Taking It Literally

7 December 2014

So I had occasion to talk with a feller — well-educated Christian and all — who was a bit unsure about various Old Testament miracles — Joshua’s long day and so on. It got me to thinking.

As I observed in another post earlier this year, allegorizing your way over the first eleven chapters of Genesis at 30,000 feet is downright common. Once you get past the flood, most people who would think of themselves as theological conservatives settle down and swallow the supernatural texts. There are some Red Sea doubters and like that, but it’s pretty uncommon among self-professed conservatives.

By the time we get to Jesus feeding the 5,000 or doing miraculous healings, pretty much everybody has landed the plane and is prepared to take the supernatural doings quite literally. And of course, you have to land the plane sometime before the resurrection and ascension in order to remain a Christian in any meaningful sense.

But if you have the sort of sensibilities that are offended by miracles, the resurrection is just as much an offense as any other supernatural text. Once you’ve conceded the need to land the plane, is there any reason not to land it earlier? Why is the resurrection of Jesus plausible, but turning water into wine is not? Why are Jesus’ miracles plausible, but Joshua’s miracles suspect? Why believe the Red Sea crossing, but doubt the Flood? Why believe John 1’s account of creation, but doubt Genesis 1’s account of it?

If you’re going to swallow the resurrection, what’s so hard about reading the whole Story as sober history from end to end?

This is far from the only area in which we balk at the Bible because it offends our sensibilities in some way. I have begun to feel generally that taking it literally — far from being a bonehead hermeneutical move — is in fact badly underrated.

I hope to explore this idea more in upcoming posts.

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Never A Last Leaf

17 September 2013

This post is part of the September Synchroblog on the subject, “Loving Nature: Is God Green?”

I might as well begin with full disclosure. I believe that Yahweh spoke this world into existence about 6000 years ago, and I believe this because the Bible says so.

For a significant portion of the people reading this post, I might as well have just admitted to being a snaggletoothed hick somewhere to the right of Mussolini. I cop to the snaggletooth, but I’m going to ask you to suspend judgment on the rest of it for a little while. Let’s just see where a little unrepentant fundamentalism might take us.

God’s a big fan of green — He literally invented it. Every bit of greenness in this world-sized mixed-media self-portrait is His sovereign choice, a reflection of something about Him. The color is in heaven as well. The halo of glory around God’s throne is a rainbow, “like an emerald in appearance.” He spoke into being every tree, every tree frog, every garter snake. He was there when the first green leaf sprouted, and He will be there when the last leaf falls. Or He would, if there were ever going to be a last leaf.

In that world, He planted a garden, and in that garden, He placed a man “to cultivate and guard it.” Even before he was a husband, Adam was a gardener. But the Triune God was making a self-portrait, and a solitary person was not good, so God made a helper for him. Enter Eve, a distinct person, and different as another human can be, right down to the neurochemistry and the plumbing. These two distinct persons united by God in marriage together were the image of God in the world.

God gave them a responsibility to fulfill:

Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.

We have been reluctant to accept the responsibility God gave us. Today, we are troubled by the idea of exercising dominion, of subduing the earth. But surely it can’t be wrong to talk the way God talks. So why are we afraid to do it?

Two reasons: we are cynics, and we are egalitarians.

Cynicism is easy. There’s always a cheap shot to take. No matter how responsible the action under discussion, we can always find points of superficial similarity to other, irresponsible actions. Dominion language has been invoked by every Bible-thumping robber baron who ever wanted to strip-mine another species into extinction for his own personal profit, and that makes it easy to just sneer and condemn by innuendo every time someone talks about exercising dominion. It costs us nothing. It seems to risk nothing.

But underneath the sneering pretense, we are cowering. We are afraid, and we are addicted to immaturity.

That seem harsh to you? Consider this: the devil himself once invoked Psalm 91 to entice Jesus into flinging Himself off the pinnacle of the Temple, but do we shy away from taking comfort from that psalm? We do not. Why not? Because we discern between godly and diabolical uses of the psalm.

So why do we refuse to discern between godly and diabolical uses of Genesis 1:28? Because we are afraid. Offering someone the comfort of Psalm 91 is a popular and easy enough thing to do. Standing up and saying “I believe we should go ahead with the copper mine,” on the other hand, is wildly unpopular with the chattering classes (who apparently believe that the wiring in their houses appeared ex nihilo in the local Home Depot stockroom). We are afraid to make ourselves easy targets.

