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Dialog vs. Fellowship?

Okay – contrary to my usual over-wordiness, this post will be relatively short (yea, right, I bet you’ve heard that one before).

The subject comes from a conversation that I had yesterday with a peer (and to hide everyone’s identity – I will speak in the most general of descriptions). We were discussing many things theological, and in the middle of the conversation he mentioned a distinction that I do not think I have used, or even been aware of. Maybe I have, and just forgot it. Anyway – it was striking to me and so I thought I would throw this out and see if it resonated with anyone, or if anyone had any comments or feedback.

The comment was this: he is a member of a large denomination, one in which there are some smaller fellowships. His particular association is fairly conservative, and another of the groups which share the same name is, in his estimation, beyond liberal. So, in our conversation he mentioned that he is in dialog with many religious groups (both inside and outside of his denomination) even though there might not be any true “fellowship,” but he (and his association) cannot even be in dialog with this other group which, (at least nominally) they should be in fellowship with.

That got me to thinking – what difference does it make to be in “dialog” with a group, but at the same time refuse to be in “fellowship.” What “lines” exist for deciding that fellowship cannot be maintained, but healthy dialog can occur? And, at the next level, what line (or lines) must be drawn that, when crossed, mean there can be no “fellowship” between groups, or individuals within those groups?

Clearly, as the New Testament is silent on the issue of “denominations” (in the New Testament there is only the church, and heretics and schismatics outside of the church), there can be no clear and unambiguous teaching from the pen of the gospel writers or the later apostolic letters. However – is there no counsel at all?

Somehow this is a new concept for me (sorry if you have traveled down this road before – more than one person believes me to be a Luddite, but I digress). I would love to be in dialog with a number of individuals – but in order for there to be dialog there must be some basic assumptions, and one of those assumptions is that there must be mutual respect. I can dialog my peer with whom I was conversing, even though we come from very different perspectives, because he is firmly convinced of his own position, but, at least in my presence, is respectful and generous to listen to what I have to say.

Sadly, he is more willing to listen to my convictions than are some of my “family members” within the Churches of Christ. That is why what he had to say about dialoging with groups outside of his denomination, even though dialog with those who share the name of his denomination was no longer possible, resonated with me so powerfully. I’ve been there too, I just could not verbalize it the way he said it. It’s the same experience I had at Fuller Theological Seminary. I could not “fellowship” with many of my classmates, but we had some wonderful (and at times heated) dialog.

Comments? Feedback? Threats of excommunication?

Thanks for flying in the fog today . . .

What is Education?

Yesterday I responded to another blogger who equated information with education. He claimed that because the millennial generation had access to the greatest amount of information in history, that made them the most educated generation in history. In a not-so-subtle poke at irony, I pointed out that conclusion revealed a considerable lack of education – mere information does not equate to education.

So, in the spirit of fairness (and after re-reading my post a couple of times) I think I should offer a few thoughts about what education IS, as opposed to what it is not.

First, education certainly begins with the accumulation of information. You cannot be educated in an intellectual vacuum. So, you have to have some information in order to be educated.

Second, education requires the accumulation of differing types and levels of information. If you receive your information from only one source your education will only go so far. Also, if your information stays on one level you will never proceed very far in your quest for an education. I’ll have more to say about this later. And, finally, your information must be quality information. You can surf the internet and get literally hundreds, if not thousands, of bits of information that is questionable, unreliable, or just plain false.

Third, education requires a competent teacher/mentor. Whereas a great amount of information can be gained just by reading books (or the internet), real education requires the poking, prodding, and positive resistance provided by a caring, knowledgeable teacher. Good teachers know when to support, when to challenge, when to question, and when to discipline. As the Ethiopian eunuch responded to Philip when asked if he understood the prophet Isaiah, “How can I, unless someone guides me.” (Acts 8:31). We all, every single one of us, needs a competent teacher to move beyond the basics of any field.

Fourth,  the best education is achieved in the presence of many others. In other words, the best education is communal, not private. Now, here again, you can learn great things, and you can take private lessons and become quite well informed – but to be truly educated you need to rub shoulders (and exchange thoughts, impressions and ideas) with others. The wise teacher once wrote, “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.” (Prov. 27:17)

Fifth, education takes time. You cannot bake a cake in 30 seconds. Concert musicians will practice their scales for hours, not minutes. Real education involves more than the ability to “google” a word and scroll through a couple of dozen web sites. Real education takes time – lots of it.

