Thursday, December 19, 2013

Why I don't stand with Phil Robertson (or his critics)

In recent news, a Christian said something controversial in the news again and everyone is making a big deal about it. Other Christians rush to his defense, saying he was only standing for his beliefs and his his free speech rights have been violated, while others explain that this isn't how free speech works.

Sigh. Usually I keep silent on hot-button news stories like this one, but this time I'm going to give my two cents and hope they're helpful.

As a Christian, I can certainly understand the comments commending Phil Robertson for standing up for his beliefs. The Bible is full of examples of Christians suffering more than banning from a TV show and public ridicule for holding onto their faith. But I worry that many of the people who say this haven't looked too closely at the beliefs he actually expressed—particularly the context in which he expressed them. Here is the relevant section from page 2 of the GQ interview:
“We’re Bible-thumpers who just happened to end up on television,” he tells me. “You put in your article that the Robertson family really believes strongly that if the human race loved each other and they loved God, we would just be better off. We ought to just be repentant, turn to God, and let’s get on with it, and everything will turn around.” 
What does repentance entail? Well, in Robertson’s worldview, America was a country founded upon Christian values (Thou shalt not kill, etc.), and he believes that the gradual removal of Christian symbolism from public spaces has diluted those founding principles. (He and Si take turns going on about why the Ten Commandments ought to be displayed outside courthouses.) He sees the popularity of Duck Dynasty as a small corrective to all that we have lost. 
“Everything is blurred on what’s right and what’s wrong,” he says. “Sin becomes fine.” 
What, in your mind, is sinful? 
“Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men,” he says. Then he paraphrases Corinthians: “Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers—they won’t inherit the kingdom of God. Don’t deceive yourself. It’s not right.”
The first thing to notice about Robertson's controversial remarks is that they were a response to a request to define sin on a major news site—an opportunity any pastor or theologian would long for. But I can't defend his answer. Saying that "homosexual behavior" is the very epicenter of sin isn't just offensive, it's grossly unbiblical. To his credit, he does follow this up with citing Scripture, but cites one of Paul's "sin lists" in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10. These lists weren't meant to be definitions of sin any more than his later lists of spiritual gifts (see 1 Cor 12:28-30) were meant to be comprehensive—more likely, Paul was targeting specific sins that the Corinthians were shamelessly practicing in the name of "freedom in Christ". His purpose was to convict and bring about repentance in a church that was under his pastoral care, not to provide a proof-text to Christians who want to tell openly gay people why they're going to hell.

Even more generally, I can't agree with defining sin as any list of specific bad behaviors or rules broken; as I know all too well, such a list will always serve as a license to freely do things that aren't on it. Any definition of sin that leaves anyone feeling as if they've dodged a bullet isn't big enough, because we're all sinners—and prone to forget that fact if we're not reminded of it. What if the outrage at Robertson's comments aren't simply the expected sinful resistance to Christian teaching, but directed at an uneven definition of sin that designates the one giving it a paragon of righteousness and "those people" the problem? Paul actually does define sin in Romans 14:23: "For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin." This verse makes me deeply uncomfortable because it shows how impossibly high the bar for righteousness is set. There is no one in a lifeboat floating above the flood of sin, calling out to haul people in; we're all slowly sinking, and Jesus is our (metaphorical) lifeboat. Anyone who uses other peoples' sin simply to condemn them or feel better about themselves has missed the point. First take the log out of your own eye (Mat 7:5).

But neither do I want to join the torrent of outrage over Robertson's comments. Parts of the outcry also worry me. The secular pattern of sacralizing the ideal of "tolerance" and demonizing anyone who dares infringe on it with labels like "bigotry", "hate speech", or "homophobia" is surprisingly reminiscent of conflicts within conservative Christianity in which [DOCTRINE] is righteously defended from all its unbelieving naysayers, whose Christian credentials are (respectfully) questioned for their refusal to believe God when He tells them [DOCTRINE]. Not that I'm saying every gay-rights advocate is like this—but I do often see what appears to be incredulity that anyone would dare to be so backward as to question gay rights or the homosexual lifestyle. Let's not get intolerant for the sake of tolerance.

Finally, the whole shenanigan reminds me of what the apostle John said about the world. Christians are not supposed to be surprised that the world hates them (1 Jo 3:13), and should remember that it hated Jesus first (Jhn 15:18). But this is often taken further from not being surprised, to expecting the world to hate you as a sign that you're successfully shining as a "light for Christ" in the darkness. This expectation makes it remarkably easy to miss how comments like Robertson's are a problem and damage peoples' views not just of Christians, but of their God. But neither should we be willing to go to any lengths to avoid being branded a "bigot" for the sake of being "all things to all people" (1 Cor 9:22) in order to win some, until we're bending over backwards to our culture to show how "hip" or "relevant" Christianity can be. Maybe it's best to just not worry what people are calling us.

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Nativity Story and Interpretive Tradition

As the celebration of Christ's birth comes nearer, I thought it would be appropriate to share an article (previously alluded to) examining our tradition of saying Jesus was born in a stable. Specifically, the author points out that the nativity account in Luke 2 never says that Jesus was born in a stable (much less a cave), that the word for "inn", katalyma, is translated to "guest room" the other two times it is used in the NT, and asks some very good questions that the born-in-a-stable account raises. This leads to a new hypothesis for the circumstances of Jesus' birth:
Archeologists have excavated houses from the time of Jesus, and they are very much the same as some rural Palestinian (and Mexican) farmhouses today: a guest room for visiting family or friends; other than that the whole house is basically a big open room. The family cooks in this corner, sleeps in that corner, sits and visits in that other corner. There’s a little “mud room” (that’s what my Wisconsin farmer friends call it) or “dirt room” (that’s what my West Texas farmer friends call it) at the entrance. You walk in, take off your dirty farming boots, then step into the rest of the house. But it’s all one big room. The cow or donkey was brought in at night and kept in the mud room. This served the dual purpose of protecting the animal and adding warmth to the house. And there was always…yep, you guessed it…a feeding trough - a manger - for the animals to eat from while they waited through the night.
I'm not trying to be provocative or rain on anyone's Christmas parade here. Maybe I'm being a bit of a perfectionist (don't get me started on Nativity scenes with the wise men). If you find this alternate theory of Jesus' birth interesting, feel free to share it with others. If you find it offensive, let me suggest that you have too much invested in an account on which no Christian doctrine or practice are based. The only difference it makes whether Jesus was born in a stable or a "mud room" is for our understanding of Luke 2, and whatever significance we have vested in it. The truth is, though we Protestants like to elevate Scripture and demote tradition, that doesn't stop us from formulating our own, by making certain interpretations of Scripture identical in our minds to "what the Bible says".

Or maybe a stable is just easier to draw/carve/animate.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Bible Translations and Pitfalls of Direct Transferability

My pastor Cor recently started an excellent conversation about the Bible's teaching on gender on his blog. I posted some comments from where I'm at in addressing complementarianism and my thoughts on an interesting blot post on the subject by Richard Beck, but was vastly overshadowed by a colossal and amazing comment by a fellow named Aaron. He successfully does what I usually only try to do with divisive Biblical debates like this one: demonstrate how the truth is not merely an unsatisfying midway point between two extremes, but transcends and incorporates them both in ways only God knows. Seriously, take ten minutes and read it fully before continuing here.

I might post on my thoughts that were inspired by Aaron's comment, but for now I'll focus on a fascinating paper he referred to: "Ideological Challenges for Bible Translators", by Roy E. Ciampa. His final definition of "ideology", though wordy, is worth noting and similar to how I've heard other sources define "worldview", or even "blik":
The complex set of individual and socially-shared conscious and unconscious loyalties (whether philosophical, interpersonal, emotional or whatever) that are influenced and reinforced by my cognitive mapping of my world and which lead me to prefer certain ways of seeing myself, my context and the broader world around me, to perceive some things as problematical and not others (which other people might consider problematical), and to prefer particular ways of addressing the problems which come to my attention.
Ciampa goes on to explain how ideology can affect even the translation (saying nothing of the interpretation) of the Bible: his own assumption that the translation and preaching of the Bible is automatically good; Tyndale's substitution of more Protestant words like "congregation" for "church", "elder" for "priest", "repent" instead of "do penance"; the pressure on KJV translators to minimize conflict between Anglicans and Puritans, and so on. He then warns, "There are many different ways in which the text of the Bible has been and can be used to promote injustice and oppression, and these reflect a translator’s ideology or his ideological blinders."

