We Never Come to the Bible Alone

This excellent post from Jamie Arpin-Ricci speaks volumes about the way we view the Holy Bible. We need to be reminded of this fact every time we approach its pages: we never come to the Bible alone but with a congregation of many, many individuals.

BibleGrowing up in a rural, evangelical community, it was not uncommon for me to hear the idea that all we need in order to know God and His will is the Bible. If anyone of us wants to know the truth about God and understand His will, all we had to do was open up Scripture and study. The Holy Spirit was all the guide we needed. We were cautioned about commentaries — they might be helpful, but we should never substitute the “explicit truth of Scripture” for the opinions of others. In its worst expressions, this led to anti-academic sentiment (and even anti-intellectualism). While the heart of this bias was genuine and well intentioned, they were also misguided and misleading. The truth is that we never come to the Bible alone.

Let’s say you open to the New Testament and read Matthew 5-7, the Sermon on the Mount. The fact is, your are reading it in a translation. Immediately you are not alone. The work and minds behind that translation required endless hours of study, scholarship, debate and more. It is, after all, only one of hundreds of translations available. Even if you decided to learn the language of the original text(s), you’d still have to rely on that same scholarship. Already the room is filled with countless others who are helping you read the text.

This says nothing about the fact that you are reading the text through the lens of your place in history, culture, race, language, gender, age, education, experience, etc. Layer upon layer of bias, influence and context shapes how you read, what you understand as you read and how you respond to the implications of that understanding. As if that weren’t enough, even the people who were listening to Jesus’ words in the moments He spoke them often understood and responded to them differently. Even His closest friends and disciples got it wrong time and again. So, you see, no one comes to the Bible alone.

Read the rest of this post here.

Using Scriptures Maturely

BibleBasherI was first introduced to the term ‘Bible Basher’ as a child, going door-to-door with my pastor father. Even back then, the vast majority of doors were slammed in our face, often accompanied by swearing and use of this term. Perhaps it didn’t help that my dad always carried his leather-bound, gilt-edged, Scofield King James Bible under his arm.

I suppose this term, originated as a statement about a person who constantly uses the Bible to ‘bash’–hit–people over the head in a confrontational way. Today this is exemplified in our city by the infamous Rundle Mall street preachers who call down fire and brimstone every day with Bible in hand and signs that read ‘Turn or Burn.’

While I am at times ashamed of my past days as a Bible basher, I recognise that the motivation for doing so (like so many other deeds) was fear, shame, guilt, and a shallow understanding of the nature of God.

Richard Rohr says it so well:

When the Scriptures are used maturely, they proceed in this order:

  1. They confront us with a bigger picture than we are used to, “God’s kingdom” that has the potential to “deconstruct” our false and smaller kingdoms.
  2. They then have the power to convert us to an alternative worldview by proclamation, grace, and the sheer attraction of the good, the true, and the beautiful (not by shame, guilt, or fear which are low-level motivations, but which operate more quickly and so churches often resort to them).
  3. They then console us and bring deep healing as they “reconstruct” us in a new place with a new mind and heart.

(Adapted from Preparing for Christmas with Richard Rohr, pp. 64-65)

May we choose to use the Holy Bible in a mature sensibility, to bring healing, restoration, compassion, justice and peace in our world as we find, in its words and message, God’s reign revealed.

Alarm Bells

Looking back, alarm bells should have sounded many times earlier in my life.

  • Before I had any personal relationship with God, I knew chapters of the Bible by memory and could tell you why and how he created the earth in six literal days (and why I was sure God was in fact a ‘he’).
  • Before I know much about the Bible, I could tell you why the King James Version was the only Bible written by God and could defend this with handfuls of significant and critical errors the wishy-washy liberal translators of every other version chose (read: ‘purposefully chose’) to make.
  • Before I knew anything about sex and intimate sexual relationship in the context of a ‘Christian marriage’, I had read and heard graphic descriptions and explanations of homosexual acts, methods and motivations—uncensored—from material written by experts in Christian ‘family values’.
  • Before I had any understanding of the love, generosity and grace of God, I learned to fear him who had me in his hand, holding me (as it were) over the cauldron of hell’s fire.