So, it may very well be that the millennial generation ends up being the most educated in history – but they are far too young and inexperienced at this point to make such a grand conclusion. I am going to withhold my final judgment until the millennials cease to be the generation that is known for moving away from home to go to college, only to get a degree and move back in with their parents because they can’t, or won’t, establish their own lives. It is a generation under construction, and it is too early to declare they are the most anything.

As I close, I just want to add a theological twist to this post (after all, the title does involve the word “theology.”) It is a huge aggravation to me that certain individuals will claim to be well educated when all they read are books written by certain authors, or published by certain publishers, or blogs written by “approved” writers or preachers. I know publishers who will not publish certain works because they do not fit the “profile” of the publisher. There are then people who will only buy books from that publisher because the publisher is “safe” or “sound” or “approved.” Thus, the same material gets re-hashed and re-published in various forms (none of which are controversial or designed to stretch anyone’s comfort zone) and yet the publisher and the reader both strut around like so many peacocks in a zoo, proclaiming their erudition. Here is a hint – if you only read books because you know going in what the author’s conclusion will be, and you read the book because you agree with that conclusion, you are NOT getting an education. It is the height of stupidity to speak in an echo chamber and to be impressed because all the voices you hear agree with you.

To be truly educated, you must be able to express the conclusions of those who disagree with you in such a manner that they know you have not only read their material, but actually understand it.

No preacher should ever proclaim that he understands any subject, or the beliefs of any group of people, unless he reads deeply and broadly in that subject or group. I cannot tell you how many people have tried to teach me about the Emerging Church and they have never read a single book written by someone who actually promotes the Emerging Church movement. Oh, but they read a review of a book written about the Emerging Church by a “sound” brother in the faith, so that is good enough.

O, please, spare me your pathetic ignorance.

I hope this clarifies why I responded to that blogger in such a straightforward manner.

Informed Does Not Mean Educated

Yesterday I was directed to a blog post regaling the virtues of the millennial generation. For those of you who do not know, the millennial generation is that group of people born in the late 1970s (or early 1980s) through the mid 1990s. So, the oldest of this group are entering their 30’s, the youngest are still in college, or are perhaps entering college. You can find many different opinions as to when a “new” generation arrives and supplants its predecessor. There are obviously large “buffer” groups in-between clearly defined generational groups.

Anyway, in this blog the author made the statement that the millennial generation is the most educated generation in modern history, if not all human history. I almost choked on my coffee. But, then I understood what the author was saying. In the next paragraph he pointed out that millennials have greater access to more information than any generation before. Now that I can agree with. But, seriously, information does not equal education.

I deal with millennials every day. And, granted, some of them are incredibly gifted, brilliant, and well educated young people. And, on the other hand, some of them are dumber than door-knobs, yet with the ability to google just about any topic and scroll through thousands of bits of information in just seconds. They know how to work their tablets and smart phones with amazing dexterity, and yet they cannot think their way out of a wet paper bag.

Having access to information does not equal education. You can live in a library for all of your life and still be illiterate – just having millions of books at your disposal does not mean you know what is in them, nor does it mean that you can process the information that they contain in an intelligent manner. The fact that the author of the blog appeared to be a millennial himself (just going by his picture) proves my point. He equated information with education. Education certainly requires information, but education means far, far more than access to or even appropriation of information.

What does this have to do with theology? It is funny, but one of my college groups was discussing the huge increase in the number of Bible translations over the past couple of decades. Whereas I grew up with maybe a dozen translations to choose from, now there are hundreds, with more being produced every year. You have more translations on your smart phone than I had to study in the library at ACU (okay, that dates me). But, the proliferation of translations has done nothing to increase the knowledge of the Bible, nor general biblical literacy. If anything, knowledge of the Bible has decreased with the increase in the availability of modern Bible translations. Access to greater information has actually had a negative affect in terms of people knowing the text, and how to apply the text of the Bible. The Bible has just become another app on your phone, standing in competition with FaceBook, Twitter and the latest, greatest computer game.

