We who follow Jesus believe we have come to know some things about God. We have ancient creeds, like the Apostles’ Creed (my personal favorite), that we recite over and over, reminding us what we have come to believe and affirm about God. The declarations in that creed are derived from scripture, and we trust the witness of those texts to be true and right.
Some of our perceived certainties, however, can be detrimental to us. It’s too easy for us to grasp our beliefs in things (religious, political, economic, and so on) and lock ourselves into ideologies that we crash ourselves and others against. Sure, we come to believe particular things and then orient our lives around those beliefs (I believe in the authority and veracity of scripture, so I take it seriously; I believe in the pursuit of physical health, so I avoid junk food, except for potato chips; I believe in the power of gravity, so I avoid high places with no guard rail).
But when it comes to God, we have to think through our certainties.
I believe that God created the heavens and the earth, but I didn’t see him do it.
I believe in the real, historic person of Jesus, but I’ve never seen him with my own eyes.
I believe that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, that he suffered, died, and rose from death, and that he ascended to the Father. But I didn’t witness any of that taking place.
I can’t claim certainty about any of these declarations in the way that I can be certain about things I saw happen yesterday. In some ways, when it comes to historic Christian faith, certainty—in terms of quantifiable, measurable, verifiable evidence—eludes us.
But we have confidence.
The claim to certainty can be a dangerous thing when it comes to God. Once I have my certainties nailed down and the walls of defense securely erected, I can come to the conclusion that I now have all that I need as a person of faith. Once I’ve got my certainties about the way that scripture is authoritative, how the Atonement is explained, how the Reformation is as infallible as the Pope, and so on, then I might believe that I have become religiously self-sufficient. Once my certainties are locked down, I might not even need God.
Certainties can be abstract and propositional. Certainties make dangerous idols.
Confidence, on the other hand, is related to trust. Once we trust God, we find ourselves mysteriously connected to him. We find that something changes within us, as though our eyes are opened for the first time to what is real. We come to see Jesus as the very image of God, and we trust the witness of scripture, the faithfulness of the church (with all its wrinkles), and the experience within ourselves that God is present to us.
Certainty runs the risk of creating a concretized religion.
Confidence is grounded in trust, and trust in God is relational.
When I was serving as a full-time pastor, people would occasionally apologize to me for using course language in my presence. Those apologies always amused me, since I am a veteran of the US Navy and have within me the ability to cuss with words that are better imagined than described. I have come to find swearing to be more amusing than offensive.
There’s this thing that people have with Christians in general and ministers in particular: We’re supposed to be shocked by sinful stuff and don’t want to get any of it on us. But the truth is, while we don’t want to be defined and formed by actions and thoughts that veer us away from God, we’re generally pretty cognizant of our own sin (even though we, like most people, tend to overlook some of our sins in favor of others). On top of that, all Christian ministry is engagement with sin.
All of it. Every %$ bit of it.
If sin is, as the Bible suggests, missing the mark, straying from the right path and, in general, forgetting about God, then sin is the context for all ministry.
In seeking to minister the healing love and touch of Jesus Christ in a broken and hurting world, we cannot avoid engaging with the sin that wracks the lives of human beings. And, in doing so, we can’t help but come away with blood on our hands, complicit with those whose lives are torn by the sin they have embraced and the sin that has been inflicted upon them. The sinner and the sinned against—those are our people.
For example: I believe that divorce is wrong. All the time. Every time. Without exception. Yet, I have counseled people to file for divorce when abuse and abandonment have destroyed what was once declared to be a marriage. I not only counseled those people to enter into the tragic and broken place of divorce, but I have also gone with them, providing what support I could. I didn’t tell them that divorce, for them, was to be a good thing and that they had followed all the biblical rules for divorcing. I told them that, together, we would be entering in a tragic place and would rely on God’s mercy, forgiveness, and grace to meet us on the other side.
For example: I believe that abortion is wrong. All the time. Every time. Without exception. But if someone’s daughter or granddaughter had become pregnant as the result of rape, or her life was significantly at risk because of the impending birth, I would give consideration to abortion, and would stand by the person should the decision be made to terminate the pregnancy. I would not call the abortion “good.” I would know that I was joining in on a willing journey into sin, crying out for God’s forgiveness as we made a painful and tragic choice.
For example: I believe that the laws of the land should be observed and obeyed. But if I were still serving as a pastor and an undocumented worker (code for illegal alien) came to my church, I would offer a safe place. I would not contact the authorities. And I would be a law-breaker. But the law of God’s universal love for humanity would trump my allegiance to the legal system. And if the authorities showed up one day to haul off the worker in cuffs, they would have to bring an extra pair for me. My sheltering of the stranger in the name of Jesus would not shield me from complicity.
Ministry draws us into close proximity to sin. It also brings us in close proximity to Jesus, who is already at work in the most broken, suffering parts of human life.
Jesus—the one called the Friend of Sinners. The one with our blood on his hands.
I’ve been seeing a number of blogs (particularly Rachel Held Evans) and articles (like one in Christianity Today) recently about women’s roles as teachers in the life of the church. It appears that the conversation has been stirred up by a podcast released by John Piper, who feels strongly about restricting or even forbidding women to teach if a man is present (but what if he’s present but dead? Can a woman preach at a man’s funeral? Maybe, if no living men are there).
I tend to not wrestle much with this issue, since I resolved it some time ago for myself. I believe that such restrictions come from a misinterpretation of certain texts of scripture, and I also work for a theological seminary that supports women and men equally in roles of ministry and leadership.
Some claim that Dr. Piper is revealing his own personal hang ups regarding the female body. I can’t really speak to that because I’ve never talked to him about the subject, but I have heard him declare his views about other things, and I suspect it’s more about him wanting to preserve the integrity of scripture—at least, his interpretation of it. While I take different views from his on many subjects related to Christian faith, I have to respect his desire to be true to scripture.
However, there is a problem with this. There is a long history in the church of crashing human lives against our theological interpretations, thinking that we are being faithful to God in the process. Jesus ran into this with the religious leaders of his day, who thought that the very work of God could be limited and restricted by their interpretation of Sabbath Law. Jesus scandalized them when he said, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath.”
When Peter experienced his dramatic vision and then encountered the group of God-fearing gentiles in Antioch (Acts 10), the falling of the Holy Spirit on the people ran cross-grain to his understanding of scripture. After all, gentiles were unclean, and this new story, for Peter and his friends, was a distinctively Jewish story (after all, Jesus was Jewish). So it didn’t make theological and biblical sense to him that the gentiles would receive the Holy Spirit—just like Peter—without prior incorporation into the life of Israel (including circumcision, etc.).
Yet, Peter reported the story to his fellow Jewish leaders in Jerusalem (Acts 11) and they ended up affirming the inclusion of the gentiles in the emerging church (although they backslid a little later on). But their affirmation didn’t come about on exegetical grounds; it came phenomenologically. In other words, they didn’t base their decision by revisiting scripture. It came on the basis of Peter’s testimony of the experience he had in Antioch. It would be Paul who would come along later and provide the biblical basis for all of this (see Romans and Galatians).
So here we are now, still wondering how it can be that women are claiming to be filled with the Spirit, hungry for knowledge, sensing a call to be teachers, leaders, and even pastors, but are being crashed against a hermeneutic (interpretation) that is claimed to be immoveable.
I know of respected theological seminaries that do not support women in teaching or church leadership roles, but will allow them to enroll in their school and even pursue the Master of Divinity degree. Some women have reported to me that they were frequently reminded by their professors (sometimes in humiliating ways) that their role in the church had to remain limited or they would be immersed in sin and stand outside of God’s favor. I asked these women if their schools gave them a tuition discount since they couldn’t exactly use the degree that was awarded to them. They said no.
I find it difficult to believe that this exclusionary conversation is still going on. Perhaps I’ve been in the opposite world for so long that I forget how relevant the topic is for so many. I’m sad about the pain that this brings to women in the life of the church.
We really need to stop submitting ourselves unquestioningly to biblical interpretations that imprison human lives. Jesus did this quite frequently with his theological opponents. The apostle Paul had to revisit the biblical narrative on a number of topics, and we are all glad that he did. So is the door closed on that process? Yes, I suppose it is, if indeed the Holy Spirit no longer works in the world.
Maybe all that stopped in Antioch. But I don’t think so.
