Category Archives: Apologetics
Okay, I realize I am opening up myself to big time criticism here. But let’s be honest – if you are going to write about theology is the fog, there is no greater fog than the current pea-soup murkiness of the glorification of near death experiences (NDE) or back from the dead experiences.
Some time ago I read the book Heaven is for Real because I was requested to do so by a church member. I found the book cute in a way, but also deeply troubling. In fact, I found its cuteness to be the most disturbing facet of the book. It is so cute, and the protagonist so adorable, that the reader cannot see the dangerous message hidden in the book.
For those of you who have not read the book, the story involves a little boy, the son of a pastor, who experiences excruciating abdominal pain that is initially misdiagnosed. By the time the correct diagnosis is made the boy is virtually catatonic. An emergency surgery heals the boy, and some time later the little boy starts revealing to his (astonished!) father that he had died and gone to heaven, where, by the way, he meets God, Jesus, his long dead grandfather and a sister that he never knew he had. The story is so popular that a movie is now being made of the event.
The book is not exactly The Grapes of Wrath quality, but hey, if you include dead grandpas and sisters, how can you go wrong?
Well, let me explain. You can go wrong in a number of ways, some of which may be inconsequential, but some are spiritually lethal. Let me address the entire body of near-death and back-from-the-dead stories, and not simply focus on one mega-popular story.
Observation #1 – These stories always glorify the recipient of the “vision.” Notice the visions of God recorded in the Bible. The recipient is introduced, and then immediately fades into the background or falls to the ground in abject terror, or has to be purified from their sinfulness. The recipient always magnifies God, not the event nor himself or herself. In these modern near-death or post-death stories it is always the recipient (or his or her family) that receives the lion’s share of the press. To paraphrase, “I had this vision of God, but first a few chapters about ME!” It is crass commercialism. And, the fact that a number of young children are being used by adults (parents, ghost writers, publishers, movie makers, etc) makes the process even more repugnant.
Observation #2 – These stories are always couched in such loaded language/scenarios that anyone who challenges them is forced into a “why do you want to kill kittens and puppies” type of accusation. I have nothing against young children who claim to see God or Jesus. For all I know these young people are delightful, mischievous, insightful youngsters who genuinely believe that what they “saw” was real. Do I believe they went to “heaven?” Not for a minute. I have had enough experience with pain, anesthesia, pain medications, and even old age and dementia to know that such visions are all too common, and real, but yet are not true. I had a profound and very disturbing “vision” when I was a young man and suffering from an extremely high fever. Was my vision real? Absolutely! I will go to my grave believing with all my heart that I saw what I saw. Was it true? Not even close. There is a huge difference.
Observation #3 – These near-death and post-death revelations are so incredibly vapid – they are meaningless. Do you mean to tell me that God interrupts the space/time, life/death continuum to give someone a message that heaven is for real? Do you suggest that the God of creation would allow someone to visit His throne room to pass along a message that God loves us? What kind of kindergarten God do these people think we worship, anyway? Do you mean to tell me that Jesus’ death on the cross was not good enough to tell mankind that God loves us? Do you mean to suggest that, with all the words and parables that Jesus spoke on this earth, that we need a vision from the near-grave to tell us that heaven exists? Honestly, how illiterate do some people think non-Christians are? And why would God send his Son to die for us if a simple little near-death or post-death vision could solve all of our problems?
Which then leads me to my final, and most important point, Observation #4 – These near-death and post-death experiences, while undoubtedly very vivid and very real to the recipient, are specifically refuted by the words of Jesus! Read Luke 16:19-31. In the story of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus quotes Abraham as telling the rich man (who is in torment and who has begged Abraham to send Lazarus from Abraham’s side back to convert his 5 sinful brothers)
But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if some one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead.’ Luke 16:29-31, RSV, emphasis mine.
People, brothers, sisters, those who love me and those who hate me – if Jesus himself tells a story that specifically eliminates the possibility of someone returning from the dead in order to preach to a skeptical public, why in the world would he send a little child, or a grown person for that matter, back from the shadows of death with such an anemic message such as “heaven is for real” or “God loves us and wants us to get along?”
That is not just taking liberty with a wonderful story. That is heresy bordering on blasphemy. I know those are harsh words. But Jesus warned about charlatans and false prophets who would tell fanciful stories and who would always be pointing to the heavens and announcing His coming. Jesus told us to be innocent as doves, to be sure. But he also told us to be wise as serpents.
I am not denying that these individuals had the experiences they relate. I am not denying that to these people these experiences were as real as the computer I am using right now. They may be valuable and beneficial to the recipient and to their immediate families. I am, however, flatly denying that God would contradict the words of His Son in order to propagate truths that have been clearly taught and even personified in His incarnate Son. We must discern the spirits.
This is one fog bank that really demands our clearest theological thinking and Spiritual wisdom to fly through. The stakes are simply too high.
(Note: upon some post-publishing review, a couple of phrases have been re-worded from my original rant)
I have been thinking on a universal theme the past day or so. Literally – the universe.
The author of Psalm 8 did not have the advantage of looking at images from the Hubble telescope. All he could do was look up on a dark night and contemplate on the moon and stars. His penetrating question still has no answer:
What is man that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that thou dost care for him? (Ps. 8:4, RSV)
Our earth is just one tiny little speck of dust floating in amongst billions of other little specks of galactic dust – and that is just in our galaxy. Multiply that times hundreds of galaxies that our super-telescopes have been able to see. Our little home gets smaller and smaller the further out into space we go. We measure distances in space by light years, the distance that light can travel in an entire year. And then those numbers are followed by a whole host of zeros. That just does not boggle the mind – it stupefies it.