The main such ideology he addresses in the rest of the paper he calls "direct transferability", or
the idea that readers of Bible translations should feel that the Bible (and God, through the Bible) directly addresses them in their particular circumstances. Approaches to Bible translation that, in Schleiermacher’s terms, move the biblical writer toward the reader (domestication) rather than forcing the reader to accommodate to the biblical writer (‘foreignization’), are most susceptible to the problems I am concerned with here.
Though direct transferability is often seen as highly desirable (and natural) in Bible translation and reading, Ciampa considers it dangerous as it allows us to sever the Bible's teachings from their original contexts and situate them in our own, without even know we're doing it. To illustrate the danger, he gives four examples of groups of people from the New Testament that get improperly mapped onto modern groups without any consideration of the difficulties with drawing such parallels.
  • Slaves from the Roman system of slavery get mapped onto African slaves from the transatlantic slave trade (which, along with some clever hermeneutics, allowed southern Christians to justify slavery from the same Bible that northerners used to denounce them).
  • Husbands and wives from the Greco-Roman world (where the husbands were better-educated and often much older and more experienced outside the household than their wives) are mapped onto husbands and wives today.
  • References to "the Jews" (e.g. in John 5:16-18 or Acts 17:5) are mapped (with their negative connotations) onto Jews in general today, even though in context these phrases could not have meant Jews in general (since Jesus and most of His followers were Jewish) and referred to Jewish religious leaders opposed to Jesus and Christianity.
  • Paul's condemnations of men who practiced sexual exploitation of their male household slaves or prostitutes are mapped onto modern homosexuals—even though "most classical scholars agree that the ancient Romans did not have a concept of sexual identity or orientation (hetero-/ homo-/bi-sexual). Rather, they had a concept of gender identity, one that identified maleness with the dominant position in sexual intercourse." The term "homosexual" appeared in English Bibles for the first time in the early twentieth century.
This danger is interesting because the usual debate you hear about Bible translations is whether they are more "word-for-word" (with the Hebrew/Greek text rendered into the closest possible English representation of it) or "thought-for-thought" (trying to capture the meaning of the original text in English, which may mean replacing some cultural idioms with English ones). But both approaches are susceptible to direct transferability. With thought-for-thought translations, the principle of "dynamic/functional equivalence" (trying to make the response of the modern reader the same as that of the original reader) can facilitate this. Ciampa says:
Ideological/ethical challenges arise (among other cases) when a translator does not give very careful attention to parts of the translation that refer to source text social or cultural realities that will be interpreted in the translation as references to target audience social or cultural realities. That is, the text is expected to function in the same way in the receiving community as in the community of the original receivers, due in part to lack of awareness of the differences between the two audiences and the implications for what we might call “dys-functional equivalence.” Tremendous power is exerted, in particular, whenever a Bible translation is taken to refer to groups in the target culture. This is what I refer to as the “mapping of identities.”
But even with word-for-word translations that focus on "formal equivalence", this is a reminder that no matter how close your translation is to the original wording of the text and how well you avoid injecting your own thoughts into the authors', you still aren't translating the unwritten cultural assumptions and values in the authors' backgrounds. In fact, the goal of keeping translations as direct as possible works somewhat at cross purposes with making this background information known to readers.

Ciampa gives a few suggestions for Bible translators in avoiding the problems of direct transferability:
  • Deliberately "foreignize" the translations of terms that people might improperly translate to their own context. (For example, δουλος, which is often translated to "slave", may be translated to "bondservant" or "bond-slave" to distance them from the modern definition)
  • Incorporate paratextual guidance for reading the text, such as warnings about references that are commonly transferred directly to modern contexts, in a preface or footnote. (I think study Bibles somewhat already do so, but this information is important enough to include in other Bibles as well)
  • In general, give readers a reason to think twice about terms that seem familiar to them but refer to different groups or roles than may be obvious.
In the absence of Bibles that do these things, we Christian readers simply have to be informed about the background of the books we so cherish. You may object, "Isn't this making external resources equally important to the Bible? Isn't scripture alone sufficient to know God?" First, obviously not everything in the Bible is completely filtered through the context of ancient Near Eastern culture, and very much of it is still perfectly understandable to the twenty-first century layperson. No one gets up in arms about sufficiency when you need a commentary to understand a difficult verse, because you can know God through the Bible without knowing the Bible completely.

Second, though Proverbs 30:6 tells us not to add to God's words (which is taken to mean that scripture is sufficient for knowing God), I take this to mean that we are not to disingenuously pass our human words off as inspired—"lest he rebuke you and you be found a liar." But in the sense of providing context to what we read, everyone "adds" to scripture in the process of reading it, in order to understand. Just as a calculus book alone is not sufficient to teach you calculus (because it assumes background knowledge in basic math, algebra, precalculus, geometry, trigonometry, etc.), so scripture sometimes teaches us about God through the distinct human context in which it was authored, and apart from this context its message is distorted or lost. What would have been "perspicuous" to the laypeople of the early church in Ephesus might not be for us despite the best work of translators, simply because our context is totally different than theirs. When we don't understand the original context of parts of the Bible, the door is opened to directly transfer its terms and groups to ones from our own context that we think correspond to them. This is the danger Ciampa writes about.

Hopefully I haven't discouraged you or made you think the Bible is just unintelligible. Obviously you don't have to be a scholar to know God through the Bible. But avoiding the kind of too-direct connections to scriptural terms that Ciampa warns about is necessary for all kinds of Christians. For me, this looks like bringing a healthy amount of skepticism to the text—not doubting it is true, but that my own interpretations of it are really valid, testing and checking the plausibility of my reading. It's become something of an evangelical cliche to say that "The Bible wasn't written to you, but it was written for you," but like many cliches it is true and valuable.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The New Testament canon is closed, but...

The following is an edited version of my answer to the question, "Is the New Testament canon closed?" that turned out a bit differently than I expected: with a resounding "yes!".

Others on this forum and the text have said that Jesus is God's final revelation to us. In a sense I affirm this. Jesus is the true Word of God (Jhn 1:1) and the way, the truth, and the life that He wants us to know in Him (Jhn 14:6). But if Jesus were God's final revelation to us, why are there books in the New Testament after the gospels? Why is there a New Testament at all if the final revelation came in the form of a person?

The way I have come to understand it is that the New Testament both continues and interprets the revelation of Jesus. The Word that God spoke to our hearts through the person of Jesus when He was on earth, He continues to speak through the written Word (as well as the body of Christ, the church) after His ascension. Additionally, the rest of the New Testament is precious because it contains many insights into the ramifications of Christ's life, death, and resurrection that only became clear after the fact. So Jesus' status as the final, fullest revelation of God really has little to do with the question of whether other books could be in the New Testament canon.

Here is where I see some inconsistency: the text says that if Paul's letter to the Laodiceans were uncovered today, "to gain canonicity it would have to agree with all the other books of the canon and be accepted by the entire Christian church, which at this point seems unlikely." Yet just before Wegner says, "It is important to remember that the Christian church did not canonize any book. Canonization was determined by God. But the early church needed to know how to recognize canonicity."In other words, we are confusing two separate issues into one: the actual, God-given authority of books and the church's recognition of the books as canon.

In the first sense, I can say with certainty that all the canon books of the New Testament have already been written, because all the apostles are long-dead. In this sense the canon is closed. The second sense is intriguing: could a previously unknown letter from Paul be discovered and make it into the canon? To answer this, I want to clarify what we mean by canon. It doesn't simply mean "true writings about Jesus by the apostles", for in this sense it is quite arbitrary to draw the line at the apostles when plenty of later church thinkers have written true things about Jesus. (They hadn't seen Jesus in person, but neither had Paul) Rather, a crucial aspect of canon writings is that they have been formative for the liturgical, doctrinal, and practical development of the church from the beginning. The canon books of scripture do not merely inform about God, but God actively exercises His authority through them, which manifests in visible ways in the church (see Hbr. 4:12). N.T. Wright describes the authority of God through scripture as "his sovereign power accomplishing this renewal of all creation."

In light of this, I rule out the possibility that an unknown letter by Paul could be discovered and recognized as scripture, simply because such a letter would not have been unknown in the first century, at least to its recipients, and yet it was not circulated among the churches, adopted into church tradition, or quoted by church fathers like others of Paul's letters. Whatever "divine spark" Paul's letters to the Romans, Corinthians, and others had that led to their being included in the canon, his letter to the Laodiceans apparently lacked. We must not think of this letter's being lost to us today as an unfortunate canonical accident, but simply the early church recognizing what it did not have the same value as other letters and moving on from it once it had served its purpose. The canon that was good enough for the first-century church is good enough for us today.