I do not mean to unduly criticize the millennial generation. Those in this category certainly did not ask to be born in the year they were born, and they were handed a world that was thoroughly trashed by the Boomers and Gen X. Maybe the millennial generation will be able to fix some things that need to be fixed, and, God willing, maybe they will see fit to return their sights onto God and the Church. They have a tough row to hoe – and mere access to information is not going to help them. They need to learn how to process that information, and they need to learn how to make that information work to the benefit of mankind, not its detriment. My generation did not do such a good job with that mandate. I can only hope the millennials, and my daughter’s generation (what ever it will be called) can do better.

But, please, do not confuse information with education. That just proves how uneducated you really are.

The Proof is in the Verbs

The Biblical Tetragrammaton, the Hebrew Name f...

The Biblical Tetragrammaton, the Hebrew Name for God the Father. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was reading in the book of Exodus this morning in my daily Bible reading. The passage I was reading (more on that later) reminded me of the amazing instructors I had in college. Drs. John Willis, Everett Ferguson, Ian Fair, Neil Lightfoot, Bill Humble, Eugene Clevenger, Lemoine Lewis – an amazing cast of instructors at one given point in history. It is really quite spooky how a few verses from the Bible can bring so many faces and tones of voice and little personal mannerisms and other memories flooding back to you.

Anyway – and on to the point of this blog, the passage I was reading included the last few verses of Exodus 2 all the way through chapter 3:

God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them…Then the LORD said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey…” (Exodus 2:24-25, 3:7-8a, NRSV)

It was Dr. John Willis who taught me the ancient language of Hebrew (and a ton of other information about the Old Testament). One of the things that he stressed in dealing with any passage of Scripture (Old or New Testament) is to focus on the verbs. The verbs carry all the freight of the sentence, and theologically speaking, all the spiritual freight as well.

Notice the verbs in those few verses. God heard, God remembered, God looked upon, God took notice, God had observed, God had heard, God knew, God has come down, and God will bring them up.

And that, my friends and neighbors, will keep you busy studying and meditating and praying upon for as long as you would like. Those are some of the most powerful, most pregnant, and most eloquent expressions to be found in Holy Scripture.

Agnostics and atheists like to think they can place Christians in a difficult spot by speaking of God’s absence, of God’s forsaking the earth. They might have a point if the Bible spoke of Deism. But the God of the Bible is no deist. The God of the Bible is a living, active participant in this world. Our God did not wind the universe up only to watch it run down to some cataclysmic end. Our God hears, remembers, looks upon, takes notice, observes, comes down in order to lift up.

I am afraid that too many Christians have been deluded by Aristotle’s “Unmoved Mover” as the picture of God. In this they have fallen right into the trap that agnostics and atheists have laid. Aristotle does not even come close to the picture of God painted in the Hebrew Scriptures, not to mention the New Testament. I am so glad! Aristotle’s god may be worthy of fear and loathing, but never love, adoration and worship.

When you are flying by yourself in fog so thick you cannot even see your wingtips it is nice to know there is someone out there who can see everything that is going on. In the case of a pilot that is the air traffic controller who guides and sequences all the planes flying around in the muck so they can land safely.

We, as children of God, have so much more than an air traffic controller. We have a God who sees all, knows all, and, most important, loves and cares for all. He created all and died for all. He it is who is worthy of our love and adoration.

It is not difficult to discover who this God is and what He does for His children – the proof is in the verbs!

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Inspiration of Scripture, Revisited

English: By Rembrandt.

English: By Rembrandt. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have previously discussed this subject here, but in light of recent articles I feel a need to reiterate some propositions that I feel are fundamental [foundational, necessary].

