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Marketing Jesus

Marketing Jesus

Shortly after I separated from the Air Force I was chatting with a gentleman while waiting in line for something or other. On realizing that I was a veteran, and in fact had been somewhere that would qualify me as a veteran of a foreign war, he started a pitch to get me to join that fine organization (VFW).

His initial pitch was simply that I could. I asked him why I should. At this point he was somewhat at a loss and simply told me that they had a wonderful local VFW post where I could drink and swap war stories with other veterans. On short acquaintance he couldn’t possibly have know what a poor pitch that was for me.

Now please don’t imagine that I’m writing against the VFW, and more than I will be writing against Jesus when I talk about marketing approaches. The VFW does some fine work, which is my point. You can give a poor sales pitch for a good cause and drive people away.

Fast forward about 12 years to a time when I was looking at church congregations. I had not been a member of any church for those years and more, but as regular readers may know, I did have my MA in Religion (with that wonderful concentration in Biblical and Cognate Languages). This made life a bit difficult for pastors who discussed their churches with me.

In the end, I was considering two United Methodist congregations. I had attended church and some excellent studies at both, and I liked both organizations in many ways. At one of the churches I talked to the pastors at each church. At one of them the pastor said: “We don’t care what you believe. If you want to enjoy our fellowship, you’re welcome.” The other discussed my beliefs.

Now I’m very interested in openness and acceptance, and I advocate the maximum freedom of belief, but I do think an organization requires some sort of center to make it functional and useful. And a mission. That too.

Thus I joined the other congregation.

Over the course of my life I have experienced a variety of sales pitches to get me to accept Jesus Christ as my savior, most of them after I already had. Many of these came from people who felt I hadn’t quite gotten it right. Others came from people who presented their pitch so quickly they hadn’t had time to realize I was already a Christian. One came from someone who saw me reading my Greek New Testament while waiting for tires to be installed on my car, and was convinced that my Christianity must just be a thing of the intellect. He was truly concerned that I might mistakenly think that reading Greek was a means of salvation.

I’ll call it a means of grace. I didn’t think of saying that to him. It would doubtlessly have sent him ballistic. (Then I would have needed to repent, so perhaps it’s best I didn’t think of it.)

I would categorize approaches to selling Christianity in a few broad camps:

  1. The desperate. These are the people who are afraid that if you don’t accept Christ while in conversation with them, you will doubtless go to hell. One short prayer, and you’ll at least avoid that. Flames are usually involved in the conversation (pun absolutely intended). Conservative and charismatic Christians are susceptible to the use of this approach. Liberals and other mainliners might be susceptible, but they don’t believe in hell.
  2. The cultural. Christianity is a good society, sort of like Kiwanis or the Lions Clubs. Good people are Christians and attend church every so often. Come join our church and be socially acceptable to the good people. Mainline congregations are most susceptible to this, but conservatives may fall for it in the right cultural context.
  3. The upwardly mobile. This is the home of the prosperity gospel. The pitch goes that you’re in a lower economic and social class than you’d like to be, and Jesus wants you to have abundant life, so just follow Jesus to health, wealth, and satisfaction. (No, not the satisfaction theory of the atonement. Self satisfaction.)
  4. The apologetic approach. By this I don’t mean a person who defends elements of the Christian faith, but rather the person who desires to batter down your defenses with his or her command of data.

In fact, in all of these approaches there’s some truth. Being a part of a caring community can, in fact, improve your standard of living, your sense of joy, your peace, and many other things. Not quite in the way the prosperity preachers tell it, but it can help. Being part of the church can be a good cultural and social move. Considering your eternal state is likely worthwhile, and studying the data behind your religious faith is constructive.

There’s an effective temptation to attack every good intention or work. The desperate evangelist is driven by a desire to help. Believing that eternal hell fire is in your future if you don’t accept Jesus as your savior, he feels compelled to make you. This sense led to some theological support for the burning of heretics. What was a few moments of torment in this life compared to what God would do to them in the next? If the torturer could bring this eternal punishment to their minds forcefully enough, perhaps they’d repent and be saved. The temptation here is to take away from God the power of salvation and judgment. Most humans are susceptible to it in some way.