Not too long ago a friend contacted me and suggested that I submit a paper to be read at Azusa Pacific University’s upcoming Conference on Christianity and Literature, titled The Company of Others: Literary Collaboration and the Common Good. My friend knows that I write both non-fiction and fiction, and she was interested in having me produce a paper that deals with dark, supernatural stories and what place those stories have in literature that might be described as Christian.
So, because I don’t know how to say no to opportunities that are completely outside of my levels of competence, I agreed. The steering committee, for some bizarre reason, accepted my abstract. I share it with you now:
“Christians have long accepted the graphic accounts in scripture that describe horrific violence and bloodshed as part of the narrative of God’s work and mission in the world. Those stories carry into the text the tragic and gritty reality of evil, even when such evil is perpetrated by seemingly good people. The horror genre, as with others, contains the possibility of contrasting the good news of Jesus Christ with the dominant claims of evil and injustice. This paper argues that contemporary Christian horror literature personifies evil in characters ranging from the monstrous (e.g. vampires, zombies, werewolves) to the monstrously human (e.g. serial killers and other rogues), while at the same time embedding important theological themes. Without forcing a story into an allegory or an agenda, Christian writers can allow such themes to play out in a macabre tale without giving way to either gratuitous violence or unrealistic sanitization. Literature to be discussed includes Bram Stoker’s Dracula, C. S. Lewis’s Perelandra and That Hideous Strength, and Frank Peretti’s The Oath.”
Having written the abstract and realizing that it had been accepted and I was now on the program, I figured I’d better actually write the paper. It’s almost done now, but it has been a challenge to write something that is somewhat outside of my scope of qualification.
But I don’t read my work until the end of the conference, so it will be too late to kick me out if my paper is scandalous and I embarrass myself, which I’ve done before and it’s not really all that bad of an experience once you hit a certain age and merely find yourself and others amusing.
I’m grateful to my friend for extending the opportunity and I’m looking forward to hanging around with some big-brained literature people. I expect to learn a lot at the conference. I noticed that another person on my panel is reading his paper about the theology in zombie movies. He is from the same institution where I am employed. There might be a theme here . . .
My friend Jason Clark presented a brilliant paper at the Society of Vineyard Scholars conference last week in Anaheim. He shared it with me and I’ve been thinking about it for the last couple of days. The title of the paper is:
Worship as re-narration: The unique problems and possibilities of Charismatic Evangelical Worship in late capitalist society.
Jason is British, which means that it took me a long time to read the paper because there were very long words that replaced the American Z with a British S, causing me to stop and stare, making vain attempts at re-interpretation, and then falling asleep and waking hours later, wondering where I was. But I finally got through it.
Recognizing that Evangelicalism (including the charismatic brand) has fallen on hard times, he takes a look at the deep structure of it and suggests that we might be throwing out babies with bathwater if we jettison evangelical worship because it sometimes appears shallow and consumeristic, and assume that authenticity can only be found in alternative ecclesiastical settings (or lack of setting altogether).
I’ve frequently lamented the trend to link the word evangelical with various American voting blocks or with bands of anti-everything lunatics. I also think that to reduce evangelical to a hard-edged proselytizing movement or as cousins to fundamentalism are insufficient characterizations (although sometimes deserved).
We get the word evangelical from a biblical Greek word that means good news. It comes from ancient military language that describes the message and messenger that brings the announcement that a battle has been won. But in relation to God, good news is about God’s rule and reign. So, Isaiah can say,
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.” (52:7)
And Jesus can say, citing Isaiah 61,
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” (Luke 4:18)
The word evangelical, when linked to the biblical concept of good news, moves away from claims to cultural, political, and religious power or pragmatic instrumentalism and moves toward authentic worship of God and witnesses to the present reality of his kingdom.
When the word charismatic is added into the mix, there is an expectation that this is not about mere information or function—it is about the ongoing work, presence, and power of the Holy Spirit—the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Christ (see Romans 8:9-11).
The problem with worship in the evangelical/charismatic context is that it has often been limited to music or to particular ecstatic phenomena. But in other contexts it has been limited to the Eucharist, the sermon, or detachment from organized religion altogether.
I think what my friend Jason (which, in America, would be spelled Jazon), is communicating is not that evangelical/charismatic brands of worship have it all together, but rather that there is imbedded in the essence of that shared ecclesial life and theology the potential for reframing the holistic, expansive, and truly spiritual nature of worship.
I would love to see worship expressed in corporate gatherings in music and song, reflection on the scriptures, prayers of the people, ministry of the Spirit, prophetic utterances, confession and thanksgiving, fellowship and friendship, generosity and care, Eucharist, blessing, and sending.
The only problem with my idea is that church services would last four or five hours each week. I’m not sure our cultural embeddedness would allow for that, not to mention the tragedy of missing lunch. Although, if the Lord’s table became a table of a true, shared meal, where all would come at the invitation of Jesus, then everything would work out just fine.
I recently saw this bold statement posted on Facebook:
“The only time religious men put their faith in science is to kill men who believe in different gods.”
I don’t know the source of the quote, but I am stunned by the caricature that it creates, one of religious zealots with bloody hands cheering as others die (the background was of a nuclear blast and resulting mushroom cloud). It assumes a great deal—that all religious men (is it only men, or are religious woman included?) desire to kill people who believe in alternative religions and that they care nothing for science until its time for killing.
I’ve seen this type of thing in a number of places, and so have you—every election season assaults us with the dark art of caricature. We religious folks are just as guilty, too often vilifying our opponents by reducing them to something ridiculous. We do that to atheists, people of other faiths (but hopefully not with intent to kill), evolutionists, and to each other when we disagree on some theological topic.
A caricature, of course, is different from a cartoon. Cartoons aren’t typically depicting particular people, but rather using animation to give life to people and animals that are fun and able to do what we regular creatures cannot do. By contrast, a caricature is a comic representation of a real person (think of those talented artists who love creating caricatures of each new US President).
Of course, a caricature is not the real thing. When we create an ideological caricature of someone, we have not depicted the person with complete honesty. But it feels victorious to mold and shape our comic representations of our enemies and then skewer them, claiming that we have won all arguments. It just isn’t honest.
Various high-profile comedians do this regarding Christianity (think of Bill Maher and Ricky Gervais*). I respect how their journeys of life have resulted in antagonism toward religion in general and Christianity in particular, but when you hear their arguments against religious belief, they come off as disbelief in things cartoonish.
But Christians do this as well. We’re not as good at listening as we ought to be. Conservatives and liberals attack the caricatures of their own creation, but rarely come to the table to listen and understand each other. Some of this comes from ignorance, but a great deal of it, I believe, is grounded in fear—fear of losing something that is important, or even fear of losing dominance and power.
I don’t believe we need to live in the kind of fear that reduces our detractors to nonsensical representations of their true selves. We who follow Jesus don’t have to live in the kind of fear that claims we have things to lose, because we don’t own anything in the first place. It is we who are in the grip of God, and if anyone owns anything it is him. We should be free to engage honestly with those who stand in opposition to us, refusing to take the bait of false characterization.
The apostle Paul, I think, had something to say about this:
“So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.” (Ephesians 4:25)
*But I must confess that Ricky Gervais is one of my favorite comedians. Sorry.
Okay, here’s my last and final post on the marriage issue, until I think of another one.
There is no equality in marriage. None at all. Allow me to explain through personal, anecdotal descriptions that clearly apply to the entire human race.
When Emily and I got married, I was 20 and she was 19. At that time, at least in the nation of California, a woman could marry at age 18 without parental consent, but a man had to be 21. I was able to join the Navy at 19—keeping America safe for democracy—without parental consent, but I had to get a note from my Dad and Mom in order to get married. Not equal.
After our honeymoon, we were driving around the town were I was to be stationed, looking for a place to live. We were broke, having spent half of our $200 fortune on our honeymoon (yes, we had a $100 honeymoon). I suggested to my new bride that we stop and get a Coke to share (so romantic), which in the ancient era of 1972 cost 15 cents at McDonalds. She chastised me for being so reckless with our money, and vetoed my request. No Coke. Not equal.
Years later, I decided to quit my teaching job because I was tired of being broke all the time. I intended to try my hand at business in order to get rich, but did it without talking it through with my wife or (perish the thought!) praying. It all went to smash because I went for it alone. Not equal.