But God has not given us a spirit of fear.

We also shy away from dominion language because we are egalitarians at heart. We want to be buddies with the earth, just another piece of the circle of life. We want to just be part of nature. We are part of nature, but we certainly are not just part of it. God made us kings and queens of the earth, whether we like it or not.

Kings and queens are called to discernment. We are going to have to grow up. In some ways, we’re doing pretty well. You can take a walk by the Thames today without risking black lung. Of course, the Pyrenean ibex and the passenger pigeon might not feel that we’re doing as well as we could be, which raises another point.

Kings and queens don’t get a practice round. It’s not a game, and there are no do-overs. We screw up, whole species die and whole habitats disappear. The stakes are high. As a result, we are afraid to screw up, and in our fear, we are prone to hysteria. In 2007, the BBC reported an authoritative study that predicted the complete disappearance of the arctic ice cap by this year. With this year’s polar ice up 60% over last year, that prediction has joined a host of others on the junk heap of credible scientific studies that cried Tasmanian wolf.

Again: God has not given us a spirit of fear. We have a duty to God to care for the earth, but we do that as ambassadors of The Lord of the Universe. Our best Chicken Little impersonation does not represent Him well.

God loves the creation. He made it, and it speaks of Him. He has committed the creation to our care. We can’t pawn the job off on someone else; we’re stuck with it. God has so made the world that there’s no way to learn but by doing, and He knew, better than anyone, that there would be a learning curve. We cannot fulfill our commission to be His image on the earth without ruling well. We cannot rule well without learning, and we cannot learn without mistakes. In other words, God knew, from eternity past, that we would royally screw it up.

But God has not given us a spirit of fear. There is grace for even this. Faith means being willing to embrace the task God gave us, and trust God with our mistakes. We will grow up. The earth will blossom. In the end, heaven will come to earth, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory and honor into the New Jerusalem, where a river will flow from under the throne of the Lamb. Beside the river, the tree of life will grow, and the leaves of the tree will be for the healing of the nations. Forever.

***

This post is part of the September Synchroblog.  You can read the other contributions at the links below:


All I See Is Rocks

11 June 2013

This post is part of the June Synchroblog.

Much is made of having the courage to be authentic these days. This got me to thinking about how we discuss talking to God honestly. The article is on the subject of whether God gives us trials we can’t handle, and I think Mr. Pyle is right — of course God gives us trials we can’t handle — that’s why we flee to God for refuge. He closes the article this way:

I believe expectant waiting can only happen when we exchange our feeble platitudes for an authentic faith that engages God with the full brunt of our emotion and pain. Only then can salvation been seen.

But that exchange takes courage.

My first reaction was, “No it doesn’t.” I proceeded to write a curmudgeonly little essay on the contemporary cult of authenticity and why honest prayer is not a matter of courage — which has been deleted and will never see the light of day, God be thanked. Upon further reflection, though, I believe the gap between my experience and Mr. Pyle’s offers an occasion for reflecting on different forms of courage, and how they relate to one another.

In order to do that, permit me a few paragraphs of autobiographical reflection on how I learned to give up my platitudes and speak honestly to God. Don’t get me wrong; it wasn’t easy for me either. But for me, it was all about being honest and obedient. God began by challenging me to engage the Psalms more fully — all of them. He called me to learn them, sing them, chant them, be saturated with them. (It’s a project I’m still working on.) Saturating myself in the Psalms became a graduate course in prayer, in learning to meet God where I really am, rather than asking Him to meet me where I pretend to be. It was language class — I learned to talk all over again, with an expanded vocabulary that contained theologically “questionable” things like “Why have You forgotten me?” and “How long will You ignore me?” For me, saying these things wasn’t courageous; it was merely obedient. God told me to sing the Psalms (Eph. 5:19, Col. 3:16), and the Psalms told me to talk to God like that. If David and the Holy Spirit thought it was a good idea, who was I to argue?

