Not a Fan; Misunderstood God

Along with my podcast partner, John Poelstra, I have finished reading and then producing a number of podcasts assessing Kyle Idleman’s Not a Fan and Darin Hufford’s Misunderstood God.  During these podcasts I was generally unimpressed with these books because I perceived a number of issues with both of them, and one problem in particular.

One way of expressing the problem is that these books both make broad claims yet are actually too narrow.  So where they ‘broadly’ aim at presenting the most important aspect(s) of the Christian faith I think that they fail because they lack correct understandings about (and so, as a result, fail correctly to formulate) who God is, what human beings are, and what the relationship between the two is / should be.

Stated differently, their understandings and formulations are skewed because they are derived too narrowly, and it seems to me that this is in three regards.

First, they offer an insufficient reading of the biblical text.  In this regard my podcast partner John Poelstra qualified Idleman’s use of Scripture as “amateur,” which I think is entirely accurate.  Hufford, by contrast, actually makes no use of Scripture at all: beyond applying the general framework of 1 Cor. 13 to his chapter layout he makes not a single biblical reference.

In other words, to the degree that I have formed my opinions of Christianity from a fairly attentive and rigorous focus on Scripture I necessarily need (and should expect!) Christian authors writing on Christianity to buttress their points with a similarly attentive and rigorous approach to Scripture.  To put it another way, I’m looking for more truth than I currently have, not less!  So when we’re making truth claims based on the Bible I want to be more assured (not less!) that those claims are legitimate, particularly if what’s at stake is me changing my mind about some aspect of the Christian faith.

Second, the points and arguments of each author lack sufficient integration with other, valid information sources (my mentor likes to call these other “informers”).  The basic point here is twofold.

On the one hand, while the biblical text may be rightly interpreted as containing truth claims about God, humanity, and the natural world, such claims are presented as being sufficient but not comprehensive regarding such matters (even regarding God, who is both greater than the text and who is best / most fully imaged in Jesus the Christ, who is the logos—the living word!).

On the other hand, incorporation of other, valid information sources mirrors the basic orientation that must, in my opinion, characterize Christian interaction (both with the Bible, other Christians, and non-Christians): dialogue.  Too often Christians take the position of dispute—defensively presenting their perspective as both comprehensive and ultimate.  Instead we need to assume a posture of openness that allows us to incorporate more truth into our understandings (because if all truth is God’s truth we need not fear it, no matter where we find it) AND fosters productive interaction with outsiders by demonstrating a willingness to listen while maintaining the possibility of critique.

So Idleman’s emphasis on “following”—and particularly, why Christians don’t follow Jesus well—would have appeared much more credible if his viewpoint was informed by thinkers like Neil Fiore or Merold Westphal, whereas Hufford’s emphasis on love would been better grounded (and so seemed more convincing) if he had integrated the thought and research of someone like Brené Brown.

Third, these authors propose an impoverished view of human beings insofar as they target only one aspect of humanness.  By “humanness” I’m referring to the various components that make up human beings (such as our individuation, relationality, situatedness, rationality, emotions, imagination, will, experiences, knowledge claims, situatedness, etc.).  So in these two cases Idleman emphasizes ‘the will’ above all else, whereas for Hufford it is ‘the heart’ or the emotions.

Yet a full and robust presentation of the relation between God and human beings must likewise address (and incorporate) the entirety of the human being!  In other words, both reason and the emotions / feelings, the will and the imagination, as well experiences and knowledge claims—the entirety of what it means to be human must both be considered and incorporated into any presentation of what is most crucial to the Christian faith.

So from my perspective, from both my studies and my experience, that which is most essential to the Christian God and human beings may best be summarized under the flexible co-centrality of love and truth, truth and love.  Yet my belief is that these ‘top level’ characteristics / orientations do not suppress or deny the scope of our humanness but rather situate it properly, by most accurately representing that context within which the full scope of our humanness can meet the richest and most biblical portrayal of who God is, a harmony that is also borne out by my personal experience of / with God.

