Thursday, December 12, 2013

Supreme Executive Power...

In my post-high school days, I spent one summer working for a government sponsored youth acting company. Our purpose was to put on light dramas in surrounding parks for the amusement of park visitors. In one production we included a vignette from "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" in which I played King Arthur and my co-worker was the indomitable Dennis. For those of you who haven't seen this scene, Dennis is a humorously placed anachronism. He's a modern socialist peasant and in the course of his dialogue with the king questions everything about his kingship. The climax of the encounter is as follows.

King Arthur: I am your king.
Woman: Well I didn't vote for you.
King Arthur: You don't vote for kings.
Woman: Well how'd you become king then?
[Angelic music plays... ]
King Arthur: The Lady of the Lake, her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water, signifying by divine providence that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur. THAT is why I am your king.
Dennis: [interrupting] Listen, strange women lyin' in ponds distributin' swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.

 It's a clear case of the Emperor not really having any clothes after all. I love it. "Strange women lyin' in ponds distributin' swords" and "not from some farcical aquatic ceremony" -- it just doesn't get any better than that. Because the truth is that Arthur's kingship is really based on amassed military might and the money to sustain it. And however much you like Arthur, (I loved those legends -- my favourite was Roger Lancelyn Green's King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table) you have to admit that ultimately, mystical kingship origin stories like his are, after all, just a bit of desperate revisionism on the part of those who have the power to justify its continuance.

Let's have a look at the present day Roman Catholicism. No, skip it. Let's have a go at the papacy. Really everything else about Catholicism that grates on me and maybe some of you -- the veneration of saints, priestly celibacy, the hierarchy, the ostentation of cathedrals, etc. etc -- can be put down to pardonable cultural variation. We've all got our quirks. But the underlying assertion that after all, through the papacy, they're the boss over the rest of the church is the central reason that all the rest of the church have not, as some fondly desire, coalesced with them. (Hey, we should be happy. We're not anathema any more -- we're "divided brethren." But when we really get it right, we'll come home to the abuser who was ready and willing to burn us at the stake for thinking differently only a few hundred years ago. Do you really think so?)

And in all truth, the reason the papacy survived all those years, was money and military power. The story that somehow a succession of supreme bishops is inherent in Christ's blessing of Peter is classic power justifying revisionism. It's in the same category as the story King Arthur relates to Dennis. Not a hundred, a thousand, a million years of papal power could justify reading that into Jesus words. In the same way that I have said elsewhere in this blog, that we ought really to have explicit instructions ("after me will come a book") to justify the way we treat the New Testament, a thing like the papacy needs far more than a blessing which could equally well (and much more consistent with everything Jesus did here on earth) have been bequeathed to the whole church, not to a chain of succession. But that is what humans do. We make up stories which justify wars, property grabs, power plays. I still do the same while playing territorial war games with my (adult) kids. Even though I've never had X Y and Z parcel of land, in my chats, I always talk about taking my land back from my opponent. Adds an element of realism even to games with elves, orcs, and mages.

This is also why Pope Francis is so significant. He's the first pope we've heard of showing the level of humility that he does. But what we (non-Catholics) all hope from him is some institutional humility -- a frank admission that whatever allegiance Catholics give him, he has no such claim, tacit or otherwise, on the rest of us for the same allegiance. And I doubt we'll see such a move. The hope that a story like this gives us is, I believe, misplaced. As pope, he must speak for the whole of the Catholic Church, It's a bit like that scene in Ben Hur, where Pilate speaks to Quintus Arius (aka Judah Ben Hur) as a friend and the adopted son of a friend as they converse together on the floor of the council chamber but must speak for Rome when he sits in his governors chair. Whatever properly collegial feelings Cardinal Bergoglio may have had for the rest of the non-Catholic world, now that he is part of the system at the level he is, will surely be trumped by Pope Francis. And the mythic story will continue.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

A Question of Paradigm

When I was a young teen living at home, we were heavily into the "Institute in Basic Youth Conflict" materials created by a man named Bill Gothard. He's memorable for many reasons, but one was his way of treating the Bible. He was an ace at formulating a paradigm and then bringing that paradigm to bear on every passage and story that he found. One of his favourite paradigms had to do with life under authority as God's plan for everyone. To go against authority was to against God every single time. We had a book of his called "Character Sketches" which had a two page spread (the thing was as wide and tall as a small newspaper) on the biblical story of Abigail, which ignored David's commendation of her, and the approving tone of the chronicler, and asserted instead that she had done wrong by disobeying her husband. She saved her people from slaughter, and helped David avoid committing a serious wrong, but that wasn't good enough for Bill. She went outside her God given authority, her husband, and that made her a negative character example... Because that's what fit with his paradigm.

I guess this kind of thing is pretty prevalent. I have paradigms, you have paradigms, we all have paradigms. Still, when you run into a glaring example of bringing your paradigm to the text and making it say what you want, it still grates -- just like I expect the above example grates -- on you.

A couple of days ago I was following a discussion on Facebook and stated my disagreement with an article which solved the problem of Old Testament violence, which is an undeniably difficult issue for the modern and post-modern, by arguing that because the person of Satan wasn't clear to the OT writers, often they mistook Satan for God or an agent of God or something like that, and therefore whenever you encounter a passage where God does something violent, it's obviously actually Satan. Simple. (the article was long and very well developed as such things go, but in the end it came down to this, as I called it in my comment, facile proposition) In my rather shocked reaction to this "solution," I raised the issue of the New Testament episode of Ananias and Sapphira and was pointed to this discussion as an answer to my counter-example.

So now I need to summarize the podcast in a few sentences and still do it a modicum of justice. It consists of several people having an impromptu discussion around the question of how to reconcile the concept of a non-violent God with the Ananias and Sapphira incident. And you should know that although I embrace the ideal of Christian non-violence, it has always been rooted in the idea that God --"vengeance is mine, I will repay"-- takes care of all the very necessary righteous retribution and therefore, it's just not our province. It may have been mandated in some form or other to the nation of Israel. But Jesus' Kingdom is a heavenly kingdom, otherwise, as he himself says, we his followers would fight. The necessity of such retribution, in my opinion, is what makes mercy meaningful. He could, he even ought to, cut us off for our misdeeds, but instead took the penalty himself. Also I wholeheartedly affirm his absolute right as creator, guiding history when necessary, to amputate and cauterize his creation at will -- so that it will stay alive and healthy and serve the end he designed for it. So I have never particularly needed a non-violent God. But the group looking at this passage evidently does and did.

