Monthly Archives: March 2013

Resurrection Sunday

The Creator God is the God of wonderful reversals.  He grants a child of promise to old and decrepit Abraham and Sarah; he delivers a nation of slaves from the world’s most powerful empire by making a pathway through the sea; he defeats the champion warrior Goliath through David, the shepherd-boy; he crumbles the walls of Jericho through songs of praise.

And God performs his ultimate reversal by raising Jesus from the dead.  At the very darkest moment in human history, when humanity committed its most outrageous injustice, when the creation killed its Creator, when all hope was lost, God brings about his greatest triumph and radically alters reality forever.

God raised Jesus from the dead!

Father in heaven, God of reversals and redemption, we praise you for sending Jesus into the world to die for sin and for raising him from the dead to conquer sin and death forever.  Thank you that we have the promise of new life even though we may pass through death.  We praise you, Father, that you have unleashed on the world your resurrection power.  Give us grace to walk in your love so that we might experience that power in our lives, for the glory of Christ and for the good of the world. Amen.


God-Forsaken God

*Given at Midtown Christian Community, April 4, 2009

Almighty and everliving God, in your tender love for the human race you sent your Son our Savior Jesus Christ to take upon him our nature, and to suffer death upon the cross, giving us the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant that we may walk in the way of his suffering, and also share in his resurrection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Isaiah 45:21-25
Philippians 2:5-11
Mark 14:32-15:47
Psalm 22:1-21

This weekend we celebrate Palm Sunday, the day when Jesus is welcomed into Jerusalem.  Palm Sunday is a day of celebration and rejoicing—the crowds shout, “Hosannah, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

And next Sunday is, of course, Easter Sunday—another day of celebration.  We celebrate the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.  Much like the Christmas season, Easter is a season of celebration.  We celebrate Advent leading to Christmas—the arrival of the Son of God into the world.  And we celebrate Palm Sunday leading to Easter Sunday—the triumph of God over death and sin, accomplishing salvation.

Much like the Advent season and Christmas, however, the Easter season provides some surprises.  We remember at Christmas that almost nobody noticed when the God of the universe arrived on the scene.  Humanity had no room for him.  He was born under a cloud of shame and suspicion.  And he was born, as we remember, in a barn.

In the same way, the story-line of this week takes some surprising turns.  There is more going on during Easter week than celebration.  The unfolding drama of Holy Week contains human fickleness, rejection, betrayal, violence, revenge, loneliness, fear, God-forsakenness, and death.

One of the most surprising things Easter week teaches us—and what these passages teach us—is the actual shape of the gospel.  Because we are humans we are in constant need of being reminded of the truth of the gospel.  For some reason or other, we are always bending and morphing the glory of the gospel into shapes that make sense to us.  When we do that, however, we unintentionally eliminate the true glory and grace of God.  We’re always wanting to “package” the gospel in some way or other, but we don’t realize that we’re often turning the gospel into something completely different—something that might not be “gospel” at all.

Don reminded us last week that Jesus had to keep telling people that his hour had not yet come.  When Jesus did something impressive—a miracle—surely that was it, right?  His hour had come!  But none of the impressive things that Jesus did demonstrated the true glory of God.  God is glorified, of course, in the cross.  Jesus being “lifted up” makes perfect sense, until we remember that it’s Jesus being lifted up as a disgusting and disfigured corpse.

In the same way, these Palm Sunday passages call us to repent of our wrong understandings of the gospel.  We sometimes articulate the gospel as a transaction—God did some things for us, so we do some things for God and now our relationship is one of peace.  Or, closer to home: Our relationship is one that is broken—there’s a gulf between us and God; God sends Jesus so that now there is a bridge that we can cross to get back to God.  God now welcomes sinners to find their way back to God, and the cross is a bridge across the chasm that separates God from sinners.  As we’ll see, however, this way of talking is not the gospel, and it is not faithful to the gospel that Easter teaches us.

