Atonement, the Prodigal Son and ‘Why So Serious?’

cross_2There is no doctrine so entrenched in Christianity as that of the Substitutionary Atonement (also known as ‘Vicarious Atonement’ or the ‘Penal Substitution Theory’). In simple terms, this is the teaching that, on the cross, God’s wrath against sinful humanity was absorbed by Jesus—that the payment for sin was made to God by Christ; that this blood sacrifice appeased a holy God and saves us from certain (eternal) condemnation/torment.

This is a major (or may I say MAJOR) theme in many Christian circles, more so amongst fundamentalists. When I was a student at a leading fundamentalist university, this was hammered home to us in every sermon, in most classes, in many prayer meetings. It was not ‘a’ but ‘THE’ central tenet of The Faith and demanded a serious analysis, on a regular basis, of one’s place in the overall scheme of sin and salvation.

And serious it was. One would be out of line to show a smile in a church service or during the singing of a hymn. People had been expelled at this university for daring to treat a song about Jesus in a ‘frivolous’ manner. (see the video that got two students expelled and a third a severe reprimand here.)

And so they sing solemnly, seriously, it seems with a burden that is weighing them down. (Have a look at these two videos of a ‘performance’ of a well-loved (fundamentalist) hymn here and here.)

Here are the words for those of you following along at home (the sheet music is here.):

His robes for mine: O wonderful exchange!
Clothed in my sin, Christ suffered ‘neath God’s rage.
Draped in His righteousness, I’m justified.
In Christ I live, for in my place He died.

Chorus:
I cling to Christ, and marvel at the cost:
Jesus forsaken, God estranged from God.
Bought by such love, my life is not my own.
My praise-my all-shall be for Christ alone.

His robes for mine: what cause have I for dread?
God’s daunting Law Christ mastered in my stead.
Faultless I stand with righteous works not mine,
Saved by my Lord’s vicarious death and life.

His robes for mine: God’s justice is appeased.
Jesus is crushed, and thus the Father’s pleased.
Christ drank God’s wrath on sin, then cried “‘Tis done!”
Sin’s wage is paid; propitiation won.

His robes for mine: such anguish none can know.
Christ, God’s beloved, condemned as though His foe.
He, as though I, accursed and left alone;
I, as though He, embraced and welcomed home!

(His Robes for Mine by Chris Anderson and Greg Habegger ©2008 ChurchWorksMedia.com All rights reserved.)

Here is an insight into Chris Anderson’s understanding that has prompted this composition:

“Verse 3 focuses on the grand doctrine of propitiation, the fact that God’s wrath was not merely deflected from us by Christ, but was rather absorbed by Him in our place. Jesus Christ bore the infinite wrath of God against sin, satisfying God’s wrath and enabling sinners to be forgiven—and justly so. Isaiah 53:10-11 describes it this way: God looks on the travail of Christ’s soul and is satisfied by it. His wrath has been exhausted on Christ. The doctrine of propitiation is taught Isaiah 53, Romans 3:25; 1 John 2:2 and 4:10, et al.” (source: http://blogs.mbu.edu/praisemen/songs/his-robes-for-mine-authors-thoughts)

I have a HUGE problem with the language used (and the theology implied) in this song: ‘Christ suffered ‘neath God’s rage,’ ‘Jesus is crushed, and thus the Father’s pleased,’ and ‘Jesus forsaken, God estranged from God’ among others.

But then I realise that this comes from that classic Biblical story:

A man who had two sons. One demanded his share of the inheritance and then went off and spent it, in a far country, on riotous and loose living. The father, enraged with a fiery anger against that son, took his brother and turned him over to the torturers and finally the executioner. Only when the elder brother had died, paying the penalty that the father demanded for the younger one’s disobedience, was the father able to open up his heart in love and welcome the younger son home and once again grant him the blessings of being a part of the family.

No, I don’t have that story in my Bible either. That, on so many levels, goes against my understanding of God. And if we understand Jesus to be the most accurate depiction we have of God in Scripture, then we must accept that God is loving and compassionate. He would forsake his own Son only as much as he would forsake us, his children. He would not demand a penalty to be paid vicariously any more than the father in the real parable would have demanded one son pay for the sin of another. That is a primitive view–a tribal understanding–of God rooted in a culture set in ancient history and grounded in stories handed down from generation to generation over fires and in marketplaces.

