Tuesday, April 27, 2010

ROCK your faith! A few core tenets. . .

I've been chewing over a variety of theological ideas with you all over the approximately year and a half that I've been blogging.  These have been supplemented by long conversations with my good friend Ben (who's not blogging theology right now), as well as a variety of books I've mentioned.

Ben and I have come to the realization that four key concepts do a pretty good job of summarizing where we're departing from the Evangelical mainstream, and in these four areas we find a clear call to re-focus our faith.  The mnemonic "ROCK" helps me to think about them:

Rightly dividing the word - The concept that the Bible contains many words of God, though it is not, in its entirety "the Word of God."  Carefully, prayerfully, and in fellowship with others, discerning the words of God within the Biblical texts and narrative, is important to understanding God's priorities and commands.

Open View of God & the future - Though it is wildly unpopular in orthodox Evangelical circles, the notion that God has released the control of certain decisions to his creation, and actually experiences those things unfolding in time, is a liberating perspective.  It completely does away with the determinism of predestination, as well as a lot of the theodicy arguments of why a good God allows evil.  In its place we find God interacting with his creation in a dynamic and sacrificial way, suffering with those who suffer even as he ministers to their wounds, or commissions his people so to minister.  In the Open View, God calls us to work because he has work he ACTUALLY WANTS US TO DO.

Christus Victor as the model for atonement, within the context of a Warfare Worldview:  This perspective recognizes that sin is not merely the failings of humans, but the corruption of a whole swath of creation (maybe all of it) by God's enemies, the Principalities and Powers of which the New Testament writers spoke.  Jesus' death and (more especially) resurrection were key battles in that war, in which we are now engaged with God in fighting to take back territory and citizens occupied and enslaved by the enemy.  Paradoxically, as the weapon of Jesus' victory was to take on death and defeat it by rising anew, so our greatest weapon is to take on hatred and defeat it with his love, for our weapons are not carnal.

Kingdom citizenship - We understand the salvation of Jesus not to be simply a future escape from earth to heaven, but rather his naturalizing us into citizenship in his kingdom (the new creation) here and now.  As God breathed into Adam the breath of life in the first creation, so Jesus breathes into his disciples the Breath (Spirit) of new life in the new creation.  With our new citizenship we are now aliens in this present enslaved world, and we (individually as citizens, and collectively as embassies or outposts of the kingdom) are called to work as reconciling ambassadors and members of a divine resistance, participating with Christ to take back his territory and his people from the slavery under which they now live.  Our goal is not to get people "believing" in a "religion;" it's to help people to recognize who is their true king--to bow the knee to Jesus as Lord now, and then to join us as citizens of Jesus' growing kingdom.

These four concepts have the capacity to ROCK some dearly-held doctrines.  But I hope the will also ROCK a few lives and maybe even  ROCK a church or two!  ROCK on!

Friday, April 23, 2010

McLaren - "A New Kind of Christianity" - Thoughts on John 14:6

Yesterday I discussed at length my criticism of Brian McLaren's perspective on homosexuality, and to some extent sexuality in general, in his book A New Kind of Christianity.  Today I want to laud a point that McLaren has gotten absolutely right, in chapter 19 of the same book, entitled "The Pluralism Question: How Should Followers of Jesus Relate to People of Other Religions?"  Here I'll start by letting Brian speak for himself:

"When I'm asked about pluralism in my travels, I generally return to Jesus' simple teachings of neighborliness such as the Golden Rule, saying something like this:  'Our first responsibility as followers of Jesus is to treat people of other religions with the same respect we would want to receive from them.  When you are kind and respectful to followers of other religions, you are not being unfaithful to Jesus, you are being faithful to him.'  Then I ask them how they would want people of other religions to treat them.  They typically say things like: 'I would want them to respect my faith, show interest in it and learn about it, not constantly attack it, find points of agreement they could affirm, respectfully disagree where necessary--but not let disagreement shatter the friendship, share about their faith with me without pressuring me to convert, invite me to share my faith with them, include me in their social life without making me feel odd,' and so on.  After each reply, I generally say, 'That sounds great.  Go and do likewise.'"  (pp 211-212)

