Category Archives: Apologetics
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!
Two men are having a conversation. One, a devout Christian, asks the other, an avowed atheist, to come to church with him. The atheist inquires as to the location of the church. Upon finding out where the church is, he responds: “I would never attend there. That church is full of hypocrites.” “Well,” responds the Christian, “There is always room for one more.”
I cannot tell you how many times I have heard that joke. I have probably told it almost as many times. Looking at the situation rationally, apparently what the joke teller is saying is that clearly the unbeliever is a hypocrite, and so therefore joining a much larger group of hypocrites would be in this person’s long term best interest.
Somehow the joke is just not funny anymore. I wonder why I ever did think it was funny.
I remember that when I was growing up I would see numerous commercials on TV warning about this or that disease being a hideous “silent killer.” The warnings were supposed to be more dire because being killed by something you could not see was supposedly more frightening that being killed by something you could see. Frankly, I can’t think of anything more frightening that being killed by an enraged bull or some such event. However, you should be able to see the bull coming and therefore get out of the way, and if you are aware of certain “silent” diseases you can take steps to overcome them, so therefore you do not have to suffer death.
I have been thinking over the past few weeks that one of the great silent killers of faith in today’s church is the sin of hypocrisy. I know there are others, and that hypocrisy may not be the biggest of the faith killers, but it is a brutally efficient killer none the less. Notice that in the New Testament, Jesus addresses the sin of hypocrisy perhaps most frequently and most directly. That should cause us to at least ponder the seriousness of the sin.
To make a long post much shorter, let me summarize the gist of my thinking:
- Hypocrisy and hypocritical thinking is a long process made up of many small steps. We do not wake up one morning and make a promise to become a full-fledged hypocrite by the end of the day. In reality, hypocrites die a death of a thousand little cuts.
- Hypocrisy is not based in or on logic, but on feelings and intuition. If we are cured of a hypocritical stance it is usually after someone has pointed out the illogical position we are holding. The less emotion we have riding on the hypocritical stance, the easier it is to let go. Conversely, the more emotion we have riding on the contradictory positions, the harder it is to let go of one of them.
- Hypocrisy is therefore doubly painful to confess and repent of, because (1) we were wrong on the issue at hand and (2) we have invested considerable emotional capital in the error.
I have a couple of examples that (for me, at least) illustrate my points with crystal clarity. I hope I do not get too many people’s blood pressure up, because high blood pressure can be a silent killer.
The first example involves President Obama and his use of CIA drones and super-secret covert operations to kill suspected terrorists in Afghanistan and other countries. On the one hand, if a Republican president had ordered such strikes the “Doves” in the Democratic party would be positively apoplectic in their denunciations of the “illegal” and “immoral” actions of the president. Congressional hearings would be convened, the Sunday talk shows would be ablaze with their heated rhetoric. Strange, but I just do not see or hear any of those “Doves” commenting on their Commander in Chief’s actions. Hypocritical, you say? I would have to agree. But what of the Republican silence? These are the passionate, conservative, “we are a nation of laws” crowd that loves to quote the Bible and that simply cannot have enough bashing of President Obama when it comes to abortion or homosexual rights or same-sex marriage. Where is their complaint against a President who is absolutely flouting the law and biblical morality when it comes to “targeted eliminations” of “suspected combatants” that also end up killing scores of innocent bystanders. You see, when the “pot starts calling the kettle black,” there is not much left in the kitchen that escapes observation. Hypocrisy cuts deeply in both political parties.
Or, as a second example that is perhaps closer to home and one that disturbs me just as much, consider the recent (and on-going) debate concerning gun control. Consider that everything in the life of Jesus, his words and his actions, points to the disciple’s non-violent response to violence. Consider that every event recorded in the book of Acts reveals or demonstrates the fact that the early disciples understood and lived out that non-violent response to violence. Consider that for the first three centuries, our recorded history of the church convincingly supports the New Testament teaching concerning a non-violent response to violence. And then stop and consider who it is that is doing the loudest and the longest defense of owning and using a gun as a weapon of self-defense against an act of violence and you will see a long list of very conservative, very Bible believing, very Christ-confessing “disciples.”