Years after that (after recovering from the smash and actually doing pretty well in business), I suggested that we put in a swimming pool. Emily didn’t think that was a good use of our money. A year later, we were standing in our back yard and she said, “Maybe we should get a swimming pool.” We did. Not equal.
In 2005, during my time as a pastor, two of my no-account pastor buddies claimed that we should gather some folks, drive to Louisiana, and help out with the Hurricane Katrina cleanup effort. I said it was a bad idea, because we would die there. I called my wife to tell her of my friends’ stupid idea, and she started to cry. She said she believed that the Lord wanted me to go. I went, and didn’t die. Not equal.
She gave birth to our two daughters. It looked like pretty hard work to me. I just watched because I am not equipped to have babies. Not equal.
And, on top of all that, at least according to the statistics, I will die first.
I recently shared a video on Facebook from the New Zealand parliament. The MP who spoke was very humorous in his delivery, which was why I posted it. He insisted that any time two people love each other, they should enjoy the right to be married. It’s not an uncommon declaration and we hear it with some frequency here in the US as well.
The argument about legally recognized marriage—regardless of gender—seems to now be grounded in love. Of course, the government doesn’t really care about the love part, and they have no assessment tools to measure love in the first place. The government cares more about operating consistently with the laws of the land and providing a framework for families that offers protection under the law. It’s not a bad thing, it’s just a different thing than love as a qualifier.
So, as the argument seems to go, a declaration of love results in a demand for rights, and the granting of those rights gives people what they want and deserve.
For we who follow Jesus, however, we believe that the claim to love doesn’t begin with us—it begins with God. And the love that comes to us at the initiation of God, a love that moves outward from us to others, does not result in us getting what we deserve. In fact, we aren’t called to a life of de-serving at all. We are called to serve, and to do so as followers of and participants with the Spirit of Jesus.
I am aware that Christians are often looked at as narrow-minded people who are against everything, especially gay marriage. I’m sorry for that negative view. In some ways we’ve asked for it, since most publicized debates on the issue tend to lack civility and are reductionistic. Of course, I have to cast a bit of the responsibility on the other side, where any suggestion of a different point of view results in the accusation of being a hater.
I’m hoping that, when the dust starts to settle, that Christians will step back and assess our identity. Perhaps we’ll need to revisit with fresh eyes the One we claim to follow, who said, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45)
This has been a very sad week. The drama that unfolded in Boston drew us all into the pain, sorrow and anxiety that flowed through the city. While there is relief that one suspect remains alive and is now in custody, perhaps able to supply answers to the “why” of this tragic act of violence, most of us have become realistic enough over the past decade or so to know that our relief will be short lived. There’s always another danger waiting to make itself known to us.
I know that we have our share of problems and failures here in the US. But I must say that I’m fascinated by how things seemed to play out in Boston. The chief of police appeared to asking rather than demanding that residents stay inside and be willing to inform police of any suspicious behavior they might observe through their windows. From what I understand, people cooperated willingly with that request.
When the owner of the boat where 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was hiding found him there, he didn’t alert his neighbors so that they could pull the young man out and beat him to death and hang his body from a light pole. The man contacted the police and waited.
I suppose there will be things posted on various social media sites that scream for the young suspect’s blood—these things appear to be unavoidable these days. But what I’ve seen so far are posts expressing sorrow that a young person would commit such a heinous act and then have his own life thrown away. People have encouraged us to pray for him just as we pray for those who have suffered at his hand. I am glad for these words.
So, yes, there will be the enacting of justice, if by justice we mean setting things right again (although, that will never quite be the case for those who have suffered. And keep in mind that justice is not the same as retribution). There will be consequences experienced by young Dzhokhar, who will never be free again and is probably grieving the loss of his own brother.
It is sobering for we, who trust our lives to Jesus, to remember who we are in times like this. We are called to care for widows, orphans, the foreigner, and all who suffer. We are also called to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. These can be tough assignments, but it is what we do, and must do. Not everyone will do this, but we must. That is how we exist as the light of the world, the salt of the earth. We do this because we follow Jesus, and we also do it on behalf of the rest of the world.
I recently discovered a website that lists all the legitimate phobias that could be identified. Currently the list documents 530 diagnosed conditions of fear.
I have a dear friend visiting right now from England. I am so happy that I do not suffer from Anglophobia. I am considering having some bacon for breakfast. Thankfully, I do not have Carnophobia. I am alive and wish to stay that way as long as possible, but at least I am not immersed in Thanatophobia.
But wait: Maybe I am. Thanatophobia is fear of dying. I may not be overwhelming by that documentable phobia, but I am clearly not interested in undergoing a premature death.
Recent events, however, suggest that the possibility—even the inevitability—of death hovers over all of us. Young children are sent off merrily to school and are killed by a mentally ill gunman. Runners engaged in an annual marathon and are blown up at the finish line, possibly at the hand of terrorists. A fertilizer plant in Texas explodes, taking lives and shattering an entire town.
Perhaps we can’t be blamed for just a touch of Thanatophobia.
Fear, however, often results in protectiveness (understandably so), and protectiveness can morph into protectivism (protectiveness as a core value), and the process can spawn anger, which can whip into rage. And rage wants retribution and punishment.
We who follow Jesus are told over and over again in our scriptures to fear not. But we do. And we continue to be given reasons to fear.
When we speak of following Jesus, it is insufficient to say that we follow what he taught, as important as that is. It is insufficient to claim that we are Christians because we have affirmed a particular creed or list of doctrinal statements. There must be something more to all of this, or we will project our protectivism onto our belief system and our fear will be the dominant characteristic of our faith.
The more that is required has to do with our lives being truly and deeply changed. I’m not speaking only of change that is expressed in our behaviors, but change that impacts the very essence of who we are as human beings. And the narrative of our faith insists that such change comes at the hand of God, expressed in the real, historic life of Jesus, and poured into our lives through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.
Without such spiritual transformation—a transformation that the Bible characterizes as a movement from death to life, from darkness to light—then we’re only left with religious turf to defend. And that’s a battle that is fueled by fear.
When we see God face-to-face someday, I hope that our trembling comes, not from fear, but from joy and adoration.
When I think of Hell, I don’t think of a fiery place where people are being tormented by the devil (or by someone else, since Revelation 20 dispatches him). In fact, I don’t really think of a place at all. I think of proximity. Proximity to God.
I imagine all kinds of people on the other side of death. There are folks playing, laughing, luxuriating in the joy of God’s presence. Others are staring off in the distance in wonder, marveling at the recognition that God has embraced them at all. But a good time is being had by all (granted, I’ve not explored whether this is post-physical resurrection or not, but I’m doing art right now, not science).
There are, however, others in this scene. They are turned, not so much away from God as they are turned into themselves. There are those who are still demanding their rights—including the right to dislike or deny God—and they are oblivious to the joy that surrounds them. There are genocidal maniacs, like the aforementioned Hitler, who are screaming their rabid rants into an airspace where only they can hear their own, constant vitriol, while some of their victims come along and lay flowers at their feet, hoping that just for a moment, they might just look around see the possibilities that eternity holds.
These are shadow people, who stand in their own private spheres of darkness. They are seen by the others, but they see no one but themselves. There is also something wrong with them—parts of their bodies are burned away, the result of the persistent light of God that is life to many, but continues to act as a surgical fire to those in the shadows, slowly burning away the evil. For some, there may soon be nothing left.
Some of those are people of various religious groups who, having met Jesus in this place for the first time, realize he is the one they had always been looking for. Some of these are the wondrous gazers, who are stunned by God’s generous love.
Every so often one of the shadow people, having stood in isolated darkness for the equivalent of months or years or centuries, looks around suddenly and realizes that what they had staked their life on was not worth it all. As they face the light, their fractured bodies begin to slowly heal, and they become real for the first time.
Jesus wanders from person to person, participating in the joy that is expressed by so many. He also stops at each shadow person, laying a hand on a shoulder, not troubled by those who shrug away, the tears on his face evidence of his love for even the most broken of them. Once in a while one of them shudders and looks him in the eye, recognizing him at last and breaking into wracking sobs. Jesus embraces that one and leads the person out of that cobwebby space and into the freshness of eternity. His tears flow anew as the person’s body is reknitted into wholeness.