So the discussion starts out with one participant "problematizing" the question with a bit of a caricature (only slightly slanted for effect) of what is a flat reading of the text, namely that God, to protect the fledgling church, himself slew the lying couple and then bringing up a bouquet of attendant questions that that might be raised, you know, like why doesn't God do this all the time? Why aren't our sometimes stingy lying congregations all dead by now? Why didn't God kill Hitler to save millions? Stuff like that. Conversation ensues. One person points out the lack of faith demonstrated by A and S; that holding back money was demonstration of Mammon slavery. Finally someone brings up the idyllic nature of the church having everything in common. And suddenly everyone has an 'aha!' moment that this could be like the 'Fall' -- i.e. the loss of innocence -- of the church. Discussion proceeds along this track for some time. Participants bring up parallels to the Fall in Eden. Someone, introduced as a Girardian, talks about "the Satan" and the part that that role (I hope I'm using an appropriate term -- I am not a Girardian and am not likely to become one) plays in creating the lie. After some time the question of the deaths themselves is addressed. The potentially supernatural aspect of the event is downplayed. Maybe they had to do with the physiology of being found out? Someone suggests they might have had weak hearts. The orthodox view of sin is presented, that all sin is dangerous in and of itself and the commands against it are simply God's prescriptions for our safety -- the example given is a comparison to driving around a corner at 50 mph. If you neglect the commandment to slow down, you will die. What about the 'great fear' that fell on all who heard these things? Someone uses the phrase "fear of God" and then accuses himself of reading into the text, because "of God" is not used here. Maybe someone references that "great fear" reinforces the 'Fall of the Church' hypothesis introduced earlier -- if they didn't they should have. Anyhow as far as I can tell the whole discussion concludes that 1) God was not being violent here because the whole event played out on largely a human plane with the obvious interference of Satan or the (!) Satan, 2) Ananias and Sapphira died from a direct internal consequence of their own action, 3) the event was an archetype of the Fall of humanity with Peter's inquiries echoing God's "Where are you?" in the garden. I would like to add 4) because God is not violent anyways, just for the effect the whole discussion had on me, but that wouldn't really be fair.

At the end of it all, I'm not convinced. And I'm somewhat disappointed because one of the participants is a friend and someone whom I would still probably go to for advice on understanding some difficult Bible passage. But the whole thing reminded me so much of Bill Gothard's treatment of Abigail. The text must line up with the ideas and ideals we bring to it. If it doesn't, well we make it line up. I see key things that the discussion ignored or passed over. First and foremost, the approving tone of the chronicler must be brought into account. This is a memory shared with Luke (?) some years after the fact. And the retrospect of those years has not given the relater any pause. You don't get a sense of doubt or of a haunting question ("What was that about?") about the story. Secondly the "great fear" that is mentioned (and immediately discounted in the aforementioned dialogue) is immediately followed by a glowing description of the outflow of miraculous power. This does not add up with the idea of a Satanic fear. And it also ignores histories of past revivals which have frequently experienced "great fear" moments which have evidently been integral to the revival just like this seems to have been integral to the awakening in Jerusalem. Thirdly exactly counter to one of the comments (one I neglected to mentioned earlier, sorry.) the whole thing looks exactly like a law court. Peter gives a judgement "Lying to the Holy Spirit" and the sentence is executed. It really smacks very much of that whole "what you bind/loose on earth is bound/loosed in heaven" passage that I find so problematic.

In fact if there's an Old Testament parallel passage it's not the Fall, it's the Achan incident. Jesus was certainly the "prophet like [Moses]" and Peter might fill the role of Joshua, and the couple, well what could be more obvious?

So after all this, what's my take on this incident? What do I have to offer as an alternative view? I'll take a shot at it. In earlier blog posts, I have earnestly argued that the presentation of the Gospel and the practise of the church must fit into its own culture and time. Usually, I'm saying don't try to bolt the past onto the culture of today. Here I'm on the corollary though opposite tack. Let's not measure the actions of God and the early church in the first century by a 21st century yardstick. The value of a single human life or even of two human lives was obviously valued lower than the righteousness of the community. Even if you just look at this story, that's obvious. There's no mention of people even 'falling away' from the church over this incident. The event just heightens the reputation of the church. More people come all the time. Maybe Peter should have been more merciful to Ananias. Maybe he shouldn't have so tested Sapphira. Maybe Paul shouldn't have pronounced blindness upon Elymas. But these things happened and they seem to completely fit inside the time. As I have mentioned elsewhere, God seems to work with the culture before him, changing what can be changed and being present anyway even when stuff happens which our culture would have a problem with. That, off the cuff anyway, is my take.

So I may disagree and my take may be diametrically opposed to theirs, but there is certainly room for both the aforementioned discussion group and me in the faith. Jesus will completely and totally give us understanding when he comes. Until then we struggle to grasp all that the biblical record and our own experience presents us with. I imagine that one of Jesus' first sit downs with the church in the consummated kingdom will be to help us clearly and finally understand his character. At that time what exactly happened when Ananias died might interest us or it might not. If it does occur to me at that time I will raise the question then.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Jesus Feminist: A Book Review

I have a friend who is a published author. She has a blog that is very popular (with my wife for instance) and can turn a darned lovely phrase whenever she has a mind. And she's a really nice person and I do not scruple to use the term "nice." You'll get the idea of what she's like when I say that I don't use the word "nice" in any shallow sense.

So I'm showing a fair amount of temerity to take on the task of reviewing the book that has propelled her onto, if not a global stage, then at least onto an off-and-on extended world tour. What if I don't actually like it? What if I violently disagree with it? What would my wife say? My objectivity and social life might come into conflict.

Well, they haven't. I haven't really anything negative to say about the book, try as I might. So I feel quite safe about saying the following.