Courage is about risk, and there’s no risk here. When I engage God “with the full brunt of my emotion and pain,” I am not Jerzy Popieluszko speaking truth to thugs in power, nor even a kid confronting his abusive alcoholic dad. I am not staging a Tiananmen Square protest in the courts of heaven. The specter of the gulag or the wide leather belt does not hang over the exchange. I am coming into the heavenly Tabernacle with the prayers of the Tabernacle. I am speaking to the Father of fathers, who made me and loves me, and I am speaking to Him in the way that He taught me to speak. Finally.

Far from facing danger, I am fleeing the dangers of disobedience and lying for the refuge of obedience and truth. I am escaping the perils of keeping the true state of my soul to myself. I am escaping the hazard of growing more and more isolated as I refuse to admit what’s really in my heart to God, others, or even myself. I am escaping the endless futility of trying to get God to meet me where I pretend to be, rather than where I really am.

Where’s the risk? He isn’t going to hurt me; He’s going to help me. If I cry out for bread, will He give me a stone? Of course not. So I have two choices. I can try to choke down some gravel and pretend that it’s nourishing and I’m grateful, or I can pray, “Look, You said You’d feed me, and all I see around here is rocks!” Which is the dangerous course, and which is the safe one? Crying out for God to save is, well, safe. He loves to do that.

Unfortunately, many of us who were raised in the evangelical world simply did not learn that. We were raised with a god composed of equal parts Victorian Santa Claus — doing nice things for nice people — and somebody’s tight-shoed maiden aunt. Dealing with anguish was just not his department, and heaven knows what he might do if your prayers strayed outside the polite boundaries of country club luncheon conversation. Confronting that querulous godling with “the full brunt of our emotion and pain” must feel risky as Hell. So to speak.

Not knowing Mr. Pyle, I don’t know whether this is his background or not, but many of my friends have come from that background, and they too felt like praying in Psalm-like ways required enormous courage. “I can’t say that!” has been a common refrain.

“David did,” I say.

“I’m not sure God likes me as much as David,” they say.

So yeah, there’s a sense of risk, and therefore genuine courage. It is vital that we celebrate that courage for what it is without taking it for what it is not. This is not the courage of David confronting Goliath, with his spear haft like a weaver’s beam; it is the courage of an agoraphobe going to the end of the sidewalk to get the morning paper. It is the small deliverance that opens the door to much greater salvation still. Yahweh is not that petty godling we imagine; He will not take vengeance on us for being honest with Him. The danger we feel so keenly is illusory — but we do feel it, and having to face our fears requires courage nonetheless.

I believe there is a progression here, for if we cannot face imagined risks, how will we face real ones? The little boy must learn not to be afraid of the imagined monsters in the dark before he can learn not to be afraid of the real monster in the Valley of Elah. The courage that slays giants tomorrow grows from the courage that slays illusions today.

Or at least it will, if we can maintain both proper celebratory gratitude and a sense of proportion. The act of courage that shreds a long-held illusion is a gift from God, and we ought to celebrate it for all it’s worth. At the same time, we need to remember that being honest with God and others — what we now call authenticity — is not an end in itself, but a beginning, a foundation on which much greater things are built. Let us be grateful for where we are, and look forward beyond authenticity to transformation, salvation, and yes, maybe even thrilling heroics.

***

Other entries in the June Synchroblog include:

This Is Courage by Jen Bradbury

Being Vulnerable by Phil Lancaster

Everyday Bravery: Overcoming the Fear of Being Wrong by Jessica

Moving Forward Takes Courage by Paul W. Meier

How to Become a Flasher by Glenn Hager

Ordinary Courage by Elaine Hansen

Courage, Hope, Generosity by Carol Kuniholm

The Courage to Fail by Wendy McCaig

The Greatest Act of Courage by Jeremy Myers

Sharing One’s Heart by K. W. Leslie

All I See Is Rocks by Tim Nichols

I Wonder What Would Happen by Liz Dyer

What is Ordinary Courage? by Jennifer Stahl

Loving Courageously by Doreen A. Mannion

Heart Cry: The Courage to Confess by Elizabeth Chapin

The Act to the Miraculous by VisionHub

the spiritual practice of showing up & telling the truth by Kathy Escobar

It’s What We Teach by Margaret Boelman


Headwaters Christian Resources

11 November 2012

We had been looking at the relationship between the institutional church as it exists on paper, and the situation as it actually exists in real life. I have some further thoughts that I am looking forward to exploring here, but this week I want to announce something special that I (and a bunch of other people) have been working on for a long time.

