Friday, July 22, 2011


Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. (Heb 10:19-22 NIV)

The writer of Hebrews tells us something very important in this passage. In the cross, we are invited to enter a “new” way of faith in God. The context of Hebrews views the Old Testament as a “shadow” of the realities to come in the cross and the future. While there are symbolic similarities, there is a discontinuity between the Old and New ways of living in relationship to God. We no longer live in faith the way we used to live in faith. We no longer view God the way we used to view God. We no longer see religion and tradition the way we once did. Our old clothes and old wineskins don’t fit anymore. We have entered something new.

The fulcrum of this shift in faith was Jesus Christ, the cross and the resurrection. Writers of what we call the New Testament faced a frightening and dangerous prospect. They were invited, called, commissioned to record and lead people into a faith transition. The long preserved and cherished approach to relationship with God and with each other had been turned on its head by Jesus. The former chapter of Judaism, out of which Christianity had itself been born, was coming to a close.

I have perceived a tendency on the part of some contemporary Old Testament scholars and preachers to downplay this shift. Whether their views emerge from an absorption and appreciation of the Old Testament texts or the fear that we will somehow divorce Christianity from its Jewish heritage, I am not sure. However, though these are genuine concerns, they don’t change the fact that there is a radical departure in faith from Judaism to Christianity. Both the gospels and epistles describe the conflict which ensued because of this departure. The gospels show the religious Pharisees and Sadducees seeking to destroy Jesus himself and the letters of Paul tell us of the persistent threat of Jewish legalism. People don't get that riled up when you tell them a version of what they already believe.

Of course, those who subscribe to the academically popular “New Perspective” (see E.P. Sanders, James Dunn and N.T. Wright) suggest that the Jewish leaders weren’t really that legalistic after all. Instead, their views are better described by the term covenantal nomism. This view emphasizes that the Jewish people (a broad and disparate demographic for such a subtle theological category) did not believe they were made righteous by works. Good works were not a prerequisite for entry into a covenant relationship with God, they sustained it. In other words, faithfulness to Torah law (and tradition) doesn’t “get you in,” it “keeps you in.”

Aside from sounding suspiciously similar to much popular Christian soteriology (doctrine about salvation), this theory proposes a subtlety that is practically irrelevant. Paul still argues that righteousness has nothing to do with works (Romans 4:1-5). Then there are those, like Dunn, who suggest that when Paul speaks of the “law” he is really referring to the ethnic identity markers (observance of feasts and special days, circumcision, dietary laws and cleanliness rules). But this is just not congruent with Paul’s description of the law in terms of ethics as found pervasively throughout Romans 2 (specifically, Rom 2:25-26). The best efforts to create artificial continuity between the New way and the Old way may reconcile Christianity with its Jewish family roots, but only by minimizing the radical and scandalous nature of the gospel and virtually ignoring all that hubbub Jesus causes in the gospels.

Alas, I digress. Then again, it's my blog and I am allowed to take liberties!

Transitions don’t sit well with us. They stick out like sore thumbs and stuck-out feet. They trip us up and make our lives difficult. They get in the way of our cleverly devised plans and ideas. They piss us off. And we don’t mind shooting the messengers. First-century believers were received (by both Jews and Romans) like jury duty notifications: discarded, shredded and burnt.

In Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christian, the character Neo makes the point, “the dangers of transition are real. But are the dangers of the status quo less real?” It seems to many, myself included, that modern Christianity has also entered a transition. It has divided itself relentlessly to the point that it has no center of unity. The “empire” mindset it has developed for itself since the conversion of Constantine can no longer be sustained. The world has polished the mirror of the past for us and we can no longer avoid the scars, blemishes and flat-out ugliness marring the face of our faith. Jesus isn’t the problem. Faith isn’t the problem. The problem lies in the religious accretions of human arrogance and ignorance, the unwillingness to let go of our toys and our security blankets and embrace God in his mystery and allow others to do the same.

If Christianity really has reached a transitional point, then those of us who recognize the need for adaptation and change have a choice: maintain silence in the face of the status quo or speak with love and respect as transition advocates. There may be gladiatorial arenas, lions and no shortage of stonings if we open our mouths, and there is always the chance that we may be wrong. But is that less dangerous than living a faith that is an illusion? Will we live our own faith, or someone else’s? Are we called to seek the "Faith of our Fathers" or are we invited simply to find our own faith in the Father? The transition will not be pleasant. It may not be fully congruent with the old way we did faith. But if we trust the Spirit of God and let Jesus be the center, we may discover something beautiful as we move from here to there.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A Good Offense is the Worst Defense

Seems like I’ve spent most of my life arguing. Call it discussion if you want to be generous. Arguing with my parents, with teachers, with fellow students and co-workers, with professors and pastors and what feels like half the world. All I’ve ever wanted was the right to my own life, my own understanding, my own belief, my own faith. I guess I always thought I had to fight for it, defend it from everyone who wanted to trample on it, tear it down or take it from me.

