Our Own Elsas

17 September 2019

So I’m sitting in Johnny’s Pizza on my lunch break, and the radio’s playing. “Red Letters” by Crowder. “Play that Funky Music” by Wild Cherry. “Let it Go” by Idina Menzel.

Let It Go?

How many songs from a Disney kids’ movie are getting radio play 6 years later?

The movie came out in 2013. In pop culture, that’s ancient history. To put it in perspective, that’s the same year Planes, World War Z, and Iron Man 3 came out. You don’t see anything off those sound tracks getting airtime.

But here is Idina Menzel on the radio, singing the one thing from that movie that turned out to be an enduring addition to our cultural legacy (enduring in pop culture terms, anyway).

The plot of the film follows princess Elsa through her journey:

  • hiding her ability (and loathing herself because she has it),
  • exposure to the whole kingdom
  • her community fears and rejects her
  • she isolates herself from the community, freezing the whole kingdom and nearly committing murder as a result
  • she eventually comes to terms with her ability, the community receives her, and she’s able to use her gifts for the benefit of the community.

Now, taking a look at that story arc, ask yourself: which one of those story beats is immmortalized in the song that has outlasted every other part of the movie?

It’s not the ending, where Elsa integrates with her community. No, it’s when she’s maximally alienated, inadvertently freezing the whole kingdom, and about to nearly kill a few people. (On that last: if this were an action movie instead of an animated kids’ flick, Elsa would definitely have killed the two assassins, with the audience cheering her on.)

When she doesn’t care about anyone. When she is ignoring everyone else so hard that she’s destroying her entire country–that’s what resonated with the culture so well that we’re still playing it on the radio 6 years later. For that matter, that’s what resonated with the makers of the film so much that they built the musical centerpiece of the film around it (no such iconic anthem adorns the narrative climax of the film, or the resolution). Why is that?

Because as a culture, this is where we are. We identify with mid-film Elsa — alienated, isolated, unwittingly destructive, possibly murderous. And you know what? There are some things to repent of there, but there’s also something to celebrate. Elsa’s story didn’t stop there; ours doesn’t have to either.

We live in a cultural moment when the supernatural is making a comeback. We went through a phase of profound materialism; we didn’t believe in miracles; we believed in electricity, vacuum cleaners, penicillin, and 401(k) plans. But we’re waking up. And waking up, many people—who were told their own version of “conceal, don’t feel” in early life—are now going through Elsa’s teenage rebellion.

They absorbed the culture’s fear and rejection until they couldn’t take it anymore, couldn’t hide it anymore, and now they’re done. And they don’t care about a culture that didn’t care about them. My hope and prayer for them is that they recognize this as a stage that will pass, and they grow up and reintegrate, as Elsa did.

We like to think that in the church, none of this has much to do with us. Baloney.

We accommodated the culture, hugely. We suppressed the supernatural in our midst — we were (sometimes) happy to believe in miracles and supernatural doings in the past, so long as we could remain safely insulated by the padding of many centuries. Many of us refuse to believe such things even in church history, still less in the present day. When it comes to supernatural doings in the church, if it’s not in Acts, it didn’t happen, and if it is in Acts, it’s “transitional,” not to be expected today. They get you going and coming — and this is why many people with genuine supernatural gifting find no home in the churches.

But we cannot afford such comforting lies. We have our own Elsas out there on the mountainside. It’s time to go get them.

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Ditching the Whitelist

19 April 2019

Modernism fancied all spiritual powers a delusion. Nothing was real but matter in motion. The vast majority of contemporary Christians have adopted that worldview, with the exception of a whitelist of powers and miracles in which they feel obliged to believe in order to be Christian.

(As I’ve explored elsewhere, how many of those powers and miracles we feel obliged to believe depends to a large degree on how much academic credibility we aspire to.)

But this is not the teaching of Christianity. Christianity has always believed that the old gods are absolutely real—and that we are at war with them. Their heads are to be crushed; their images burned; their sacred groves cut down: Boniface had the right idea. Their followers are to be called to repentance, delivered from their willing slavery to the darkness into the freedom of the light.

On too many occasions over the past 2000 years, impatient Christians have tried to deliver the slaves by force, whether they wanted to be delivered or not. By now we have—let us hope—learned our lesson. The weapons of our warfare are most assuredly weapons, but they are not the carnal weapons of coercion. Our weapons are truth and righteousness, faith and salvation, readiness with the gospel of peace and the word of the Creator Himself, spoken afresh by us.

We live as invaders among the gods and their people. With word and water, bread, wine, and oil, we retake the territory unlawfully stolen from the Creator and prostituted to demons. Our ally is the whole creation that groans with birth pangs, waiting for the revelation of the sons of God.

Christianity is both relationship and religion. Without the relationship, the religion is empty. Without the religion, the relationship is confined to occasional experiences that, while beautiful in themselves, find no tangible expression in everyday life.

