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.

Orthodoxy and Golf

My orthodoxy is another man’s heresy. My heresy is another man’s orthodoxy. If we all held the same beliefs about everything, our minds would never be stimulated and our lives would dull.

One may think I tread a winding road to hell but, according to my understanding, the road he’s on leads straight to the dark abyss.

A person may stand up and state succinctly (and intelligently) how she sees a particular truth; I rise and speak just as pointedly and mindfully about my understanding of that truth. Is one of us wrong and the other right? Are we both incorrect in our assumptions? . . . Or are we both correct but in subtly different ways?

I love the way Scot McKnight put an idea across when dealing with the doctrine of atonement in his excellent book, A Community Called Atonement. He speaks about the various views on atonement theory as being like clubs in a  golf bag. (While McKnight spoke about atonement, what he wrote could apply to any doctrine or interpretation of truth.) Some situations call for one type of club–say, a 9-iron–whilst others may demand a wedge. Both are great clubs (or, as my wife likes to call them, ‘golf sticks’) and would be invaluable if they’re used how they were designed to be used. But if I want to place a ball at a point 200 metres distant, I won’t be using a wedge; just as I wouldn’t grab an iron to rescue my ball from the bunker.

Some people like to shout one thing at top volume all the time. Their whole world is geared around that one thing and they see their position in life as to defend that one truth, that one high doctrine, that one fundamental of the faith. This may be useful in a prophetic context when the situation demands a strong advocacy for a cause. However, within another context–let’s just say the context of community where unity and care for others are the prime objectives–this type of offensive strategy is akin to whacking the ball with a Big Bertha driver on a putting green. Not only will your ball not get anywhere near the hole, you will find yourself looking for it in the scrub, about 300 metres distant. And while you are seeking to recover your game (and your scorecard), your companions are begrudgingly trudging alongside. Perhaps they are still encouraging and cheering you on . . . but, knowing human nature, I would suspect that there is a fair amount of muttering under the breath, out of ear shot: ‘When will he ever learn?’

More often than not, in times when I have resorted to demanding my orthodoxy be heard above all others’ orthodoxy, I have found that I may recover, but the pain I have inflicted on those around me has a way of becoming my pain of regret and shame with the result of my ‘stand for truth’ being grief, division and long-lasting hurt.

In the end, both of us may be right according to how we interpret the point of the debate. We should celebrate that there is a debate and that, despite our interpretations of that point, we are still brothers and sisters.

One last reference to the great game: Most of my game I will use an iron, once in a while I will pull out the driver, but my game will be won by consistent, gentle, measured putting. I’d like to think I’d have St Paul’s blessing in this rather liberal interpretation of what he wrote to another community long ago:

 ‘Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.’ (Ephesians 4:2-3)

What Attracts Me to Emergent

Those who are familiar with Fields of Grace and who know me would know how I yearn for a more intentional, missional and incarnational Christianity, one that focuses on the dominion of God as revealed through Jesus, and one that is not held hostage to a black-and-white/us-and-them mindset.

In a nutshell, this is what draws me to Emergent. (I have capitalised the ‘e’ to distinguish the Emergent Movement in particular rather than the idea of ’emergence.’)

While I possibly don’t see or understand everything about God, the Bible, and theology the same way you do, I have no reason to believe that the perspective I enjoy is in any substantial way different than any pre-enlightenment Christian. I give this type of Christian a historical place since it was the advent of the so-called enlightenment that brought to the world the gift that is modernism.

Modernism introduced that systematic approach that has been so beneficial to Science and Mathematics, yet so damaging to spirituality and faith. In trying to define God and the teachings of his inspired Book, the modernist has pigeonholed the Divine into human-sized pieces, bound in systematic theologies, apologetics, and volumes of Biblical reference.

The Emergent Movement, largely positioned within and beyond post-modern thought, frees theology from the confines of predetermined structures, church-dictated dogma and hardened conclusions, allowing for a more dynamic, free and interpretatively-diverse experience of God and his kingdom. Acceptance of all who want to join the conversation regardless of their faith or lack of faith is what I find most appealing–and Christ-like–in the Movement.

Scot McKnight has been a long time friend and critic of the Emergent Movement in the USA. He has written several articles about it and counts as his friends many within its loosely-defined cohorts. Paraphrasing his work, vanguardchurch.com has defined Emergent Christianity this way:

What is the Emerging Church? Praxis.

The Emerging Movement is a summons or an invitation for the Church to live like followers of Jesus in everything they say, do, and think. The Emerging Movement seeks to model that in its emphasis on relationships as the core of the work of God in the world today. One of the reasons so many are frustrated with the Emerging Movement’s definition is found here: it is a movement concerned with praxis and not simply theology. If the older fashion was to define others by their theology, the Emerging Movement wants to be defined by its behavior. This is a dramatic challenge to the Church.