  1. Our understanding of the concept of inspiration is the beginning, not the end, of our understanding of Scripture. It is a fundamental presupposition. That is to say we do not read a passage of Scripture and then decide whether it is inspired or not. It is either inspired or it is not, and that reality was established long before we came to the text.
  2. We cannot “cherry-pick” those passages we like or that support our personal or cultural norms and declare those to be authoritative and inspired, and then relegate other passages, often in the same book and sometimes within the same chapter, as being “culturally limited” and therefore non-authoritative and non-inspired. If a section of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians is his own creation, to be limited strictly to the church in Corinth and having absolutely no continuing authority, then the content of ALL of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians are limited strictly to the church in Corinth and none  of what he had to say to that church has any validity beyond the death of the last Corinthian church member.
  3. Although God used human beings to “put pen to paper and write the Bible,” if we understand the concept of inspiration to go back to the deity of God himself, we cannot excuse certain writings as being a “mistake” or a “misunderstanding” or a “limitation of the author” due to cultural biases. If we persist in doing so what we are ultimately saying is that God Himself misunderstood His own intents and purposes, that God Himself perpetuated these mistakes, and that God Himself is limited by the cultural norms that man created, and therefore in an incredible twist on Biblical theology, God is now limited by man.
  4. Please note: I am not speaking of every cultural expression of an authoritative principle, but I am speaking of the obedience to that principle itself. For example, I can already see people disagree with me and say, “oh, yeah, wise guy, what about the ‘holy kiss’ and the ‘wearing of the veil.'” Those were cultural expressions of a biblical principle – the love and fellowship of Christians and the submission of female to male in matters of spiritual guidance. To answer a snarky question posed to me in another place, no, my wife does not call me ‘Lord’ (the example of Sarah to Abraham). But she does look to me for spiritual leadership, and she submits to the all-male leadership in our congregation. Cultural expressions may change, biblical truth does not.

I really do not see any other way around these, what I consider to be “self-evident,” propositions. I could certainly be wrong – I’ve been wrong more times than I care to admit. But I simply do not see how we can say we have a “high view of Scripture” and then in the next breath or paragraph say (or write), “of course, Paul is limited by his culture here, so we can disregard what this passage appears to communicate.” Inspiration simply does not work that way.

I see this most frequently in the discussion on women’s role and authority in the church, but I might also say it extends to other subjects. The most common exegetical fallacy that I read and hear today is this, “Galatians 3:28 is God’s first and final declaration on the equality of men and women, period, and anything and everything that appears to contradict this verse is culturally biased and therefore inconsequential in the teaching of the church today.”

Oh, really?

One verse, taken horribly out of context, is the definitive statement on one given subject, and many more addresses on the subject, penned by different authors, which just happen to be written after the verse in question, are mistakes, misunderstandings or intentional lies.

Wow. If that is a person’s concept of a high view of Scripture, I sure would hate to hear what his or her low view of Scripture would be.

I have been reading on this subject quite extensively lately, and to be honest I am growing weary of the subterfuge of those who are trying to promote a radical feminist agenda on the church. If you promote egalitarianism, fine – don’t let me stop you. But at the same time do not promote yourself as an advocate of conservative biblical inspiration. Come right out and be honest with yourself and your readers. State your position clearly – Paul was NOT inspired, we CANNOT trust what he wrote to be the mind of God, the words he wrote are merely suggestive and not authoritative, we in the 21st century are NOT bound to follow his or any other New Testament teaching if it conflicts with what we want it to mean.

But, at the same time, just remember that your logic must apply to Galatians 3:28 as well.

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Book Review – One Bible, Many Versions (Dave Brunn)

KJV Bible

KJV Bible (Photo credit: knowhimonline)

One Bible, Many Versions: Are All Translations Created Equal? by Dave Brunn (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2013), 193 pages.

Ever since I took a class in the transmission and translation of the Bible from Dr. Neil Lightfoot the subject of textual criticism and Bible translations has been a hobby of mine. I cannot say that I am an expert by any stretch of the imagination. I am simply an apprentice in the field. The subject is immensely fascinating. I also have a very strong opinion that it is equally critical for the disciple of Christ to know something about the history of the transmission and translation of the manuscripts of the Bible, and that the average member of the church knows either nothing or next to nothing about those subjects. Those deficiencies make purchasing and reading this book that much more important.

In order to write a good book in this field an author must accomplish two goals – and goals that are not necessarily complementary. One, he or she needs to cover a vast amount of material that can be complicated and, at times, seemingly esoteric. On the other extreme if the book is to be effective it needs to be written so that the average church member can read and understand it. It needs to have some “there” there or it will just be placed on a shelf where it can look impressive to the casual observer. In this book, One Bible, Many Versions, Dave Brunn cleans up on both accounts. He does not get into the vagaries of textual manuscripts, but he does do an outstanding job in discussing the complicated process of translation and how the different translations we have of the English Bible are a blessing to us all.

Several aspects of this book scream for proper attention. One, the book is clearly written in language anyone with a high school education or beyond will be able to understand. This is no small feat given the subject matter at hand. There is no “technalese” that bogs so many specialty books down.

