Sunday Meditations: World Vision

I believe that God wants the world to be full of people in His image, both in their characteristics and behavior.  This is a world where Jesus is King and the clearest example of the image of God.  I believe this is the plan, the mission, the goal.

A world like this is a world where love is the spirit of the law.

It is a world where a person will freely give of their property, their rights, and even their own life if it means the promotion and protection of another.

It is a world where justice seeks first reconciliation, repair, and recompense over retribution or destruction.  It is a world where justice is given equally to all and is not contingent on belonging to a favored group or having enough wealth to win a legal battle with someone who is poor.

It is a world where a person’s word is as good as a binding contract.

It is a world where a person takes responsibility for their wrongdoing, is honest about it to God, to themselves, and to others, and endeavors to turn away from it and make amends for the damage they have done.  It is a world where this is rewarded.

It is a world that promotes and rewards the active pursuit of good works where each person tries to outdo the others in showing honor to others – not out of pride, but out of a desire to reduce suffering and increase joy.

The pursuits of power, wealth, and fame, rage, aggression, dissipation – all things that exalt the self over others are discouraged, unrewarded, and lovingly corrected.

This vision has appeared in the world in various forms.  It is told as the story of our earliest ancestors.  It has appeared as a family making their way through foreign lands.  It has appeared as a nation.  It has appeared as an exiled and dispersed people.  It has appeared as small, embattled communities of faith in a larger Empire.  It has appeared as that very same Empire.  It now appears as communities throughout the globe whose experiences and conduct seem as varied as the regions they are in.

At no point has this vision been perfectly realized, or even realized very well at all depending on what point in history we’re talking about.  Yet, it remains the vision.

This vision claims all areas of life.  There is no area of life that goes untouched by this vision.  Family, work, finances, recreation, worship, how we spend our time, priorities, and how we go about everything from the thoughts in our head to eating and drinking.

Like many on this mission before me, there is no area in which I am fully pursuing the mission and not a few areas where I am working against it, seeking my own selfish comfort or reward regardless of the expense to others – either as a direct consequence or indirectly due to what I am not doing that I could or should.  This is sin.  I do not need a long list that spells out what is a sin and what isn’t; sin’s nature and principles are clear and can manifest in a multitude of ways.  What might be acceptable or even commendable in one circumstance could be a sin in another circumstance.  It all comes back to the vision – where am I working to promote it, where am I working against it, and where am I indifferent to it?

This vision transcends doctrinal differences, even severe ones.  We could disagree on baptism, Hell, or the divinity of Jesus, but we can work together to be the world God wants.

We may disagree on the particulars of what that looks like, but how different those discussions are!  How can we best show love?  How can we best make this broken situation right?  How can we best take care of the people involved?

This vision even transcends religious affiliation.  There are others outside the fold who want a world like this and are working to be this world.  In Jesus’ day, they were the Gentiles who feared God or did by nature what the Law requires.  In our day, they might be the Muslims who embody a religion of peace regardless of what the rhetoric says they must “truly” believe.  Their actions show what they truly believe.  Perhaps even atheists, who do not want to tear Christians down, but want a just and loving world and have dedicated themselves to being people like that – people who profess that they do not believe in God, and yet carry His name in their actions.

Perhaps it might sound that such a vision embraces everyone, and it potentially could embrace everyone.  It is big enough to embrace every human being and all the world to be saved.

But the reality is that it does not.  There are countless people who believe in the pursuit of wealth and power for their own welfare and will do violence to protect and advance that pursuit.  There are many who would place their own pleasure as the chief end of their life.  There are many who have defined themselves exclusively in terms of what they can get, achieve, and experience even if the world has to burn while they do it.  Many such people end up ostensibly rewarded for this with the riches or power they crave or idolized by our media because they draw our attention and admiration.

A fairly good-sized chunk of such people claim the name of Christ for their own and call him Lord and even point to the great things they have done in his name.

The vision is something that is divisive, not because the vision itself sets one group against another, but because of the responses.  For there are many who embrace such a world as God envisions.  It sings within their hearts and gives them hope.  The people who are most drawn to this vision are the ones to whom it is gospel – the poor, the oppressed, the weak, the needy, the sinners – all who want a new world.

But the rich, the powerful, the comfortable, the “righteous” – these people stand to lose.  If they do not get to use their money for their own exaltation, of what use is it?  Why should they have to be less prosperous so that the less worthy might benefit?  If they do not get to use their power to get what they want, why have power?  Why should they labor to put someone else in the spotlight when the spotlight is just as easily theirs for the taking along with the accolades and benefits that come with it?

No, such people do not want a world like what I’ve described, and they will oppress, suppress, persecute, ridicule, demonize, undermine, and sometimes flat out kill any incarnations of that world.

How, then, in the face of such opposition, is God’s dream to survive?

If the Bible tells us anything it all, it tells us that God will ensure that His dream survives.  Not even death can stop it.

Sunday Meditations: Misconceptions About Evolution

This is probably less of a Sunday Meditation and more of a “this keeps coming up and I actually wanted to write about it on Tuesday, but I waited until Sunday” kind of thing.

A week ago, I participated in a discussion over coffee with other Christians about the creation accounts in Genesis and the theory of evolution and other theories and hypotheses that typically go along with it.  All views that I’m aware of were represented among the five of us.

Something that struck me this time around, though, was not so much the various points people were making about who was right – I’ve heard and said most of these, and you probably have, too.  What struck me were some of the misconceptions that some of the participants had about evolution and how that shaped the discussion.  It appears some of these are actually very common, and I thought it was worth pointing out a few.

Macroevolution is not a Thing

In the discussion, someone literally said, “There’s more than one theory of evolution.  There’s macro and micro evolution, so there’s two right there.”

There is no theory of macroevolution as distinct from microevolution.  It’s all microevolution.  In other words, the theory of evolution only ever posits tiny, incremental changes that in and of themselves do not radically shift a creature into a brand new type of creature.

This division is generally posited by creationists who are trying to fence off the phenomenon of tiny, incremental changes in creatures – which we readily observe – from the idea that this could account for all the diversity of life that we see, today.  But evolution does not posit a different “level” or mechanism.  It’s all tiny changes.  In other words, all evolution is microevolution, by those definitions.

The question is really more about time than mechanism.  If the Earth is a few billion years old, then these tiny, incremental changes add up.  Some of the creatures with the changes survive, some don’t.  Some without the changes survive, some don’t.  Parallel branches exist while other branches die out altogether.  Traits get handed down in different rates and in different combinations, and those eventually develop more incremental changes.  If this process happens over a staggeringly huge amount of time, you will by necessity end up with a wide diversity of end products.

By contrast, if the Earth is six to ten thousand years old, there’s no way those tiny, incremental changes could produce the diversity of life we now observe.

So, if you believe that organisms will develop small mutations over time that allow them to survive in changing environments – a phenomenon we have observed in a laboratory – then you believe in the theory of evolution.  There is no “macro” version of the theory.  It’s all a matter of how much time you believe that mechanism has been in operation.

Proponents of Evolution Don’t Automatically Dismiss Creationism as Unscientific Because It Posits a God

The reason creationism (or Intelligent Design, for that matter) isn’t science is not because it posits a God, and scientists don’t believe in God, so they arbitrarily declare the belief as non-scientific.

The reason creationism is not scientific is because it doesn’t offer testable, falsifiable hypotheses.

In order for science to be science, it can’t just offer a possible explanation of natural phenomena; it has to present testable, verifiable hypotheses that can be accepted or rejected based on the results of the tests.  You have to be able to say, “If X is true, then we should be able to look for Y and find it.”

For example, if evolution is true, then we should be able to observe mutation happening in the world around us.  If evolution is true, then we should expect to be able to engineer an environment and observe an organism adapting to it biologically.  If evolution is true, then we should expect to find that life has been developing on earth for a staggeringly long period of time.  If evolution is true, then we should expect to find fossils of creatures at varying levels of complexity more or less chronologically distributed through geological strata.  And so on and so on.

You might argue whether or not the data supports the hypotheses, but what you can’t argue with is that the hypotheses are testable and falsifiable.  Even if you think every last one of those hypotheses is unsupported by the actual data, you can see how we are using the scientific method to pursue them.

By contrast, creationism (and ID) is not science because it does not offer anything we can test against observable data.  That in and of itself does not mean it can’t be true; it does mean that it isn’t science.

If creationists could say, “My theory is that the God depicted in Genesis created all life on planet Earth in a special, supernatural act of creation where the animals were formed by divine fiat.  If this is true, we should find the Hebrew letters for YHWH encoded in DNA.”  That would be a testable, falsifiable hypothesis (it’s false, btw), and then would be subject to the scientific method.

But there aren’t any testable hypotheses for that doctrine that are being offered to scientists that I’m aware of.  And that’s what makes it not science.  It’s not because a God is involved; it’s because there aren’t any testable hypotheses around it.

It is because of this that creationism or Intelligent Design is not science.  In my opinion, this means neither should be taught in science classes – in public or religious schools.  It is a faith commitment.  It doesn’t make it false; it just means it isn’t science no matter how you dress it up.

Evolution is not a Theory in Crisis or a Controversial Theory in the Scientific Community

There are scientists who reject the theory of evolution.  They are very few and far between.

For instance, the Discovery Institute put up a petition for scientists to sign who upheld Intelligent Design.  In four years, they received around 700 signatures with almost no earth-life scientists on the list.  In response, the National Center for Science Education put up a petition for scientists named Steve who supported evolution (called “Project Steve”).  They surpassed 700 signatures in three years and, to date, have about 1400 signatures mostly comprised of prominent earth and life scientists.  Just to recap, there are twice as many scientists named Steve who support evolution as there are the totality of scientists the Discovery Institute managed to round up.

