Monthly Archives: July 2011

Learn From The Masters

When I was in basic flight training I was lucky enough to have a supervising flight instructor by the name of Will. Everyone who flew with Will had the same response. Another of my fellow students summed it up best when he said, “Will does not fly the airplane. Will wears the airplane.”

I believe that sums up the point of this article. It is one thing to attempt to do theology, or to do theology poorly. It is another thing to do theology so beautifully that those who hear or read can say, “This one does not write the0logy, he wears theology.” Unfortunnately, book stores are full of spiritual pabulum that is written by those who have a keen eye for what the public wants to read, and so they are incredibly popular. Ice cream is tasty, and a small amount might be enjoyable on a hot summer night, but rely on it for your basic sustenance and you will die. Empty theology, no matter how popular, will kill your soul as well. 

Theology is, of course, at its most basic level simply discourse about God. Those who do it well are those who know God and his word on a deeper level. I would like to share some of the major influences in my life, and hopefully you will come to discover (if you have not already) that these individuals experienced God on a level far above what you or I might experience.

I might begin with C.S. Lewis. He is known for his fictional works such as The Chronicles of Narnia, but I urge you to read some of his non-fiction works. He remains one of the most capable Christian apologists who ever lived. There are many fine collections of his writings available. From the English speaking world I would add at this point John R.W. Stott. Stott wrote some of the finest exegetical works produced in the late 20th century. His work, The Cross of Christ is a classic. Stott was a serious theologian but his works are easily readable. My favorite theologian, and one who I believe has more to say to the modern church than any theologian alive, is Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Some of Bonhoeffer’s works are dense enough to be virtually opaque to the average reader, but if you would like to enter Bonhoeffer’s theology he has several very readable short works that can lead into his more detailed work. I highly recommend Life Together and his little book of meditations on the Psalms, The Prayer Book of the Bible. Most people come to Bonhoeffer through his best known work, known either as Discipleship or The Cost of Discipleship. From there you might want to read Letters and Papers from Prison. However, you will not really learn about Bonhoeffer until you work through his sermons and other writings, available in a 16 volume collection, The Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works in English.

For devotional and meditative reading my favorites are Henri Nouwen and Thomas Merton. Both of these men wrote extensively, and collections of their works are easily available. Nouwen’s meditation on The Return of the Prodigal Son is worth its weight in gold. For Merton the best entry into his writing is New Seeds of Contemplation.

There are, obviously, many other writers I could name. These few writers will give you years of rich, wholesome theological reflection that will feed your soul and enliven your spirit. May God bless your study!

Theology a la Pharisee

Yesterday I addressed adolescent theology. Today the focus is on the opposite, but equally destructive theology of Pharisaism.

If I read my history correctly, the Pharisees started out as a spiritual renewal group that had a righteous foundation and laudable goals. They wanted to protect the Israelite faith from those who would promote religious syncretism and spiritual laxity. As with most spiritual awakenings, however, the emphasis soon shifted from a spiritual renewal to a spirit killing legalism. Not just content with the laws handed down by Moses, they created their own laws, their own interpretations of Mosaic laws, and greater and greater reliance upon human ability to keep those laws.

Segue to 2011. If adolescent narcissism is the Scylla of theology, what is the Charybdis? Answer: Pharisaic narcissism. If one danger to theological maturity is focusing on our freedoms to the neglect of healthy restrictions, the opposite danger is focusing on the laws to the neglect of the inherent freedom that Christ gives. Both dangers are fatal.

So far I have been relating these entries to elements of instrument flying. The connection here would be following the Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR’s) to the extent that a pilot could never get his or her plane out of the hangar, let alone take off of the runway. The last issue of the FAR’s that I owned was over two inches thick. That is a lot of federal legalese! The basic truth is if you follow the FAR’s you will be safe. The reality is that sometimes, in order to be safe and stay alive, you have to deviate from the FAR’s.

There are so many issues around which modern-day Pharisees attempt to create their specific brand of Christianity. The nature of worship, acceptable clothing, the correct translation of the Scriptures, the use of names and titles, the proper “liturgical” phraseology for prayers, baptisms, songs, and the list could go on ad infinitum. The fact is that Scripture addresses some of these issues directly, some indirectly, and some not at all. But, in my reading, the Bible never addresses these issues as a matter of Christian law. For one example, Jesus said that those who would worship God must worship him “in Spirit and Truth.” That is fairly direct, and yet the exact interpretation of those concepts have occupied theologians for centuries.

I am in no way suggesting that by avoiding adolescent theology we should embrace Pharisaism (it is for freedom that Christ has set us free). Nor am I proposing that in order to avoid Pharisaic narcissism we should fall headlong into adolescent rebellion (shall we sin that grace may abound? By no means!). There truly is a middle path, however narrow it might be. That path consists of trusting our instruments (God’s Holy Word) implicitly and at the same time applying our human reason fairly and appropriately in working through issues of disagreement and conflict.

