Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Conservative Christians and Suicide

Since the suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, I've been thinking about suicide and its causes. I've spent some time googling statistics. I'll share a few things I've learned.

Here are some facts about suicide and guns.

  • Firearms account for over half of all suicides. (Source: American Foundation for Suicide Prevention)
  • Almost two of every three gun deaths is a suicide. (Source: Every Town Research)
  • Of those who attempt suicide with a gun, nine out of 10 die from the attempt. (Source: Every Town Research)
  • Of those who attempt suicide without a gun, fewer than one in 10 dies from the attempt. (Ibid)
  • Most of those who survive a suicide attempt do not attempt again. (Ibid)

One of the most surprising things I learned is this: More than half of people who die from suicide did not have a known mental health condition. (Source: CDC)

I had assumed that the correlation between mental illness and suicide would be much higher. I don't know that I expected it to be 100%, but I definitely expected it to be much more than half, not less than half. Even so, mental illness correlates to death by suicide very strongly.

LGBQ teens are almost 3 times as likely as straight teens to attempt suicide (Source: CNN). We don't have numbers for transgender teens. However, transgender people are almost 10 times more likely to attempt suicide than the general public (Source: USA Today). LGBTQ teens who experience family rejection are 8.4 times more likely to attempt suicide than LGBTQ teens who do not experience family rejection (Source: American Academy of Pediatrics). We don't know much about death from suicide among the LGBTQ community because sexual orientation is not part of a death record.

Religiously unaffiliated are more likely to attempt suicide. (Source: American Journal of Psychiatry
I didn't find any studies that broke that out by atheists, agnostics, ex-Christians, ex-Muslims, etc. I would be very interested in learning more about that. This article is a very interesting read on the suicide problem among atheists. Below is an excerpt.

So, what I learned is that suicide is very complex. There is no easy predictor. There is no easy way to discern the warning signs. There is no antidote like a vaccine to prevent suicide. It's a messy problem that usually begins with a messy situation and then leaves the family behind in a messy situation. Suicides are rising at an alarming rate, and there is no easy way to fix it.

So, what is a Christian response? I believe that conservative Christians should take a long hard look at themselves. I believe that the church, especially conservative Evangelicals, should consider how their politics, theology, and behavior may be contributing to the problem of suicide. Yes, it's uncomfortable, but we must look at ourselves.

The strongest correlation to death by suicide isn't mental illness or substance abuse or sexual orientation. It's access to firearms. People with access to firearms are 3 times more likely to die from suicide (Source: Fox News). How can we who claim to be pro-life also be so pro-gun? I have never understood the conservative Christian obsession with guns and the second amendment. It's baffling to me how one can claim to follow the non-violent Jesus while loving guns. Every time a school shooting happens, conservative Evangelicals resist any discussion of gun control laws. Since neither of the high profile suicides last week were by a firearm, gun laws didn't hit my social media news feeds. But gun control should be top of mind any time we want to talk about ways to decrease suicide deaths. Gun control is an obvious way to reduce suicide deaths in America.

Second, many conservative Christians have a tendency to stigmatize mental illness. I've heard things like, "He doesn't have a mental illness problem; he has a sin problem." I've heard advice given to mentally ill people that they should pray more. Prayer is good and helpful and powerful. However, it is not a simple fix for mental illness or depression. Often, professional counseling and medicine are needed to control, not cure, mental illness.

Also, consider how conservative Christians treat the LGBTQ community. Ostracizing gay people is common in conservative Christianity. Many conservative Christians teach and practice rejecting and cutting all ties with gay members of their family. I have witnessed family ostracism of an LGBTQ family member first hand. It's painful and ugly. And how many simply pretend to be something they're not to avoid ostracism? I've already noted that family rejection dramatically increases the risk of a suicide attempt in gay teens. This "Christian" ostracizing of LGBTQ family and friends is a contributing factor to the higher rate of attempts in the LGBTQ community. Christians must reconsider how they treat LGBTQ family members and the entire LGBTQ community.

And finally, consider the higher rates of suicide attempts among the religiously unaffiliated. I've heard Christians use this statistic to tout the virtues of Christianity. I've heard this statistic used to argue that all men crave God and those who refuse to believe have nothing but emptiness and that's why they're more likely to attempt suicide. More likely, the lower suicide rates among Christians is more likely attributed to the fear of hell. It's good that the suicide rates are lower for Christians. We should be thankful for that without being arrogant and patting ourselves on the back for having gotten this religion thing correct. We need to be considerate also.

Consider that many atheists, especially in the South, are ex-Christian. And as such, often their Christian family and friends have abandoned them. I know several atheists with this experience. All the ex-Christian atheists I know didn't arrive at their position overnight. They carefully studied and arrived there through much grappling with science and Scripture. They're sincere. I disagree, but I respect the courage to grapple and to do so with integrity. Sadly, I've watched Christians patronize and belittle atheists, calling April 1 "National Atheists Day" while quoting Psalm 14:1. Then, there's the oft repeated and patronizing phrase that atheists hate to hear, "I'm praying for you." 
Here's an example of how not to talk to an ex-Christian atheist.