In my own heritage, if a certain practice of worship is questioned you will find an adherent quote the gospels, quote the book of Acts, quote the letters of the early apostles, and possibly even quote an early church historian as to either why that practice should or should not be continued in today’s church.
In that same heritage, if a certain doctrine is questioned you will find an adherent quote “book, chapter and verse” to defend the doctrine (if he or she believes it to be true) or to condemn the practice (if he or she disagrees with the doctrine). That same adherent will also find evidence from writers within the first two or three centuries to defend their position.
In that same heritage if the question of gun ownership and use comes up, there is an increasingly shrill and pointed reference to…..the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Reference to the gospels is non-existant. Reference to the book of Acts is strangely missing. Voices that make reference to the rest of the New Testament or to the early church are deafeningly silent.
Honestly, the best I have heard anyone come up with is a misapplication of Luke 22:38 and some vague and as yet unsubstantiated command that we are to defend our families with the biggest, baddest gun we can own because we are to love and cherish our wives and children. Hmmm. Can’t find that exact reference in my concordance.
Returning to my oft-quoted but no longer funny joke about the level of hypocrisy in the church. That is just not funny anymore. The next time someone tells me that joke, I am going to ask them what is so funny about the church being full of hypocrites, when hypocrisy was so soundly condemned by our Lord. Instead, when the atheist or agnostic comments on the level of hypocrisy in the church, our response should be – “God forbid that is true. If it is, God will deal with the hypocrites as only he can deal with them. But I am called to a higher standard, and because you can see that higher standard as well, it is obvious that Jesus is working on your heart. Would you like to join me in working toward a hypocrite-free church?”
To be honest, I share the emotion expressed by our imaginary atheistic joke dweller. The church should be the LAST place hypocrisy is found. But that means that we as disciples must evaluate not only our actions, but our hearts and our emotional attachments as well.
Hypocrisy is a silent killer of faith. That does not make it more scary – but it should make us more diligent about dealing with it before it kills us.
You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church…and Rethinking Faith by David Kinnaman, Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011.
At the outset I must admit a certain degree of discomfort in reading this book. Most of it comes from the title, You Lost Me. As I interpreted the title it appeared to me that the author would join with the multitude of authors who are bashing the contemporary church and are listening exclusively to the next generation(s) to fix all of the identified problems with the church. There is a sense in which the title, You Lost Me is a reflection on this youth infatuated mindset. Notice the implied accusation – you, the church, the ones who should have it all together in a nice neat little package that fits all of my needs and my wants – you are responsible for losing me, the center of the whole entire known universe. I recoil from that accusation. If that kind of accusation could be leveled at anyone, how many and with what fervor could certain individuals make that accusation against Jesus.
After reading the book I am partially convinced that this is not what Kinnaman had in mind. I say partially, because a large portion of the book is devoted to listening to the cries and complaints of those who have left the church. I understand the methodology – Kinnaman and his group at Barna desperately want the church to listen to a generation that is finding the church (and sometimes even Jesus) to be something they can do without. Kinnaman himself is passionately devoted to getting the message of Jesus out to a new and doubtful generation. He just wants the rest of us to be as “in tune” with the coming generations as he seems to be. He genuinely has a gift at understanding young people, and I applaud his efforts at teaching the rest of us who might be a bit blind or deaf to what the coming generations are saying.
With that goal in mind, I would recommend this book to all who are concerned with the youth of their congregation. I would definitely read this book along with his earlier book, Unchristian. I feel that the first book was more valuable, as the topic of that book was how non-Christians view the church and how we might be able to respond to them. This book is about those young people who, at least on some level, had a connection with the church and a vibrant faith, and for one reason (or a host of reasons) decided to leave the church. Reading the book is painful, because if you work with young people for any length of time you will recognize the stories of the young people Kinnaman profiles through your own experiences. I saw several of my friends and former students in this book, and even occasionally saw myself.
