What is the Bible?

“Once an idea has taken hold of the brain it’s almost impossible to eradicate.” – Inception

It’s important to know the times we are living in. It’s good to be aware of the unique point in the Christian tradition we are currently experiencing. If you look at any point in history the people in that time had questions that concerned them and they made their best attempt to answer it based on the understanding they had at the time of their faith, their culture, their understanding of science, etc. Right now there are some long standing beliefs being questioned about the bible. They aren’t going to go away and they are going to change things. Permanently. They will take years to work out but it will change things.

Next week there will be a book on the best seller list with the title, “What is the Bible?” It will be read by millions. Books will be written against this book. Videos and pastoral letters will be written to argue against the book. They will make character assumptions and attacks on the author. There will be ideas that have been around for a while which are going to become bigger and louder than ever. Part of the reason is because of the subject matter and part of the reason is due to it’s author, Rob Bell. He was thought of as an evangelical pastor when he wrote “Love Wins” which made the attacks on him vicious. He was seen as a traitor. Even if that tradition sees him as “no longer one of us” this book is still about what they consider to be “their thing.” It is going to start the discussion on a whole new level. Two things will happen right away.

  1. People will love it: A large percentage of those in church know something isn’t working. Many of them left over questions they weren’t aloud to ask as people gave them circular responses to their questions about the bible. They’ve been told things they know in their bones can’t be true. They’ve seen people abused with scripture. They don’t want to abandon the faith but they know what’s not working. This book will free many of those people to be able to move forward where they have been stuck. It will be a revelation to them and they will be able return to the bible again for the first time in a long time.
  1. People will hate it: Sacred cows are hard to kill because the beliefs around them are thought to be more than opinion. They deeply believe God agrees with them. They believe it’s not their view but God’s view and they have submitted to it. They will become afraid and the fear creates anger. They are going to start Facebook fights and Twitter wars. They will quote 2 Timothy 3:16 that says “all scripture is God breathed” as if that poetic Genesis reference somehow overthrew the questions. They will not notice their circular arguments of “the bible is God’s word because the bible says so because the bible is God’s word because the bible says so.” Many who hate the book most will not have read it but only what someone else wrote about it because they are afraid if they read it, there might be a question that disrupts the faith they currently have and they are afraid of “being deceived.”

All of this is part of the process. This is part of how we move forward. People need to have their experience. When I first started looking into these questions I was terrified. I wasn’t sure there would be any faith left on the other side and I had no idea who I was without that. I’ve had times where I lost my health, my job, my house… what felt like loosing everything. Nothing was more terrifying than the questions that threatened my faith because faith is central to my identity. We have to give people space to feel that because all theology is personal.

 

A few months ago a couple hundred of us spent a day with Rob Bell on the “How To Be Here” tour in Boston. He talked about how his next book was going to cause a storm and might be the most important work so far.

He said with a big laugh, “You know how on the back of a book there are all these quotes of people praising the book? For this book I thought about sending it to all my biggest critics and asking them to write a quote and including those.”

I asked, “Like John Piper?”

Rob said, “Who is that again? (beat) Is that the guy in Minnesota?

I said, “Farewell Rob Bell- excommunitweet?”

He said, “Oh right- that would be perfect!”

We all laughed.

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Five Thoughts On What The Bible Is

Phyllis Tickle talked about how the church has a rummage sale every 500 years and gets rid of what it doesn’t need and holds to what it does. It happened at the fall of Rome around 500AD, the Great Schism around 1000AD, the protestant reformation in 1500AD, and now we are at another 500 year mark. Things are always changing but with the world becoming a smaller neighborhood through technology we are experiencing major shift, and so is the Church. Not just geographically as the Christian faith has experienced a sharp decline in the west and major revival in the east, but also in the kinds of questions it’s asking.

One question seems to be, what IS the Bible? Have we missed the mark on what the Bible even is? Is it a different kind of work all together than the protestants thought? What has been the fruit of the Protestant approach to the Bible? The fruit of Sola Scripture? Did it create more unity or more division?

I’m only an observer on the macro level but I can speak about my journey a bit and a few thoughts that shook me at first but eventually gave me peace.