Okay, so I know there is no direct mention of sheep and goats, outer darkness, gnashing of teeth, or any other biblical image of judgment. But if Paul was right, and “in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them,” then there might be something to think about in my fanciful story. Maybe all will stand forever in proximity to God. For some, it will be life. For others, darkness and decay.
But does it end there? Well, not to worry. It’s only a story.
The artist has to ask questions in order to create. It is from the questions that the creative life emerges. Artists ask themselves what if questions, and then proceed to ask everyone else if what has come out of their questioning is really art.
Writers of fiction do this all the time. C. S. Lewis asked what God’s reconciling work would look like in a land populated by mythic creatures, and produced The Chronicles of Narnia. Stephen King asked what kind of world people would create if most of the human population was wiped out by a plague, and produced The Stand.
It occurs to me that some of the folks in the Christian world who take a great deal of heat are the ones who ask some difficult what if questions, like: What if God’s love is broader and more generous than we’ve imagined? Or, What if our dominant views about the atonement are limited and not really true to our scriptures? They usually start by asking themselves those kinds of question, and then they ask the rest of us, “What do you think—is this Christianity?”
One of the questions that always intrigue me is about Hell. Suggesting that our traditional views about Hell could be flawed usually creates a firestorm of outrage. People ask if God really assigns both the genocidal maniac and the nominal slob who never amounted to much to the eternal and fiery tortures of Hell, and some folks respond as though the idea of countless multitudes screaming in agony forever is comforting.
The late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus once said something to the effect of, “It’s not that I don’t believe in Hell. It’s just that I don’t want anyone to be there.”
The idea of Hell—at least, the idea of Hell as a tortuous place created to take in all who deserve to go there—has its problems. First of all, the Bible doesn’t speak with a singular voice about Hell. There are multiple images related to where dead people go: Sheol, Hades, Gehenna. We are even told in The Apostles’ Creed that Jesus “descended to the dead” (some versions say “Hell”), causing us wonder what he did while he was there.
But, secondly, we struggle with some other problems as well. Since, according to Revelation 20:10, the devil ends up being tossed into the lake of fire and is tormented forever, we have to wonder: So who torments everyone else? Is it God who receives the worship of the faithful dead with one hand, and stokes the fires of Hell with the other? And he does this forever?
And we’re not really sure what it is that qualifies us for Hell. Is it our behavior, or our belief?
Here’s an example: The 20th century poster boy for pure, maniacal evil is Adolf Hitler, most folks would agree, and we would consign him to the most distant and painful corner of Hell available. But what if, just before he died (and if his girlfriend shot him in the head rather than Hitler committing suicide, just to keep things simple), he repented of his great transgressions and asked God to forgive him and then put his trust in Jesus? Wouldn’t he now be in heaven with all the saints and angels? I suspect that most Evangelicals would vote yes on that.
But if right belief is the ticket to Heaven, then wouldn’t the six million Jews that died as Hitler’s command be languishing in Hell? After all, their belief system would probably not include Jesus. So, really, based on that thinking, we can’t condemn Hitler to Hell for his actions, only for his lack of belief.
I understand that not all people, including Evangelical Christian people, would think that things worked that way. However, the questions should still be asked, and it is, in my view, the vocation of theological artists to do the asking. And when the artists ask everyone else, “What do you think—is this Christian?” we should all stop and say, “Well, I’m not sure. But maybe we should go back and check things out.”
The artist might be wrong, and answer to the question might occasionally be “no.” But the mere act of asking, when the question runs cross-grain to traditional thinking, should not result in a heresy trial.
And if someone asks if there really is a Hell, and even if we believe there is, our response ought to be a tearful one that says, “Yes, but I do wish it wasn’t so.”
The creation account in Genesis chapter one didn’t emerge out of a vacuum. There were already mythologies about creation that would have been available in the ancient near east and Africa. The Babylonians had the Enuma Elish, which described a violent, cosmic battle among the gods, who, after tearing each other to shreds, created human beings to do all their work for them. Egyptian and central African cosmologies have primordial deities who vomit things into existence. Quite a lovely image.
I find it interesting that people want to interpret Genesis chapter one scientifically rather than artistically. Genesis is an iron-age creation, written over a period of time when science, at least as we have come to understand it, did not exist. Ancient writers knew how to write things that were procedural, methodological, and structural (think of God’s directives in the construction of Noah’s ark, or of Solomon’s temple).
But the creation account isn’t that way. It flows like poetry, it dances to hidden music, it tells a story that is prone to melody and song.
It is also deeply theological, something we often miss when trying to force it into a creationistic-scientific box.
There is something different at play with this story that sets it apart from those that came before it. Creation is not the result of divine nausea, nor are human beings fashioned in order to be slaves of the gods. The emergence of the universe comes because God speaks the words of creation. He forms human beings to reflect God’s own image as male and female. And then he calls it all good.
This is grand artistry.
There are some radical declarations in this theatrical theology. Creation might come ex nihilo—out of nothing—but it doesn’t come as a result of the self-focused infighting of the petty gods. There is a rhymic peacefulness to the account as God seems to gently say, “Let there be . . .”
The Egyptians put the sun god Ra at the top of the divine hierarchy. They saw this god traversing the sky on a daily basis, and served under the power of his avatar, Pharaoh. But Genesis topples that connection between god and sun, and demotes the sun to the fourth day of creation.
The most ancient of the Hebrew people—the ones who were liberated from their slavery in Egypt—would have remembered the old cosmologies. They also would have remembered that the God declared by Moses—the I AM of the burning bush—was the one who defeated the gods of Egypt and brought about the rescue of his people.
One of the most radical revelations of Genesis one is that it links the God of Israel’s rescue to the God who created all things (keep in mind: The Exodus took place long before the writing of Genesis). The I AM was no territorial god who happened to be stronger than the others in the neighborhood. There were, in reality, no other gods in the first place. The God of rescue and the God of all creation was—and is—the same God.
Only an artist could really tell that story. Good theology—the kind that liberates and reveals—is best when it is art. Too much of our current theology is dominated by thinking that tries to be scientific. Once our precisely constructed, immoveable theologies are crafted, we then crash people against them. We sometimes act as though humans were created for theology, rather than the other way around.
There are a number of theological artists in our day who are asking new questions. It’s too bad that we burn some of them at our respective stakes. That’s a tremendous loss to us all because we need the artists to remind us who we are and from where we’ve come. We need artists to help us as we hope for God’s intended future. Part of their role among us is to ask disturbing questions about our certainties and help us explore new possibilities that we might have missed along the way. Scientists deal in facts and tangible realities, and I’m glad we have them. But in theological reflection we need more artists than scientists. We need a more robust theological imagination among us than we’ve had in recent years.
I think that one of the reasons that the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is so attractive to people is that he has become accessible to us as a real person. His Letters and Papers from Prison offer a glimpse into the inner life of the brilliant theologian, putting a real face on an incredible mind. His biographers show us that his written work was not mere theological abstraction—it was increasingly formed in the crucible of the horrors of Nazi Germany and World War Two.
The work of the German theologian Jürgen Moltmann attracts me in a similar way. In the introduction to his fine book, The Spirit of Life, he recounts his formative time as a prisoner of war in Scottish and British camps at the end and after World War Two. He came to faith in Christ during that time, and his story is one that I can barely read without tears. Knowing a little about how his life was formed, I am helped in the reading of his work.
We need to put faces, not only on our heroes, but also on our enemies. There is a great deal of caricature in public debate—after all, you know how those atheists are, you know how those fundamentalist Christians are, you know how those Emergent-types are, you know how gay people are, you know how liberals are, etc., etc.
Mostly, we don’t know.
I had lunch one day with a young man who was the president of an atheist club at the local university. He thought I wanted to meet with him in order to fight. I just wanted to hear what his atheism meant to him. We heard each other on that day, and became friends. We knew each other’s names.
I know a man who was treated with a rudeness bordering on violence by a man he visited on a business call. It was enemy time, and should have resulted in a quick getaway. But the man I know stuck around and persisted in conversation. It turned out that the man who acted rudely had just lost his eighteen-year old son in a traffic accident just a couple of days earlier. The environment changed, and enemies had faces and lives.
In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus is quoted as saying, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven . . .” (Matt. 5:43-45)
Loving one’s enemy cannot be limited to some sort of warm and fuzzy feeling toward those who stand in opposition to us. It has to be real. Part of that reality, I believe, is putting a face on our enemies, allowing ourselves to enter their space and hear their story, not listening in order to rebut, but in order to understand. Then we might earn the opportunity to tell our own stories and to be understood. Love could actually emerge between enemies when that happens.