McLaren then says that often people's next question is something on the order of "What about John 14:6?"  You all know that one..."No one comes to the Father but by me."  I, too, have heard (and for a long time believed) this phrase of Jesus' was the principal defense against universalism in the Bible.  Only problem is, and here Brian is spot-on, there is nothing at all in the context of that statement, that gives us any evidence at all that Jesus was making a claim of exclusivity when he said it.  Quite a different conversation was going on at that point, where Jesus had just been telling his disciples of his impending departure and death, and telling them they couldn't follow him just now, but that they still  knew the way to the Father.  Thomas had just interrupted that no, they DIDN'T know the way (for that matter, they didn't know what the heck he was talking about).  Jesus' answer in John 14:6 is "but you DO know the way, I AM the way."  To use this verse, woefully out of context, as the trump cards in an argument of "my religion is better than yours", is doing complete violence to any reasonable reading of the text.

In this chapter, McLaren makes a compelling case for the notion that introducing people to Jesus is not the same thing as converting them to the religion of Christianity (in this vein, I have had some pretty conservative Evangelicals tell me of places in the world where Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus are choosing to follow, love, and worship Jesus without giving up their respective religious practices).  He is not arguing universalism, though some may accuse him of that (his footnote #32 on p. 292 makes this abundantly clear).  He is, however, saying something you might have heard before on this blog (see my entire series on hell), that where you go when you die isn't the point of calling people to Jesus, and that John 14:6 is not talking about where ANYBODY goes when they die.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Book in progress - "A New Kind of Christianity" by McLaren

I'm still in process of reading Brian McLaren's A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions that are Transforming the Faith, and for the most part I really appreciate it.  McLaren coherently describes the conventionally-accepted framework of the Biblical narrative, which he calls the "Greco-Roman model," and contrasts it with a narrative that takes into account the story of God's calling and working through the Jews leading up to Jesus.  He is likewise helpful in posing the contrast between Bible-as-constitution (his characterization of the various "inerrancy" approaches), and Bible-as-library, an approach that takes the breadth and nuance of biblical writers into account.  He's at his best, IMO, in his discussion of the centrality of Jesus and the gospels as the lens/filter/paradigm through which all scripture, both Old Testament and Epistles, must be read.

Unfortunately, I can't recommend the book unreservedly, because peppered throughout nearly every chapter, McLaren can't seem to get away from a need to throw in comments that essentially paint the gay rights agenda as the civil rights moral issue of the day.  Again and again, he lumps "homophobia" (a sloppy word if I ever saw one) with slavery, apartheid, Jim Crow, and the like, as places where the church has been on the wrong side of history and justice.

I haven't read other writing by McLaren, so perhaps I missed an argument he's made more coherently somewhere else.  I don't presume to understand where he's coming from on this.  But he seems to have made a category mistake that I find all too frequently among Christians who are recovering from their fundamentalist afflictions, of accepting without critique the claim that homosexuality is an identity, and therefore issues of how we respond to gays are necessarily civil and human rights issues.  Wholly unconsidered (at least in the present book) is the notion that homosexual practice might, in fact, still be sinful even if one is not a right-wingnut (As I have previously written, I suggest that gay practice is simply a subset of adultery, which remains equally unacceptable for the believer whether straight OR gay).

I'm sorry to say that this constant drumbeat distracts from an otherwise-helpful and -challenging set of questions that the church would do well to consider.  That said, if you can see past the distraction, I do recommend the book.

Edit:  Well, I was wrong about the argument being somewhere else---I just read Chapter 17 over lunch, where McLaren goes through his argument in greater detail.  I would not say his argument is compelling, though it is indeed interesting, as he makes the case that a binary (just male and female) sexuality is an "ideal concept" a-la Plato just as much as some of the Greco-Roman notions of God are Platonic rather than Biblical.  He goes on to basically say that our more nuanced understanding of biology today militates against such simplistic reading of sexuality.