I say all this as a warning to all who have the awesome privilege of being parents.  Be aware that your children may interpret what you intend as good, solid, Christian instruction in a way that actually distorts the reality of the loving, gracious, inclusive nature of God. Encourage your child in growing a deep relationship with God, not simply an intellectual understanding of the Divine. Show them the Bible not as a history book, or a textbook, or even a guidebook for life, but a story of people’s desire to connect with God and God’s love for them. Yes, people get it wrong and you need to teach your children to not be afraid of making mistakes or taking a wrong turn–put simply, this is what is included in the package we call ‘being human.’

Demonstrate to your children what a loving relationship looks like and encourage them to think, ask questions, seek rather than supply them with your questions and your answers to those questions. Show them God by being a loving, forgiving, gracious parent, not someone to be feared and mindlessly obeyed. Demonstrate the love of God by your acceptance of others and the diversity they bring with them. Affirm everyone’s worth and speak positively of other people’s journeys. Don’t be satisfied with providing rote answers but encourage contemplation and reflection. Allow room for unanswered questions and don’t be satisfied with an answer just because it fits into your framework of understanding.

Above all, trust God to look after your children and to nurture them in their own unique faith journey. Their story will–and should be–different than yours since they have been created as individuals with distinctive personalities and gifts. The One who made them, knows them, and will complete that which has been begun in them.

Paradoxy

I am still reading the excellent book, Paradoxy: Creating Christian Community Beyond Us and Them by Ken Howard. Being more disenfranchised with the whole disunity thing in the Church, I value Ken’s insights and commentary on this subject.

I have been guilty far too often of creating division rather than bringing unity, of drawing the line between two views rather than seeking common ground on which to unite.

Ken speaks about the paradigm of both conservatives and progressives and shows how, for both ‘sides’ of the Faith, problems arise.

. . . If the paradigm has become your reality, what do you do when the cracks become too noticeable to ignore? If you can’t abandon the dominant paradigm (or maybe even recognize that you are in one) in favor of a more complete and encompassing one, what are your choices? There seem to be three:

1. To the Ramparts! Rally around the purist position with increasing defensiveness and increasingly elaborate rationalizations.

2. Compromise and Adapt! Adopt compromises that soften the position or attempt to prop up confidence in it by means other than facts.

3. Create a “Them”! Focus all of your attention on what seem to you to be the greater inconsistencies (and the “unlikeablilities”) of the other side.

Being a natural ‘right-seeker,’ I immediately say ‘Amen’ to all three as I see all of these positions alive and well in those who seem to enjoy harassing me with their version of truth.

But, looking deeper, I realise that I also, at times, defend my ‘more reasonable’ position by rallying support amongst my friends who embrace a similar paradigm to my own, compromise when around those on the ‘other side’ just to be seen to be acting with civility, or encouraging taking sides and fighting the other side with my weapon of choice: words.

As Doug Pagitt has said:

Our biggest challenges come when we assume that those who hold worldviews or values different than ours lack knowledge or values.

Too often I’ve mocked the beliefs of people unlike me (in time past when I had a more fundamentalist mindset, and now as more of a progressive Christian). What I have assumed is that they had to be uninformed, ignorant, or living in a cocoon to believe as they do. I’m beginning to see this is not so. They have simply started with a different framework for their thinking, a different bias. And in the light that we all have incomplete knowledge and limited ability to understand life’s mysteries, their worldview may be just as valid as mine.

If we are ever to live together in community–and I believe it is the only way to be true followers of Jesus–we must learn to accept (not just tolerate) one another fully, in spite of our disagreements. This doesn’t mean we won’t hold our convictions firmly, but when we do say or do something that flows from those convictions, we know we will be fully loved and fully accepted, regardless.