A couple of weaknesses – at least from my limited point of view. One, I never really resonated with Kinnaman’s description of the young people as “nomads, prodigals and exiles.” It seemed like he was trying to come up with a somewhat biblical way to describe these young people, and the descriptions just seemed stretched to me. I kept having to remind myself of what each group really was, because to me there was way too much overlap between the groups as he has defined them.
Two, and this relates back to my discomfort with the title, Kinnaman only tangentially places any kind of blame on those who are leaving. In other words, it remains the church’s fault that young people are leaving, the church is going to have to change, the church is the source of the problem, the church is forcing all these wonderful, saintly, kind, and most of all, brilliant young people out of its doors. This was the part of the book that just kept grating on me. To be fair, towards the end Kinnaman does in a round-about way mention that these young people are responsible for their own decisions, but it is a very subtle and almost apologetic acknowledgment.
At one point I wanted to scream, The church IS exclusive! Get over it! In an appraisal of the younger generations that I’m sure will turn most of them off, I have to say that in many respects the group of young adults from 18 – 30 represent one of the most narcissistic, inwardly focused generations I have ever seen, and that is saying quite a bit because I came along right at the tail end of the baby boomers. But stop and think about these generations – from what have they ever been deprived? What hardships have they ever faced? These were the children whose parents got into fistfights so they could obtain a Cabbage Patch Kid. These are the children who have had a cell phone virtually from the time they could talk. They have been coddled, breast-fed and then spoon fed their whole lives. They have been protected and over-protected. They do not go out without a helmet, knee pads and elbow pads. If their feelings get hurt they sue. If they get a bad grade they have their parents confront the principle. If they get a bad job review they leave – if they stay in a job long enough to get a job review. Yes, a large part of their problem relates to their parents and grandparents (the aforementioned baby boomers) but to even remotely suggest that this group of navel gazers has all the right answers and the church should somehow contort itself to make itself more “attractive” to this age group is just preposterous. Maybe that is not what Kinnaman is saying, but I know that is what many others are saying, and maybe I just misread Kinnaman.
Throughout this book I kept hearing a sub-message, “the culture has changed, the church needs to align itself with the culture to be relevant again.” I reject that premise. The culture into which the church was born was immoral, unjust, sexually dysfunctional and economically challenged. So what did the apostles and early disciples teach? “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” In other words, the early church leaders said the church, God’s manifestation of his Kingdom on earth, was different. If you wanted to be a part of culture and the world, so be it, but do not claim to be a part of Christ or of his church. Joining Christ meant you left this world – not literally, but your heart, your mind, your soul was transformed. I am sure a lot of the early converts realized how radical Christianity really was and they high-tailed it back to their comfortable ways – just like people turned their backs on Jesus and walked away from him once they discovered that he really meant “cross” when he said “cross.”
I do not buy the concept that the church has to be more tolerant or accepting of homosexuals to keep from hurting someone’s feelings. I do not buy the concept that the church must relax its teaching on gender just because a few 18-30 year olds find it exclusionary or old-fashioned. I reject the call to rewrite 2,000 years of church doctrine just because someone with all of two decades of existence (or less) finds it to be out-dated or somewhat stuffy. They are more than welcome to leave the church if they so desire. It is tragic when they do, and I am not saying the church should push them out. But when they leave, they should not have the temerity to blame the church for their decisions. Every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess – but they will not be able to tattle or pass the blame.
I would like to end on a positive note, because I do feel the book is a valuable read. Kinnaman does offer some valuable suggestions along the way. I found chapter 11 to be particularly beneficial, but it was also in chapter 11 that Kinnaman returned closer to a classic view of the church and moved further away from the “let’s make the church look like contemporary culture” strain that moved ever so slightly beneath the earlier chapters. Just to tease a little, in chapter 11 Kinnaman stresses relationships, a biblical view of vocation, and a return to the way of wisdom. These are solid responses to the problem, and, as I mentioned, I found them particularly beneficial.