The debates within the scientific community over evolution are not about whether or not life as we know it evolved into its present form; the debates are things like the origin of the process and the role various factors play.  For example, most scientists believe natural selection is the mechanism that drove the direction of the development of life, while other scientists debate natural selection as a primary role and look at other factors like synergies with other forms of life.  And of course, there are several different ideas on how this whole thing got kicked off to begin with.

But virtually nobody in the scientific community is arguing that life as we know it, today, is not the product of evolutionary changes that happened over a huge amount of time.

A Naturalistic Explanation for How Life Evolves Does not Rule Out God

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says:

But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.

Matthew 5:44-45 (NRSV, emphasis mine)

There are probably few, if any, Christians today who would argue that the rain is a supernatural act of God’s power.

The Bible talks about God sending the rain, creating the rain, withholding the rain, etc.  And yet, we also observe that rain is caused by the water cycle.  Water evaporates from the earth, collects and condenses in the air, and when this reaches a certain saturation point, the water returns to the earth as rain.  It is observable, repeatable, and everyone knows this is where rain comes from.

And yet, many Christians have somehow figured out a way to acknowledge the water cycle without becoming raving atheists.

How do we do this?  Well, some Christians believe God is responsible for creating the mechanism, and it pretty much runs itself.  Some believe that, in some sense of fundamental reality, the rain exists and is sustained by the will of God.  Some believe that God’s plan and purposes are behind the rain even if they play no role in directly making the rain to happen.  Some believe some combination of those things or other things altogether.  But what you don’t see are Christians up in arms about the water cycle.  The Bible says that God sends the rain.  We know rain comes from the water cycle.  Everyone is totally cool with this.  No one has ever said that the Bible is a pack of dumb lies because water evaporates and condenses.

And yet, this seems to be the inevitable horns of the dilemma that gets brought up in these discussions.  If we evolved, then the Bible isn’t true.  If we evolved, then God didn’t create us.  If we evolved, then God doesn’t exist.

Now, someone may come to these conclusions.  Certainly, an evolutionary view of life does not require a God, and if the only reason someone ever believed in God was because He was the most likely explanation for the development of life on Earth, then I could see someone ditching the whole thing because He is no longer strictly necessary.

But it is not a necessary move.  The Bible is not a treatise on how the natural world works or used to work.  It tells us about a being and His people and their lives together over a long period of time.  It gives us theological commentary on events.  It prods us to see into a world -behind- our world that is not readily available for falsifiable, empirical testing.  Behind our natural world which is fully accessible to science, the Bible offers us a dimension of reality that is apprehended by faith (or discarded due to a lack thereof).

We have long since come to terms with this for many of the other propositions in the Bible.  My guess is that this will happen, eventually, for evolution as well.

Sunday Meditations: Knowledge Problems

This morning, my good friend and alter ego Cory gave a talk on Bible study.  It was very good.

Cory and I talk about this subject off and on, and we agree on most of it and share the same concerns.  There are a few things we see differently or would handle differently, and as I was driving home meditating on his talk, I think some of that comes from what we see when we look at the Western church, and “what we see” is probably at least partially shaped by our personalities and gifts.

On the one hand, Cory sees a Western church that is in love with knowledge but not so in love with doing anything about it.  He used this great illustration of a group of summer staffers sitting around debating theology while one staffer was going around cleaning up their trash, stacking the chairs, etc.  From this standpoint, the Western church loves to hear and debate, but we don’t like to do.  We invest a lot of time and energy into articulating the right WHY, and we consider that to be the sum of our Christian duty.  As long as the correct WHY gets out there, that’s all that’s really important.  If we have time for the occasional WHAT, that’s icing on the cake.

He’s not wrong.

I mean, think about the last few blow-ups in evangelicalism where the lines were drawn defining who the true and false Christians were.  Were those lines about behavior, or were they about doctrine?  Because somewhere along the line, being a true Christian became equated with “believing the right things.”  We are saved by believing the right things about being saved.

I don’t know that there’s one, specific thing that is the cause of this.  Part of it may be that the West has always loved knowledge and inquiry for its own sake.  Part of it may be the Protestant backlash against “faith plus works,” and “faith” got defined as “the stuff you believe” as opposed to “trust.”  When you tell people that the only thing God cares about is believing that Jesus died for your sins, that’s bound to create a strong skew toward what you know versus what you do, and it takes a lot to turn that ship around.

“Ok, so if I believe this thing, I’ll go to heaven when I die, and my works will not affect this in any way, shape, or form?  Ok, done.  Oh, now you want me to do stuff?  Oh, ok, well, if I get around to it.”

Another cause is that, culturally, the church tends to define faithfulness by what you abstain from rather than what you proactively do.  As long as you are keeping yourself from moral impurity, this is the faithful, Christian life, and you don’t even need to talk to someone else to do that.  In fact, it’s probably easier if you don’t.

Whatever the causes may be, it’s hard to look at Western evangelicalism and not see it.  People will happily attend a Bible study for an hour once a week, but they will not go pack food for a soup kitchen for an hour once a week.  They will teach Sunday School, but they will not pay their neighbor’s bills to help them in an emergency.  They can explain the various Greek words for love and the distinctions in their meaning, but they will not forgive a slight.

This is not an insignificant problem.  If you look at biblical passages that portray groups that have plenty of accurate knowledge but are not faithful with their actions, you know that does not turn out well for them.  If you look at biblical passages that portray people who probably don’t have it all together in the belief department but are, as John the Baptist might say, “bearing the fruits of repentance,” those people are held up as examples to everyone else.  We do not have the luxury of having churches full of people who are passionate about correct doctrine and do very little in terms of the faithful expression of what they say they believe.  God is not ok with this, and it says something that one of the mainstays of what makes a Protestant Protestant is the protestation that my works are irrelevant to my standing with God.

It is also true, however, that we see episodes in the Bible where people were doing the things God had asked, but their hearts were far from Him, and this also seems unacceptable, and that’s sort of a segue into what I see when I look at Western evangelicalism.

When I look at Western evangelicalism, I see a lot of people who don’t know what the hell they’re doing or why.

If you’ve never seen the movie version of The Scarlet Letter starring Demi Moore, first of all, don’t, second of all, you will find that the relationship of that movie to the book is kind of tenuous.

Your first clue is that the movie begins with a disclaimer: freely adapted from the novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne.  So, they’re adapting it, which you have to do if you’re going to make a movie out of a book; you can’t just convert a book into a movie by changing all the “she said” or “he said” to the characters’ names and a colon.  And they’re doing it “freely.”  What does this mean?

Well, all the characters are there.  Hester, Pearl, Dimmesdale, Chillingworth, the Puritans, etc.  And the adulterous affair and the community response to it is a big part of the plot.  Seems legit so far.

However, where the novel focuses entirely on the aftermath, the movie wants to tell you a story of tragedy and burgeoning love climaxing (no pun intended) in the consummation of the actual affair (which happens in a grain silo, thus illustrating that you should always be careful about where you get your bread).  Chillingworth is sort of a psychotic commando who skulks around at night gathering intelligence and killing animals.  Hester and Arthur are both condemned to execution, but they are saved at the last minute by Metacomet and his Indians who take revenge on the Puritans for their unjust treatment of them.  After the slaughter of the Puritans, Demi Moore closes the movie by saying something along the lines of, “You may think it was wrong for me to sleep with this other guy, but who knows if God agrees with you?”  The End.

Those of you who have read the novel realize that, although we can clearly see that the movie was informed by the book, it bears only the broadest of resemblances to the book’s actual story (much to the delight of high school English teachers, I guess, who can spot someone who just watched the movie in a heartbeat) and the central point it presents is kind of light years away from anything intended by Hawthorne.

The relationship of that movie to the original novel is analogous to how I see Western evangelicalism and the Bible.  The same characters are important, and you see at a very abstract level some of the same elements, but it’s really a different story broadly informed by the first one rather than being that same story brought into present day in a different format, and the main point it wants to get across may not be antithetical to the author’s intent, but it’s also not where He was going with it.

So, where Cory sees an unhealthy love of a body of knowledge that is taking away from our drive to do good works, I agree with that and also want to throw in that the “body of knowledge” we are addicted to is also pretty much crap.  It is scholarship that is built to hold up an edifice that we have created using the raw materials of the Bible as inspiration while paying very little attention to what those writings are actually about in and of themselves.  It is a Western Theology Perpetuation Machine (WTPM) that is a great vehicle for doing that, but a very poor vehicle for helping me step into the world of the text and understand Jesus’ sayings through his own eyes, which I hope we agree is an important thing to see.

I don’t care about a lengthy etymological study that helps me appreciate some subtle nuance of a Greek prefix.  I don’t care about some trivial cultural detail that makes the world of the Bible more interesting or more lifelike.  I care about scholarship that grabs me by the collar, yanks me out of my 21st century white guy American plain reading of a 2000 year old Near Eastern document, drops me into the world of the text and says, “Deal with me NOW.  This is MY HOUSE, and you are here on MY TERMS.  Now, LISTEN.”

That is something that, I’m sorry, will not happen without scholarship and teaching.  It could have happened without scholarship and teaching.  We could have always made it a point to pass down the Bible’s world, context, and narrative.  We could have always decided that the story was more important than the integrity of a body of doctrinal formulations.

First century illiterate Judean fishermen do not need help understanding where Jesus is coming from, not because they don’t have fancy book larnin’ getting in the way, but because they already live in that world, and even then, they needed a little help from time to time.  They are right smack in the middle of the Bible’s world – the political circumstances, the travails of Israel, the idioms, the cuss words, the debates – they’re already there.  We are 2000 years removed from that, and because we have not made it a careful point to pass down the narrative, the most brilliant of Bible scholars among us has to work their butt off to close that distance.

And does that distance need to be closed in order to understand Jesus?  Yeah, you bet.  And I don’t just mean to correct a bit here and there; I mean to change the game.  We are so, so far away from Jesus’ perspective if we think the gospel is, “Believe Jesus will save you, and you’ll go to Heaven when you die instead of Hell,” and the church’s mission is to get as many people to also believe that as possible.  Because our WHY is screwed up, our WHAT is screwed up, too.