What is the Emerging Church? Protest.

First, it protests too much tom-fakery in traditional churches.
Second, it denounces the divisions in the Church.
Third, it sees cock-sure certainty as a cancer.
Fourth, it refuses to separate action from articulation. If the older evangelical generation found doctrinal statements the chief way of setting up boundaries, the Emerging Movement wants to see one’s articulation expressed by one’s action.
Fifth, it wants individualism absorbed into incorporation: that is, the Emerging Movement encourages personal redemption but solo-Christianity is not what Jesus wants. He wants to form communities of faith not individual Christians.
Sixth, the Emerging Movement’s mindset is against marketing the gospel.
Seventh, the Emerging Movement despises the idea that Church is what takes place on Sunday Morning…the work of the Church is what occurs during the week as the local community of faith performs the gospel.
Eighth, the Emerging Movement rejects the hierarchy and pyramid structure of many churches. Authority is in God — Father, Son, Spirit — and not in the pastor or the elders or the board of deacons.
Ninth, the social gospel cannot be separated from the spiritual gospel. The Emerging Movement combines the Liberal social gospel with the Evangelical spiritual gospel and comes up with something that is neither Liberal nor Evangelical.
Tenth, the Emerging Movement wants to be Worldly. Not in the Johannine sense or in the Pauline sense, but in the Kingdom sense: it knows that God is working to restore the entire creation into an expression of his glory and so it summons everyone to participate in the grant work of God to restore and redeem.

(If you want to read more about this from McKnight’s own blog (Jesus Creed), click here.)

There are many other characteristics of Emergent Christians, but I find there is not a one-size-fits-all definition. Because of the diversity it embraces, emerging/emergent Christians come in all shapes, sizes, styles, and religious conviction. One person may embrace 4 or 5 of these somehow-determined traits, and still consider themselves an emerging Christian.

The overiding attitude is in fact one of setting aside what was and looking for ways to engage and be engaged with one another in meaningful, kingdom- and God-centered conversations, together with all the questions, doubts, rethinking and change that this entails. It’s definitely a challenge. Anything that requires personal change is. But I find a great sense of togetherness on the journey with like minded friends–both in my local area and online. It has been such a rewarding journey so far, full of surprises, conflict, interesting conversations, and deeply spiritual moments that take my breath away.

And that’s what I find most irresistible about Emergent.


Church Experiences

The current subtitle of the Fields of Grace blog is “There’s a place where religion finally dies.” I change this from time to time to convey the message of the song from which the title is taken. On one hand I want to proclaim, promote, and preach grace in all its fullness (which always results in gracious living and forgiving), and on the other hand there is so much dead religion and religiosity that too often gets in the way of seeing grace evidenced in the professing Church of Jesus.

Following is a reader comment that Brian McLaren posted on his blog recently which says a lot about an uncomfortableness I feel and a tension I live with every day in my journey into grace.

I have recently been reading your books and website. I am constantly amazed at how God puts people in our paths who we can walk parts of our journey with…Your story and mine are very similar. In my 30 year journey with Christ (made “official” at age 10 – though I don’t ever remember not knowing Jesus) I have been to various churches from Presbyterian, UCC, to Methodist, to Assemblies of God and other Pentacostal influence (still detoxing), to a year in Catholic school, to my current Vineyard. I have always seen beautiful things in each (I love the idea of the Rosary, I love “walking in the gifts of the Spirit”, find value in the less ‘spirit-filled’ denominations) and have grown with each new exposure. The problem I have encountered the most is the problem of feeling like I’m some sort of rebel when I start to ask questions and poke around at the theologies/hermeneutics, eschatologies that don’t sit with my spirit. I find that there are usually only a few I can share my thoughts with and not get the ‘I still love you but I’m worried about you’ look or warnings about being careful of who /what I read because there are false teachers lurking in the darkness. I have longed for a harmonizing of the positive things I see in all the faiths that call themselves by Jesus’ name, and an honoring of those who do not. I like to venture into other camps and find Jesus there. It’s awesome. But not popular, not deemed ‘safe’ unless you are a person with a proper degree in conservative Biblical studies. Finding your writings as well as those of some others (Rob Bell – gasp! He says we should contemplate!), Gulley and Mullholland (oh, no! God might save everyone?!) have been so refreshing.

This weekend I was watching a baby dedication/baptism at a Methodist church and found myself chafing under some of the language (though stated in pretty words) that seemed to indicate that this child was sinful and dirty prior to the baptism and “part of the family of faith” only AFTER water was placed on her head…I get the whole symbolism behind it, and I know the Biblical grounds for it, I just wonder if people would be better served if we baptized them into a knowledge of who they already are because of the work Christ already accomplished – especially when dedicating or Baptizing a child. Maybe that’s heretical and erroneous. I just can’t look at a child and see sinfulness.