The first thing that struck me about the book was its tone. It's a very gentle volume. To be sure there are times when Sarah is presenting harsh realities, but the style never varies from the warmth she establishes at the beginning by inviting the reader to metaphorically sit by her at a beach bonfire. It's a book meant to inspire, not argue, to encourage, not score points. The simple call at the beginning to join her at the campfire out of the place of warring issues just by itself speaks eloquently to the futile obsession we have about such things as doctrine or issues.

The name of the book Jesus Feminist, really only applies to part of the book. A lot of it could just as well be called Jesus: Friend of the Downtrodden and Jesus: The One Who Helps You Live. I, whom you'd think, as a man, should be reading this book from the outside, frequently was caught off guard by the simple wisdom and learned a thing or two, as the saying goes. Ultimately Sarah is doing her best to inspire women to come and be equal partners with men. But in the mean time, she's dishing up a lot of encouragement to any else who would want to join her at her bonfire.

There are two or three chapters of fairly low-key case stating -- something for the proof texters to chew on. But this is not really why to read this book. You are probably already convinced of one side or the other and you will either find yourself in the choir being preached to, or in the crowd yelling "Crucify!"

Some of the book I skimmed for the opposite reason that I skim most Christian books. Most of the time I will skim a book when the presentation at the beginning is so bad that I view the unfortunate collection of paper in my hands as a complete write-off -- but for whatever reason I still have to finish it. Sarah's book got skimmed because I could see where she was going and needed no further elucidation. She already had me singing along pages ago.

Sarah's feminism should scare no one. This is not a placard waving manifesto. The title might be misleading to some on that point. This is an invitation to live and not even waste a "damn" on the torpedoes. More could be said. But this for sure. Good on you, Sarah!

Friday, November 8, 2013

The Story We Are Actually Telling

Here's an example of how we're missing it when it comes to the resurrection. What's your typical evangelical conversion experience? I come to God through Jesus as a sinner, I pray the 'sinner's prayer,' he forgives me, lives in me by his Spirit, and lets me into heaven when I die. I am also baptized and have communion as symbolic of this experience. That's certainly pretty well what happened to me. So what's the problem?

Last night I realized that that does not line up with Jesus' death and resurrection very well.  I mean it actually changes the story by downplaying the resurrection. The real story of the Gospel is that Jesus was born as a baby, lived an obedient life in the power of the Holy Spirit, was put to death, bearing our sins in some sacrificial manner (yes I'm being vague here. I'm trying to avoid taking sides in the current brouhaha over in what sense he has died for our sins), rose again bodily, ascended bodily into heaven and will come again to rule. Do you see a conflict? What's always been told us, especially in our conversion narrative, as primarily important, is that Jesus has provided a way into heaven. But if that's so central, the resurrection is an embarrassing detail and the second coming is an anticlimax. We might as well eviscerate his story and say that he went to hell with our sins, left them there and attained heaven on our behalf so now we can also go there too. We need never again mention his coming back in the body. Who cares about his body? He's in heaven now. That's what counts. Who cares about our bodies? We'll be in heaven.

So. Big surprise. We're not getting it. Over years of evangelism we've boiled down the message to 'pray the sinner's prayer and escape hell.' The early church grappled constantly with all the resurrection could mean and we, all too familiar, ignore it. Can we go back and start examining it again? Do we realize what an absolutely shocking anomaly it is? Can we see again that it changes everything? Yup. It's time to grapple some more...

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Resurrection Theology

I grew up loving heaven. The best part of the entire Narnia series was when the children ended up in Aslan's country and never had to leave. Whenever I thought about angels and glorious spiritual realities beyond my ken I would have this sense in my physical body of buzzing and tingling that I only later associated with the presence of the Holy Spirit. Everything "heaven" was precious and wonderful. I could hardly wait to get there. I even seriously entertained thoughts of suicide on that basis, not that I would have ever carried them out. It was against the rules.

So what would cause me to question this? Try Surprised by Hope by NT Wright. If once you are aware that the primitive Christians were not at all about heaven, (If they had the response would have been "everyone knows about the after-life and everyone has a different version -- who cares about that new Jewish cult?") but rather the resurrection, you suddenly have a different end in view. We're all coming back! Heaven separated from Earth is not God's ultimate plan. We're coming back and heaven's coming with us.

So much of our theology revolves around heaven. But heaven is incomplete. Heaven is not our home. The gospel song, "I Can't Feel At Home In This World Anymore" -- I used to sing it to myself constantly -- is not actually telling us the truth. Otherwise why would the martyrs under the altar in Revelation 6 be so particular about what happens here on earth. No, the happy ending is so obviously "Now the dwelling place of God is with men!" And no, I'm not proposing some turn-of -the-last-century liberalism that says if we all work together in a non-miraculous way (who believes in miracles anymore, anyways, right?) we can bring peace on the earth and make it into heaven. But read the book of Acts and understand this statement: "With great power the apostles were testifying to the resurrection of Jesus." When was the last time when you heard someone doing that?

I think that the death that was warned of in the garden was the separation of heaven and earth. Certainly when redemption is complete, they will be one, indicating that it's a return to a possibly former, certainly intended state.

These thoughts are incomplete. I could try to rewrite the aforementioned book for you but maybe you'll want to read it yourself. There's so much here that I am constantly mulling over, just because I've never thought this way before...

Friday, September 27, 2013

Doctrines and labels

My daughter called me the other day. She was in the throes of debate with a staunch Calvinist. (And what two words go together better than "staunch" and "Calvinist"?) As a result of their discussion she wanted to know what I thought of "total depravity," by which her friend meant a complete inability on the part of humanity to choose what is right. I replied that whether or not such a thing is true is actually moot so long as the Holy Spirit is in the world doing the work Jesus described, that is, convicting the world. It made me ponder once again what power a labeled doctrine has. Once there is such a label, be it transubstantiation,  inerrancy or total depravity, it presents to the world an in or out, good or bad choice-- if you agree, you're in, and if you disagree you're out. That's power, that is. Now maybe we need some such labeled doctrines, but at risk of tritely quoting Spiderman, with great power comes great responsibility. Let's try to have as few as possible.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Pardonable Subjectivism

Question for Christians: How do you treat the personal story of someone's conversion? I mean when someone recounts to you their conversion story, what to you do about it. Do you, on one hand, analyze the account to death and point out its theological faults, or derive a deep abiding doctrinal statement from it, blithely bending and twisting what you thought you knew to fit with your friend's account? Or would you generally take a middle road and allow the person his private perceptions of how and why God has worked in his life without giving it universal application?