This influences not only how the church spends her time, money, and people power – it influences life and death in the real world.  One group of American Christians wants to keep immigrants out of the country.  Another group wants to let them all in.  Neither group is coming from the standpoint that they know what God wants but they just don’t feel like doing it.  The issue isn’t (well, mostly isn’t) an unwillingness to obey, it’s that our Obeyinator Device is all screwed up.  Both groups are fighting for things that have real ramifications for people in the world, and both are convinced they are obeying God.  Same with support for Israel and/or opposition to the Palestinians.  Same for policy in the Middle East.  Same for what you think you should do if you get mugged in a parking lot.

I think more knowledge will not help us with this if what we mean by knowledge is scholarship that just shores up our systematic theology.  However, I do think more knowledge will help us with this if that knowledge helps us break out of our present filters and dispositions (and theology) to come to grips with our formative texts in new ways.  But by definition, that’s not something we can just produce ex nihilo.  If I just keep reading the Bible the way I always read my Bible then my reading can’t be critiqued.  Where will the critique come from?  The Bible?  I’m the one reading it.

The critique has to come from the outside, and maybe that will happen as a mystical operation of the Holy Spirit, but it is far more likely that critique will come from another person – a person who is more capable than I am of helping me get out of that paradigm.

To bring this to a close, I guess you could say the situation is like all of us being on a ship.  Cory pointed out this morning that, if we all just keep talking about the right direction, the mechanics of sailing, how navigation works, etc. we will still be broken on the rocks.  I could not agree more.  But then, I look at our oars, and they are full of gaping holes.  And I look at our rudder, and it’s barely hanging on – one more good wave will probably break it right off.

By all means, THE most important thing is that people quit talking about navigation and hydrology and start rowing.  But I think we are without the tools with which to row, and if we keep rowing with this crappy stuff, we’re just going to have a harder and harder time of it.

Sunday Meditations: Inerrancy

Occasionally, people read this blog who are not from the United States of America and, as such, you may be unaware that a person’s position on what we call “biblical inerrancy” is a huge deal in the States and often used as a boundary marker between “true Christian” and “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

It is worthy of note that different people can mean different things by “inerrancy,” so for the purposes of this article, I’m going to define inerrancy as the view that the canon of Protestant Scriptures contains no statements which could be considered false from the standpoint of 21st century interpretation.

Or, to sum it up a little differently, whatever we as modern readers think the language of the Bible claims, those claims cannot be false.

So, for example, in Genesis 1, it describes the world being created in six days.  We know that a day is 24 hours, so it must be the case that the Earth went from non-existence to plants, animals, and human beings in less than a week.  This is what it means, for the purpose of this article, to affirm inerrancy.

To state that that the author of Genesis 1 does not mean this and/or to state that the Earth was actually formed over a period of time much longer than a week would be a violation of inerrancy.  In other words, to an inerrantist, you are essentially saying the Bible is wrong, and it cannot be wrong.  Even if rabbis don’t understand Genesis in this way, they are also wrong, according to this view.

This principle applies to the totality of statements to be found in Scripture.  Each one must be true in every way we as modern readers could regard a statement to be true.  Whatever evidence or argumentation can be produced to show that this is not the case needs to be reinterpreted in such a way as to maintain the inerrancy of the Bible, which is the primary axiom on which we should evaluate anything.

So, as we discover things like the life-cycle of new stars and planets, the dating of various strata, the distribution of minerals, etc. – all these things must be understood in some kind of framework that still allows for the Earth to have been fully formed in less than a week.  Because, if it turns out that the Earth wasn’t formed in less than a week, that would imply the Bible was claiming something that is factually untrue.

Some of you may be thinking, “Wouldn’t that just challenge our understanding of the passage?  What if we’re just reading it wrongly?”  Please stop asking questions, you godless heathens, because as it turns out, “my 21st century Western white guy reading of a passage” and “what the Bible says” are functionally the exact same thing.

As you can probably tell from that last bit, I don’t have a lot of respect for this view.  I do respect the intent of the view.  People hold to this view for various reasons, but at least one of them is usually the desire to honor God as trustworthy and truthful.  That is a noble thing to do, and something I would also affirm.  However, I think at least the firmer versions of inerrancy actually fail to do this and sort of force God into being deceptive.

Before I get too far into this, I should note that there are statements of faith on this issue that only affirm inerrancy for the original, biblical manuscripts.  I am bemused by this position.  Nobody has seen the original manuscript of a biblical writing in two thousand-ish years or more, which basically makes the value of this statement nonexistent, at least from any kind of practical perspective.  As a profession of faith, ok, thanks for that, but why?  All we have to work with – and all we have had to work with for a very long time – have been copies of copies of copies that display a great range of diversity.  I guess I would say that I don’t really have much of a beef with this particular view of inerrancy so much as I consider it pointless.  And, functionally, the people who hold to this view tend to behave in the same way as people who hold to stricter forms of inerrancy – as if the manuscripts we have / have been chosen for their preferred translation / the English translations therein are also inerrant.

Here are some of the issues I have with inerrancy, at least the way it typically comes across.

The Bible Does Not Claim This About Itself

This is one of the bitter ironies about inerrancy – it depends on coming to the Bible with this assumption already in your head.

One of the things we as modern readers of the Bible need to be reminded of is that no text in the Bible ever refers to the Bible because the Bible did not exist when that text was written, nor was the text written for the purpose of adding it to the Bible.  Terms like “word of the Lord” or “word of God” or “the Law and the Prophets” or “Scriptures” need to be understood within the historical context of the passage in which they appear, and these references vary.  Sometimes, “the Law” refers to the book of Deuteronomy.  Sometimes, the “word of God” refers to the man Jesus Christ.  Sometimes, the “word of God” refers to the news about the man Jesus Christ.  So, when you read a verse that uses terms like this, you have to figure out what the boundaries are, and that boundary is never “the Protestant canon as we know it, today.”

The next thing we need to keep in mind is how to interpret whatever statement is made about the Scriptures or the word of God or whatever passage we happen to be reading.  For instance, Psalm 19:10 says, “The Law of the Lord is perfect.” (Sorry narrative, prophecy, wisdom literature, and… oh yes… psalms).  But what does this mean?  We might assume it means “complies with 21st century standards of verification,” but this is unlikely.

It turns out that even words like “perfect” are contextually defined.  If I’m trying to get a crate open, and you hand me a crowbar, I might say, “Oh, thanks.  This crowbar is perfect.”  What I mean is that it’s perfect for the use I have in mind.  The crowbar is not a perfect meal or a perfect orator.  My statement also does not imply that the crowbar has no flaws or weaknesses.  It means that the crowbar is perfect for the intended use in that situation.

I’m not declaring that’s what Psalm 19:10 necessarily means (although that’s probably what it means), but I’m just illustrating that even very strong terms used for Scriptures do not automatically equate to an inerrantist view.

Perhaps the most famous example is 2 Timothy 3:16-17, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”

There is some debate over whether or not that opening phrase is best rendered “all scripture that is inspired by God is useful….”  It certainly can be translated that way, but I think the traditional translation is probably correct for a number of reasons linguistic and otherwise.  Of course, we have to keep in mind that when Paul says, “All scripture,” the very most he can mean is, “everything in the Protestant canon that was written up until 2 Timothy.”  And he probably doesn’t mean that.

But the thing is, what does “inspired by God” actually mean?  The word theopneustos is an invention seemingly just for this passage.  We have nothing to compare it to.  Does it mean, “Factually true according to all standards of verification throughout time?”  It might mean that, I guess.  But you know what else was breathed out by God?  Adam’s life.  You know what else had the Holy Spirit in it?  David.  You.  Me.  Has that been a guarantee of perfection?

You might counter with, “Well, the Holy Spirit is perfect.  But when it works through me, my own sins and limitations will sometimes produce imperfect results.”  Well, I hesitate to bring this up, but the “Holy Spirit working through Person X” way of operating is pretty much how we got the Bible.

And isn’t it interesting how Paul says the Scriptures are “useful” and then defines the purposes under which they are useful that end up with equipping people for good works.  Does this mean the Bible is also “useful” for geology or aging fossils or constructing a seamless genealogy from me to Adam?  And if you want a reference for that word “useful,” it’s ophelimos which makes another appearance in 1 Timothy 4:8 where Paul says that exercise is a little useful, but godliness is useful for everything (ironically, godliness appears to be useful in more in more areas than the Scriptures are, according to 2 Tim. 3:17).  It’s kind of a loose word to use for something that is supposed to be the inerrant guide to all truth about everything.  Can you imagine an ordination exam where the candidate says, “I think the Bible is pretty useful for instruction in righteousness.  Definitely worth studying for pastors?”

And then of course, there is the logical problem.  Let’s say that 2 Timothy 3:16 definitely means that every statement in the Bible, including itself, is factually true in every way a statement can be evaluated.  Isn’t this question begging?  What if that verse is in error?  If it is, then it is wrong about itself.  It’s basically like someone claiming that they never lie.  Well, that’s great, unless they’re lying.

This is what I mean: inerrancy depends on you bringing inerrancy to the Bible, not discovering it from the Bible.  You have to begin with the assumption.

Inerrancy Can Cause Us To Miss What the Bible Says

Inerrancy is a form of eisigesis – we are basically bringing expectations to the Bible and reading it in such a way as to make our expectations work out.  In this case, the expectation is that whatever statements the Bible makes, they have to be factually accurate according to our modern reading of a text.  Our reading is assumed to be axiomatically correct, and the texts must conform to this.

Did you know there are Christians, today, who quite seriously maintain that the Earth is the immovable center of the universe?  They are called geocentrists, and they are a real thing.  Because if it turns out that the Earth moves around the Sun, then the Scriptures would be in error.