And yet our earth is so perfectly balanced for us to live here. Just the right amount of land and water, just the perfect mixture of oxygen, the right amount of sunshine, all the food we need to sustain far more people than are alive today.
In all the incredible, unfathomable vastness of the universe – why are we so well taken care of? Evolution? Just mere chance? A few billion random accidents happening in the one perfect sequence to create just one amino acid, and then every other building block of life requiring a similar number of random accidents? And then all those building blocks randomly lining up in a perfect sequence to create one living organism? How many billions of random accidents are we talking about here? And for how many billions of years? And with how many billions of failed accidents leading to disastrous results?
No, there has to be more. I can’t explain why this little speck of dust should be any more blessed than any of the other countless billions of specks of dust in our galaxy. If the inspired psalmist cannot answer that question then I should not even attempt to try. But I can praise God and worship him that we do have this home, that He has created us just a little lower than his angels, that He has given us dominion over the rest of this earthly creation.
Understand, no. Believe, yes. Worship, absolutely.
O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is thy name in all the earth! (Ps. 8:9, RSV)
When you read broadly in the religious world today you begin to identify certain trends. Some of these trends are ostensibly about the direction the church is moving. Some of these trends are about what the trendy authors think the church is moving. I think it could be argued that the church is not moving at all, that its own lethargy and inertia is what is killing it. But that is a point for people far more schooled in trends within the church to figure out. I just read what they write.
However, I have identified one facet, or quirk, or “trend” if that is what you want to call it, that I find both significant and troubling at the same time. That trend has two opposite, and actually totally conflicting components.
The first is this: one group of analysts points out that the church has, over the past 50 years or so (if not much longer) become entirely consumeristic. We have identified a “target” audience, tailored a message to reach that audience, created an atmosphere that would attract that audience and put everything into motion in order to please that audience. So, we have whiz-bang youth ministries, tremendous toddler teachers, mothers day outs, senior Tuesdays – a ministry for every “niche” group there is from the bassinet all the way to the retirement home. The problem with this compartmentalization is that it cheapens the gospel. The church was never intended to be a shopping mall or a cafeteria, where you could walk down an aisle and say, “Well, I’ll take a helping of Tuesday morning moms day out, a side of young married’s class, two or three helpings of Super Teen night, and, while we’re at it, how about a helping of mind-bending worship service for dessert!” When a church fails to meet each and every demand from each and every socio-economic group in their “church,” the offended party simply goes shopping for a “church” that offers something to meet their perceived “needs.”
The second, and diametrically opposed component is this: another group of analysts have noticed that an increasing number of people, mostly young, are leaving the church and have proposed any number of “fixes” to get them to either stay, or to come back. Those fixes include making the worship experience more “experiential” – meaning more theatrics, more video, more “sensory” type experiences, as well as adding more “experiential” type activities so that a generation that has been raised with high definition TVs and complicated computer games will not be “bored” with an “old-timey” worship service.
Did you see the contradiction here? On the one hand we have become too consumeristic, we have bowed the knee to King Choice, we have completely given up on making the demands of discipleship plain, and on the other hand we need to create an entirely new set of consumeristic options in order to repair the leaky back doors on our church buildings.
Sometimes I wonder if these analysts even read what each other are writing. But it is enough to give the rest of us whiplash.
Personally, I am “all in” with the first group. As I look back on my teenage years I realize how the church bent over backwards to make sure I was a happy, contented, and active teen in the youth group. We had retreats and lock-ins and pizza parties and ski trips and I don’t know what else – and we even had a fairly large dose of teaching and service opportunities. But I really do not remember ever having a serious discussion of what discipleship was all about, and what it might ultimately cost me. Everything that was done was done with me and my age group as the main concern. In my most humble and beyond question correct opinion, that approach has failed miserably and we are reaping the fruit of the failure of that experiment.
And so, when I read or hear some 20 or early 30 something speak or write that the way to reverse the current exodus in the teen to young married age group is to bend even further toward the consumeristic side of the aisle I get pretty churlish. We have done everything under the sun to make people happy, to “meet their needs” to make the worship service “meaningful” (whatever that could possibly mean) and what has happened? More and more young people are leaving because every time we work to reach the bar, they just raise the bar a little higher. Instead of one screen with a simple PowerPoint presentation, we need three screens with multiple images and “surround sound” audio. We need incense so that we can have an olfactory experience. We need bells – literally, we need bells – to help our ears tingle. We need a blue-light special on aisle six. One song leader is just so twentieth century. Now we need a Praise Team to lead us so that our worship will be exciting and vibrant and, well, so today.
I say hogwash and balderdash. What we need to do is to return to a sane, healthy and challenging theology that exalts God as the creator and returns us to the position of created being. We need to return to the image of the book of Revelation where Christ is an awe-inspiring manifestation of strength and power instead of our best buddy. The church grew when it realized that God was God and not the local super-mall manager.
I look at the young people who are chasing their tails and I wonder what will happen when they turn 40 or 45 and observe that their children and grandchildren examine all their “perfect solutions” to the church and simply sniff and walk away. At some point (hopefully) these twenty-somethings will come to realize that the mere externals of what they are attempting to change means not one little bit if the internal commitment to Jesus and His church is not there. The fact is we have been trying to find the “perfect solution” for over a generation now and the answer is pretty clear – if you try to market the church, someone is always going to have a flashier preacher, a better sound system, a louder praise band, a flashier video projector. Trying to “out consumer” the king of this world is simply not going to work.