I don’t want to leave the universal Church as Anne Rice recently declared. My xxx family has exposed me to a kind of community love that I can’t imagine leaving. I want to stay – and feel called to stay – and maybe weave into our family a broader view of our impossibly huge God.I need to know I am not alone in this…So, thanks, man, for your courage and example!! That’s all I really wanted to say. Thanks if you made it this far!!

(I guess we both suffer from long paragraph/parenthetical statement syndrome as well)….

(Brian’s comment: Thanks for your note. This sin-focused language relates a lot to the Greco-Roman narrative I talk about in New Kind of Christianity. If you’ve never read Jerome Berryman’s writings on children and God, I highly recommend them. I finished Godly Play recently and am enjoying Children and the Theologians now.)

* * * * * * *

There seems to be a ever-increasing consumerist approach to the Church today which demonstrates itself in a revolving-door Christianity. The average church isn’t growing but people are coming and going, “tasting” the church and deciding whether or not it is a place where they can settle (at least until the next distraction comes along).

I believe that it is important to be part of a community over the long haul. While my family has left churches on occasion, this is not the preferred option, and we did so only after intensive prayer and self-examination. It’s good for the family to have a sense of belonging to a group of people. It’s good for the children to see dad and mum working through problems and disagreements in a healthy, mature way and not simply leaving because it’s gotten too tough or there are too many points of contention. It’s also good the extended family to see that, despite imperfections, we have thrown in our lot with these people for better or worse; this is our church. Pastors will change. Worship styles won’t last. The way things are done now may not be the way they are done in the future (unless you’re a Baptist, prayuhz Jaaay-zusss!).

What remains constant is the people.

But we hear the moaning every day:

“My kids aren’t / I’m not getting anything from this church. I’m leaving.”

“The pastor is a control freak / not in control. I’m out of here.”

“The worship is too much like a concert / too informal. Goodbye.”

“The theology isn’t in keeping with my interpretation. See you later.”

“There hasn’t been a new convert in church in _____ years.”

“There isn’t enough _________________ (fill in the blank)”

“The members are too ______________ (Fill in the blank).”

Vicki and I were talking last night about a variety of church experiences we have shared as a family, and a particular church experience came to mind where a number of people threatened to leave the church if Pastor Z_____ didn’t leave. We heard a lot of these same statements in a congregational meeting that was called to vote him out.

This brought to mind tensions that exist in our minds because of the differences between what our church (pastor, board, congregation as a whole) promote and what we believe is our own role as followers of Jesus. Vicki turned to me and said (regarding the questions above): “What if the shoe was on the other foot and we agreed with everything that was said and done, but a lot of other people didn’t?”

Would we be gracious? Would we encourage dialogue? Would we be open to questions?

Or would those who disagreed with us “pack it in” and leave the Church?

And how would that make us feel as their family?

How much of what we all do would be dictated by a consumerist Christianity mindset–I’m happy with the way things are going (my way) so I’ll stay. When I become unhappy, I’ll leave. (This mentality is very “I” centered and truly has nothing to do with the Biblical “one another” teachings.

I think there does come a time when the tension and stress becomes too great and people must move on (see my post on spiritual abuse).

But there also comes a time when we need to say, “These are my people. This is my family. We’re not perfect. We disagree. We’re human. But we are still brothers and sisters.”

Let the conversation continue . . .

Living by Core Convictions

Increasingly, I have found doctrinal statements or prescribed sets of beliefs don’t work for me. In setting our ‘rules’ in stone, we (as Christendom, historically) have legislated exclusivist behaviour–accepting those who agree with our truth and excluding those who do not.

Reading about the Anabaptists (and their various incarnations across the globe), I discovered that they share the same caution regarding creeds and statements of faith. I appreciate their conviction that what we believe today may change as we see things in a different light tomorrow.

I found the following on the website of the Anabaptist Network (UK & Ireland).

The Anabaptist tradition has been wary of creeds and fixed statements of faith, concerned at imposing interpretive grids on Scripture and of conveying the idea that there is no possibility of our understanding developing in fresh ways. But Anabaptists have produced various Confessions, setting out not a comprehensive statement of beliefs but a summary of distinctive values, convictions and practices. These statements are always provisional and subject to review in light of fresh insights.

The Anabaptist Network has set out seven ‘Core Convictions’ which form the basis of all their inter-relatedness and mission. I can’t help but see these as a good starting framework for a better way of living as the ‘Beloved Community’ (a.k.a. the kingdom of God) within our own context of relationships and church/para-church/ex-church communities:

1. Jesus is our example, teacher, friend, redeemer and Lord. He is the source of our life, the central reference point for our faith and lifestyle, for our understanding of church and our engagement with society. We are committed to following Jesus as well as worshipping him.