This morning I was reading through A New Kind of Christian by Brian McLaren. I realize I’m a little late. It was published ten years ago. I’ve owned it for two years. I just never got around to it until now.

Yesterday I read the first two chapters. I sincerely wish I had read it long before now. I found myself on the verge of tears before I had finished the introduction. It was like listening to my own voice, like someone else telling me the story of my own life over the past 4 years. A happier ending I suppose. McLaren had several books published and is recognized as a spokesperson for a generation of the struggling postmodern faithful. I was just asked to leave my church. No publishing deals have been forthcoming. Then again, I haven’t seen the end of my own story yet, so I should reserve judgment.

My Honey Oat Blenders cereal patiently soaked up milk as Neo (McLaren’s fictional history and science teacher) described the key historical elements of the development of Modernism. Modernity was/is:

1. An age of conquest and control
2. An age of the machine
3. An age of analysis
4. An age of secular science
5. An age of absolute objectivity
6. A critical age
7. An age of organization and the modern nation-state
8. An age of individualism
9. An age of Protestantism and institutional religion
10. An age of consumerism

In his discussion of Modernism’s critical tendency (point #6), McLaren points out that amidst the spirit of conquest inherent in Modernism, “if your ideas don’t win, they lose.” At those words, I almost dropped the spoon that had been hovering over my cereal bowl for an indeterminate amount of time. In a moment I understood why I’ve been defensive all my life. The church exists under the rule of an intellectual and theological Darwinism - "survival of the fittest." We’ve all been trained to immolate everyone else’s beliefs in order to maintain our own. It's not simply a perception that others are attempting to destroy my belief system, they really are. They're not evil. They just believe they have to disassemble my beliefs if they are going to ensure the survival of their own. And they believe its for my own good. What is worse... I have been far from innocent in this spiritual game of “king of the mountain”; the consequence of developing a good offense as your best defense.

Of course, every age has been critical when it comes to competing truth claims or, more specifically, competing agendas and power struggles. War, violence and martyrdom (Christians can be fine oppressors too) testify to the consequences of such struggles. This is no less true in theological circles. Looking back at the aftermath of many of the early church councils, there is a disturbingly Darwinist trend in the competition of theological ideas in the church; the consequences of a lost battle not infrequently including condemnation, excommunication, exile, and worse. Consider the following:

St. Eustathius of Antioch - banished at First Council of Nicaea (325 AD).
Arius of Alexandria - excommunicated and banished at the first council of Nicaea (325 AD); legend says he was even slapped by Santa for his heresy!
Nestorius of Constantinopleexiled after the Council of Ephesus (431 AD), a tragic story.
Pope Vigiliusimprisoned at Second Council of Constantinople (553 AD).
Jan Huss - burned at the Council of Constance in (1414–1418 AD).

Maybe we should consider the possibility that fighting to promote our own doctrinal orthodoxy is not the answer. Not that I disagree with the decisions made at the councils. They have come to define “orthodoxy” as we know it. And I’m not saying that there is no objective truth in these matters, though I think objectivity may often be highly overrated and overstated when it comes to issues of faith. Rather, maybe “survival of the fittest” is the wrong way to go about getting at the truth. Maybe healthy humility and acknowledgment of the tension between ideas is more important than getting a set of answers by which we can measure who is “out” and who is “in” our spiritual clubs.

As for me, I think it’s time I laid down my defensiveness, if I can manage to override my programming, and focus my energies in a more positive direction of creating a theological alternative to many of the commonly held ideas which trouble me. Maybe that’s still a form of arguing, but at least it’s constructive instead of destructive.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Family Perspective

…but grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory, both now and to the day of eternity. Amen. (2Pe 3:18 NAU)

Growing up an only child, I always imagined that having a sibling would be a perpetual slumber party. We would be the best of friends, have endless adventures and never be lonely. Most importantly, I would never lack a partner for board games. Then I had children of my own. Watching them grow together, I was given a revelation from God. Having siblings is like living in a third world country: political strife, relentless competition for resources, and constant war brewing under the surface.

I suppose it’s not all bad. There are, of course, periodic moments of tenderness, harmony and forgiveness. There are certainly endless adventures. Unfortunately, they generally end in controversy and injury. And despite the presence of two other children, there is still the persistent ache of loneliness and a scarcity of partners for board games.

