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.
Just sitting here ruminating on a subject that has been festering for a while. I really do not know who to address this to, so it will just be an open letter – directed at no one in particular and a lot of people in general.
To all those who are fed up with, cannot stand, and are otherwise angry at the church. I think I get your message. I want to say “I think” because to say “I fully understand” would be presumptuous. Because I have not met you personally, you may not fit every description that I mention in what follows. So, let me begin on a foundation of humility. I want to understand where you are coming from, and to a certain degree I think I get you. And, whether you believe me or not, in many areas I agree with you. But still, there is a yawning chasm between the two of us that bothers me…
The overwhelming majority of you are in your third decade of life. Some are much older, some are younger. That tells me that the majority of you simply have not had the opportunity to experience so much of life that longevity teaches. You may have traveled extensively, you may have lived with the richest of the rich and the poorest of the poor. But, you are still young. Youth has its advantages, to be sure. But youth also has its severe limitations. There is a reason that God turned the leadership of the church over to a group of individuals we refer to as elders. Age does a lot of things to our bodies, but it is an incredible teacher for our hearts and minds. So, I am not necessarily criticizing you for your youth, but I am making a point. You have not seen a lot of things and experienced a lot of life simply because you are not old enough to have done so. Hang around a while – you will.
That leaves some of you who are my age and older who still angry at the church but for entirely different reasons. Maybe something I say will speak to you as well, but I fear the issues you have need another letter. Increased chronological age does not necessarily equate to increased maturity. An angry senior citizen is no improvement over an angry toddler.
I want to tell you that we – the older generation that you seem to be so bent on overcoming – have been where you have been and we have done what you are doing. With our grandfathers, or maybe for some of us our fathers, it was the “social gospel.” For many others of us it was that promising panacea called “youth ministry.” Then there was the “bus ministry.” Our pet phrase was “ministry with a social conscience.” Then we were saved by becoming “seeker sensitive.” We were given a healthy dose of “purpose driven.” Now we are told the only thing that can save us to to become “emergent” “incarnational” or “missional.” Next up – “discipling.” We have been transfixed with Billy Sunday, Billy Graham, Bill Hybels, Rick Warren and now Rob Bell and Brian McLaren. It has become so confusing that we need a scorecard to keep up with all the slogans and phrases and personalities. It’s just that we – the old gray head set – need bifocals to read all the small print.
As a member of the “traditional, fundamentalist, backward, Luddite” generation that provides so much of the anger that you are venting, I would like to suggest that you take a moment to analyze why it is that we are so wary of your efforts. After reading volumes of your books, scanning your blogs and watching your You Tube videos, I would gently like to suggest that you criticize without offering the least indication you have attempted to understand what it is you are criticizing. You think that you are criticizing the “established, traditional, fundamentalist church” but who you are actually criticizing are people. Real people. People who have stood where you are standing and who have asked the same questions and who have been through a lot more fights and defeats than you have.
You come across as selfish, arrogant, narcissistic, and vain. The very traits, I would suggest, that you criticize us for being.
You preach a tolerance of ideas and practices and yet you ridicule and reject the values and beliefs of the generations who have gone before you.
And, I say again lest I be misunderstood, we can recognize these failings because we pioneered them. You are simply perfecting the faults we instilled within you. But I hasten to add – the fact you have perfected them is no honor.
If we are hesitant to accept your panacea for church renewal I suggest that it is because we are tired of the rhetoric – the empty promises and of dealing with the burned out remains of ours and previous failures. The generation that is older than I am had to deal with me – they heard the same empty promises and they dealt with the same blown-up congregations and they had to pull out the bandages and try to put broken people and lives back together. And my generation blithely walked away from all the carnage and smugly patted ourselves on the back for being such faithful and devoted disciples of the Prince of Peace. Until it happened to us. Now we see the same thing that our forefathers experienced and it gives us a lot of heartbreak. We cannot undo what we did, but we are not much interested in having the same thing happen to us.
Believe me, many of us are looking for something better! We have not lost the idealism of our youth, but the scars and the broken bones have taught us to be a little careful about how we go about instigating change. We may need bifocals to read our old leather-bound Bibles, but we can see through the dim lights of your “new” worship. We may need hearing aids, but we hear nothing of substance in your theologically vapid praise bands. And we can smell a rat through the fog of your incense.
