The Bamboozling of Biblicism ***

Ok- though it has been a while since my last blog, I have been busy in my current research on grief and bereavement studies, practical theology, and pastoral care. Today’s entry, however, reflects a topic that has been on my mind for the past several years.

Many conservative Christians desire to take the Bible “seriously” – to embrace what is considered to be a “high view of Scripture.” Biblicism is an appropriate word to describe how some conservative Christians (including fundamentalists and evangelicals) have mutated a “high view” of the Bible into something unhealthy for the church today.

The current essay is divided into three parts. Part one will provide a basic definition of Biblicism. Part two will explain the problems of Biblicism. Part three will attempt to offer a better way to approach the Bible for the spiritual nourishment of mature people of faith. Are you being bamboozled by Biblicism? Let’s take a closer look.

Part I: Definition

The origin of Biblicism is predicated upon the Bible’s own internal testimony of its divine inspiration.

2 Timothy 3:16-17
All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness;  so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.

The passage of 2 Timothy 3 is a good place to start for a person of faith who holds a high view of the Bible; most Christians will not argue about the Bible’s view of its own inspiration. What is relevant here, however, is how Biblicism launches out of this normative Christian belief into something unhealthy for people of faith and even epidemic for today’s church.

If you are unfamiliar with the term Biblicism, I’ll develop a definition in two parts. Here is part one:

Biblicism is a fundamental commitment to the supremacy of biblical authority.

Good so far…the Bible says it, and that settles it. Right?

Biblicists feel confident that they have accurately identified what the Bible is (i.e. the revealed and inspired written Word of God). Whatever the Bible says about a given subject, it must be accurate. The logic is plain enough: what the Bible says, God says. Therefore, it is incumbent upon people of faith in God to look to “the Good Book” so they can know what the will of God is. Biblicists believe that when you read the Bible, it is fundamentally clear and precise. As such, one is not encouraged or required to look beyond the 66 books of the ancient text.

  • Want to know God’s will for dating? Look to the Bible.
  • Want to know God’s will for eating and dieting? Look to the Bible.
  • Want to know God’s will for marriage? Look to the Bible.
  • Want to know God’s will for finances? Look to the Bible.
  • Want to know God’s will for women’s roles in church and society? Look to the Bible.
  • Want to know God’s will for politics? Look to the Bible.

You get the point. The message is clear: to navigate the many important questions of life, you must look to the Bible for clear instruction. And when you do, the Bible will provide you with clear “biblical” answers. In short, a Biblicist believes that the Bible does much more than provide the parameters for basic Christian orthodox beliefs. In fact, the Bible is an instruction manual for living in the twenty-first century (or whatever century for that matter).

Now, to develop the second part of my definition of Biblicism, you need to know the two chief Biblicist assumptions.

  • First: A Biblicist believes that there is one clear “biblical” teaching on any given subject.
  • Second: A Biblicist believes that he/she can know and understand precisely what that truth is on any given subject.

The Bible does not just contain truth, it is truth, the fullness of God’s revelation to humankind. Yet, most importantly for the Biblicist, he/she believes that one can know precisely what that full truth is. As if forgetting that our human minds are fallen and have affected our ability to interpret the Bible (and everything else for that matter), Biblicists contend that you just have to read the Bible to understand it…it’s that simple. Well, some Biblicists assert that a basic understanding of Greek and Hebrew is necessary to unlock the many interpretive mysteries of the text. Nevertheless, the second assumption is the same: if you happen to know the original languages of the Bible, you can understand precisely what it is the Bible is affirming on any given subject.

The second part of the definition of Biblicism is based upon this second premise. Here is my full definition:

Biblicism is a fundamental commitment to the supremacy of biblical authority and to the belief that one can interpret precisely what biblical authority bears witness to on any given subject.

Christian Smith provides perhaps a better definition in his seminal work, The Bible Made Impossible. He suggests that Biblicism is a belief that the Bible is “an instruction manual containing universally applicable divine oracles concerning every possible subject it seems to address” (2012:98).

Part II: Problems

I contend that Biblicism fails on at least two accounts. It is both untenable (i.e. it does not work out in practice) and it is naïve. First, let’s look at why Biblicism is untenable. If the Bible is indeed a Holy Handbook of divine oracles, why can’t sincere Christians read it and come to a common agreement about its subjects? This should be self-evident; however, the Biblicist framework is embraced by literally millions of Christians across many denominations young and old alike. It is helpful therefore to go a little deeper and unpack the basic principles of Biblicist thinking.

Biblicism is Untenable

To see why Biblicism does not work, but nevertheless remains a popular way to approach the Bible, it is necessary to distinguish between its first and second principles. As a first and foundational principle, the basic sentiment behind the Biblicist position is quite admirable indeed – to give due respect and proper consideration to the Holy Book of the historic Christian faith.

Theologians over the centuries have developed key words to help us understand just how important the Bible is. Words like inerrant (describing the belief that the Bible is free from all errors in its original writings), infallible (describing the belief that what the Bible teaches is true and useful), and authoritative (describing the belief that the Bible is the ultimate authority for faith and practice) are the generally accepted terms for “Bible-Believing” Christians. Christians historically have assented to the belief that the Bible is the inspired, inerrant, infallible, and authoritative word of God. There is no derision for this basic principle about the Bible. Most Christians, including those of the Biblicist variety, embrace this orthodox view of the Bible. But here’s the real rub: Biblicists go beyond this first and most basic presupposition about the Bible. They develop a unique nuance that is problematic.