That’s why I always smirk a little when people use phrases like, “We are the family of God.” The metaphor itself causes me no particular difficulty. In fact, it is a wonderfully accurate picture of humanity under God’s authority and love. What troubles me is the temptation to take one half of the metaphor and ignore the other half.

It is true that the concept of family implies unity, but it is a unity amidst diversity and division. It is true that family supports one another emotionally and financially, but anyone who has any extended family knows that some will need a lot of support and that some, of course, will take advantage of it. It is true that family is an ideal example of love and loyalty and at the end of the day, when the muck hits the fan and all hell breaks loose, the underlying foundation of love and loyalty within the family of God is the only thing that will hold it together… if we don’t kill each other first. So, let’s make sure we’re honest with our metaphors.

Still, I think the family metaphor is the only one that stands a beggar’s chance of explaining all the different opinions, perceptions and obsessive-compulsive doctrinal statements that cause such strife within the Christian religion. Further, I believe it helps us to understand why religion misses the point of the Christian faith.

Imagine a father with twelve children (since we want to be biblical). The father loves all his children equally, but his relationship with each child is different and it is through that relationship that each child understands the father. One day at school, the children are asked to tell the class about their parents. The oldest child has a penchant for mischief and tells of his father’s discipline. The second child is self-conscious and fearful and speaks of his father’s encouragement and unconditional love. The third child, a daughter, relates the intimacy of her father’s embrace in the midst of her loneliness. The fourth child, with a kind and tender heart, tells of God’s justice and care for the hurting and broken. And so it goes, each child relating a different picture, some conflicting with others but all representing a truth - though somewhat distorted in emphasis - about the father.

Later that evening, prompted by their earlier classroom discussion, a conversation develops as they await their father’s return from work.

Mary: I wonder what it was like for Daddy before we came along? It must have been dreadfully lonely.

James: Well, he did have Mother after all. And besides, Father is an independent man and surely doesn’t need any of us to make his life complete.

Peter: But it does make me wonder why he made us in the first place.

Timothy: Yes, and why does he allow terrible things to happen to us? It’s been a whole month since my bicycle broke, and he still hasn’t replaced it!

James: Or more importantly, why he still hasn’t disciplined you for taking my skateboard without permission.

Timothy: Oh, get over it! I gave it back to you eventually.

James: But you never asked me for permission! That’s stealing, and Father hates sin!

Timothy: Then he must despise your prideful self-righteousness, you little snit!

Martha: Oh, knock it off you two! We have better things to do than listen to your whining. You’re both in the wrong and you know it.

Paul: Besides, the Father loves both of you anyway!

John: As long as you love each other… you know how important that is to Dad.

Mary: You don’t really think Daddy would stop loving us because we fight with each other, do you?

John: I can’t say for sure, I only know he commanded us to love each other or there would be consequences.

James: He also said that righteousness was extremely important… Timothy! You better be careful or… or… he might even kick you out of the family forever!

Mary: No!!!

Paul: I think that might be going a bit too far.

James: So, are you saying that we can just do whatever we want without consequences? Because if that’s true, then there’s no reason I shouldn’t do… this!

Timothy: Owww!! Why did you hit me!?

James: Why not?

Paul: Because it’s wrong. And I never said there would be no consequences. But saying father would kick someone out of the family forever is going too far.

Peter: No offense, Paul. But no one understands you anyway.

John: Besides, all this boils down to what Dad is like. He is love.

Timothy: Forgiveness.

James: Justice!

Paul: Trustworthy.

Peter: Righteous.

Martha: Responsible.

Mary: Daddy!

Inevitably the question emerges in any serious contemplation of the Christian faith, “How is it possible for Christians to have the same God but so many opposing convictions?” This simple thought exercise illustrates an answer to that question. It admits of our human inability to obtain perfect knowledge, of course, which is like urine in the baptismal water for some who want to believe that they have all the right answers. However, it demonstrates how genuine, faithful believers can be in an active and healthy relationship with God in Christ and still have different and opposing answers to fundamental questions of the faith. Our individual answers may be true, partially or relatively true or even completely false, but they were never terribly important anyway.

You see, our calling has never been to know more facts, but rather to know God deeper in relationship. In fact, Paul tells us in the first of his two existing letters to the Corinthians that knowledge “puffs up” while love “builds up.” Focused on our relationship with Christ (and expressing that love toward our fellow humans being), I suspect we will be drawn closer in unity than any theological argument will draw us to agreement.