A little primer. . .

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Before you go diving into my blog, I want to share with you a little primer on how my blog works. Not that it’s too difficult or anything, but as with anyone’s blog, you’re going to find some pretty unusual things.

For starters, my posts tend to reside somewhere between layman-accessible and first-year-grad-student-accessible. Every so often I’ll write something much simpler, but that’s pretty rare. This blog has become something of an outlet for my desire to return to academia.

This blog is also a journey. This particular journey started when I left fundamentalism (think Bob Jones Univ., NBBC, and their ilk) and traveled through my fascination with the rock-and-roll church (think Andy Stanley, Craig Groeschel, and their ilk), into and out of “new-calvinism” (think Mark Driscoll, John Piper, and their ilk), through classical Arminianism, and now on to whatever new adventure God might bring me towards.

Thanks for coming along. But strap in. It might be a bumpy ride.

How should I read the Bible? . . .

I realize that, given the way I described Scripture in my last post, I’ve probably created more questions than answers. One of those questions is likely something along the lines of, “If I shouldn’t read the Bible in the ways described by Christian Smith in his book, The Bible Made Impossible, how then should I read the Bible? How can Scripture help to cultivate a robust faith if I can’t get some simple spiritual truths out of each passage I read?”

Rather than offer a step-by-step process or a particular hermeneutic, let me start with sharing what the Bible self-evidently is over and against what it clearly is not.

The Bible is a collection of books written by myriad authors over a long period of time. It’s not a singular book, so we can’t expect the Bible to be perfectly cohesive and inerrant. A common response to this assertion would go something like this: “But wouldn’t the fact that God was the one behind it provide perfect coherence and inerrancy?” The problem with this line of thought is that it assumes that God was trying to communicate with us as opposed to communicating with the pre- and post-exilic nation of Israel. As Peter Enns asserts in his book, The Bible Tells Me So, we, as twenty-first-century, post-enlightenment westerners have extremely different notions of truth, and we value completely different things in our documentation of historic and current events. We can’t assume that, just because we think things should match up nicely, the ancient Israelites wanted that too. They likely didn’t, as evidenced by the lack of coherence found in the accounts of Israel’s history in the books of Samuel-Kings and the books of the Chronicles.

The Bible is Israel’s story, not ours. While there’s certainly plenty of evidence that Israel’s story is universal, it’s still Israel’s story, and the Bible must be viewed in light of Jewish tradition and through Jewish interpretive lenses. King Jesus, while often wrongly viewed and interpreted outside his context, was completely a part of first-century Jewish culture. We often think of Jesus as someone who overturned the Jewish law (and, by extension, mistakenly believe that Judaism was/is a religion of legalism and that Jesus came to introduce a system of grace over and against the previous system of Jewish law), but by his own admission, King Jesus did not “come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.”

This is evidenced by his handling of Jewish customs. Both St. Matthew and St. Mark tell a story of King Jesus healing a leper (St. Luke records a similar story that differs in several notable ways, but the detail I’m referring to here remains the same). In both accounts King Jesus tells the leper to present himself to the priest and offer a gift “as Moses commanded.” He remains faithful to Jewish tradition and law.

In other cases, King Jesus blatantly challenges the law with statements like, “the Son of Man is lord over the Sabbath.” And in yet more instances, King Jesus takes the law and makes it even more strict: “You’ve heard it said, ‘Don’t commit murder, and all who commit murder will be in danger of judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger of judgment.”

The sorts of interpretive methods that King Jesus employed were not uncommon for Jewish teachers of his day. Yet they’re completely out of place in today’s world. Simply put, King Jesus was very much a first-century Jew. A noteworthy and rascally one, no doubt, but a first-century Jew nonetheless.

After the stories of Israel’s national heritage as described by the pre- and post-exilic Israelites and climax of that story as told to us by the four Evangelists (St. Matthew, St. Mark, St. Luke, and St. John), we have yet another section of the Bible to contend with: the letters. I like to think of these as analyses of Israel’s story in light its culmination in King Jesus’s incarnation, death, and resurrection. St. Paul spent much of his time giving his thoughts on the matter. Bear in mind that his primary concern was how the story of King Jesus changed the trajectory of Israel’s story from insular to cosmic. Essentially, in the eyes of St. Paul, what King Jesus did was invite the other nations into Israel’s national story. When read through this lens, St. Paul’s writings take on a whole new meaning. Instead of a discourse on personal salvation (which is how most Evangelicals tend to read St. Paul) which would give off an air of exclusivity (some are saved, others are not), St. Paul’s letters become a treatise on national identity which then becomes invitational (you’re a part of this kingdom, now let’s do kingdom stuff).