Then there is the Jesus way. I was hit by it this morning as I was reading texts for next Sunday’s lesson.

Jesus was saying to everyone: “If anyone wants to come after me, let them deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)

Now there’s an “ouch”! No promise of prosperity. No threat of hell. No social acceptability. In fact, if you read on through the end of the chapter, it gets even worse. The facts of the situation were present in the Person.

I wonder how a church growth program would work that called for people to lose their respectability, give up their comfort, become socially unacceptable, experience pain, and ignore ridicule would work. I’ve never seen one of those.

Other than in the gospels.

Let me look at some other texts from this week’s reading list.

9He said to me, “My grace is enough for you, because strength is made complete in weakness.” I now gladly boast in my weaknesses because Christ’s strength is all over me. 10So I am pleased in weaknesses, when insulted, when in need, when persecuted, when in hardship, for Christ. For when I am weak, he is strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)

I guess Paul wasn’t up on the latest pitches and methods of evangelism either. And just to add to our feeling of injury and annoyance:

If we suffer together with him, we will be glorified with him. (Romans 8:17b)

I was somewhat surprised after reading the scriptures to find that the lesson author managed to write the whole lesson without mentioning suffering. He had some good thoughts, but somehow avoided that one.

So just what is it we’re proclaiming (or selling)? Are we doing it right?

(Note: All translations are my own, and are sometimes intentionally loose. Featured image downloade from, which doesn’t require attribution, but I’ll give it anyhow.)


The Apologetics of Hebrews – Can You Defend a Dead Church?

The Apologetics of Hebrews – Can You Defend a Dead Church?

In Hebrews 2:1-4 I believe the author of Hebrews provides a basic apologetic outline, and I think it’s a very useful one to follow. After the first two verses, which start from a platform that was already accepted by the audience, the author emphasizes the importance of the decision. If he is right in what he says, the decision is critical in an eternal sense. The elements are these: 1) It was delivered by the Lord, 2) Affirmed by the testimony of those who witnessed, 3) Given divine witness through (a) signs and wonders and (b) the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Looking first from the viewpoint of process, this argument, and indeed the general argument of Hebrews, is based on ground that will be accepted by his audience. They believed that the Torah was firmly established, and many, at least, believed that it was delivered by angels. Throughout the book, we have this focus on sourcing material from the Hebrew scriptures. Those who argue a simple supersession should pay attention to the form of the argument. At the same time as the author argues that Jesus is greater than, he also argues that the revelation in existing scripture is great and should be honored. Too often we fail to found what we have to say on what we already hold in common, when that can be supported.

The first element of his argument has two parts, the words spoken by Jesus, and the affirmation of those words by witnesses. For someone who tends fideistic like myself, this is a bit of a rebuke. It’s not that I don’t believe that Jesus spoke, or that there were those who heard. I’m even optimistic that we can get a picture of Jesus from the gospel record. But I tend to ignore that part of the argument and go straight to the experiential second part. This argument says that the faith is founded on historical realities, and that this is worthy of our attention.

The second element of his argument again consists of two parts, the signs and wonders that follow the gospel, and the gift of the Holy Spirit, delivered as God wills. I’m of course more comfortable here, as my experience (in particular) has much to do with experience (in general).

I was reading this from The Learning Bible (CEV) this morning, and saw that their note refers these signs and wonders (semeiois kai terasin) refer to past events (from the viewpoint of the readers), such as the exodus from Egypt. I would disagree. That is an element either of the first part, or more properly of the commonly accepted foundation of the Hebrew scriptures. Rather, this is the miraculous events/signs that followed the apostles as we read in the book of Acts, for example. It was by acting on behalf of his apostles that God affirmed their witness of Jesus, both in terms of the truth of the stories they told, and in terms of its continued relevance to those who heard.

The second part is the gift of the Holy Spirit, which is, I believe, the life of the church. We can see how critical this is in 1 Corinthians 12-14, for example, and I see this as a loose, but nonetheless real point of connection with Pauline theology.