So, please – if you are asking us to give you the courtesy of listening to the next one greatest discovery that will save the church from every evil that befalls it, give us the courtesy of realizing we have heard this song before. We sang it too. We even added a few verses and an endless repeating chorus. Realize that we are not your enemy until you back us into a corner and give us no other option but to either leave or fight back. Yes, there are individuals who are my age and older who have demonized every word you say and every idea you put forward. I do not like them any more than you do. I reject their rhetoric and their hateful attitudes. Every mansion has a few cobwebs in the corners.
I appreciate your enthusiasm for the Lord and His church. I appreciate that you are not only willing, but also very capable of the skill of analysis and problem solving. I would suggest that one skill you are lacking significantly is the skill of the appreciation of history – your history, and your immediate history to be exact. I would also like to suggest that unless you seek to remedy this gap in your resume you will find yourself in an interesting situation in about 20 years or so – give or take a few.
You will be exactly where I am, peering through your new pair of bi-focals, writing an open letter to your children and grandchildren who have discovered the next latest and greatest saving prescription for the church they have discovered is old and stale and irrelevant.
The very church you are in the process of creating.
An old guy who is willing to listen, but justifiably cautious about swallowing every idea just because it is new.
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!
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!
This is the second part of my thoughts on Ezekiel 22:23-31. The first half of this study is found here. In brief, what I wrote in the first piece was that reading this paragraph in Ezekiel was like reading a modern newspaper. Our political leaders are corrupt and guilty of bloodshed, even if it is not as blatant as it has been in historical periods in times past. Our religious leaders are guilty of putting whitewash over the bloodstains. The Holy is conflated with the profane, the clean and the unclean are blended until there is no way to separate the two. The general public follows in the footsteps of its leaders and is similarly corrupt and criminal. We are not living in the garden of Eden any longer.
So, if that is true, what is the point of Ezekiel 22:23-31? I think the answer to that question is found in verse 30. “And I sought for a man among them who should build up the wall and stand in the breach before me for the land, that I should not destroy it; but I found none.” There are many, many chilling verses in the Bible. I think v. 30 is one of the most sobering. God searches for one who can stand in defense of his or her people – and cannot find a single person.
How many crimes have been committed, and then ignored, because a good person will not stand “in the breach” and do what is right? How many deaths, how many robberies, how many injustices? Political correctness is killing us with a death of a thousand cuts. We have not become a nation of barbarians – we have simply become a nation of ethical pacifists. We do not want to get involved because it is always someone else’s fight. We turn our heads and walk away because it is not proper to involve ourselves in someone else’s business. We are just one person, and what can one person do against an entire corporation, or against an entire political system? So the breach remains a breach. The wall is undefended. The enemy does not fear defeat, because the gate is open.
The final sentence in this paragraph is equally striking. God tells Ezekiel that the time for repentance is over – He has already begun what he will ultimately complete. But notice the phraseology. In the RSV the words are “…their way I have requited upon their heads.” Now, that is a little archaic and stilted, but newer translations help us out here. The ESV (a descendent of the RSV) translates that phrase, “…I have returned their way upon their heads, declares the LORD God.” God gave the Jews what they dished out. God gave them a dose of their own medicine. If they wanted to treat others like barbarians, then they would be treated like barbarians. And that is exactly what did happen.
So, what is in store for us? If our culture mirrors that of Ezekiel so closely (and I believe it does to a tragic degree), can we hope to escape an equal punishment? We think (and I am speaking here primarily of Christianized America) that we are God’s chosen nation, God’s blessed people. We think that because of our history and because of some of our traits and traditions that we will be immune to God’s punishments. I wonder though, are we not simply whistling past the graveyard? Can we see the handwriting on the wall, or has our vision deteriorated along with our morals? What if Americans were suddenly treated by citizens of other nations the way we have been treating them? What would change about our government if we simply applied the golden rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” We do not even live up to THAT standard, and that is really the most basic of all ethical principles to follow.
This past election was truly an eye opening experience for me. In this election cycle I tried to listen and read what the candidates and the pundits in the media were saying (and writing) from a theological vantage point. In other words, I was trying to hear what was being said within the broad structures of God’s Word and also within the structures of God’s actions in similar situations in times past. What I discovered was truly disconcerting. I am not one who buys into the “Chicken Little” theory of American politics (“the sky is falling, the sky is falling”) but I do sense that over the past 8 years America has past beyond a “tipping point” and I do not believe there is any return (short of a cataclysm). When the eventual results of this move will become obvious I have no way of knowing, but I do believe that day is inevitable.