So, how then should I read the Bible? Before I go there, let me quickly address one way to not to read the Bible. Don’t read the Bible as a manual for a good Christian life. You’ll probably fall into one of two categories. The first: extremely confused and frustrated about all the various contradictions. (Check out this post for an incredible, nearly exhaustive, tool for finding the various contradictions in Scripture. It’s mind-blowing!) The second: ignorant (whether willfully or otherwise) of these contractions and adherent to some things in the Bible at the direct expense of others.

Okay, finally, to answer the question: how should I read the Bible?

Think of the Bible as a collection of books that tells a story. Each book (or section of books) has a theme within that story that it’s trying to address. The Christian Old Testament tells the story of Israel’s national origins. The Pentateuch (Jewish Torah) shows us what Israel is supposed to look like. The books of Samuel-Kings tell the story of Israel’s incorporation from the perspective of a nation in exile asking the questions, “What happened to us? I thought God promised to be with us no matter what, and now we’ve been dragged out of our homeland and are stuck in Babylon! What gives? What did we do to deserve this?” The books of the Chronicles tell the same story, but from a different perspective. The Chronicles were written around 200 years after Samuel-Kings and are meant to address the questions, “Where is God? After all these years, are we still his people? Will God ever fix this mess we’ve gotten into?”

Let’s skip ahead a bit to the next major plot point. The four accounts of the Gospel.

Here we have the culmination of Israel’s story. The big finish, if you will. Everything reaches its completion in the story of King Jesus (which is probably why there are four books to tell the tale). I won’t go into why these four books have such glaring discrepancies between them, but suffice it to say that there are four unique intentions, audiences, and goals that the Evangelists each have in crafting their stories of Israel’s Messiah.

Finally, we have the letters. Mostly written by St. Paul, the letters look back on Israel’s story and analyze it given the massive event that had just taken place: the arrival of Israel’s Messiah. This analysis led St. Paul to believe that Israel’s story was a universal one, and he spent much of his time inviting non-Israelites (called Gentiles in the Bible) into Israel’s story and then writing to them about how and why they were now a part of said story.

So what does this mean for my devotions? It means that as you read the Bible, keep these things in mind. Ask yourself some of these questions. What part of the story am I reading? Is it inviting me into the story? Is it describing to me what a messy life of faith might look like?

One final thought: The Bible never shows us the ideal life of faith (probably because there isn’t one). It doesn’t tell us how to live a good “biblical” lifestyle. Instead, I believe it describes to us just how broken and inconsistent a life of faith can be. It shows us how Noah got drunk and fell into depression. It shows us how Abraham lied his way through tough spots. It shows us how David gave into his baser desires and lost control of his family.

And it shows us that despite all of this, God still loved them, and they (however brokenly or imperfectly) returned that love in some way, shape, or form.

That’s how I would read the Bible.

The problem with biblicism. . .

Lately a thought has been repeatedly entering the front of my mind, and I want to put it to words to see how it feels outside my head (that phrase seems weird, but it’s an accurate description of how I approach new or different ideas).

I think Christians—Protestants and Evangelicals in particular, but mainliners and Catholics as well—have been putting God in a box called the Bible. What do I mean by that? I’ll allow someone much smarter than I am to provide you an explanation. The following is an excerpt from Addison Hodges Hart’s excellent book Strangers and Pilgrims Once More: Being Disciples of Jesus in a Post-Christendom World:

The Bible is not the Koran, and Christians (and Jews) are not Muslims. We do not read the Bible as “a book,” for example, but as a collection of books. The Bible is better described as a library. Nor do Christians receive the Bible as the Word of God. That may come as a surprise to some, especially since we are often referred to—wrongly—as “people of the book.” But, we are not; and the Word of God is not a book. For us, the Word of God is God himself. We call him, in theological language, “the Son of God” and “the Second Person of the Trinity.” We say of him that he “became flesh and dwelt among us.” In other words, for Christians, the Word of God is Jesus. He alone “defines” for us fully the character of God; he is the divine writ small, in fleshly, human terms we can see, “read,” understand, and follow in our lives. We could not know the divine in its uncreated being, but we could know it in Christ.

While Hart’s language is certainly provocative (probably intentionally so), I believe his point is valid.