“. . . Higher math deals with ideas, asks questions which may not have single answers.”
“If we begin with certainties, we will end in doubt. But if we begin with doubts and bear them patiently, we may end in certainty.”
“By love God may be gotten and holden, but by thought or understanding, never.”
Each of these represents a possible heresy. The idea that mathematics could provide something other than precise and unquestioned answers? Oh, please. Tell that to my eighth grade math teacher. Certainties leading to doubt? Never! Our doctrines are certain, our interpretations are accurate, and if we stand firm, we will never doubt.
And God is not to be grasped by pure understanding? But what about the A’s you got in all your apologetics courses?
I read these three quotations in Madeleine L’Engle’s wonderful book, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art (pp. 134-5). It’s a book about writing, and is becoming an incredibly valuable addition to my small collection of resources about being a writer.
The first quotation is from Madeline herself, as she reflects on what she was thinking about when she wrote A Wrinkle in Time.
The second is from Francis Bacon’s work, De Augmentis (1623).
And the third is from the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing (late 14th century).
The book was first published in 1980. I don’t recall if anyone organized a heresy hunt to chase Madeleine down when these words were made public, since they were lauded by reviews from several Christian periodicals.
I know a man who wrote a book about God and the Bible, encouraging his fellow Christians to consider that their faith is not a concrete building constructed of propositions extracted from the Bible, but rather an embrace of the deep mystery that is God’s love expressed in and through the person of Jesus Christ. It was not a dismissal or denigration of scripture—I know this man, and his love of the Bible. Nevertheless, after the book’s publication a major Christian bookstore chain banned all of his books from their stores. I haven’t shopped there since.
Have we entered a new age of inquisition? Not inquiry—that would suggest curiosity and openness to new, unexplored possibilities—but the kind of inquisition that used to burn people at stakes or exile them to distant shores. Instead of incinerating their bodies, we now incinerate their characters and their careers. We push them out of the fellowship of believers and declare them unclean because asking hard questions seems to be the flashing warning light that signals heresy must be looming ahead.
Someone posted a thoughtful comment the other day about this blog series, wondering out loud if we sometimes label something as heresy when in fact it is merely a minority opinion. I think he might be on to something.
Certain models of practical theology insist that theory and practice, when it comes to Christian ministry, cannot be separated. We come to our theological reflections with some sense of meaningful practice already embedded in our thoughts and actions. Engaging prayerfully and thoughtfully with specific theological issues (which relate to real life and human interaction) results in the emergence of a new practice that is infused with new meaning and purpose.
Before we immediately label something as a heresy, we should allow it to be a minority opinion (unless it has already taken the world by storm), or at least a view that is “other” than the traditional one. If we let these opinions stew around only as theories and then argue them as such, then we never really know if they are valid or not. We have to ask how our theologies play out in real ministry and step out of the safety zone of theoretical insistence.
So let’s argue about same-sex marriage. Then let’s pray together and ask God to show us what ministry looks like in this new world, and how our thinking is informing our participation in what God is doing in the world.
Let’s argue about divorce and remarriage. Then let’s sit down with remarried couples and ask them where they have experienced the presence of the Spirit of Christ in their lives.
Let’s argue about the nature of Hell and the reach of God’s love and see if we can stop stabbing each other in the eyes with our heresy sticks. There might be some minority opinions that we need to consider.
Keep in mind: Jesus’ words in Matthew chapter 5 (part of the Sermon on the Mount) are filled with minority opinions. Think about it: Six times he says, “You have heard that it is said” (majority opinion); six times he counters with, “But I say to you” (minority opinion).
When we take on the role of being heresy hunters, we may become the assassins of minority opinions. We might be wrong. And we should tremble at the possibility.
Yesterday I was sitting in a workshop dealing with educational diversity, and this quote stuck with me:
“If the goal of liberal education is to move students from their own embedded worldviews and broaden their perspectives—diversity is a vehicle for achieving this goal.”
Liberal here, of course, is not a theological or political label, but a term reference to a broad type of educational experience that exposes the student to a wide range of thought and scholarship.
But the quote caused me to think of a billboard I saw recently from a local Christian university:
“Think Biblically About Everything.”
I think I understand the intention behind this statement. Christians are people of the Bible, and our texts help to form our thinking about ourselves, our faith, and the world.
But what if our way of thinking biblically comes out of an embedded worldview that has any number of misconceptions about the world? What if “thinking biblically” really means, as I think it does, thinking with our embedded way of interpreting the Bible?
For example: Quite of few people in the southern part of the US in the 18th and 19th century believed that slavery was a practice that was biblical. After all, there is no specific prohibition against slavery in scripture. In a sense, the abolitionists—many of whom were committed Christians—were seen as running cross-grain against the Bible. They could be seen as religious, economic, and political heretics.
When I believe I have my answers all nailed down, I can easily and effectively identify the heretics: They are the ones who think differently from me.
That doesn’t mean that people who think differently from me (or you) aren’t heretics. They might be. But their challenge to my way of thinking is not tantamount to heresy. Otherwise, we would have to say that the canon is closed on debate and on thinking in general. Without that dynamic, there would not have been a Protestant Reformation (or, for that matter, a Catholic Reformation).
Are we done thinking, challenging, and reforming? A common Reformation declaration is “Reformed, and always reforming.” Are we really always reforming? Or do we have everything figured out?
Two labels that have become increasing unhelpful are conservative and liberal. They currently seem to identify two large camps that hate each other. I wish we could reform those terms and the thinking that goes with them, maybe this way:
Being conservative is great when there is something of deep and lasting value that needs to be conserved.
Being liberal is great when old and new ideas are both allowed at the discussion table, and cognitive dissonance is resolved through listening and dialogue.
Conservatives tend to see liberals, by default, as heretics.
Liberals tend to see conservatives, by default, as idiots.
It’s funny how something considered to be heresy at one time can become acceptable and commonplace at another.
I was raised up in a denomination that had the word “Pentecostal” in its name when it was formed well over a hundred years ago. It dropped that word because the people didn’t want to have any connection whatsoever with the new, emerging Pentecostal movement that was clearly heretical.
Years later I joined up with a new Christian movement that worshipped (in song) for a long time before any preaching or teaching took place—hands in the air, eyes closed, people acting like they loved God and God was loving them back. There were a lot of claims back then that we were all just “worshipping worship” (whatever that means) and were all heretics.
A friend of mine was sure that one of the more prominent spokespersons for the movement known as Emergent was a heretic because the person apparently didn’t believe that penal substitution and propitiation were the only possible ways to talk about what God had done in and through the person of Jesus Christ. I had to tell my friend that I didn’t believe that way either. He realized that he was having breakfast with a heretic.
Pentecostals, of course, are now a worldwide movement of Christians and are accepted and respected as vital members of the body of Christ. People in mainline and sacramental churches often raise their hands in worship, closing their eyes in focused adoration of God. Respected biblical scholars and theologians increasingly recognize that the atonement is more like a multi-faceted gem than a single metaphor hardened into concrete.
There are still people out there who blog, tweet, and Facebook their convictions that certain people are heretics. So when N. T. Wright claims that Paul was saying something more expansive in Romans than we’d thought before, some said he was a heretic. When Rob Bell asked questions regarding our uncritical acceptance about who is in and who is out with God, suggesting that God’s love is more generous than we’ve allowed, he was branded a heretic. Years ago, when Clark Pinnock jumped into the conversation that challenged the traditional view of God’s impassability and entertained the idea of open theism, he was brought up on heresy charges and threatened with dismissal from a major evangelical scholars’ group.
There is a theory about how human beings process new information called cognitive dissonance. I think it goes this way: When a new idea is presented that challenges a person’s long-standing belief, tension is created between the old idea and the possibility of the new idea that the person seeks to resolve. Resolution can happen in at least three ways:
1. The old idea is re-embraced and the old idea is immediately discarded, simply on the basis of it being new.
2. The new idea is analyzed, but only for the purpose of creating a defense that will validate the superiority of the old idea.