I want to stress that this review is purely my own response – your mileage may vary. I enjoyed the book, I recommend the book, and I suggest you listen to what Kinnaman is saying. I just wish he had offered more in response to these young people by way of challenge. There is a reason God expected young people to look up to, listen to, and respect the wisdom of their elders. Youth is full of folly, and nowhere is that folly more evident than in the narcissistic views of our youngest adults. The church will not long survive if we follow their lead. The church may be in trouble now – but let’s make sure the cure is not worse than the present disease.
I think I have posted on this before, but if I did I can’t find it. (Just one of the benefits of a fading memory, being able to hide your own easter eggs is the other.) But I am struck by a profound and disturbing paradox: many people want to “prove” beyond any shadow of a doubt that their God exists, without understanding that the minute they do it (if they are able to do so) they cease to have God at all. If a being can be reduced to the barest essentials of having been “proven,” it ceases to be what the Bible says of God. I wish more people would understand this. The whole attempt to “prove” the existence of God is nothing more than a highly sophisticated attempt to reduce God to something that we can control – it is the most elegant form of idolatry that exists. If we “prove” God, we in essence become God, because only God can know enough to prove his own existence.
I am aware of all the various arguments of the existence of “a” God, and some are quite fascinating and some are even (to my mind) quite convincing. But they by no means “prove” that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob exists, or that Jesus was resurrected from the tomb. What those arguments lead to is a firm conviction that a being must exist that is vastly superior to man. But humans throughout the centuries have created a whole pantheon of gods that explain that particular understanding.
In my understanding, what separates a biblical faith from a “faithless” attempt to prove God is that a person of faith is willing to live in such a way that transcends the limits of human understanding. A person of faith is not opposed to science – he or she should love and follow the path of the sciences where ever they lead. But a person of faith transcends the limits of those sciences. Archeology is a great tool, so is anthropology, astronomy, chemistry and comparative anatomy. They all have tremendous secrets to tell us about the human life. But they cannot teach us about the human soul, and the human striving to know its creator. For that we must turn to the Bible, and to understand the Bible we must possess faith, not a Ph.D. in thermodynamics or microbiology.
Just my two cent worth, but I really wish many Christian would tone down the rhetoric about “proving” the existence of God. Quite frankly, I do not want my God to be so small that he can be proved. At that point I no longer would have to get out of the boat or roll back the stone. All I need to do would be to buy a book, read it, and presto-chango – God would be indisputably within my grasp and control.
As tempting as that may sound, no thanks. I want my God to be bigger than me, bigger than my favorite theologian (Bonhoeffer and Lewis combined) and bigger than my favorite scientist. While God might reveal himself to me in the most mundane of situations, he must always remain transcendent – or he simply becomes my pet.
I am teaching a course in the Philosophy of Religion. Initially I was less than enthused, but I am warming to the subject with each passing week. Part of it is my class – six wonderful young people who help me tremendously. But, another reason is that the course is forcing me to ask some questions that, to be quite honest, I am uncomfortable asking. Growth is never painless, so I hope that means I am growing. But pain is never fun, so there is a sense in which I could do without the mental workout that I am forced to expend every week.
From my own faith stance I am coming more and more to the realization that we cannot put God in a box. I know that phrase is used to the point that it has become trite. But it is absolutely, beyond any shadow of a doubt, positively true. When we attempt to put God in any kind of a box, but particularly a box of Greek thinking, He will always find a way to destroy that box. Another way to say it is that we cannot define the indefinable. As soon as we say “God is…” we limit Him. We put Him in a box. The only definitions I am comfortable with are those give specifically in Scripture, and you may or may not be shocked at how few those definitions are. John comes the closest, telling us that God is love. From my study however, I am wondering if that is as much a “definition” as we have made it out to be.
When I was younger I assumed the basic trilogy of “definitions” as given by Greek philosophers – that God is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent. I just assumed that they were given in Scripture somewhere, perhaps the book of First Opinions or maybe Second Tribulations. And, if you want to believe in these definitions there are certainly verses you can pull to defend your belief. It is said that God knows our thoughts even before we do, that He can create the world with the simple spoken word, that there is no place on this earth where we can go to escape God.