I heard an analogy recently that stood out to me (I don’t remember where I heard it, otherwise I’d reference it here; if you happen to know or be the origin of the analogy, let me know so I can reference him/her/you). God is like an ocean, and the Bible is like a collection of poems, pictures, and recordings of the ocean. Nothing anyone can write or capture about the ocean can accurately describe what it is to actually see it, explore it, or be engulfed in it.

To be sure, the analogy is lacking; however, the point that it makes shouldn’t be missed. While the Bible is inspired by God, it is still a collection of poems, letters, and stories written by people in particular times and settings. It doesn’t even come close to fully or accurately describing the whole personality of God.

This is why biblicism is such a dangerous thing. Although it is considered an “orthodox” practice, I believe Christians should abstain from it.

Biblicism, as defined by Christian Smith, a leading sociologist and professor at the University of Notre Dame, is an approach to Scripture that emphasizes “the Bible’s exclusive authority, infallibility, clarity, self-sufficiency, internal consistency, self-evident meaning, and universal applicability.”

You might read that and say, “That’s absolutely the truth!” But please consider the passage I quoted earlier from Strangers and Pilgrims Once More. The Bible is not our holy book. The Bible is a collection of books that tell the story of God’s interaction with mankind.

Smith provides in his book, The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture, ten assumptions that proponents of biblicism often make. You don’t have to be guilty of all of these assumptions to be a biblicist either. Each of these assumptions individually are symptomatic of biblicism.

  1. Divine Writing: The details of the Bible’s words are identical with God’s very own words.
  2. Total Representation: The Bible represents all of God’s communication to humanity and is the exclusive means of divine communication.
  3. Complete Coverage: The Bible contains the divine will for every issue relevant to Christian life and belief.
  4. Democratic Perspicuity: Every “reasonably intelligent person” can read the Bible and properly understand “the plain meaning of the text.”
  5. Commonsense Hermeneutics: Biblical texts are to be read in their most obvious sense, as the author intended them, and this may or may not involve a consideration of their literary, cultural, and historical contexts.
  6. Solo (not Sola) Scriptura: The significance of any biblical text can be understood on its own, apart from any creed, confession, or larger theological hermeneutical framework. In other words, theological formulations are built directly and entirely out of the Bible alone.
  7. Internal Harmony: All relevant biblical passages on any given subject fit together into a single, internally consistent account of correct and incorrect beliefs and practices.
  8. Universal Applicability: What the biblical writers taught at any point in history remains universally valid for all Christians unless revoked by subsequent biblical teaching.
  9. Inductive Method: All matters of Christian belief and practice can be learned through careful study of the Bible.
  10. Handbook Model: “The Bible teaches doctrine and morals with every affirmation that it makes, so that together those affirmations comprise something like a handbook … for Christian belief and living, a compendium of divine and therefore inerrant teachings on a full array of subjects–including science, economics, health, politics, and romance”

(Summary of Smith’s ten assumptions taken from the blog Earliest Christianity.)

Smith points out that biblicism isn’t a doctrine as we would understand it. Rather, it is a “constellation of interrelated assumptions and beliefs [that] informs and animates the outlooks and practices of major sectors of institutional and popular conservative American Protestantism, especially evangelicalism.”

Why do I contend that it’s dangerous?

First, it helps fuel major debates within Christianity due to something I may have alluded to in an earlier post: the problem of pervasive interpretive pluralism.

Interpretive pluralism is both the reason for and the result of debates such as the Calvinism vs. Free-Grace Theism debate and the Young-Earth Creationism vs. Evolutionary Creationism debate, to name a couple. It informs these debates in that each side interprets its backup passages differently. It flows out of these debates because each side approaches those passages through their own interpretive lens, thus leading to multiple interpretations.

This is one of the reasons that, when someone asks me for biblical support for my positions, I hesitate to give any. Not because I don’t know the Bible passages—after all, I was a fundamentalist for nearly 20 years, culminating in a bachelor’s degree from the “Fortress of Faith,” but because any “biblical support” I might offer could be interpreted seventeen different ways.

Second, biblicism creates confusion for Christians. It arbitrarily chooses which commands in Scripture to obey, and which to ignore, citing a form of “cultural relativism,” but never truly adhering to any criteria for applying it.

For example, in many biblicist circles, women aren’t permitted to be pastors, elders, or even to preach. Yet in the vast majority of those same circles, they ignore commands telling women that they aren’t allowed to wear jewelry or that they must wear head coverings.

This logical incoherence has led many to leave Christianity. The faith doesn’t make sense if the Bible is God’s complete and final revelation to humanity. God appears dualistic in Scripture: a loving and benevolent father on the one hand, and a genocidal, vindictive tyrant on the other. Why would God reveal himself this way?

