Experience vs. Description

 

Self-perception and self-care are huge.  And hugely problematic.

So a friend once asked me: “How do I reach someone who is so immersed in their story?  There is so much pain there, so much challenge with self-care.  Always defaulting to what others need: I wish for a key to unlock their potential.”

My first thought?  We are all immersed in our own stories.

The key is becoming consciously aware of that story, being aware of the options, and making the best choices among them.  Not everything in my own story is optional—I am male, of a certain age, from a certain family.  But how I view myself, how I treat myself, how I treat others (and allow them to treat me) are things that I can choose.

Now this is my challenge as well, although I am working with religious beliefs: how do I reach readers, Christian and non-Christian, who are immersed in a particular view of Christianity?

In this pursuit I begin with myself: Why do I want to reach readers?

Well, I am proposing “another Christian option” because my life has been transformed through this option—transformed by my experiences and understandings that stem from encountering God as love and truth—and I have fallen in love both with this God and with the self I am becoming in being loved by God (and loving God in return).

Really then, I write for me, and I do so because I cannot but write: I am filled with wonder, joy, peace, and goodness through this relation.  Yet because this state of being is excessively abundant I also write for others—for love of the love that I have.

So why not just talk about my experiences—why not “spill the beans” and be done?

Three reasons:

First, in order for personal sharing to cultivate life and not alienation there must be authentic relationship between parties.  In other words, openness requires trust.  Second, although my experiences were powerfully transformative they may not apply to everyone.  So by generalizing my experiences I broaden their application.  Third, experience alone was not sufficient for my transformation but was accompanied by new (and better) understandings of myself, my fellows, the earth, and God.

In the first instance, where my goal is to revel in the life that I have received and to propose that life to others, I must show that I actually know some true things about life!  As my mentor puts it, to be credible Christians must first prove that they are real people—that they live in the real world and can offer real solutions to real problems.  Christian platitudes—no matter how theologically accurate—are insufficient (and so untrustworthy).

Trust requires a way that does not alienate (a specialty of the evangelical church, sadly): it requires instigating and promoting dialogue.  Dialogue is essential because it a) not only lets the other be herself but encourages such, and b) understands that transformation is not submission of one’s intellect, will, etc., but embrace.  And this takes time.  Dialogue assumes a dialogue partner who is there for the duration of the discussion.

In the second instance, my orientation is not to prescribe a recipe (“do like me and it will all work out”) but to describe a path: I want to generalize my experience so that it can best be understood and appropriated.  To do so I cannot ask others to “be like me” but instead offer general possibilities and sketch general modes of being that others can embrace for and as themselves which may yet be better options—more true and beautiful—than what they had before.

In the third instance, because these new understandings apply to God and human existence, they find their best expression through a combination of theology and philosophy.  So in addition to understanding the Bible better (through sound interpretation and exegesis) we must examine and interpret life well, which is the domain of philosophical hermeneutics.

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.

Obama is Buddhist?

 

“God has taken them home.”

So U.S. President Obama accounts for the wanton killing of grade schoolers in Newtown, CT.  But does this view sit well with us?  Does it ease our pain or explain the unthinkable?  And does it present God in a way that encourages trust or hope?

My answer: e) None of the above.

Situations like Sandy Hook are so terrifying that it can be tempting to think that God must be pulling the strings.  We want to believe that someone is in control and that somewhere there is good to be found in it.  Yet ironically, by diminishing human agency and responsibility for evil we likewise strip ourselves of our agency and responsibility for good.

For if this is all God’s will, then really we can do nothing about it: who can resist God?

No.  Far from rekindling hope or even allowing fuller expression of our grief, at best this view results in complacency.  At worst, I reckon it results in despair.

Complacency because taking what is evil and “sanctifying” it (through ascribing it to God) subverts our most natural human responses: should we grieve or feel upset about God’s will?  At best the implication is that our grief and rage are really misplaced—the result of being too limited (or if you theology is more heavy-handed, too sinful) to understand that this is all for some “greater good.”  Ironically again, such a view has more in common with Buddhism than Christianity.

Despair because, faced with this perspective, we must necessarily understand our emotions, goals, and even our children as insignificant—unimportant before the lofty designs of God.  For a god who “calls home” little children via such murderous and seemingly purposeless action is, like a maleficent version of Zeus, a fearful entity indeed.  Before such a God we cannot but despair.