And this, I wager, is what Christians both want and would expect to see: a view of God and self that accurately reflects the biblical claims; understandings and experiences of self and God / self with God that both confirm and enliven those same claims.

Christian “food truck”?

My spouse and I had a conversation coming back from church the other day.

They had sung a song about “turning the other cheek” and I mentioned the importance of ‘honour and shame’ in 1st century Palestine, and that we misunderstand “turn the other cheek” if we remove it from this cultural context (it gets altered into something about pacifism cum self-effacement).

She wondered if I ever thought that I’m too critical or too anxious to nuance things “just so,” or if I feel a need to distance myself from other Christians, or something.

I explained it differently.

I said that I don’t feel any anxiety or anger (or a particular need to show that I’m not “like them”)—it’s different than that. I compared it to a culinary model. I said that I feel like a chef who is constantly being offered food to sample.  So like a chef relative to other cooks, I have more training than most. I also referenced the non-taster / taster / super-taster model (about how perceptively people taste) and suggested that in this realm I was like a super-taster.

On this analogy Christianity is interested in / about food (as in, “one may not live by bread alone”) and, as I sit in church and listen (or read books like Not A Fan), I am sampling the dishes that I am being served.  And because I am a chef, I have an educated (or to a certain degree, ‘faithful’) understanding of the dishes (I know their ingredients, preparation, and history). And because I am a super-taster (both by virtue of my experiences and of the skills I’ve developed through the long practice of examining those experiences), I have a sense of ‘creative’ flair that I apply to this understanding.

In other words, I have honed a ‘biblical’ skills set marked by creative fidelity.

So I’m sampling the dishes that I’m being given and, at times, tasting that something is missing, or maybe something is too strong, or that one dish is supposedly being presented when in fact the meal is really some other dish.  Or perhaps the way that a cook is combining dishes or presenting them is somehow dissonant, displeasing, or even inedible.

And in addition to sampling the food of others I want, of course, to be preparing and providing healthy, accessible, and yet glorious food myself. Indeed, to my mind (and on this analogy), that is the goal of the Kingdom of God “for” and “towards” me and you.

The Kingdom of God is not mine or “about” me, but it involves me deeply. And it does so in two ways. First, where I am outside of God’s Kingdom and not in relationship with God it presents itself to me as a nourishing meal to one who is famished—it is invites me through its richness and fullness (so “taste and see that God is good”).  Second (and later), as one who has embraced God’s Kingdom, my close relationship with God sustains me as a hearty meal sustains one who “realizes” oneself in dedicating oneself to one’s deepest passion: a deep commitment that is self-sacrificial YET joyous, without contradiction (so Paul “counting it all joy”).

So where and how am I evaluating and serving this food?  I’m not ministering in a church—churches have their own kitchens, their own chefs, their own recipes. But through this blog and my upcoming podcast maybe I could be compared to . . . a food truck.

Food trucks are mobile and intriguing.  Risky: it comes to me instead of me going to it, and I can’t guarantee whether I’ll like it.  But upfront—you see the crew and the chef(s)—and there’s no need to guess what’s on offer.  Small scale versus mass market, food trucks are only viable because they offer (and provide) excellence, and for that, you have to pay a bit more—in this case, invest some time.

But food trucks are almost always worth it.

Without Jesus, apparently, we all “Suck”

What?!

But, on second thought, maybe I should not be too surprised:

In Kyle Idleman’s popular not a fan he states “that the reason that we were put on this planet is to answer this one question,” that being, “What if there really is a heaven and a hell, and where I spend eternity comes down to this one question?”  (p. 21, italics his).

For Kyle, Christianity is about reward and punishment.  Either we will accept Jesus and believe (and so receive the reward of heaven) or we reject Jesus and disbelieve (and so suffer the punishment of hell).  Further, throughout the book Kyle is at pains to emphasize how Christianity “costs” a great deal, such as how Christians should hate everyone else by comparison to how much they love God and how, as a Christian, I should “empty myself of me” to make space for the Holy Spirit. (pp 65 & 95).