It’s this last point that I think is the most important in the church today. I believe all these elements should be part of our apologetic, yet having a faith that truly takes hold of hope and makes it possible for one to live differently is, I think, the most important element, and is also the key point of Hebrews. If the church does not show evidence of the gift of the Holy Spirit I think that all the other elements will tend to fail. It is sort of like one builds a machine to accomplish a particular task, explains the science behind it, then the technology that goes into producing the device, and then finally applies the power. But the machine doesn’t accomplish the task.

By “evidence of the Holy Spirit” I don’t mean speaking in tongues, as many in the pentecostal movement believe, but rather in terms of bringing people together and empowering new life in the one God has anointed forever. As Paul points out in 1 Corinthians 14, we can do without speaking in tongues; it doesn’t build the church. But we can’t do without building.

Discussing Christian Unity Tonight

Discussing Christian Unity Tonight

Last night I interviewed author Doris Horton Murdoch about the importance of testimonies. Here’s the YouTube:

In the Energion hangout for Consider Christianity Week tonight I’ll be joining Joel Watts and Elgin Hushbeck, Jr. to discuss Christian unity. Joel posted about this event today on his blog. The time is 7 pm central time.

You can find out more about the event on the Energion Publications Google+ page, or you can view it using the viewer below.


The Importance of Experience

The Importance of Experience

I was thinking of titling this “In Which I Annoy My Evangelical United Methodist Friends,” since so many of them are talking about the Wesleyan Quadrilateral and trying to privilege scripture within it in some way. I am not entirely in sympathy with many of these approaches.

You see, the moment I decided to take a closer look at the United Methodist Church was when I read in the United Methodist Discipline (1992, I think), about the sources of our faith. It’s not that I thought this statement was unique. Neither was it because I thought that Methodists had discovered the way to understand scripture correctly. Rather, I thought it honestly described what we actually do. And by “we” I do not mean just Methodists, but all Christians who use the Bible. We do not understand the Bible without our experience and our tradition, which is just experience collected across space/people and time. Reason ties these things together. Without our reason, we don’t come up with any interpretation of scripture at all.

What privileges scripture, to the extent that it is privileged, is that it is the most universal, most tested, and most accepted source. My personal experience may be very important to me. In fact, it is. My personal encounters with God have an enormous impact on how I understand my faith. But the fact that I believe that God has told me a certain thing doesn’t make that determinative for someone else.

Each congregation has a tradition, built on the collected experiences of that group. There will be similarities within a denomination, but there are local traditions. There are family traditions as well, collections of the experiences of members of that family over time. Denominations have traditions of their own and stand within broader tradition streams. For Methodists we have the Church of England as a source of tradition. Yes, we do carry things from that background. Then we have many who have broken off based on various elements of our own tradition.

All of these experiences have an impact, conscious or otherwise, on how we understand and apply scripture. It cannot be any other way.

This is one reason why I dislike the inerrancy debates, even though I’ve participated. I do not affirm the doctrine of inerrancy. The usual response to that is for someone who does affirm it to ask me for my list of errors with the intention of providing his or her list of resolutions for those errors. I don’t have a list of errors in scripture. I believe the Bible is what God wanted it to be. But that’s a belief that derives from my doctrine of God and not from any observations about the Bible and history or the Bible and science.

Each item on such a list of biblical errors can be translated as “My errant understanding of subject X says that my errant understanding of scripture passage Y is in error.” Where’s the inerrant standard, inerrantly understood, that lets me determine whether the Bible is actually inerrant?

So I make a different affirmation: When you’ve heard the message God has for you in scripture, that message is true. I follow it with an additional note: To the extent you need to, you can discover God’s message for you in scripture. Or anywhere else, for that matter.

I have absolute confidence that God is speaking. I have similar confidence that my hearing is defective. That goes whether I’m feeling God’s presence as I listen to Mahalia Jackson singing “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” hearing God’s voice in my head as I pray and spend silent time listening for it, or interpreting a passage of scripture.