To be clear, I'm not blaming Christians for the increased suicide rate. I'm simply asking us to examine ourselves and see if we need to change our theology, attitudes, politics, and behavior to be more helpful in bringing light and love to people and see if we can contribute to helping the problem of suicide. According to the CDC, isolation, access to lethal means, stigma associated with seeking help for mental health, and religious affiliation are all risk factors for suicide. Let's not isolate our LGBTQ friends and family members. Let's not isolate our atheist friends. Let's end our obsession with guns. Let's end our stigmatizing of mental illness. And let's draw people to relationship with Jesus in loving ways. All of these things will contribute positively to reducing suicide risk factors. 

Friday, May 4, 2018

Teacher's Guide to the Book of Romans (SATIRE)

Before reading this post, keep in mind that it is satire. I wrote this a long time ago when I was sitting through a church of Christ Bible class on the book of Romans. Remember, it's tongue in cheek. I'm a member of a church of Christ and have been for over 25 years, so I think I've earned the right to poke fun at our tradition. It's okay to laugh at ourselves. This post is just that. A little fun. If it offends someone, well, that probably means that it's satire. Remember that satire stretches the truth and risks offending people for the cause of humor.

Here's my chapter by chapter breakdown of Paul's letter to the Romans to make the Church of Christ Bible Class teacher's job just a little easier.

Chapter 1. Romans 1:28 Atheists are stupid and homosexuals go to hell.

Chapter 2. Romans 2:1 This chapter kinda sounds like don't judge, but don't get confused. It really means you can judge if you keep God's law, and we keep God's law better than anyone else, so we can judge.

Chapter 3. Romans 3:23 Everybody has sinned. We even have sinned, but that was before baptism and now we have quit sinning.

Chapter 4. Don't let Romans 4:5 confuse you. Works are definitely part of salvation. Let's turn over to James 2 so we can understand Romans 4. Paul really means that we're saved by faith AND works. Paul is difficult to understand and James is easy to understand.

Chapter 5. Romans 5:5-7 are great for a Lord's Supper talk. Be careful with the rest of this chapter. We're sure it does NOT teach total depravity and we're really, really, really sure it does NOT teach universalism. We know that only a very few go to heaven, so don't get confused by the phrases "grace abounding" and "many made righteous".

Chapter 6. SEE! YOU DO HAVE TO BE BAPTIZED TO BE SAVED!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Spend as much time as possible in this chapter. Be sure to also mention Acts 2:38. Mark 16:16. Acts 22:17. 1 Peter 3:21. Baptism, baptism, baptism, baptism.

Chapter 7. See, we are right about marriage, divorce and remarriage. Romans 7:2-3 We don't know about this struggle Paul describes in the last part of this chapter because we've quit sinning Romans 7:19.

Chapter 8. This chapter is tricky. Don't get confused by the "no condemnation" in Romans 8:1. You have to be "in Christ", for there to be no condemnation. You are only "in Christ" if you were baptized for the right reason, in the right way, into the right church, and then only if you continue worshiping in the right church and repent of every sin you commit.  So, most who think they're in Christ are not actually in Christ and will be condemned. Next, everywhere you see "the Spirit" in this chapter, replace it with "the completed New Testament revelation". And whatever Romans 8:38-39 are saying, they're NOT teaching once saved always saved or perseverance of the saints. Paul says nothing can separate you from God's love. But remember that you can separate yourself from God. Your biggest responsibility here is to prevent people from becoming secure in their salvation and to prevent people from thinking that the Spirit does anything apart from the written word.

Chapters 9-11. We have NO idea what these chapters are about, but we're very, very, very sure that the Calvinists are wrong about them. Romans 11:22 is good. Behold the SEVERITY of God. God is SEVERE. Very SEVERE. Remember God's SEVERITY.

Chapter 12. Be transformed. That means worship correctly without musical instruments and don't have any fun. Transformed people don't wear shorts, don't drink alcohol, don't cuss, etc. If people don't think you're weird, you're probably not transformed enough. Romans 12:20, if your enemy is hungry, feed him, but don't use church funds to feed him.

Chapter 13. This is the Republican chapter. Don't break the speed limit or you'll go to hell. Romans 13:4 is why we support the death penalty.

Chapter 14. The stricter you are the stronger your faith is. And this chapter for sure isn't saying that we can disagree about important stuff like musical instruments. We're not sure which disagreements are allowed, but we're pretty sure it's okay to be a vegetarian (Romans 14:2), but we can't imagine why anyone would want to do that. What would you eat at a pot luck if you were a vegetarian? Maybe some brethren in California are vegetarians? Anyway, even though Romans 14:21 says essentially the same thing about wine as it does meat, you still for sure can't drink alcohol of any kind, including wine. We can't disagree about that.