2. Jesus is the focal point of God’s revelation. We are committed to a Jesus-centred approach to the Bible, and to the community of faith as the primary context in which we read the Bible and discern and apply its implications for discipleship.

3. Western culture is slowly emerging from the Christendom era when church and state jointly presided over a society in which almost all were assumed to be Christian. Whatever its positive contributions on values and institutions, Christendom seriously distorted the gospel, marginalised Jesus, and has left the churches ill-equipped for mission in a post-Christendom culture. As we reflect on this, we are committed to learning from the experience and perspectives of movements such as Anabaptism that rejected standard Christendom assumptions and pursued alternative ways of thinking and behaving.

4. The frequent association of the church with status, wealth and force is inappropriate for followers of Jesus and damages our witness. We are committed to exploring ways of being good news to the poor, powerless and persecuted, aware that such discipleship may attract opposition, resulting in suffering and sometimes ultimately martyrdom.

5. Churches are called to be committed communities of discipleship and mission, places of friendship, mutual accountability and multi-voiced worship. As we eat together, sharing bread and wine, we sustain hope as we seek God’s kingdom together. We are committed to nurturing and developing such churches, in which young and old are valued, leadership is consultative, roles are related to gifts rather than gender and baptism is for believers.

6. Spirituality and economics are inter-connected. In an individualist and consumerist culture and in a world where economic injustice is rife, we are committed to finding ways of living simply, sharing generously, caring for creation, and working for justice.

7. Peace is at the heart of the gospel. As followers of Jesus in a divided and violent world, we are committed to finding non-violent alternatives and to learning how to make peace between individuals, within and among churches, in society, and between nations.

Nick & Josh

I just found this podcast via Emergent Village. It’s quite challenging and sometimes confronting, even though it seems like it’s recorded on a phone line. The current episode features a three-way interview with Brian McLaren, Phyllis Tickle and Bishop John Shelby Spong. The major discussion topic is where Christianity has seen change in the lifetime of these three and where they see hope for the future. The discussion takes a side track speaking about atonement and the reason for Jesus’ death which, of course, Bishop Spong enjoys speaking his (rather controversial to Evangelicals) views rather than listening to the other two. I think Bishop Spong talks too much but has some fascinating perspectives– and some things I just can’t agree with. Have a listen via iTunes or on the Nick & Josh website.

Could I Become a Christian?

The latest issue of Next-Wave e-zine online mag is out with a thought-provoking cover story ‘Could I become a Christian?’ If you’re like me, you may relate to part if not all of Ryan’s story:

“. . . I was raised a Christian, that is, God exists as some white bearded guy reclining in the clouds. He’s all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving. He created all that exists, he needs 10% of your monthly income, and used to really like the smell of burning meat, but has since given it up (except in certain rarified circumstances). God, when he finally decides (his coming has been eminent for some time now apparently), will punish all those who decided not to obey him by casting them in a lake of fire, in which they will burn forever and ever. And those who obeyed him will bask in his glory forever and ever in some vague place that is supposed to contain ultimate bliss. . . .”

Read the rest of the story here.

I find his idea of a God who has evolved perhaps a bit off-centre, yet in my own understanding, I have come to see the concept of God as having evolved through the millennia (as McLaren brings out in ‘The God Question’ part of A New Kind of Christianity).

I resonate with this part of the story, a quote from Cornel West:

“To be human is to suffer, shudder and struggle courageously in the face of inevitable death. To think deeply and wisely as a human being is to meditate on and prepare for death. The quest for human wisdom requires us to learn how to die–penultimately in the daily death of bad habits and cruel viewpoints and ultimately in the demise of our earthly and temporal bodies. To be human, at the most profound level, is to counter honestly the inescapable circumstances that constrain us, yet muster the courage to struggle compassionately for our own unique individualities and for more democratic and free societies. This courage contains the seeds of lived history–of memory, maturity and melioration–in the face of no guaranteed harvest. Hence, my view of what it means to be human is preeminently existential–a focus on particular, singular, flesh-and-blood persons grappling with dire issues of death, dread, despair, disease and disappointment. Yet I am not an existentialist like the early Sartre, who had a systematic grasp of human existence. Instead, I am a Chekhovian Christian who banks his all on radical–not rational–choice and on the courage to love enacted by a particular Palestinian Jew named Jesus, who was crucified by the powers that be, betrayed by cowardly comrades and misconstrued by corrupt churches that persist, and yet is remembered by those of us terrified and mesmerized by the impossible possibility of his love.”

By the way, Next-Wave e-zine has a number of interesting regular contributions and features each issue. Check out the contents of the current issue as well as their archives.