One of our staff members said something in morning prayer recently (sorry, I can’t recall who it was) that is relevant to this post. Essentially, they said that God chose us as a collective body, not merely as individuals. God chose that you would live in community with me–that is not either your or my choice. If God, who we claim is all-wise and all-knowing put us together in the same body, there must be a good reason for it. Rather than try to figure it all out, why don’t we just accept it and live together in harmony? Rather than fighting and arguing and stirring up each other to debate and discord, why don’t we simply clothe ourselves with love which, as the apostle writes, is the bond of perfection?

(Easy to say–damn hard to do!)

On that note, I realise I have much to learn, and I’m looking forward to what else I discover as I continue reading Paradoxy.

Thy Will Be Gun

I found this video on YouTube via Jonny Baker’s blog. The link was retweeted numerous times by my friends on Twitter with comments such as “This is the best sermon I ever heard and this guy isn’t even a Christian.”

Have a look: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oOqycchC8Hc Warning: Contains some course language.

While I wouldn’t say the content is as relevant for Australian Christians as for those of the American Evangelical variety, it does reflect a sadly growing trend here.

It raises another question that needs to be asked: What ARE we known as in the broader community? Crackpots? Lunatics? Or do they see us as simply poorly-informed, ignorant people?

Or . . . are we the exception who dare to see God at work amongst every person we meet, every situation we encounter, and jump at the chance to join God in this work?

*   *   *   *   *

I downloaded a podcast this week from a nearby church. Call it curiosity. I have seen the church advertised and know a few who attend it, and I wanted to see what it was all about.

Listening, I couldn’t help but be amazed at the statements that were being made. In all, only two verses were quoted, yet numerous times the pastor declared, “God says” or “The Bible says.”

He was speaking about worldviews and how we ought to have a Christian and Biblical worldview as opposed to a worldview that didn’t acknowledge God. It seemed to me that he was, first of all, preaching to the choir based on the sometimes wild response from the congregation.

It also appeared that he was presenting a partial, incomplete (and uninformed) perspective which was black-and-white, right-and-wrong, truth-or-lie. There was not, in his opinion, any room for a worldview that acknowledged God yet also respected latest scientific advances in the areas of evolutionary theory and the makeup of the universe. After all, he assured his listeners, increasing numbers of scientists are turning to accepting a literal six-day creation and, likewise, there is a trend of growth in the numbers of atheists turning to a belief in God.

I haven’t seen this. In fact, my experience seems to be the opposite. I don’t know where he got his information, but it was certainly what the congregation wanted to hear.

And this brought to mind another verse which (surprisingly) is used by many to warn people like me against listening to supposed “heretics:”

“For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.” (2 Timothy 4:3 NIV)

Judging by the “Amens” and “That’s rights” I heard throughout the sermon, I’m wondering . . . Who has the itching ears? Could it be that those under the teaching of this man could simply be looking for validation for their own preconceived ideas? Is it possible that people go to a church to be affirmed in their beliefs rather than to be shown a new way to believe?

Judging by the video clip and the podcast experiences, I would say as resounding “Yes.”

How can we break down this way of thinking and replace it with a more seeking, searching, learning, and growing–and inviting–way of being what is called “Christian”?

Unraveling

What happens when your world unravels?

What happens when your worldview is shaken and doesn’t seem to provide the answers you need?

Regardless of whether or not your worldview appears to be Biblical, God-centred, and “water-tight” in its theology, there may come a time when the soft comfortable blanket that is wrapped around you starts coming apart around the edges and, before you know it, you’re starting to become uncomfortable, unsettled, and cold.

Mihee Kim-Kort, a pastor in a Presbyterian church in the U.S. writes about this when she recalls a momentous shift in her theology relating to gender equality in the church:

Moments of irony hit me hard…I think it’s because I subconsciously hold up my worldview like a blanket wrapped around me, these expectations and preconceived notions woven together tightly in my brain, so when something outside of my usual assumptions happens to me, it knocks me out cold and stays with me for awhile.”