So while the New Testament canon is closed both senses, it is important to clarify what this means. The Bible, whatever its contents, was never supposed to be the only writing about God, though it has played a unique role in the church from the beginning as the bedrock foundation for all writing, thinking, and believing about God. But the point of a foundation is to be built upon (cf. 1 Cor 3:10-17). That the later church fathers reference the writings of the apostles rather than trying to continue them speaks convincingly for drawing the canon line at the apostles, but certainly does not necessarily denigrate later writings of the church or even prevent them from having some lesser authority of their own. Saying that the Bible contains all the words we need to know God and be saved is a bit like saying that a small assortment of vitamin pills contains all the nutrients you need to survive. So let us trust in God's stewardship of the scriptures for our sake, while living our lives from the truth that they reveal.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Being an INFJ...for Christ

The following is a paper I wrote on my MBTI type for my Self-Awareness in Leadership class.

I have certainly had a long and complicated relationship with the MBTI (Myers-Briggs Type Instrument). For years I tested as (and considered myself to be) an INTJ. Earlier this year, after some careful thought I realized I didn't seem as externally structured and demanding as the INTJ, and that I actually seemed to fit the mold of an INTP better. A few months after that, I further realized that I was in fact an INFJ (albeit a distorted one) and likely had been all along. After all these transitions, I joked that I had made it my new goal to become all 16 types at one point or another; anything seemed possible! To explain my shifts, I had to look into some of the history of the MBTI.

In his 1921 work Psychological Types, the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung postulated several theories of personality that persist into the modern MBTI. He saw a high-level divide among people between what he called introverted and extroverted types. [1] He describes the extroverted type as outward-oriented, with a consciousness focused on the objective, external world: "If a man so thinks, feels, and acts, in a word so lives, as to correspond directly with objective conditions and their claims, whether in a good sense or ill, he is extraverted." Introverts, on the other hand, filter their consciousness through subjective, internal factors; their life is lived not primarily in the external world of objects but in the inner world of thoughts, feelings, and ideas: "Introverted consciousness doubtless views the external conditions, but it selects the subjective determinants as the decisive ones."

Additionally, Jung described four "cognitive functions" that together form the basis of consciousness. These are divided into two perceiving functions, sensing and intuition; and two judging functions, thinking and feeling, which should be familiar to anyone who has been briefed on the MBTI. Jung said that each of these functions could be used in an extroverted (external, object-oriented) or introverted (internal, subject-oriented) way. One of these, the "principal", is the function where "not merely its application is at the disposal of the will, the same time its principle is decisive for the orientation of consciousness." It is the function that forms the foundational bedrock of the consciousness. Besides the principal function, there is another less conscious "auxiliary" function of the opposite judging/perceiving type as the principal.

In the 1940s, Isabel Myers and her mother, Katharine Briggs, crafted a self-reporting instrument to help people discover where they fit in Jung's theory of types.[2] This instrument became the MBTI. Focusing on Jung's pattern of dichotomies between functions, Myers and Briggs used three letter combinations—E/I, S/N, and T/F—to convey a person's general introversion or extroversion, as well as his principal and auxiliary functions. They also added a fourth letter pair, J/P, that indicates whether a person's first extroverted function (not necessarily the principal for introverts) is the judging or the perceiving function.

However, many MBTI tests, books, and websites (including Live Your Calling) don't explain it in this way. Instead of viewing types through the lens of Jung's original system of cognitive functions, with the S/N and T/F pairs giving an individual's main two functions and the other pairs describing how they are manifested, the more common way is to associate certain characteristics with the letter pairs themselves. These distinctions are somewhat accurate for the two middle letter pairs representing functions (though they lose the introverted/extroverted distinction), but rather inaccurate for the first and last pairs. Instead of being associated with how the cognitive functions are used, introversion and extroversion came to describe how people-focused and gregarious you are (or where you get your energy from), and judging and perceiving describe how organized and task-oriented you are. The characteristics associated with a type's four letters are then combined to get the description for that type.

The problem with this approach is that it effectively turns the type descriptions into horoscopes. By defining types by their symptoms and manifestations instead of by their causes (the cognitive functions), a person might find that many different type descriptions sound like them and experience the kind of type confusion that I did. This problem is especially acute for introverted types, since their principal function will be of the opposite J/P type as their type states. (e.g. for an INFJ the first extroverted function is feeling, but the principal function is introverted intuition, a perceiving function) It also conveys the impression that you can only be one of each distinction, e.g. only a thinker or a feeler, whereas in reality everyone does both, albeit to different degrees.

Once I learned to think about types in this way, my own type confusion slowly lifted. As I read some descriptions of the cognitive functions[3], I realized that introverted intuition seemed to describe me almost exactly in how I thought and processed reality. It had to be my principal function, which already narrowed things down to just two possible types: INFJ and INTJ. (This helps explain why I used to test as INTJ) However, I also realized introverted thinking described me almost as well, as it had formed a tight partnership with my intuition; one generated seemingly impossible ideas and possibilities, the other logically evaluated them and put them into convincing words, a combination that often came in handy on my blog. This helps explain how I identified as an INTP, since introverted thinking is the principal function of the INTP.

But I knew for a fact that I had both of these functions in their introverted form, whereas the INTJ and INTP each only had one (and extroverted the other). But the INFJ had both. And it had something else as its main judging function: extroverted feeling. Since I had always emphatically thought of myself, partially reinforced by the MBTI, as a "thinker" and not a "feeler", this took a while to believe, but eventually it started to make sense. I wasn't interested in ideas merely for the sake of ideas like an INTP, but for the sake of people. And though inwardly I was rigorously logical, outwardly I was more concerned with serving people and making them happy, not with efficiency and logical correctness like an INTJ. (And I was bad at chess, which is virtually the symbol of the INTJ)

As an INFJ, my primary function is my introverted intuition. The result of directing my intuition toward the inner world of thoughts and ideas is that I readily grasp new ideas and am very quick to see possibilities where others don't. I have an intuitive, nonverbal sense of right and wrong, as well as which ideas are correct. I "know" things without being readily able to explain why I know them, and tend to jump to conclusions and then find ways to test and support them. I believe that if there are exceptions to a rule, the rule is too narrow. I see paradoxes and apparently contradictions not as a sign of fallacious thinking but as a challenge, a contribution for a higher, overarching "theory of everything". I am always looking at problems and ideas from multiple angles, trying to understand every side in a conversation at once.

I am used to combining this intuition with thinking, which has helped me become the amateur theologian that I am, trying to make sense of Christianity, the Bible, and conversations on faith. But according to my description thinking is only the tertiary function, whereas feeling is the auxiliary function. And so I have been learning to applying my insights more directly to people. This has multiple implications for working in teams. INFJs value harmony, and I am certainly no exception; I would love it if everyone could just get along, or at least disagree nicely and constructively with no raging tempers or hurt feelings. To this end, my intuition helps me in seeing both sides of a conflict, while my feeling function helps me to act as a mediator. At times I can be more interested in simply making sure a team is getting along, maximizing the potential of others, than in contributing to the end goal.

On a more individual level, the INFJ's combination of intuition and feeling makes them very good at picking up on nonverbal cues and emotions. If someone is feeling "off", I can usually tell. (The challenge is actually doing something about it) When teaching Sunday school, I tend to gravitate towards the kids who are alone or off by themselves; as a child I often felt like an outcast and so I am drawn toward other outcasts. This can again be useful for building unity on a team. Also, INFJs tend to be perfectionists[4] who hold themselves to very high standards. The wishes and expectations of others hold a very high value for me, to the point where I sometimes idolize them. For this reason I am very keen to carry out what is expected of me by others, not out of an innate sense of duty like the ISTJ but because I care about people and am anxious to please them.

On the other hand, the INFJ's reliance on intuition above all else can also get them into trouble. When someone disagrees with me or my values, my first response is to assume that the conflict arises from a limitation of perspective and look for a way to reconcile our apparently clashing views by explaining how they can both be true. If I am unable to do this, though, or if the other person doesn't accept my explanation, I will stubbornly cling to my intuition even in the presence of opposing arguments. I believe strongly that I am right, and the only reason this confidence in my ideas doesn't get me into more trouble is because I usually keep it to myself and try to avoid saying things to others that I can't support.

My introversion can also be a weakness in a team or relationship. Though I value deep, close relationships, I am also very private and value time spent alone. This means that I am best on a team when I can still work relatively independently and present only my finished work to teammates. If I am forced to work more closely with other people, conflict can arise (I always dreaded group projects in school). It also makes me slow to warm up to and trust people; I probably come off as distant or tuned-out to most people except those who know me well. Because I am so slow to form new relationships, I treasure the ones I have.