So what advantage does scripture have over my general impressions? To paraphrase Paul, much in every way. I’m tremendously thankful to folks like Abraham who had to listen to God’s voice without having that huge body, the “great cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1) whose testimony has been tested over and over again. It’s the church’s testimony and it’s of paramount importance as I work my way through my own experiences.

Here’s a discussion of this very issue. Thomas Hudgins and I don’t agree on all the details, but we do agree that these things work together to give us confidence in God.

But it’s also a training ground. Read about maturity in Hebrews 5:11-14. The Bible fails if we treat it as systematic theology, as a science text, or even as a history text. That failure is not because of some list of theological, scientific, or historical errors. Rather, it’s because God has chose to speak through the testimony (witness to experience?) of many different people at different times and places. He requires us to use discernment and to see what is right and wrong as the decisions are placed before us.

quad1So back to the quadrilateral. I treat it both as quadrilateral and as equilateral. We can enter by any door. Any one of these elements may provide the right question and might contain the right answer. It will not always end at scripture.

But … and it’s an important but … there is a problem with the way United Methodists use the quadrilateral all too often. We tend to use it as a four lane highway. Which of the lanes can I get my idea through? If I get my idea through one, that’s enough. Instead, we need to use this as a four layer filter. Every answer we get to a question needs to interact with all elements. How does it relate to scripture? How does it fit with experience? What can we learn about this sort of thing through tradition? All of those questions will, of course, be processed by our reason. But that’s what the Spirit of Truth is for, after all, to guide us into all truth (John 16:13)! I illustrated this process with the diagram to the left in my book When People Speak for God.

I believe that the nature of scripture is absolutely intentional on God’s part. Rather than giving us easy answers to easy questions he has given us a combination of testimony to God’s action in the world and principles (embedded in the testimony) by which we can make such decisions. When Jesus says, “On these two hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:40), he provides us with such a principle of interpretation. This is not a principle that helps you discover what the historical intent of a writer was. We have quite useful techniques of exegesis for that. But it provides us a principle for how we, as Christians living in the 21st century should apply it. Sometimes it says that the people who were doing their best to follow God didn’t live up to it. We should take those stories and try to hang the lessons we think we learn from them from the two commands as Jesus said.

It’s interesting to compare the stories of Patriarchs in Hebrews 11 to their sources in Hebrew scripture. Moses left Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king (Hebrews 11:27), but he was afraid (Exodus 2:14). A biblical error? A contradiction? No! A testimony to what is seen by the eyes of faith.

We need to struggle with these stories if we’re to see where we are and where we need to be brought to greater maturity. How many of us need to learn not to fear the wrath of the king? But if we look earlier in that same passage, how many of us need to learn not to take God’s work into our own hands through violence?

Testimony, the telling of our own stories and experience, doesn’t give us the sort of systematic set of answers we might prefer. But it does train us to think, to discern, and to decide.

My guess is that’s what God was after in allowing scripture to come into being as it did.

Oh, and one more thing …

Tonight I’ll be talking with author Doris Horton Murdoch about testimonies in a Google Hangout on Air titled Lent: Season of Testimonies.

Serious about Whose Faith

Serious about Whose Faith

I was mentioned by Ed Brayton (blogs at Dispatches from the Culture Wars) in a comment to a post on Facebook, and made a couple of comments myself. Here’s the Facebook post:

There are two things here that interest me. First is the claim that moderates and liberals don’t take their faith seriously. This is silly, sort of like the claim that atheists really do believe in God, they’re just rebelling against him. What these two things share in common is that the person making the accusation makes assumptions about the other person’s mental processes that are not justified.

I have spoken to people who called themselves atheists, but who were actually angry with God. They say certain things that tell you they actually believe. I also have spoken to any number of atheists. While they vary in the reasons they don’t believe in God, I have found their thinking quite clear. I have actually occasionally told someone who claimed to be an atheist that they sounded more like a deist or an agnostic (or a whatever to me), and asked them to explain their use of the term. It’s amazing what you can learn just by asking and listening to the response.