I have an idea – let’s try teaching discipleship: self-sacrifice, dying to self so that others might see Christ, giving instead of getting, blessing instead of searching for endless ways to be blessed, worshipping the King of kings instead of the tyrant inside our selfish hearts.
Let’s work on being the church of Christ for a change. We have a far better story to proclaim than the garbage that Hollywood and Wall Street are producing. Why can’t we see that?
Then a blind and dumb demoniac was brought to him, and he healed him, so t hat the dumb man spoke and saw. And all the people were amazed, and said, “Can this be the Son of David?” But when the Pharisees heard it they said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons.” Knowing their thoughts, he said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand; and if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself; how then will his kingdom stand?” (Matthew 12:22-26, RSV)
I’m feeling rather rantish this morning, so if this post seems a bit prickly I apologize. Or, maybe I don’t. Maybe I intend to be prickly.
A person cannot follow any kind of Christian literature today, either print or online, without being assaulted by two deafening drum beats: one, that the church is declining, and two, that the solution to the decline of the church is to become more like the world so that the world will quit hating us so much and then they will come and be a part of us because we are so much like a part of them. I’ve heard of circular reasoning before, but that has to take the cake.
The manner in which this doctrine is presented is actually quite multifaceted. On one extreme you have the “we have to start all over from scratch” crowd that looks upon the current church situation with disgust and unfeigned superiority. All mostly under 30 years of age, these folks have all the answers to all the questions (even as they suggest there are no definitive answers to the questions), and they view anyone over the age of 40, especially those of us who still love and cherish the church, with utter disdain. If anyone even tries to identify the group they meet with as a “church” they are dismissed. Heaven forbid the group try to own the facility in which they meet, or have any type of creedal or doctrinal statement. Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed – no difference. All roads lead to heaven, God is love, anyone who thinks different needs to get over it.
On the other end of the spectrum are those who say they want to maintain a doctrinal or creedal form of the church, but they just want to do so in culturally relevant ways. Now, these folks are up against it, because it is pretty much impossible to be doctrinal in a doctrinally adverse culture. So, the church assembly is still important, but the preacher, or preacherette, needs to “preach” in ripped blue jeans and a ratty “Grateful Dead” t-shirt. While this “preacher” is “preaching,” there needs to be a YouTube video or a carefully selected clip of an “R” rated movie shown on three (count ‘em, three) larger than life video screens. If someone gets too bored with the “sermon” (and we all know that boredom is the chief killer of the post-modern Christian faith) the “congregant” (by the way, you don’t have to profess any kind of allegiance to be a member of this church) can go down the hall to a “prayer labyrinth” where they can indulge in any one of a number of Eastern religious practices, all under the guise of deepening their “Christian” faith. Buddha and Mohammed still will get you to heaven, but these folks will argue that their pagan roads will eventually at some point intersect with the Jesus highway. There are quite a number of goatee-growing (except for the “preacherettes”) ripped-jean wearing advocates, although I’m not sure they would feel comfortable being in the same room with each other. Sometimes even the brand of ripped jeans does matter.
What does all this have to do with Matthew 12:22-26? Just this: I’m not sure that Satan has to fight very much anymore. I truly believe he has already captured a large section of the “church” and he is perfectly content to let his minions do their thing. Satan is certainly not going to fight against Satan, so if the disciples of Christ are not going to fight him, why does he need to be militant at all? All Satan needs to do to maintain his kingdom today is lay back in a hammock and sip lemonade.
During this summer break I have been trying to zero in on the culture that I am attempting to address. So I chose two books to help me, Chap Clark’s Hurt 2.0, and Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton’s Soul Searching. Talk about your depressing summer reading. It’s not that the books are poorly written. They are both excellent books – I highly recommend both of them. But the results of both books are terrifying. The generation of young Christians now in high school and college are profoundly ignorant of the basic Christian truths. Many young people do not think that Christianity does have exclusive claims, and even if they are vaguely aware of those exclusive Christian claims, they are totally incapable of verbalizing or embodying those claims. I grew up hearing the phrase, “It only takes one generation for the church to go into apostasy.” Folks, it is here.
I write as a member of and minister to the Churches of Christ. In less than a generation (slightly more than half of my life) the changes that I have seen in congregations of the Church of Christ are staggering. I realize we are not alone – in the late 1950′s C.S. Lewis was writing that the Anglican Church (American Episcopal Church) would never even allow female priests. They now have openly practicing homosexual bishops! So much for Anglican doctrine. The practices that I hear preachers openly advocate today would not even be whispered 30-40 years ago. Progress you say? Maybe for the kingdom of darkness. We have effectively let Satan go on vacation. Why does he need to work if the disciples of Christ are so effectively accomplishing his goals?
I know I am a dinosaur. One day those who agree with me may become extinct. If it is the will of God, so be it. But for the time being I long for the day in which a preacher will actually stand for Christ and against pagan culture. I want to hear preachers preach for holiness and against making peace with the world. I want to hear the distinctive nature of the church praised instead of condemned. I want to hear Christ lifted up and exalted instead of lowered to the ranks of Buddha and Mohammed. In other words, I want to be encouraged to “march into hell for a heavenly cause” and take the fight to Satan on his turf, instead of having to defend myself from my fellow disciples simply because I believe the Bible teaches inviable, Incarnate Truth with a capital “T.”
