Being weird about the bible

Since this is a scrapbook of sorts, I don’t mind occasionally posting other’s posts/comments in their entirety. If I were to just keep them in my list of bookmarks or on Delicious, chances are I’d never actually see ’em again.

John Halton at the Boar’s Head Tavern posted this excellent insight into why so many Christians are so weird about the bible sometimes. In general this applies more to academic leaning or fundamentalist traditions, but could be any pocket of protestants.

I think the anxieties about “what does it really say?” stem partly from having narrowed the semantic range of the expression “the Word of God” to the point where it refers primarily, or even exclusively, to the printed word of the Bible. This means that the only way to “hear God speak” is through a correct interpretation of the Bible. And if you misinterpret the Bible, you won’t be hearing God speak.

That certainly used to be an anxiety of mine, and led to my despairing at times when hearing sermons that (it seemed to me) misinterpreted the text. God’s voice was being silenced by poor exegesis!

It seems to me that the cure for this is not to seek an authoritative, Magisterial interpretation of the Bible, but to widen our understanding of what “the Word of God” is. In particular, to remember that Jesus did not send his apostles out into the world to exegete the Bible, but to proclaim the forgiveness of sins in his name. To quote what I’ve previously described as the nearest thing I have to a life verse, Jesus’ own summary of what the Bible teaches:

“Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” (Luke 24:46-47)

The church’s proclamation of that message (in word and sacrament) is itself the Word of God to us. (It’s certainly what Luther had in mind when he said, of his own ministry, that “the Word did all”, as he simply sat and drank beer.) And as long as the church is clearly proclaiming that message, it’s not all that important if the preacher occasionally misconstrues a particular passage (though clearly it is better if preachers don’t do so – embracing the AND rather than the OR, and all that).

The old way may be the best

In a long section bashing the idea that:

  • fresh & new = good
  • old & established = bad

Merton spends most of his time differentiating between the good (which he calls tradition) and the bad (convention) about old and established ways of living. The immediate context is liturgy, church structure and activity, but it can be applied to just about anything.

Tradition, which is always old, is at the same time ever new because it is always reviving – born again in each new generation, to be lived and applied in a new and particular way. Convention is simply the ossification of social customs. The activities of conventional people are merely excuses for not acting in a more integrally human way. Tradition nourishes the life of the spirit; convention merely disguises its interior decay.

-Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island, Ch.8 Sec.16

Redeemed humanity is young

So has the world been gradually going to hell for 2000 years until Jesus comes back to fix everything (as the pre-mil dispensationalists claim), or is it gradually (sloooooooowwwly and sometimes invisibly) being redeemed and everything bought under the lordship of Christ, as the post-mil and some a-mil folks say? What did Lewis say?

It is like when you throw a stone into a pool, and the concentric waves spread out further and further. Who knows where it will end? Redeemed humanity is still young, it has hardly come to its full strength. But already there is joy enough in the little finger of a great saint to waken all the dead things of the universe into life.

-C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, p.106

When words fail…use a sacrament!

Not wanting to stir up the usual debates over the Lord’s Supper, N.T. Wright keeps his comments short in his introductory apologetic. Nevertheless, they are very good. I have to say I feel robbed that nobody told me anything like this growing up. The Lord’s Supper was held in remarkably low regard. It meant almost nothing. Bummer.

Three opening remarks. First, we break bread and drink wine together, telling the story of Jesus and his death, because Jesus knew that this set of actions would explain the meaning of his death in a way that nothing else – no theories, no clever ideas – could ever do. After all, when Jesus died for our sins it wasn’t so he could fill our minds with true ideas, however important they may be, but so he could DO something, namely, rescue us from evil and death.

Second, it isn’t a piece of sympathetic magic, as suspicious Protestants have often worried it might be. This action, like the symbolic actions performed by the ancient prophets, becomes one of the points at which heaven and earth coincide. Paul says that “as often as you eat the bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26). He doesn’t mean that it’s a good opportunity for a sermon. Like a handshake or a kiss, DOING it SAYS it.

Third, therefore, nor is the bread-breaking a mere occasion for remembering something that happened a long time ago, as suspicious Catholics sometimes suppose Protestants believe. When we break the bread and drink the wine, we find ourselves joining the disciples in the Upper Room. We are united with Jesus himself as the prays in Gethsemane and stands before Caiaphas and Pilate. We become one with him as he hangs on the cross and rises from the tomb. Past and present come together. Events from long ago are fused with the meal we are sharing here and now.

-N.T. Wright, Simply Christian, p. 153

Hoping in God, not man

Merton has this to say on hoping in God, not man:

We are saved by hope for that which we do not see and we wait for it with patience.

The holy spirit is the one who fills our heart with this hope and this patience. If we did not have him speaking constantly to the depths of our conscience, we could not go on believing in what the world has always held to be mad. The trials that seem to defy our hope and ruin the very foundations of all patience are meant, by the spirit of god, to make our hope more and more perfect, basing it entirely in god, removing every visible support that can be found in this world. For a hope that rests on temporal power or temporal happiness is not theological. It is merely human, and has no supernatural strength to give us.

-Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island, Ch.9 Sec.16

So for the coming year, 2009, put your hope in God. I’m sure your hope in Wall Street is already dashed, but put away whatever hope you still have in your savings and your job, if you still have one. Put away that hope in Obama. It can’t pan out. If you go to a really cool church, put away your hope in that or in the pastor. Put your hope in the only thing that has a well of supernatural strength. Your creator and redeemer.