On the other hand my faith is my faith, i.e., I have come to believe certain things. I don’t deny that many of these result from my upbringing. I was born into a Christian home, and that does predispose me to be a Christian. On the other hand, I know atheists who were born into a Christian home as well. More importantly, I don’t believe the same things my parents did. My Christianity is somewhat different. They were (and are) Seventh-day Adventists. I am not. They accepted and taught me young earth creationism. I have rejected that and am, to the extent I can tolerate the term, a theistic evolutionist. There are parts of the Bible that they treated as historical that I do not.

How do you find that out? In my case, of course, you could read. But if you want to have dialogue with someone, it’s a good idea to find out what they actually believe. It may differ from your assumptions. I am probably more frequently accused of not taking my faith seriously by people who are more conservative Christians than I am. What they mean, generally, is that I don’t take their faith seriously, and generally I don’t. No, I don’t mean that I don’t take the faith of conservative Christians seriously. What I don’t take seriously is the faith of people who are so shallow as to make such accusations without bothering to investigate and learn.

Let me illustrate this with a more specific example. While guest teaching a Sunday School class I stated that I found prayer at public events questionable at best, and that if asked (unlikely) I would decline to participate. I emphasized that I was not speaking here of constitutionality.  This was not a political position, but a religious one.

One of the class members immediately accused me of not really being willing to stand up for my convictions because I would not uphold them publicly by praying there. But you see, those were his convictions about prayer, not mine.

My convictions say that prayer is communion with God. My prayer takes place most commonly in my office while I’m studying my Bible. My prayer time is largely silent. You might even think I’m sleeping. If I pray in a group setting, I want that to be in a setting where we, as a group or community, pray. My city, county, state, or country does not constitute such a community. I can guarantee that someone in that audience is being forced to participate in my spiritual activity.

I’d like to say that I don’t do it because I don’t want them to be forced to pray, and indeed I don’t want them to. But what drives me is that my own idea of what it means to commune with my heavenly parent is so contradictory to the idea of someone being involved involuntarily, that I find it offensive. I find it hard to pray. You may think I’m stupid, but those are my convictions, and they are the convictions that I will take seriously and uphold.

I feel the same way about public school prayer. I would find it personally offensive for my children or grandchildren to be drafted into a government organized (or any other imposed) form of spiritual activity. So when I oppose prayer in public schools, I am not refusing to uphold my faith. Rather I am upholding it against something that is offensive to it. In my view the place for prayer with children would be at home with their parents,  or in some sort of voluntary faith community, not in the classroom with a public official.

The second thing that interests me is the question of what the Bible actually is. Is it metaphor? Is it myth? Is it history?

The problem here is that the Bible is many things. It contains history, fiction, a legend or so, plenty of metaphors, liturgy, political discussion, and even occasional theological discourse. In addition, it contains literature that is not commonly found elsewhere, such as visions and apocalyptic passages.

Anyone who says the Bible is any one thing is either ignorant or not paying attention. The idea that there is a variety of types of literature in scripture is not a liberal or progressive idea. Conservatives are aware of it. Many fundamentalists will try to deny it. But where the serious divide comes is in determining what is what. Is Jonah some sort of historical story or is it fiction? (I would say fiction, and written to challenge the activities of some folks like Nehemiah, but it’s hard to pin down precisely.)

One of the big questions is whether the early chapters of Genesis consist of myth or history. Obviously, young earth creationists regard them as history. I’ve heard people use the question “Is Genesis 1 a myth?” as a sort of touchstone. If you say “yes” you’re a liberal, but if you say “no” you’re a fundamentalist.

Well, I say no, and yet I accept the theory of evolution. How can this be? Well, quite simply the question of whether a passage contains accurate history and science is quite different from the question of its literary genre. The genre of Genesis 1 is, in my opinion, liturgy. Liturgy does not need to portray accurate history. Genesis 2:4ff, on the other hand, shares most of the characteristics of myth. It’s a different story, told in a different way.

I’ve been asked why, if the two stories are contradictory, they appear side by side. The reason is that they function in such different ways that they cannot really contradict, any more than an Easter liturgy, celebrating the resurrection at 11 on Sunday morning in Pensacola can contradict an account of a missing body at about dawn near Jerusalem. They’re just not talking the same language.