Really, people. If the human race is so depraved that we cannot listen to a 30 minute sermon and grasp the truth of the gospel without being assaulted by an “R” rated movie clip, then let’s turn out the lights and all go home.
I’m tired of hearing the church fight Satan’s battles for him. Can we please stand up and fight for Jesus?
Yesterday I closed my post with the words of Jesus in Mark 4:40, “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?” (RSV) This morning, through no other intention other than following my daily Bible reading schedule, I read Daniel chapter 3. The chapter focuses on Daniel’s three friends, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, and the golden statue that Nebuchadnezzar had set up. Anyone not bowing down to the statue would be thrown into a fiery furnace. Anyone who has attended a Vacation Bible School in their life knows that the three faithful Israelites refuse to obey, and they are called before Nebuchadnezzar to hear their sentence.
Regardless of how many times I have previously read this story, today I was struck by the forcefulness of their response. I repeat it here in its entirety:
Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to the king, “Nebuchadnezzar, we don’t need to give you an answer to this question. If the God we serve exists, then He can rescue us from the furnace of blazing fire, and He can rescue us from the power of you, the king. But even if he does not rescue us, we want you as king to know that we will not serve your gods or worship the gold statue you set up. (Daniel 3:16-18, HCSB)
Because there are three verses, it seems only poetic to make three observations about this text.
One, the three men don’t need to give a response to the king. Their lives have already told the king the answer to his question (read from the beginning of the chapter to get Nebuchadnezzar’s question). In today’s world we are all terrified that we will not have the right answer if someone asks us a tough question. This text lets me know that if it depends on my answer I have already lost the debate. If a non-Christian cannot see my faith, no amount of verbalizing my faith will accomplish anything. What an amazing thought. “Why are you afraid, have you no faith?”
Two, the three men begin with what might be considered an ominous statement, “If God exists…” But it is clear from the context that the if is merely rhetorical. They are proclaiming God’s existence by their lives and in their words. They know God exists, and that means two other iron clad truths – God can rescue them from the furnace and from the power of the earthly king. Do not be fooled here. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are not quibbling about the existence of God. For them God was as real as was Nebuchadnezzar. It is just that they knew who the real King was, and who was the impostor. “Why are you afraid, have you no faith?”
Three, and the most amazing statement, “But even if he does not rescue us…” I love the way the Holman Christian Standard Bible phrases this response. Few, if any, other translations put the word, even, in the sentence, but I think it needs to be there. The statement is emphatic. The three men are fully trusting in God’s power to deliver, but even if he does not they will still refuse to offer worship to a false god. “Why are you afraid, have you no faith?”
This story is just so terrifying for Christians today. We have become so used to bending over, to capitulating, to kissing the feet of false gods, to compromising with the enemy, that when we are confronted with genuine acts of faith we want to turn and run. We want to excuse ourselves. We want to minimize the story that is convicting us. We trivialize it. We turn it into a warm and fuzzy vacation Bible school story that we can quickly tell so that we can get to the punch and cookies.
Those who are opposed to God demand that we redefine the word “family” to mean any group of people that live under one roof, whether or not they are related by blood or marriage. Those who are opposed to God demand that we accept any form of sexual release whether it is heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, bi-gender sexuality or poly-amorous sexuality. Those who are opposed to God demand that we create and pledge allegiance to humanistic doctrines, whether they be political or religious, and if we do not bow the knee to them we are accused of both treason and atheism. Those who are opposed to God demand we put our faith and trust in guns and our military. Those who are opposed to God demand that we strip any mention of God out of our schools, marketplaces, and halls of justice. Those who are opposed to the one true God demand that we acknowledge every godless religion as being equal to all others, and especially equal to faith in that one true God.
And, like the pitiful, spineless little amoebas that we are, we follow along, weakly hoping that those big, mean, nasty bullies won’t dislike us, or if they do, they will not beat us up too bad.
To be perfectly blunt, and profoundly non politically correct, let me set the record straight:
“Family” means one daddy and one mommy living in a committed marriage and, if blessed to have children, raising them to understand right from wrong and male from female. The act of sexual intercourse is reserved for one male and one female who have committed themselves to each other in the sacred rite of marriage. There is one God to whom we pledge allegiance, and His constitution has no amendments and no flags. The kingdom of our God has no guns and no military. We are called to defeat spiritual enemies with spiritual truths. Those who follow God are not embarrassed to mention His name, regardless of the consequences. And, finally, the Godless religions of Confucius, Buddha, Mohammed, and dozens of others are mere phantoms – they are powerless and are meaningless.
I know any of those statements could get me in a lot of trouble in today’s world. Maybe not a fiery furnace, but certainly into the metaphorical “hot water.” But, I need to learn how to repeat the words of Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah (why do we not use their Hebrew, and thus people of faith, names?).
My God can and will take care of me if and when the time comes for me to confront my enemies.
But, even if he does not, I will not bow the knee to a false god.
“Why are you afraid,” Jesus asked. “Have you no faith?”
(P.S. – I chose the picture of my toothy little friend above because, one day if the Good Lord allows me to, I really want to get face to face with one of these fellas. Just one way in which I can “jump the shark” in a literal way.)
Nothing deep or profound today (if there ever is…). I just wanted to mention something that I felt today.
I don’t get the opportunity to preach very often anymore. That is kind of bittersweet for me, because what my new position allows me to do is teach much more frequently, and in a university setting. So, I lost something I love very much and I gained an opportunity to do something I love very much. My glass is totally full – not half empty – its just full of different things now.