Many argue that this understanding of what took place at the cross is helpful to Christians in certain situations. Scot McKinght in his book A Community Called Atonement illustrates the many theories of atonement (Substitutionary Atonement being one) as being like a set of golf clubs where one club (say, a wedge) may be good for a particular situation (like, for example, if you land your ball in a sand trap), but not practical or helpful in others (as in driving). While this may be true in a metaphorical or illustrative sense (though this may be open to interpretation as well),  I don’t believe it is very helpful in explaining anything of the nature of God or God’s interaction with humanity.

The problem is that we have ‘Set the members of the Trinity against each other—as when the Son is described as the object of the Father’s wrath on the Cross. Others stretch the concept to charge that penal substitution language amounts to “divine child abuse”—where an angry, cosmic Father beats up his meek and helpless Son—hardly the biblical imagery of the relationship of the Father and the Son.’ (source: Christianity Today) God becomes a deity with a schizophrenic tendency or bipolar disorder (and, as we know, without proper medication, either one of these illnesses renders an individual quite unstable.)

Joking aside, if we accept that God is love—If we accept the story of the Prodigal Son to be an illustration of how that love works itself out in reality—then we must not be so hasty to take on the ‘traditional’ view of atonement as fact. Certainly, it can be argued, some of the New Testament authors seemed to believe this was so. But a look at Jesus and his revelation of who the Father is cannot be dismissed. Rather, it should be the cause of much joy, celebration and excitement: All are welcomed—sinners and saints, elder and younger brothers, tax-gatherers and Pharisees—not because Jesus satisfied an angry God, but that God has sought and found us and brought us into the embrace of love and grace.  Welcome home!

Labels, Lies and Aspirations

Rise1A motto says a lot about a business in just a few words.

Think of the one-liners you’ve come across that businesses (or organisations) use to define themselves. Most are well-crafted word-bites that state succinctly where the heart of the business is–what makes them ‘tick,’ so to speak.

Our school’s software provider uses the motto: ‘Teach more. Know more. Stress less.’ As any teacher will tell you, this is the deal-clincher. What educator wouldn’t want to do more for their students but with less stress? This makes this software package appealing before you even try the product.

I suppose that’s why companies, organisations, churches and clubs have mottos: they want to convey an image of what they are all about.

But what if the motto doesn’t match what the organisation actually delivers?

I have seen a fundamentalist, ‘hellfire-and-brimstone’ church with the motto ‘The Church with a Heart.’ But it seems this loving nature is reserved for members only.

I have witnessed a business with the motto ‘Excellence. Always.’ provide very poor customer service and shoddy workmanship.

Christian organisations whose mottos include words such as ‘Integrity,’ ‘Honour,’ or ‘Truth’ seem to display anything but these values in their interactions with employees and those whom they are meant to be serving.

We could look at these examples and declare with a high level of certainty that these are prime displays of hypocrisy and deceit. This may be true. There have been numerous cases of those who convey that they are people of honour and integrity, only to find they are liars, cheaters and embezzlers.

Yet, I am without doubt that no person or organisation sets out to intentionally mislead and create distrust and disillusionment. Even though many have ‘fallen from grace,’ we cannot state categorically that they decided from the outset that they would dishonour their profession, associates, partners, cause, Church or God.

This has led me to draw the conclusion that mottos are aspirational. They are what a business, group, or club would like to be known for–not necessarily where they are at this point in time. If this is so, then, we would expect that folks in these organisations would be passionate about striving to be people who show ‘Respect’ to one another, or who strive for ‘Excellence’ in all they do.

To remind us of these noble objectives, we hard-wire them into our ‘brand,’ our ‘marketing strategies,’ and our logo. We emblaze them on sides of buildings, stationery and walls. We remind ourselves of them every time we come together, be it in a board meeting, an annual meeting of shareholders, a match, or a church service. These words become part of our identity.

But it’s one thing to display these values for the whole world to see. It’s a far greater goal to live up to the labels you give yourself.