It really can be done. Just ask any pilot who has ever flown professionally with the assistance of an instrument flight plan.

Adolescent Theology

One of the marks of  the period of time that we have created and have labeled “adolescence” is a turn toward freedom. It really is a horrid time – those we call adolescents are not really given any responsibility, but they are not really given any real privileges either. Adolescents are caught in a limbo land where they are too old to be children, too young to be adults. It is no wonder that what they yearn for the most is freedom.

What most adults can see, however, is that the freedom that many teens aspire to is nothing more than a different type of slavery. They must dress, speak, act, and think exactly like their chosen herd dresses, speaks, acts and thinks. In many ways it becomes the worst kind of slavery of all.

In all too many ways the church in America can be defined as one big adolescent. Not really a child that needs and deserves parental control and protection, but not yet really mature enough to be considered an adult, the church is kicking and screaming for what it thinks is “freedom” when all it really wants is to look, act, and think like all of the “cool kids” on the block. “Don’t want to have to eat any vegetables? Come on over here – all we serve is ice cream and cake.” “Want to come dressed in your pajamas (or swim suit)? Sure, come on over here, it doesn’t matter how you dress.” “You don’t like the apostle Paul? Come visit us – all we talk about are the happy little stories of Jesus, none of that sin or obedience or hell stuff.”

The apostle Paul – yes the one that everyone hates and no one wants to read because he is so full of bigotry and hatred and all that – wrote in Galatians 5:1 – “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” (ESV) Paul really does want us to be free. He wants us to live lives of freedom. But he wants us to live lives of freedom in Christ – and not to become slaves of what the world considers “freedom” which is the worst type of slavery of all.

When flying in the fog you must rely on your instruments alone. In one sense it is the most confining type of flying there is. On the other hand, if you can handle flying under the strictest rules in the Federal Aviation Regulations, you can fly anywhere you want to any time you want to (except, of course, in those zero visibility situations). Instrument flying then becomes one of the greatest freedoms in the world.

I see life in Christ much the same as I viewed flying on instruments. Strict, yes – but the most amazing freedom known to man. I’ll take flying on the liberating rules of instruments over the false freedom of an adolescent theology any day of the week.

The Danger of Cultural Snobbery

The process of interpreting Scripture is difficult and is full of dangers. One such danger is a hermeneutic of interpreting Scripture according to cultural relativity. In my experience it seems that whenever anyone wants to disagree with an accepted understanding of a given text the standard procedure goes something like this: “Our text for today is 1st Fussbudget, chapter 1. Now a careful traditio-historical-form critical-linguistic exegesis of this text clearly reveals that Fussbudget was a homophobic, misogynistic, patriarchal, autocratic tyrant so we can dismiss what he says as being culturally irrelevant; the question we want to answer is, ‘What message from the Spirit did you get when you read this text?’” What then follows can best be described as one of my professors put it as “a monumental pooling of ignorance.” The goal of the above class teacher seems to be to convince his or her class that the culture that produced Fussbudget was vastly inferior to our culture, so anything Fussbudget wrote even remotely related to his culture invalidated his message. Failing to do that, the option of last resort is to pull out Jehoiakim’s knife and just cut the offending text out of the Bible completely. The only things we have left to discuss are “feelings” that arise from an emaciated text.

This topic begs for a much more detailed exposition, but I have some questions for those who approach the interpretation of any passage of Scripture from the standpoint that because it originated in a culture different from our own it is automatically inappropriate or blatantly false. My abbreviated list:
• How sure are you that your understanding of 2nd millennium BC or 1st century AD culture is correct?
• If the same message was presented to Palestine, Asia Minor, Greece and Rome with all of their distinct cultures, what gives us the ability to assign that message to a uniform “cultural” understanding?
• If Moses or Paul never establish their argumentation on the basis of culture, what gives us the omniscient understanding of their mental processes to assign a cultural foundation for their writings?
• And which modern culture is the correct prism through which we are to interpret Scripture? The United States is made up of multiple ethnic populations, extends over 5 time zones (in the continental U.S.), and shares cultures from virtually every corner of the inhabited world. So, which culture is the “correct” one? If a Christian meets with a church in San Francisco is he or she supposed to welcome and honor the practice of homosexuality? If that same Christian moves to West Texas, does that homosexual behavior suddenly become a sin? What if that Christian then moves to Canada, Italy, Kenya or Moscow? Does he or she have to completely reshape their understanding of Christianity based on the prevailing culture of their travels? If one culture is de facto wrong and unchristian, just which culture is de facto correct and orthodox?
• And just one more: how can two interpretations of Scripture, both relevant to their immediate cultures but 180 degrees out of phase with each other, both possibly be acceptable in God’s eyes? To list but one example, homosexual behavior cannot be both beautiful and blessed by God and at the exact same moment be a sin that dooms an unrepentant practitioner to hell. One interpretation or the other is profoundly wrong, yet both are taught as doctrine in different cultures.