Third, biblicism elevates the Bible to the level of deity. There’s a mantra I’m about to paraphrase that sheds light on this idolatry of the Bible: without the Bible, we cannot know God. But that statement borders on heresy. The Bible, as I’ve asserted before, is not God’s message to us. No, God’s message to us is King Jesus. The Bible is a library of people’s thoughts, experiences, and legends that all reveal what they saw when they encountered God.

So then how should a Christian approach Scripture? I believe there are a few ways; none of them are perfect, but none of them lead to the sorts of issues found in biblicism. I hope to look into some of them in an upcoming post. Until then, I would encourage you to take a look at any of the following books:

The other side. . .

A lot has been on my mind lately.

Two recent events are weighing heavily on my heart, so I figured I’d share my thoughts on them.

The first hits close to home because, well, it’s geographically quite close to home.

I was born and raised in the shadow of New York City, and I still live within an hour of Manhattan Island. The city has come under the spotlight due to the Eric Garner incident on Staten Island and the ensuing city-wide protests. I won’t bother going into any of the details regarding the protests because, quite frankly, if you don’t already know, you’re probably not interested in what’s happening in the world these days.

The second hits close to home because it concerns my alma mater.

I went to school at a “Bible college” called Bob Jones University. (I’ve written a bit about my experience at that school here.) Since this particular event isn’t sweeping national news, I’ll go ahead and describe a little bit about what’s taking place there.

A few years ago, several churches came under fire following a 20/20 report exposing a child-abuse cover-up at an Independent Fundamental Baptist (or Independent Baptist Fundamentalist, the identifiers are interchangeable) church (Henceforth, IFB). You can watch that story here.

The pastor who orchestrated the cover-up, Chuck Phelps, was on the Board of Trustees at Bob Jones University at the time. A number of students and alumni, organized by then-current student Christopher Peterman, were bothered by the fact that the university maintained Phelps as a board member. Peterman put together the first ever silent protest on the campus of Bob Jones University, an unprecedented act at the time, especially considering the fact that all who participated in the protest were risking expulsion from the university.

This was the beginning of a series of events that uncovered a highly unusual sex abuse scandal spanning several decades with Bob Jones University at the center of it all. The university hired GRACE, a watchdog group that investigates instances of sexual abuse in Christian organizations, to look into reports of sexual abuse related to the school. GRACE published their investigation report last week. I won’t go into any more detail on this because the details aren’t relevant to what I’m trying to get at. If you’re interested in the story, you can read this article by the New York Times, this incredible piece by Al Jazeera, and this insightful and helpful (though understandably emotional and cynical) blog series from a former Bob Jones University student and school victim abuse survivor.

Here’s my point. These events have become what they are because of people’s unwillingness to see through the eyes of the oppressed. Why is there such a divide between whites and blacks in our country? Because few are willing to look at life from the perspective of those who are oppressed.

Put yourself in their shoes. What are their struggles? What makes them angry? Why do you think it makes them angry? Would that make you angry if you were on the receiving end?

Now, why has the sex abuse scandal at Bob Jones University become such an issue? Because no one was willing to look at the abuse from the perspective of the abused.

What are their struggles? What makes them scared? Why do you think they’re scared? Would that make you scared if you were in their position?

It’s Christmastime. The incredible story that we celebrate this time of year is about someone who left his place of privilege and comfort and put on the skin of the oppressed. It’s not just that he left heaven and became human. He left a cosmic throne and entered a blue-collar family.

Then he suffered incredible abuse and humiliation. And then he forgave his abusers. He didn’t ask them for forgiveness as one preacher advised an abuse victim to do. Why? Because victims don’t have to ask forgiveness of their offenders. There’s nothing to forgive. “Please forgive me for your terrible act that severely damaged me.” It just doesn’t make sense.

I have to admit, I can’t conclude this post the way I wanted to. I’ll leave it here because the more I think about my alma mater, the angrier I get, and my emotion is obscuring where I think this post should go.

But I’m not going to leave this unpublished either because I think there’s something here we can all take to heart. I wonder what would happen if we all looked at life from someone else’s perspective.

More on atonement. . .

I’ve recently found it a tad unusual that we Christians place the crucifixion of King Jesus at the center of our faith. Any cursory reading of the four Evangelists’ renditions of the gospel coupled with St. Paul’s writings on the matter should yield the conclusion that it’s the resurrection of King Jesus, not his death that should be central to our faith.

Admittedly, I’ve been guilty of centering my faith in Jesus on his death for almost my entire Christian life.