Two, the book is literally filled with wonderful graphics that illustrate the issues the author is describing. In particular, Brunn does not simply say that there are “many examples” of such-and-such, he gives those examples in painstaking detail – sometimes pages of them – in easy-to-read chart format. If you are going to argue with Brunn’s conclusions, you had better study hard and stay up late to challenge his many and well defended examples.

Three, Brunn is not writing with any particular axe to grind, unless it is that he dislikes it when people write about translations with axes to grind. He points out that every translation violates it’s guiding principles at some points, that literal translations sometimes take great liberties with the text, and that sometimes idiomatic translations are more literal than the “literal” translations.

Just one example here will suffice – Brunn points out that many people will argue that the New American Standard Bible (NASB) is one of the most literal, word-for-word translations on the market. However, Brunn goes through and points out that in many verses a more idiomatic (or, Dynamic) translation is actually more “literal” or formal in its translation than is the NASB. The same is true with the ESV and the HCSB. I was mesmerized by the evidence, and I will never look at the NASB with the same understanding as I once did.

Another chapter that I feel like was worth the purchase price of the book was the chapter in which Brunn described the problems translators have in translating the original Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek texts into languages other than English. (The chapter is titled, “The Babel Factor”) We, as English speaking Americans, tend to measure everything by how it affects the English language. Brunn worked in translating the Bible into the Lamogai language of the people of Papua, New Guinea. His grasp of translational issues is not simply one dimensional – it is truly multi-dimensional. If you buy, read and even study this book your understanding will be multi-dimensional as well. You will never look at translations, or translational issues, in the same way.

I know that every book I review in this blog space is a book I highly recommend (otherwise, why waste the time to review it!) But I simply cannot recommend this book highly enough. If you do not want to buy the book for yourself, buy a copy each for all of your elders and your minister or ministers. If they spend any time at all speaking about how one translation is “better” than another, they need to read this book. In fact, if they spend any time even reading from an English translation they need to read this book.

But, quite honestly, every member who considers himself or herself to be a student of the Bible needs to read this book. It is that well written and that important. Do not attempt to call yourself educated in the field of translations if you refuse to read this little volume.

A Meditation on the 10 Commandments (#4)

Detail of a stained glass window featuring a r...

Detail of a stained glass window featuring a representation of the Tetragrammaton installed in Grace Episcopal Church soon after 1868 when the church was built in Decorah, Iowa (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain. (Exodus 20:7 RSV)

This is commonly understood as the potty-mouth commandment, or rather, the anti-potty-mouth commandment. This commandment has been used for generations to keep pre-adolescent boys’ mouths somewhat antiseptic and to keep sailors at least partially on their best behavior whilst in the company of tender female ears.

Except that now the ladies can out curse even the most blue-tongued sailor, but I digress.

While it is quite appropriate to keep pre-teen boys, rough and tumble sailors and even prim and proper ladies from cussing a blue streak, I am convinced that this commandment does not specifically relate to cursing, except when the LORD’s name is specifically used in a curse or imprecation. We actually use the “potty mouth” interpretation as a dodge. As long as I do not say “God” in front of my “d” words or some other such expletive, I’m okay, so the logic goes.

And almost on a daily basis we take the name of the LORD in vain.

We use the LORD’s name in vain when we vacantly tell someone we will pray for them, knowing full well we have no intention of doing so. We take the name of the LORD in vain when we try until we are unable to lift our arms and then we say, “All we can do now is pray.” We take the name of the LORD in vain when we ask God to “forgive us of our many sins” and then partake of the Lord’s Supper in a vacant and meaningless manner. Oh, yes, we take the name of the LORD in vain often. Most often, ironically, in the comfort of our church pews.

But we also take the name of our LORD in vain when we ascribe actions to Him that are repugnant to His very nature. We say things like, “Well, it was just God’s will that those children were killed in Newtown.” God wants children to die in a terrorist attack? Your god maybe, but not my God.

We take the name of the LORD in vain when we say, “Don’t be sad, it was God’s will that your little infant die of cancer.” Um excuse me, the line for those entering the smoking pit of hell forms over there on your left.

We take the name of the LORD in vain when we say, “Yes I know I’ve been married for 20 years to the same person, but God wants me to be happy and this person just doesn’t make me happy anymore.” Please, feel free to join the line on your left.