Most Christians would probably mock this, but I don’t understand why when inerrantists basically agree on all the same assumptions but aren’t gutsy enough or find themselves incapable of standing against such a huge tide of evidence.  We forget that there was a time in Church history when everyone just knew this was how cosmology worked because that’s what the Bible said.  Because the Bible is useful for training us in astronomy, right?

Honestly, even though I think the geocentrists are a flock of fruit bats, they are far more consistent (and gutsy) than their non-geocentrist inerrancy counterparts.  Inerrantists who are not geocentrists have capitulated in a sense.  They’ve said, “In light of overwhelming evidence, obviously we were reading the Bible wrongly and making figurative statements based on early cosmology literal scientific statements, and this was a mistake.  But we are totally not doing this for anything else.  It’s a fluke.”

Let’s take a test case that has come up with me in recent discussion – Isaiah 34.

In this chapter, Isaiah describes the destruction of Edom.  It begins with God destroying the sky and all the stars, and then turning that destructive power toward Edom.  When this happens, Edom’s soil will turn to sulfur and her streams will turn to pitch, and the whole land will turn into burning pitch that will burn forever.  At the same time, owls and hyenas and buzzards will live there.

Edom had a prosperous national empire for several hundred years, then things started to go downhill and they were ultimately destroyed by Babylon in the 6th century BC.  What remained of the people were forced out of their territory, and they became sort of a satellite of Judea until, through assimilation, they more or less vanished altogether.

One could (and I would) argue that Isaiah 34 is describing this.  Yes, hyperbolic and cosmological language is being used, but this is typical of apocalyptic/prophetic judgement literature both inside and outside of biblical writings.  Edom is destroyed, their power is broken, their nation is razed, they never get it back, and they gradually disappear altogether from the world stage.

This, however, is unacceptable to the inerrantist.

Because stars were not actually destroyed and lands were not actually turned to burning pitch that never goes out, this prophecy (along with several Old Testament passages) is unfulfilled.  Since these things did not happen, the prophecy must be referring to a future event, where Edom will come into existence, again, and God will wipe it out in a format more literally appropriate to the imagery of Isaiah 34.  Oh, and somehow owls and other animals will have figured out a way to live in the burning pitch and sulfur.  Maybe technology will have advanced to that point by the time this prophecy occurs.  I’ve got my eye on you, owls.

Because, you see, the Bible says that, when this day happens, the skies will roll up and the stars will be destroyed.  And the soil will turn into sulfur and so on.  If Edom’s destruction and expulsion in the 6th century is what’s being described, then those verses are wrong.  Heck, lots of that stuff didn’t actually happen in the 6th century.  The Bible can’t be wrong, though, so it must be referring to something that just hasn’t happened yet (the last refuge of all “unfulfilled” prophecy).

Harmless?  Well, maybe within the walls of your Sunday School class, but you only need to look at the violence and death tolls on both sides of the Israel / Palestine conflict or America’s relationships with various nations in the Middle East and the strong evangelical influence in America’s policies in those areas to know that hermeneutics matter.  Sometimes, they’re life or death.

One of the ironies, here, is that if we just allowed the Bible to be “wrong,” (I don’t really consider the use of non-literal language to be wrong, but whatever) Isaiah 34 would be a strong statement of hope to the original audience that the God who they covenanted with would punish their oppressors and deliver them, and historical events would bear out the veracity of God’s words and purposes.  If Isaiah 34 is about some event in the far future, it has no value for the original audience and one wonders why it even needed to be in the Bible at all.  The only purpose it could possibly serve is just to demonstrate that prophecy works.  Ok, well, great, I guess.  Way to go, Isaiah.

We are losing our ability to hear the Bible because, instead of just letting it do its thing, we have to construct a meaning where the text is not “wrong,” and that becomes the meaning.  In some cases, maybe this makes little difference.  In other cases, it makes a big difference.  In all cases, if we really cared about the Bible the way we claim, we’d want to make sure we allowed it to be what it is, warts and all, instead of hammering it into a book that is “perfect” by our standards.

Inerrancy Makes God Deceptive

In some ways, we have to make a little room for this.  In 1 Kings 22:19-23, Micaiah says that God deliberately sent a spirit to give false prophecies to the other prophets because He wanted to lead Ahab into a trap.  Assuming this Scripture is inerrant, well, I guess we have to deal with this along with the inerrant Scripture in Titus 1:2 that declares that God cannot lie.

I haven’t looked, but I’ll bet there’s a fair share of articles explaining that God, technically, did not lie; He just deliberately sent a spirit who lied because God wanted him to lie, but He technically did not tell the lie, Himself.

This sort of argumentation litters inerrancy explanations of difficult passages or apparent contradictions.  God created the world with the appearance of being billions of years old, but it’s really only 6000 even though literally every method we have of determining age and progression says otherwise.  God gave a prophecy through an ancient Israelite to an ancient audience, but actually it’s meant for a future audience thousands of years later.  I know it probably looked to them like it was for them, but it wasn’t.

In order for inerrancy to work, we have maintain that God caused many things to appear a certain way only to discover that those appearances are false, in reality.

Along with this, the inerrantist God’s deception continues into narrative.

For instance, in Matthew and Mark, Mary Magdelene (and others) comes to the tomb, the stone is rolled away, and a single angel waiting there has a dialogue with her.  In Luke, two angels appear out of nowhere and explain things.  In John, she finds the stone rolled away and runs back to tell everyone that Jesus’ body has been stolen.

Now, folks, if you aren’t already committed to the idea that all of these stories have to be exactly correct in every detail – if you suspended that for a moment – and just read these separate accounts over time (and they were produced by very different people over a different span of time), would you ever come away from this thinking, “Yep, this is all a single, cohesive account that agrees in every detail?”

No, you wouldn’t, because they don’t.  You would most likely assume that each author had access to different information and, if you were familiar with ancient historiography, you would recognize that narratives are generally tweaked and shaped to fit the point the author is trying to get across, and this takes precedence over the objectivity of the report.

But, if we come to these stories with our preconceived beliefs about them and how they have to work, then we have to concoct some really intriguing apparatus to make them all actually be saying the same thing, more or less.

My favorite is the argument, “Well, if there were two angels, then there was one angel.”  That is mathematically correct.

However, keep in mind that these are narrative accounts, and if the inerrantist assumptions are correct, it’s actually very deceptive for Matthew and Mark not to mention the second angel and uproariously deceptive for John to omit them altogether and have Mary run back laboring under a misconception that the angel(s) correct in the other accounts.

If you asked your kid how many cookies he ate before dinner, and he said, “One,” and later you found that it was actually five, how would you feel if he said, “Well, technically, if I ate five, then I ate one, so what I said was the truth.”  Or, if your kid is John, “I ate no cookies, and I’m surprised you’re asking.  Oh, you know I ate five?  Well, of course.  How does that contradict what I said?”

Actually, I’d probably think that was pretty funny and let him off.  But regardless, we would never, ever, in any other circumstance use that mathematical reasoning to “explain” omissions.  Can you imagine a trial witness saying they saw one person commit a murder, then later it turns out that two people were involved, and they said, “Well, sure, I knew that going in, but I said one, didn’t I?  If there were two people involved, then there was one person involved, so what I said was still true.”  We’d have that person up for perjury.

My point isn’t that the gospel writers are required to report everything that happened.  I don’t believe that at all.  I think gospel writers are free to leave things out, move things around, put events in different places, and do so because their shaping of the story teaches us.  The differences teach us, which is precisely what they are meant to do.  We are supposed to have contradictory gospel accounts, and it’s not because God is a liar because God didn’t write them.  God uses them.

My point is, that if inerrantists are correct, it’s very difficult to say that God is trustworthy.  In both general and special revelation, He is making things appear a certain way, but it turns out the appearance isn’t the truth, but He is also directly responsible for both, so we have to concoct some technicality that gets Him off the hook.  Whole books have been written full of these technicalities to allow God to squeak by.

Ironically, many of these technicalities are not in the Bible.  Did the centurion at the foot of Jesus’ cross say, “Surely, this was a righteous man,” like Luke says or did he say, “Surely, this man was the Son of God,” like Matthew and Mark say?  Well, maybe the centurion said both of those things, or maybe there were two centurions and they each said one of those things.  Funnily enough, neither of those scenarios is in any of the gospels.  We have to make it up to make inerrancy work.  We almost literally have to add to the words of Scripture to make it inerrant.

But this is wholly unnecessary if we don’t come to the Bible with the assumption that every statement in it has to be factually true in every way a statement can be true according to our modern standards.

We Have Other Options

It is usually at this point that the strict inerrantist points out that, if the Bible is not inerrant, then it is wholly untrustworthy.  We can’t be sure what’s true and what isn’t, what really happened and what didn’t, and therefore we can place faith in none of it.

First of all, I would argue the inerrantist has this exact same problem.  Who knows what statements of Scripture appear to be true but are actually not the whole truth due to some technicality that gets God off the hook?  How do we know that God elected Israel?  How do we know God didn’t also elect Edom and it just didn’t work out?  I mean, if God elected two nations, He elected one nation, right?  How do we know there weren’t two or eight Sons of God?  How do we know that the world wasn’t created ten minutes ago, and God just created the world with the appearance that it is much older, including the presence of the Bible and the history within it?

Second, I would point out, before we even get out of the gates, that God wants our faith in trust in Him, not prophets and apostles, not the things they wrote down, but Him.  These other things may be trustworthy by virtue of God working through them, but God Himself is the epicenter of our trust.  Prophets and apostles point us to God, and insofar as they point us to the true God, they are trustworthy, but things like “perfection” and “all-knowing” belong to God alone.  Even if it turned out the Bible was totally untrustworthy (I do not think this at all), the true God who is there is there, and He was there before there was a Bible and He acted in the world before anyone put pen to parchment.  If every Bible in the world is destroyed by oppressors, God will still be there, and He will still be at work in the hearts of all those who are called by His name.  Most of the great heroes of our faith functioned without any kind of Scriptures at all.