So anyway, where was I… oh, yeah. Today I had the opportunity to preach again and I realized just how much I enjoy it. I did not give one of those Dietrich Bonhoeffer type sermons, just an “oldie but a goodie” that I like to preach when I am speaking to an audience that I am not familiar with. The sermon was pretty simple and allowed me to say some things that I feel deeply, but in a way that (hopefully) was not too intimidating.
Preaching is a special art, and I am in no way saying I have mastered the art. Preaching is one public event that should not be measured by any type of “normal” speaking metrics. The most efficient preachers can come from diametrically opposed styles of preaching. But to be effective, preaching must be genuine. Preaching should be measured, not by theatrics or voice modulation or histrionics or any other such scale. Preaching should be measured by faithfulness to the Word of God and by the willingness of the preacher to sound a clear trumpet (see Ezekiel and Jeremiah, for example).
So, today I spoke about why I am a member of the church of Christ. I hope I helped someone along the way. But most of all I hope I was faithful to the text. And I hope somewhere down the line to have more opportunities to preach the word.
One thing I can say about Postmodernists – they sure love to talk about culture. Everything, it would appear, is connected to and limited by one’s place of birth, and especially one’s time of birth. If you were born in a patriarchal age, you were doomed to slave under a patriarchy. However, if you were born in the late 20th or early 21st century you are blessed to be an egalitarian – and a postmodern as icing on the cake.
Postmoderns do not like anything to be authoritarian, but they are especially opposed to having an ancient text provide any type of authority. For disciples of Christ this poses somewhat of a dilemma – because Jesus certainly used an ancient text (the books we refer to as the “Old Testament”) as an authority in his life. It was not a “god,” but it certainly contained the words of the true and living God; and he used the Torah not only as example but as it was designed – as a light for his feet.
Those who wish to claim a Christian lifestyle while challenging the role of the written text have come up with some ingenious methods to deal with the texts that, at least on the surface, appear to be authoritarian. Many simply deny that they belong in the canon that we call the Bible. (The word canon itself means “rule,” implying authority.) Thus, for many the letters that we call the “Pastoral Epistles” (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus) were not written by the apostle Paul as the texts claim, therefore they are not authoritarian for the life of the disciple today. Others, while not willing to remove entire books, will remove certain verses within those books.
Finally, the “trump card” that many Postmoderns use is the “culture card.” Briefly stated, this argument posits that, because the authors of these ancient texts lived in times so far removed from our advanced culture, the texts they wrote cannot possibly be thought of as being an authority for our life today. Thus, these exegetes can keep the objectionable books in the canon, but they simply ignore the verses that have been found to be patriarchal, homophobic, capitalistic, militaristic – the list is almost inexhaustible. In the Postmodern setting the text is not the judge of the reader or listener, the reader or listener is the judge (and far too often, the executioner) of the text.
The Postmodern interpreter can do wonders with certain texts by pointing out the cultural differences between the time period of the various biblical authors and our own, but they have a significant problem when they come to the letter we know as 1 Corinthians. This letter is also a major point of emphasis for Postmodern interpreters, as they have issues with the apostle Paul’s apparent homophobia and male chauvinism. Thus, the letter of 1 Corinthians provides both a test case, and, in my opinion, the rock on which the ship of Postmodernism founders.
As I see it, in order for Postmodern exegetes to win the battle of interpretations they must prove beyond any shadow of a doubt that the ancient texts of the Bible were written for one specific audience, and that the only way for the texts to be valuable today is if they are “re-contextualized” to meet modern (or, better yet, Postmodern) sensibilities. On this point I will offer partial agreement. Especially in regard to the writings in the New Testament I will agree completely that they were written as “occasional” pieces – they were written to address specific questions or issues in concrete situations. However, that is where the Postmodern ends his or her exegesis, and it is at that point that I offer my strongest disagreement. And, as evidence exhibit “A,” I offer the letter of 1 Corinthians.
In terms of specific situations, we can learn that the letter we know as 1 Corinthians was written to the church of God in Corinth in approximately the middle of the first century. It’s author, destination, and approximate date are among the least debated in New Testament studies. Paul specifically mentions the issues that “occasioned” the writing of the letter – division, sexual immorality, issues of congregational life and spiritual giftedness. Therefore, the “concrete” and specific questions that the letter addresses are not to be debated. We could argue, if we so desired, that the answers that Paul gives to these issues and questions were to be used solely by the congregation in Corinth and only during the time period the original readers were alive. That is the path that Postmodern interpreters want us to walk. That would be a very easy conclusion to make – and in fact it is argued by a great many brilliant minds.
The only problem is, as I see it, the whole argument is destroyed by the text of the letter itself. Four times in the letter Paul tells the Corinthian disciples that what he is writing to them (and what he has taught them previously in person) is what he teaches “everywhere and in every place” (see 4:17, 7:17, 11:16 and 14:35). That means that in Jewish Jerusalem, in Gentile Ephesus, in Greek Athens and Corinth, and soon to be in Latin Rome Paul preached the same message and made the same points. Across multiple cultural platforms and in reaction to multiple socio-economic and political situations Paul did not “contextualize” the content of his message, although he may have contextualized the manner in which he presented it. The mode of communication may change, the content cannot be changed.