I am very concerned that we get perilously close to taking the name of the LORD in vain when we pray, “God, we want little Susie to get better, but we pray your will to be done, and if it is your will that little Susie die, please take her peacefully.” Just exactly what do we think the “will of the LORD” involves? To listen carefully to some of our prayers you would think that God’s will involves making children and old people die in some of the most dehumanizing and painful diseases imaginable.

LORD, please save us from our own religion.

The Israelites became so fearful about breaking this commandment that they ultimately refused to even pronounce His name, the four letters that we now refer to as the “Tetragrammaton.” In English those letters would be YHWH, but we do no know their exact pronunciation in Hebrew. We assume it would be something like “Yahweh,” which has come down to our English translations as “Jehovah,” but once again, that is just a conjecture.

But taking the LORD’s name in vain has nothing to do with mispronouncing His name. Taking the LORD’s name in vain means to misuse it, to use it cheaply, to use it for our own benefit, to use it as a shield when we put ourselves in a defenseless position. To take the LORD’s name in vain means to demean the highest and most Holy name that exists.

When Isaiah came into the presence of the Holy One, he could not find a hole big enough to climb into. We should be just as fearful when we invite the presence of the LORD by invoking His name. When we use the name of the LORD, we enter into his presence.

The Preacher had this divine advice, “Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven, and you upon earth; therefore let your words be few.” (Ecclesiastes 5:2 RSV)

Better yet, do not take the name of the LORD in vain. When you speak His name, remember – He hears every word you say. Make sure you mean your words, and especially make sure the words you speak in His name are in harmony with His perfect nature.

The Six Best Words for any Relationship

Love ? I love love love you.

Love ? I love love love you. (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

This post ain’t original. Been said so many times it borders on being a cliche.

But these six words are the most powerful words in the English language, and they need to be spoken often and meaningfully in any relationship: marriage, parent/child, employer/employee, friend/friend.


Thank you.

I love you.

Okay, maybe bosses should not run around telling their employees “I love you,” but “I appreciate you” would be a nice replacement.

How much better would all your relationships be if you just said “please” more often. And then “thank you.” And top it off with a big helping of “I love you.”

Wives need to hear these words. Husbands need to hear these words. Children need to hear these words. A lot! All of us need to hear these words – spoken freely, honestly and with meaning.

Please keep reading this blog. Thank you for your attention and your comments. I love those of you whom I have met, and I deeply appreciate all of you for spending just a few moments with a frumpy, grumpy, and sometimes acerbic old coot.

And, feel free to remind me of these six words when I need to be reminded of them.

Blessings –

The old freightdawg

How Do You Make The Church Relevant?

English: Fairway wood positioned near golf ball

English: Fairway wood positioned near golf ball (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Christian world, Western edition, is all atwitter with the discussion of how to make the church relevant. From what I am to gather, the precipitating issue which started all of this discussion is the fact that young people are leaving the “church” in droves. Not by tens, or hundreds, it would appear. But apparently all across the religious spectrum from the most conservative Bible believing hell-fire-and-brimstone type churches to the most liberal mainline denominations, young people are voting with their feet in unprecedented numbers. The answer, as discussed in books and seminars and blogs and tweets, is to make the church “relevant.”

As I have mentioned many times previously, I am not the brightest bulb in the box, so please, if I am missing something here, please enlighten me. But just how exactly to you make ANYTHING “relevant?”

From my somewhat perplexed and even increasingly agitated viewpoint, something either IS relevant, or it is not, but there is virtually nothing a person can do to make something relevant.

Go ahead – I dare you. Make something that is absolutely irrelevant to your life relevant. Let’s say you hate a sport – say golf. Many people love the sport. Some tolerate it. Others despise it. Now, how are you going to make golf relevant to someone who hates it? Make them play 18 holes every day? Read them the rule book every night before they go to sleep? Put a video of “Golf’s 10 Greatest Moments” on their 72 inch TV screen? How, exactly, can you make something relevant by forcing it down someone’s throat? Or, by making it more sexy? Or by jazzing it up with a praise band or a dance team? Or by adding “non-traditional” songs? It just will not work, folks. You can put all the lipstick you want to on a pig and guess what – all you end up with is a very confused and possibly very angry pig.