What I question is if there is someone (or a bunch of someones) who is (or are) willing to “stand in the breach” and at least proclaim that the day of judgment is coming. I mean in a biblical sense, not a political sense. And, when things start to become seriously dangerous, will these individuals remain steadfast?
I am not advocating some reactionary response that calls for the building of personal bomb shelters and the purchase of enough ammunition to fight WWII again. That response would be foolhardy and just as dangerous as making no response at all. Neither am I advocating some kind of knee-jerk political response that is just as humanistic in nature as the situation in which we find ourself today. What I am advocating is a biblical response of repentance and mourning over our national, religious, public and personal sins. We (as disciples of Christ) have been complacent about far too many issues of critical importance for far too long. The results are beginning to be made manifest. The end has not yet come, and I pray we have some more time left.
God is patient beyond all of our understandings. God wants all men everywhere to come to know Him, to come to love Him, and to enter into a personal relationship with Him. But God’s long suffering patience came to an end with corrupt and profane Jerusalem. At some point God’s patience will come to and end with corrupt and profane America.
The wall has been broken through. The city has not yet fallen, but the wound may be incurable. Ezekiel’s unanswered question reverberates across the ages. Where is the one who will “stand in the breach.”
Serendipity (or coincidence) never ceases to amaze me. I had been thinking of a passage of Scripture for the past several days, and then in my daily Bible reading it came to me today – Ezekiel 22:23-31. I want to devote this post and the next to this passage of Scripture. I think Ezekiel has something for us to hear today.
In this post I want to mention the LORD’s word concerning the four perilous “P’s” in Ezekiel’s day. They were the princes, the priests, the prophets and the people. I am basing this article on the RSV, which may read slightly different from other translations as it incorporates a structure found in the Greek translation of the Hebrew, and not the Hebrew exclusively. I believe the content of the passage bears the RSV translation, so I will stick with it. This structure is prince, priest, prince, prophet, people – or, political, religious, political, religious, public. This is a striking construction, and adds to the message of the words themselves.
The princes were condemned because of their barbarous behavior, both in the taking of human life and the greed that drove them to steal helpless victim’s belongings (verses 25 and 27). They are pictured as roaring lions and ravenous wolves. What is terrifying here is the graphic manner in which the LORD indicts these political leaders. They are murderers and thieves. They were to lead the people, and instead were destroying them.
The religious leaders are dealt with following the condemnation of the political leaders. They are identified as being both priest and prophet (verses 26 and 28). The priests, in charge of the formal worship, had done violence to the law. They had profaned the Holy things. They had disregarded the Sabbath (a major theme in Ezekiel). But, in a strange indictment, Ezekiel condemns the priests for not making any distinction between the Holy and the profane, the clean and the unclean.
Ezekiel turns to the general populace in verse 29. They are accused of committing crimes of greed. They extort, they rob, they oppress. In particular they are guilty of treating the sojourner violently, a crime that is specifically condemned in the Levitical law code.
I believe the correlation between Ezekiel and the present day is so obvious as to not need any further comment, but comment I shall. Are our political leaders guilty of shedding innocent blood? Maybe not in the sense of lynching innocent victims on the street corner, but the manner in which we have chosen to use our military in a long series of “police actions” gives me serious concern. There are more ways to shed innocent blood than lining individuals up against a wall and shooting them in the back. You can ruin the water supply with poisonous chemicals. You can pollute the air that must be breathed. You can allow carcinogens to be mass marketed. The list could go on for quite some length. Yes, I would argue quite forcefully that our political leaders are guilty of shedding innocent blood.
What about our religious leaders. Are we (and I am one) guilty of profaning God’s law, and thus of profaning God himself? Do we “daub with whitewash” when we should be using a scalpel to excise sin? Do we preach “thus says the LORD when the LORD has not spoken? And, most critically for today, have we become guilty of erasing the line between that which is Holy and that which is profane, between that which is clean and that which is unclean. In particular I have read several books of recent publication in which that very process is praised. “Everything is Holy” trumpet the post-modern prophets. “Everything was created good, so everything needs to be honored as good.” That sounds like good theology (and God DID say that everything he created was good, but man sinned and fell from his relationship with God, and most of what the post-modern theologians are calling “good” was not created by God in the garden, but by man in his fallen situation. Simply put, there is a Holy, and if there is a Holy there must be a profane. That means there are times of Holiness and times that are not Holy, there are places where we are in the presence of the Holy and there are places that are purely profane, or non-Holy. Not everything man has done is to be considered clean. Our spiritual leaders must be in the forefront of those who proclaim what is Holy and what is profane.