Chapter 15. Romans 15:4 means to use the Old Testament when it supports our doctrine. We learn that shorts are sin from the priests' garments and most importantly we learn that musical instruments are sin from Nadab and Abihu (ironically). Don't get too carried away with Old Testament examples because the Old Testament has been nailed to the cross and has no authority. Sometimes, though, we need more than Romans chapter 1 when teaching about homosexuality, and the story of Sodom comes in very handy then. The rest of chapter 15 basically says "be good" and then something about Paul's travels.

Chapter 16. Romans 16:16! See! We have the right name! Church(es) of Christ!!! Never mind the first half of verse 16 because kissing is weird and we don't do that any more. Romans 16:17! Withdraw from everyone who disagrees! By the way, pretend there are no women in this chapter. Look over there, a squirrel! (Whew! that was close! Someone almost said "Phoebe". It's probably best to avoid talking about Phoebe, but if someone brings it up you need to be ready. Maybe bring it up yourself if you're feeling bold, but be very careful. Remember that even though Paul calls Phoebe a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, she wasn't a deacon of any church. Women can't be deacons. Everyone knows that. She probably was a really good cook and maybe a good ladies Bible class teacher. She was probably a great helper for her husband, whoever he was. The worst and hardest is if someone notices Junia. Avoid Junia no matter how bold you feel. No matter what Paul said about Junia, she was not an apostle. If someone does bring her up, be sure to throw shade at translations that say she was "of note among the apostles". Throwing shade at almost every English translation is your only hope with Junia. Man, it sure would have been nice if Paul had put verses 16 and 17 at the beginning of this chapter so then we could have covered those verses and conveniently run out of time before Paul starts commending all these women.)

Whew. Some of those chapters were really difficult. Peter wasn't kidding when he said that some of what Paul wrote was difficult to understand. Not impossible, but difficult. Follow this guide and you'll be okay.

Monday, April 2, 2018

CENI

CENI stands for Command, Example, and Necessary Inference. The conservative churches of Christ claim to require a command, example, or necessary inference in the Bible for everything they do. They teach CENI as the only acceptable hermeneutic.

Doy Moyer argues in his book Mind Your King and in various sermons that CENI is not a hermeneutic system. Rather, it simply describes the communication process. Moyer argues that the communicator tells, shows, or implies. Tell, Show, Imply (TSI) is Moyer's restatement of CENI from the communicator's point of view. The receptor perceives a command, example, or makes an inference. So, CENI or TSI only reveals the information, the raw data which must be interpreted and applied. Interpretation and application are not addressed with CENI or TSI. Since hermeneutics is the science of interpretation, CENI cannot be a hermeneutic system.

I mostly agree with brother Moyer's sagacious observation. I think there are more nonverbal cues involved, even in written communication. Also, the relationship between the communicator and the receptor add a lot of nuance that can't really be captured with TSI. However, I agree that generally, when someone criticizes or teaches CENI as a hermeneutic system, they are conflating the verbal communication process with the science of interpreting what has been communicated. Stated another way, CENI is neither a good nor a bad hermeneutic system because it isn't a hermeneutic system.

Since this is true, what then about hermeneutics in the conservative churches of Christ? When CENI is claimed as a hermeneutic, that ultimately becomes another way of saying, "We just do what the Bible says." I've argued in a series of posts that nobody does "just what the Bible says." Everyone who claims that the Bible is authoritative interprets and applies the Bible. We must make a distinction between what the Bible actually says and our own interpretations of the Bible. What the Bible actually says is the CENI, the raw data. Our interpretation is the result of applying our hermeneutic system to the CENI. Everyone interprets the Bible. Every. One.

What is missing in conservative churches of Christ is a well-defined hermeneutic. Calling CENI a hermeneutic is not good enough. What is needed is a consistent set of principles that can guide one in the interpretation and application of the Bible. This is lacking in those who claim CENI as their hermeneutic.

I'm not arguing that CENI is invalid. I'm arguing that CENI is NOT a hermeneutic. Sure, you can find examples of folks following CENI in the New Testament. Doy Moyer argues (Mind Your King, p34-37) that it's CENI that instructs Peter in Acts 10. I've heard it argued elsewhere that it's CENI that comes up with the letter to the church at Antioch in Acts 15. I don't disagree that you'll find examples of CENI in the New Testament. But it is not true that EVERY time there is communication from God that the recipient of the communication only adhered to the CENI and nothing more. There are several examples where interpreters went beyond CENI to make an application of Scripture or other commands from God. (1 Cor. 9:9-10; Gal. 3:16, 4:24-31, et al. This could be multiplied many times over where NT authors make an application that takes many liberties with the text and goes well beyond what is explicitly stated or necessarily implied in the Hebrew Scripture.)