And The Ground Shook:

For me it started with a simple thought. It struck me as overly convenient that I happened to be born into the tradition that views the Bible clearly and interprets it accurately. With the incredible diversity to interpretation and practice, was I really born and raised in the group that got it most correct? If so, why isn’t this group more alive in their faith and why do they spend so much time defending and arguing for the accuracy of their view? Things only got more complex from there.

Slowly, over years of study and reflection a different view started emerging. Mainly these thoughts came off the pages of the Bible itself. Here are those thoughts without their backstory because some of them might be helpful to a few of you… Pretty much as I recorded them on the notes app over the last season.

1. The Bible isn’t something to be believe in but an invitation to a wrestling match. The very name Israel means to struggle with God. Struggling with God is at the core of the people of God. He wants that kind of relationship.

2. Perhaps the Bible does more to demonstrate a trajectory than establish a permanent set of values. It does more to demonstrate how to change than how to be. It says more about the journey of faith than the destination of it. Scripture was never intended to be a destination point but an arrow that shows the trajectory of what God is doing in the world. The way to live in faith as a member of a Jewish tribe in the time of Moses was extremely different than what it meant to live as a Christian in the first century under Roman oppression. God may not change in his character but he constantly adapts to context. God is unchanging in his character but that does not mean he is stagnant in his approach. It does not mean he is inflexible when dealing with modern issues. If anything, the Scripture shows us how accommodating he can be as he works with communities to pull them forward. The Scripture is a history of God partnering with polygamists, violent warlords, coward, murderers, adulterers, slave owners, chauvinists, idolaters, and others like us.

3. The Old Testament is a record of people struggling to understand God or follow Him correctly. The gospels reveal Jesus Christ as the accurate representation of God. The rest of the New Testament records people struggling to fully understand Jesus and the implications of His work and trying to do so. I relate to the Bible because my life looks similar… perpetually failing to understand God and trying to do so because of the connection I have to God.

4. The Bible harnesses the wisdom and experience of multiple generations through every style of literature. Although it takes place in a world and mindset we could never comprehend, it is the best tool we have for understanding the human condition and what is needed for growth and change.

5. When reading Scripture we’re not reading objective reality but perspective reality. Perspective reality is the only kind humans have. You’re seeing how those people understood and explained their perspective of their experience with God. Just like us, the authors of the Bible were “seeing through a glass dimly” and operating on their best understanding. That understanding was not stagnant but is ever moving forward. Just as they thought the world was flat and we know it is not, all understanding moves from being more flat to being multi-dimensional. We do not see more clearly because we are so much smarter and more sophisticated, but as Scripture shows, God is consistently meeting people and communities where they are to pull them forward.

Many will read that and think I have strayed off the path but the important question is… Which path have I strayed from? I would say I have strayed off the path of making claims for the Bible it never makes for itself. From treating it as something it’s not. From asking questions it isn’t trying to answer and forcing it to share my concerns and values. I am trying to accept the bible as it is and not what I want it to be. As Pete Enns puts it, “God let’s his children tell their story.”

With all of these problems I still love the Bible and hold it to be the most important work recorded human history. It is, dare I say, inspired… even divine. How about God breathed… and I don’t find that to be a contradiction with my above statements. The Bible is full of the most influential writings in the history of the world. Although it’s often seen as archaic, it sets an example in the fact that every time part of it was written it was the most progressive voice of it’s day. The best evidence of scriptures’s authority is the fact that millions have been changed by it’s words. It continues to challenge and grow people to this day. The history of the Bible’s effect is the best evidence of it’s authority. Still, the Bible’s influence on me is the only real evidence I need that it is in fact… sacred.

 

This is a short summery of some thoughts we shared on the Different Together Podcast. Check that out and share your thoughts and opinions for our follow episode as we go deeper.

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Four Reasons My Life Is Easier Than Most

So I’m six years old and the most amazing Korean food is being put in front of me. It’s homemade. It’s proper Korean food in a way I haven’t experienced in a restaurant since. That day I ate what would become some of my life-long favorite foods. Bulgogi, kalbi, kimchee and rice, and of course the Korean pancake. I have very clear memories of those days around those meals. This food was all lovingly prepared by my friend David’s mom. I spent a lot of time in their house as a kid because I loved hanging out with David… but also… oh the food.