And, of course, there is the general public. Not too much has changed from the time of Ezekiel. Our public is still greedy and covetous. We still treat outsiders fare worse than we treat insiders, and we do not treat insiders all that good to begin with. It is no wonder that the people act this way – if the political and religious leaders of a group of people are corrupt then the people will not be far behind. Our present situation in which greed, corruption and covetousness run rampant is simply the result of years and years of our political and religious leaders either actively demonstrating those traits of character or passively failing to confront and condemn them.
So, the moral to the story is this – Ezekiel 22:23-31 was written to a people, a culture, and to a historical situation that has long since passed into oblivion. And Ezekiel 22:23-31 is just as relevant today as it was when the words were first written or spoken.
There is one additional point I would like to address concerning this passage, and that will be the topic of my next entry.
Many of my “Undeniable Truths For Theological Reflection” are positive statements correcting negative beliefs that really disturb me. One statement I hear frequently enough that I know it is not just an aberration is the belief that the Bible is full of obscure rantings and ravings of some long dead group of mystics and weirdos. In other words, you cannot understand most of what is in the Bible, and even the parts you can understand don’t make any sense today.
Hence, my second undeniable truth for theological reflection: 2. The books of the Bible, even the most difficult sections, were written for the purpose of being understood.
I have two main points in making this statement. One is that the Bible can be understood today, and two, we must be careful not to make the Bible mean anything that we want it to mean.
This truth could be illustrated by many biblical writings, but perhaps nowhere is it more obvious than in the last book of the Bible, the Apocalypse of John, or the book of Revelation. Probably no book of the Bible has generated as many interpretations as has the book of Revelation. Every author honestly believes that he or she has “cracked the code” and knows exactly what the book means. Never mind that with so many conflicting interpretations the overwhelming majority of them will be simply mistaken at best or positively and dangerously wrong at worst. But, publishers have learned that the more far-fetched the better the sales, and so we have some truly bizarre interpretations of what should be some fairly benign readings in the book. Not to mention that every generation has a new candidate for the “beast” who as the mark of “666.” My favorite suggestion here was President Reagan, because each of his three names had six letters: Ronald Wilson Reagan. Whew. How is that for careful exegetical Bible study?
But it just seems so simple as to be impossible to ignore that if the book had no meaning to the original audience, it has no meaning for us today! This is not to say that it does not have a richer meaning (the “fulfillment” that many New Testament writers discuss, especially Matthew) for us today. But each and every history, prophecy, law code, gospel or letter was written with one specific audience in mind. And that audience could – and I dare say did – understand what was written to them.
When the original readers and hearers of Isaiah 7:14 read or heard that prophecy they did not all gather around in a circle and say, “You know what, in 700 years (give or take a few) this prophecy is going to come true and a little baby is going to be born in Bethlehem of Judea.” No. They knew that Isaiah was speaking to them, and that whether it was written immediately or some time after the fact it was originally given, Isaiah was speaking to their immediate situation and that within a very short time period they would not have to worry about Syria and Israel. In like manner, in his apocalypse John was not talking about the United States and the Old Soviet Union or the new European Union or some President of the United States who simply had a phonetically balanced name.
Did Matthew see a “fulfillment” of the original prophecy? Absolutely, by the power of the Holy Spirit he saw that the words of Isaiah could have a deeper meaning. But that was not the original meaning, and we are foolish if we try to force that interpretation upon the text. Ripped from its contextual moorings, any verse or section of verses becomes the devil’s playground. Never forget that Satan quoted Scripture while tempting Jesus to forsake his calling. Attaching “book, chapter and verse” to some misquoted passage of Scripture does not give it legitimacy. Only when read in context does the passage complete its intended purpose.
So where does that leave us in the 21st century? With a lot of homework to do, that’s where.