Let’s look at our passages for this week and discover the Easter logic that they reveal.  As we do, we will see that Palm Sunday shows us the glory of the God-forsaken God.

Our first passage, from Isaiah, depicts God as highly exalted and transcendent.  He declares things that will happen before they come to pass.  He sees the future as clearly as the past and stands in judgment over all peoples and all things.  He alone is the source of salvation—there is no other god comparable to the Most High God—to this God alone “every knee will bow and every tongue will swear.”

God is exalted!  God is in the heavens and you, O man, O woman, are on the earth!  We are all radically unlike God and very distant from him—he rules from on high and we are nothing.

This is actually pretty familiar, isn’t it?  It doesn’t take too much imagination to get our heads around this.  We feel it.  We are not God.  We do not feel in control.  God is God and we are not.  Amen.  This is a truth to which we all give hearty affirmation.

The Psalm 22 passage is also familiar to us.  We get this, too.  The psalmist is rejected and alienated.  He has no one to turn to for help, and is despised and in distress.  Like us, he has a pretty good understanding of the sovereignty of God—God is exalted, enthroned upon the praises of Israel, ruling from the heavens, highly exalted far above all gods!

But life hurts.  Things are not working out at all.  He feels miserable, that God is far off.  He’s in trouble and God is busy, gone, unavailable.  He is off God’s radar completely.  He feels God-forsaken, which doesn’t make any sense!  And his friends, far from giving him well-meaning but shallow advice, like, “well, you just need to trust the Lord,” or, “I’m sure things will work out.”  They’re actually mocking him!!  “Hey, call on the Lord, maybe he’ll deliver you!”

As I said, to this point things make sense to us.  This world is full of pain and sorrow and disappointment.  This is indeed a God-rejected world and we know that well.  Life often hurts pretty badly and we often feel that God has rejected us.  We feel a bit guilty saying this, and we try to put a nice tidy package around our pain and soul-torture by saying things like, “well, God’s just teaching me right now that . . .”  But we secretly wonder if God is thinking, “Yeah, whatever . . . , who are you again?”

We’re familiar with pain.  We know well the experience of hurt from friends, of being mistreated, betrayed, rejected, having dreams shattered and hopes crushed.  It doesn’t take much imagination to look at our world and our lives as God-forsaken.

You might think at this point that you know where the Easter logic is going.  “Life hurts, and the good news is that God is not only sovereign, but he’s actually a God of compassion as he’s exalted in his heavenly throne.”  But that’s not the Easter logic.

The glory of Easter is seen in the dramatic reversal that takes place.  God is not merely caring about the God-forsaken one; God actually becomes the God-forsaken one.

In the Philippians text, we see that Jesus is God himself, enjoying the glories of heaven and the highly exalted status of being the God of the universe.  But he did not use that status as something to be used for his own advantage or for his own comfort—“he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited.”  “Hey, I’m God, I’m going to create a heavenly leather couch and sit around and be waited on, hand and foot.”

Nor did Jesus merely do something on behalf of the God-forsaken ones.  Jesus actually became the God-forsaken one.  Jesus entered our enslaved situation, took on humanity, became a servant, went to the lowest place, was treated as a common criminal, was despised and rejected.

He fully entered into and traveled the human journey of pain and sorrow and trouble and rejection.  His family misunderstood him, his friends deserted him.  He cried out, “my God my God why have you forsaken me?”  God knows what it’s like to be rejected by God—to feel that you’re completely off God’s radar; that he’s far off, that you’ve been abandoned.

What is fascinating about this Philippians passage—look at it—is the “therefore” in v. 9.  Because Jesus did this—because Jesus traveled this journey of God-forsakenness and rejection, God highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name—the name of God himself, “Yahweh,” so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bend and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.

What does it mean that Jesus receives the name of God?  It is a powerful thing that may take some time to sink in.  It means that God looks at the journey traveled by Jesus and says, “that is what ‘Yahweh’ means.”