3. The new idea is analyzed and given consideration, and allowed to inform and possibly modify the old idea.
It seems to me that much of our labeling of ideas as heretical is a result of numbers one and two. It’s not always heresy that we’re dealing with—it’s our own cognitive dissonance. It’s our attempt to relieve the tension created when a new idea collides with our old ideas. There’s a big difference between considering multiple biblical metaphors that seek to describe the atonement, and the claim that Jesus didn’t really suffer and die on the cross.
I wonder if the constant heresy claims, given platforms through various forms of social media and providing to some vocal public figures the basis for their mission in the world, are a reflection of the deep polarization that characterizes the US today. Our politicians speak of each other as though they are all axe murderers; our political parties seal themselves off in their fortresses and refuse to work together for the good of the nation; Christian leaders run to the microphone too quickly to condemn others, claiming to clearly know that they are always in the right.
We need to work on this. Are we a people who can learn to embrace civility, to have listening ears before we have accusing mouths, to love before and after we debate? Is it possible that we could become a people that would be a light to the world, the salt of the earth?
I need to take a brief break from my series on heresy to comment about something else.
I am saddened by the death of Rick and Kay Warren’s son, Matthew, and I pray for them. A lot of people have offered condolences and prayer, and I am grateful for those thoughtful responses. But I am also horrified by the hateful social media comments that some people—Christian and non-Christian alike—have so quickly unleashed, like scorpions out of a demonic fire hose.
This tragic situation has also caused some other people to share their personal grief about losing someone to suicide, not only in an attempt to empathize with the Warren family, but also to ask some very real and painful questions about what happens when human beings voluntarily end their lives.
Does God abandon them for all of eternity?
There was a time in the history of the Christian church—both Catholic and Protestant—that a doctrine about suicide insisted that there was not hope for salvation for a person dying in such a way. After all, murder is a grave sin, right? But a murderer can later repent and seek God’s forgiveness. But a suicide cannot do that. It’s too late.
So, a genocidal maniac can kill untold numbers of people and then confess and repent just before the hangman’s noose snaps his neck, and he gets an eternal get-out-of-jail free card (even though his victims might have been denied that opportunity). But the person suffering deep pain, depression, and hopelessness is denied such grace? There is clearly something wrong with this way of thinking.
The Roman Catholic Church has changed its doctrine on the subject. Pity, compassion, and prayer for the mercy of God are the proper responses rather than the insistence on eternal condemnation. Most Protestants take the same view. I’m sure there are others in the mix holding on to the old view. You can hear from some of them on Twitter and Facebook.
The apostle Paul says something very important about human death and how it relates to God:
“Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:35-39)
We speak of Jesus as one who has “abolished death” (2 Timothy 1:10), and we see death as an inevitable event for all people, but an event that has lost its sting (1 Corinthians 15:55).
In the death of Jesus, God destroyed the power of death to have the last word. Death, by whatever means, has lost its sting. There is no deathly power that can trump God’s love. Even death by one’s own hand.
O God, who by the glorious resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ, destroyed death, and brought life and immortality to light: Grant that your servant Matthew, being raised with him, may know the strength of his presence, and rejoice in his eternal glory; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer)
Recently I heard about a man calling another man a heretic. They were friends at one time and had been part of the same Christian community. But one of them moved on to another group of Christ followers and, because of his new affiliation, he was labeled heretic.
I was invited to speak at a small gathering of scholars where the first man was present. Before I arrived, he inquired about my grip on orthodoxy: Was I a heretic? He might have thought so. And I’m fine with that.
When it comes to Christian faith, there are good reasons for paying attention to things that could be deemed heretical. Some early detractors claimed that, if indeed God was fully present in the person of Jesus, then Jesus couldn’t have really suffered and died. God just doesn’t do that sort of thing. Therefore, it only seemed that Jesus died on that Roman cross. It was really just a divinely-inspired illusion. This prompted the apostle John to open one of his letters with the claim,
“We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it . . .” (I John 1:1-2b)
It was a heretical thing to John to deny what he had experienced. He saw it all, he was there, he watched as blood dripped and life slipped away from Jesus. It was real and no illusion, and to say otherwise was to create a myth that denied reality. Heresy, in this case, would be a denial of the real.
But the definition of heresy—originally mean to “choose” another thing, something running counter to the tenets of the faith—morphed over time, and turned into anything that challenged dominant religious thinking. For example:
Jesus was a heretic because he challenged the religious elite’s hold on observance of the Sabbath and the forgiveness of sins.
Early Christians were heretics because they believed, along with the Jews, in only one God, denying the existence of the pantheon of gods and the divinity of the Emperor.
Franciscans were once considered heretics because they believed in the poverty of Christ.
And on it goes. But there are real heretics, ones who deny Christ, who set themselves up as ones to be worshipped, ones who demand unquestioned obedience from their followers, ones who create idols of thought and practice and invite others to bow down with them.
But it seems to me that the current definition of heresy, especially in conservative Evangelical circles, is telling me something I don’t already know.
One seminary website includes in its list of distinctive characteristics: The seminary reinforces my beliefs and I won't have to fight for them.
I know people (including myself) who have been labeled as heretics because they believe that there are more ways to try to wrap your mind around the atonement than just the theory of penal substitution. Or because they believe that the Bible is inspired and authoritative, but that the word inerrant is insufficient as an adjective. Or that TULIP is a flawed acronym for God’s reconciling work in the world in and through the person of Jesus Christ.
We need to work on this whole heretic thing. When we draw too many deep, uncrossable lines in the sand, we risk isolating ourselves from everyone else with walls constructed out of our own certainties, never considering that along the way, we just might have gotten some things wrong.
I’m glad that Peter and the first Jewish Christians, realizing that the Holy Spirit fell generously and without ritual qualification on the Gentiles, were able to admit that they had gotten something wrong, that their story was a story for the world and not just for them.
This coming from a group of people who had just spent three years with Jesus. And they still got some things wrong.
Do we have everything right? Is questioning our certainties tantamount to heresy?
In all the commotion created by the debates surrounding same-sex marriage, I have to wonder if there isn’t something else going on, something that reaches beyond this topic to a larger cultural upheaval.
There is an interesting characteristic of the shift in western culture that philosophers and theologians refer to as “postmodern.” It’s a kind of vague term that points to a movement in culture after the modern period, a period in history marked by the certainties and perceptual frameworks that emerged out of the Enlightenment.
There were a lot of assumptions about life that came about over the last few hundred years—assumptions about dominant power (mostly white, male, and European), marital relationships (exclusively heterosexual and linked to both the state and the church), economics (increasingly dominated by what people are now calling “the haves”), science (marked by the belief that people can be purely objective in their observations), and religion (mostly dominated by western Christendom).
Each of these assumptions carried the conviction of a larger story that drove actions and practices. And as long as the people who constituted a majority kept the story alive, the domination remained in tact. That’s sort of how the thinking goes.
I wonder if the dismantling (okay, redefining. Whatever) of traditional marriage is part of the larger culture’s willingness to deny the power of any story that claims dominance over competing narratives. After all, the gay community is a very small percentage of the overall population (probably somewhere around 3%). Yet, almost half of the US population is in favor of gay marriage. Half of the citizens of the US are willing to let the old story of heterosexual marriage as the exclusive and dominant story of committed relationships be removed from its prominent position.
In a similar way, we’re seeing that in other areas of western culture. The Occupy Wall Street movement, as scrappy as it was, was an attempt to dethrone the powers of western economics. The attack on religion in general and Christianity in particular may be an attempt to dethrone faith from its position of power and favor.
Indeed, there may be something bigger going on.
So, again, I have to ask: In this new world of uncharted waters, what will be the church’s posture? We can hunker down and reinforce our walls of protection, keeping all new ideas out. We can take the walls down altogether and embrace everything that comes our way, allowing the shifting preferences of culture serve as our interpretive guide for faith. We can embed our convictions in our preferred political party and hope for shelter and a renewal of our power. In my view, each of those options are perilous in their possible consequences.
Maybe, for we who follow Jesus, it will become a time to rediscover who we really are when we no longer enjoy a place of favor and prestige in the culture. As Christians—particularly in the western world—are increasingly marginalized, we might have to recapture our identity without the advantage of cultural dominance.
As the accouterments of power and dominance are slowly stripped away from the western church, when our resources dry up, we will look around and wonder what has happened to us. What will we see? Will we see nothing? Will we see a purely secular world where faith has no impact or place? Or will we see “. . . Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone”? (Hebrews 4:9)
Remember: When it comes to Jesus, where there is death, there is always resurrection. Resurrection is not resuscitation; that’s just the reanimating of something that’s dead. Resurrection is new life altogether.