David’s parents had moved from Korea with a team of people to plant a church on Ohio State University’s campus and that was the church I spent my early childhood in. My early childhood was formed by an experience that was multi-cultural. My last two years of high school were spent in a school where, as a white kid, I was in the minority. The singing/ dancing group I was in called “ensemble” was a place where, for one of the two years, I was the only white male that got in… which I was super proud of.  As a musician, I got a serious education from kids that grew up in black gospel churches. My friend Mark, who had played drums in black churches since he was three years old on his uncle’s lap, taught me as much about music as anyone in my life. I understand what a pocket is because of him. When he came to play drums with me at the youth group I was in at the time (mostly white) they just watched him because they had never seen someone play drums like that. In many ways he spoiled me for all of time when it comes to drummers.

After high school I was part of a church plant in Philly which had students attending from every background. Even my dating experience included wonderful women from every race over the years.  Most of my life I was surrounded by people from other cultures. It was my norm. But, the truth is… I never understood. I never got it. I still don’t.

I knew people of every race my entire life and what it has shown me is I don’t understand the race issue at all. I never fully can because I can’t be on the inside of that experience. Because multi-cultural was my norm I never realized how deep the issues run. Being friends with people of other races has shown me that I have no idea what it’s like to be them.

Look- It’s important for people like me to realize that my setup in life is one of the easiest to be born into.

1. I’m a male. Through all of history we have dominated woman and although it’s getting better, there is still a lot of inequality.

2. I’m white. For people that think there is equality in the races… that is blindness. The opportunities are not equal but also, the barriers are higher and thicker for non-whites.

3. I’m American. Just being born in this country puts me in the biggest military and economic superpower in human history. Just being born here is a huge advantage over being born most other places and the opportunities that are here far surpass most of the globe.

4. I’m straight. Being straight means I grew up and developed as my parents and community expected. I was in the mold and never experienced the kind of internal struggle and external pressure to fit in as LGBTQ people do… Especially in the church culture I was raised in.

If I was tall and maybe from a wealthier family, I would officially have the easiest setup for a human in all of history in any location. So I am aware that I have no idea what it’s like to be female, non-white, immigrant or alien, or LGBTQ. No idea. I can’t be on the inside of those struggle so should be slow to have opinions about them.

What I can do is ask questions.

I can listen.

Let’s all spend a bit more time listening.

Maybe start here. My friend Joel Hubbard and I started this podcast to talk about how we can be on the inside of the lives of people who are completely different than us. Different without distance. This week we talked to an African-American woman about how her race has affected really hard questions about faith and community. Maybe you can get on the inside of her story a bit and I’m so thankful to Nicole for being willing to share with us.

Listen to the podcast here.

Different Together copy

 

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Why I Won’t Sing “In Christ Alone”

In my twenty years as a worship leader I’ve been asked to lead some songs that struck me as a bit odd. Probably the oddest was “These are the days of Elijah” which was very popular and a catchy pop tune but I didn’t understand any of it. The song “In Christ Alone” however has been at the top of the CCLI list (list for songs being sung in churches) for over a decade. It was written in 2001 by a couple amazing worship leaders and 95% of the lyrics are absolutely amazing so it’s no wonder it’s gone around the globe. It a powerful and moving song both musically and lyrically. Still, I can’t bring myself to sing it anymore because of one section of the second verse. It goes like this:

Till on that cross as Jesus died,

The wrath of God was satisfied;

For every sin on Him was laid—

Here in the death of Christ I live.

The line “The wrath of God was satisfied” is really the one that gets me stuck. It comes from a theology called the “penal substitution view of the atonement.” If you aren’t familiar the idea pretty much goes like this:

—God is righteous and hates sin. Man is full of sin and has violated the righteousness of God. Therefore God has this righteous wrath pent up against humanity. God was going to unleash his wrath and punish human being by destroying them and sending them to hell forever but Jesus stepped in and essentially said, “No father, take me instead. I’ll take the punishment for them.” So Jesus came to earth and God unleashed his righteous wrath on Jesus on the cross instead of on us. If we put our faith in the one who took the penalty for us we won’t encounter God’s righteous wrath after death. In essence our atonement, our justification comes from God unleashing his righteous wrath on Jesus instead of on us.—

This is not only popular but I would argue it is the dominate view in evangelicalism today. But for me it raises some questions. Is this why some people love Jesus but are terrified of the Father? What does this say about the image of God in our minds? Does the Son save us from the Father? Are the Father and Son at odds with each other on this? Does God actually forgive our sins if he has actually penalized someone else? Does this idea of justice make sense at all coming from the God of justice? Does this mean the pagan idea of sacrifice to appease the gods was pretty much accurate even if they aimed it wrong? Does God really need his “pound of flesh” in order to accept humanity? Does God love his enemies the way Jesus taught his followers to love their enemies?