Perhaps it would do us well–and the organisations, companies, and associations to which we belong–not to be so adamant in putting a label on ourselves or our organisations, but aspiring to live out those values in what we do and how we treat one another every day.

The Purpose of the Enneagram

enneagrem_numbersI have always been fascinated by personality tests. From Tim LaHaye’s Spirit-Controlled Temperament in my early years to the Enneagram in my professional years, I have never ceased to be amazed how these contrived tests seem to pin me down so well. Being a Type 1 (with elements of Type 4) on the Enneagram, I am well aware of my strengths and weaknesses and, as is the usual use, have used these results to pigeonhole my character and fine-tune my strengths.

But this may not be a good purpose for the Enneagram, as Richard Rohr explains:

The purpose of the Enneagram is not self-improvement, which would be our ego’s goal. Rather, it is the transformation of consciousness so that we can realize our essence, our True Self. Personality development and character building will happen on the side as a corollary, but this is not its primary goal. The primary goal of any spiritual tool is union with God/Truth, and then we get united with ourselves in the process!

The Enneagram reveals that we are often destroyed by our gift! We overidentify with our strengths and they become their own set of blinders. This allows real misperception, and allows our own “root sin” to remain mostly hidden from us. We cannot see the air we are breathing all the time. Our “sins” are the other side of our gift. They are, in fact, the way we get our energy. They “work” for us (at least we think they do). The Enneagram uncovers this false energy source for us and enables us to look our real dilemma in the eye. It confronts us with the compulsions and laws under which we live—usually without awareness—and it invites us to go beyond them and take steps into a real domain of freedom—freedom from our foundational addiction to our self.

enneaw-namescolorPeople who know the Enneagram in a superficial way, or who are just beginning to work with it, may think it puts people into boxes. But in fact, one of the great graces is that they find themselves coming out of their own self-created box because they recognize their box is far too limiting. Also, as they continue to work with the Enneagram, they will see its brilliance and that there is always another level of discovery—and then another level that comes as a surprise and usually a humiliation too. That tells them they are in the realm of soul and mystery, if mystery means something that is eternally knowable and soul is their very connection to God.

The Enneagram, like the Spirit of Truth itself, will always set us free, but first it will make us miserable! Working with the Enneagram is intentionally humiliating. We need to feel, acknowledge, and see how exaggerated, excessive, and absurd our false energy source really is. If we own and take responsibility for our darkness, if we feel how it has wounded us and others, how it has allowed us not to love and not to be loved—if we do that, I promise that we will become alert to the other side, to our greater gifts, and even the actual depth of our gift. Our gift is amazingly our sin sublimated and transformed by grace. What a surprise this is for most people!

Adapted from The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective, pp. 4-5, 25-27

The ‘Best God Damned Version’ of the Bible? Really?

BGDVWhat one comes across online when one is casually browsing Amazon!

Steve Ebling is writing a version of the Holy Bible specifically aimed at atheists, agnostics and sceptics and has chosen to call his book Holy Bible: Best God Damned Version. While only one book has so far been released, its intent is clear: debunk and make fun of the Bible and those whose faith is in its authority and truth.

Out of curiosity, I had a look at this short volume and found it to be full of snark, ridicule, foul language and outright disdain for anyone who places the smallest amount of trust in the sacred text. It is not a translation. The author makes no apology for the fact that it is based on The Jerusalem Bible, simply because he thought the wording in Genesis was more akin to his interpretation of–or the way in which he wished to interpret–the Bible. I got through the first 4 chapters and realised that I was, in fact, wasting my time. While there is a place for sarcasm, criticism and frivolity, I don’t think I can take 66 books-worth of this type of ‘humour’ (although, from reading the introduction, I would dare say that the author had anything in mind but comedy.

I have to admit, I am surprised it took so long to attempt such a project and I admire Steve’s perseverance (assuming he does, in fact, finish this work.) I would doubt, however, that even the most ardent atheist would be able to endure several thousand pages of this type of writing. Perhaps a Reader’s Digest Condensed Version of the BGDV would be a less-tedious piece to endure. That said, this is clearly NOT the ‘Best God Damned Version’ out there.