Recently, however, it’s become somewhat clear to me that God’s work in the world is reconciliatory, and that it manifests relationally rather than transactionally.

Here’s what I mean by that.

The foundation of a penal substitution theory of atonement is the idea that our offense to God creates a debt that we owe him. That debt demands payment, and thanks to King Jesus, we don’t have to pay that debt; rather, he pays it on our behalf. In other words, the debt we owe to God can be removed from our account and placed on King Jesus’ account. For example, let’s say I ran my car into someone else’s car. I don’t have the money to pay for the repairs, but a friend steps in to pay off my debt. In case you missed it, my benevolent friend plays the role of Jesus in this analogy.

Here’s the problem with that. Reconciliation has not actually taken place. The debt has been paid, yes, but God is not in the business of debt relief. He’s in the reconciliation business.

Let’s draw up another analogy. If I were to cheat on my wife (I’m unmarried, so this example falls a bit flat in reality, but I believe it works in theory), no one can come in and “pay my debt” to my wife. There’s no transaction that can repair and reconcile the broken relationship. There are only two things that can reconcile this relationship: my hypothetical wife’s forgiveness and my repentance. (Again, if you missed it, my hypothetical wife plays the role of God in this analogy.)

Throughout the Old Testament, God uses marriage metaphors to describe the broken relationship he has with Israel. He’s summoning his wife. He’s telling her that he forgives her and that their relationship can be restored if she would only repent.

But here’s where penal substitution theory does the most damage to a full understanding of the gospel. It minimizes King Jesus’ life and resurrection to little more than abstractions that exist in the story to support his death. His miracles and teachings are simply there to prove that he is the Son of God and thus someone worthy to pay our debt. His resurrection is simply there to show us how powerful he is.

But to the observer of King Jesus’ life, it was clear that he was doing something more than simply paying humanity’s debt. And that “more” isn’t just supplemental material. The point of King Jesus’ arrival on earth must not be missed or misplaced. It was to announce and usher in a new kingdom—a reversal, if you will, of the imperialism that had dominated Israel’s thinking for generations and was now dominating Israel herself through Roman rule.

Jesus was showing us that the kingdom of God was coming—rather, had already arrived—by way of his teachings and his miracles. At every turn, Jesus was upending the common power structure, both at a small scale in the way he treated children and at a larger scale in the way he treated law enforcement (the Pharisees).

His crucifixion, as crucial as it is to our faith, is not the bloody masterpiece that God had ordained would be the vehicle for our salvation (as proponents of penal substitution theory would have you believe). Rather, it was the necessary means to his ultimate inauguration as King. Trial by fire, perhaps. More fittingly, I believe, it was the stage for his final and most glorious act.

You see, to a Jewish mind, the resurrection is the culmination of Israel’s story. At the end of time, Jews—and indeed the whole world—would be raised to life again after death. No other belief system outside Judaism held to any idea that resembled resurrection. To be certain, some Greeks and Romans (and others, I would assume) held to some sort of afterlife, but resurrection was an ideology limited to Judaism, and then even a limited subset of Jews until the late-biblical to early-postbiblical periods. (Daniel, the latest of the biblical writers, was the first to exhibit a belief in resurrection. Earlier writings, such as the Psalms, denied such a doctrine.)

The resurrection of Jesus is a distinctly Jewish act. While it certainly had reverberations outside Judaism and into the Roman world, it had its greatest impact in Jewish theology. If the resurrection meant the end of all things, what then did it mean for only one man to be resurrected?

The answer lies within the existence of something called the Church. Resurrection is the beginning of our story—the Church’s story. Resurrection is the inauguration of the kingdom of God, a kingdom to which the Church bears witness. The King has taken his throne, and we, his ambassadors, have received our charge: reconcile this world to its King.

Resurrection serves as a message that God is no longer going to tolerate the savage, oppressive imperialism that our world thirsts for. Whereas penal substitutionary atonement theory places a violent act of retribution at the heart of the gospel, a resurrection-centered gospel, which St. Paul appears to adhere to, declares an end to violence and injustice and ushers in a kingdom where a loving, good, and just King sits on the throne.

As Scott J. Higgins, Director of Community Engagement at Baptist World Aid, puts it:

What if at the centre of the universe lay not an act of retribution but God’s declaration that he will break the cycle of violence and retribution by absorbing whatever evil we throw at him, forgiving and creating new life and a renewed world? Would it not change the way we frame faith, the way we speak of ourselves, the way we relate to God and engage with the world?

When ‘Penal Substitution’ rears its ugly head. . .