The task of Bible study is not to search the Bible to give support to one of our cherished opinions, then turn to our favorite book of poetry to close out the lesson. The task of Bible study is to carefully and intentionally ask some very basic questions of the text, and then, if possible, to see if there is a legitimate parallel between the text and our situation. If there is a legitimate parallel, fine. But if there is not, then we cannot force a foreign meaning upon the text with a crow bar, a shoe horn and an can of axle grease.
I believe the Bible was written to be understood. I believe the original audience clearly understood the writings, and I believe we can too, if we take the time and do our work diligently. That means learning the original languages – Hebrew and Aramaic for the Old Testament, and Greek for the New Testament. Additional study in Latin and other ancient languages is also critical. We must also become aware of how ancient commentators read and understood the text, whether Jewish or Christian. We must carefully examine the history of the interpretation of a passage. And, last but certainly not least, we must have the courage and the strength to step back from our computers and ask ourselves if we are not imposing a 21st century grid of interpretive processes upon the text that would distort or mask the true meaning of the text. All of this, from the first step of translation to the last step of hermeneutical application absolutely demands the use of humility, as I posted in my first undeniable truth of theological reflection.
Just one more thought before I close. I am perfectly willing to jettison a belief that I hold if it can be proven to me that I am wrong in holding it. But, please, use exegetically sound arguments, not emotionally charged epithets fueled by post-modern opinions based on deconstructionist exegesis.
In short, the writers of the biblical texts intended for them to be understood. They were, and they can be – if we have the humility to do our homework diligently and honestly.
It has been a while since I have looked at my “Fifteen Undeniable Truths For Theological Reflection,” so I thought this would be a good opportunity for me to explain, in perhaps a little more clarity, where those truths came from and what they entail.
I got the basic idea for the “Fifteen Truths” from Rush Limbaugh. He famously (or infamously) wrote a book about some number of undeniable truths. It was a long time ago, I don’t remember how many truths he had, and I never read the book so I don’t know what they were about. But I got to thinking, if Rush Limbaugh can do it, maybe I can too. In my first collection I had seven undeniable truths for theological reflection. Then it went to 8, then (I think) 13, now it’s up to 15. I may have to come up with another one or two…or add an addendum or two to an existing truth. So, I want everyone to know that these truths were created somewhat “tongue in cheek,” but I really do believe them to be truths for theological reflection, although the “undeniable” part may be a little over-the-top.
The number one requirement for reading and interpreting the Bible is humility.
1.a The primary expression of this humility in theological reflection is a submission to the Scriptures as they stand written. We do not, as interpreters and theologians, stand over the text, we stand under the text.
The reason I listed this truth first should be obvious: if we do not start with humility we will not get very far in studying theology, and especially the Bible.
Humility in this respect does not mean we approach the Bible or the subject of theology with the idea that we are stupid and cannot understand the Bible or the theological reflections of others. Humility in this respect means we must temper our thoughts and reflections and understand that we are the creation, and that while we have mastered many aspects of theological reflection (such as the biblical languages, or the topic of systematic theology) we will never be able to master the Bible itself, and certainly not the ultimate author of the Scriptures, God.
That concept led me to adding the corollary, the “1.a” part. This is one area that I personally find to be my largest aggravation in regard to theological studies. So many preachers, teachers, theologians, and simple church members believe that since we are living now, and since we have so many more tools to understand various aspects of ancient history, that we can simply eliminate parts of Scripture we don’t like, or we can re-write the text to say what we want it to say in order to give support to our contemporary culture. As I stated in as few words as I could, we do not stand over the text, we stand under it. We cannot re-write it. We cannot excise unpopular sections. We must let the text form us, we do not have the option of forming the text.
I am simply not impressed, nor am I anywhere close to being convinced, by arguments that begin with the supposition that because we live in the early 21st century we are just so much more enlightened and so much more spiritual than the original authors of Scripture. This process was made popular by the feminist movement, and has now been taken over virtually unchanged by those promoting wholesale acceptance of homosexual behavior. The argument flows like this: the apostle Paul was a male chauvinist (homophobe) and so was the prevailing culture, so everything (or almost everything, there may be a sentence or two that we find fits our agenda) that he wrote is suspect. We carefully dissect his writings, and anything that conflicts with our viewpoint is rejected, but if we do manage to find something that we can find useful, that proves that Paul was capable of writing God’s will in regard to that subject. So, the feminists reject Paul’s clear teachings on male spiritual leadership as being chauvinistic, but latch on to Gal. 3:28 with the zeal of a drowning man grabbing a life preserver.