McLaren then points out--quite correctly according to my reading--the fact that Christians in general, and Evangelical Christians in particular, seem little different from everyone else regarding sexual practice (premarital/extramarital sex, divorce), though perhaps we experience more guilt and conflicted feelings than others.  He concludes by suggesting that perhaps we need as a church to re-examine the whole concept of sexuality based on our current base of knowledge and centered in the love of Jesus.  He seems (to me at least) to leave open the notion that even serial or contemporaneous polyamory/polygamy, as well as the spectrum of GLBT issues, might not be outside the pale of Jesus-followers' practice in this new consideration.  In fact, I'm not sure he believes there's any place for sexual mores EVEN AMONG THE COMMUNITY OF BELIEVERS in the light of current biology and loving Jesus' way.
McLaren is correct that religion has been the bastion of a lot of stick-in-the-mud, head-in-the-sand obstinacy.  In this chapter he reminds us of the church's opposition to everything from Galilean and Copernican cosmology to South African apartheid.  But I think he, too, needs to be confronted with a question:  Are you saying that just because constitutionalist church hierarchies have insisted on a thing, that it must necessarily be wrong?  And how is this different from the Corinthian church Paul was blasting in 1 Corinthians 5?

I will reiterate that McLaren asks a lot of useful questions in this book...questions the church needs to confront.  But I think he's gone over the edge on the sexuality issue, and he seems to me to have forgotten that Jesus, while loving and associating with "sinners," still called them to "sin no more."  The conservative church still needs to be called to account for its demands that the unredeemed world start acting like they say Christians should act, before they can be "saved."  But dismissing all acknowledgment of a moral standard is not going to help get that message across.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

God or Mammon?

My brother Dave's blog is primarily about economics, mine primarily about theology.  But I have got to highlight to you guys, this post in which Dave quite properly calls out some of the ways in which church institutions seem to have forgotten which deity they ought to serve (Matt. 6:19-24).

Churches sometimes talk a good game about justice, and even do great works for justice.  But who stops to think about what their investment and property holdings say about justice?  Dave points out some flagrant examples in New Guinea where he's done extensive work. . .I would suggest that a look closer to home, even to the lavish "worship centers" we build and equip, would be equally valid.  Where, then, is our treasure?

Sunday, April 4, 2010

He is Risen, He has Conquered, He Rules!

Christos Anesti! Christ is Risen!

A joyous Easter to each of you.  This is the day when we celebrate Jesus' victory over the powers and their grip on the world, for in raising Jesus from the dead, the Father achieved victory over the ultimate weapon of evil - death and our fear of death.

I was thinking this morning in church. . .we often look at the Genesis story of the fall as being the point where death entered the world, and to some extent we are supported in that view by Paul's comments in Romans 5.  However, if we look at the biology of life, can we really say nobody would have died without the fall?  I wonder if perhaps Tolkein had it right (though he was writing fiction) when he portrayed death as God's GIFT to man:  to be the transition whereby man passes from earthly life into a newer and closer existence with God, but that death itself became corrupted when man chose his own path to immortality instead of God's.

I wouldn't take this too far, in that we really don't know all the details, but perhaps it wasn't (and isn't) biological death that is or ever was the enemy, but rather that death of that sort got corrupted along with everything else in creation and thereby became our enemy as it became a tool for separation from, rather than approach to, God.

This would make sense out of the fact that we still die, even as believers, but we need not fear death because in Jesus, death is not the end of the story.  The grave has not been eliminated, but it HAS been defanged:  "O death, where is thy sting?"  This is why John of Patmos was able to write in Rev. 14:13:  "Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on. 'Blessed indeed,' says the Spirit, 'that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!'”

So rejoice in the knowledge that your king defeated the enemy's ultimate weapon of mass destruction--death as separation from God--and now invites us to live in, and work for his Kingdom from now until that Kingdom overtakes the entire fallen world.