If you find yourself in a room full of theologians and/or pastors, you can probably gather a lot about their personalities and beliefs by asking one simple question: What Atonement Theory do you subscribe to?

Take this little gem for example:

For those of you who don’t know, John Piper is the controversial preacher, author, and founder of Desiring God Ministries. He’s known for making bold and scary claims about God and his wrath, and this tweet is no exception.

Piper subscribes to what is known as the Penal Substitution Theory of Atonement.

I should probably back up a bit because I bet half of you are wondering what an atonement theory even is.

For starters, let’s define atonement. Atonement is the sacrificial death of King Jesus on our behalf. When King Jesus died, he atoned for (made amends for) the sins of the world.

Now, atonement theory is essentially a stream of thought that attempts to answer a few questions simultaneously. First, why was the atonement necessary (beyond simply that mankind needed salvation from sin)? Second, what took place “behind the scenes,” as it were, when King Jesus died? Third, what is the nature of the transaction that took place at the time of King Jesus’ death? Fourth, how does his death reconcile humanity to God?

There is a wide range of atonement theories, and I don’t think any single one of them hits the mark completely, nor does any single theory miss the mark completely. I have very few misgivings about most theories, with the exception of one: Penal Substitution.

Piper subscribes to the Penal Substitution theory, and that subscription can be seen in statements like the above tweet.

Penal Substitution (or perhaps, more accurately, the popularized version of Penal Substitution accepted by the modern evangelical church, particularly the branches dominated by the “new calvinists”) presents the picture of a God who is angry with humanity, and in order satiate his anger, he must punish humanity. Instead of punishing humanity however, his Son steps in and takes on that punishment.

Is God so juvenile that he needs to be satiated? This theory gives off the image of God as an angry, drunken child abuser who’s so pissed off at his children that he has to beat them senseless.

And then the Piper quote.

God isn’t a child abuser. He’s a wife beater.

But this doesn’t line up with the God that I read about in the Bible. Humanity is not God’s enemy. Humanity is the very thing God is trying to rescue. He’s not angry with us; he’s angry with sin.

Sin is the universal invader, destroying the home that God built, tearing his children apart, and breaking apart his goodness.

God doesn’t have wrath against his wife. (If you didn’t catch the metaphor, his “wife” is the Church—the universal collection of believers.) He didn’t pour out any wrath on his Son Jesus either. Jesus came to pay the debt that we owe to our slaver. Sin owned us, and Jesus came to buy us back. But we owed sin our lives, and so Jesus came to pay with his life instead of ours.

Top Ten Posts. . .

Since my thirtieth birthday is coming up in three days, I thought I’d celebrate by compiling a top-ten list of the most visited posts from restoredtograce.com over the years.

Hope you enjoy some Monday morning memories!

1. Some thoughts on Noah. . . – April 4, 2014. I’m honestly a bit surprised this one was the most visited all time on the blog. It’s a newer post and hasn’t had the time to pick up the readership of some of my older posts. That said, I’m really glad this one is at the top.

2. To my future bride (whoever you may be). . . – June 25, 2009. This one is still going strong after almost five-and-a-half years, though it has been dethroned as number one by my Noah post.

3. Rob Bell vs. John Piper. . . – March 2, 2011. This one was a little interesting to go back to because it reveals a little bit of my past reformed leanings. I even wrote, “I would affirm the truths set forth by [Mark] Driscoll, [John] Piper, and [Justin] Taylor.” Oh how much I’ve changed in just three years.

4. Rob Bell’s Love Wins. . . – March 21, 2011. Here’s another one I would probably write very differently now. Thanks to my rather in-depth study of the New Testament guided by N. T. Wright’s writings, my tune on this topic has changed quite a bit. Still, it’s fun to see where I once stood theologically.

5. Fear in love. . . – September 1, 2009. Ouch. I think 2013 me could’ve learned a thing or two from 2009 me.

6. Shorts and flip flops at church. . . – June 28, 2008. I wrote this one about a year after returning to Christ and less than a year after leaving fundamentalism. Even back then I was stirring up controversy!

7. An odd story. . . – December 10, 2013. I’m simultaneously sad and encouraged that this one has been read as often as it has. It’s an unfortunate truth about my alma mater (and other Bible colleges and universities like it), but I believe these truths need to come to light. That’s why I’m grateful that G.R.A.C.E. is about to publish their report about the abuse that has been taking place at the school.