Underlying this entire argument is the premise that we are now smarter than any generation that has preceded us, and also more spiritual, and so we must in effect re-write the Bible. The old one, the one our great-grandparents, grandparents and parents used is faulty, it’s broken, it cannot be trusted. God never meant all those passages that teach men to be the spiritual leader in the home and in the congregation, and he certainly never intended all those homophobic passages that indicate sex should be limited to heterosexual couples, and then only in the bonds of a committed marriage. How utterly stupid and spiritual bereft our ancestors were!
The theologians who hold to this post-modern deconstruction of the text are guilty of standing over the text. They want to be the masters of the text. They want the text to say what they want it to say, and no other interpretation can even be considered – especially not the interpretation that shaped Christianity for two millennia.
I do not want to suggest that the early church fathers had everything correct, or that the reformers got everything straightened out. I agree with the beautiful phrase that “God has yet more light to shine from his Word.” That having been said, I certainly have more reason to trust the early church fathers than I do some 21st century theologian, and the very principle of “standing under the text” forces me to evaluate my own conclusions with the same intensity that I evaluate the conclusions of others.
To be honest interpreters of the text we must accept and interpret the text as it stands written. There are many things in the text that I do not understand, and others that force me to make a decision – do I follow the text or my own wisdom? God has given me the ability and the freedom to study a great many subjects that can enlighten and deepen my understanding of the Bible. I can either make use of those tools or I can reject them. I am free to accept or to reject the conclusions of other theologians who study the same subjects. One thing that I am not allowed to do:
I am not allowed to write my own opinion and call it Scripture.
Last night I had one of those “impossible to sleep” nights so I got up around midnight to do my daily Bible reading. My schedule called for me to read (among other sections) Ezekiel 36-37. Reading Ezekiel when you are suffering from insomnia is a real trip, but that is not really what this post is about.
Leaders in the church are rightly worried today about the direction the church is going, at least in the western world. In Europe and the United States the fastest growing group of people are the “non-attached” religious group. They may have religious inclinations, and even hold to a modicum of Christian beliefs, but they do not belong to any church and do not rigorously defend any specific set of doctrines. They are not necessarily atheistic, just agnostic.
As I mentioned, church leaders are puzzled not only with the existence of this group, but also what to do about them. Inviting them to church, the so-called “attractional” model of church growth seemed to work fairly well with baby boomers, but it clearly does not work with the children and grandchildren of the boomers. A new model, the “missional” model seems to be gaining some traction, although it to too early to say that this message has any long-term viability. In order to be sent on a mission there must be a core belief system and a core community. While missional churches are a much-needed corrective to the lethargy of a “salvation by association” message of the attractional churches, they are beginning to show that without a well-defined center all of the “mission” in the world simply degenerates into well-intentioned do-goodism. It is the social gospel of the early 20th century regurgitated in post-modern language. It did not work too well in the pre-WWI days and it is not any more likely to succeed today.
Which brings me to my late night (actually early morning) journey through the bizarre world of Ezekiel. In chapters 36 and 37 God is telling Ezekiel that His judgment on Jerusalem will be limited. There will be a renewal. It is the message of all the major prophets, actually, including Isaiah and Jeremiah. God is disciplining his people for their sin, but his discipline will reach a limit. He will restore His people to their land. There will be a new beginning. The graphic illustration of this is in chapter 37, the wonderful story of the valley of dry bones that small children either love to death or are deathly terrified. But you should not read chapter 37 without the context of chapter 36. In chapter 36 God tells Ezekiel what is going to happen, in chapter 37 God takes Ezekiel out to the valley and visually demonstrates what will happen.
I love the conversation between God and Ezekiel. God asks Ezekiel, who is perched on a pinnacle overlooking this ghastly scene, “Can these bones live?” Ezekiel, much more reticent than the apostle Peter will be in a future generation, looks out over the bones and says, “God, I’m not touching that question with a 10 foot pole. You know the answer so I’ll let you tell me.” (Ezek. 37:3, Paul Smith paraphrase). Sure enough, God does show Ezekiel that the bones can live. But Ezekiel must fulfill his role. He must prophesy to the wind (spirit? breath?) in order for the bones to live.