There is an alternative (if you are an atheist, agnostic, sceptic, or just curious): The Skeptics Annotated Bible.SAB

This is authored by Steve Wells and is based on the King James Version which, as one reviewer calls it, is ‘The only Bible recognised by True Christianity(TM).’ (Personally, I would have liked to see a NRSV edition, but I’m sure copyright permission may be difficult to obtain given the proposed content and use of this book.)

This book is a serious and critical attempt to draw attention to discrepancies, contradictions, unscientific claims, incorrect information, and alleged character flaws of God and comes complete with a coded system in the notes to mark each category of claim. It also contains a detailed appendix containing cross-references based on themes found through the text (and hyperlinked, if you buy the Kindle version.) You can read more about this book and see some examples taken from the print version here.

This volume does make for interesting reading, though any person with a background in Bible-centric Evangelicalism will be easily able to dismiss a reasonable amount of what is said based on what is taught in most Bible-believing churches. It comes as no surprise that much of what is said challenges conventional Evangelical thought, especially if it is coupled with the double-punch belief in the inerrancy of Scripture and literal interpretation of the text.

Many in the Christian community would see such a book as a threat or a challenge to their faith and mission. I view it as a means to understanding more clearly the core purposes of our sacred text and how God’s people through the ages have understood God’s story. Those who share my perspective value the biblical text as not only a time-capsule of culture, law and divine revelation, but as a vessel for the message of God to be carried into this and future generations, albeit flawed by human agents and misunderstandings.

I am amused somewhat that so many of those who don’t believe in God seem to lump all Christians together as being literalists, naïve, and an having absolute faith in whatever their church expects them to accept. While there are many ‘brands’ of Christianity that make my skin crawl or seriously cause me to wish I could run as far away from them as possible, I still see Christianity as a multi-layered and multi-coloured faith tradition that allows room for dialogue and disagreement amongst theologians and the laity alike. It is to me a fluid and evolving understanding of faith and practice, and. generally, has a high regard for tradition, including the sacred text and the varied interpretations of that text through the millennia. This kind of faith won’t shrink from the hard questions nor the skeptic’s commentary, but will seek to respond in an informed and civil manner within the context of humility, grace and love. We are all imperfect and all have our areas of ignorance. We would do well to listen to and learn from each other, especially as we who claim the name of Christ seek to be true to what we understand to be God’s word.

What Grace Does

This meditation came in today from Richard Rohr and I felt I must share it:

A friend of mine shared this story with me. An angel was walking down the street carrying a torch in one hand and a pail of water in the other. A woman asked the angel, “What are you going to do with the torch and with the pail?” The angel said, “With the torch, I am going to burn down the mansions of heaven, and with the pail, I’m going to put out the fires of hell. Then we shall see who really loves God.”

That’s what grace does; it empowers those who really love and trust God, and frankly leaves all others in the realm of missed opportunity. Our image for that missed opportunity has been hell later, but it is primarily and clearly emptiness now. In that deepest sense, there are indeed many people in hell right now, and there are also many people tasting heaven in this world. But Divine Love never relents, and never stops urging, expanding, and appealing. Why would it stop after our death?

Only the theme of grace is prepared to move religion beyond the bad and tired story line of reward and punishment. Up to now, we have largely mirrored ego-based culture instead of transforming it. We need grace to reform religion and to recapture the gospel. Only the theme of grace can move us from a religion of mere requirements (that is all about counting and measuring) to a religion of Divine Abundance which deeply transforms human consciousness (Ephesians 4:23-24).

As long as we remain inside of a win-lose script, Christianity will continue to appeal to low-level and self-interested morality and never rise to the mystical banquet that Jesus offers us. It will be duty instead of delight, “jars of purification” (John 2:6) instead of 150 gallons of intoxicating wine at the end of the party (John 2:7-10)!