Interpreting the Bible is hard work. Volumes upon volumes have been written about how to interpret Scripture, both at the scholarly and popular level. Some good popular works on this topic are How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (Gordon Fee and Douglas Stewart) and Scripture and the Authority of God (N.T. Wright). Since Scripture is living and powerful (Heb. 4:12) and it guides a living body (the church) through a living and changing creation, it makes sense that the methods for interpreting it will change over time. It's dangerous hubris to say or imply or act as if "We've figured out the Bible and we just do what it says."

In my resistance to CENI as a hermeneutic over the years, I've heard and read several attacks of a straw man. Those defending CENI suggest that there are some who wish to do away with "examples" and "necessary inferences" as sources for authority and only stick with commands. That's not my point at all. Maybe some have suggested this, but most objections to CENI do not suggest that we follow "commands only". My point is that there are commands, examples, and necessary inferences in the Bible that do not apply to 21st century Christians. Every 21st century Christian lives by this reality to some degree or another. We need to frankly admit this, that we violate direct commandments in the New Testament, and get busy working out WHY we do this. What I've found is that there is a variety of reasons that words in ancient texts don't apply today and there is a lot of room for diversity of interpretation and application. How closely someone's interpretation resembles yours is not a reliable gauge for his sincerity or respect for the Bible's authority.

In summary, CENI as a hermeneutic is just another way of saying, "We just do what the Bible says." This statement is patently and demonstrably false for everyone who claims it. Nobody just does what the Bible says. Everyone interprets the Bible to make application to their setting and situation. Many deny that they interpret the Bible and claim to "just do what the Bible says", but this is excessive arrogance at worst and dangerous ignorance at best. Don't obstinately refuse to admit that you interpret the Bible. Interpretation, per se, is not a bad thing. Sure, there are bad interpretations. Ironically, many bad interpretations grow out of denying interpretation.

Good interpretation is hard work. It requires depending on and respecting modern scholarship. It requires community. It must above all be Christ centered and love biased.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Celebration!

Easter is the most significant day on the Christian calendar to me. The resurrection is the anchor for my faith. It's only been recently that I've learned that there is freedom to celebrate this, and celebrate it heartily. For many Christians Easter follows a fast that creates an eager longing for the celebration of Easter Sunday, though the celebration usually ends that same day. For some Christians, Easter is the one time of year to go to church, and not much thought is given to Easter before or after the dress-up Sunday.

For other Christians, and this is true of many of those who share my Christian heritage (the churches of Christ), Easter is mostly ignored. There may be a mention of celebrating the resurrection weekly while others do it only annually. If there is no mention of that, it will likely be ignored, even though the crowd is larger, the ladies and girls are wearing bright new spring dresses, the men are wearing pastels, hams are in the oven at home, baskets are filled with candy, and an Easter egg hunt is planned for the afternoon. To these Christians, the holiday is only secular and there is no special celebration of the resurrection on this Sunday.

One of my favorite stories in the Old Testament is the story of Hezekiah restoring the Passover in Judah as told in 2 Chronicles 30:1-23. It had been years even centuries since Jerusalem had celebrated the Passover. Hezekiah invited those left by Assyria in Israel to come join the festivities. The king, the Levites, and the people were bursting with excitement. The people were so excited that many, especially the guests from Israel, observed the Passover while unclean because they couldn't wait until they had time to become clean. Hezekiah prayed and God healed them. The festivities lasted a full week, as prescribed in the law, but that wasn't enough for them. They wanted more celebration! So they agreed to continue another seven days of celebration of the Passover. God's law has been discovered! The land is rid of idols! Many from Israel have come to Jerusalem for the first time for this important celebration! This is Judah's first Passover in ages! With excitement and agreement, they continued celebrating another full week.

What a beautiful picture of restoration of joy in the Lord!

I believe the church at large, and especially those in my religious camp, need this type of celebration of Easter. We have ignored Easter long enough. We need a Hezekiah-like searching for those outside who give scant thought to the resurrection. We need a long, joyous, and creative celebration of music and art and clapping and shouting for joy and anything new and beautiful. While we have those in our presence who may never attend church any other time, why not blow them away with our excitement for Jesus and his resurrection? We need a renewal of our commitment to take up the worthy vocation of serving people. We need to show the world that the resurrection brings life and joy and hope, not just to "a people" but to "ALL PEOPLE".  And filled with love for God and love for his people we bring life and joy and hope to all through our renewed vocation fueled by an exciting and refreshing celebration.

Like Hezekiah, our renewal may only be a one-time thing. It may only last two weeks or six weeks or two months. But it would be better for it to start joyously and fizzle than to never happen at all. But who knows... It may be just the spark needed. It may be just the renewal and energy that begins a sustained new vocation that touches and changes many more lives.