The relationship must be real. This is neither a thought experiment (“What if…?”), an arrangement of mental furniture (“I like to think of it like this”), nor a matter of observing principles (which would collapse relationship into religion). It is a real dealing with a particular Person (three, actually) outside ourselves. That means that we carry out our lives in the living presence of Almighty God. That Person births us into His new family, and thereafter grows us up as His children, with the goal of making us partakers of His divine nature. We engage in dialog; we ask for and receive help; we receive comfort and offer up praise. If we are not mystics in this sense, then we are not Christians; we are merely ideologues whose preferred genre is religion.

Now, with that said, what must the religion look like that gives tangible expression to such a relationship?

In order to function in this environment, we need a religious expression that…

  • embraces the magical nature of the created, spoken world in which we live,
  • addresses the spiritual realities of both human and angelic/demonic realms,
  • integrates empirical knowledge of the fertile fields of natural revelation, and
  • is concrete, livable, and permeates our daily lives.

So what does that look like? Well, that’s the project. I’m workin’ on it. Wanna join in?


On Disrespecting the Manure

12 April 2019

One of the most basic promises of Christianity is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and His continuing ministry to the believer. Every church and ministry I’ve ever worked with has affirmed this…in theory. In practice, there was a bit more variation. The idea that you could have a meaningful and vital relationship with a spiritual being–not just a doctrinal system or an arrangement of mental furniture, but actual person that is not you, communicating to you–well, that was challenging for a lot of folks. In many churches and ministries, they tended to cover their asses with an orthodox doctrinal statement on the point, while denying any instance of it in practice. They all believe the Holy Spirit speaks through Scripture, but tell them that He showed you something in Hebrews 2 an hour ago and they don’t believe it.

When interacting with such communities, believers with a more robust relationship with the Spirit often point to John 16:13:

However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come.

The objection we often face in response is, “That was referring to the apostles, the people Jesus was talking to at the time.” On the face of it, the claim has some curb appeal. It draws directly from the context–who could argue with that? 

Well…me. I have questions:

  1. Sez who? On what basis? Can I use that same approach to dismiss anything Jesus ever said that I don’t want to apply now? (“I mean, sure, He said lust is as bad as adultery, but that was only for the people He was talking to at the time….”) No? Okay, distinguish that case from this one.
  2. We’re ready enough to apply 14:2, 14:27, or 15:13-14 to any believer, anytime, with no discussion whatsoever. We do this because Jesus is speaking to these men as “His own;” we are also His own, and in fact inviting us to become His own is kinda what the book is about. So on what principle are we so ready to read 16:13 differently from other things Jesus said to the same people in the same immediate context?
  3. These folks usually want to apply 16:13 to the men in the room…and Paul. The interpretation proposed flatly excludes him, and he’s a clear counterexample. How is this not blatant special pleading?
  4. 1 John 2:27. From where I’m standing, John directly applies the doctrine Jesus gave in John 16:13 to his readers, extending it well beyond the apostolic circle. If we needed some extraordinary justification for reading 16:13 the way we already read, say, 15:13-14, isn’t John providing it?

I want to set forth a positive case for reading this passage as speaking about something that happens for us, today, if we are listening. Most of my case is implicit in the questions above.

Jesus is speaking to His own, talking about what it will be like when the Spirit has come. He told His disciples, one of whom–John–preserved those words and wrote them down in a book that invites its readers to join in that group and become “His own” too. John’s Gospel invites believers into a lively relationship with the Spirit.

John reiterates that stance toward relationship with the Spirit–and this particular aspect of the Spirit’s guidance in our search for truth–in 1 John 2:27, for yet another group of addressees; so why shouldn’t we expect Him to do the same for all those who belong to Jesus, right down to today?

I have no doubt that a suitably educated theologian could apply his theological system or his scholarly skepticism in such a way as to bury the above two paragraphs under a mountain of doubt. It is also possible to bury a diamond under a wheelbarrow-load of manure. This does not call into question the nature of the diamond; it just reveals the guy with the wheelbarrow for a churl and a lackwit.

As the diamond does not cease being a diamond, a true reading of Jesus’ words does not cease being true, no matter what is being heaped upon it. We are not obliged to treat the manure with respect.

 


Not in the Atonement?

5 April 2019

I’m not going to name names here, but I was browsing about the interwebs a bit ago, and I ran across the website of a school that in general, I think well of. I began to read through their doctrinal statement (yes, I know, I have an odd idea of fun), and came upon this chestnut:

God can heal but physical healing is not in the atonement. God heals miraculously today when it is His perfect will to do so. Healing cannot be claimed through the guarantee of the atonement. At times it is God’s will for sickness not to be removed.

