is the one who provides for our needs, we don’t need to do any useful work, so it is foolish to think that we can know a God who reveals so much about himself through a written document without ever having to put effort into learning.
My apologies to the middle-schoolers I unintentionally confuse with my vocabulary on a weekly basis – I just forget. And my humble repentance for the times I have let my pride rear its ugly head and used knowledge to build my self up instead of building others up. But please, don’t let those mistakes damage learning. Support your local Christian scholars – they’re working make God’s word more accessible, not less.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Did the "good old days" ever really happen?

We are people of the text. Christianity is a religion shaped by the written and preserved canon of Scripture, and belief in Scripture's authority provides parameters for orthodox belief. For evangelicalism in western culture, the democratization of Bible reading after the advent of the printing press and the growth in literacy of the masses through broader education efforts has brought us to view individual reading of Scripture as a critical practice. We hear this in the emphatic appeals from leaders and teachers to be faithful in having a personal "quiet time."
As we read, we relive the stories of the faith of past saints, and we sense the vibrant power of the messages of the prophets in the Old Testament and the letters of the apostles in the New Testament as they spoke to their faith communities. The natural and appropriate response is to want to relive these experiences, to see the powerful acts of God in our own time and experience the passionate joy of a relationship with God in our own faith communities. Those who expose themselves to the accounts of the heroes of church history will often experience the same feelings of wonder at God's past works and a desire to live out these same kinds of experiences in our own lives. May this passion burn in our hearts and spur us on to good deeds, deepened fellowship, active evangelism, and warm piety towards God!
But let us remember something. From the times of the earliest faith accounts until now, no matter how carefully and eagerly we search, we will not find a perfect age of church history. The fact is, there is no ideal age of the church. Generations of church leaders have thought and worked carefully to devise the ideal way to practice "real New Testament church life," only to have the next generation point out the faults and inadequacies in their methods and put forth new ideas on what perfect church life looks like.
Whether it be the New Testament church, the reformation, the Patristic age, or the modern age, we cannot find a time period that gives us a faultless example of Christianity. If we look throughout the world today, this search is frustrated again; persecuted churches in hostile settings can be idealized for their tenacious faith, but with more scrutiny their faults appear (sometimes in the form of serious doctrinal problems). Churches freshly emerging in new places tend to repeat mistakes from early church history in other places rather than giving a fresh, clean and pure form of Christianity, as may be imagined. In prosperous and peaceful areas of the world with the advantage of developed Biblical, historical, and theological study can use these resources to carefully define accurate doctrine only to find that the response to this highly accurate and developed teaching is apathy, as the distraction of wealth and comfort makes radical faith an entirely uninteresting concept.
In the content of the New Testament, there is sobering reality that the glowing descriptions of the early community of believers is quickly followed by descriptions of various controversies and problems, and that many of the letters were written to give correction and rebuke to erring churches with rebellious members. In the earlier fascination of protestantism to imitate the reformation ideals we do not find perfection. In the liberal attempts to make Christianity into modernism with a Jesus label pasted on top, ideal Christian practice remains far out of reach. In the recent postmodern fascination with the early church fathers and the spiritual disciplines and contemplative practices of the middle ages, there will again, despite the benefits of imitating the positive practices of these eras, be glaring faults as their weaknesses also carry over. The next generation will passionately decry these faults and seek a new example to follow.
So am I merely spouting off a pessimistic monologue to weigh you down with hopelessness? No, because in spite of these faults God's redemptive power still triumphs. I raise the issue to make an appeal that we approach Christian thought and practice with the recognition that we can't get back to the "good old days" when the church was pure and ideal, because there were no such days. Instead, let's seek to learn from the strengths of the New Testament church, and every subsequent age, as well as from each period's failures. Our standard in every age remains the principles, patterns and ethics taught by Scripture. If we seek fervently to live these out in our age, fleshing them out in continuity with the essential beliefs of all church history, but with a unique incarnation in our own context. In this way we can avoid high-minded condemnation of others who do not practice "Biblical Christianity" as we do and instead humbly allow their approaches to instruct us as we seek to do the best we can with the time we have and pray that God will redeem even our own faults and blind spots in the way only the sovereign and gracious God over the people of God in every age can. The question is not "how do we get back to how things were when the church was the way it ought to be?" but "How do we learn from what was in an effort to get closer to what ought to be?"