Note: Lest anyone think I'm this clever, this is more or less NT Wright's thoughts applied specifically to the restoration movement.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Books of 2015

I meant to do this back in December. I simply haven't been writing as much lately. I haven't written about running and I haven't written about theology. I've still been reading quite a bit about both, but I just haven't been writing as much. I should start writing more again. Another reason I haven't written as much, especially about theology, is that writing has been cathartic for me. Now that I'm in a community that allows for differences in theology. I've been able to get things off my chest without needing to write it down. Ahhh. What a relief! This has the added benefit that I've learned a lot from others and that I've gotten some immediate corrective feedback that wasn't harsh and didn't require complete agreement and wasn't compounded by the stress of heaven or hell stakes.

In addition to the books listed below, I spent a large amount of time in Genesis and Chronicles (both first and second) and the minor prophets in the Old Testament. I also spent a good deal of time in 1 Corinthians and Matthew in the New Testament. I didn't read much variety by way of blogs this year. I did read a good bit from Jay Guin at http://oneinjesus.info, but he posts very often and his posts are sometimes so long that I simply didn't have time to read nearly all of his stuff, but I enjoy what I read. I also read Scot McKnight's Jesus Creed when I can. He also posts very often, so I by no means read it all.

Anyway... The books of 2015 in no particular order...