8. Non-Christian missionaries. . . – September 26, 2011. Missional methodology and praxis are things that have fascinated me over the years. I still struggle to reconcile my own church-going habits with my beliefs about how we’re supposed to approach and engage the non-church culture. I’m thankful for my friend Mike from Christian Associates who has mentored and taught me as I explore this facet of theology.

9. What does true love look like?. . . – March 17, 2009. This one was a bit startling to read. It’s encouraging to find posts from my pre-reformed days. My thoughts made so much more sense back then.

10. Always. . . – March 21, 2010. When I re-read this post, I felt like someone else had written it, and I was resonating with their heart. This is still one of my favorite posts. I pray that you can relate to this one too.

Stories. . .

I love stories.

I believe that stories are the most powerful ways to convey truths. To be honest though, I’m not very good at crafting stories. I enjoy writing, even creatively, but for some reason I haven’t been able to tap into that ever so elusive great story.

That’s not to say that I haven’t written any stories. During my undergraduate years I wrote numerous stories for my short-story writing, novel writing, and script writing classes.

Maybe I exhausted all my awesome story ideas in college. Or maybe I’m just a lazy writer.

But I digress.

I bring up stories because I’ve begun seeing Scripture as a story. Not as a divine rulebook by which Christians are supposed to structure their lives. Certainly not as a message that contains the cypher through which we can unlock the mysteries of the future.

It is a narrative. A story, if you will, of a God who is trying to break into human history and reveal to his creation just how much he loves us.

He speaks our languages, he steps into our worlds, and he endures our hardships. This is a God who yearns to know and be known by his creation. It’s a beautiful tale. It’s a wonderful, compelling, and powerful story.

But here’s where things start to get a bit messy. Very little of this story is historically accurate by our standards of accuracy.

I know. Let that settle for a bit. I realize I just screwed with your mind a bit. I probably made you uncomfortable, maybe even angry.

I’ll say it again because I probably live under the delusion that repeating myself will make you believe me more. Very little of this story is historically accurate by our standards of accuracy.

It’s important that we understand this fact because it will help us alleviate a lot of the weird tensions that exist when we read the Bible. For example, there are confounding and inexplicable discrepancies—contradictions, even—among the four accounts of the Gospel.

That’s not even mentioning the frightening notion that God ordered the slaughter of an entire race of people (the Canaanites) for no other apparent reason than that they were occupying territory that he wanted to give to Israel.

This is perfect justification for Richard Dawkins’ scathing rebuke of God. This “God of love” needlessly commits genocide multiple times throughout the Old Testament.

Christians have quite a few ways of reconciling this atrocity. I’ll just list a few. (I have to thank Peter Enns and his book The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It for most, if not all, of what’s in the next few paragraphs.)

One way Christians try to explain this is by appealing to God’s sovereignty. He’s God. We’re not. Stop questioning him.

But at the end of the day, is that really the kind of God you want to serve? Is that the kind of God you feel compelled to talk about? Is that good news to a dying world? Get under God’s good graces or he’ll be angry with you and send you to eternal damnation!

As Enns puts it, “This really isn’t a solution, anyway. It’s simply restating the problem: God orders his subjects to kill Canaanites. The question remains, “Why is God acting like Zeus or a fascist dictator?”

Enns continues, and so will we.

Another way Christians try to explain this is by comparing Canaanite slaughter to eternal damnation. Basically, why is killing Canaanites such a terrible thing when Jesus talks about throwing people into hell for all eternity?

Unfortunately, this doesn’t explain things either. As Enns and other scholars, writers, and theologians have pointed out, the modern Catholic and Evangelical idea of “hell” is rather outdated and has more in common with medieval notions of the afterlife than what Jesus was actually referring to.

Be that as it may, Jesus’ references to “hell” weren’t statements about “hell” at all. He was using the term Gehenna, which was a Greek word translated from the Hebrew phrase that means “Valley of Hinnom.”

The prophet Jeremiah (who’s my personal favorite prophet for some reason) talked about the Valley of Hinnom. Here’s what he had to say:

The people of Judah have done what displeases me, declares the Lord. They have corrupted the temple that bears my name by setting up their disgusting idols. They have built shrines at Topheth in the Ben-hinnom Valley to burn their sons and daughters in the fire, although I never commanded such a thing, nor did it ever cross my mind.

Did you catch that? The Valley of Hinnom was where the Israelites were sacrificing their children to foreign gods.

Later in that passage, Jeremiah pronounces judgment on those that committed child sacrifice. Their corpses would rot in the Valley of Hinnom.

Jesus knows his audience and uses this symbolism to describe what would happen to those who reject God’s Messiah. And that very thing happened less than a century after Jesus left this earth.