Clearly, I believe the hermeneutic of cultural relativity is invalid. It leaves Christians grasping at straws and blowing in the winds of time and circumstances. It elevates the culture of the immediate interpreter above all other cultures (past and present) and results in both chronological and cultural snobbery, to borrow a fine phrase from C.S. Lewis.

Theologians, preachers and teachers must be intensely careful in their handling of the text. Our students, our members, our listeners expect the best from us. We may not be perfect – no one can be (See truth #1 of the 13 Undeniable Truths for Theological Study). But we cannot afford to be lazy or cheap. God’s Word, and the souls of those who listen to us, are too precious to sacrifice on the altar of cultural relativity.

Rely on your feelings and you die

One of the difficult concepts to convey to a newbie instrument student is the danger involved in relying on their feelings, or senses. Spatial disorientation is not just a weird feeling. In instrument conditions it can kill.

So, there is a procedure to bring the message home. It begins when the student is flying with a “view limiting device” blocking any outside references. The student is then told to close their eyes, and remove their hands and feet from the controls, unless a command is given for them to turn the plane. A good instructor will slowly provide inputs to the plane’s control systems that cannot be felt by the student. A really good instructor will then ask the student to slowly turn the plane. With his or her feet the instructor will counter-act the student’s inputs. Then the instructor will tell the student to level the plane, or even turn in the opposite direction. If everything is done slowly, with just a few subtle changes to the flight controls, the plane can end up in any number of “unusual attitudes” and, if not restored to straight and level flight, will eventually crash. When everything is really good and discombobulated the instructor will tell the student to open his or her eyes, look at the panel of instruments, correctly identify the unusual attitude, and bring the plane back to normal flight.

The thing is, if done correctly (and I had an instructor who was a master at this!), the unusual attitude will feel normal to the student, and a sudden return to “normal” flight will feel unnatural. It all has to do with the function of the inner ear and our sense of equilibrium. Wrong becomes right, and right becomes wrong.

The application for the church should be obvious. There is a reason Satan wants to “fly under the radar” so to speak when he wants to corrupt the church. Division, heresy, all manner of false teachings are not introduced on Sunday and implemented on Monday. Satan is patient. He will work for years if he must to change the equilibrium of the church. And once changed, a return to orthodoxy feels painful – indeed it is painful!

Jude faced just this same situation. Wanting to write a letter of encouragement, he faced a scandalous situation and had to resort to some fairly harsh language (see Jude 4). But time was of the essence, the church was flying in an “unsusual attitude” and had to be set straight.

Flying in the fog is demanding. Our feelings work against us. We have to rely on the instruments, and we have to use all of them together because at any one given moment one or another might fail.

Take care, folks.  Let’s keep the shiny side up!

Welcome to my world!

A word about the title to this blog. I am currently a minister, but I spent about 10 years as a professional pilot, first as a flight instructor and then as a pilot for a freight company. As far as aviation goes, it is fairly easy to fly a plane (landing is another story, but I digress). Things get a little more complicated, however, when you start flying in “instrument conditions” – that is, when you have no visual reference to the horizon or to the ground beneath you. At that time you must rely completely on your instruments to keep you level and going in the direction you want to go. It’s not as easy as you might think – spatial disorientation is a major cause of accidents in inexperienced pilots, and a few experienced ones as well.

I learned that theology is much the same way. There is much about the Bible, living the Christian life, and basic theology that is attainable by anyone. With our modern translations the text of the Bible is accessible by anyone who is even minimally literate. And anyone who has committed his or her life to Jesus is, in some form or another, living out a Christian theology.

But, on the other hand, when the clouds build up and the lightening starts flashing and the snow starts flying – things can get pretty dicey in our little cockpits. That is when theology gets a little tougher. Virtually every major character in the Bible experienced instrument theological conditions – Abraham, Moses, Job, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Peter, Paul, John. So, it doesn’t do any good to ask if we are going to have difficult times, the best we can do is to prepare for them and work our way through them.

That is what I want to do through this forum. In this blog I will discuss shorter issues related to my journey and the journeys of others, and in my meditations I will post longer essays that deal with various Biblical, theological, and spiritual issues.

Thanks for stopping by, and I hope you will join in the conversation.

Paul Smith

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