For all those reasons this idea doesn’t make sense to me and I can’t get on board with it and can’t sing that line. I wonder if anyone has replaced it with a line that reflects the true beauty of what Jesus was doing on the cross. There are several views of the atonement but the penal substitution makes no sense to me. I believe the Father and Son are in complete unity in working toward the redemption of all humanity and all the messes we get ourselves into. I believe Jesus was the most fully alive human and his victory on the cross was far more beautiful than appeasing some holy wrath in the Father. (See Christus Victor view for example) I believe the heart revealed in Jesus when he prayed for the forgiveness of his enemies with his dying breath is echoed through the trinity. I believe Jesus is God with skin on and perfectly reveals the full picture of what God is like. I believe Jesus is the “image of the invisible God” as Colossians says.

I know many have done mental gymnastics to make arguments that the penal substitution view is correct and I understand it’s a complicated question but I always go back to this grounding thought. The good news is better than that. God is more beautiful than we imagine and if we imagine something that isn’t beautiful… it isn’t a true portrait of God. It might need some tweaking.

 

 

Update: A friend changed the line and I like it:

“On the cross as Jesus died, the love of God exemplified”

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Caterpillar Story

Love this simple and profound story. Reflects the journey I’ve been on for sure.

joelhubbard

There once was a caterpillar colony that received a sacred message from the heavens that they should all change and become butterflies. The message encouraged them not resist the process. Many of them had and died resisting the change.

Over time, a class of caterpillars formed to discern what a butterfly would look like and what they should do to turn into them. A few exceptionally determined and talented caterpillars figured out how to jump instead of crawl. These special caterpillars decided this must be what a butterfly is and so all caterpillars needed to work hard and learn to jump.So the colony worked hard and the traditions took root of how to learn to jump. Some were able to learn and some just couldn’t get it. Those who gave up were marginalized but no one doubted that these caterpillars who jumped around were the real deal.

This went on…

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How Important is Belief?

I’m just starting to unwrap my McChicken Sandwich when he starts in.

“What do you belief about…..” (series of questions about my views)

I know what he is trying to ask but my answer feels labored.

“Well right now I think….”

He is unsatisfied

“Currently it seems to me….”

I’m not helping my case and I didn’t know I was on trial at 11:30AM in McDonalds.

After years of doing my best with this process as I engage with my personal tradition of evangelicalism I started asking myself a few questions. What does my tradition mean when they use the word “belief?” Is it simply just a list of right and wrong answers? Is it what I have intellectually accepted as true VS false based on my current and limited knowledge? And a question I constantly ask, “Whether faith, politics, or even soft drink preferences… Why do people assume those who disagree are either uninformed, ignorant, or duped?”

Then another realization hit me. Since theology was always of interest to me, I studied it for most of my adult life. The more I learned the more I was grabbing certain viewpoints and releasing others. I was trying to figure out what “I believed” and eventually got to a point where I couldn’t agree theologically with anyone. I liked what many said on certain topics but began to think they were ignorant on others or were missing a key piece of information.

A more humbling thought came a few years later.

If you were to ask me the same question on some of the most important topics over the last 15 or so years you would get 15 different answers. If you took 15 groups that viewed those questions differently, they all would have gotten the answer they thought was right during one of those question cycles. That’s when I started asking myself, “Why is what I ‘believe’ (in my tradition’s use of the word) so important? Is what I believe at a given point in time all that interesting?”