- Richard Rohr, adapted from Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality, pp. 158-159

Yes, God Can! (Questions that shouldn’t need to be asked)

We say “God can do anything.”
But God doesn’t do all the good we expect: planes crash, ferries capsize, people die of common illnesses, resources aren’t made available for our neighbours outdoors, and refugees are imprisoned.
We say “With God nothing is impossible.”
But then put limits on God’s power and ability. After all, how could God forgive Hitler? How could God love that rapist-murderer? And how could God save anyone who doesn’t believe in Jesus or who was born into the wrong religion?
We say “God is king over all creation.”
imageBut then we assign ourselves the task to make the rules other people must keep in order to please God: “You mustn’t swear. You must attend Church. You must read your Bible. You must not think about sex. You must disapprove of gays, abortionists, socialists, Catholics, liberal politicians, or (insert profession, people-group or minority here).”
Pope Francis says that Jesus saves all, even if they don’t seek him.
Can God do that?
Rob Bell seems to believe there will be millions more in God’s kingdom than we would ever suspect–that we will be surprised at the reach of God’s love.
Can this be true?
Can God move in ways we cannot imagine? Yes! Yes! Hallelujah, YES!
Can God save anyone simply because of God’s instinct of love? Yes! (I believe this is called “grace.”)
Can God refuse to be limited by our human understanding of Divinity or our interpretations of revelation? Yes!
Could Pope Francis, Gandhi, the Buddha, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela and St Paul all have a similar underlying understanding of God that ruthlessly opposes any attempt at figuring God out or assigning a role statement to the One-who-cannot-be-contained?
Yes!
Could it be that now we see as in a mirror, dimly? Could it be that worship of the Bible or our group’s way of seeing it is more important to us than letting God be God? Could it be possible that one day we will look back and be astounded by how small our imagined God was?
Would it be too far-fetched to assume that, when all the dust settles after all the wars are fought, that, in the end, love really is the highest aspiration of all creation and this love indeed has won?
I dare you to believe that this is the way it could be.

Losing Faith: Resurrection

EEmpty tomb aster has come and gone. Chocolate eggs have been found and (almost) all eaten. Easter services have been experienced around the globe, marking the amazing claim: Christ is risen! Christ is risen, indeed.

Part of the pain of losing faith is the journey. It’s never an instantaneous event where one wakes up simply to find no trace of belief left. It is a process.

Likewise, rediscovering faith is also a journey. It may happen over months or years. And it may result in a totally different faith–or radically changed perspective on truth–than previously held.

For those on this journey, Easter is a difficult time. It is a time of reflecting, mourning what is lost, “seeking the living among the dead,” wondering, hoping, praying (if one still believes enough to indulge in prayer).

Like facing down someone with a mental illness, well-meaning folks will say things like, “Jesus is risen! Just believe.”

This is like telling a manic depressive to “just get over it” or a crack addict to “just say ‘No’.”

The truth is those who doubt haven’t necessarily turned their back on faith. Most of them truly want to believe–they just can’t see their way clear to honestly do so at the present time. Talk of resurrection may bring hope that perhaps, just maybe, there is some truth to Jesus coming alive out of the garden tomb. Emotions may rise on singing the glorious Resurrection anthems, Christ The Lord is Risen Today, or Thine Be the Glory. Yet, to believe in what they sing is too far out of their reach.

Thats why the story of Thomas is so close to my heart. Thomas was a man like me who wouldn’t take things on board simply because someone told him they were true. He had to test the facts, run the experiments, document the evidence, check the science. . . .

And when he finally saw Jesus, alive, face-to-face, I don’t get the impression that his heart was amazingly and miraculously filled with faith. I take from his statement that there was something deep in the back of his mind that he still couldn’t shake, a distrust, an “I need more proof” space that was still open for other answers, other more reasonable claims.

And so he proclaimed, maybe timidly and maybe with some wonderment, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.”

Maybe you are praying that prayer today. Perhaps the answer is on its way, but possibly it will take some time. Regardless of where you are on the spectrum of faith, no matter where you came from or where you are headed, God offers you the gift of resurrection. You don’t need to believe it right now. You don’t even need to want to believe in the resurrected Christ.

Honestly, you may never come to a place where you can believe in this Biblical claim of resurrection–be it the account of Jesus coming back to life or any faith in life beyond the grave.

But you need to know there is one thing that no depths of doubt, no amount of unbelief can take away from you, and that is the gift of God that we see in the resurrection story:

The gift of Hope.