Jesus is the revelation of God in that God is revealed as the God who is God-forsaken.  God says that the way of the cross is the way of God.  Just as God is revealed in the corpse hanging on a Roman cross; God is revealed in the God-forsakenness of Jesus.

God is not only compassionate towards those who feel God-forsaken; He became God-forsaken and knows exactly what that is like.  The cross, therefore, the God-forsaken path, is an essential part of what it means for God to be God.

Let’s talk about some implications of this.

It seems to me that though we often feel that we are God-forsaken we also feel guilty that we feel this way.  We tend to think that if we feel this way, there’s something wrong with us.  We feel that we’re wrong if we say out loud, “God has forsaken me,” or, “God isn’t anywhere,”  or, “God is gone—this is a godless world and I hate it.”

But we forget that Jesus says these words.  Because in many ways, this is a godless world.  This is not God’s world in the way that it is supposed to be.  Things are not normal.  Nothing is working the way it is supposed to.  By God’s design, this world was meant to welcome God and we were supposed to encounter God constantly and physically.  In the garden of Eden, God came down and walked with Adam and Eve, asking questions, sharing about God’s beautiful world.  They enjoyed one another.

We were not designed to be able to handle alienation, loneliness, pain, rejection, confusion.  This world is not being the world it is supposed to be, and we are not in the condition that we were designed for.  It is all messed up and it feels like God is a long way off, that he’s absent, that we’re stuck in this miserable God-less existence.  And it hurts.  It hurts like hell, because it’s a kind of hell, a place and a form of existence that is completely and absolutely god-less.

One implication, therefore, is that it is right to say about this current condition that it does indeed hurt, that it does indeed feel that we are forsaken by God.  If we give voice to that feeling, we’re not being disobedient—we’re walking in the way of Jesus.  There is more to the story, of course, but if we fail to speak the truth about the pain this world feels, we’re not speaking the whole truth.

Another implication is that God is truly sympathetic.  We truly do have a sympathetic high priest.  Many of us are blessed with good friends and good family.  By God’s grace, many of us won’t know the kind of pain and hurt and rejection that Jesus felt.  But others of us have been hurt, and hurt very deeply.  We’ve been rejected, humiliated, betrayed, exploited, burned, and it hurts badly.

We feel bewildered and lost, utterly hopeless.  Easter teaches us that Jesus has been to that place and knows it well.  God knows it well.  God did not say to Jesus, “phew, that’s over, now get out of there and clean yourself off and get back up here to heaven.”  The God of Israel, the God of all creation, gave Jesus his own name, indicating that the journey that Jesus took through rejection and betrayal and God-forsakenness is a revelation of the very character of God.

God knows rejection and brokenness, so when we come to God as seriously broken and wounded people and we feel like we have nothing to offer God because we’re way too messed up, we must remember that we’re exactly what God is looking for.

When we come to God as broken people we will not hear, “oh geez, what a mess!”  We will hear, “I know.”  Or, “you, too?”

A third implication is a reminder of what the church is all about.  John Mortensen has said in the past that the church’s mission is to find the places in God’s world that are in pain and to go there and abide, and to pray.  There are indeed places in God’s world that are in pain—we might call them “God-less places” and we’re tempted to avoid them.  It is natural to seek out comfort and to avoid pain.  But Palm Sunday—and the Easter season, along with these passages—teaches us that we will only find Jesus in the God-less places, in those places that are in pain.  Jesus traveled the God-forsaken path in his incarnation and he teaches us that this is the way for the church, the path that we are to walk.  It’s the only place where we’ll find Jesus.

A final implication is that the God-forsaken path is the only path that ends in resurrection.  Philippians 2 teaches us that because Jesus walked in this way, God highly exalted him and gave him God’s own name.  In the same way, we will share in eternal glory—we will be raised from the dead—when we make ourselves servants to those who feel God-forsaken, when we make ourselves the agents of God’s love to those whose lives hurt like hell.