I am proud to announce the launch of the brand new Headwaters Christian Resources blog. Writing chronological Bible curriculum has been a real education for us, and this blog is a way to share with you some of what we’ve learned in that, and our other work. We only have two posts so far, but I think you’ll like them.

“Jesus Is the New Samuel” is an adventure in reading the biblical Story the way its authors — and its Author — meant it to be read. In it, my ministry partner, Joe Anderson, will lead you through an example of edifying typology at its finest.

“Stones into Bread” is my own modest effort to take a lesson from Jesus in how to read Deuteronomy. I conclude it with a couple of relevant devotional exercises that I have found very helpful in my own life. I hope you will too.

My sincere thanks to our web developer, Ben Tyson, our artist, Clay Tyson. We couldn’t have done it without you guys. And of course, I am deeply grateful to God for my dear wife Kimberly and our partners, Joe and Becca Anderson. It’s no exaggeration to say that I’ve never in my life been blessed with such a great team.


Seven True Things I Have Gotten In Trouble For Saying Out Loud

20 May 2012

In the ecclesiastical tribe that raised and trained me, we are accustomed to thinking of ourselves as absolute followers of Scripture.  If the Bible says the earth is about 6,000 years old (which it does), then it is, and carbon dating be hanged.  Some other explanation for the C-14 ratios must be found.  If the Bible says that the whole world was covered by water in Noah’s flood, then it won’t do to postulate that someone’s bathtub overflowed in Mesopotamia somewhere, and that’s all it was really talking about. If the biblical account of the Exodus doesn’t fit with our timeline of Egyptology?  Crying shame those poor historians put in all that work without taking account of the most important primary source we have….  Better luck on the next attempt, guys.

We take it all, straight up the middle, no matter who says “You can’t say that!”  We’re famous for it.

Except, of course, that we don’t.  I have to admit, I had believed our propaganda, and it was therefore with considerable surprise that I discovered that it just wasn’t true.  Not only that, but “I was quoting the Bible” turned out to be a highly inadequate defense for saying things that my community found uncomfortable.  With no further ado, I present to you seven such things.

  1. Baptism saves you.
  2. Belief takes place in the heart.
  3. The purpose of holiness is eternal life.
  4. In communion, we are sharing the body and blood of Christ.
  5. The things that happened to the Exodus generation are all types for our benefit.
  6. A cheerful Christian should be singing Psalms.
  7. God’s children don’t sin.

______

See 1 Peter 3:21, Romans 10:9-10, Romans 6:22, 1 Corinthians 10:16, 1 Corinthians 10:11, James 5:13, 1 John 5:18.

______

Feel free to question, challenge, or discuss.  The more the merrier.


Creeds: Harmony and Unison

21 November 2010

As we saw in a preceding post, when the language of the Creed is biblical, we are not free to abandon it, even if the framers of the creed — or later users of it — would not understand that language in the same way we do.  We are not free to shy away from the way the Bible talks about things.

So what do we do?  Isn’t it dishonest to recite the Creed knowing that we don’t mean the same thing as some others do when they say the same words?

Two issues here: First of all, how come this kind of thing always seems to only work one way?  How come it’s me being dishonest, and not them?  Especially since — from where I’m standing, at least — I mean what Scripture means by it, and they don’t.  Hardly seems right.  How about this: I am honestly employing the language of Scripture, and they are betraying their principles by unlawfully importing to the biblical expressions meanings that God did not intend?

Second, and more important, we can disagree and still be one.  Christ only has one Body.  What actually unifies us is not our doctrinal statements, nor our creeds, but our common participation in Christ.  A difference on whether Christ descended into hellfire after His death simply isn’t enough to trump our common participation in Christ.  You can’t undo the cross with a pen and a sheet of paper.

Or to say it in the old way: We believe in one holy, catholic and apostolic Church.  We believe in the communion of saints.  Or in the even older way: “There is one Body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling: one Lord, one faith, one baptism; One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.”

When I go to, say, a GES conference, I find myself sharing an auditorium with many people with whom I disagree quite seriously, some of whom I would never allow to speak to a flock for which I am responsible.  In other circumstances, I find myself sharing a classroom or even a pulpit with someone I seriously disagree with.  And yet, we fellowship and worship together.  I recently became involved with a prayer effort in my community that puts me on the same team with a very broad range of folks.  And yet, we will continue to pray together.  Why?  Because Christ has united us.  They are my people, even if I don’t like it (I do, actually, but my likes and dislikes are irrelevant).