I once heard a lecture by an individual whose classical scholarship cannot be questioned. He is perhaps one of the finest scholars the Churches of Christ have produced. He was lecturing, oddly enough, on the letter of 1 Corinthians. I will never forget his conclusion. He stated that the doctrine of the living church should never be limited by the aberrations of the first century congregations to which the bulk of the New Testament was written. I was dumbfounded. If the doctrine of the church cannot be limited by the writings of the apostles to address those very aberrations, to what can we appeal for the formation and limitation of our doctrine? I had not heard of “postmodernism” at that point in my life but I have come to understand that speech in an entirely different light now than when I first heard it. What I understand now is that this scholar, who in my estimation is beyond questioning in his knowledge of the Greek language and the history of the New Testament, came to a conclusion that was in direct opposition to the words of the text. Therefore the ancient text had to be “re-contextualized” to fit his new conclusion. All he had to do was anchor 1 Corinthians to the city of Corinth in the first century, and he could advocate basically any interpretation he wished.
I have no problem accepting the fact that our Bible, and the New Testament in particular, was written by very human beings in concrete, specific situations. I would even argue that is true of the Old Testament as well. I have been taught and I believe that the more we come to understand those cultures and time periods in which our ancient texts were written we can understand and interpret the books more faithfully. I am all for learning more about the ancient world in which our Bible was written.
But I refuse to accept the conclusion that we are to leave our Bibles in the dust of those ancient civilizations. The writers of the New Testament certainly did not think that the texts of the Torah were to be left in the musty caves of Mesopotamia, Egypt or Arabia. Those texts were alive and brought life to the early church. So today, we do not abandon our New Testaments on the pillars of ancient Rome, Ephesus or Jerusalem. The text is living, it speaks to today – the spirit of God is breathing out of the text just as surely and the Spirit of God was breathed into it as it was first written. The heresy of the Postmodernist is that of turning the living and active Word of God into a dead and decaying clump of leather, papyrus or clay.
Surely we need to speak God’s word in a manner that is appropriate to the audience that is called to hear it. We must not transport our western culture into places where it would be harmful and confusing to do so. And we must be careful not to read into the text concepts that are not there, but that we wish were there, due to our specific culture and issues.
But the content of God’s revealed word is not up for negotiation. God does not change his mind simply because the calendar changes or because the reader moves from a democratic culture to a dictatorial one, or from a patriarchal culture to a matriarchal culture. God’s will and His words are eternal.
And that is a situation the Postmodernist simply cannot contextualize.
Dear “Personal Evangelist” “Door Knocker” ”Soul Winner” “Missionary” or whatever title you personally prefer,
I have a question for you, but before I ask my question I would like to compliment you on a few things.
First, I want to thank you for not asking how I was, or how my day was going before you decided that my soul needed saving. It would have slowed you down to have inquired about my health. It certainly would have taken much too long for you to have discovered that I am remembering the anniversary of my husband’s death. My daughter is suffering what might be a life shortening illness in another state, so I am glad you did not ask about my family. Living by myself I get very lonely, and so inviting you in to my home was meant to be a day brightener for me, so luckily you kept everything focused on your Bible and your notebook, so that I was not distracted by the struggles in my life.
As far as your Bible study goes, I must admit you were very well-trained by your supervisors. You stayed strictly on task, never swerving from your carefully constructed questions that only allowed me to answer one way. Of course you would have learned that I was a high school debate teacher if you had bothered to ask, but since you didn’t you never learned that I was able to see though your logic like a nicely cleaned window. But I did appreciate you taking the time to read me those passages of Scripture. The Bible has always been a great comfort to me.
I also want to commend you on the fact that you never once allowed the conversation to drift to what I might have been interested in. I actually do have some questions about the Bible, and you even touched on a couple of them, but as soon as I asked a question we always returned straightway back to the “program” that you have so obviously well memorized. Since you never answered any of my questions while you were here, I wanted to know how it was that you have your specific interpretation of a Scripture, but you are totally unable to explain or understand what your religious neighbors believe. I can tell you exactly what the other “personal evangelists” and door knockers believe, because they regularly visit me as well. But don’t be afraid, they cannot tell me anything about why their neighbors believe what they believe either. It seems like as much time as you all spend knocking on my door you might be able to spend an hour or two knocking on each other’s doors.
So, anyway, I just wanted to write this little letter of thank-you. Your visit was a diversion, although when you got to the point where I was supposed to give you a life-long commitment after you had only spent about 45 minutes with me I was a little put off. I may not be as well-trained as you, but it seems to me I remember that after Jesus appeared to Saul of Tarsus that Saul was given three days to think things over. I know it hurts your statistics, but it just seems like I could be given a little bit of time to think over what you were telling me. I am not a trained Bible student, and, to be perfectly honest, you are not Jesus, either.
Oh, by the way, I almost forgot. I had a question for you. You were in such a hurry to get to your next soul-winning appointment that after I politely refused to go with you to your church you left in such a huff that I never got to ask you this one. Please take as much time as you need to answer me, I will be here if and when you come up with an answer.
My last question to you is this, “Why should I be in a hurry to believe in a God who is so interested in saving souls that he is not interested in loving people?”
I’ll be waiting, but somehow I don’t think I will see you anytime soon.
Your last Bible study victim.
That has to be the longest title to a blog that I have ever written. I hope the post is not correspondingly as long.
I was really not zoned into the “blogosphere” when Pope Benedict XVI was selected, so I really cannot say that I heard or read much about his selection. But I have been following the election of Pope Francis with some interest. I will have more to say about my thoughts about that in a moment.