Some "natural" spiritual gifts for an INFJ might be service, mercy, or discernment, but more than these I tend to use knowledge and giving. For me knowledge is not simply the timely and helpful remembrance of facts, but more a natural talent for navigating the world of truths and ideas behind these facts. My inclination to help and please people motivates me to turn this gift to the service of others instead of just endlessly indulging my curiosity. Likewise, it is mostly my desire to help people however I can that lies behind my gift of giving; I recognize the resources God has given me, see ways to contribute them for the good of others, and then do so. I tend to be very devoted to those I care about, which makes it easy to give parts of myself to ministry partnerships.

Narrative Reflection

The following is a paper I wrote for my Self-Awareness in Leadership class about what I've learned on what it means to fear God.

For most of my life, the phrase "the fear of the Lord" (2 Chr 19:9, Psa 19:9, Pro 1:7, Isa 11:2, Act 9:31, 2 Cor 5:11, etc.) never made sense to me. I thought it represented a caricature of God as a petty, capricious tyrant who wouldn't think twice about snuffing us out like a candle if we so much as thought about Him the wrong way, or else as a chaotic, uncontrollable cosmic force of nature that could just as easily harm us as help us. I did my best to avoid thinking about passages of scripture that seemed to represent God in either of these ways or that talked about people in the Bible fearing God.

I thought we had moved beyond all that fear-mongering, primitive superstition with the fullest revelation of God through Jesus Christ (see Col 1:15-20). In Christ we see God depicted not as insecure and vindictive but humble and loving even to sinners; not violent and dangerous but gentle and a servant to all. It was a much more beautiful and compelling picture of the Godhead—a God to love, not fear. Fear may have been part of faith in God in the past, but no longer: "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love." (1 Jhn 4:18, ESV) But though I felt secure in this understanding of who God was, He knew something was missing, and one dark and stormy night He showed it to me.

On a summer night in 2012 I had ridden my bike to church, as I usually did. I hadn't checked the forecast ahead of time and when I was ready to go home, a thunderstorm was pouring rain on downtown Minneapolis. Though I was able to keep my belongings dry, I was quickly drenched as I carefully biked home on sidewalks and back streets. Then, once I was almost home, a blinding stroke of lightning flashed around me, followed with no delay by a boom of thunder. It was the loudest sound I had ever heard, and I screamed in terror. Somehow, though, I managed to stay on my bike despite the shock and soon made it home to dry off.

I couldn't help but think about what had just happened to me. Though the lightning hadn't hurt me, I was still afraid of it. I quickly connected this to what I used to think about fearing God. Now I understood: I feared the lightning and thunder not because it was dangerous, but because it was just so palpably colossal and yet so immediately close to me. It felt so unimaginably immense that I almost felt like I could dissolve into it or be swept away, even though I knew this was false.

So it is, I think, with God—only infinitely more so. As humans, we like to feel safe, comfortable, and in control. Nothing is wrong with these desires, only with where we sinfully seek them—in our own self-sufficiency. A friend of mine told me something about human nature that has stuck with me: "most people desperately strive to avoid feeling small." But an encounter with the God of the Universe shatters all our delusions of sufficiency and makes us painfully, fearfully aware of how small and vulnerable we really are. "And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account." (Heb 4:13)

But the fear of the Lord is not like other fears, because at the same time that we are unimaginably small and helpless before our majestic God, we are not insignificant but unimaginably loved. The God who created the lightning and thunder that so terrified me knows me individually and tenderly, designed me in my inmost being (Psa 139:13), rejoices over me with gladness and singing (Zep 3:17), and has promised that He is for me and not to let anything come between us (Rom 8:31-39). "The fear of the Lord" is the concept of awe, reverence, or respect, only taken to a degree far beyond what these words convey, so that "fear" becomes more appropriate. Though I am learning to fear God, I continue to move towards Him instead of away because I trust Him even more. The kind of fear we're to have for our God is indivisible from our love and trust for Him, not in tension with them.

This has many ramifications for my life as a Christian. The biggest among these is that the fear of God is the antidote to any lingering delusions of self-sufficiency that I may have brought into my faith. Proverbs 1:7 says that "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge". In God's economy, the first step to knowing anything of real importance is admitting that I don't know. Paul's doxology in Romans 11:33-36 goes,
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
“For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?”
“Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?”
For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.
And just a bit later in 12:3 he says, "for by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned." To learn the knowledge and wisdom of God, intellectual humility is needed, and we acquire this by fearing the Lord and realizing "the depth of [his] riches and wisdom and knowledge", and "how unsearchable are his judgments and inscrutable his ways"—not meaning they are absurd or illogical, but that they are simply above our capacity to comprehend, and we become fools if we think otherwise, that we can wrap our minds around God's. I take this as a stern warning in my own intellectual life to always keep it under God, learning from Him the limits of my own knowledge and reasoning even as I seek to expand them. This is just one application of the fear of the Lord.

I've also been led to conclusions about fear in general. Another verse I've really grabbed onto is 1 John 4:18 (which I previously misused to deny that we should fear God), where in the middle of his discourse about love, John writes, "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love." This represents a possibly-shocking truth I've come to believe: we do well to fear God in the way described above, but we should not fear anything other than God. This has implications that you don't get until you realize how many other things besides God most Christians are trained to fear.

Some Christians fear demons or the supernatural and, in the name of "spiritual warfare" see them everywhere and take an unhealthy level of interest in their movements. Some Christians fear bad doctrine and become unhealthily obsessed with theological correctness until their Christlike love is replaced with bitterness and exacting intolerance. Some Christians fear moral imperfection and live as legalists, refusing to believe the gospel of grace. Some Christians fear sexual impurity and consequently develop a harmful view of sexuality at odds with God's design. Some Christians fear the sinfulness of the world and wall themselves off from it in an effort to keep themselves pure, or else fight a "culture war" to try to forcibly reform it. Some Christians (and I tend more towards this last category) fear misrepresenting Christ or driving people away from Him by being "intolerant", and so water down the gospel to avoid offending anyone and in doing so make it meaningless or invisible.

But "perfect love casts out fear". If our almighty, awesome God is for us and He is bigger than any of these things, then we should fear Him and nothing else. Just as a child doesn't have to fear anything while under the loving protection of his father, so we no longer have any reason to fear anything outside the loving embrace of our Father. It's a common misconception that idols necessarily have to be attractive to us. An object of fear can steal our hearts from God and control us just as well as (maybe even better than) an objection of adoration can.

This experience and my thinking after it didn't exactly redirect the course of my vocation, but they did reveal something I value and want to do within it. So many people, Christian and non-Christian, are enslaved by their fears. In the latter case, they may even think the fear is commanded by God. Fear of God is the only healthy kind of fear, and as I experienced, it is widely misunderstood. I now feel called to apply the gospel to peoples' fear through my future vocation and ministry, whatever that may be. As Christ's ambassadors (2 Cor 5:20), we are incapable of saving people ourselves—we can only pass on the grace we ourselves have received from God. I've found that I am especially passionate about helping others in the ways God has helped me. Earlier in his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul says, "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God." (1:3-4)

My faith used to be (and to an extent still is) very fearful—of gaps in my theological knowledge, messing up on certain moral standards I hold, and of how other people view me for my faith. It's amazing and humbling to see God easing these fears in me, and I would love to let Him use me to help other people with their fears. This is not a simple task; as I know well, fear may operate and exert force through the rational mind where theology can speak to it, but it can have an even greater hold on peoples' hearts.

But through the various inventories and tools offered by this course, as well as my own reflection on what kinds of work I enjoy the most, I think God has prepared me for it. While I've known for years about my intellectual and analytical gifts, lately He's also been revealing a more heart-driven, people-focused side of me that is deeply dissatisfied with the prospect of studying theology without applying it in practical ways. I'm no longer interested in ideas merely for the sake of ideas; I'm interested in ideas for the sake of people, and it is wrong ideas that are too often at the root of our deepest fears as Christians. Through theology I hope to shift peoples' fears from all the lesser things that torment us to God Himself, the only One awesome (and loving) enough to bear them.

Personal Doctrine of Scripture

The following is an unabridged version of a paper I wrote for my Biblical Hermeneutics class on my "personal doctrine of scripture."

I'm naturally wary of the idea of coming up with a "personal doctrine of scripture", as if what I say about the Bible establishes anything. Scripture is scripture, regardless of what I tell it to be, and my only goal is to understand it for what it is, a task to which preconceptions of the nature of scripture can be a detriment. What we say about scripture is not nearly as important as what God says to us through it. Nonetheless, knowing what I believe about the Bible can help me to explain it to myself and others better for clarity's sake, so I press on.