That time when this shaking up of our “preconceived notions” occurs is very unsettling. It knocks the wind out of us. It may seem like our faith is crumbling around us. Laryn Krgat Bakker writes about this in her post about such a time when her baby daughter died:

“Before tragedy struck home, many of these issues were intellectual problems that I could consider and then set aside again without answers. They’ve become much more visceral and harder to ignore. I find myself feeling other tragedies in a deeper way, and theodicy has become very personal.”

Tragedy has a way of causing us to rethink a lot of what we’ve been taught. It reveals to us that faith is more than having answers, or even possessing a logical framework or system of believing. At times like this, the questions flood us: Is God really good all the time? How much of this did he know about? Did he predetermine that this should happen to me? If so, does he really care that I’ve been ripped apart by this? Where is God right now? Why does he seem so distant and uninterested?

But it’s not limited to life-defining moments or tragedy. This also may happen when something you always have believed gets the rug pulled out from under it.

  • A close family member “comes out” and declares a same-sex orientation.
  • A close friend who is also a highly respected humanitarian and involved in doing so much good reveals to you that she is an atheist and doesn’t really believe God exists.
  • A colleague in the pastoral ministry presents a paper denying the historical accuracy of the gospels’ presentation of the Jesus narrative.

Often moments like these can turn committed, dedicated Christians into virtual agnostics. Bakker continues:

“In a strange way, I ended up with more questions but my faith feels stronger on a fundamental level. A friend of mine coined the phrase “faith-infused agnostic” and that term has grown on me. It reminds me of Meister Eckhart’s famous prayer that God would rid him of God. Our perceptions of God are always incomplete, and trying to force God into terms we can understand can become a form of idolatry. It seems that humility dictates that we acknowledge our own fallibility and finitude with respect to a God that cannot be contained by any concept within our grasp.

“At the same time, I can’t help but continue to wrestle with the events of my life, the kind of world we live in, and God’s role in both. Many of the issues I find myself mulling are not unique to me – most of them have been asked since ancient times and none of them have definitive answers. Knowing this reminds me that I shouldn’t be surprised that I haven’t solved life’s most profound mysteries, and I suspect that my thoughts may continue to change over time.”

The questions we struggle with usually arise because God does not appear to conform to our expectations of him (/her?). The box we have put God in—our worldview, if you will—all of a sudden cannot contain our God. We apply the duct tape of Bible passages, the glue of possible explanations, and pound in a few nails of trust in what our pastors, teachers, or spiritual leaders have to say. But in the end, we must face the fact that God cannot be contained in “buildings [or boxes] made with human hands.” And his alleged implication in this crisis may be an opportune moment for us to discover that worldviews are not a creation of a Divine entity, but are fabrications of well-meaning, modern human beings.

I am concerned for people whose whole spiritual experience is wrapped up in one church, one small community of like-minded people and one narrow understanding of “the way things work,” because when their lives unravel, they unravel in a big way. And the easy answers don’t seem to work—but they need to pretend they do because that’s the way their chosen community believes. To doubt is a sin. This creates a great conflict in their lives and produces inner struggles with shame, guilt, and denial.

Our churches need to prepare us for such challenges and confronting moments. Rather than declare a rather narrow view of a God who only works in predictable, understandable ways, our spiritual leaders need to preach the “unknowableness” of God, that which doesn’t (and can’t) conform to our human expectations. Like Rob Bell points out in his beautiful DVD Everything is Spiritual (watch a part of it here), it’s like God is 3D and we can only understand 2D because that’s the kind of world in which we live and which we understand.

We must see that in the unraveling, God is present. He may not be visible, his presence may not be obvious,  his journeying with us may not be knowable in our limited two-dimensional comprehension, but he is nevertheless with us, loving us, singing over us songs of deliverance. . . .

. . . and desiring that, in spite of our confusion, we trust that one day this incomplete knowledge shall pass and God will make everything clear.