I’ll close with our collective prayer:

Almighty and everliving God, in your tender love for the human race you sent your Son our Savior Jesus Christ to take upon him our nature, and to suffer death upon the cross, giving us the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant that we may walk in the way of his suffering, and also share in his resurrection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


A Prayer for Good Friday

Almighty God, we pray you graciously to behold this your family, for whom our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to be betrayed, and given into the hands of sinners, and to suffer death upon the cross; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


Tuesday Semantic Snobbery

A personality profile once indicated that I tend to evaluate others on their verbal skills.  I’ll admit it.  I am indeed highly attuned to others’ facility with words.

I try to avoid passing judgment, but verbal miscues arrest my attention, especially when they’re funny.

Here are a few I’ve collected over the past few weeks and have submitted to the Department of Redundancy Department and the Ministry of Malapropisms.

An interviewee on NPR (NPR!) noted that a certain initiative was “a win-win for both sides.”

Someone made reference to “the stuff of which it’s made of.”  More recently, a person noted “the place from which he comes from.”  Variations of this mistake are common.  Only Paul McCartney gets a free pass.

I’ve heard faculty colleagues refer to an erstwhile student as a “former graduate,” or a “former alumnus.”  It seems that such conditions only become possible with time travel.  Such expressions are akin to referring to someone as “an alumni.”

Finally, from the linguistically licentious world of sports radio.  Summing up the complexities of a discussion, one person stated that “it depends on which divide of the issue you’re on.”

Yesterday, another commentator concurred with his conversation partner, stating, “I think we all agree on the same page.”

Brilliant.

Have you heard any good ones recently?


Pray Briefly

A colleague remarked to me the other day about the difficulty of writing dictionary articles.  A limited word count forces one to be concise and to the point.  Words must be chosen carefully and thoughts expressed concisely.  Other types of writing allow one to be less careful and, well, lazier.

I thought immediately of prayer.  Praying briefly forces one to choose words carefully, to speak plainly.

I’ve mentioned before that in a prayer service several years ago in which we prayed for one another, my friend John asked us to pray one-sentence prayers.  It was one of the more meaningful prayer times I can remember.  We were forced to think about what we were praying.

Jesus speaks directly to this:

When you pray, don’t pour out a flood of empty words, as the Gentiles do. They think that by saying many words they’ll be heard. Don’t be like them, because your Father knows what you need before you ask (Matthew 6:7-8, CEB).

Consider praying briefly and plainly.  It will make your praying more thoughtful.


Homily for Palm Sunday

*Given at Midtown Christian Community, March 15, 2008

Almighty and everliving God, in your tender love for the human race you sent your Son our Savior Jesus Christ to take upon him our nature, and to suffer death upon the cross, giving us the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant that we may walk in the way of his suffering, and also share in his resurrection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Isaiah 52:13-53:12
Philippians 2:5-11
Matthew 27:1-54
Psalm 22:1-21

Tomorrow is Palm Sunday, so I guess today is Palm Saturday, though that sounds really strange and quite inelegant.  Palm Sunday—or Palm Saturday, or Palm Weekend—is the day we celebrate the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem, when he was welcomed by the Jews with celebration, everyone shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!  Hosanna in the highest heaven!”  It’s a scene of rejoicing and triumph, and so that’s why Palm Sunday is typically remembered as a celebration.  It’s a great and very happy day!

Of course, as it turns out, this Friday we celebrate Good Friday, the day that marks Jesus’ death.  So, even though we want to remember Palm Sunday with rejoicing and celebration, we have to remember that Good Friday lies just ahead of us.  Rejoicing is going to be followed by rejection, betrayal, suffering, torture, and death.  Though the entrance of Jesus was met with triumphant celebration, in one sense at least, it isn’t going to go well.  You can imagine that as Jesus is entering Jerusalem being hailed by the crowds, he probably has very mixed feelings.  Probably some kind of surface joy, but there’s also the underlying knowledge that his journey must go through the cross.