Second question, more theological this time: In the context of the above, taking into account God's universal love for us, how would you respond if someone told you that God, counter to your intuitive understanding of that love, saved him, showed mercy to him, gave grace to him, loved him, etc. (and yes, I lump these together on purpose. I think that we split hairs far too glibly in these matters.) only because of some extenuating circumstance and that otherwise he would have been passed over? Would you try to explain to that person, that no, God has mercy on everyone, because that is his nature and it's not at all about us or would you pass it off as not that vitally important?

Third question: What if this person was the Apostle Paul? In 1 Timothy 1:13 he says precisely the kind of thing I refer to in question-- that he was shown mercy because of his ignorance. Now what do you do? You see, a couple of days ago I was reading this. It's written by a friend, whom I disagree with sharply on many occasions and issues, but whose erudition and Bible scholarship are several "pay-grades" above my own. I was appreciating his exposition about the various biblical words for ignorance, when suddenly I thought, "Wait a minute. Saying something that seems to abrogate God's universal mercy is not allowed or maybe taken seriously from anyone else, but if Paul does it we have to alter our theology?" It's a question of paradigm. If we look at the Bible as inerrant (I'm starting to call this the "the book done fell from the sky" theory) we are forced to make everything in it true in an absolute sense and it has to distort our theology. That's why my friend sees a necessity to categorize different kinds of ignorance.

There's really another way. Let's remember who we all are. Paul is not the uniquely anointed leader of a church filled with people otherwise disconnected from God who need him to disseminate all that is true. He is one of many sons of God (ideally!) equally filled by the Holy Spirit. He has a very significant voice among us, but by very definition of what it means to be the church, if we really want to look ourselves as all (including Paul) members of the body of Christ (Paul's own metaphor) then we cannot claim absolute error free communication will come from any one of us. We are all here to complete each other. Moses' prophetic prayer -- to which the church is the fulfilment-- says it all. "Oh that God would put his Spirit on all his people..."

And when it comes to Paul's take on why God showed him mercy or indeed his claim to be the chief of sinners, which I really have heard people take literally, ("You can't claim to be too bad to forgive; Paul has already declared himself to be the worst of sinners and God forgave him...") the question becomes "Why do we have crank up the doctrine mill for a subjective throw-away comment about something very personal -- Paul's conversion experience?" I say we allow him this subjectivism. We certainly allow it for each other. But let's not try to theologize around it.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Why I Read the Bible the Way I Do.

I thought I would make the effort, since I find that so often I am a different animal than others when it comes to how I approach the Bible, that it would be fair of me to itemize how I got this way.

Once upon a time, long ago and far away, in Langley-Vineyard-That-Was, Gary Best embarked on a sermon series that would last about a year and a half. The question before us was, as close as I can summarize, "What does the Bible really teach about the status of women in relationship to men?" It was a paradigm changing experience for me. It wasn't so much his conclusion, although I turned a fairly definite corner there too, but the process which produced that conclusion, which led me to an irrevocable shift. Gary argued (successfully, in my opinion) that after the fall, women as represented in God's law and in the practise of his people were always treated slightly better than the way they were treated in the cultures around them. He saw a persistent and definite trend that, as the redemption of the Kingdom worked its way through the cultures of his people, should have progressed in a rising straight line back to the equality men and women shared in the Garden. Unfortunately for women, the church hasn't read the Bible that way, and for years, men have ensured that the line of has levelled off and women, contrary to God's plan represented in that trend, have been left at the last biblical data point instead of being allowed to complete the intended redemptive process.

But that's not what this post is about. I found the implications of his line of reasoning very impacting. The ideas that there could be a story that is larger than the text-- a story in this case of God leading his people through change, never changing more than they could handle culturally, lest they not be able to make the shift and the change be lost-- and that at any one slice of time, the message might be tailored to the people of that time and culture with no expectation that future cultures and times should take it as literally written to them were for me a door that slammed shut behind me that I realize now that I after that sermon series I could never treat the Bible as it is traditionally treated.

At another time I was exposed to the following, in the teaching of an acquaintance, Rod Graciano of Timothy Ministries. It's an easily understood and  paradigm setting way of looking at all doctrine. He calls it the Temple of Truth. It's basically a list of criteria against which you must test any new teaching that comes along. As follows:
  1. At least one explicit statement of Scripture. Without this support, the doctrine is uncertain and would be unbalanced if emphasized.
  2. Confirmation of additional statements of Scripture. Additional passages even if implicit can help support a doctrine and show its importance.
  3. Compatibility with established biblical truth. This is a necessary foundation, but does not in itself constitute a doctrinal edifice.
  4. Old Testament types and historical precedents. Types may deepen a teaching, but are not necessary and cannot support a doctrine by them selves. Historical precedents show that something may be done, but they do not prove that it must be done.
Thank you Rod. So much detritus in our teaching could have been ruled out before it became popular if we only could've used this test.

Another life changing experience was watching friends embrace Roman Catholicism and grappling with all the strange and new (to me) perspectives that they started to espouse. It was at my friends' house that I read a part of a volume by Peter Creeft which explained pretty convincingly that the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura, the supremacy of the Bible, was pretty well nonsense, and not even taught by the bible itself. Again convincingly, the Bible, specifically the New Testament was chosen by the church on its own authority. This makes historical sense. What doesn't necessarily follow, however, is that we ought to follow the Catholics back to that authority, that sola ecclesia, that supremacy of the Roman Catholic Church. Such a move is historically very problematic. I just don't believe that a group with such towering errors in their past as the Crusades, the persecution of the Anabaptists (my spiritual forebears), and the construction of cathedrals on the backs of the poor of Europe (follow the money!) can claim to have ultimate spiritual authority. The fact that Pope Francis is now having to clean house on that ancient institution is very telling. Did the Vatican have that ultimate authority through all those years of corruption? If they had it once, that is, even if you accept 'On this rock I will build my church' to have founded the papal dynasty, they can't claim have kept their authority after abusing it so. They appear to be a very human institution, and therefore an option at best merely equal to any other church. So, sola scriptura is out, but I just can't accept what is offered in return. Thinking a bit further along these lines, I can't help feeling that sola scriptura was developed by the Protestants as a bulwark and an indictment against the practises of the Catholics to justify their exit. I don't think they needed such a indictment. The Roman Catholic Church had enough to indict itself without any help from sola scriptura.
 