I know this may sound canned and trite, but I believe the body of Christ in the US can grow again. It can live and have tremendous power. It does not have to exist on life support. But, it is only God’s power that can make it so. And, in order for the Spirit, Breath, Wind of God to enter the dying bones of a moribund church it is going to take the courage of the prophets to speak to the Spirit, Breath, Wind of God.
Preachers, teachers, professors, and average church members are all going to have to quit looking to human methods and techniques if we are going to see the church become strong again in our generation. I have nothing against the study of psychology, sociology and anthropology in the search for answers about what makes man tick and how we can apply that knowledge in proclaiming the Word of God. But in order for any of those to be of lasting value to the church we must first have a solid and biblical theology. That is to say, God comes first. Once we get that straight, then we can begin to think about psychology, sociology and anthropology.
“O Sovereign LORD, you alone know” was the exact response that Ezekiel gave to God (NIV wording this time). Yes, the church will grow again – I am convinced of it. But it may need to die a little bit more first. The bones may need to get a little more bleached. That will hurt. It may even seem hopeless. But when the Spirit of God starts blowing, even bleached bones start walking.
That, my friends, is a wonderful bed time story!
Of all the wonderful things in the world, I think serendipity is one of the best. Serendipity is starting to do one thing and getting something else that is either as good as what you initially wanted or maybe even better. Most of the best things in my life have come as the result of serendipity. That may be because I have such lousy aim, but I think it also points to God being a lot smarter and a lot more loving than I am.
So it was with this book, Deep Church: A Third Way Beyond Emerging and Traditional (Downer’s Grove: IVP Books, 2009). One reason I started my D.Min. program was to provide focus for my insatiable desire to learn. The professors at Fuller have guided me with literally thousands of pages of thought-provoking material to read and digest. So, I am nearing the end of my program and I need 4 more units before I can begin my dissertation. I find out about a seminar on Dietrich Bonhoeffer (outside of the apostles, my all time favorite theologian) and so I pack my bags and fly to Chicago. One of the speakers was a fellow by the name of Jim Belcher, and IVP had a huge display of books for sale, just one of which was Deep Church. I bought, I read, I was gripped!
The book is wonderfully titled. Belcher tries to navigate a “third” way between the calcification of the traditional church and the excesses of the Emerging church. Instead of “high” church or “low” church he aims to present an argument for “deep” church. I was deeply moved by his theology, his even-handedness, and his writing skill. This is a book that has been out for three years now, so many of you may already have it. If not, you need to buy it and read it. Belcher gives us some good material here.
The style of the book is simple and easy to read (two qualities I really like) but don’t be fooled. The content is deep (pardon the pun). After three introductory chapters that explain his past and what he wants to achieve, Belcher looks at 7 areas in which the Emerging church is challenging the traditional church. These are: Truth, Evangelism, Gospel, Worship, Preaching, Ecclesiology, and Culture. Belcher follows the same format in each chapter. He first has a brief autobiographical section that kind of sets the stage for the chapter, then he provides the Emerging church’s challenge to the traditional church (in the words of the Emerging church leaders, in many cases through direct interviews) and then includes a section on the traditional church “pushback.” Belcher then suggests a third way, a way to arrive at a “deep church” model. Belcher has done his homework well, and the result is a quality presentation of not only his views, but the views of those he seeks to modify.
It seems superfluous to mention, but I guess I have to anyway – there will undoubtedly be some areas in the book that you disagree with Belcher. I did. Perhaps the greatest area of disagreement I had with him was in the section on culture, when he argued that Christians need to create Political Action Committees! Because of my decidedly Lipscombian views regarding the relationship of the Christian to civil government, I could not buy what Belcher was selling there, but I did profit from his discussion on culture as a whole.
If you are a minister struggling with how to transform a stagnant congregation, this book may give you the ideas and the encouragement to envision a “deep church” in your congregation. If you are a member of a congregation and you feel that your leadership has lost its vision of real Christianity, get this book, read it, apply it, and then share it with your leaders. Belcher himself says not go give the book to someone unless and until you put its principles into practice.
You will find Belcher’s writing style to be eminently readable. He tackles some thorny theological issues, but by framing them with actual situations you do not feel like you are reading Calvin (Belcher is a Presbyterian) or Luther or Zwingli.
This was a book that had absolutely nothing to do with my D.Min work, and yet, serendipitously, maybe it had one of the biggest impacts on what I want to do with my dissertation. Serendipity is just so serendipitous (with my apologies to Ogden Nash).