There are surely loads of things we can stop to ponder and meditate upon today and tomorrow, in thinking about the meaning of the Easter season, but I want to hold up before us this thought, this question: What makes us different as followers of Jesus?  What is unique about us?

This question obviously can be answered in a zillion different ways – lots of things make us different from other groups and from the world in general.  But there is something very specific about the rhythm of Palm Sunday, Good Friday, Easter Sunday—that specific trajectory, they go together—that represents the most profound difference about us as Christian people, as followers of Jesus.

The prayer for this evening points in this direction: “Almighty and everliving God, in your tender love for the human race you sent your Son our Savior Jesus Christ to take upon him our nature, and to suffer death upon the cross, giving us the example of his great humility [pay attention to what follows, now] Mercifully grant that we may walk in the way of his suffering, and also share in his resurrection…”

That is the difference between us and everyone else.  What makes us different is that we as a people were created by the death and resurrection of Jesus, and we recognize that our lives must be shaped by death and resurrection.  As the prayer says, “grant that we may walk in the way of his suffering, and also share in his resurrection…”

This pattern must find its way into every area of our lives, every nook and cranny of how we conceive of our relationships, how we conduct our friendships, how we think about others who give us trouble, how we behave in our marriages and families, how we imagine our futures, how we go to church–everything about us must be drenched in and reconfigured by Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Palm Sunday, in one sense, is great, but in many ways I think that we love it because it makes perfect sense to us.  It’s exactly how we would script things—Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey (well, maybe except for the donkey part;  we’d have him on a fierce beast), but anyway, Jesus rides into Jerusalem and is welcomed by the crowds.  It’s almost like a fighter on his way into the ring, he’s focused, he’s decisive, he’s fearless, he knows what needs to be done, he sizes up his opponents and gives confident, reassuring looks to those who see him as their Savior.  The camera pans across his eyes, fixed, determined, resolute.  Then we see the crowds, chanting wildly as they sense that all their hopes and dreams are being realized right before their eyes.  This is so ideal, it’s so perfect!  The story, at this point, is going so well!

Of course, if we were writing the story, if we were making the film, Palm Sunday would be the end.  There would be no Passion Week.  There would be no Last Supper, there would be no betrayal.  There would be no Good Friday.  Jesus dying?  That makes no sense!  It doesn’t fit!  Yes, the fighter in our Jesus film might absorb some punches from his opponents, but of course he ends up thrashing them.  That’s how you win, right?  That’s how you solve the problem, isn’t it?

But this is exactly the point.  That’s what makes us different.

Jesus’ mood is mixed as he enters Jerusalem because he knows that Palm Sunday is not the final scene; it isn’t the end.  In fact, from this point the story takes an unexpected direction, some painful turns, some very dark ones.

As it turns out, it is through his death on the cross, and his resurrection that Jesus accomplishes salvation, and through which he gives us life from the dead and unites us together in one new body, giving us the promise of enjoying God forever when his Kingdom comes to earth.

God solves the problem, and makes all things new, not on Palm Sunday, but on Easter Weekend.

Therefore, what makes us different, what makes us absolutely unique, is that our mode of life is thoroughly shaped by suffering along with Christ, by dying along with Christ, so that we can experience now and forever the power of the resurrection of Christ.

This is Paul’s point in Philippians 2.

Every group wants problems solved, every school of thought has strategies for family life, for friendships, for personal fulfillment, for self-improvement or for meaning in life.  What makes us different is that we’re the kind of people who pray this prayer: “grant that we may walk in the way of his suffering, and also share in his resurrection…”

How are problems solved?  Through power moves or by manipulating others?  What are God’s strategies for how life should be lived?  The pursuit of my dreams and self-advancement?

God’s way is the way of suffering and death, the way of the cross, which is the only path to resurrection.

We love resurrection, don’t we?  Just like we love Palm Sunday.  But we only get Palm Sunday and we only get Easter Sunday when we embrace Good Friday.