Third, I would point out that most, if not all, of what the inerrantist or the critic might describe as “errors” in the Bible are really more problems with our expectations and interpretations.  If Isaiah 34 is talking about the historical destruction of Edom, I do not consider all the language about burning pitch and stars dying and owls and hyenas to be “errors.”  I consider them apocalyptic imagery used to get across the totality of Edom’s destruction to a people who suffer the predations of Edom who seems unstoppable to them.  If the world is billions of years old and it formed over a very long period of time, I do not consider Genesis 1 to be in “error” when it talks about six days.  I consider the six days to be a storytelling device that is used, primarily, to line up the various domains of the world with the rulers of those domains, culminating in the creation of man and experience of God being over all in the Sabbath.  Instead of making things fit my reading, I call my reading into question.  I allow my reading to be shaped by evidence.  It’s my understanding of the Bible that is fluid, negotiable, and often wrong – not the contents.  And it’s my expectations of it, such as that it’s an astronomy or a biology textbook, that can be grossly out of step with what God intends for it.

Fourth, I would point out that these ambiguities do not make the Bible untrustworthy or useless.  If that were the case, then every book ever produced would be untrustworthy and useless.  What book does not contain mistakes – at least as defined by a certain way of looking at them?  What book has not been shaped by its historical context?  What book does not have limitations, if nothing else than to its scope?  Does this actually mean that every book is useless and untrustworthy?

Well, no, not at all.  But what we have to do is approach books with knowledge of those parameters and shape our expectations accordingly.  When a young man writes his first love letter and says, “I thought of you as I watched the sun set,” the young lady does not spit on it and tear it up because that statement is not astronomically correct (the sun does not set).  I do not expect my car manual to give me information about George Washington, and if it did and was mistaken, it would not really affect the value the car manual has for me.

The question is, is the Bible useful (Paul’s word) for doctrine, reproof, and teaching righteousness so that we all might be equipped to do good works?

Yes.  Unflinchingly, unhesitatingly, yes.  Nice, inerrant statement.

Sunday Meditations: Begging the Question

“Begging the question” is not the same thing as “raising the question.”

Raising the question means that something happens or occurs to you that makes you want to ask a question.

Begging the question means you assume the truth of your conclusion as part of trying to prove your conclusion.  The phrasing is confusing because “begging” sounds like you’re asking for something and there actually isn’t a literal question involved.  You don’t actually ask a question when you beg the question.

Wrong:

“My roommate, who has been unemployed the whole time I’ve known him, just walked through the door wearing a Rolex and carrying a new plasma TV.  This begs the question: how did he afford all this?”

No, it raises the question, “How did he afford all this?”  It would be perfectly ok to say, “This raises the question: how did he afford all this?”  Or, “This prompts me to ask the question: how did he afford all this?”  Or even, “This demands that all right-thinking individuals ask themselves the question: how did he afford all this?”

But “begs the question” is the wrong expression to use because there’s nothing there about assuming the truth of unproven conclusions.  Something provokes you to ask questions; that is not begging a question.

Right:

“My roommate told me his brother never lied to him.  I asked him how he knew this.  He told me that, once, he accused his brother of lying, and his brother looked him in the eye and said, ‘I would never lie to you.’  I told him he was just begging the question.”

Here, your roommate has made a claim: My brother has never lied to me.  To prove this claim, your roommate refers to his brother’s statement that he has never lied to him.  The proof of the claim rests on the claim already being true.

See, if your roommate’s brother is a compulsive liar, of course he would still say, “I’ve never lied to you.”  And that would be a lie.  It doesn’t work.  You can’t prove the honesty of someone on the basis of their own insistence that they are honest.

In order to use the brother’s own statement that he has never lied, you have to believe he isn’t lying.  The evidence depends on you assuming that the conclusion is already true.  This is what it means to beg the question.

Another example:

“Jesus never existed.  I know because there is no evidence outside of the Bible that Jesus ever existed, like there is for other historical figures.  The mentions of Jesus outside of the Bible are obviously forgeries by Christians, because Jesus never actually existed.  Obviously they were made up.  Therefore, there’s no real evidence.”

This is begging the question.  In order for the arguments to work, the conclusion already has to be assumed to be true.  Once the question-begging train has left the station, it becomes an almost impenetrable argument.  What could you possibly show such a person to demonstrate extra-biblical evidence for Jesus’ existence?  Nothing, obviously, because it will always get rejected.  Such a person is assuming the truth of their conclusion and using it to evaluate evidence for that very conclusion.

Christians, themselves, are guilty of their own versions of question begging.

But this is not truly about claims about Jesus or the Bible or anything particularly spiritual.  I just get tired of people using the phrase “begs the question” wrongly.

Sunday Meditations: Biblical Distance

I’ve been having conversations with my good friend Bill, who is a very sharp thinker and is a Christian Who Means It and has taught me a lot – directly and indirectly – of what it means to work through being a Christian who has a relative level of prosperity.  We’ve been talking about what happens to us after we die.

That was almost what I wrote about, today, because that conversation and others have made me think about this topic a lot, but yesterday, Bill had mentioned several passages from various parts of the Bible with some exploratory thoughts on each one and different ways we might look at them, and one thing that struck me was whether or not we should read an account like Saul speaking with the ghost of Samuel in 1 Samuel 28:3-25 differently than, say, Luke’s account of Jesus telling the thief on the cross that, today, he would be with him in paradise (Luke 23:39-43).

I’m going to say yes, although it’s not because one of the passages involves a ghost.  That’s a whole different topic.  What I’ve been thinking about is the relative distance of biblical passages from the events they describe and what impact that has on how we read them.

Before I get too far into this, I want to remind people who maybe are reading my posts for the first time that this blog is largely an experiment for me.  That’s one of the reasons I don’t put my real name on it or turn on comments.  It’s primarily for me to work through ways of understanding the Bible and my faith, and if that happens to be helpful to others, I’m very glad.  I did put it on the Internet, after all, so I hope that does happen.

However, it also means that sometimes I’ll bounce off a few walls to see how it goes.  I may write things that I don’t agree with perhaps even months later.  I doubt I’ll look back on all this in five years and discover that I continued to hold on to all these thoughts.  My own history teaches me that I cannot afford to be too dogmatic at any stage in life because I change, and the thing I feel 100% certain of today becomes next year’s rejected hypothesis.

So, while this meditation does reflect where I’m at, and if you actually know me in person and want to talk about it, please do, but also keep in mind that I’m just working through these things the same as anyone, and God is kind and merciful to me while I do it, so I encourage you to adopt a similar posture.

When we think about the production of a scroll that eventually ended up in the Bible, there are a number of things to keep in mind, but for the purposes of this meditation, I’m only going to look at two.

One: The Way Ancient History Works

I’ve written about this, before.  The upshot is that the idea that a good historiography is one that is the most objective and accurate account of exactly how the events happened is, relatively speaking, a very modern development.

It’s such a common assumption to us that it seems almost absurd to evaluate a historical document by any other standard.  If a writer tells us exactly what happened in a manner that closely matches the actual events, and if they avoid injecting their own views and interpretations into the narrative, that is “good” and “reliable” history.  If a record deviates from what actually happened and/or includes a great deal of interpretation or speculation on the part of the author, that is “bad” and “unreliable” history.

This, however, has not been the case for the majority of the activity of writing history and was certainly not the case in the ancient world.  True, the basic activity is similar – someone is trying to communicate the past in the present, and this largely fails if there is no correspondence at all between what the historian is writing and what happened at the time.  However, historians to this day typically have some kind of agenda for producing their history other than communicating rote events, and nowhere is this more evident than in the ancient world.  The concept of something like a news report simply did not exist.  Instead, history was written to teach lessons, sway politics, bolster or destroy reputations, create common mission or identity, or provide an explanation for current circumstances.

This does not make ancient historical documents useless for determining what “really” happened; it does mean that we have to have our expectations set correctly, and the reality of how and why these histories were written have to be worked into how we understand them.

By analogy, take Pablo Picasso’s “The Old Guitarist:”

1200px-old_guitarist_chicago

The Old Guitarist, Pablo Picasso

I have doubts that this painting has an exact correspondence to an actual old guitarist and, if it does, Picasso needed to quit painting and get someone some serious medical assistance.  His flesh is a zombie grey-blue and his neck is bent at an angle that even a contortionist would have trouble replicating.  This is actually one of the more realistic paintings Picasso has done.

But Picasso’s intent is not to give us a photo-realistic portrayal of an old guitarist – it’s to present the vision he has in his head as he thinks about an old guitarist and present him in a way that communicates the misery, melancholy, and tragedy of the subject.  Ancient historiography was a lot like this.  It was more art than science.  It beckons us to enter into the historiographer’s world and see, not the actual events as they happened, but see the events through his eyes and thoughts.

Whenever we read an account of an event in the Bible, we have to keep in mind that we are reading someone else’s interpretation of those events after the fact, presented to us in such a way as to get the writer’s point across moreso than to give us details about the fact of the event itself.

This leads us to the second consideration.

Two: Biblical Distance

A biblical passage as we know it was not created until after the events they describe and, in many cases, a very long time after the events they describe.  That doesn’t mean that other stories and traditions about the event didn’t exist before the passage came into its final format, but it does mean that what we read is reaching back, not just days, but often decades or even centuries (or longer) to the events it describes.  Often, those other stories, accounts, and traditions floating around heavily influence what we end up getting, either in support of them or in reaction against them.

I do not have Andrew Perriman’s talent for creating diagrams, but if I were to make a diagram, I might start on the left side with Genesis 1.  There would be a dot near the bottom representing the actual events, and another dot way at the top to represent the recording of the text of Genesis 1.  Just a huge, massive span of time between them.