This next one happened very quietly. I was listening to a friend of mine teaching a class on the principles of the simple church movement. Here's my slant on what he said: There are three levels of authority in the church. (I cringed when I heard this at first -- I was expecting some kind of charismatic hierarchy to come forth, but was intrigued when I heard the following)
  • The commands of Christ: that which we must do. 
  • The practises of the apostles: that which we can do.
  • Human tradition: that which we might or might not do, but which cannot be allowed to interfere with the commands of Christ. 
(Here's a link to follow if you want to get more on this. It's a worksheet by a man named George Patterson, who is quietly responsible for leading thousands into the Kingdom because he keeps on planting churches and fostering church planting movements.)
But without saying much more this one just plain fit me like a glove. It makes absolute sense to me to place the teachings and commands of Jesus our Saviour and Lord above those of the apostles instead of taking the view that his teachings needed fleshing out or defining by his followers. And it's when I marry Rod Graciano's Temple of Truth step one with setting the commands and teaching of Jesus above all others, which comes to "There should be at least one explicit statement of Jesus..." that I am struck by this: there is no explicit statement from Jesus about the later assembled New Testament. An outsider to the church (the more Protestant side) judging from the importance we place on the Bible, would naturally expect that somewhere Jesus would have said "after me will come a book!" But he never did. So really the formation of the New Testament ranks far more with Rod's step four. It seems a matter of historical precedent-- God's people had Torah in the past therefore we need a new Torah. And I think we have been guilty of some serious imbalances in the use of our new Torah.

So take this post as a prequel to a previous post and understand why I need to pursue the line of reasoning taken there. I am a follower of Jesus, but not a Bible idolater. I love and try to read the Bible for what it is. But I hate to see it being used for what it's not.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Love Problem

It's popular these days to bolster the current conception of God's all-inclusive love from the life and ministry of Jesus. We know that God is perfectly revealed in Jesus and if we want to know what God is like, we can look at Jesus' life and glimpse his Father's character. And what Jesus reveals is Love pure and simple. He is loving, healing, never judging, etc. etc. Love. Love. Love. Sounds so soothing. Yeah, it's been bugging me. I seem to react to being soothed. So I looked for this loving inclusive Jesus and I can't find him. Parable after parable, teaching after teaching, Jesus emphasizes the haves and the have-nots, the ones who obey and the ones who don't, the sheep and the goats. His message is not the kind of thing I think of when I think of all-inclusive mercy and love. He seems so often instead to be giving a warning, if not of righteous judgement, then of a simple cause and effect situation in which if you don't take God's hand offered you, there is no other hope.

And I find it makes sense to me. You see, I'm very impressed with the problem of Sin. Mind you, it's a past tense problem. God has already dealt with it. But what a solution! If the only way to deal with sin was this all-in approach where the GOD OF THE ENTIRE UNIVERSE AND ALL POSSIBLE UNIVERSES has to become one of his creation and die, then sin itself must represent an unfathomable rift, something God can't fix merely with his loving merciful character, but through the means of the cross and all that comes with it, that is, the life, death, resurrection and return of his Son. And from everything Jesus and the other New Testament writers seem to say we have some part in appropriating that solution. It's not merely thrust upon us. We are called to repent and believe (act out?) the good news. Otherwise we are on the outside, whatever that looks like.

Two different "use the offered solution" scenarios come to mind. The first is my health. I would like to live healthy to a full age and still be running in my eighties. But I have no hope of getting there then without eating healthy and engaging in daily exercise now. The second is patching software on a computer. If a program has a specific vulnerability to attack and the developers of that software have published a fix for it, there is no hope that your copy of the software is safe from the specified attack unless you actually install their fix.

So the problem these days seems to be God's love measured against the fate of all those who won't "exercise," who won't "install the fix," who won't turn and follow him, who look at his absolutely gob-smacking-ly appalling sacrifice and find it just isn't to their taste. I think it's not actually fair. What do you call an act of spending everything he had to redeem us? Well, that's got to be Love, I'd say. Having accomplished this great salvation, what about those who reject the offered life ring? What is he supposed to do with them? It's simply unfair to make it his fault if they refuse to be helped. I'm not saying that some of the current rethinking of our ideas of hell and damnation isn't healthy. We need to rethink our stuff all the time. But I am saying that some of the current "God is all love" thinking, where he manages to save even those who don't want him anyways is a little like the nonsense about him making a stone that is too big for him to lift.

And generally speaking, barring nonsense poetry, which I admit I do enjoy, I'm opposed to nonsense.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Ancientry

I'm noticing an uptick of a certain type of marketing of our faith, a new emphasis, ironically, a new emphasis on the word "ancient." Signage, websites, and whatnot proclaim an offering of "ancient" faith. People are exploring "ancient" faith in online blogs and communities. Interest is growing in old writings, old liturgy, etc. Older cultures in the Christian stream, the Orthodox and Catholics delight in this because of course to them belongs the largest aggregation of years, the greatest seniority, the most ancientry.

It's all tosh. We are bowing down before numbers. 'Many' years, 'many' lives of men are not long in comparison to, for instance the lifespan of an angel, or God himself. God is the Ancient of Days. All of man's past is as the grass... And is two thousand years ago really ancient times? Is this not the new age of the Spirit? Is this not the promised time of the kingdom of God? The time that all the (actually) ancient prophecies were pointing to? ..

What's at stake here? Three things. First is the equality of all believers, those long ago and those present. If God is the same God as revealed by Jesus, then our access to him is or ought to be the same as for all our past brothers and sisters. If we venerate the past, we can never attain or even surpass it.