So where Christianity is about gaining reward and avoiding punishment, and where loving God means (practically) hating others and effacing myself, it’s not surprising to find something like www.withoutjesusisuck.com (WJIS).  Both exemplify a key notion in evangelical Christianity: at best you’re a problem; at worst you’re worthless.

But this should raise a few questions:

Why would God create something that “sucks”?  Why, indeed, would God love something that “sucks”?  And why would God purportedly die for something that “sucks”?

Now many evangelicals would be quick to interject: “No!  God created us as wonderful, and then we messed it up by sinning.  While we sin we can do nothing right.  And the fact that God loves us so much that God gave up his only son to die for us and take away our sin, that is the wonder and mystery of God’s love that we can never comprehend.”

Yet the upshot of an incomprehensible situation, obviously, is that we can’t figure it out.  So we have only two options: either believe or don’t.  In fact, we are right back with Kyle Idleman’s two choices.  And really, if you can actually believe that God is real, then practically there is no choice: no sane or moral person would choose not to be a Christian.  Pretty nifty how that works, huh?

Not really.  I think it’s crap (and I’m not even Scottish).

First, the idea that God’s love for us is incomprehensible is both bogus and unbiblical.  Bogus because if God’s “love” were completely unrelated to human love then it would be impossible to experience it as love—it would not be “love” in any sense that we know it.  Unbiblical because the Bible is totally clear on this point: in order to be in right relationship with God we can and must experience God’s love, we must “taste and see” God’s goodness 1.  And this experience must, at minimum, be comprehensible and “square with” our general understandings of love.

Second, God loves us now, as we are.  For as I’ve tried to argue elsewhere, sin is not the problem but its symptom.  The problem?  Not being in right relationship with God, and a major part of the solution (along with having better, truer understandings of who God is, who humans are, and how the two should relate) is that we experience God’s love and understand it as such.

Third, it is clear that I can and do act, think, etc., in ways that are good.  Not “good” in some sort of absolute, modernist way—no one is arguing for that.  No, in the same way that Postmodernism never means “absolutely anything goes” (outside of advertisements for pizza toppings), so “doing right things” is not a claim to absolute goodness that challenges either God’s holiness or the necessity of Jesus dying in fulfillment of the covenant.

So you don’t suck, and neither do I.

God loves you, and God loves me. God loves us now, as we really are, and also as we best could be, as seen through the lens of God’s love and God’s truth.

And that’s the T-shirt we need.

Atheism’s “religious” significance—Part 1

 

What is atheism?

At base, atheism is a truth-seeking enterprise inquiring into the nature of material reality, human existence, and the divine.  Atheists champion the use of reason and emphasize the role of personal experience and the verifiability (scientific and otherwise) of information.

In their approach to religion, atheists maintain two prominent orientations.  First, evidential atheists—philosopher Bertrand Russell is a good example—disbelieve in God (and religion) because they find insufficient evidence for belief.  Second, atheists of suspicion—Sigmund Freud and Friedrich Nietzsche are good examples—disbelieve because the practices of its adherents show religion to be something other than what it claims to be.

The first target belief content, the second target the belief’s outworkings.  But of course, this is not how Christians typically consider atheism.

Typically, atheism is identified with its conclusion that the most truthful characterization of the preceding is that no God or Gods exist—that the material world is all that there is and that human existence is the result of natural forces, including chance.

Yet by jumping straight to its conclusion, Christians overlook a lot:

They overlook the common goal that they share with atheists: an ardent pursuit of truth.  They further overlook that both claim to engage seriously with the real world in attaining this truth.  And many again overlook that they too, to a certain extent, are atheistic: most Christians would claim that the White Supremist church (in the early American South or during South African apartheid) is a false church, and that its God is a distortion of the true Christian God, and is not to be worshiped.