I would then extend the timeline(s) to the right, with the gap shrinking as we move through the Pentateuch and get into the records of the kings of Israel, then taking a huge drop when we get to the Exilic and Post-Exilic writings – now the distance between the event and the record is much shorter, comparatively speaking, even though we’re still talking about potentially centuries depending on what passage we’re looking at.

When we get to the Gospels, the distance between the dots gets even closer, although we’re still talking about decades.  Finally, with the other New Testament documents (Revelation being an exception, since it reverses the trend), the distances become much shorter, as Paul will even write multiple letters to the same church.

In this vein, it’s important that, even when we look at the Gospels, even if we believe the Gospels were written by the names tradition has associated with them (and that is a big “if” that, in some circumstances, seems barely plausible), they were some time after the fact.

Take, for instance, the Gospel of Luke.  Even if we hold that Luke the physician wrote that Gospel, he begins the Gospel by saying that “many” have already endeavored to write accounts of Jesus and what happened around him, and the reason he’s decided to write his own gospel is basically to set the record straight.  So, note, this is a decision Luke would have come to after other gospels had been written, by his own admission.  In other words, Luke would not have been walking around with a notebook making copious documentation of everything for a gospel he planned to write, later.

He and the other gospel writers are going off their own memories, other people’s accounts they also remember after the fact, other written accounts, stories, traditions, hearsay, and best guesses at filling in the gaps.  What we read in the Gospel of Luke is not an objective recitation of eidetic memory, nor is it Luke going back over his copious notes he took while traveling around with Jesus and the other apostles.  It is a narrative reconstruction of events that, by this time, would be at the very least a few decades in the past.

If you think this might create some dissonance between what Luke wrote down and what literally occurred when the event happened, I would say that you are probably right, and the differences between the Gospel accounts, although they are rarely big differences, seems to indicate this.

Now, imagine this occurring over a span of hundreds, or perhaps thousands (in the case of much of the Pentateuch) of years.  The distance between the record and the event becomes massive.  By the time anyone writes the texts that became what we know today as Exodus, the distance between that writing and an actual Moses is difficult to comprehend.  It would be like you, today, writing about Leif Erikson’s attempt to settle America without any of the benefit of any modern historical research.  All you could use to write that history was what you’d heard, what people you’d talked to had heard, and whatever remaining vestiges of Leif Erikson’s story were in the air in America or Norway, today.

Granted, the role of oral tradition and tribal memory was much sharper in ancient times because it was the primary way information was communicated, and it is also true that stories of Moses were more foundational to Israel’s culture and identity than Leif Erikson is to modern day America, but still, memory is still memory and stories behave the way stories behave and a thousand years is a long time to play the Telephone Game.

So, when we read the account of Saul consulting a medium to talk to the ghost of Samuel, apart from the metaphysical difficulties this passage raises, we also have to keep in mind that there is a large historical gulf between the recording of this story and when the event might have actually occurred.  It is unlikely this story was just fabricated out of nowhere when 1 Samuel was written, but it is also unlikely that it is basically a transcript.

Did a ghostly Samuel appear for all to see and make these dire pronouncements?  Did these things all come from the medium, herself, speaking on Samuel’s behalf?  Did Saul go for a walk with his entourage because he was at the end of his rope since the prophets weren’t talking, and he suggested all kinds of crazy appeals to other gods or diviners, and someone just snapped and said, “Saul, Samuel never would have put up with this crap.  We’re going to lose to the Philistines because we’ve turned against the God who has brought us this far.  That’s why the prophets aren’t talking, and if you think talking to some spiritist is a good idea, well, that’s just going to make things worse,” and it turned into a story where Saul did go see a medium and Samuel’s ghost said all that?  Did a chronicler many years later try to figure out why King Saul could not be victorious over the Philistines as opposed to King David, and he knows the characteristics of Saul’s reign, and with that in conjunction with various stories and traditions about Saul, he figures something like this probably happened?

Somewhere between those polarities is our passage.  It is Israel’s story, and it communicates to her and us a message – a purposeful, intended message.

But that very purpose of communicating a message also makes it shaky grounds for a metaphysic about the afterlife.

Sunday/Monday Meditations: Nothing New Under the Sun

Pete Enns reposted an article that I really liked.  I started to write him an email about it, but it began to go longish, and I realized it earned “meditation” status, especially since I didn’t do one for this last Sunday.  A bit of warning – Pete’s article is about the cycles of generations passing away, so the mood it will leave you in is, best case scenario, pensive.  This post you’re reading will probably be similar.

I am in my early forties, and the kinds of things Pete talks about are things I have started to try and come to grips with.  I thought my thirties were my official separation from youth, but for some reason, my mortality didn’t really hit me, nor did the idea of the passing away of everything that was a frame of reference to me at one point.  But it does, now, and I wish I could say I always handled it with the gentle acceptance Pete portrays in his post.  Sometimes I do; sometimes I don’t.  I tend to skew more toward the “rage, rage against the dying of the light” way of dealing with it, but I think that’ll change with time.  Lord, I truly hope so (that is a prayer).

I moved around a lot when I was a kid, so I don’t have a single childhood home per se.  There is one that I lived in for most of elementary school, and that’s the one I think of when I think of childhood homes.  I thought about my room.  I thought about how the overhang of the second floor and the bushes lining the front made for a sort of tunnel I used to duck into and play behind when I was a kid.  I thought of watching TV and playing in a family room that seemed, to me, to be truly massive.  I thought of my own room, reading a sci-fi book (yes, I have been a nerd for a really long time) and munching on a Dole pineapple juice bar.

There is another family in that house, now.  They have their own furniture and decorations.  Other children are growing up in that house.  Whole new lives and stories are being spun out in those walls that held my own vitality and stories as I grew up, and when that family is gone, a new one will move in and create a new world there of their own.

In the house we lived in when I was in high school, someone else will be thinking their relationship with some girl is the most important thing anyone could possibly be thinking about.  Someone else will be dealing with their insecurities, working through their spiritualities, and heading out to do stupid things with their friends.  Someone else will be mowing that lawn in the summer, resentful of the time it takes away from them to do absolutely nothing at all, because all they have is time.  And when those people are gone, someone new will live out new dramas where they are the center of the world and life is all about what comes next.

I wonder if the people who live in those houses would let me in if I came by and introduced myself.  I wonder if I would cry, seeing those spaces through my eyes now and what they’ve become for someone else, or how different the reality seems to me at my age and my height.  My eyes certainly aren’t what they used to be when I was ten, either.

Other people are on the Park Hill debate team.  They have another captain, and whoever was captain after me is long gone and replaced by another and another.  Those bleachers are filled with different people watching Homecoming rallies or basketball games, enjoying those moments when everyone – no matter what your clique – is friends as you join against a common enemy.  Other parents have come to watch their kids on the auditorium stage.  In twenty years, it’ll be yet another set.

Our current culture in the modern West has done a good job isolating us from death.  The average lifespan is no longer forty.  People do not have children expecting that only one or two will survive.  You don’t have to go back very far to find a time when a relative who passed on did so in the family’s house, and someone sat up with the body for a night, and they were buried in a small cemetery at their home or the village church.  Everyone in all ages was intimately acquainted with death as a part of the cycle of life.  It wasn’t strange or jarring.

But now you live twice as long as your ancestors.  You die in a hospital full of other people who are also fighting for life.  Your body is sent to a funeral home.  Death is something we hide away and try to forget about, like some deeply unpleasant secret shame every family shares.  While this may serve to keep our lives a little bit sunnier as we do not think regularly about death, it makes the thing itself seem more like a fundamental disjunction in reality instead of just what naturally happens.  It is a shock, and it is something to dread, avoid, fight, or even keep from talking about in any kind of concrete way.

Fifty years ago, my grandfather was coming to terms with the fact that he would die, someday.  A hundred years ago, his father was, too.  Somewhere centuries down the line, one of my ancestors thought about his life, his family, everything he had done, and contemplated that it would end.  All those people are gone, now, and someday so shall I.  Someday, my sons will enter their forties if the Lord wills and begin to think about these things, and their children.  One day, my grandchild will think about their grandfather passing away.  And his grandchild will think about his grandfather passing away.

To me, these are sad thoughts.  I want to cry even typing them out.  And I’m all right with that.  The instinct is to jump in with some comforting thoughts like the resurrection or what have you, but I don’t think I want to paste over this with doctrine.  This is the window to reality that Ecclesiastes gives us, and in some form or fashion, that message is from God.

This is the way things are and will be, and only a fool does not come to terms with it.

But I will allow myself a little bit of doctrine to seep in, I suppose.  That’s who I am.  My identity does not belong to me and never did.  My who-I-am-ness is something that is a gift.  I did not create myself or construct my consciousness.  It was given to me for meaningful use.  The God who gave it to me will have it back, one day, and it is up to Him to superintend that.  It is into His hands that I commit my spirit, and no other.  And while I do not know exactly what He’s going to do with it, or how, or when – I trust Him with it, and perhaps that is the seed of making peace with death before I die.

Sunday Meditations: Habitual Sins

I was reminded recently of a talk about habitual sins I gave at a men’s retreat last year, and it got me thinking about the subject, again.  At some level, I really never stop thinking about this subject, to be honest.  I don’t know if this will be helpful to the Internet, but I’ve been thinking about it and want to get down a few thoughts about dealing with these struggles.

First, we have to own up to the fact that it’s habitual.

We can call this whatever we want.  Some people don’t like to think of them as addictions.  Some don’t even like to think of them as compulsive behaviors.  I won’t press the case, but I will say that if there’s something that you’re doing that you desperately want to stop doing and have repeatedly failed to do so even in the face of consequences, then the line between “addiction” or “compulsive behavior” and whatever you think you’re dealing with is a very thin one, indeed.

I have probably had this conversation a dozen times with other guys:

OTHER GUY: “I really struggle with Issue X.  It’s not an addiction, but it’s a big struggle for me.”

ME: “So you could stop anytime just by wanting to, right?”

OTHER GUY: “Well, no.”