Secondly it is not normal or right to treat the past church as the glorious time that we must get back to. That verse in Proverbs about the path of righteous growing brighter and brighter must surely be God's ideal for the church. That glow has to be on the future, not the past. Somehow we have to believe that the best is yet to be, that we "ain't seen nothing yet!" If not, we're doomed. And besides, any such attempt to return to the first church is doomed to failure. We are not of the same culture and never can be.

Thirdly, if we can divest ourselves of this idea of ancientry, if can see ourselves as being in the same moment, the same new day, as the first century church we might be free as necessary to undo prior mistakes or make new choices in the church without feeling any guilt. We might be able to rethink stuff. It might be as simple as turning around to get the (oops!) forgotten camera before a holiday trip. But if we cling to our ancientry we're locked into whatever came before. All the historic responses to bygone cultures are immutable decisions that handcuff us against actually dealing rightly with today.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

A False Dichotomy

Ever heard this one? "We believe in the Spirit and the Word!"

It's a bit of a blast from the past, I'll admit, but it's still around, if not in slogan form, and people still think this way so I thought I'd have a go at it.

What is implied by a statement like this is that there is a need to strike a balance between the Holy Spirit and the Holy Scriptures. And it sounds nice, doesn't it. Such a pretty double alliteration -- H. S. and H. S. -- so it must be true. But let's rethink this. The Holy Spirit is God, yes? and the Holy Scriptures are what? the Bible. So what we have here is God balanced against a collection of writings. And yes, we try to cook the accounts a bit by claiming the perfection and inerrancy of the book, but still can we really ever claim that there is something lacking in God such that he needs a book to balance him?

And yet we do need a balance. We need a balance between one man's perception of what the Spirit is saying and another's. But that is not God vs. a book. That is the church reaching consensus as described by the phrase, "it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us." And the written record is part of that process, but not as the balancing agent...

Also just for fun (!) I did a quick search in my Bible study software to find out if we are really right in constantly applying the phrase "word of God" to the bible. Just wanted to find out how it's actually used by Bible writers. So I searched for "Word of God" or "Word of the Lord" and came up with 299 references and tried to identify how to define the phrase by close context.

233 times (mostly O.T.) it refers to a present prophetic message/commandment or the experience of receiving such a message by the prophet.
38 times (obviously N.T.) it refers to Jesus' teaching and/or the Gospel as taught by early church missionaries.
10 times it refers to Law or existing commandment. One of these usages is by Jesus himself.
14 times the definition is not obvious from near context. This is mostly in Psalms. The psalmist praises the word of God and you are expected to already know what he's talking about.
3 times it's used to describe the process of creation i.e. God created by the "Word of the Lord."
1 time it is Jesus himself.

At any rate, this, I think, is at odds with the current use of the "word of God" as synonymous with "the Bible," Which gives the false dichotomy implied by our opening catchphrase a final uppercut and leaves it down for the count. 1 2 3...

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Paul vs. Charismatics

Here's a blast from the past.

Do you remember how the non-charismatic church  pilloried and attempted to shame the excited and glowing ones who had just received what the Pentecostals call "The Baptism of the Holy Spirit" and were speaking in tongues all over the place?

Can't you just hear a dignified and affronted deep bass voice quoting I Corinthians, "All things... decently and in order" and "...there must be interpretation..." and stuff like that in the face of people whose hearts were leaping at the joy of knowing in their hearts for once that "this stuff is really real -- and I'm doing it!!!"

And then listen to the creaking strain as of ship's timbers (it actually only shows up in movies nowadays) as the charismatics struggled to bring their practise in line with that which they all revered as a rule book even though it's really a corrective letter by a fellow disciple addressing a church that he himself planted.

And now listen to the silence. Do you hear anyone breaking the rules and speaking in tongues anymore?

Leadership...

Luke 12:41-46
Peter said, “Lord, are you telling this parable for us or for all?” And the Lord said, “Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom his master will set over his household, to give them their portion of food at the proper time? Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes. Truly, I say to you, he will set him over all his possessions. But if that servant says to himself, ‘My master is delayed in coming,’ and begins to beat the male and female servants, and to eat and drink and get drunk, the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know, and will cut him in pieces and put him with the unfaithful.
What does the job of leadership entail? According to Jesus in the above passage, it means taking care of and feeding fellow servants and not exploiting them. The servants belong to the master, not the manager. They have their work cut out for them. They don't need the manager to tell them what to do. They just need to be taken care of. Who'd want to be a leader under those conditions? I mean what about the perks?

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Looking for Law in All the Wrong Places

I think I may have just (at least for a time) solved something for myself that I have been bothered about for quite some time. The question is "how do we honestly approach the New Testament?" Why would I ask such a question? Well I've been noticing something about what we do with the New Testament. It seems to me that everyone draws the line somewhere. Every different group and their teachings chooses what part of the New Testament to take literally and which to pass off as cultural detritus or explain away some other how. Complementarians say a women is to function at a reduced authority level in the church but they don't make them wear head coverings. Egalitarians say that none of the directions about women in authority apply anymore. Catholics say Jesus' directive not to raise anyone to fatherhood doesn't apply to them. Surprisingly, many of these groups still want the New Testament to be a rulebook, maybe a playbook. They still hold to some form of belief in the authority of scripture, specifically the New Testament. It's a belief that seems to be something to preserve at all costs in the face of mounting reasonable doubt. I recently had a Facebook discussion with someone with serious cred in the area of biblical scholarship over the complementarian/egalitarian issue in which I gave the option of simply disagreeing with Paul's attitude to women and thereby dismantling the inerrancy doctrine. His response intrigued me. He thought that maybe Paul was being sarcastic and obviously overstating the case to demonstrate how silly the bigoted arguments were. Maybe he was right. But what he didn't seem to register, at least not publicly, was that still dismantles inerrancy. If you are intimate enough with the text to pick and choose based on nuances like that, then you still don't have the rulebook that people want. And the truth is that at some level every group picks and chooses. So even they don't have the rulebook -- they don't have the very inerrancy they nonetheless espouse as a Capital Letter Doctrine. (sometime I'll do a post on Capital Letter Doctrines.)