I maintain no illusions that my entire doctrine of scripture is read directly from scripture itself; not only is this a circular argument (for you must already have some idea of how scripture works to learn anything from it), I have never met anyone whose entire (functional) approach to scripture did not involve bringing in outside sources or preconceptions. For reasons I will get to, I don't necessarily see this as a problem. If I must make assumptions or bring in outside notions, I will at least try to clearly state them instead of trying to convince myself they're right there in scripture, which (on an institutional level) is really the evangelical equivalent to the Catholic and Orthodox concept of "church tradition".

I believe, as all Christians do, that the Bible is an inspired set of books. What does this mean? In my limited research for this paper I interacted with two sources whose definitions were helpful. Our textbook defines inspiration as "the controlling influence that God exerted over the human authors who wrote scripture", and later says that "the messages spoken by the authors of scripture originated not with them but with the Holy Spirit" Anglical Biblical scholar N.T. Wright gives a very clear definition, saying, "'Inspiration' is a shorthand way of talking about the belief that by his Spirit God guided the very different writers and editors, so that the books they produced were the books God intended his people to have." I would generally agree with Wright's definition and am comfortable adopting it as my own, but I will say more on how I see this process working.

My big assumption about inspiration is this: I don't think inspiration was a singular, unique event never totally unlike anything else God has done, but draw a parallel between the inspiration God provided to the biblical authors and more generally what I know, from Biblical knowledge and experience, about how the Holy Spirit, the same one who inspired, works in and through us today. This doesn't mean people are still writing what should be scripture today, but I think the process was of the same kind, and that to deny this puts the biblical authors unfairly on a pedestal over other believers.

I have reasons for making this assumption. 2 Timothy 3:16, a commonly cited verse in doctrines of scripture, states that "all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness". The statement that scripture is breathed out by God is a common foundation for definitions of inspiration. I note that the other thing the Bible says is God-breathed is Adam (Gen 2:7), and by extension humankind. For all our flaws and weaknesses, the breath of God flows, acts, and does through us, not simply a part of us as if the Spirit of God were "a thing to be grasped" (Phl 2:6).

So I reject any dichotomy or purported conflict between something being "from God" and "from man"; the incarnation of Jesus Christ destroys any such distinction just as His death destroyed the curtain in the temple separating the dwelling of God from the people (Mat 27:51). I don't need a definition of inspiration that is "sufficiently God-centered" or "not too human" because inspiration is fully human and fully divine, just like Jesus. Just as the Spirit of God is not trapped inside or possessed by us, but dynamically moves through us, so He speaks God's power through the words of scripture, which are not intrinsically divine but are made divine by His ceaseless acting (which is also why translations or typos of the original manuscripts can also be inspired).

Regarding the reliability of the Bible, I hold fast to what is commonly called its infallibility while rejecting inerrancy. There is no debate as to whether the Bible can have factual errors in it; it does. The clearest I have found is in Mark 4:31, where Jesus says "[The kingdom of God] is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth," and Matthew 13:31-32: "The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds..." Being that the orchid seed is smaller than the mustard seed, I see no reason to accept Article XII of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.

So if we define truth as "statements corresponding to reality", it seems that the Bible doesn't always tell us the truth. Luckily, this is not the Bible's definition of truth. Instead, Jesus tells us, "I am the way and the truth and the life" (Jhn 14:6). Jesus is also the word (Jhn 1:1) which he later says is truth (Jhn 17:17). Biblical truth is not found in statements or knowledge, but in a person: Jesus Christ. The purpose of scripture is not to tell us impersonal truths but to bring us to knowledge of the One who is Truth, and it is reliable in that it never fails to do this (though we might fail to let the Spirit into our hearts). So when Psalm 18:30 and  Proverbs 30:5 tell us that the word of God proves true, we can be sure that through the Bible He can and will guide us into the truth we were made to know.

But more than simply being reliable, scripture also has authority. But what kind of authority? We often think of it as simply the authority to tell us what to do or believe, and it certainly means this; as Wegner says, "Scripture, then, has authority because it comes from God, who has the prerogative to tell us how to live our lives." But it also has more authority than this. N.T. Wright's book Scripture and the Authority of God is again very helpful here. He says, "When Revelation speaks of God and the Lamb receiving all power, glory, honor, and so forth, it is because through the Lamb's victory the whole of creation is being brought back into its intended harmony, rescued from evil and death. God's authority, if we are to locate it at this point, is his sovereign power accomplishing this renewal of all creation. Specific authority over human beings, notably the church, must be seen as a part of that larger whole." In other words, authority is not so much God telling us what to do and believe as it is the potency and exercise of His sovereignty over all creation, in pursuit of the renewal of all things.

Wright offers another very helpful clarification: "[The phrase 'the authority of scripture'] can have Christian meaning only if we are referring to scripture's authority in a delegated or mediated sense from that which God himself possesses and that which Jesus possesses as the risen Lord and son of God, the Immanual. It must mean, if it means anything Christian, 'the authority of God exercised through scripture.'" If all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Jesus (Mat 28:18), then of course any authority scripture has must be delegated by Him.

To my imaginary interlocutor who believes the Bible dropped from heaven in an angelic language, I would simply point back to Jesus, "the image of the invisible God" (Col 1:15), the clearest revelation of the true nature of God. Jesus did not descend from heaven like an angel, "but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men" (Phl 2:7), and He rejected several tempting opportunities to solve human problems with divine power (Mat 4:1-11, 26:52-54, 27:39-43). If Jesus came in the form of a human, lived as a human with human limitations, and yet accomplished the atoning work of the gospel that the Father sent Him to do, and if this Jesus is the Word of God (Jhn 1:1), should we expect the written word of God to be any less human? By writing His word through the words of human authors, God illustrates what I see as a great pattern of the gospel: the new, the spiritual, the kingdom of God springing up from the midst of the old, the fleshly, the kingdom of this world, in the most unexpected ways and places, and transforming it from the inside out. So it is with us who know Christ, so it will be in the world to come, so it is with the Word.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit

My heart sank as I read this headline: North Carolina Church Plans Halloween Bible Burning. My first thought was that a church had developed such a disrespect for the Bible and a sense of license for taking "freedom in Christ" that they thought this kind of behavior was okay, even exemplary.

The reality was worse. Some excerpts (the article is mercifully short):
Marc Grizzard, of Amazing Grace Baptist Church in Canton, North Carolina, says that the first King James translation of the Bible is the only true declaration of God’s word, and that all others are “satanic”. ... “[We will be burning] books by a lot of different authors who we consider heretics, such as Billy Graham, Rick Warren… the list goes on and on,” Pastor Grizzard told reporters. ... Mother Teresa is also on the list of Satanic authors.
As I read this, I recalled the Bible's definition of the "unforgivable sin": attributing the work of the Holy Spirit to demons (or the Devil). In Matthew 12:31-32 (KJV, for Grizzard's sake):
Wherefore I say unto you, All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men: but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men. And whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come.
I now understand a bit better why blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is such a terrible sin, sharing a bit of the heartbreak God must feel at being so slandered by someone calling himself a Christian. A militant, God-hating atheist would be more likely to come to know God than this man. I'm not sure there's still any point to it, but I'm praying for Pastor Grizzard. Pray with me if you like, and for God's sake, be careful about calling anything "Satanic".

Friday, October 25, 2013

Worship as Drunken Revelry; Faith as Music of the Heart

I set out to write another update of my thinking on the role of gender in the church, in light of some thought-provoking recent posts on the subject by Rachel Held Evans and Richard Beck. I'll get to that. I was rereading Ephesians 5 to this end, when suddenly verses 18-21, the part leading directly up to the controversial passage on women submitting, jumped out at me
And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.
"Do not get drunk with wine"; or probably more generally "do not get drunk" okay, that's a simple command, easy, I can do that. (Except maybe when there are mixed drinks and my curious urge to sample everything kicks in) But the part after that had never really made sense to me: "but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart". It always gave me some odd, unnatural mental image of Christians going around singing spiritual ditties to each other instead of speaking, maybe holding candles or like The Sound of Music in church. It was honestly kind of creepy.

Matthew Henry's classic commentary helps point out how Paul is intentionally drawing parallels between his instructions for Christians and pagan festivals such as Bacchanalia, where revelers would get very drunk on wine and sing songs to Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and merrymaking. Henry says, "[Drunkenness] was a sin very frequent among the heathens; and particularly on occasion of the festivals of their gods, and more especially in their Bacchanalia: then they were wont to inflame themselves with wine, and all manner of inordinate lusts were consequent upon it...Drunkards are wont to sing obscene and profane songs. The heathens, in their Bacchanalia, used to sing hymns to Bacchus, whom they called the god of wine. Thus they expressed their joy; but the joy of Christians should express itself in songs of praise to their God."