Ok, well, whatever you want to call that, you have to come to terms with the fact that you can’t stop, and any solution that relies on your ability to stop yourself will only work for the short term at best.

Perhaps you have even earnestly prayed for God to help you stop or to take it away from you.  Years, maybe?  Decades?  Maybe you’ve even offered desperate pleas like asking God to take away your free will in this area or throw the switch that would make you stop sinning.  But it isn’t stopping, is it?

This is where we get crushed, because we assume that every struggle with sin is just a matter of overcoming it with our Holy Spirit-infused willpower.  So, if we cannot, then we are actually terrible Christians, or perhaps not even Christians to begin with.  Praying and trying harder are the only tools in our tool belt, and if those fail us, even that becomes our fault and just compounds the shame of the whole thing.  Believe me, I know.

But let me let you in on a little secret.  I have never, ever met a Christian who did not have something like this.

It’s not always the same thing.  In fact, sometimes it can be kind of abstract.  In further fact, sometimes it’s even something that is relatively socially acceptable in the world and even in the Church.  There are a lot of gluttonous pastors out there, and congregations just think it’s funny, for example.

It may be a substance.  It may be a practice.  It may be something that only happens in your head or heart.  But all those people at church around you who you think would never relate to having a sin you can’t stop – all of them have one.  Usually, more than one.

Now, they don’t all react to that the same way.  For some people, it makes them very compassionate toward themselves and others.  For others, it has the exact opposite effect, making them relentless judges.  For many, it seems to have a sort of polarizing effect where everyone else is perceived to be basically righteous with a few understandable failings, but one’s self is seen to be the worst mass of depravity ever spawned.  And, honestly, a lot of our church experience sort of engineers that perception.

But I’m all over the place, here.  My point is this: if you ever want to stop, you must first come to accept the grim, difficult reality that you actually cannot stop no matter how much you want to, and your life is the proof.

It doesn’t make you not responsible.  These are your choices.  It doesn’t make it someone else’s fault or a product of your life circumstances.  Other things may aggravate the conditions that cause you to choose to sin, but ultimately it is your choice.  You could get a new job, new friends, a new spouse, a new whatever tomorrow, and you would still find yourself turning to this pattern because you can’t outrun you.

Second, there are reasons that this is a pattern for you beyond a “sinful nature” or whatever.

We are responsible for what we do and the choices we make.  However, there are events that have shaped us, many of which we could not control.

You may think you had an idyllic childhood, but every last one of us adopted ways of behaving and taking on interpretations of the world around us that helped us navigate and prosper in our environment.  This way of dealing with life didn’t stop in childhood; it’s just that’s where some of the most formative, well-entrenched things happen that become so much a fundamental part of our matrix that we can’t even see it as adults.

(NOTE: Whether you remember them or not, your parents also had issues.)

For instance, a large number of guys in my generation had fathers who were not home very much.  Their fathers may not have been abusive.  They may not have been enraged and unpredictable (although that’s not uncommon, either).  They were probably just doing the best they could to handle their obligations and deal with their pressures even with their own failings.  But, let’s say your dad was barely home or didn’t really spend time with you on a regular basis.

Well, kids are great observers and terrible interpreters.

To navigate this world, you might develop a rich imagination and internal thought life, which isn’t a bad thing, but it’s so you could keep yourself company.  You might decide that real life is something that holds very little for you.  You might think that people don’t want to spend time with you.  You might think that, unless you did something spectacular, you weren’t worth noticing.  You might think that you just weren’t unconditionally lovable.  You might even think there was something actually wrong with you, fundamentally, that made people stay away.

If these things or something like them begin to worm their way into the way you think about yourself and the world, can you see the kinds of holes this creates?  Can you imagine, as you got older, what sorts of things you might do in response to this?  Can you imagine what sorts of people you would draw into your life and why?

And this is just one example of something someone might think because of one circumstance.  There are almost limitless variables in someone’s childhood and adolescence that begin to lodge various faulty interpretations deeply into our conceptual grid.  They go deep, we don’t even have conscious awareness of them as we get older, but they are there and, out of a sheer need for survival, they push us toward certain behaviors and steer us away from others.

There are reasons you have chosen your habitual sin, and you probably have no idea what they are.  But I can tell you that those reasons are there, they most likely were not things you chose but were sort of thrust upon you, and they helped you get through your world in some way, just as they are trying to “help” you get through your world, now, but they are actually destructive.

Like, I wish I could tell my body that food was plentiful and it really did not need to store up fat reserves to the extent that it does, but that fat storage is “helping” me survive, and when my choices are in line with keeping the fat storage mechanism up and running at full gait, it makes it a destructive force.

This is a reason why someone struggling with habitual sins needs to have compassion on themselves.  There is a constellation of false beliefs, possibly even trauma, about yourself, the world, your relationships, and God, that makes your behaviors not just attractive, but seemingly necessary.  You feel them in your core.  And you did not have any control over how this constellation got there.

But you are responsible for what you do, and you cannot stay here.  God does not want you to stay here.  You can’t throw up your hands like so many do and say, “This is just how I am.  I have to live with it and so does everyone else.”  It isn’t, you don’t, and they shouldn’t.

I put it to you that the reason God does not supernaturally take away your behavior is because that behavior is the tip of an iceberg of unhealthy spiritual junk you need to get rid of to heal and move forward, and if God took away that behavior, you’d never deal with what was lurking under it, and something even worse would take its place.  Or maybe it wouldn’t, and you’d think you were “sanctified” while all this gunk was still rolling around in your heart just because it didn’t manifest itself in a highly visible bad behavior.

Third, at the very least, start by getting someone else in this with you.

The very bad news I have for you is that you absolutely cannot stop your habitual behavior by yourself.  Read all the books you want.  Have a consistent Quiet Time.  Journal.  Meditate.  Whatever.  Those are all good things, you should do them, they will not enable you to stop.

Probably the best thing you could possibly do is find a group of people who have your struggle who are trying to work through it together.  Another great idea is to find a therapist or counselor who can ask you questions about your past and help you ferret out these core issues that have shaped you into the person you are, today.

But you might not be there.  Those may sound like the kinds of things addicts do, and you’re not comfortable with that right now.  That’s fine.

But at the very least, think about someone you can share your struggle with who will meet you with compassion, love, acceptance, and the caring impetus to help you move forward.  You don’t need someone who will just condone your behavior, but you don’t need a cop, either.

Because if you can share your story with someone, and what you get back is not condemnation, or shame, or lengthy explanations about why your behavior is a sin – but compassion, understanding, forgiveness, love, and a desire to help you out of it – those are all things God has for you.  You are experiencing Him through that other person, and that is what you want, because that is what it’s going to take to start untying those dark knots that live under your surface.

Sunday Meditations: My Neighbor

As part of the What if the Church initiative, we’ve been talking a lot at church about neighborhoods and being a blessing to neighbors.  I’ve been encouraged to see so much interest and energy devoted to figuring out what it means for the Church to be something in the world and what it looks like to be a blessing to the people around us.

The command to love your neighbor as yourself first crops up in Leviticus 19:18, although the preceding verses also spell out a lot of what it means to live with justice and compassion with regard to your neighbor.  The word for neighbor is reaka (and derivatives) and is used, at base, to mean someone that you’re with.  It is sometimes used to describe a friend or a peer as well as someone you live around or even encounter in daily life.

In the context of Israel’s law, this commandment is close to the heart of Israel’s identity and mission, which is to be a special people dedicated to YHWH in a world full of other options.  By being this special people, they become a light to the other nations, inviting them to follow YHWH as well as enjoy a relationship with Him and the benefits that flow from that (protection, prosperity, survival from age to age, regard after death, etc.).

In order to be this special people, you need to live a certain way among one another and with one another, and the engine that drives this way of life is love.  Not courtesy, not tolerance, but love – the genuine pursuit of the welfare of the other person even at your own expense.  If Israel cannot live with each other in this way, then their testimony to the world is seriously impaired.  They’ll look just like every other self-serving people out for themselves.  The pursuit of love for one another and having that define all their relationships and interactions is something that marks them as different in the world (note John’s record of Jesus saying this is how the world will recognize his disciples – by their love for one another) as well as bringing tangible benefits to the world.  The creation of a just society that runs off of love of God and neighbor is what God wants the world to look like, and Israel at that stage of the game was intended to be the model for everyone else.  In fact, Leviticus 19 begins with the declaration, “You shall be holy as I am holy.”

By the time we get to Jesus’ day, this experiment has not gone well.  Israel has suffered at the hands of her own leaders, hungry for money and power.  Some of her own people have even taken up being tax collectors for the Empire, keeping their own people in poverty while skimming off the top for their own comfort.  Israel is not in solidarity tied together with strong bonds of love, but instead is scattered like sheep without a shepherd – each one looking to survive life however they can.

The vision of loving neighbors is something Jesus calls faithful Israel back to, but he puts a little teeth into it with the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).  In this parable, there is a man of indeterminate ethnicity, but he is from Jerusalem and, in the story, is most likely a Jew.  He is waylaid, and the people who are supposed to love him as themselves – a priest and a Levite – do not.  The person who does is a Samaritan, a people who were viewed by the Jerusalem Jews at the time to be of dicey descent and dedicated to a pseudo-Judaism that had many errors, not the least of which was not worshiping at the Temple in Jerusalem.

This is what puts the teeth in Jesus’ parable – this Samaritan, who most in the audience would consider more outsider than fellow Jew, takes care of this man from Jerusalem.  He binds his wounds, takes him to an inn, and pays for his care.  This is love, and this man demonstrates to the haughty priest and Levite hearing the story what keeping this commandment looks like.  The Samaritan and the beaten man do not live next to each other, nor are they even considered to be the same people group at the time, but the Samaritan cares for someone in need at his own expense – someone God has simply put in his path – and thus fulfills the Law.