Before examining their significance, we must ask: Why do Christians typically overlook these similarities?  Because most have adopted a posture of dispute with those who oppose them.

Why?

My wager is because many of them understand loving God in much the same way that Kyle Idleman describes in his book, not a fan: being “so committed [to Jesus] that by comparison, you hate everyone else.” (p. 65).    And what happens when such Christians encounter outsiders to their views?  Let’s see what Kyle did:

He tells a story (pages 110 – 111) of a single dad who started coming to Kyle’s church and “fell in love with Jesus.”  Later the fellow’s mother, herself a churchgoer, wanted to meet Kyle with her son.  During the meeting the mother expressed concern that her son was going too far, becoming immoderate with his beliefs.  Kyle’s response?

“I tried to keep a pleasant smile, but my teeth were clenched, and my breath was short.  I was feeling defensive of my friend. . . . So I did what I always do when I get angry; I started quoting Scripture from Revelation.  I said to this lady who had been in church most of her life:

‘In Revelation 3 Jesus says to the Christians in Laodicea, ‘You are neither hot or cold but because you are lukewarm I’m about to spit you out of my mouth.’  Jesus doesn’t say: ‘everything in moderation”; he says you can’t be my follower if you don’t give up everything.’ “

On the one hand my reply is: Shame on you, Kyle Idleman.

You had an occasion to love you neighbour and instead of offering acceptance in order to foster a relationship and develop understanding, you chastised and excluded her.  Faced with an opportunity to discuss what it means to love (and be loved by) God, you instead chose to shut down dialogue by arguing against her with your righteous indignation?  Poorly done.

On the other hand, sadly, the problem is much larger than Kyle Idleman.  To begin, we need dialogue instead of dispute.

More so, we need church leaders who clearly perceive the deep kinship that exists between Christians and all “outsiders” to the Christian faith.  We need those who, given our common humanity, do not curtail dialogue because either we “don’t have Christ in common” or we do not view Christ (or Christianity) the same way.

And ultimately the Church needs leaders who understand the love of God aright, so that thereby they may model love of neighbour rightly.

Bad things we do with Bible verses (Part II)

 

Last week I highlighted two ideas from Pastor Kyle Idleman’s recent book, not a fan, and I noted how poor biblical exegesis leads to misunderstanding the Bible.  Yet is that really something “bad” that we do with Bible verses?

Hmmmn.

Maybe not so much.  But let’s see what comes from examining Kyle’s notion that “the only way to be filled with the Spirit is to empty myself of me. . . . The more he fills me, the less room there is for me” (not a fan, 95).  .

Sadly, none of the half dozen verses Kyle uses in this chapter actually support his view.  But let’s help him out—let’s suggest a passage, like Galatians 2:20: “and it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me . . .”  This is likely the clearest basis upon which this notion can be based.

But is Kyle’s view of the Holy Spirit actually borne out here—what does this verse mean?

To start, let’s put matters in context by taking (at bare minimum) the whole idea that Paul is expressing: So Gal 2:19-20 reads: “For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God, I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live but it is Christ who lives in me.  And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

As author N. T. Wright observes, “there was nothing wrong with wanting to keep Torah, it was merely impossible to do it.” (Climax of the Covenant, 197).  Rather, the point about this section of Galatians “is not, in other words, a small number for whom ‘national righteousness’ avails after all, but those who, like Paul himself, have died and risen with Christ.”  (Climax, 247).

The point is clear: Gal 2:19-21 actually concludes a long argument that the opportunity for right relationship with God has been made possible through the life and death of Jesus.  Christ “living in me” is the state of embracing this opportunity, whereas for all other approaches (even attempting to keep Torah—itself a good gift from God) it is “I who live,” which is insufficient.

But is there is another problem here?

To my mind, the bigger issue with Kyle’s preference for self-effacement (and preference it is, lacking biblical support) is that it ignores, and so undermines, the truth and wonder of human relationality.  In essence, Kyle undermines the very truth of created existence, truth that God has established to point us towards Godself.