If a pen and paper can’t undo the work of the cross, neither can a clock or a calendar.

Back in 650 or 700, there were Christians.  Christ was building His church.  The gates of Hades were not prevailing against it.  These people said the Creed, and by those words they were expressing their belief in Jesus, the same Jesus I believe in.  They were joined to Him who is my Head; they were members of the Body in which I am also a member.  They still are; when I ascend the heavenly Zion on Sunday morning to worship before the mercy seat of the heavenly tabernacle, they are the “spirits of just men made perfect” about whom the author of Hebrews writes. I was baptized into the same Christ as they; I eat of the same bread, drink of the same wine, worship on the same holy mountain.  They were, and they are, my people, and if I cannot speak in unison with them on everything, I can still speak in harmony.

When I say the Creed, I am not trying to paper over the differences between us.  But I am claiming continuity with them.  I am in their debt, and I am grateful.  The Creed is their gift to me; they formulated it, spoke it, preserved it for me, and here it is: an adept summary of the Faith once delivered to all the saints, articulated as best they understood it, given to me, although I have done nothing to deserve or earn it.

They are my people.  When I say their creed, I am saying that I am in harmony with them, and because of that harmony, it is my creed too.


Creeds: Wording

14 November 2010

It’s important, when reading a historical document, to understand what the authors mean by what they say.  Corollary to this, it’s dishonest to pretend that their words mean something they did not intend.

For example, Lewis Sperry Chafer always maintained that he believed in the perseverance of the saints.  But what he meant by “perseverance of the saints” was that the saints would persevere in being saints, which is to say, eternal security.  This is mildly dishonest, because the terminology “perseverance of the saints” goes back to the Canons of Dordt, which definitely did not mean only eternal security; they meant that the saints will persevere in acting like saints.

It would have been more honest for Dr. Chafer to simply say that he didn’t believe in the perseverance of the saints, but he did believe in eternal security.

When the wording in question is biblical, however, we do not have the option of simply abandoning it.

For example, take “He descended into hell” in the Apostles’ Creed.  Arguably, that wording, when first introduced in the Latin version of the Creed, meant no more than that Jesus went where dead people go.  They used the word “Infernus,” which repeatedly appears in the Vulgate as a translation of “Sheol,” the Hebrew term.  In the Hebrew cosmology,  all the dead go to Sheol — some to Abraham’s bosom, and some to torment, to be sure.  But Sheol was all of it.  That is, apparently, within the semantic range of “Infernus.”  (The Greek OT translated “Sheol” as “Hades” with similar connotations.)

Note that I said “arguably” above.  Later, in the middle ages, many Christians taught that after dying on the cross, Jesus spent three days in hellfire suffering for the sins of the world before He was raised from the dead.  There is some argument as to what the original framers of the phrase in the creed actually meant by it — just that Jesus really died, and really went where dead people go, or that Jesus suffered the flames of hell to really pay for our sin after He said “It is finished.”  Turns out, “Infernus” can mean either the place of the dead generally, or the place where bad people go to suffer for their sins.

So what does one do with the creed?  When I say it, I say “He descended into Hades” rather than “He descended into hell” because the English word “hell” has connotations of suffering for sin, which is the meaning I don’t endorse.  But many of my conservative brethren would ask: With that ambiguity in play, why would I be willing to say that phrase at all?

We cannot simply abandon “He descended into Hades” for the very good reason that it’s true.  Scripture speaks of the death of Jesus in just that way, albeit obliquely (Acts 2:31).  To say “He did not descend into Hades” is to say that He did not go where dead people go — which is to depart from Scripture, and the Christian faith.  We just can’t say that.

So we say the creed, and when we say the words “He descended into Hades” we know that some of the people who have said those words do not mean what we mean by them.  In fact, the people involved in framing that part of the creed may not have meant what we mean by it.  However, they would have justified the language by appeal to Acts 2:31, just like I would, and Acts 2:31 ultimately does not mean what they mean by it; it means what God means by it.  I affirm the biblical language wholeheartedly, and to the best of my understanding, I mean what God meant by it.