There are at least two problems with this “Greek philosophy” kind of thinking. One is that there are other passages of Scripture which suggest that God is not omniscient, omnipotent, or omnipresent. For example, in Gen. 22:12 the angel of the LORD stopped Abraham from harming Isaac and said, “…now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” Well, if the LORD only knew now then he could not have known before now what Abraham would have done. Or consider 2 Chronicles 32:31. “…God left him [Hezekiah] to himself, in order to try him and to know all that was in his heart.” God allowed Abraham to “bargain” with Him in regard to the number of righteous people that would spare Sodom and Gomorrah. God allowed Moses to “bargain” with Him in regard to destroying the Israelites and starting all over again with Moses.
Examine the concept of omnipotence as well. Can God do everything? God could not keep Adam and Eve from sinning, could not keep the Israelites from deserting him time and time again, could not stop Judas from betraying Jesus. Jesus could not stop the rich ruler from walking away from him. Well, you argue, God gave man free will, so all of these examples are times in which men used their free will. But if you argue thus you just made my point for me – man’s free will limits God’s omnipotence. Or, perhaps stated more accurately, God invokes his own self-limitation in order to give free will to man. Self-limitation is a limitation none-the-less, so the purest definition of omnipotence is false when it is applied to God.
What about omnipresence? Is God everywhere? I have a lot of fun with this one. One commonly held belief [that I most emphatically do not agree with] is that God abandoned Jesus on the cross. One of the supporting reasons given for this belief is that God cannot be in the presence of sin, and since God made Jesus to be sin for us, he could not be in the presence of Jesus, therefore God abandoned Jesus on the cross. Now, this particular belief has more problems than a fish net has holes, but let’s just play with it for a minute. If you believe that God cannot be in the presence of sin then you have just limited God’s omnipresence, and if you limit it, it is no longer omni. Now, because I do not believe in the idea that God abandoned Jesus, I also reject the idea that God cannot be in the presence of sin, but I never-the-less reject the concept of God’s omnipresence. If there is any realm x in which the presence of God cannot extend, then God cannot be omnipresent. I would argue that there is such a realm in which God’s presence cannot extend – the realm of “hell” or eternal punishment. If God cannot go there, or to be more precise once again, removes his presence from that realm, then he is limited. There may be no place on this physical earth where God is limited as to his presence, but any time omni is limited it ceases to be perfectly omni.
So, if we attempt to put God in the omni box, whether it is omniscient, omnipotent or omnipresent, we put Him in a box. And we cannot put God in a box. He refuses to stay there. This is particularly true of Greek philosophical boxes. He simply shatters them, and if we put our faith in our boxes instead of in God, we end up with a bunch of shattered boxes.
The second problem I have with Greek philosophical terms to define God is that they are ultimately self-contradictory. If God is omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent then there is simply no way you can avoid the conclusion that God created evil, and not only created it but actively uses evil in the world. This, however, is in direct contradiction to the concept of God as all loving, benevolent and good. Philosophers and theologians have been tying themselves in knots for centuries trying to untangle themselves from one or more of the resultant issues related to these philosophical terms, which is good for Philosophy of Religion teachers because it gives us job security. But no one has solved the puzzle yet, and due to the fact that the issues are self-contradictory, it will never be solved using these definitions.
When we listen to the text of the Bible we learn much about God in the way He wants us to learn about Him. But, ultimately, He remains God, He remains mysterious. “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways” God tells us through Isaiah. Why can’t we learn this? Why do we keep trying to put God in boxes?
And, as I ponder all of this I am drawn to perhaps the greatest definition of God – that of Jesus Christ. God did not give us Greek philosophical terms so that we could understand Him. He gave us his Son – He gave us Jesus. And Jesus died on the cross to redeem mankind from its foolishness and sin, so that we could once again enjoy God’s Divine presence. I know that does not answer all the questions about omniscience and omnipotence and omnipresence. But those are our questions, not God’s questions. I do not have to answer those questions. Paul said it best – “I want to know Christ, and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.” (Phil. 3:10-11).