  1. Jesus Interrupted by Bart Ehrman. I really liked this book. I wish Bart Ehrman could have somehow maintained his faith through his studies. He's a very smart and articulate man. He very honestly sets forth the difficulties that are in the Bible. Those who suggest that the Bible has no difficulties or contradictions or those who suggest that all of these difficulties and contradictions are easily resolved may be offended by Ehrman's work. Also, Ehrman shows a good deal of respect to scholars who have seen the same evidence that he has seen but who still maintain their faith. As Ehrman says in this book, he's just bringing to light to the general public, the laity if you will, things that pretty much any seminary student already knows. I highly recommend it to anyone who's serious about the Bible and theology. Seminary students and scholars won't find anything new in this book, but I did.
  2. The Myth of a Christian Nation by Greg Boyd. Another very good book by Greg Boyd. I didn't just like this book, I loved it. Boyd expresses several things that have been on my mind for years. I get so fed up with the political posturing of evangelical Christians in America. Many have made being a conservative a pre-requisite for being a Christian. The evangelical right puts much energy into turning America back to God. I hear too much talk about making America a Christian nation like it once was. Boyd argues that there is no such thing as a Christian nation. There is only one kingdom God is interested in today and that kingdom is ruled by King Jesus. Greg Boyd is an outspoken and devout pacifist. Given that my roots are in the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement, I really can relate to and understand his pacifism. Pacifism has had strong support in the Restoration movement, perhaps most notably with David Lipscomb. Unfortunately, the Restoration Movement has by and large drifted away from pacifism and has taken on the war-like conservative rhetoric of other evangelical denominations. I still lean strongly toward pacifism, tempered with the notion that pacifism will be beautiful and ubiquitous in the afterlife, but it's just not practical in the now-life. Sometimes, good guys have to use violence in this fallen creation. I believe that God has called many to pacifism and I respect that and I believe God is using them for great good. I also believe that God has called some soldiers and policemen and He uses them for great good. Anyway, this is one of the best books I've ever read, even if I don't agree with some of it.
  3. The Dead Key by D.M. Pulley. This was a very nice debut by D.M. Pulley. A good, original thriller. There was lots of back and forth from 1978 and 1998. Sometimes that was difficult for me to follow, but it really worked well for the book. Also, I LOVED that this was set in Cleveland. What an unusual setting for a thriller! That's Pulley's hometown, and after reading the book I visited Cleveland and the accuracy with which she described the city was incredible. I also spoke to some of the locals about the events described in 1978, and they all remembered it. This was a well-written book. Any Clevelander would probably enjoy this book. And if you're not from Cleveland, the story is exciting and interesting enough to reel you in anyway.
  4. Crow Hollow by Michael Wallace. If you like historical fiction, you'll probably dig this book. It was a good story of a mother in search of her child that was stolen from her. It paints the horrific picture of the savage violence that accompanied the settlement of the English in New England. The reader gets to experience the brutally cold winters, the treacherous travel, the deceptive politics, and the religious division of the pioneers of the 1700s. And it wasn't all bad stuff, either. There is triumph, mercy, nobility and love all along the way, too. I recommend it. 
  5. The Bible Tells Me So by Peter Enns. This book was similar to Jesus Interrupted mentioned above, except that Peter Enns did not lose his faith like Bart Ehrman did. I really liked this book. Enns contrasts a "rule-book" approach to the Bible to a story or narrative approach to the Bible. Must read.
  6. Repenting of Religion by Greg Boyd. Greg Boyd urges the church to repent of judgment and turn to sharing the love of God. This is an excellent read. His main point is that judging is the original sin. It's partaking of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. It's a very interesting perspective, and it seems clear that the church is guilty of judging to the point that we do not love as Jesus loved.
  7. The Forgotten God by Francis Chan. We went through this in a Bible Study. I had read it before, but it was good to read it again in a community setting. It's a challenging read, and one that I struggle to implement.
  8. A Fellowship of Differents by Scot McKnight. A life-changing and thought provoking study of the apostle Paul. I'll probably read this one again. And again. And again. The main point is that we show the world who God is when different people (white, black, old, young, Hispanic, Asian, man, woman, rich, poor, intelligent, simple, gay, straight, engineer, accountant, artist, teacher, student, author, etc. etc.) all come together and live in a community of love. The tragic reality is that churches are segregated along many different types of lines, but especially racial lines. And there's a description of the prepositions of love that is so true that it brought me to tears. Must read.
  9. The Pilgrim's Regress by C.S. Lewis. I kinda feel guilty for listing this one among the books I read this year. I didn't make it all the way through it. I liked what I read, but I didn't really love it like I usually love C.S. Lewis's writing. I'll probably take another stab at this later. As usual with C.S. Lewis, put your thinking cap on before you read.
  10. Surprised by Scripture by N.T. Wright. There wasn't much, if any, new material in this book. But it was good to see N.T. Wright tackle some contemporary issues. It is more or less a collection of essays that may be available elsewhere, but have not been collected together before this book. I especially liked his comments on religion and science, women in ministry, and the problem of evil.
  11. Troublemaker by Leah Remini. If you've ever tried to leave a cult or a religious sect with cult-like tendencies, you will be able to identify with many parts of Leah Remini's story. Though I'm no prude, I found her language to be unnecessarily harsh and vulgar and that detracted from the book. Besides that, I did  enjoy hearing her tell her story and I hope she continues to find peace and healing outside of Scientology.
  12. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. I reread this book for two reasons. First is that my daughter had to read it for school, and I wanted to talk to her about the book and story. Second was to prepare for reading Go Set A Watchman. I hadn't read To Kill A Mockingbird in years, and I was reminded why this is an American classic. What's not to love about this book? 
  13. Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee. I had to read this because To Kill A Mockingbird was just so good. I liked Watchman, but it was no Mockingbird. One of the lessons that stands out to me even though this is a work of fiction, is that it is improper to judge historical figures by the moral standards of our day. As progressive as Atticus was in Mockingbird, he was on the wrong side of segregation in Watchman. The other lesson I learned was from Jean Louise. Even if you're right on an issue, you won't win people over by angrily arguing your point.
  14. The Lost World of Genesis One by John Walton. This is a very important read for anyone who has struggled with the disconnect between the fundamentalists' young earth and the scientific evidence for an ancient earth. Walton helps to heal the divide by pointing out that Genesis one is about functional origins and does not address the topic of material origins. His main point is that there is no need for the friction between those who believe in a young earth and those who believe in an ancient earth. A functional origin and temple centered view of Genesis 1 really says nothing about material origins and hence the age of the earth. 
  15. The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. It's not often that I say this about a book, but I hated this book. It's not because I disagree with it, though I certainly disagree vehemently with most of it. I really wanted to give this book a fair shake. I went into it with an open mind, and I will say that Dawkins makes some valid points. However, his tone ruined it for me. I have never seen such arrogant, elitist vitriol and chronological snobbery. Do you believe in God? Then Richard Dawkins despises you. Reading this book reminded me of how I felt when I read Muscle and a Shovel by Michael Shank. It's a book that resonates well with those who agree with it, but that insults those who do not. I would like read another book that tries to build a case for atheism. I'd love to better understand the position, and this book helped some with that, but I had to overcome his condescension and insults just to get to his actual arguments. Then, he went way overboard by saying that raising a child in a religion is a worse form of abuse than sexual abuse. I don't think I can ever read another word from Richard Dawkins. Only read this book if you agree with Dawkins or if you love being insulted by an elitist.
  16. Make it Stick by Peter Brown. This was a great introduction to the science of learning and remembering. It gave me some great tools to use as I try to learn new material and make it stick so I can use it later. Highly recommended. The main point is spaced practice is critical to learning and learning that is difficult sticks better than learning that is easy. 
The best book I read this year goes to A Fellowship of Differents by Scot McKnight. This is a very important book. The church desperately needs to mix it up. the world is a segregated mess. Right now, the church looks like the world in this. The church needs to be a salad.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Strait, Narrow, and Few

In my last post, I talked about Scripture flowing in one direction on a topic, but then sometimes we see "rocks" that interrupt that flow. One of these "rocks" that I mentioned is Matt. 7:13-14. I've been wrestling with Matt. 7:13-14 for some time now. Some would just tell me to accept the fact that few go to heaven and almost everyone goes to hell. End of discussion. It's settled.