Well, what does all this mean for us?  Let’s make all of this live among us for a few minutes:

Some of us are dealing with some difficult relationships right now, in various ways, suffering the pain and frustration of dealing with people who refuse to change or who refuse to love us, who are manipulating us or causing destruction.  Parents.  A spouse.  A child.  A friend.  A co-worker.  How do you “fix” them?  How do you sort people out and solve the problem?  Well, you die.  You walk in suffering in the hope of resurrection.

What does that mean, how does it look, what specific actions does that entail?  I don’t know.  But perhaps that’s the sort of thing that needs to happen here on Saturday nights, where we share our situations with the church and brain-storm to come up with strategies that are shaped by Jesus’ suffering and death—strategies that are not manipulative, that put aside power-moves, but that help us to approach others from a posture of weakness, hoping to unleash resurrection power into the situation.

How do we operate as families?  How do we function as parents who follow Jesus?  I’m not exactly sure, but I am confident that resurrection power enters a home when we follow Paul’s words in Philippians 2—looking out for others’ needs and concerns rather than our own.  We refuse to demand that others conform to our standards, and we die to our own selfish desires so that we may experience the life of Christ in our homes and families.

How do we a find a way forward as a church?  Well, we’re working that out, but it must be shaped and determined by the death and resurrection of Jesus.  We will experience the resurrection power of God in our community when we give ourselves over to suffering and death, putting aside our own preferences, holding our own concerns lightly for the sake of our brothers and sisters and for the sake of God’s pursuit of this neighborhood.

I’m not sure how the rhythm of Palm Sunday, Good Friday, Easter Sunday needs to move into your life and shape the way you think and behave, but perhaps this ought to be our prayer: “grant that we may walk in the way of his suffering, and also share in his resurrection…”


Prayer for the Weekend

 
Show us your mercy, O Lord;
 
And grant us your salvation.
Clothe your ministers with righteousness;
 
Let your people sing with joy.
Give peace, O Lord, in all the world;
 
For only in you can we live in safety.
Lord, keep this nation under your care;
 
And guide us in the way of justice and truth.
Let your way be known upon earth;
 
Your saving health among all nations.
Let not the needy, O Lord, be forgotten;
 
Nor the hope of the poor be taken away.
Create in us clean hearts, O God;
 
And sustain us with your Holy Spirit. 

Evangelicals & the Bible, Pt. 3

Over the last few days, I’ve been reflecting on an occasional comment I’ve heard from evangelical people.  I indicated that it comes from different angles, with different attitudes.  Sometimes it’s a complaint or something of a lament.

Talking with people after an evening class in a local church, I’ve heard the wistful comment, “Wow, I’ve been in an evangelical church my whole life and never heard this before . . .”

I once received an email from a student after discussing several aspects of the incarnation in class.  She wrote with gratitude but shocked me with her closing comment.  She said she felt badly about not knowing her Savior better—that she wasn’t more conversant with what the Bible said about Jesus’ humanity.

I wrote her that we please God when we are diligent students, which implies that we are always learning and that it’s okay (and normal) that there are things we don’t know!

Again, I think this indicates something warped about how evangelicals regard the Bible.

I wonder if much of our evangelical rhetoric about our role in culture and an evangelical posture toward the world perverts our posture toward the Bible.

We’re told to “get equipped” to get out there and “make an impact,” to be prepared to change the world.  We need to get trained so we can be maximally effective.

And what does this involve?   Well, we need to get all the Bible knowledge we can, master the information, know all the facts, and be prepared to respond to various challenges with all the right answers.

When I’ve been asked about developing a plan to get to know the Bible, I can tell that it’s often coming from an anxiety to master the Bible efficiently and effectively.

This sort of impulse, and its accompanying rhetoric, can make us very anxious and uneasy when we find out there’s something we don’t know, or when we encounter unfamiliar material in the Bible.  We may feel guilty for not knowing what we should know.  In fact, I recently heard the comment as a lament or almost as a plea, as if learning something new was unfair.  “Look, I really am making the effort, you know!  I’m really trying!