This is interesting because you might expect Paul to try to distance himself as far as possible from the licentiousness of these drunken heathens. Instead, he describes how the spiritual life of Christians should mirror that of the pagans, but with the true God as the object of worship and the Holy Spirit as the intoxicant. The phrase "singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart" really jumped out at me. I realized I had been imagining Paul's instructions too literally, and with none of the pagan parallels. I think he is basically saying that we should live for and worship God like drunken pagans reveling and singing songs at a feast! (Or for a more modern example, Bavarians drinking and singing at Oktoberfest)

I will have many interesting meditations on this image of Christians adoring their Christ, but one thing that sticks out to me now is that there are few who take themselves less seriously than drunken revelers, even if they are taking their god very seriously! By "singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart", you worship the way you enjoy really good music (the kind with driving across the country to hear): with your mind, passions, soul, and body; not passively, or standing on the sidelines pontificating. Paul gives a very experiential and participatory picture of Christian spirituality that I find very compelling.

One objection answered: you may say, "This verse is all well and good, but we must not give in to anti-intellectualism and instead balance it with verses that tell us to 'be transformed by the renewing of your mind' (Rom 12:2), keep a close watch on our teaching (1 Tim 4:16), and so on." And I agree, but I would remind you that these letters were originally sent out piecemeal to specific individuals, churches, or regions, who could not have systemized the teaching of the whole New Testament in such a way. And so if you view verses such as Ephesians 5:18-21 that emphasize Christianity-as-experience as being in tension with verses that depict it more as teaching or doctrine (both are translated from the same Greek word, didaskalia) and that for this reason you need both, you imply that Paul gave the Ephesians an imbalanced and possibly dangerous subset of what Christianity is.

I am beginning to get over the anti-intellectualism I flirted with earlier this year as I am guided to a changed understanding of the role Christian theological study and teaching play. I was speaking to myself earlier when I said that Christian worship and practice (which I am convinced are the same thing) cannot be enjoyed "passively, or standing on the sidelines pontificating". Is it possible the intellectual side of Christianity that has become so prominent today to be part of this "drunken revelry"—our knowledge of God intricately tied in with our experience of God and practice of holiness? I think it must be.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

A parable on the personhood of dogs

A neuroscientist recently had the idea of training dogs to go into an MRI scanner while awake to observe their brains' reaction to to some signals and stimuli. His findings suggest that "dogs have a level of sentience comparable to that of a human child." Read the whole article if you want; it gave me an interesting idea for an analogy to my view on New Testament verses that prescribe certain roles and rules for women (and slaves).

Imagine that, today, a prominent pastor and church-planter write an open letter to a church he had a hand in starting. Part of the letter contained some uncontroversial instructions to pet owners on how to treat their dogs: feed and water them regularly, take them for walks, pet them and give them attention, don't be cruel to them, and so on. Imagine that, somehow, this letter, including the instructions for dog owners, became a new book of the Bible. Imagine further that, sometime in the future, a movement based on Dr. Berns' research appears and eventually succeeds at convincing the world that dogs really are people too. Dogs are given all the rights of people, owning them as pets becomes illegal, and they are allowed to live much more independently. Though they are still dependent on humans, progress is being made to allow them to exist alongside us as equals in value.

The secular world looks back on this new book of the Bible with horror. What kind of a barbaric, backward religion is Christianity, viewing dogs merely as pets instead of people? It becomes a frequent point of attack on the church. Some Christians are made uncomfortable by these passages and seek to explain them away as "cultural" or contextualized to a former time when we hadn't yet decided that pets are people. Other Christians, having none of this, settle into a defensive stance against "the world", asserting that because these instructions are in the Bible, dogs really aren't people and should be kept as pets, which they continue to (illegally) do. Conservative pastors preach a "dog"-ma of complementarianism, arguing that the Bible clearly teaches that dogs were created to serve as man's pets and "best friends", not as equal persons. Dramatic raids on their homes by PETA exposing and freeing these secret pets frequently make the evening news.

Are dogs people or not? Does the future-church need to answer this question from scripture?

Evangelism as an act of love

Last night I had the opportunity to study Acts 22, in which Paul rather fearlessly recounts his testimony to an angry Jewish mob as he is being arrested by Roman soldiers. We discussed how Paul starts by establishing credibility with the audience through his backstory (v. 1-5), tells the story of his conversion and how Jesus appeared to him (v. 6-16), and how the Jews listen to him intently until he mentions how God sent him to the Gentiles (v. 21-22). I had this beautiful image of Paul standing on the barracks steps addressing this mob with care and the tragedy of how they turn on him afterward.

And then (you see how nonlinearly my brain works) the question came to me: what is the difference between fearlessly testifying to the gospel amid opposition, as Paul did, and bludgeoning people over the head with it so that they resent you and want nothing to do with your Jesus? This question troubles me because it is easy for us as Christians to want to just turn off our shame of the gospel (Mar 8:38) and just expect it to offend people (see Matt 10:32-42), thus justifying out handling the gospel in ways that only serve to drive people away from Jesus. But if Jesus is supposed to be a "stone of stumbling and a rock of offense" (Rom 9:33), is authentic preaching then expected to drive some people away from Jesus? Are we preaching the real Jesus for people to accept or reject, or a caricature? These questions have no easy answers.

Then I came to a sobering realization. We talk about sharing the gospel with people as if it's the most loving thing we could do for them—sometimes even more so than taking care of their physical needs. Preachers often utilize appeals to our compassion for "the lost" when calling for evangelism. But though we say that sharing the gospel is an act of love, often we don't actually do so as if it was—but more as if we were trying to sell something, or even to trick our hearers into having a conversation they don't want to have. How else do you explain the wealth of opening lines, "survey questions", "seeker-sensitive" events, and all of the other evangelical devices for drawing people into a conversation that is supposed to be the best thing that's ever happened to them? Yes, you may say, but how else can we get them to talk to us? Well, what if people don't want to talk to us about Jesus because they're suspicious of inauthentic salesman tactics?

I thought about it some more, and I think I see at least three characteristics that should describe us when we are proclaiming the gospel to people.


For our boast is this, the testimony of our conscience, that we behaved in the world with simplicity and godly sincerity, not by earthly wisdom but by the grace of God, and supremely so toward you. For we are not writing to you anything other than what you read and understand and I hope you will fully understand—just as you did partially understand us—that on the day of our Lord Jesus you will boast of us as we will boast of you. (2 Cor 1:12-14)
For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ. (2 Cor 2:17)
But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. (2 Cor 4:2)
This strikes at the heart of the uneasiness I've felt about attempts to effectively "trick" people into hearing the gospel, such as PULSE Twin Cities about two years ago, which attracted potential gospel-hearers with the promise of a free Owl City concert. Of course it did deliver on this promise and people were (I'm sure) given forewarning and a chance to leave before the event switched to a straight-faced presentation of the gospel. But the main point of the event (the gospel presentation) was not the reason people showed up (a free Owl City/Family Force 5/Grits concert, or for those in the know, to invite and accompany friends they wanted to hear the gospel). For this reason the whole thing made me deeply uneasy and I very deliberately didn't go.

I wonder what was going through the minds of the people who left when they learned someone was about to share the gospel with them. If I can be allowed to speculate (and my own blog seems like the safest place to do so), I'd guess it was something like Oh, there those Christians go again, always pushing their agenda. I should have guessed they were going to talk to us about Jesus! Why couldn't they just let me enjoy the music?

Imagine (in an inversion of the similar MAZE event that swept through the midwest a few years ago), you hear from some excited friends about a magic show that will be coming to your student union in a few weeks. You are told that other schools in your area have already been amazed by this show and you can't wait to hear what all the hype is about. When you go, the show lives up to your expectations: it has two magicians doing card tricks, juggling, people "losing" limbs, a water tank escape, and plenty of mental magic and predictions, to name just a few, all while making you laugh with wit and humor. Interspersed throughout are some interesting reflections on the tricks the duo is doing, the nature of illusion, and the mind's propensity to believe what it wants to believe that makes their magic possible. You are equal parts amazed, intrigued, and entertained by the show and find yourself applauding enthusiastically after every trick. Then, just before an intermission, you are told that the second half of the show will be an exposition of why there almost certainly is no God and how you can learn to think critically and rationally instead of believing in fairy tales. The magical duo is Penn & Teller and this show is one more stop on their project to enlighten young minds about religion and pseudoscience. You leave in a huff, feeling tricked and betrayed into coming to and enjoying this show that spits on everything you, a good Christian, believe in.