I have to say I have truly been disheartened by some of my fellow non-Catholics in their response to this event. Honestly, brothers (and maybe a sister or two), if I was a Roman Catholic and I stumbled across some of your invective disguised as teaching I would not even pay you the common courtesy to give you the time of day if you were to ask. Talk about speaking misrepresentations of opinions in a tone of hatred. Some of the articles have even offended me, and I am not a Roman Catholic. I especially despise those brilliant thinkers who imagine themselves to be profound apologists and recommend to any Roman Catholic who happens to be reading (and there are precious few, I guarantee) that they read the Bible. That is so special. And inflammatory. And so grossly stereotyped. And just so patently wrong.
I spent a year serving in a hospice (an organization designed to ease the suffering of those who are dying). I was able to serve many individuals from an amazing number of spiritual and non-spiritual backgrounds. Being in New Mexico the largest number of patients I served were Roman Catholics. Most, (but certainly not all) were deeply committed, very devoted and had a profound love for the church. Now I realize that I was dealing mostly with the elderly, and that was a generation where members of all religious groups were very committed, devoted, and had a profound love for the church. But what I found among the Catholics that I did not expect was a deep love for and respect for the Bible. I had always been told that Catholics never read the Bible, or only were concerned about what their priest said about the Bible. What I discovered was almost diametrically opposite to that stereotype. When I would approach them and ask what I could do to help them, they always asked for prayer and the majority also asked that I read a passage of Scripture. Some had a favorite text, many just wanted me to read to them – from the Bible and not from a Catholic publication. So, as I hopefully served them, I also received an education, one that I treasure to this day.
The second education I received came in my Doctor of Ministry program. I had the privilege of studying under a Franciscan priest who really opened my eyes concerning the functioning of the Roman Catholic church. As he explained it, the Roman Catholic church is truly a “big tent” concept. There are many communities within the larger framework of the church, each with a special life of its own, and some even eyeing each other with a certain amount of suspicion and envy. That is the ugly side of the church. The good side of that openness is that you do not have some “one size fits all” mentality that afflicts many non-Catholic groups. For example: when I was growing up all I ever heard was that if you were a Christian you had to be an evangelist/preacher/teacher/baptizer. If you did not baptize as many people as you could you might still be allowed to go to heaven, but you would only be allowed in the steerage section – you would never be allowed up to first class. I can’t tell you how many sermons I heard that asked me the question, “will there be any stars in your crown” as if a person baptized under your tutelage would entitle you to another star. I will not go into great detail as to how I loathe that theology.
Which brings me to my thoughts on Pope Francis. When I first heard his background and his chosen name I associated “Francis” with Francis Xavier, one of the men who established the Society of Jesus – the Jesuits – of which Pope Francis is a member. But later I was to read that he chose the name Francis in honor of Francis of Assisi. Now, having been raised in Santa Fe New Mexico, I have a special interest in St. Francis of Assisi. (The entire name of Santa Fe in English would be “The city of the Holy Faith of St. Francis of Assisi.” I’m sure glad I don’t have to print that on all my legal paperwork!) So, to make things short and sweet, the Roman Catholic church has in Pope Francis a Jesuit (deeply committed to the imitation of Jesus, and generally considered to be the scholarly circle within the Roman Catholic church) and a devoted follower of St. Francis who was the founder of the Order of the Friars Minor – an order devoted to preaching and to the care of the poor and dispossessed.
We have, in other words, the blending of two of the most radically different, although not opposed, circles within Roman Catholicism. This I find to be utterly captivating. Such a blending of viewpoints would be virtually unheard of within the church in which I was raised. I love my heritage, but it did not take me long to realize that within the Churches of Christ you either agreed with me or you were going to hell. And that included every possible minuscule detail. If you used too many cups in the administration of the Lord’s Supper or if you raised your hands during a song – I’m sorry, that’s it. You’re done.
I find that same spirit of demonization and hatred all too common in blog posts regarding the selection of the Roman Pope. And so, as the title of this post argues, it is far better to have people think you are a fool than to write a blog post and to remove all doubt. If you are looking for a few “amens” from the choir section, then go right ahead and spew your venom. If you are looking to invite Roman Catholic readers to consider your thoughts – well, let’s just say they have more constructive blogs to read.
I should be able to leave this disclaimer unsaid, but I will state it just for the record. I am not a Roman Catholic. I do not agree with much of the officially sanctioned dogma of the church. I believe that I am to base my faith on the person of Jesus as revealed in the clear teachings of Scripture, and that the rules and doctrines of men only serve to cloud and pollute those teachings. And so, while I understand where a great many of the teachings of the Roman Catholic church arise, I reject them as being man-made and ultimately contrary to the New Testament. I must add – this applies to my own heritage, and so I must be ever vigilant to guard my own thoughts and ideas against man-made traditions, something that is difficult and painful at times to do.
I have said in other posts that I have been deeply touched by Roman Catholic writers and theologians. If I had been a member of the “unchurched” and I came across a book written by Henri Nouwen or Thomas Merton I might have been convinced to become a member of the Roman Catholic church. I do not hold the gross excesses in the history of the church against modern Roman Catholics, any more that I wish to be blamed for the sins of the early settlers of the United States. I would like to judge a people, or a faith, based on their brightest lights, not their dimmest bulbs.
Which, by the way, is exactly why I do not want Roman Catholic readers to judge me by some of the hate filled, ignorant posts written by some of my non-Catholic counterparts.
(Oops – my first copy of this post identified the OFM as the Order of St. Friars Minor. My bad – that is the Order of the Friars Minor, the “Little Brothers” of St. Francis. I hope my slip is not showing too much.)