A friend of mine once invited me to go with him to see a movie in Hollywood. It was an Indie film at one of those cool, small-venue theaters, and was about a Mormon family dealing with the news that one of the sons was gay.
Another man was planning to join us that day. I had met Tom (not his real name) once or twice before, and knew that he had recently made the determination that he was gay. He was about 40 years old, single, and had been struggling with a lot of identity issues in his life. He had come to the conclusion that the source of his problem had been the denial of his sexuality.
So off we went on a Saturday morning, stopping for breakfast at a tiny Hollywood deli, and then landing at the theater about 20 minutes early. The other two had decided against the original movie choice, and instead opted for a dark mystery. That was fine with me. I like mysteries, especially dark ones.
As we were waiting, Tom and I started talking. He knew that I was, at the time, a Christian and a pastor, and he launched into an unsolicited defense of his newfound sexuality. He observed how some people think that homosexuality is a result of some childhood trauma or neglect, but that wasn’t true. People are just born that way and there’s no disputing it, he said.
I hadn’t actually been disputing anything. I was just reading movie posters and thinking about popcorn. But I felt like I’d been baited, and I knew I didn’t want to go down some no-win street with him. So, I dipped into my few remaining memory banks and remembered something from a systematic theology class I’d taken, and said this:
“Tom, I’m not smart enough to know who’s born with what and who gets things forced on them along the way. But I really can’t start my conversation with anyone in that place. I want to start as co-humans, made in the image of God. That’s something we share in common.”
Tom didn’t even respond to me, but at least, I thought, we’d gotten off that track.
We watched the movie, went to lunch, and even saw a movie star or two while we ate. Then we took off for home, but the freeway was jammed because there had been an accident somewhere off in the distance. What should have been a 40 minute drive ended up taking two hours.
But it was a very interesting two hours. Tom opened up his life (again, unsolicited) and poured out stories of abuse, neglect, and pain that he had suffered as a child. He described the sense of isolation and alienation that he had been experiencing as an adult. We talked together now as friends, hearing stories and entering into shared human realities.
I don’t know if Tom was really gay or not. I don’t know if he was just looking for some kind, any kind, of label to give his life a framework. But I do know that, on that day, homosexuality wore a real human face, not a caricature.
About a year or so later, I was doing a series of surveys for my doctoral project, asking all kinds of people about their perceptions of their own spirituality. I asked Tom to participate, and he agreed. When I asked him some of the questions on my survey, he didn’t tell me about his spirituality being based in friendships, family, mountain climbing, or a vague intuition about something “out there.” He told me about his trust in Jesus, and offered up a pretty clear Christian testimony.
The tension between religious convictions and ministry is nothing new. For centuries followers of Jesus have visited people in prison, even though the ones imprisoned may have broken laws to get there. They have cared for people ravaged by plagues, putting themselves at risk of infection, even as the general populace assumed that the sickness was some sort of divine act of judgment. Jesus’ call for his disciples to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them is a relational tension that most of us find difficult but necessary to our Christian witness.
Roy Hattersley, a UK journalist and atheist, marvels that a Christian leader he knows holds views toward homosexuality that Hattersley finds ridiculous, yet he marvels that the man also goes to the margins of society and cares for those very people whose lifestyles have landed them in the dark and degraded shadows of civilization. Hattersley notes that he and his like-minded friends do not do that sort of thing. Faith, he observes, does breed charity.
I read a journal article once that speculated about first and second-century slaves finding a place in the early church. Some of those slaves—both male and female—might have been forced into prostitution. That would have been a challenge for those early faith communities that would have found prostitution to be an abominable practice. Speculation or not, it is not a big leap to imagine those small churches bringing ministry to the lives of ones that unfortunate, living in the tension between conviction and ministry.
In the early days of the emergence of AIDS, a number of Christians visited gay people languishing in the horror of that yet-undefined disease, and cared for them in the midst of the suffering patients’ fear and anguish. In an LA Times story that I read at the time, the caregivers refused to answer questions about judgment on the suffering. They came only to care for the ones in pain.
I predict that, once same-sex marriage becomes commonplace, that some Christian communities will bar the doors and make their stand. That’s their prerogative. Others, however, are likely to respond with an intuition birthed of the Spirit of God, and bring ministry in places that require a collision with their convictions.
There are serious implications to this kind of response. If churches reach out in care to gay people—including those who are married to each other and have children—are they participating in the ministry of Christ? Has Jesus gone before them to those places? In doing such ministry, are people of faith finding that Jesus is present in the most unlikely of circumstances, this friend of sinners?
Followers of Jesus have, since the unleashing of the church 2,000 years ago, put themselves in places that are risky, scandalous, and dangerous. We shouldn’t expect that we, in the perceived safety of the western world, should be sheltered from that call to ministry.
Following Jesus may not be for the faint of heart. But it clearly is for those who have a heart.
In the conversation about same-sex marriage, please allow me to offer a theological parallel that might help us.
There was a time, not too long ago, when the evangelical church, in general, didn’t know what do with divorced people. In the little church where I grew up, while we didn’t see many divorces back in the 1960s, if someone did suffer a marital break up, they just disappeared from our faith community. There was simply no place for them. There was this unspoken assumption that something was wrong with that person that wasn’t wrong with the rest of us—a leper among the healthy.
A greater problem emerged when these divorced people remarried. After all, we had a text of scripture, words from Jesus, which prohibited this:
“I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Matthew 5:32)
But when the national divorce rate skyrocketed, churches started reaching out by creating divorce recovery groups and embracing these people, even those who had remarried.
There was a practical side to this accommodation. If a high percentage of people are now divorced, and some are remarried, ignoring or shunning them would be to turn away from some very deep human needs. Such neglect would also affect whether or not people would find a place in the community of faith. Churches could shrink pretty quickly.
I’m not sure, however, that there was a lot of theological exploration on the issue. There were (and still are) churches that draw a hard line about biblical grounds for divorce and remarriage, and how people who violate those grounds will be subject to church discipline and, if necessary, dismissed from the church. Others, however, seem to have decided that God’s grace and love trumps the text.
There were some who took the theology of the problem seriously. They looked at the texts of scripture (such as the one above) and realized that Jesus’ words were in reaction to the male-controlled process of easy dismissal of an unfavored wife, one who would be desperate to remarry in order to keep from becoming homeless. Jesus also extended the culpability in the sin of adultery by claiming that even a lustful thought about a women (again, he spoke directly to the men in the audience) produced the guilt of infidelity (Matthew 5:28). In other words, there was a pervasive solidarity in the sin of adultery. It was real for everyone, and wrong for everyone. Everyone with a mind and body had the stain of adultery on them. All were in need of forgiveness.
But another question had to follow: Was divorce and remarriage the unpardonable sin? If one lacked the so-called biblical grounds for divorce, was that person eternally consigned to a solitary life? Or could there be forgiveness available for the one who helped destroy a marriage, and grace to start anew? Some of these thinkers said yes. In these situations, everything was not okay. Something sacred had been broken and destroyed. The marks and scars would always remain. But there could be forgiveness and grace.
I am watching to see if the churches that are talking about the implications of same-sex marriage will engage in deep theological and biblical reflection on this topic—not to dismiss Scripture, but to question our own hermeneutic (interpretation) as was done with divorce and remarriage. And not to be theologically reckless, tossed about by every new cultural preference that blows across the landscape, but to be theologically alert, willing to think broadly and to pray humbly.
And I hope we will remember that we follow Jesus, the one called by the religious elite “the friend of sinners.”
I have had the same conversation with three different people. The conversations were at different times and the people were not acquainted with one another. All three were gay.
Two were women and they told me the same story. They had been in traditional, evangelical churches for years and had struggled with their sexuality since they were children. After a while, overcome by the stress and anxiety of resisting what they had come to believe was an unavoidable reality in their lives, they accepted their gay identity. They also asked God to continue to love them, and believed that he had.
They left their traditional churches and went looking for new faith communities. They both told me that they had tried several gay-friendly and gay-specific churches, but had come away disappointed. Yes, they had been accepted there. But the churches, they claimed, were all about being gay. They said they wanted to be in places that were all about Jesus.