That is all – to glory in the mystery of God, and to share in the life of his Son. The transcendence and the immanence of God. That is my calling.
Sometimes when the same event, or word, or some image appears repeatedly over a short period of time we have to stop and ask ourselves, “what is going on here?” I had to ask that question over the past couple of weeks. I was beginning to wonder if God was trying to get a message across.
It started when I was trying to make a point to my college class. I love the power of images to convey certain concepts, and I decided to use a scene from the movie “A Christmas Carol” starring George C. Scott. Anyway, (I’m not sure of the exact sequence of thoughts) I was reminded of the movie “Oh God” starring John Denver and George Burns. I went to YouTube and sure enough, there was a brief trailer for the movie. If you have never seen the movie, “Oh God” is about a common ordinary man (Denver) who is granted an interview with God (Burns). Then, this week a bulletin shows up with an article that talks about…the movie “Oh God.” As Yogi Berra is credited with saying, it was like deja vu all over again.
The movie gets perilously close to blasphemy in places, but in other respects is a delightful, light hearted attempt to convey what it must feel like to actually come into contact with the Divine. Now, I don’t think any of us would picture God as looking like George Burns. So, John Denver questions him about his appearance. The response is somewhat humorous, but also theologically true: God chose a look that a human could understand.
So it was with the incarnation of Jesus. God chose a visual image mankind could understand. Understand, possibly, but it turns out we could neither understand it nor appreciate it. The incarnation was simply too scandalous for us to accept.
The apostle Paul talks about the scandal of the cross. Today we have all but eliminated the idea of the scandal of the cross. We wear crosses around our necks, we wear them as decorations in our ears, we adorn our shirts with images of the cross, we erect crosses on the tops of our houses of worship and we place them in the main meeting room of those places of worship. We have come, in the words of the beautiful old song, to “cherish the old rugged cross.” Scandal you say? What scandal?
No, today our scandal is in thinking that Jesus was even human. In the 21st century we are dangerously close to the early heresy of docetism. God may have appeared to come to earth, and we certainly like to think of Jesus healing the sick and feeding the hungry. But, still, he wasn’t quite human. He never had to wrestle with the dirt and the grime and the muck that afflicts me as a mere mortal. He was God, after all, so he never noticed a beautiful woman, or suffered any kind of pain when he hit his thumb with a hammer, and living as he did around a group of coarse, Galilean fishermen he never, ever heard an off-color joke.
But, if we are to believe in the gospel story, we HAVE to believe in the scandal of the incarnation. Jesus was human. He did stub his toe on Roman cobblestones and it hurt when he did. Women were just as attractive in the first century as they are in the 21st century (although, perhaps clothed a bit more modestly) and salty sailors told salty jokes. If we separate the human from the Divine we may end up with something that we like a little bit more, but we do not end up with the Christ, the Son of God.
The author of the book of Hebrews works diligently to make this point. Jesus was “in every way” tempted as we are. Let those words sink in. “In every way.” Jesus did not escape human temptations, if anything he had more struggle simply because as God he had greater power to defeat those temptations. In a recent on-line discussion among ministers and others, there were even some who believed that this passage does not mean that Jesus was actually tempted, but only that he faced what would be temptations for us, because we are human and he was God. Pure docetism. And, pure heresy. If Jesus was not tempted, then he was not human. If he was not human then the incarnation did not take place. If the incarnation did not take place then the gospel story is a pious fraud, and we are of all men the most stupid to believe it.
Somehow viewing God as George Burns is more attractive to me than trying to view Jesus as anything other than the Incarnate Son of God. The writers of the movie may have pushed orthodox theology in some parts of the show, but in that one line they had it perfect. God had to show us an image that we could understand, and he started off with a little baby in Bethlehem, and he ended with a cross outside of Jerusalem.
The manger and the cross are both scandals, but we cannot have a Christian faith without both. Let us, as the body of Christ in the world today, fully incarnate both so the world around us can have an image they can understand.