Many reject this god.  And those that accept it?  Well, is it any wonder that so much of evangelical Christianity seems based on fear and rule-following rather than on love and truth?

In reality Obama’s view denies us the very substance that the Psalmist would have us rely upon, both in coming to embrace God and as that which fosters and furthers right relationship with God: the created order, within which we are called to “taste and see” God’s goodness.

Now hear me rightly: I see no goodness in this situation.  It is not something “in light of which” I believe in God but something “despite which” I still believe.  But neither is this a situation where Christians should encourage complacency or despair.  Rather, I think the first step is to recognize that the problem of evil is not simply an issue or even a big issue.  To my mind it is the issue.

And if my personal experience with evil is any guide, the second step is for Christians to stand against it and—in evil’s overwhelming shadow—to tell our tales of how God has acted in our lives to heal and mend us.

And this, I think, is where goodness can possibly be found amid evil: not that God solves our issues or addresses all our concerns, but that in place of evil God offers Godself.  Not through the historical work of Christ or theological explanation, important as these are.  But rather as acts of healing and liberation within our everyday existence that convince our minds, inspire our imaginations, and win our hearts—acts of knowing us more truly than we know ourselves and loving us more deeply than we love ourselves.

So against the view that God’ goodness is invisible or, at best, unfathomable, Christians must not only claim with their words but demonstrate—and attest to how God has demonstrated—in their lived existence that God is good.  And we do so not because of but despite the wanton evil that we are able (and clearly, all too wiling) to inflcit upon each other.

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.

Tribal churches and “Relationship”

 

I recently approached a friend that is a pastor and told him that I was sad that weren’t spending time together.

My friend offered this explanation: “I’ve made mistakes before in ministry—given too much energy to the church and had none for my family.  So now I make sure I give my family what they need.  But I only have energy for them and the church, not for friends or even my family of origin.”

While disappointing to learn I could no longer spend time with my friend, it was also troubling and made me wonder if this was related to the phenomenon of tribal churches.  Several points are relevant.

First, the chief value in a tribal church is uncritical acceptance (of certain people, practices, and ideas).  Such a church is naturally averse to conflict, though this is typically expressed as valuing “Christian unity.”

In tribal churches ‘unity’ is maintained by avoiding contentious situations, so anti-intellectualism wins out (over critical investigation) as does conformity (over diversity).  Further, as anti-intellectualism and conformity become normative, such churches both cultivate and attract dullness and a lack of creativity.

Second, because in a tribal church members already have all the answers (and so have no need of truth-seeking), and because the prominent role of acceptance means that dialogue (and the contentious issues it can raise) is eschewed, the tribe can only approach outsiders in one of two ways.

The typical approach would be charitably to condescend to outsiders: “We have the truth, will you not listen?”  However, tribal churches also use another method: overwhelming outsiders with ‘goodness.’

Now arrogance is understandably problematic, but goodness?  Surely this is just the orientation that one would look for in a church.  What issue could be taken with it?

Take my pastor friend for instance.

My observation is that he exerts so much effort for new and existing church families that he effectively “spends himself” on their behalf and has nothing left for his parent, his siblings, or even close friends.

Now love is the epitome of ostentaciousness, and love  functions according to an “economy” of superabundance: of giving, and giving more.  Yet my friend’s actions deviate from this example.

On the one hand, “superabundance” does not mean that I have to reduce my love for X so that I can give some to Y, just as parents do not love their first child less when the second arrives.  Rather, their love grows so that they love all their children more.

Also, even where the other is incapable of meeting my needs (e.g., infants cannot understand a parent’s need for a break), loving another is based in self-love.  So I take breaks, enjoy my friends and family because I love myself as part of loving another!

On the other hand, selfless exertion has more in common with the freneticism of need: the need to prove (or prove oneself worthy of) something.  It thus makes the other into an instrument—an object—that I use to obtain my real goal, rather than the person being a goal in him/herself.

In such situations a person’s identity does not matter—even the special people that God may put in our paths, like one’s parents, one’s siblings, and one’s closest friends are not prioritised.  Instead, it is their conduciveness to my goal that counts.

———-

If you walk into my friend’s church, the word you see most is “relationship.”  But if this is the goal, what does it mean that he has no peer relationships (with friends or siblings) and that he stands atop the hierarchy of all the relationships within the church (i.e., he is ‘pastor’ to everyone)?