Such folks need to relax.

My advice is to get to know the Bible over time—like, over decades.  There aren’t five easy steps to Bible knowledge.  I’ve told students in the past to measure their knowledge of the Bible in 5-year increments.  And when I’ve said that, I could hear sighs of relief.

Remember that the aim of getting to know Scripture is not to be equipped to get out there and have “impact.”

The purpose of knowing the Bible is to develop Scripture-shaped minds so that we get to know and love God more faithfully, being transformed so that we love and serve others more creatively.  The goal of Bible knowledge is the cultivation of virtue.  And this is something that only happens over time.

And the learning process itself transforms us, so we shouldn’t think that at some point we’ll be finished, “fully equipped” to get out there and put our knowledge to effective use.

Evangelicals are at our best when we’re humble students before the text, not necessarily when we’re out there giving well-prepared answers to common objections.

We sit before the Bible, then, as students-for-life, always learning, always searching.  And we honor God when we humbly learn and resolve to embody what Scripture says creatively and joyfully.


Evangelicals & the Bible, Pt. 2

Yesterday I wrote that I’ve been struck by a comment I’ve heard over the last several years.  It’s not that I hear it all the time, nor is it the only response I’ve heard from evangelicals (thankfully!).  It’s just that whenever I’ve heard it, I’ve thought it unusual, and I’ve wondered about the underlying assumptions that give rise to it.

Sometimes it’s, “I haven’t heard this before, so you must be wrong.”  More often, though, it’s something like, “I haven’t heard this before, and the fact that I haven’t heard this must be explained.”

As I indicated yesterday, I’ve come to understand evangelical identity as a posture of attentive submission to Scripture, a readiness to hear God’s word afresh and an obedient eagerness to have an ever-greater understanding of Scripture transform what we think and what we teach.

After reflecting on the aforementioned comment, it seems to me that it points to some corrupted postures toward the Bible on the part of evangelicals.  I’ll offer some thoughts on this over the next few posts.

I think that the most decisive factor in shaping warped postures toward the Bible is evangelical involvement in the culture wars.  Some of us have been told that “we” are the ones who are faithful to the Bible while “they” (“liberals,” “the media,” “skeptics,” etc.) are attacking the Bible.  We need to defend the Bible, “uphold biblical values,” and advance the “biblical” teaching on this or that issue.

Unfortunately, the passionate heat of the culture wars has forced us into some unfortunate postures relative to the Bible.  We might find ourselves facing our (perceived) opponents with our backs to the Bible.

In such situations, what is my role relative to the Bible?  I’m there to wield the Bible as a weapon (the sword of the Lord?) in the battle for Truth and for the cause of righteousness in the culture.

Such a posture toward the Bible is inappropriate.  We can fool ourselves into thinking that we already know it.  We’re already “biblical.”  “What, we need to study the Bible!?  We already know it!  It’s our job to tell others to be in subjection to it!  They’re the ones who aren’t listening to what God says!”

But the end or purpose of the Bible is not for us to take it up as a weapon against others.  The end or purpose of the Bible is for me to be shaped, transformed, rebuked, comforted, informed, enlightened, and rectified.

And this happens as I adopt appropriate postures toward it.  I sit under it in submission to it.  I sit long with it, studying diligently, listening obediently with an eager readiness to do what it says.

We are the objects of Scripture’s searching, revealing, exposing, transforming work.  “Others”—”those people,” “out there”—are the objects of our love and service.   Those who claim to be people of the Book ought to behave as those claimed by the One of whom the Book speaks, the One who gave his life for the life of his enemies.

The intensity of the culture wars—the feeling that there’s so much at stake—can frustrate us when our understanding of Scripture is challenged.  It can make us impatient that we never stop learning, that we must always be willing to re-shape our understanding of what the Bible says.  It reminds us that we are the first targets of the Bible’s transforming work.