Hearing of a church (or part of a church) having worship in a bar is nothing particularly new – especially if you follow the writings of the Emergent Church. It has been the practice for some time for those who consider themselves to be a part of the “Emergent Conversation” to apply their “missional” theology and to establish worship communities in any number of venues – disco clubs, coffee houses, and yes, bars and pubs. Such endeavors are considered “edgy,” “missional” and “relevant” in our culture today. As I said, such endeavors have been in practice for quite some time now. What is new is for a fairly conservative church to do so. And so when a congregation of the Churches of Christ decided to establish a “Bar Church” and that decision was reported by the Christian Chronicle, quite a bit of fur flew. For some it was the first they had heard of such a thing. For others it was a “ho, hum” moment and they wondered why it took so long for a Church of Christ to do so publicly.
I responded to the article in the Christian Chronicle, but I felt that the issue demanded a more in-depth response than just a brief comment. So, for better or for worse, here is my understanding of the issues involved, and why I believe such an endeavor is wrong-headed even if it is right-hearted.
To begin with, I understand the thinking behind the “missional” movement, even if that term is so elastic as to be virtually worthless (and it is). I understand that for too many people the church has been an enclave of the pious and the self-righteous and they believe that the “established church” is either dead or dying, and something needs to be done about it. I get the heart. It is the head that I think is utterly wrong here, and when the head and the heart are going in two different direction the end result cannot be pretty.
One of the greatest weaknesses I see in the “Emergent” or the “Missional” church/movement/conversation is a blurring (or abject erasure) of the distinction between the holy and the profane. To set the table we must consider some of the foundational passages of the Israelite People of God:
The LORD said to Moses, “Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: ‘Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy.’” (Lev. 19:1, NIV)
You must distinguish between the holy and the common, between the unclean and the clean, and you must teach the Israelites all the decrees the LORD has given them through Moses. (Lev. 10:10 NIV)
Her priests do violence to my law and profane my holy things; they do not distinguish between the holy and the common; they teach that there is no difference between the unclean and the clean; and they shut their eyes to the keeping of my Sabbaths, so that I am profaned among them. (Ezekiel 22:26 NIV)
I will make known my holy name among my people Israel. I will no longer let my holy name be profaned. (Ezekiel 39:7 NIV)
Those quotations should be sufficient, although they are hardly exhaustive. There is a difference between the holy and the common, between the clean and the unclean. Repeatedly and emphatically the Israelites were commanded to observe the difference, and to keep the two separate. It should come as no surprise, then, when Peter wrote in his letter to the disciples dispersed throughout the Mediterranean world:
But just as the one who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.” (1 Peter 1:15)
Disciples have a hard time with holiness. For one thing, it is hard to maintain any kind of level of separation from the world today, let alone any kind of separation that would fit the description of “holiness.” Second, for generations now the big knock against Christianity has been that “you all are just a bunch of self-righteous, ‘holier than thou’ hypocrites.” So, in order to avoid being called “holier than thou” we run from anything that would separate us from the world.
Except, unless I misunderstand a major, repeated theme throughout Scripture, being separate and apart from the world is exactly what a disciple is called to be.
Returning to the issue of having a “church” or “worship” service in a place where intoxicating beverages are sold for the purpose of dulling senses, if not to the point of absolute drunkenness, then certainly as close to that line as possible. What is the purpose? This is the “heart” issue that I said I get. The intent is to reach people who would not ordinarily attend a “formal” worship service, especially among a group of people who use a special kind of language and dress and act in a way that is completely foreign to the way in which the “unchurched” person lives and speaks.
But what about the “head” issue? What is being communicated when we cease to make any distinction between the holy and the common, between the unclean and the clean?
I find it especially meaningful that in the Leviticus 10:10 passage I quoted above the immediate context relates to drinking intoxicating beverages when the priests were to enter into the Tent of Meeting to preside at worship. I also find it noteworthy that the apostle Paul in his letter extolling the perfection of the Church as the Bride of Christ uses the term “holy” as a bookend to both begin and end his thoughts (Ephesians 1:4, 5:27). Notice as well that in the Ezekiel 22:26 passage the removal of the distinction between the holy and the profane had a direct result of the profaning of the Sabbath. If you don’t know the difference between holy and profane, then you cannot separate yourself from the one in order to worship and praise the other.
Fellow disciples of Christ – we can have the best, the purest of intentions and still be woefully ignorant of both the error and the negative consequences of our actions. In Exodus 32, Aaron proclaimed a “festival to the LORD,” but the people were worshipping a golden calf and “afterward they sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.” (v.5-6) The apostle Paul had this to say about his fellow Jews:
Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved. For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge. Since they did not know the righteousness that comes from god and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. (Romans 10:1-3 NIV)
I am all in favor of reaching the multitudes of “unchurched” individuals, and I am fully in sympathy to those who see old and decaying churches as being utterly incapable of taking the initiative of reaching those individuals. But, honestly, moving worship to a bar? There can be no distinction between the “holy and the common, between the clean and the unclean” if the Holy Spirit is confused with 90 proof Tennessee sipping spirits.
As I stated in my comments regarding this right-hearted but wrong-headed endeavor: there are a lot of descriptions which might be used of such an effort. But “biblical, “missional,” “Christian,” or “holy” cannot be among those terms used.
May God give us a heart to reach the lost. But may he bless us with wisdom in our efforts so that the line between the holy and the profane, the clean and the unclean is never breached. God does read the heart. He knows our motivations. But the manner in which we exercise those intentions cannot be so profane that they ultimately defeat the intent of our heart. We must remain pure in motive and in practice!