I find it annoying that so much Bible study has to do with proving or disproving the Bible. This often results in people taking positions because of what they need the result to be. One person wants to believe that the gospels were written late because he doesn’t want them to be eyewitness accounts. Another wants them to be written early because he does. Neither desire is relevant to the actual dating. I wrote a post about an hour ago maintaining that I thought it probable that Paul wrote Colossians, a position challenged by some scholars. Does this make me conservative? No, nor does it make me liberal. It means that’s what I believe the balance of the evidence is.

Whether you are a Christian supposedly defending the Bible or a non-Christian who wishes to challenge it, contrived arguments aren’t going to help. Ultimately they’ll undermine your position with thinking people. I don’t mean every wrong conclusion is somehow a disaster. What I mean is every trite, contrived solution whose best evidence is the fact that you need it to be true, is going to backfire.]

Well, at least it will backfire eventually with thinking people.

Tuesday Night Energion Hangout

Tuesday Night Energion Hangout

Using Google Hangouts on Air, I will moderate a discussion on Tuesday night titled Biblical Essentials. What are the essentials of the Christian faith, and why are they essential. If you’d like me to ask our panel a question, put it in a comment, or log in to Google+ during the hangout and use the Q&A app. Guests will be Dr. Alden Thompson, professor emeritus of Biblical Studies at Walla Walla University, Dr. Allan R. Bevere, United Methodist pastor and Adjunct Professor at Ashland Theological Seminary, and Elgin Hushbeck, Jr., Christian apologist and writer.

Oh, I almost forgot. Pete Enns posted a great cartoon and some interesting comments, obviously just for my convenience and enjoyment.

You can watch on YouTube via the viewer embedded below. Time is 7:00 pm central / 8:00 pm eastern, Tuesday, February 24, 2015.

And remember that on Thursday night, February 26, also at 7:00 pm central time, I will be interviewing Dr. Bruce Epperly as part of my continuing series on the gospel of John.

Some Thoughts on the Christ of Faith after Reading Hebrews

Some Thoughts on the Christ of Faith after Reading Hebrews

As most of my readers know, I’ve been working on revising my study guide to Hebrews. At least I keep mentioning it. I’m only about two years overdue on the project. When one deadline or another must be missed I tend to miss mine and work on other people’s stuff.

So today I was reading in Hebrews, especially the first four verses, and I got to thinking about the distinction between the “historical Jesus” and the “Christ of faith.” There are various words used to make the distinction, and it is not a distinction that is uncontroversial. On the one hand there are those who don’t think the Jesus of history is really accessible in a meaningful way, so if we, as Christians, are going to discuss Jesus at all, it will be as the Christ of faith. There are others who think that the Jesus of history is so well established that there is no need of any distinction at all. There are, of course, many variations on these views.

I am not one to deny the importance of history, but at the same time I doubt our ability to access it in any absolute fashion. If one studies history, I believe one studies probability, so I would describe the Jesus of history not as a necessarily accurate portrayal of who Jesus was, but rather Jesus as he can be accessed by purely historical methodology. Just how accurate you believe that picture is will depend on how you evaluate the documents we have, not to mention the methodology we use. But for me the Jesus who can be established historically, while important, is not critical in any sort of detail.

There is, for me, definitely a “Christ of faith.” That is the Jesus in whom I placed my own faith as a nine year old at a church in the mountains of Chiapas, Mexico. I made that confession when I knew little of a Jesus of history or a Christ of faith. I proceeded to encounter Christ personally through washing one another’s feet and through participating in the act of communion. The person whose feet I washed had walked for three days over muddy trails to be at that place at that time. He was laughing the entire time I washed his feet and then he washed mine. It was a friendly laugh. In it, I encountered a Jesus who definitely transcended history. He is one reason why I cannot conceive of an amount of historical reasoning that would actually change my faith at the core. The details of the stuff I believe might change, and indeed they have over the years. But at the core, that is my Christ of faith.