It’s a problem if we’re more comfortable being God’s cops, his specially appointed agents of the transformation of others.


Evangelicals & the Bible

Over the past several years, as I’ve taught the Bible in various settings, I’ve heard something odd from evangelical people.  And I’ve heard it often enough that it seems fair to call it a pattern.  When I first began to hear it, I was baffled.  I couldn’t imagine the sort of mindset that would give rise to the comment.

I began to hear it often enough from undergraduate students that I developed some responses that I’d trot out, using the occasion as a teaching moment.

Over the past few months, though, I’ve heard it more regularly, and I’ve tried to figure out what’s behind it.  I’m not sure I’ve completely wrapped my head around it just yet, but I’m going to take a few posts to think out loud about it.

I think that the comment I’ve been hearing indicates something that’s a bit warped about how evangelicals regard the Bible. 

Now, before I get into this discussion, there’s a bit of autobiography that may explain why this comment strikes me as very strange.

I was raised in a Bible family.  We read passages of Scripture each morning.  A few evenings a week my Mom made popcorn and my sisters and I would watch Moody filmstrips (filmstrips!) of Bible stories.  We all participated in several Bible memorization programs throughout our childhoods.  At family gatherings, there were lively discussions of difficult passages of Scripture and differences between Christian traditions.  I pretty much grew up in the linguistic world of the King James Bible.

Soon after arriving at college, I owned the faith personally and began to devour the Bible.  I poured over it, read it voraciously, marking up passages, discussing it with friends and roommates, and grabbing for any resources that would help me understand it.  I was amazed that while I was so familiar with the Bible, there was still so much that was new.

I took a Bible backgrounds class my senior year and realized that while I might know a passage of Scripture really well, grasping its ancient cultural setting brought completely new levels of understanding.  I was overwhelmed with how much more there was to discover.

I went off to seminary, then, with great eagerness to continue exploring and a love for learning.  When I left seminary and entered my doctoral studies, I was blown away to discover new ideological worlds that made more parts of the Bible make greater sense.

This basic posture toward the Bible of excitement about continual discovery has never left me.  And this is probably why the comment I’ve heard regularly over the last several years has caught my attention and left me baffled.

When I began teaching evangelical undergraduates, it wasn’t long before I heard a student say, “I’ve never heard this before.”  My first response was, “I know, and there’s so much more to discover!”

But then I heard another variation: “I’ve never heard this before.  What you’re saying isn’t biblical.”

I asked for clarification.  The student responded by saying, “well, I think there’s a verse somewhere that says something like . . . ,” proceeding to blend together three different passages with the chorus of a praise song.

I figured this sort of thing was just the arrogance of youth, but it began to happen regularly.  Just about three weeks into every semester, a student would raise his or her hand and say, “I’ve never heard this stuff before.”

I began to respond by saying, “you’re welcome!  You or your parents are paying me thousands of dollars to tell you things that you don’t know.  This is what we call ‘education’ and it sounds like I’m doing my job.”

It began to dawn on me, however, that there was something about evangelical culture that was making these students assume that if something was unfamiliar, it was unbiblical.

In the last few years, though, I’ve heard this comment from other evangelicals in other settings.  It seldom comes from a posture of challenge, but from some sense of betrayal.  A person lamented to me recently, “I’ve never heard this before.  I’ve been in an evangelical church my whole life and this has never been taught.”

I’m currently teaching a course in a non-evangelical setting.  The responses I’ve gotten have been telling.  I’ve heard, “this is so interesting,” and “thank you, I’m really enjoying this and learning a lot.”

Only one person has said to me, “I’ve never heard this before.”  You guessed it—an evangelical.

What strikes me as odd is that the very thing I have come to associate with studying the Bible—the excitement of discovery—is the very thing that somehow frustrates the evangelicals I’ve been teaching.

Like I said, I think this indicates that there’s something warped about how evangelicals regard the Bible.

Over the next few posts, I’ll try to get at this and offer some suggestions about what it might tell us.


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