Then there are things that I just don't agree with anymore. One example occurs to me. "Don't let the sun go down on your wrath" literally applied in today's late bed time culture means trying to solve a complex emotional issue when you are not emotionally equipped to do so. Just makes things worse.

In the face of this I, myself, have experienced the presence of God in this same book that I troubles me so. To pick one example of many, I have been present when reading a passage from, say, one of Paul's epistles has brought sudden positive change in my friend's life. So I am compelled to say that this is a great book. God is there when we read it. And it's been worth preserving. Without it we would not even have a starting place to think these God thoughts at all. Think of it. We in the western world have no oral tradition any more and haven't had for centuries and we have a multiplicity of languages. There is no chance at all for us to ever have heard of Jesus if there hadn't been a New Testament to read and translate into our native tongue. Still, my wish is for honesty when we approach it. So what do I do with the New Testament?

First of all I propose the following, something I never thought of before though I don't know why. Try this statement: The Old and New Testaments are fundamentally different books.

 The Old Testament consists of history, God addressing his people, wisdom and worship literature. It's written against the backdrop of a people called to live out the Kingdom of God in a physical location led by God's appointed agents -- judges and later, kings. Each of these was anointed to be such by a unique presence of the Spirit of God that was not shared with any other. Their calling and anointing made them utterly unique. As well as anointed leaders God himself provided, codified for his people a framework, system of laws to govern it as any sensible temporal nation state with a state religion would functionally need. And God kept on addressing his people directly through prophets, bringing correction as the waywardness of humanity kept on rearing its head in their degenerating practise. Much more could be said.

The New Testament consists of history, Jesus addressing his disciples, and disciples addressing other disciples and one book of visions. Similar to the Old Testament in some ways, yes, but don't forget that it's written against the backdrop of a brand new reality. Instead of the Kingdom of God being established by a nation state with all the attendant nation state needs, and instead of being governed by uniquely gifted leaders, the people of God all have the Spirit of God as a fulfilment of God's promise to write his laws on their brand new "hearts of flesh." Patriarchal leadership has been explicitly dethroned by Jesus himself. (Yes, you can tell that the "call no man father" passage is very important to me) And there is no longer a written code. Even the Sermon on the Mount, which can rightly be compared to the giving of the Mosaic Law on Sinai, is not a set of rules but rather a series of challenges which cut much deeper than laws to deal with our heart motivations first, and our actions second. But a large portion of the New Testament is, in comparison to the Old, really a new thing. Suddenly we have the People of God discussing Him, the meaning of his works, and a host of other things. With each other. I'm not saying it hadn't happened before. The rabbis had been discussing God for many years and writing it down, too, I'm sure. But this kind of talk has now for the first time actually made it into the central holy book. And that's significant because it dominates at least a half of the New Testament. For most of the Epistles we actually only get one side of the conversation. But it is evident to me that there really is a conversation. Which should not surprise us because Paul is not Moses the Law Giver. In the new regime of the Spirit he is the actual equal -- in a way Moses was not -- of all the believers he is admonishing.

So here's where things get messy. "What? No Law? How will we know what to do?" Well, I'm sorry to say that Jesus has one answer and but the church has another. Jesus promises that the Holy Spirit will be our guide. The church has turned instead to the New Testament, that book without a formal code to use as law, and has proclaimed itself to know more than the original writers that this collection of letters and so on is not just what it appears but is the actual authoritative Law of God. (OK, so they say 'Word of God' but they treat it very similarly to how the rabbis treat Torah, that is, a book to be dissected and have every last drop of theological and practical meaning wrung out of, lest we ever find ourselves actually following the real example of the characters in the bible and finding out the answers to our problems from the Holy Spirit ourselves.)

Let's think about the formation of the first century church. It was a subversive underground movement, with pressures from the inside and outside. But it was able to govern itself pretty well. "It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us" is a phrase that should haunt our churches. The all-togetherness of it is staggering. Since when have we been able to decide like that? Think of Paul being sent out by that church and forming new churches run by elders. Maybe with the hope that someday they would all grow up to be able to perceive what "seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us." But no, that's not what happened. Elders became presbyters, priests, bishops, overseers, pastors, and so on. But Paul was doing what worked in an authoritarian culture and no one can fault him for that. And he naturally keeps in touch with the churches he's started, writing letters to address specific and maybe unique issues in churches he has left behind. But he's definitely making it up as he's going along. In Athens he tries what is now called apologetics. In Corinth, the focus is on miracles. From a reading of the first section of I Corinthians, one gets the impression he never wanted to try the apologetics thing again. All of this is pretty consistent with the new regime of the Spirit, the mustard seed conspiracy, the yeast that works its way into the whole lump of dough. Constant development. Experimentation. Change. Where it all falls down is where the church looks back on his and the others' amazing lives and says that those were the good old days. Instead of a vibrant example, we look back and see a template. Instead of a conversation in which we are equal players, we see a playbook. And this is what I see as the basic message of inerrancy. We can never get it as right as they did, because they, in some counter-intuitive fashion, so unlike any other fledgling movement, got it right the first time. We can never progress beyond what they were, because unlike us, they were able to articulate perfectly every essential doctrine of our faith. But this is utterly inconsistent with the idea of a church where every member is an anointed agent of God, with an 'earnest' of the Spirit, making them equal with all other members, past, present and future. It's also utterly inconsistent with a church that is flexible enough to be able to truly incarnate the Gospel in new cultures enabling them to speak its truths in their native cultural languages.

So where does this bring us -- this idea that maybe, just maybe the New Testament is not a rulebook but rather the working papers of our fellow labourers whose distance from us is a matter of time and culture but not unattainable uniqueness? Well, for one thing, maybe we would not waste so much time becoming entrenched about issues like whether or not a woman is allowed to teach or lead. The reality is that women are teaching and leading the whole world over. Mother Teresa is a woman. Her wise sayings are cropping up everywhere and teaching us all sorts of things we need to know. Women are leading governments. But, as the saying goes, I digress. Many other examples exist of the church majoring on minors. Ultimately, we would be less concerned with getting doctrine exactly right and be able to focus on doing what Jesus told us to do.