As I read from Hebrews it occurred to me that while the author of Hebrews builds on history, the Christ he preaches could never be established by historical means. We might make factual statements of all that can be construed as an historical claim, and we would have an extraordinary person by biblical standards (assuming Hebrew scriptures at that point), but that person would not be God, would not be exalted, and would not be the foundation of our faith. All of that is founded on a person, and have no doubt that I believe fully that Jesus came in the flesh, i.e. that God has walked among us and has experienced what we must experience and died. But even a person rising from the dead does not make that person God. There is no set of criteria which a historian could use to say, “This person is God because they meet the criteria.”

Rather, that is a matter of faith. I don’t believe it merely because I have the witness of the New Testament writers, or their witness to witnesses, as is expressed in the early verses of Hebrews 2. Rather, I can believe Hebrews 2 because of what happened when I was nine years old. That experience matches mine, and the two together, through the power of the Holy Spirit, become my faith.

I think it is very easy to change one’s views about history. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to change that experience, even if one is distant from it for a time, as I was.

(Though I formed my view of faith before I read these books, they do elucidate my views, and are both by Edward W. H. Vick: History and Christian Faith, Philosophy for Believers.)


Conviction with Teachability

Conviction with Teachability

This is just a short note—I hope!—as I have an extremely heavy day and really shouldn’t be stopping to write.

I’ve been thinking of different ways to state my goal both in my own writing and teaching and in publishing, and I played with “conviction and …”. What about “conviction without arrogance”? Perhaps “conviction with gentleness”? I think both of those say something of my goals.

But I think “conviction with teachability” may come closest. In my post two days ago, My Own Custom Bible, I said that we need to try to overcome the various elements that make us customize our Bible, but we should also be aware that we won’t be fully successful. I resemble that remark! I’d like to say that “conviction with teachability” is a good description for me, but I know that I can get stubborn on things I should change. Like most of us at one time or another I’ve been “saming when I should have been a-changing” (apologies Nancy Sinatra).

But the realization of our own weaknesses can also lead to a lack of conviction and to inaction, because we cannot make a firm decision as to what we should do. This is not a weakness of just one particular branch of Christianity (or society, for that matter). I think it’s hard to truly combine these two aspects fully.

“Teachability” is often seen as lack of conviction. Firm convictions result in one being seen as unteachable. And that even beyond the failings we will doubtless have.

If I might illustrate from a question on which many of my friends disagree—evolution—I’d point out that I’ve been involved in studying the topic since I was around 10 or 11 years old. I started as a young earth creationist and am now a theistic evolutionist (though I don’t like the term). I recall someone asking me to read a web page of moderate length which he felt would immediately convert me back to the young earth creationist position. When I instead pointed out that there was nothing in the article that was any different from the material I read before I was a teenager, he accused me of being arrogant and unteachable. You see, those arguments were so forceful to him, that he couldn’t see how I could be unconvinced.

On the same topic, there are hundreds of articles that come out every year, and normally at least a dozen or so books on this subject, just considering the ones I wish I had time to read. So one has to present a good reason to take the time on a particular book or article. Quite frequently, simply the fact that we’re having a conversation and a participant would like me to try, will lead me to read a particular book.

My point here is that being teachable means willingness to examine evidence, but at the same time, when one has spent many years studying a particular topic and coming to their current convictions on it, failure to turn on a dime doesn’t mean they are unteachable. (For you grammar cops out there, that’s an example of the singular ‘they,’ an acceptable form of English usage. Acceptable by whom? By me!)

At the same time, I have to watch carefully to make sure that the fact that I have certain convictions doesn’t mean that I’ll never read something from other perspectives.

I think you can see that combining conviction (at least strong enough to lead to action) and teachability is not always going to be easy. But it’s something I strive for.

A Liberal Adventist Pastor and Young Atheists

A Liberal Adventist Pastor and Young Atheists

Pastor John T. McLarty, a Seventh-day Adventist who blogs at Liberal Adventist Pastor has posted his sermon for today, titled Church and Young Atheists as well as another related piece Questions My Kids Ask, written for the Green Lake Church Gazette.