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Mystery is good for mental health

G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy is one of those books that is like a bag full of gemstones. At the same time, it leaves you wondering “where was the editor?” One paragraph will have you saying, “incredible!”, and the next, “um, huh? What does that have to do with the topic in this chapter… or with ANYTHING for that matter?” Anyway, I’ve been rereading this one as well. Again, last time I read it was before I was blogging and wrote anything down. I’m finding it difficult to reduce to posts. Some sections of it are superb, but would need to be quoted in several pages of context to really have much potency. Nevertheless, I will try with a few sections.

At the end of his essay on how rationalism drives men insane, he answers with a statement about what keeps men healthy:

Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity. The ordinary man has always been sane because the ordinary man whas always been a mystic. He has permitted the twilight. He has always had one foot on earth and the other in fairyland. He has always left himself free to doubt his gods; but (unlike the agnostic of to-day) free also to believe in them. He has always cared more for truth than for consistency. If he saw two truths that seemed to contradict each other, he would take the two truths and the contradiction along with them. His spiritual sight is stereoscopic, like his phsyical sight: he sees two different pictures at once and yet sees all the better for that. Thus he has always believed that there was such a thing as fate, but such a thing as free will also.

The whole secret of mysticism is this: that man can understand everything by the help of what he does not understand. The morbid logician seeks to make everything lucid, and succeeds in making everything mysterious. The mystic allows one thing to be mysterious, and everything else becomes lucid. The determinist makes the theory of causation quite clear, and then finds that he cannot say “if you please” to the housemaid. The Christian permits free will to remain a sacred mystery; but because of this his relations with the housemaid become of a sparkling and crystal clearness.

-G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, Ch.2

Climbing the church social ladder

Listen to what Miller is describing here. If you’ve lived in ANY sort of community (you high school, college, dorm, office, military unit, and of course church).

The real issue in the Christian community was that it was conditional. You were loved, but if you had questions, questions about whether the Bible was true or whether America was a good country or whether last weeks’s sermon was good, you were not so loved. You were loved in word, but there was, without question, a social commodity that was being withheld from you until you shaped up. By toeing the party line you earned social dollars; by being yourself you did not. If you wanted to be valued, you became a clone. These are broad generalizations, and they are unfair, but this is what I was thinking at the time.

The problem with Christian community was that we had ethics, we had rules and laws and principles to judge each other against. There was love in Christian community, but it was conditional love. Sure, we called in unconditional, but it wasn’t.

-Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz, p. 214

We shouldn’t be surprised that this happens. If you’re often on the “reject” side of things, this is all very apparent and painful. But if you’re on the successful side of things – well liked, with social capital – then chances are you’ve done your share of shunning to get there, even if you don’t realize it. You might actually be quite nice, AND in with the right people, but unless you actively are pushing against the sinful nature to do this to each other, then you end up feeding the system. I’ve been on both sides, depending on the context. That this happens in church is offensive to the spirit of love, to the spirit of Christ. Bummer. Push against it.

Theology with nothing to say

I few weeks ago I was surfing blogs and Facebook and found that Leithart’s Against Christianity was listed as a favorite book on many profiles. I decided to reread it last week, and it is a winner! Especially the first two chapters. Last time I read it was before I had a blog, so this time I’ll be posting my favorite excepts here for easy recollection.

On theology, Leithart (a theologian), writes:

Theology is the product of [worldly] Christianity and aids in its entrenchment. If theology deals with “timeless truths,” then all the temporal things we encounter in life are outside the range of theology.

But EVERYTHING we encounter in life is temporal. Therefore, all life is outside of theology.

All that remains within the realm of theology are (perhaps) ecstatic and “timeless” encounters of the soul with God, God with the soul. Theology keeps Christian teaching at the margins and ensures that other voices, other languages, other words shape the world of temporalities. Politics is left to politicians, economics to economists, sociology to sociologists, history to historians, and philosophy to madmen.

Theology ensures that Christians have nothing to say about nearly everything.

-Peter Leithart, Against Christianity, Ch.2 Sec. 4

On the cliche of the contemplative life

Here, Merton declares again that the follower of Christ CAN be a sort of renaissance man. Both skilled and hardworking at a trade, but also a scholar of the holy word:

The scholar-farmer.
The welder-theologian.
The programmer-pastor.
The accountant-psalmist.
The warrior-poet.

It often happens that an old brother who has spent his life making cheese or baking bread or repairing shoes or driving a team of mules is a greater contemplative and more of a saint than a priest who has absorbed all Scripture and Theology and knows the writings of great saints and mystics and has had more time for meditation and contemplation and prayer.

But, although this may be quite true-and indeed it is so familiar that it has become a cliche-it must not make us forget that learning has an important part to play in the contemplative life. Nor should it make us forget that the work of the intellect, properly carried out, is itself a school of humility. The cliche about the “old brother making cheese” in contrast to the “proud intellectual priest” has often been used as an excuse to condemn and to evade the necessary effort of theological study. It is all very well to have many men in monasteries who are humbly dedicated to manual labor: but if they are also and at the same time learned men and theologians, this very fact may make their humility and their participation in manual work all the more significant.

-Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, Ch. 35 “Renunciation”

Jesus vs. the world

N.T. Wright, Peter Leithart, and others have repeatedly made the case that following Christ was never meant to be a personal, private, behind closed doors kind of religion. It didn’t just touch all parts of life and spheres of influence, it engulfs them. It was a threat to Cesar because it refused to acknowledge him as Lord. It declared that Jesus is Lord. Relegating Jesus to the realm of personal faith and morality, ensures that he won’t intrude into the worldy domains of politics, economics, and so on. It stuffs Jesus in the closet right where the world wants him.

How would telling people to be nice to one another get a man crucified? What government would execute Mister Rogers or Captaion Kangaroo? – Philip Yancey

We cannot be satisfied to just hang out with him in the closet.