Maybe faith is more where my feet are and less where my mouth is. At one point in my faith struggle I even said to myself, “Even if there is no God- I think Jesus is worth imitating.” This is not an argument for pragmatism in an attempt to undermine the intellectual process but an acknowledgment it’s limits. We are frankly too small and the mystery too great. Belief in the Biblical sense has to do with the actions associated with it. The journey we are on is too sacred to be boiled down to a simplistic checklist or set of views. Our actions are sacred and so is the community we process our journey with. If we can honor our own journey and that of those around us who see it differently we can all grow together. If respect, love, and honor is at the center than we can embrace the beauty of our differences and grow more fully alive. As it was once wisely said, “The glory of God is man fully alive.” We are all more alive when our faith is more in our hands and feet than in our current opinions.

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Caesar’s Coins

The Pharisees were the Bible believing pastoral leaders of their day. They were the religious elite that everyone had looked to for answers for so long. As religious experts often do, they profited from the gap they kept between their knowledge and supposed spiritual maturity and the seemingly lower level of those around them. They had both enjoyed and prospered from being the people who believed the right things and had the right answers for so long and Jesus was attracting more attention and more people were following him every day instead of them. The religious leaders did not like how Jesus was damaging their reputation and they really didn’t like how much his following was growing. The kinds of things he taught and the kinds of people he hung out with was incredibly offensive to the religious leaders of his day. (Side note- if you look like Jesus you will always be offending the religious.)

When Jesus arrives in Jerusalem, he and his disciples go to the temple where all the religious thinkers are gathered and Jesus kicks out those who are selling in the only area the the gentiles could worship in and possibly running the scams through money changing and selling “temple approved sacrificial animals.” After he did this many of the religious leaders take turns asking him questions about what is the greatest commandment, the resurrection, and paying taxes to Caesar. The arc of Jesus’s ministry is coming to its climax and these are the series of teachings he gives before the plot against him is initiated.

The way I picture it, Jesus has freaked everybody out by kicking out the money changers and scammers essentially cleansing the Court of Gentiles (outer part) of the temple, but is now reclining in the Court of Israel with his disciples. This is where Jesus is approached first with flattery, and then with the trap.

First comes the setup. It goes something like this. “Jesus, we know you have your priorities right and you value the truth of what God teaches over the mere opinions of man. You are always right on track in everything you teach.” Second comes the trap. When the enemy wants to divide the followers of Jesus he often turns to the perpetually reliable methods of fringe doctrines that are not central to the faith (religion) and to politics. There is nothing more devisive to the unity of the body of Christ then religion and politics which is why the enemy always tries to keep Christians fighting about those two subjects.

“Is it right to pay our tribute tax to Cesar?” They ask. This is a brilliant question to divide the room. There are two main political groups in front of Jesus. The zealots won’t pay taxes to Caesar and want to ban together and take up arms to fight and drive the Romans out of Israel. On the other side of the political isle are those who believe they should make the best of the situation and try to live at peace with the rule of Rome. Whichever position Jesus sides with will alienate many of his followers. This is one of those times I am astounded by the genius of Jesus because he does not dodge the question but goes beyond it to the issue behind it and shocks his audience. We often see Jesus presented with a difficult question where he is asked, “Is it option one or option two?” That’s when they hear “secret Jesus option number three” that they never saw coming.

“Whose image is on this coin?” Jesus asks. “Caesar’s,” they replied. Then Jesus says several stunning things in one sentence when he replies, “Then give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s but give to God the things that are God’s.” The Scriptures tell us that they were stunned by his answer and fell silent.

Jew’s considered it idolatry to put the image of a person on anything. It seems so poetic in this story to look on Caesar’s image which they considered an idol on money which can also become an idol. Jesus had already warned them that “They could not serve both God and money. The coin had an inscription on it that said, “Caesar Augustus Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus.” Another way to say that is “King Augustus, son of God Augustus.” The money claimed Augustus was a King who was the son of God and they bring that to Jesus. Jesus is essentially saying, “Are we really going to fight over how much of this idolatrous coinage we get to keep? Let Caesar have the coins printed in his name with his face on it.”

But here is the real twist. “You give to God what belongs to God.  Do you remember who bears the image of God?”  Who’s lungs are full because the creator breathed life into them after deciding, “Let us make man in our image and according to our likeness” in Genesis 1:26? Whatever is made in God’s image give back to him which is… yourselves. Give Caesar his coins and give God the offering he deserves which is “To offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God.”

Dorothy Day said, “Once we’ve given to God what’s God’s, there isn’t much left for Caesar.”

(Mark 12: 13-17)

bronze-augustus

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