Either the church is relevant to a person’s life or it is not. There is no way under God’s pure blue sky that we are ever going to make something that is irrelevant to become relevant. I am not trying to be obstinate, unkind, or uncharitable here. Provocative, for sure – I want to provoke some serious thought.

Just this week I have been reading Deuteronomy in my daily Bible reading. The past two days two verses have leapt out at me while I have been thinking about this subject. The first is Deut. 27:9, “Moses and the Levitical priests spoke to all Israel, ‘Be silent, Israel, and listen! This day you have become the people of the LORD your God.'” Now, that verse might slip past me 9 out of 10 times I read it. But notice – this “day” to which Moses and the priests made mention was not the day the Israelites left Egypt, nor the day they received the law at Mt. Sinai. The “day” was the day they had the law read to them as they prepared to cross the Jordan into the Promised Land. In other words, the past was important for the Israelites and they were never to forget it, but what was relevant was the law in their immediate and given situation. But Moses and the priests did not make the law relevant – it simply was relevant.

The second verse is Deut. 32:47, “For they [the words Moses was giving the Israelites] are not meaningless words to you but they are your life, and by them you will live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to possess.” Notice that. The words of the law are not meaningless. They are life. We look at the Levitical law as dry as day old toast, meaningless and beyond comprehension. To the “people of God” however, they constituted life.

I have to confess – I am really befuddled here. It just seems to me that if a man went through the Palestinian countryside saying, “I am the Son of God” and if he was able to defend that claim with Old Testament prophecy and the immediate power of God, and if that same man was crucified and three days later was resurrected out of a cold and sealed tomb, then what that man and his immediate followers said to me are relevant. I do not make them relevant. I have the choice to accept their relevance, or to reject their relevance and thereby declare them to be irrelevant for my life, but in neither case am I materially affecting the reality of the relevance of the Son of God or of his disciple’s teachings.

What this all boils down to is that when someone writes a column or a book or gives a speech and says in effect, “Young people will return to the church when we make it relevant” they have placed an impossible requirement on the church. We cannot crawl inside some 20-something-year-olds head and flip a switch and suddenly “make” the church relevant.

If Jesus and his sacrifice are relevant to any person’s life, then the church will be relevant. If the church is irrelevant – what does that say about the person’s devotion to Jesus and to his mission to create the “people of God?”

I am in no way suggesting that every congregation that bears the name of Jesus is relevant. Many congregations died years ago, it is just that no one has told them yet. Many others are in the final gasps of life. If you doubt me, just consider the seven letters to the seven congregations of the church in the book of Revelation. Seven churches were addressed, but it is clear that each was dealt with on an individual basis. Laodicea was lethargic, but that had no bearing on the relevance of the church. Sardis was in effect dead, but that had no impact on the relevance of the church universal. Philadelphia was perking along pretty good, but that did not mean it was more relevant than Laodicea or Sardis. There is a HUGE distinction between a dead or dying congregation and an irrelevant church.

So, call me a cynic or an old fuddy-dud or a knuckle-dragging troglodyte if you wish. I am simply not buying the snake oil that is being peddled by so many in so many different ways today. The church is the most relevant community in the world. We will never be able to make it more relevant, or even make it relevant to begin with. We can make a congregation more useful, more inviting, more caring, more evangelistic, more benevolent, more knowledgable, more grace oriented, more worshipful, more inclusive, more inter-generational, – and maybe a dozen other things. But relevant? 

C’mon theologians, preachers and bloggers, let’s use a better word!

15 Undeniable Truths For Theological Reflection (#11)

A view across the Hinnom Valley from the south...

A view across the Hinnom Valley from the southern slope of Mount Zion in Jerusalem. Some ancient burial vaults can be seen below the rocky outcropping to the left. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Many of my “15 Truths For Theological Reflection” came as a result of, or during the preparation of, various classes or sermons. I am not 100% sure where #11 came from, but I am sure that it had its basis in some specific topic I was studying. Before going any further, let’s have #11 again:

11.  The choice of imagery used in Scripture has as much value as the message communicated by those images. Example: the many metaphors used to describe the “people of God.” (Which is in itself a metaphor).