We do not have a biblical mandate to do things in our neighborhoods.  “Love your neighbor” in the Scriptures does not have a reference to your subdivision, and while the scope of the commandment may include people who live near you, that has never been the reference point of that commandment.  I heard a speaker recently comment on that commandment complaining that we “spiritualize” it too much instead of understanding it to be about our literal neighbors, and the problem with that complaint is that Jesus himself “spiritualizes” it by making it not about literal neighbors at all.  I’m assuming Jesus’ rabbinical commentary on the commandment should take precedence.

However, as the Church seeks to embody loving neighbors, it may very well be that a wise and good thing to do is to start embodying this principle with our literal neighbors.  Considering how little thought we give to doing this in the rush of trying to survive, having a deliberate project to love one another and be a blessing in one’s own neighborhood is actually a pretty great idea.  The deliberate, intentional focus on being the people of God in discernible ways in the world is nothing but good for the Church and often neglected.  Pursuit of this will benefit us and the world and provide a counter-testimony to our critics, many of whose criticisms are sadly well-founded.

But we also ought to examine ourselves.  Are we even loving our neighbors within the Church?  This is easy for me to say, sitting behind a keyboard, but do we have church members in danger of foreclosure while others are trying to decide if teak or cherry is the best wood for their new entertainment center?  Do we have families who refuse to speak to each other because of some offense or rift from the past?  Are we promoting the welfare of others in the church even if it comes at our own expense?  What are the limits to that expense?  What was the limit for Jesus?  Are we really doing anything for one another that would distinguish us from any other community?

I know biker gangs that are more self-sacrificial for one another than many congregations, and it is this phenomenon that is helping to lead an increasingly secular world to conclude that religion, at best, is irrelevant, and at worst, is directly harmful.

But with this, we also need to recognize that loving our neighbor encompasses a broad scope of activity.  Delivering meals to and lifting the spirits of those who have to stay at home.  Giving blood.  Sorting donated clothes.  Spending your night off with a person who is struggling to keep their life together.  Allowing someone to steal your silver because they need money.  Spending time helping your son with his homework when you don’t feel like it.  Writing off someone’s invoice.  Anytime you sacrifice something of your own welfare to promote the welfare of someone else, you are being a loving neighbor to them.

Rather than sit around feeling terrible about how little we do, we should be encouraged at the scope of how even our little efforts make the world look more like God wants it, and it can motivate us to give even more of ourselves.  Loving our neighbors, the way it appears as one of the greatest commandments, is less about singular, grand gestures and more about lifestyle.  It’s about making sure everyone who passes through your sphere of interaction is treated with love, whether it costs nothing, a little, or a lot.

 

Sunday Meditations: The Mission

To me, the main story line of the Bible doesn’t get rolling until Genesis 12.

Yes, I know there are big things that happen before then.  There’s Creation, the Fall, the Flood, and the Tower of Babel.  But those events set the stage for the main drama to play out.

For example, the movie X-Men: Apocalypse starts with a segment in ancient Egypt where the powerful tyrant En Sabah Nur ends up trapped in his pyramid due to a revolt.  The movie is not about ancient Egypt or that revolt, though.  The story is about the X-Men facing En Sabah Nur in modern day.  Those past events give you the necessary background to appreciate what happens next, i.e. the worst X-Men movie put out so far.

By Genesis 12, mankind has attempted to build a Flood-proof bastion and God has scattered and confused them.  The plan to fill the world with His image seems to be a bust.  The first guy rebelled, one of his kids killed the other, their descendants filled the world with violence, God wiped them out to start over with a new guy, and he and his kids get off to a rocky start, and the next thing we get is the world conspiring to defend itself against God, and there’s even hints of launching a counter-offensive.

This time, God changes tactics a little bit.  Instead of starting with one family in an otherwise depopulated world, He starts with one family in the midst of a world populated with people who don’t seem to like Him very much, or are at least indifferent.  He selects His new progenitor, Abram, and commissions him to multiply and fill the earth with His people (same as Adam, same as Noah), but the twist is that this will happen in the midst of other nations, and what’s more, Abram’s descendants will grow into a large and powerful nation who will use their numbers and power to bring blessing to all the other nations, not the least of which involves being a light to them, pointing the way back to the true God, the Creator of the heavens and the earth.  They are supposed to be the new Creation in the midst of the old one.

The rest of the Bible is occupied with how this story plays out.

These people do grow, move to another nation that eventually enslaves them, are liberated by God who has to remind them who He is and makes a formal agreement with them to be their God and have their back if they will worship Him and live faithfully in a nation of justice, compassion, and uprightness.  Sometimes this goes well, sometimes it doesn’t.  Sometimes they are led by judges, sometimes by kings, and sometimes these leaders lead them in the ways of their agreement with God, and sometimes those leaders lead them away from it.

As time goes on, the leadership becomes more unjust, more desirous of power and wealth at the expense of their people, and while they keep up all the rituals, they are far from God in their hearts and lead the people the same way.  God is losing them.  He sends prophets to warn them and call them back.  He sends other nations against them so they will remember where their help comes from.  He grants them reprieves from their trouble.  But nothing seems to work long term.  This great nation of Abraham’s ends up exiled from their land, dispersed, and under the dominion of one nation after another.  The only thing that even serves to remind them that they were once a distinct people and a great nation is enshrined in their Temple and their Law.  Now, they’re just members of (eventually) the Roman Empire along with every other conquered people.

And the curtain falls.

When the curtain comes back up, God sends a sign that He is still with His people and has not abandoned them in the birth of a special child, Jesus.  Turns out that God is still faithful to the now-broken-many-times agreement He made with Israel and still loves her and wants her back.  Jesus works in powerful ways to raise Israel back up from the ashes, turning the hearts of her people back to their God, teaching repentance, and promising a powerful work on the near horizon where God will bring down those who led them astray and give them a new life in a new age.  Jesus willingly sacrifices his life for this mission, and God begins the apocalypse (not related to the X-Men movie) by raising Jesus from the dead and pouring out His promised Spirit.

But there are so few faithful.  How can these people survive an apocalypse?  How can these rag tag faith communities, growing despite persecution, become once again the mighty nation they were so long ago?

In the biggest twist, yet, God gives His Spirit to Gentiles who believe in Jesus, repent of their sins, and take up their lives anew as His faithful people.  The numbers are swelled by a huge influx of those who used to be on the outside.  The boundary between “God’s nation” and “the other nations” is no longer whether or not you are a descendant of Abraham, but whether or not you believe in what God has done in Jesus and change your life, accordingly.  This mechanism not only bolsters the survival of God’s people through the terrible events of 70 A.D. that destroy the Temple and all vestiges of the old religious power structure, but it is the very means by which, years later, Caesar will declare Jesus Christ as lord of the Roman Empire.

It’s difficult for us, on this side of history, to appreciate what a world shattering chain of events all this was.

But here’s the thing – Jesus becoming lord of the Roman Empire was not the long term goal.  It was something that happened that was a great advancement for God’s people at the time (although, over time, it also became a setback in other ways).  In all this, God’s mission never wavered, which was to have a new Creation people in the midst of the old one until, ideally, there was no more old one and the world was filled with the image of God.

This is why I do not believe it is the church’s mission to produce conversions or to “get people saved” (unless by “saved” we mean something very holistic that is much broader than saying a prayer).  Conversions are a side-effect of the church’s mission.  The church’s mission is to be the new Creation people in the midst of the old one and, by doing so, be a blessing to all nations, not the least of which involves pointing them to the true God who is the Creator of the heavens and the earth.  We do not measure our success by the number of people who pray the Sinner’s Prayer; we measure our success by how well we, collectively, look like new creation in the world in such a way that allows us to effectively testify to the existence of and our commitment to the true God, inviting any and all to join in the new creation with us.

In America, where I live, does this look like it did in the first century?

There are certainly some commonalities.  For example, we also have religious leaders who have gotten in bed with the national powers of our day, and they stir up their followers to exercise what power they have in a republic to advance the causes of wealth and power through force.  In many places in America, such values and efforts are even equated with faithfulness to God, and Jesus is a prophet for free market capitalism and protecting our borders from immigrants.  American patriotism is a spiritual value.  In the sense that we, as a people have been severely compromised by the powers of this age starting with our leadership on down, this is very much like the first century.

But (once again, speaking in terms of America) we do not have the same relationship to America those first century faith communities had with the Roman Empire.  America is not a hostile power that needs to be overthrown by God so that His people can be rescued.  Or, I don’t know – it doesn’t seem like it to me, anyway.  Maybe that day will come.

But the cultural dominance Christianity enjoyed in the West is not just in decline; it’s pretty much gone, and it’s only getting goner by the day.  Christendom is vanishing and, in its place, is the rise (backlash?) of secularism.  I recognize this is not the primary phenomenon in all countries, but it seems to be in ours.  The flow of power is shifting to forces that are not simply pluralistic, which America was always supposed to have been, anyway, and I’m ok with that or even becoming more that if that will increase justice and fair treatment for Americans of other religions or none at all.  If I thought Christianity being politically ascendant would provide more justice, compassion, and mercy in the world, I would fight for that, but that honestly does not seem to be the case.  The overwhelming majority of politicians who profess the name of Christ are also about power, wealth, dominance, and disenfranchisement of anyone who is not like them.

So, please, I am not saying that the power structure we face in America is an erosion of exclusively Christian values.

But what we are facing is secularism with teeth.  It’s not about all religions existing peacefully; it’s about no religion existing at all.  It’s about a vision of a better world if humanity could shake off the idea of any kind of God whatsoever.  It’s a narrative that God is at best irrelevant and at worst harmful to a just and compassionate world.  And you know what?  We have loaded that gun with bullets, ourselves.

In face of this situation, which is really just getting started, and it will get far, far worse before it gets better, it is more important than ever before that we, as a people, are about the business of living out the new creation and being a blessing to the nations.  It is not only the reason we have been called to serve God, but it is perhaps the only testimony we can make that dismantles the incoming wave.