How so?

Well, as any parent knows, when a new child enters your life you are not forced to love your spouse, friends, etc. less.  Likewise when a second child comes into a family it does not mean that you must divide in half the love that you give to your first child.  No.  In either case, the result is actually more love: love begets love.

So where it essentially detaches our love relationship with God from healthy human love relationships, Kyle’s view abstracts God from our experience: God no longer informs our existence, and we no longer understand God through our existence.

The upshot: Christians effectively burn bridges with those whom they most wish to communicate because such Christians do not live in (nor can they relate to) the real world!

Compounding matters, such Christians often explain the negative responses non-Christians have to their witnessing on the basis that the gospel is “offensive” or a “stumbling block,” or that “the world hates us.”

I wonder if it has occurred to these Christians that it is only the content of the Gospel (i.e., the truth claim that Jesus is God’s son who has come to reclaim all existence—and so all humanity—for God, as part of God’s kingdom) that should rightly be an obstacle, and not the ignorance, miscomprehensions, and perversions of both real life and the Bible that so many Christians seem so willing both to accept and pass-off to others?

Bad things we do with Bible verses (Part I)

 

“I love you, but really you’re unimportant—it’s all about me.”

“In fact, you should love me so much that you hate everyone else by comparison.”

It’s easy to hear these perspectives in television or films.  We might, sadly enough, hear them in people’s homes or even our own.  But hopefully we recognize them for what they are: warped and twisted.

So while reading Kyle Idleman’s not a fan (a recent Christian publication that garnered some acclaim) I was dismayed and saddened to find these perspectives not only meekly hidden but openly espoused.

Here are two examples:

First, the author explains about being filled with the Holy Spirit: “The only way to be filled with the Spirit is to empty myself of me. . . . The more he fills me, the less room there is for me” (95).  Sure, God loves me, but the more of God there is in me (and the less of me), the better.

Second, the author describes the type of relationship that God wants with us: “Jesus isn’t just saying, ‘I want to be first place in your life.’  He is saying, ’I don’t even want there to be a second place.’ (page 59).  This means that if you follow Jesus “you’re so committed to him that by comparison, you hate everyone else.” (65).

Where does he get this stuff?

The Bible.  Or so he claims.

For reasons of space I’ll focus on his second idea, which Kyle takes from Luke 14: 26, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father or mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”

But because he misunderstands the verses he uses to support his view, Kyle also misunderstands what it means to follow Jesus (and love God) .

As I discussed earlier, verses cannot be rightly understood when taken in isolation either to the book that contains them or to the remainder of, in this case, the New Testament.  So the meaning of Luke 14:26 is understood in light of the greater context of Luke and its parallel account in Matthew.  Let’s see how.

Matt 10:37-39 offers a slightly different rendering of the same idea: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.  Those who find their life will lose it and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

Next, Luke 8:20-21 contextualizes Luke’s view of ‘family’: “And [Jesus] was told, ‘Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to see you.’  But he said to them, ‘My mother and brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.’ “

So what does this mean?

One commentary puts it this way: “In antiquity the extended family meant everything. . . . But a surrogate family, what anthropologists call a fictive kin group, could serve many of the same functions as a biological family.  The Christian group acting as a surrogate family is for Luke the locus of the good news.” (page 335). 1

Concerning the passage immediately prior to Kyle’s verse—the story of inviting everyone and anyone to dine with you (Luke 14:15-24)—the same commentator notes that “Jesus’ call for inclusive table fellowship . . . is here made explicit and the price to be paid for it [(i.e., Luke 14:26)] is spelled out.” (369).

Taking this information together, we should read Luke 14:26 as follows:

As those who are “to love the Lord your God” with all their being and love their neighbours as themselves (as per Luke 10:27), Christians are to embrace each other even to the point of violating traditional norms of interaction (such as restricting table fellowship to those of the same class or family), even where such violations—in the culture of antiquity—could be perceived as hateful acts towards one’s own family.