Of course, this probably wouldn't happen because Penn & Teller's atheism is fairly well-known and I can't see them using such a bait-and-switch tactic when they have few qualms making their beliefs known through more direct methods. So why do we feel the need to defy Paul's example and hide the gospel—purportedly the best news our listeners will ever hear—in candy coating so people won't notice it until we have them where we want them? Could we be driving away more people by making them feel tricked, pressured, or manipulated than with the actual content of the gospel? What if our openness and honesty in clearly telling people what we believe and why could be more attractive and conversation-starting than any gimmick or "spiritual survey"? What if our conduct showed that we were not ashamed of or secretive about the gospel, "but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God"?

But in addition to open and honest, we must also become at least two other things in our preaching the gospel...


For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. (1 Cor 9:19)

Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. (Jam 3:13-18)

Whence came the Satanic delusion that being forgiven through Christ makes us in any way superior to those who haven't? Are we any more moral, enlightened, or respectable than they? Maybe, maybe not—none of these things are the "point" of our Christian faith and we reject Jesus if we turn our eyes from Him to them. The point of the gospel that Paul tries to hammer into peoples' heads over and over (e.g. in Romans and Galatians) is that we are in no way better for having been saved, because this salvation is based not on anything we did to deserve it but God's free grace in giving it. In other words, we have nothing on those who don't know Jesus except that we do know Him—except if we really do know Him, we will not want to lord it over anyone but to do everything possible to invite them to share in this gift. "Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy, for you stand firm in your faith." (2 Cor 1:24)

But not all preaching reflects this. Our attitudes toward "the lost" range from compassionate, welcoming acceptance to rather condescendingly viewing them as targets in need of salvation to openly belittling them and scorning their lack of faith. We put ourselves above others by viewing ourselves as their teachers and guides, without ever considering that God may use them to teach us a thing or two. We think that we possess "the truth" that people so desperately need to hear, forgetting that the Truth is a person who reveals Himself to people as He wishes and doesn't need us to do it, and that we still need Him just as much as they do (because salvation is not a single event but a process).

What is really going on when we forget humility in our preaching of the gospel is that we are applying a worldly rubric of greatness where it doesn't apply: because we are "saved" and know the gospel, we are in some way greater than those who aren't or don't. Remember what Jesus said about greatness: "The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves." (Luk 22:25-27) The greatest being in the universe came to us as a humble servant of all and never once lorded His status (even as a teacher) over anyone. Should we do any less?

Honesty and humility—two essential components for evangelism, which should also be...


For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. (1 Cor 9:19:23)

I've already written a two-part post on this topic for my church, which I will attempt to briefly summarize. We hopefully believe that the gospel message is for all people at all times, i.e. there is no one it "doesn't apply to". But if the crux of its truth is the person of Jesus Christ and not reducible to merely a series of facts or statements, then the way we tell this message may sound different to different people. As a Biblical example (besides Acts 17, which the second above-linked post covers extensively), consider in brief how Paul and James write to their readers—one downplays the role of works and discourages focusing on them in favor of simply believing, the other emphasizes the importance of right living in addition to right belief (see more on this distinction here). So, is the gospel for or against works? Neither—it depends on the context you're in!

What breaks my heart is when I see the gospel handled in a very inflexible way that rejects contextualization, out of fear of "watering down" its message as though we were in a competition to see who can proclaim the straightest gospel. We make doctrines like total depravity, the justice and holiness of God (as intolerance for sin), and satisfaction theories of atonement into essential components of the gospel, sending the message that to be saved, you don't just have to believe in God—you have to believe in God like I do, and go through the same steps to belief that I did. And so we may unintentionally put obstacles in peoples' way, where to believe in God you must first believe a laundry list of other things.

Look at Acts 17: when he is invited to the Areopagus to present his "new idea" to the Greeks, Paul spends most of his words not enumerating four points or teaching doctrines, but simply establishing common ground with these pagans. His message is not that they are desperately lost, in rebellion, and in need of a savior, but rather that they already worship the true God (v. 23), albeit without really knowing Who they are worshipping, and that "he is actually not far from each one of us" (v. 27). He does give a call for repentance (v. 30), but with no mention of sin or human depravity; judgment, but no law that we have broken; the resurrection of Jesus, but not the crucifixion (v. 31). His presentation of the gospel is hopelessly fragmented and incomplete by today's standards—but it works! He isn't as concerned with getting the Greeks to believe in the same doctrines he does as to get them to believe in the same wonderful God that he does.

It takes imagination and creativity outside the scope of this blog to see how the gospel applies to every person's situation where they're at, and not just once they've been convinced of the logical truth of Christianity. Quite often we can't see ourselves, and can only watch and be amazed as God shows up in ways we could never have predicted.

Friday, October 4, 2013

The Procrustean-bed gospel

Along with my conviction about my writing yesterday came the reminder that I still don't really "get" the gospel like I should. Maybe no one does, but I remembered how this isn't okay and how I would really like to better understand the message of why Jesus became human, lived, died, and rose again that flashed across the first-century Mediterranean like lightning and changed the world. So I started rereading Romans—considered by many evangelicals to be the clearest and fullest presentation of the crucial message of life known as "the gospel", and the source of what God pointed out in me: "Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things." (Rom 2:1)

I'm not out to completely summarize Paul's presentation of the gospel in Romans; I haven't even finished reading and you may as well just read the book itself (Paul is probably less long-winded than I would be). I agree with my fellow believers in saying that much of Romans (certainly chapters 1-8) is an exquisite and detailed presentation of the gospel. After his introduction and greeting, Paul writes 1:16-17 almost as a header to the discourse that will follow: "For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”"

Then he totally changes gears in what he says next: "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth." He proceeds to expound on the nature of and reasons for this wrath for the rest of the chapter. What I realized is that Paul is not just writing in a vacuum. He is doing battle with an imagined Jewish interlocutor learned in the law and trusting in his own righteousness (perhaps even his former self, the Pharisee and persecutor of Christians). This becomes obvious in chapter 2, which goes from talking about "those people" and their nasty sins to directly addressing "you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself" (2:3) Paul pulls no punches in including the Jews in his condemnation.
But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast in God and know his will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed from the law; and if you are sure that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth— you then who teach others, do you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law. For, as it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” (2:17-24)
Though Jews are better off in some way than Gentiles (3:1-2), they are by no means free from the universal burden of sin and have no special excuse or "out" with God for it because of their status. In verses 10-18 he puts together a virtual mashup of verses to get across the point that no one is righteous in God's sight on their own merits. No one measures up. Christians who use Romans 3:23 in a morally superior way to convict someone of their sin miss the point completely. Paul is speaking to the breadth of sin, not necessarily its depth.

But that is all an aside to what my reading of Romans so far has gotten me thinking about, and that is the idea of God's righteousness. Paul mentions or appeals to it many times throughout these chapters, first in 1:17, and repeatedly in 3:21-26.
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
I started thinking: it makes sense that Paul would talk so much about how the gospel relates to God's righteousness being revealed in Jesus and in us, because he seems to be writing largely to Jewish Christians who would have grown up being instructed in the laws of God and trained to seek His righteousness—through the law. So later he writes about how Christ has released us from the law (7:6) which was roughly coterminous with being enslaved by sin and freed us to live with Christ to God (6:10).

Then I got curious about how much Paul writes about righteousness in other letters and did some research. Where Paul mentions "righteousness" 32 times in his letter to the Romans, he mentions it just once in his first letter to the Corinthians:
But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong;  God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are,  so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption,  so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1:27-31)
So not only does Paul emphasize the idea of "righteousness" much, much less to the Corinthians, he does so in a rather different way.  Instead of it being something that belongs to God, that He reveals and accounts to us, Christ became righteousness to the Corinthians along with wisdom, sanctification, and redemption. Paul then spends most of the rest of the letter instructing and disciplining the Corinthians.

I think Paul was instructing each church in the way it needed. To those in Rome who boasted in their faithfulness to the law, Paul demonstrates how universal the problem of sin is so that they will realize their need for a savior. But the Corinthian church was apparently composed more of Gentile believers who had more of a problem with incorporating their old pagan worship practices like ritual sex with temple prostitutes (see 6:15-16), getting raging drunk (11:21), and ecstatic spiritual hysteria (see chapter 14) into their new Christian faith, not holier-than-thou boasting or legalism. So his advice to them is much more practical and directed towards rebuking their various abuses of the gospel.

I've realized that I'm not necessarily opposed to the gospel being presented as information or a series of propositions; with the nature of language, this is unavoidable to some degree. What I am opposed to is thinking that we can fully capture the "essence" of the gospel in all its richness of meaning and implications with one presentation or style. We read Romans like good Protestants and think that it depicts the pure, unadulterated, raw gospel without realizing that it is already contextualized to people under the law. So instead of contextualizing the gospel to people with other backgrounds and problems, we try to contextualize them to fit our Procrustean-bed gospel by trying to find how they are seeking their own righteousness by a law of some kind for them to be set free from, even when this narrative is a stretch.