I fear that many people today are either unaware of, or refuse to consider, the vast amount of imagery that the Bible contains. Upon a little reflection the use of this imagery is absolutely necessary. How can you describe God without the use of metaphors and similes? How can you describe love, or joy, or peace without the use of a picture word? How could a human envisage heaven or hell unless there was some way to describe the indescribable through the already known? So, it does not take much effort to explain why there is such an extensive use of metaphor in the Bible.

What gets to people, and makes them extremely nervous, is when we start mentioning specific metaphors, because those metaphors have been used for such a long period of time that they have lost their metaphorical value and have been embodied with a concrete value. In theological terms, what we have done is we have created an idol with our language. We are worshiping the creation rather than the creator.

Let me illustrate with perhaps one of the best known and most loved (and conversely, most disparaged) metaphors of the Bible – God as Father. This is a rich and beautiful metaphor, full of specificity on the one hand and ambiguity on the other. When we think of a father we think of love, of protection, of providence, of discipline and rule making and rule keeping. We also might think of someone who makes things right, who binds up wounds and who listens to our cries and fears and complaints. These are all significant aspects and are all components of what I believe the inspired authors (and Jesus!) were thinking of when they referred to God as “Father.”

But fathers can also be abusive. They can be cruel. They can abandon their families. It takes no act of love to become a father – only a brief sexual union. Fathers can be bitter, hateful, vengeful. They can be lazy and unproductive. There are millions of children, both female and male, who have been scarred deeply and permanently by the sexual, physical, and emotional abuse that was dealt to them by their fathers. Is that the “image” of the father that the inspired authors wanted to convey? Absolutely not! Did God have a female consort, a “goddess” by which he sired all of mankind? Not the God of the Holy Bible. Does God have bouts of fickleness, jealousy, rage, and violence that marks so many human fathers? No. So, how could God be spoken of as our “Father?”

The point is that father, like so many other word pictures in the Bible, is a metaphor. It is an image, and we must be careful how we use and extend that image in our theological studies and explanations. I could list hundreds of other word pictures used in the Bible – the church as a bride, the church as a plant, the church as a “people of God.” Consider the “new Jerusalem” coming “down out of heaven.” The word Jesus used for eternal torment, gehenna, was a reference to the ever-smoldering garbage dump outside of Jerusalem in the valley of Hinnom, the literal meaning of the word, gehenna. So, you see, it is virtually impossible to speak of anything in the Bible without referring, either totally or partially, upon a word picture – a metaphor or a simile.

A word of explanation becomes most important at this point here – I am NOT suggesting that every truth in the Bible is metaphorical. I believe in the actual, physical virgin birth of Jesus. I believe he was physically nailed to that cross, and I believe his body was physically resurrected three days later. To say that something is described in metaphorical language does NOT mean that the event itself is a metaphor. That is a mistake made by liberal theologians and swallowed by people who do not want to accept, or who have been trained to reject, a physical reality to the miracle stories of the Bible. So, while I do not believe that God is a physical being with the anatomical attributes of a human male, I do believe he delivered Israel from the land of Egypt with his “mighty right arm.” Metaphorical language creates and deepens physical (and theological) truth.

Lest you think this is a peripheral subject and one not worthy of much consideration, consider the divisions in the Lord’s church over the use of metaphorical language. No one (to my knowledge) believes that Jesus is an actual plank of wood when he describes himself as a “door” (Jn. 10:7, 9). I think everyone pretty much gets the image of Jesus as a “shepherd” even though we as humans are not physically “sheep.” But, what happens when a person teaches that “this is my body…this is my blood” (Matthew 26:26-27) is a metaphor? I have listened to a Lutheran pastor speak on this subject, and I can assure you there was nothing metaphorical about his language at all! There are many other examples of how a simple metaphor can divide Christians, but I think the Lord’s supper/Eucharist probably is involved in the overwhelming majority of divisions. This speaks to the utmost care we must use when approaching this subject with someone who disagrees with our conclusions. Remember, treat others in the manner in which you want to be treated!

So, returning to my entire series. We must begin our theological studies with humility. We may be right, we may be wrong, and we may be a little right and a little wrong. We all need to learn, and none of us (as humans) are perfect. Careful study eliminates some of the most obvious errors, and continued study helps us adjust our understanding of the more complex and difficult parts of the text. As iron sharpens iron (a beautiful metaphor) so the intellect of another person helps us sharpen our own intellect. Be patient, be gracious, and most of all, be hungry for the truth.


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