Now, I understand what they’re trying to guard against. Suppose a believer goes to a healing service, is told that Jesus died for him and his healing is included in the atonement, is prayed for, and then send home to “claim his healing.” What happens if he’s not healed? Does that mean his sins have not been atoned for either? He begins to wonder, “Why am I not being healed?” And one of the obvious answers is, “Maybe I’m not really saved!” Then all the doubts come pouring in, and the last state of the man is worse than the first. (This is not some churchlady’s imaginary danger, by the way. It actually happens, and it’s a real pastoral disaster.)

This school rightly values every believer’s assurance of salvation, and it’s awesome that they’re going out of their way to head this kind of nonsense off at the pass.

Problem is, with the best of intentions, they’re propagating a lie. “Physical healing is not in the atonement,” is certainly one way of doing the theological math so as to guard against this kind of doubt-inducing situation. But the Bible doesn’t say that.

Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows, yet we esteemed Him smitten by God, and afflicted. But He was wounded for our transgressions; He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed.

How’s that again? By His stripes we are made righteous? By His stripes we are justified? No. By His stripes we are healed. (Psalm 103:3 would also be relevant here.)

Now either that means exactly what it says—and in a passage famously about the atonement, too—or…wait, no, there’s no second option. We believe the Bible; the right thing to do is swallow hard and revise our theology.

On reflection, it won’t be all that hard.

We all agree that the atonement in Jesus Christ is the answer–the whole answer–to the sin problem. At the cross, Jesus bought the right to justify us (declare us righteous), and moreover, to sanctify us until we really are entirely righteous, and to heal the damage we have done to ourselves, and each other, and our world with our sin—the whole bit. God is just and the justifier of the ungodly, through Jesus alone.

In the end, it won’t just be our spirits that are redeemed; He will redeem our bodies too. In fact, He will resurrect the entire world, a new heaven and earth without sin and its effects. When He does that, there will be no pain, no sickness, and so on, just as surely as there will be no sin. How dare God do that? God committed this world to our dominion; we committed sin and visited its consequences on the world; what gives a just God the right to erase the consequences of our freely chosen actions?

The atonement, that’s what. God’s authority to eradicate sickness along with all sin’s other effects was established at the cross, when the Seed of the Woman crushed the serpent’s head, and cried “It is finished!” And so it was. Nothing else need be, or could be, added. So let us have no silly nonsense about how healing is not in the atonement. It could hardly be anywhere else.

And if that is the case, then there is nothing stopping God from exercising that same right today, on the basis of the atonement. That said, He plainly does not always do so. What’s that about?

Once upon a time, Jesus said that He came to set the captives free. He went about, ministering, while His cousin John languished in Herod’s prison. Eventually, John sent messengers: “Are you the Messiah, or not?” Reading between the lines, I hear: “If you came to set the captives free, and you’re the real deal, then why am I still stuck in here?”

Jesus said, “Go and tell John what you see: the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor hear the good news. And blessed is the one who is not offended because of Me.” In other words, “Yes, of course I’m the real deal — look around! But don’t get mad when I don’t do things the way you thought I would.”

The prayer is “Thy kingdom come” not “my kingdom come.” It’s His kingdom, and it comes in His way and His time. We know what the consummation will look like (kinda); we don’t know what God is going to give us today, what He’ll do tomorrow, and what we’ll have to wait longer to see. And so healing is most assuredly in the atonement, as sanctification is in the atonement. But its achievement in experiential reality is a process, and God superintends the process. We have to trust Him with it. If I’m not healed today, the biblical response is to trust in God’s goodness, not doubt my salvation.

And if I’m sick today, the biblical response is to trust in God’s goodness, and ask for healing: “thy kingdom come.”


An Invitation to Theology

15 March 2019

The first thing to know about theology is that it operates from the inside; it is inherently a believing endeavor. Sociology of religion, comparative religion, cultural anthropology, history of philosophy–these endeavors focus on believers (and the beliefs they hold) as the object of study. They operate, in other words, by looking from the outside in.

But theology cannot be practiced in that way. Theology is not a study of beliefs but an experience of the One about whom people hold those beliefs. To engage in theology is to have your own beliefs about the divine shaped by knowing God yourself, by partaking in the divine nature yourself. In this way, theology is less something you study, and more something you participate in, something you practice, and perhaps something that–to a degree, by God’s grace–you may attain.

***

Theology is not an objective discipline, any more than romancing your spouse is an objective discipline. Objectivity seeks to elide the observer/interpreter, such that anyone might–through a scientifically valid method–come to the exact same understanding. This sort of method is entirely appropriate to the natural sciences, in which we are doomed to observe the objects of our study from the outside. Partaking in the nature of, say, a granite boulder is entirely beyond us. The best we can do is subject it to study.