The third person was a young man. He was Catholic and had traveled 50 or 60 miles to visit a church were I happened to be speaking that morning. We talked between the services and he told me a similar story about being disappointed with the gay-friendly churches he had visited. He said to me, “I need to be in a place were I can be helped to know how to live.”
I wonder if we can do that? I don’t have any quick and easy answers regarding gay ordination or how churches will minister to gay couples and their children. But I wonder if our churches will be able to open their doors wider than before, recognizing that people like my three friends may come in. Can we accept them in order to help them orient their lives toward Jesus and to be encountered by the Holy Spirit? Can we trust God’s love and presence to bring transformation like we hope for everyone? Can we help them to know how to live?
The easy answers say that homosexuality is simply a choice to have sex with a person of the same gender. It’s a sin and it must be stopped in order for God to be accepting toward that person, or so the argument goes. If you read Mark Yarhouse’s very helpful book, Homosexuality and the Christian, you’ll find a greater complexity than you might have expected.
The easy answers also claim that everyone needs to be afforded the same rights, everyone’s equal, and everything’s okay. This way of flattening out human diversity and brokenness risks committing spiritual malpractice (as I posted yesterday). If we claim that everyone’s just fine as they are, then we’d better be right or we leave people to the ravages of their sin. And that means all of us.
There are no easy answers here. There really never were. If we look at what is happening around us and start asking God if he is present and doing something in the midst of significant social and religious disruption, we might find some surprises ahead of us.
I’ve noticed a lot of people on Facebook sporting the red logo with the equal sign in it. It seems to refer to marriage as an equal right for all.
I’ve written on this topic before, confessing my view that marriage is the recognition of a pre-existent, committed relationship and a privilege recognized by a community rather than a right. But that’s another discussion.
The debates I’ve listened to regarding same-sex marriage assume something similar on both sides of the issue: That on the preferred side, everything is okay. Everything is good.
On one side, the argument claims that heterosexual marriage is okay, good, and a proper standard. On the other side, the claim is made that homosexuality is also okay and good, and should be afforded the same rights granted to heterosexuals.
Both sides claim that, in their respective camps, everything is good. Everything is okay.
But what if they’re both wrong?
I argued yesterday that we heteros (what an awful label!) need some rethinking about how really okay we are when it comes to marriage.
This challenge needs to reach across all the arguments. We’re not okay. We’re all a mess. And to say that gay marriage is a good thing strictly on the basis that everything is great and we just need to get a long and let each other have whatever it is that we want is insufficient. The broader culture is prone to that form of resolution, but we who follow Jesus need to dive a little deeper in that pond than everyone else.
If we say that our side is good and the other side is bad, or if we say that everything is good, we may be crying out with the screwball prophets of Jeremiah’s time whom God critiqued by saying, “They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, ‘Peace, peace’, when there is no peace.” (Jeremiah 6:14)
We are a wounded people, gay and straight alike, and we dare not claim peace, peace, when there is no peace. We dare not insist that all is good when all is wounded. We need to treat our wounds with care. To do otherwise is to risk spiritual malpractice.
I have worshipped with gay friends who sought after sacred space that, rather than focusing on being gay, focused on Jesus. I found that I could stand side by side with those friends in my own brokenness and seek the One who heals our wounds, numerous as they are. Maybe all wasn’t good, but we could affirm together that God is good, and together we threw ourselves on his love and forgiveness, and sought for a way that we might live in his grace.
I don’t know how churches and denominations are going to resolve the gay marriage issue (and how gay people might connect in the life of the Christian community), at least in this generation. It may not be seen as such an overwhelming issue a generation later. We’ll have to see.
But in the meantime, if I can’t stand next to my gay brother or sister as a broken child of God, then I probably can’t stand next to anyone, nor can anyone stand next to me. We need a new starting place in this conversation. If we start with rights then the contest will be won by those who wield the greatest power. If we start with everything being okay, then nothing will be okay.
But if we begin as co-humans, broken and wounded, yet made in the image of God, then perhaps the conversation will change.
In the debates I’ve heard within the context of the church regarding same-sex marriage, the call to preserve marriage as a union between a man and woman is referred to as “traditional.” It’s a fairly accurate term, since marriage has been looked at that way for a very long time. It is too bad, in my view, that anyone who finds a shift in that tradition difficult is often labeled as a hater or a denier of human rights.
On the other hand, those of us who are heterosexual followers of Jesus and interested in the debate about marriage might be missing something in the conversation. There’s a mirror being held up to us and we are avoiding taking a look at the reflection.
First of all, while the statistics are a challenge to accurately nail down, the evidence suggests that divorce rates in the US are ridiculously high (including for folks who are Christians), marriage rates are falling and premarital co-habitation is rising.
We have to look in the mirror and ask ourselves: Is this the tradition we are seeking to preserve? It is, after all, our reality. Or is it a lost ideal that we treasure? Is traditional marriage something that we heteros have mangled and crushed so thoroughly that it is hardly recognizable as marriage any longer?
There’s a story of an artist who would take several cellos, smash them with a sledgehammer, cover them with resin, and then sell them as art. It was as though he was asking the art community, “What do you think: Is this art?”
It seems like the gay community is lining up for marriage licenses and asking the rest of us, “Given that you’ve slaughtered the traditional concept of marriage, what do you think: Is this marriage?”
Second, when we look closely at all the people whose images are reflected in the mirror, do we only see them and us? If we look carefully we will see a common humanity that stands in tragic solidarity before God, all made in God’s image and yet fractured and broken. At the same time, it is a humanity that constitutes the world that God loves, a world that God, through Jesus Christ, is reconciling to himself, not counting their trespasses against them (see 2 Corinthians 5).
Since the battle for same-sex marriage rights may be over, we heterosexual Christians have the opportunity to do some self-reflection and start the conversation anew. Rather than point outwardly at the other while attempting to preserve a sense a righteousness, it is time for us to confess our own brokenness before God—including the sexual misadventures, fantasies, and deviances that roll through our heterosexual minds—and recognize our complicity in the sins of the world (see Jesus’ words in Matthew 5 about the connection between the mind and sin).
If we expect to participate in the ongoing ministry of Jesus in the world, then we will have to do so confessionally and with repentance. Our rapidly changing culture—one in which our story of faith is losing its dominance—is still our context for ministry. We don’t minister in the abstract; we minister in what is real.
And to do so with integrity, we need to look deeply into that mirror.
According to a recent TIME cover story, the fight for same-sex marriage is close to being over. A CNN Religion Blog article reveals changing attitudes toward homosexuality on the campuses of Christian colleges. With an increasing number of Americans—especially younger Americans—declaring their support, it’s probably all over except the final state and federal blessings.
The debates, however, are certainly not over, especially in the Christian community. And the debates are challenging. Do we stand firm in our traditional convictions, or do we, as some have argued, wake up and join the movement of a culture that may have already left us behind? The questions are difficult and are fracturing Christian communities and denominations.
If, indeed, the marriage ship has sailed, maybe some other questions need to be entertained, regardless of the position that is held regarding same-sex marriage: What will ministry look like in this new landscape?
There are a number of possible future scenarios to consider as well.
A married, gay couple walks through the doors of your church. Is there room on the cross for them to put their hands next to yours and mine?
A child comes to our Sunday School with a neighborhood friend. When his two mothers show up to visit, will that child be able to share his church with them?
When your state approves same-sex marriage, will a gay couple be able to find spiritual counsel at our churches when their relationship hits the rocks?
When a gay couple moves into the house next door to mine, will I be able to answer the question: Who is my neighbor?
The church has had to deal with difficult questions before. In the early days, the first Jewish Christians had to come to grips with Gentiles who were being encountered by the Holy Spirit, but lacking a Jewish identity. It took them a while to learn how to be one family of faith. Not too long ago, divorced people had a tough time finding a place in the church, and the church didn’t know (in general) what to do with them. Now we do ministry. Many churches have divorce recovery groups, and have learned to explore the depths of God’s love, forgiveness, and grace when it comes to remarriage. Some—but not all—have even worked through the issue theologically.
We will inevitably, regardless of our position on same-sex marriage, have to deal with the ministry implications of this sea change in our culture. That the culture is rapidly changing is indisputable. And while culture influences our perspectives on our faith, it cannot be the sole criteria for interpreting our faith. Culture is, however, our context for ministry.