Only that doesn't settle it for me because I see a strong current in Scripture moving toward an earth that is full of righteousness and a heaven with innumerable hosts. It's surprising how often this appears.

It's in the Pentateuch in Numbers 14:21. Here, there are only a few. There are two faithful out of about 2 million and God is ready to wipe them out. Moses appeals to God's mercy and forgiving nature and God responds with forgiveness and mercy and states that "all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord." He does not withhold punishment in this incident, and reminds us of the virtue of justice. But He forgives and pardons and redeems and preserves those two and raises up an entire faithful nation that inherits His promises.

This statement in Numbers 14:21 is repeated almost verbatim in Habakkuk 2:14. Again, it's a context of wickedness overwhelming righteousness, and here is this promise. The earth will be full of the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

In probably the most Messianic Psalm, Psalm 22:1-31, we have a very interesting promise in Psalm 22:27. The Psalmist is forsaken by God, surrounded by enemies mocking and abusing. But eventually God hears and delivers, and promises that "all the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord."

There are several verses like this in the Psalms.(Ps. 72:19; 86:9; 66:4; 102:15; 98:1-3, etc. etc.)

And Isaiah? Isaiah surely believed that the whole of the earth was going to honor God. Isaiah 11:9 is essentially the same as Habakkuk 2:14. Isaiah 11 is in a context of the kingdom of God covering the whole earth and is one of the most beautiful descriptions of the earth being full of peace and righteousness in all of Scripture.

And I haven't even talked about Revelation 7:9-12. And Revelation 15:4. And there are many more. Research for yourself.

Some may say, "but those passages are figurative and prophetic". I'll grant that for some of them. But even so, the figures and prophecies have meaning. The overwhelming flow is toward an earth filled with people who know God. You have to try to miss that in the Old Testament. And the innumerable hosts in heaven stands in contrast with few entering a narrow gate.

Yet the most common explanation of Matt. 7:13-14 that I've heard is a reversal of this flow. This explanation says, "Very, very, very few go to heaven. Almost everyone goes to hell." It's as if Jesus came along and on the Sermon on the Mount said, "By the way, all those promises about the earth knowing and turning to the Lord, I'm reversing those. Just a very few people are truly approved. 'Us and them' is the right way to think after all."

The churches with which I've been associated have especially relied on this passage. These churches have shaped my faith and made me much of who I am today. I owe an incredible debt of gratitude to them for my Bible knowledge, study habits, friends, family, good work ethic, appreciation for purity, and many other good things. I love those churches, my people. But these churches have isolated themselves from all others who claim to be Christian and used Matt. 7:13-14 as justification and as comfort for this isolation.

I no longer believe the "us and them" use of this passage is correct or good. According to Wikipedia, these churches have about 120,000 members. There is considerable evidence that the number of members is shrinking at an alarming rate. If their isolation is correct, then less than 0.0017% of the world's population makes it. That isn't a narrow gate. It's a closed gate.

I'm not completely sure what Matt. 7:13-14 means. Consider the immediate context that promises that "all who seek will find" and "whoever knocks, it will be opened for him" (Matt. 7:7-8). The immediate context emphasizes that the Father knows how to give good gifts and wants to give them more than we do (Matt. 7:11). In light of that, I don't think He's saying that there's a pattern for worship hidden in the New Testament and about 1 out of 100,000 in the world will find it and those will be rewarded with the good gift of heaven while the rest of the world just won't get the blessing of God's eternal goodness.

However, no matter the numbers and despite its contrast from the context, Matt. 7:13-14 still has meaning. I do not want to ignore this verse. I do not want to ignore the flow of Scripture. How can I honor both?

The rock is still there and the river is still flowing and God's voice is in this sound of the flow against the rock. The earth and heaven will be filled with innumerable people who know God and His love and justice and peace. Few enter the narrow gate that leads to life and many go the broad way to destruction.

One idea that I think has some merit is this: Jesus was speaking exclusively to a Jewish audience. Those in that Jewish audience were His contemporaries. His teachings were very strange and contrary to them. Very few of His Jewish contemporaries would heed His word. Maybe.

Perhaps He is talking about a way of life more than eternal destiny. He's talking about a way of life that truly lives by the golden rule and gives to the needy and shares and puts others' needs above one's own. There are really few who truly live self-sacrificially, even though that is a brilliantly simple and fulfilling yet difficult ethos that brings life. Perhaps.

Or maybe He really is saying that only Christians will be saved and there will be few of them. In the world today, about 2 out of 7 people claim to be Christian. Even if "not every one who says Lord, Lord" (Matt. 7:21) makes it to heaven, a little over 2 billion is enough to cover the earth but it's still a relatively narrow gate. Maybe.