I mostly want you to go, read these posts, and hopefully comment and enter the discussion. What I want to add here is that we need more pastors to try to hear what young people are saying, learn what they’re thinking and see how the church can respond. I have friends who are very leery of the idea of the church, or God, trying to be relevant. They suggest we should become relevant to God. And I agree that the end result is supposed to be that we become more Christ-like, more God-like. But I see the whole story of the Bible as God becoming relevant to us first, so that we have the opportunity to move on from there.

Too much of the discussion of young people that I hear has to do with our stereotypes of who they are and what they are doing. For example, there’s the stereotype of the atheist who was hurt at church and therefore really hates the church and not God. And, like most stereotypes, there’s a basis for this. There are many people who have distanced themselves from faith because of the people in the church.

But there are also those like the young lady Pastor McLarty describes, who have simply found too many things they were asked to believe by the church that they couldn’t manage. They aren’t really atheists. They disbelieve a number of things they were taught, are unsure about many others, and they have more important things to do with their lives than to try to create their own theological system.

Further, there are those I would call real atheists. These are people who have come to the conclusion for various reasons that there is no God. And yes, my Christian friends, these people exist. You can tell yourself that they aren’t real, that deep down they do believe and are just rebels. I’m sure it’s comforting at some level to pretend that this form of rejection of everything you hold dear doesn’t actually exist. But it does. Not only that, they’re generally good people, great neighbors, and credits to their communities.

Why am I saying all of this? Simply to say that in any conversation on any topic we need to listen to what the other person has to say and then respond to them, not to a label. And Pastor McLarty is quite correct that for those he was referring to, rolling out proofs of God’s existence isn’t really relevant. In fact, I rarely find that rolling out proofs of God’s existence, all of which are quite inadequate in so many ways, is the best approach. These “proofs” answer certain objections in certain ways, but they don’t really prove that the Christian God is real.

But that is another subject …

Removing Mormons from the Cult List

Removing Mormons from the Cult List

There’s something deeply troubling about the decision by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association to remove Mormons from the list of cults on their web site.

My concern is not with failing to list any particular group as a cult. In fact, as commonly used in Christian apologetics, I don’t think the label or lists of groups to which it should be applied, is very helpful. My approach is to be positive. I believe in a set of doctrines that I could label broadly orthodox Christianity (note lower case ‘o’), i.e. I’m a trinitarian Christian and I can say the Apostles’ Creed without crossing my fingers. My understanding is that a Mormon could not. That doesn’t make Mormons bad people, and the label “cult” tends to suggest that. At the same time, I don’t think it’s bigoted to point out that my beliefs and those of Mormons are not compatible in the sense that we won’t be in fellowship at the same church.

If, at some point other than the election, the BGEA had removed the reference to Mormons as a cult in order to foster dialog, without otherwise modifying their doctrinal statement (i.e., one could easily read and see who believes what), I would have no objection. What troubles me is that this is done in the context of the election. That gives the feeling that this was done to accomplish a political goal.

That’s dangerous in at least two ways. First, if it was important to note those differences in a document on cults before, what changed? Politics. The desire to elect a particular candidate has changed the way Christian beliefs are proclaimed. The gospel has been subjected to a political agenda. Second, it implies that even if Mitt Romney agrees with a Christian voter on most issues, he really needs to be labeled a Christian before we can vote for him. There are many reasons one might dislike or oppose Romney. The fact that he holds different doctrinal beliefs than I do is not one of them.

Under the appropriate circumstances I could vote for a person who is Jewish, Muslim, Mormon, agnostic, atheist, or any of a number of other faiths. What are the “appropriate circumstances?” Agreement on a political agenda and the belief that the candidate has the integrity to carry out those goals.

It has been noted by many that we’re not voting for pastor-in-chief, and rightly so, though people seem less likely to apply that standard to the candidate they oppose. At the same time, we must not behave as though we’re electing a pastor-in-chief. And that means don’t subordinate the gospel and the mission of the church to the beliefs of our candidate or to a political agenda. To those in the church, no political agenda can be as important as the mission of the church.

(Also note comments on this topic by Arthur Sido.)