But where the nature of the endeavor is to know another p/Person, we proceed differently. We seek the other person’s self-revelation. We communicate. If we are successful, there is a kind of mutual indwelling (or to use the old word, perichoresis). All of these are inherently relational acts; it matters who the parties are. To elide the observer/interpreter is to miss the whole point.

***

In hermeneutics texts, much is made of the gap between us and the original author and audience–gaps of time, culture, language, geography, and more. We work diligently to overcome those gaps and try to grasp the situation of the original author and audience in order to better understand the text.

Little is made–at least in the hermeneutics books I was reared on–of the gap between us and the divine Author, although in some respects, that gap is easier to bridge. This side of eternity, Paul is beyond my reach. The Corinthian church was the product of time, place, culture, and circumstances that no longer exist. Through diligent study and imagination, I get as close as I can, but some aspect of a passage may remain forever opaque to me through simple ignorance of an idiom, crucial archaeological fact, or tidbit of cultural knowledge. Many things that were obvious to them are now lost to me in the mists of time. Gary Derickson has given us a window into the viticulture behind John 15, for example. How many other such things are yet to be discovered and articulated?

The divine Author is entirely beyond my reach as well. But I am not beyond His reach, any more than the biblical authors were. And so it is that, unchanged by the passing years, is as present to us now as He was to them then. (More than under the Old Covenant, now that we have the indwelling Spirit.) He offers us the opportunity–if the promises of the sacred text mean anything at all–to know Him directly, in a way that is consonant with, but not limited to, what can be mediated by the Scriptures themselves.

***

tl;dr: God is real. God is present. God speaks. Here. Now. Yes, even to you. Are you listening?

 

 


Fake Discernment and Real

25 January 2019

In the more supernaturally aware parts of the church, I’ve run into a particular kind of rot: a fake “discernment” that is anything but. These folks are actually a lot like the anti-supernatural Christians; they just have different expectations. These folks are often okay with prophecy and tongues; you might even get away with anointing with oil. There’s frequently a collection of weird shibboleths around the way those gifts are practiced. (My  personal favorite was “Don’t touch the person you’re ministering to.” Yeah…I’m a massage therapist. Not gonna happen.)

But the core of this attitude is not its particular prohibitions or practices. The core of this attitude is its reliance on a set of man-made, visible standards, rather than on the hard work of real discernment. God is not permitted to do anything outside of our expectations…whatever they happen to be. If it’s outside the lines we drew, there must be something wrong with it?

That’s ridiculous. Jesus surprised everybody. You’ve got to expect God’s people to continue to be surprising today.

And Jesus was all the time getting in trouble with the “discernment ministries” of His day. Stands to reason that His followers would be getting into trouble with “discernment ministries” today–and sure enough, there’s plenty of that going around.

But Jesus gave us some simple, effective measures by which to discern.

  • If the fruit is good, then so is the tree. See what happens, and then judge. Do more than just check to see if the thing violates your expectations. Do the hard work of examining the results. If the results are good, then there you go.
  • If you can’t believe the words, believe the works. Pay attention to what God actually does in time and space. God will never violate His Word, but He will happily violate your domesticated interpretation of it. The concepts might be hard to grasp, or fly in the face of your theology, but when necessary, you need to believe what God did and revisit your theology.

Jesus’ beloved disciple John also gave us a useful rubric for discerning spirits: “Every spirit that confesses Jesus Christ come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God” (1 John 4:2-3). So now you know. Want to know if the spirit is from God? Ask: “Do you confess Jesus Christ come in the flesh?”

The practice of real discernment isn’t tremendously complex; it’s just hard work. It’s harder than having a predefined set of expectations and rejecting everything that’s outside them. But it’s worth it.


Going Full Cornpone

17 December 2018

Most of the American church is in bondage to a worldview that doesn’t wholeheartedly believe in the supernatural. It grudgingly allows for a handful of supernatural things that we feel forced to accept, but the truth is that the more intellectually respectable you aspire to be, the fewer supernatural things you can believe in. That’s how the hierarchy works.

If you’re okay with just being part of the rank and file, then you can be a little mushy on creation, and believe in the miracles of the Exodus. That’s fine for normal people. If you want to be an educated Christian, then you’ll clearly see myth in the early chapters of Genesis and have a tentative scientific explanation for the Exodus stories. Maybe the Sea of Reeds was only waist deep, after all. You’ll only start going supernatural around the later prophets or the ministry of Jesus.

The real intellectuals explain away the miracles of Jesus’ life, and just barely tolerate the resurrection. Of course only the total cornpones believe in 6-day creation or a worldwide flood, and even those guys mostly don’t expect God to do anything supernatural today.

Jesus wasn’t a big fan of that kind of thinking. He seemed to think and act as if God could show up anytime, anywhere, and do absolutely anything. Always had, always would. And He taught His disciples to act the same way.

Why’d we stop?