Morgan Guyton provides some thoughts of this in his post on evangelism (which, as usual, I highly recommend you read), saying:
In a post-Christendom world, it makes no sense to talk about non-Christians “knowing [anything] to be true” about a “day of giving an account.” The problem is that the formulaic proselytism of Southern Baptists doesn’t have anything to say to someone who, rightly or wrongly, doesn’t give a flip about the concept of Judgment Day (like the cynical European journalist interviewing the pope)"
And later, he clarifies that this kind of justification-on-judgment-day evangelism is really most effective when preaching to Christians, or other similarly moralistic people. When we make it our method of winning nonbelievers, though, it may serve better to push people away from God.
In the old Christendom order, it sort of worked. When everyone was nominally a Christian, you could preach hellfire sermons and get the nominal Christians to come down for the altar call to become “real” Christians (perhaps for the third or fourth time). But in post-Christendom, it doesn’t work anymore to warn strangers about the scary God that the world has stopped believing in. Too many people have seen that scary God create scary Christians who don’t act at all like Jesus. And you can’t blame earthquakes or invasions of foreign imperial armies on God’s wrath anymore.
I worry that in our evangelism, we often address only peoples' minds (or rather, our minds, by trying to formulate a gospel presentation that jumps through all the requisite doctrinal hoops of correctness) while leaving their hearts and imaginations hungry. In our zeal to guard God's (or is it our?) holiness, we depict God in a way that most modern people want nothing to do with—and if they they reject Him, we simply chock it up to "the god of this age" blinding their minds (2 Cor 4:4), without considering that this blinding might be occurring through our misguided proselytizing.

If we make preaching the gospel about using the right method, or hitting on the right talking points, or getting the right results, we may find that it is no longer the true gospel that we're preaching. In his preaching Paul became "all things to all people, that by all means I might save some." (9:22) He truly believed the gospel was a transformative message that applied to everyone: Jew and gentile, weak and strong, slave and free; but his message to each of these groups may have been quite different. "Preaching the gospel", far from being a simple learning and compelling regurgitation (how many times have you heard those two words together) of doctrinal facts pertaining to salvation, may require real humility, creativity, and a willingness to live with and understand diverse people to truly win them over.

But this is all very easy for me to say since I have the opposite problem; that is, taking the above warnings too seriously and getting scared out of preaching the gospel to anyone. And once again I reveal my tendency to write to others and not to myself. I pray for the heart of Paul as he said, "Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!" (1 Cor 9:16) I pray that I would really get the gospel in a truly transformative way as the early church did, such that I can't keep it from overflowing into my life and relationships. That it would break out of its box of simply being that omnipresent term that evangelicals constantly throw around and come to define me.

I'm going to try to start a discussion yet again:

  • How would you describe "the gospel" to yourself?
  • What do you think of my conclusion that the law/righteousness narrative of the gospel is not its definition, but an application of it? Do you think we can be too inflexible in how we present it?
  • What obstacles do you see put in the way of the gospel that you wish could be removed?

Addendum: I should at least mention the two posts I did for my church's men's group on contextualizing the gospel: One Two

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Not the post I intended to write

I've been working for weeks on a massive post. It originally began as two posts—one on "worldview" thinking in the church and overly intellectualized spirituality, and one about "divine restlessness" as a way of maintaining an appropriate level of certainty and epistemological humility in our beliefs—that I decided were similar enough to merge together. Though it covered fairly well-traded ground, it was going to be excellent, brilliant, insightful, and convicting; the usual.

That post will probably never see the light of day.

I still agree with most of the things I said in it, and I may try to work some of them into future posts. But as I was finishing up, it became harder and harder to right. God was convicting me not about what I was writing, but about how and why I was writing it, using the words I was writing. He was pulling a Romans 2:1 on me.

Yesterday I realized that since its renaissance in February through June, I have been taking this blog in the wrong direction, and my output has suffered as a result. A strong theme in my posts this year has been that the Bible is not simply a source of information to make us smarter and should not be read as such, but rather it's supposed to transform us. Once I realized this, I started seeing the misuse of scripture in this way—people simply drawing conclusions they wanted from it to back up their own arguments—everywhere. Everywhere except in my own writing.

The truth is, I've still been mining conclusions I've already drawn out of scripture instead of being informed by it. Too often I've written with my voice instead of seeking to let God speak through my own words. This question of who's really talking is independent of whether I study the Bible with my old logical view or my new Christ-as-Word view. Either can be a high or a low view of scripture. I've changed how I read the Bible, but not how I use it. I still treat it like an object of study to be held up to the light and analyzed for talking points in order to speak to and act on others rather than the Word of God that primarily speaks to and acts on me.

The result of this is that instead of this blog representing a conversation with God and with others, often it has just been the outflow of my train of thought on my solitary quest for truth—a noble delusion! I write about whatever I'm worked up about, annoyed at, or catches my fancy instead of what God is doing in me and saying to me right now. Though my thinking about doubt was this six months ago, He's calling me to move on now, but I keep posting about the same things as a way of staying in my comfort zone and avoiding letting God continue to lead me through my writing. The more I linger, the emptier and more forced my posts feel.

My conclusion (and it's one I still can't hear enough): the Bible is not merely a "text" to be studied, it is the Word of God to be lived. If we do study it, we should do so with the earnestness and immediacy of a man on a sinking ship studying the instructions for a life raft.

Friday, September 20, 2013

The Gift of Loneliness

I recently finished reading a book that I won from my pastor Cor's blog, The Wounded Healer by Henri Nouwen. It's a short but incredibly sweet and practical book about how the wounds we bear can help us minister to others in a confused, lost age. His writing style is both deeply insightful and emotionally engaging, a huge inspiration to me (I think he might also be an INFJ). This passage toward the end stuck out to me (emphasis added):
The Christian way of life does not take away our loneliness; it protects and cherishes it as a precious gift. Sometimes it seems as if we do everything possible to avoid the painful confrontation with our basic human loneliness, and allow ourselves to be trapped by false gods promising immediate satisfaction and quick relief. But perhaps the painful awareness of loneliness is an invitation to transcend our limitations and look beyond the boundaries of our existence. The awareness of loneliness might be a gift we must protect and guard, because our loneliness reveals to us an inner emptiness that can be destructive when misunderstood, but filled with promise for him who can tolerate its sweet pain. When we are impatient, when we want to give up our loneliness and try to overcome the separation and incompleteness we feel, too soon, we easily relate to our human world with devastating expectations. We ignore what we already know with a deep-seated, intuitive knowledge—that no love or friendship, no intimate embrace or tender kiss, no community, commune or collective, no man or woman, will ever be able to satisfy our desire to be released from our lonely condition. This truth is so disconcerting and painful that we are more prone to play games with our fantasies than to face the truth of our existence. Thus we keep hoping that one day we will find the man who really understands our experiences, the woman who will bring peace to our restless life, the job where we can fulfill our potentials, the book which will explain everything, and the place where we can feel at home. Such false hope leads us to make exhausting demands and prepares us for bitterness and dangerous hostility when we start discovering that nobody, and nothing, can live up to our absolutistic expectations.
Many marriages are ruined because neither partner was able to fulfill the often hidden hope that the other would take his or her loneliness away. And many celibates live with the naive dream that in the intimacy of marriage their loneliness will be taken away.
When the minister lives with these false expectations and illusions he prevents himself from claiming his own loneliness as a source of human understanding, and is unable to offer any real service to the many who do not understand their own suffering.
I recently came to the realization that, as enjoyable as my relationship with my girlfriend is (so, did I mention I'm seeing someone?), and as thankful for it as I am, it can't completely satisfy me, make me fully completely loved, accepted and valued, end the deep-seated feeling of loneliness, and all that fun stuff Nouwen describes. I "saw the bottom" of what it could provide. And the amazing part of my Christian learning in life is that not only was I not surprised by this realization, I was expecting it. As Nouwen says, this realization comes after marriage or years of cohabitation for some and ruins the relationship because both people were hoping that the other would, essentially, be God to them, which is too great a burden for anyone to bear. My pastor Steve often says that his wife Carol is "a great wife, but a terrible god".

But Nouwen paints a more nuanced picture than simply saying that God can cure the loneliness that no one else can. God doesn't just take our loneliness away; He turns it into a blessing and a gift for ministering to others. By understanding our own inner loneliness we can begin to understand the loneliness of others and love them through it. That is, largely, the theme of Nouwen's book.