Hey, in my heart I'm seriously starting to apply Paul's famous statement about the Old Testament -- "all scripture is inspired by God" to the New Testament again. as I haven't done for years. But I'm convinced that we have yet to really grasp what 'inspired by God,' so easy to grasp in the literal sense, really implies. I also am fascinated by the absence in that famous statement of an affirmation of its final authority. No, Paul uses the word "profitable," instead of "authoritative" as if maybe teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness are already proceeding in the context of the guidance of Spirit and we just need to be reminded, as a support for that, to use the scriptures, too.

So back to my half-humorous title. (I smiled when I thought of it anyway.) The New Testament is not a new 'Law and the Prophets' and even though it's become traditional to do so, I maintain that you shouldn't use it as such. Wiser heads than I have talked about it being an unfinished story which the church is still involved in progressively writing. At any rate when this --here I link to a blog post by Rachel Held Evans about John Piper's personal rules regarding receiving teaching from women. Read the post. He seems almost talmudic in his legalistic convolution-- when this, I say, is possible, we've gone off the rails into 'Looking for law...'

I'm trying to bring this thing to a conclusion but I maybe leaving it open-ended might be just as good. This discussion will continue on it's own. This is just an instalment.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Shatner-izing the Great Commission

Make Disciples.

This has been well emphasized recently, but it's worth saying again. The emphasis in the Great Commission was not on the "Go" but on the "Make Disciples." The rest of the verse tells you how.

Teaching them.

Implies some actual effort to impart something. Theology? Actually no.

To Obey everything.

Wow. Knowledge and belief is not emphasized, not even mentioned. Obedience. I'm sure you can't stop humanity from theorizing. But first comes obedience.

I.

Jesus own teaching outranks the apostles... and the epistles.

Have commanded you.

Implication: We are the successors of the apostles and their intended equals. If we are recipients of the same commands, it follows that we are the recipients of the same resources...

To do.

Yeah. Bold words. I may or may not have scratched the surface of this in my life.


Monday, February 4, 2013

Emotional Response

Well we've put down roots, so to speak. A church that's a fairly good fit for what we are. We will go somewhere and this is as good a somewhere as we expect to find. Just don't ask me to have an emotional response. Right now, it's just about laughable. And it's amazing how many people have tried to elicit one from me.

Well, sorry, it's not going to happen. We left on procedural grounds. We are staying because our kids are plugging in. There's no emotion there. I may not have an emotional attachment to a church again, for aught I know. Maybe, as some have said, I'm in a grieving process and this a stage that I'm just going through. I can grok that, but if so, this stage doesn't anticipate the next stage at all.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Mystery of Gifts

I can be in a really strange space, you know, really dazed and confused, and I can pick up my guitar and start singing and find words and music flowing in worship to God which blesses me and anyone else around me. Why? I can be feeling nonplussed and sceptical, ready to judge every spiritual manifestation around me, but if the opportunity comes I can lay my hand on someone else's hurt, command it to be healed and sense God backing me up with some amount of power. Why? I can be talking to a friend and what I say is not of much importance until suddenly I'm speaking from God and I wish I was recording it, because it's so incisive and true. Why?

The answers to my why's are not answers at all. They are more or less just 'because.' And that's all there is to it. God does this thing with us for his uses and his pleasure. It amounts to "Ours is not to reason why, ours is just to make ourselves available and not to be prideful at all when there are good results because left to ourselves we never would have produced in us what he does..."

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Two Big Pictures, Two Renewals

I had a phone call the day before yesterday from a dear friend. Someone from the church I just left. She said some very kind things about my essential role in praying for revival in that church and lamented that they hadn't prayed more for me personally so that thus supported, I wouldn't have had to leave. At the time of the call another ministry was hosting a revival conference in the same building and she was reporting good things from that conference. It appears that even though the conference was not a function of the church the church is being blessed by it. Well and good. But if I had been properly protected, she said, I might have been able to see the "big picture" of revival and not be troubled by the trifling concerns of the running of the church.

 Well, I have to say that there are two big pictures. There are even two renewals. One big picture is as my friend sees it. Organization, structural concerns are nothing if only God's Spirit is moving and there is the blessing of spiritual renewal poured out on the church. I have to say that I have lived in this big picture for years, myself, and for me to do what I have done and leave the church on the leaders poor performance is a bit of a departure. But I've learned there is another big picture out there. It has to do with promoting safety and good governance for the people we care about now and those who come after. You can't always overlook stuff in the hopes that when God moves it won't matter because all the small stuff will be blown away. And renewal, the showers of blessing that we long for, needs to bear good fruit in our church leadership. Too often in the course of these conferences, have speakers brought up the titled leaders in the church, abusive and ineffective, or servant-hearted and competent -- the speaker doesn't really know -- and invited everyone to bless them, because from them will flow the blessing on the rest us. Mostly it's an exercise in false affirmation. I'd like to see a conference speaker, for once, invite the leaders to examine themselves to see if they really should be leading. It won't happen, of course. Incoming speakers are dependent on existing leaders for their presence in a church. But if they did and if that actually did cause some of them to step down, that would be a different kind of renewal, and equally necessary.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

High vs. Low

I have left what what was my church for approximately 22 years. I stayed that long because of a dream. A dream, a promise, a light at the end of the tunnel, a reason to endure. I left because of a persistent clumsiness to be found in the day to day running of the church that I once loved. My ideals, my lofty beliefs in the potential of what we might become if the visitation of God's Spirit would again be manifest among us have been bludgeoned into submission by the nitty-gritty questions of "why won't they really listen for once?" and "didn't we make the same mistake last time?" and most recently, "they did what?" But I'm really not angry anymore. I actually feel so little now. I would be angry, I suppose, had I decided to continue on. But now, it's someone else's problem.

And yet I continue to believe in the Church. It's stupid not to. History is our teacher here. Up to great heights of society-imprinting awakening, down to lows of apostasy and/or legalism, it has endured past many human lives. It's a much bigger thing than this moment of my turning away from one of its organized manifestations. And I still believe in organized churches. Whatever we do or however we do it, organizing in this way is a human necessity. Those who reject this aspect of church lose an essential part of the whole. But for now, I'm warily on the look out for a place to put down roots again.