Or maybe the truth is in the sound of the flow against the rock. Just like Joshua and Caleb were alone among the spies and the vast numbers in the whole camp of Israel, God redeemed the camp and raised a nation. To this nation in His perfect timing, He sent His Son. His Son was alone and rejected and abused and killed. Even though His followers disbanded and forsook Him in His darkest hours, God raised Him. And God redeemed those followers who disbanded and turned them into the church, the kingdom of God, that now covers the earth. In spite of overwhelming odds and a very small beginning, God's name and glory will cover the entire earth and God will continue to redeem the faithfulness of His servants to spread love and peace and justice. That's what I think is the best explanation.

But for sure, I'm convinced that Matt. 7:13-14 is NOT a passage to give any one tiny sect a raison d'etre. It's not intended for folks to quote then congratulate themselves for being the few who figured out God's true will. It's not intended for people to use as justification for sitting on their hands and isolating themselves from other followers of Jesus. It's not there to give comfort for a small sect's own numbers falling because "broad is the way" and "this evil world doesn't want the truth". I'm sure of that.

Instead of worrying about who's in and who's out, I should put more effort in loving God and loving others. More like Him.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

When Scripture Has Rocks

One of my favorite things to do is to run on the trails in DeSoto State Park. One trail parallels the Little River, which is a fast flowing river that flows mostly south and mostly atop Lookout Mountain and eventually forges a canyon to the south of the state park. The water rushes along and you can hear it from quite some distance away. Occasionally, as I'm looking at the river, I'll see a large rock, maybe several large rocks just sticking up above the water. The water hits the rock, turns white, makes noise, and flows around the rock, continuing southward.

These rocks add beauty to the river. These rocks make the water rough. These rocks make the river more difficult to navigate. These rocks amplify the voice of the river and sometimes make the flow of the river even more obvious. Ignore these rocks and you'll miss the river's voice. You'll miss the river's beauty. And if you're in the water, ignore these rocks to your own peril. To attempt to ignore them is both futile and dangerous. However, to pick up and go the complete opposite direction because a rock stands against the flow of the river is even more futile and dangerous.

Sometimes we have Bible verses like those big rocks.

What I mean is this. The overall sweep of Scripture is flowing very strongly in one direction, but there are verses that jut out, like big rocks on a fast river. These verses seem to oppose the flow of the "river". When we see those, we have to choose. Will we turn and go against the overall flow of Scripture? Will we attempt to ignore them? Or will we admire the beauty and roughness and navigate around them listening for God's voice in the noise caused by these verses that seem to oppose the flow of Scripture?

Examples of passages that are like these rocks...

Matthew 7:13-14 is a passage that I've wrestled with for some time. There is an overall flow of Scripture, especially in prophecy, toward an earth filled with people who turn to God and who know God. There are innumerable hosts in heaven in Revelation (Rev. 7:9-12; 15:4). There are verses like Habakkuk 2:14; Isaiah 11:9; Ps. 22:27 and Ps. 98:1-3. Does this one passage near the end of the sermon on the mount suddenly reverse all of those? (That's not impossible because the sermon on the mount begins with a set of reversals, for sure.) Or is there another way to understand this verse that honors both this verse and the overall flow of Scripture?

Other examples include the role of women. You have Miriam, Deborah, Anna, the women proclaiming the empty tomb to men, Phoebe, Junia, Philip's daughters, Gal. 3:28, etc. Standing against those you have 1 Tim. 2:12 and 1 Cor. 14:34. What do we make of that? How do we deal with those rocks? How do we decide which verses are the "flow" and which are the "rocks" in my metaphor?

There is an overall flow of a picture of God as merciful, patient, kind, loving. In fact, that is perhaps the major theme of all of the Bible. There are passages like Deut 5:10 and Deut 7:9 and Rom. 5:15 and Rom. 5:17 that show that God's mercy is orders of magnitude greater than His punishment. We are told that God is slow to anger. But then you have Nadab and Abihu (Lev. 10:1-3) and Uzzah (2 Sam. 6:7) and Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:5; Acts 5:10). Do we throw out the flow of Scripture toward a merciful and loving God of grace in favor a few "rocks" that on the surface appear to portray God as an angry cosmic despot? Or do we strive to see what else may be going on in those "rock" verses?

Let's take the more difficult road of wrestling with passages that cause us tension. Let's not settle for pat answers. Let's use the tools available to us, including modern scholarship which can help us understand customs and language and culture and audience and author of the books in the Bible. Let's strive to honor all of Scripture, even the parts we don't like or that present problems to our cherished and long-held beliefs. Let's even consider the possibility that we may not be able to reconcile all of these verses and we're just left to honor the beauty of the different perspectives in Scripture. Let's not be satisfied to read Scripture the way we always have. Let's read Scripture as it has been given to us by God (a beautiful story written from different times and perspectives) instead of turning it into what we may want it to be (a uniform, simple, point by point instruction manual).