Anyway, we’re off topic now. In a nutshell, what Jesus was talking about when we think he’s talking about throwing people into hell is not at all what he’s really talking about.

Enns writes, “‘Hell’ doesn’t get God off the hook because it’s off topic.”

(There’s actually an incredibly beautiful story about Jesus’ interaction with the only “Canaanite” mentioned in the New Testament. It’s kind of relevant to this topic, but it will take us down a rabbit trail, so I’ll save it for another post.)

One final way (there are several more, but I’ll stop at three) that Christians try to justify Canaanite genocide (or any atrocity that’s attributed to God) is by saying something like, “We have to balance God’s darker side in Scripture with his merciful, gracious side.”

Umm. . . really? Would you say that about anyone else? Sure, your honor, that guy murdered people, but you have to balance that out with all the good he’s done. He donates to charity, cares for sick people, and recycles. In light of all that, can you really sentence him to a life in prison just for a few murders?

Here’s where things need to shift. (I promised in my previous post an avenue for reconciling “angry Old-Testament God” with “gracious New-Testament Jesus,” and I’m about to deliver, but I have a feeling you might not like it.)

Something we need to keep in mind when we read Scripture is that every word was written by someone who lived in a completely different world than we do and who spoke an entirely different language than we do.

And by language I don’t simply mean syntax, words, grammar, etc. I mean an entirely different way of communicating thoughts and ideas, prejudices and beliefs. The ancient Israelites did not recount events the way we do. They didn’t value the same things that we do.

In other words, it’s entirely likely (probable, in fact) that God never told the Israelites to slaughter the Canaanites.

The Israelites were an ancient tribal people who lived among other ancient peoples. All the nations surrounding them had epic origin tales, and Israel had to tell their story.

I won’t go into all the historical-archeological detail, but just understand this: while these events aren’t historically accurate by our standards of accuracy, they are still 100% true. The truth is in what these stories are trying to convey.

Here’s what I see when I read these stories. I see a God who allows his children to tell their stories. I see a God who allows his character to evolve through the pages of the Bible because his creation is evolving in its understanding of who he is.

And then Jesus steps onto the scene. God is no longer simply the centerpiece of Israel’s mythology and religion. He is no longer bound by ancient storytelling and oral traditions. No, God has stepped into the world and transcended mere language. God has become more than just part of Israel’s story. He has become a Man. And that Man has become our King.

Our good, wise, loving, self-sacrificing, and perfect. . . King.

What God is like. . .

I’ve occasionally been accused of making a big deal out of small things. For example, as was evident from my ebook, I made a fairly big deal out of the Calvinism-vs-non-Calvinism thing.

There’s a reason for my “soapboxing” though. It responds to the question, “What is God like?”

Is God angry, vengeful, and misogynistic? Is he genocidal and vindictive?

If we take descriptions of him seriously (particularly those that paint him as the kind of God that would randomly wipe out an entire race of people simply because they were occupying the territory that he wanted to give to his chosen race), do we come to the conclusion that he’s the kind of God that is so angry at his people, his Son has to appease that anger by sacrificing himself on humanity’s behalf?

How then can we say with confidence that “God is love”?

Is the God we trust to rescue us the same God who ordered the killing of the entire population of Canaan, including the women and children?

Can we trust God to rescue us if he is also in absolute control of everything, including those events that hurt us, destroy us, and even cause us to commit unspeakable atrocities?

I would submit that no, we don’t trust a God who ordered the slaughter of entire people groups. We don’t put our faith in a God who dictates and determines the evils that exist in the world.

I’ll wait for my next post to provide thoughts regarding how to reconcile what we see about God in the Christian Old Testament with the type of Man we see in Jesus. But for now, let’s just take a moment to look at what Jesus shows us about God.

We see a God who heals the sick.

We see a God who feeds the hungry.

We see a God who welcomes children.

We see a God who spends time with the broken and marginalized.

Jesus’ death wasn’t to appease the anger of his Father, it was to show us just how far God was willing to go in order to rescue his children from captivity.

Jesus’ outstretched arms call out to us as he breathes his last, “This is how much I love you.”

That’s the kind of God who rescues us.

That is what God is like.

New eBook. . .

My essay that was once titled “An Irenic Rebuttal of the TULIP Soteriological Schema
 or
 Why I’m Not a Calvinist” has been renamed and converted into an eBook!

coverIt’s now called Deconstructing TULIP: A Former Calvinist Examines Calvinism’s Soteriology, and you can download it by clicking here.

Enjoy!