What makes a Biblicist and Biblicist is when one teases out an interpretation of God’s Word about a secondary concern (i.e. an otherwise disputable matter or matter of indifference) with bold apodictic claims of air-tight certainty. Simply put, problems arise when one steps beyond the bounds of basic historic Christian orthodoxy. It is not that one is unable to have an opinion about a debatable subject that marks a Biblicist; it is that a Biblicist holds his/her personal interpretation of a debatable issue (e.g. women’s roles in church and society) on the same level with basic historic Christian dogma that has defined the church for the past two-thousand years.

Many people throughout history and across the globe today assent to the Bible’s unique position as God’s holy inspired special revelation; however, an interesting breakdown occurs when people begin discussing and acting upon what it is they believe the Bible to be saying about a debatable subject. Oftentimes, there is a disconnect between what the Bible says, and what we say the Bible says (think about the church’s rejection of Galileo or the “biblical” South’s justification of slavery to name just two). Regrettably, sometimes the church just gets it wrong.

To contend that the Bible is inspired and useful for teaching is one thing, but to explain precisely what it is you think that the Bible “really” says about a debatable subject is an entirely different task. Biblicists blur this important distinction and tend to believe that if they simply make an appeal to biblical authority, their interpretation of what the Bible says gets the final word. Though Biblicists appeal to “biblical authority,” in practice, it is their own interpretation of the Bible that is the final authority.

Let me give you an example of how Biblicism fails:

  • Two Christians in a conversation (let’s call them Bob and Joe) agree that 2 Timothy 3 is true. “Surely the Bible is the inspired Word of God,” Bob says, as Joe warmly agrees by the nodding of his head.

But watch what happens after the very next step is taken. What we often uncover is not uniformity, but interpretive diversity – a pluralism of beliefs.

  • Christian Joe then turns to Christian Bob and says, “It is a good thing that the Bible is true, because it clearly teaches X” (fill-in-the-blank with whatever debatable secondary concern you can think of, such as Calvinism, Young-Earth Creationism, Complementarianism, Annihilationism, etc.).

Note that when we state our “clear reading of Scripture” on a secondary biblical issue, we often find that those around us, the very ones who agreed with our first principle of biblical authority, are no longer standing with us. In fact, they are looking at us as if we are crazy.

  • “Surely,” Christian Bob exclaims, “the Bible does NOT teach X or anything of the sort; the Bible actually and quite simply teaches Y.”
  • Then Christian Joe responds aghast! “Bob, how can you say the Bible teaches Y when you know full well that it really teaches X? Perhaps you, good sir, do not really believe in Scriptural authority after all.”

You see, to claim a belief in biblical authority does not produce uniformity. Instead it often demonstrates what is known as “interpretive pluralism.” There are many competing views of what the Bible “clearly teaches.” Is one view more “biblical” than the other? Who gets to decide? Biblicists find it particularly problematic that people come to different opinions of what the Bible teaches. This interpretive pluralism is a major problem for Biblicists and is strong evidence for why Biblicism does not work as an approach to the Bible.

Biblicism is also Naïve

Unfortunately, Biblicism is not only untenable, it is also epistemologically naïve. Biblicists believe fundamentally that Biblical authority somehow trumps all other sources of knowledge. Here’s how this plays out…

Some Biblicists may give lip-service to the idea that God has revealed Himself in both the “book of nature” and the “book of the Bible” – but in the final analysis, Biblicists more often than not will capitulate to their own interpretations of God’s Word over any other source of authority. Ironically, Biblicists mistakenly think that they must choose the Bible over and above the knowledge gained from a particular field of study or discipline, because that type of knowledge is colored by “the limitations of human reason.”

Of course, Biblicists make the same mistake. When their interpretation of the Bible contradicts an idea someone has in a non-biblical field of study (e.g. “the earth is round”), Biblicists forget that they too are faced with their own “limitations of human reason” as they read and study the Bible for themselves. Biblicists are guilty of what is called “epistemological naivety” – as if their interpretations of sacred Scripture are somehow free from possible error.

Nevertheless, despite being untenable and epistemological naïve, for a Biblicist, to say that one is “biblical” is a real badge of honor. As such, Biblicists make it their life quest to discover the “biblical model” for whatever is in question. The chief concern for a Biblicist faith becomes “biblical precision” – a presupposition that the Bible is divinely formulaic. The underlying assumption is that the Bible contains everything you need to know if you study it correctly (yes, pepper in a little Greek and Hebrew when needed). Further, in this sort of a recipe fashion, Biblicists take great pride in thinking they know what the ingredients of a biblical model is for whatever subject they are trying to “serve up.” Obviously, for a Biblicist, the Bible quite rightly has a secure place of ultimate preeminence for all faith and life. So…is there a better way to nourish a mature faith in Christ? This is the topic of part three of this essay.

Part III: A Better Way

Biblicism, in my estimation, is unhealthy for a maturing life of faith. The issue I have with Biblicism is not its high respect for the Bible, but its overly rationalistic approach to the ancient text. As I explained in the first two parts of the essay, Biblicism fails because it is untenable and it is guilty of epistemological naivety (and sometimes plain old fashioned arrogance).

Unfortunately, in our attempts to help nurture a “high view of Scripture,” we can unwittingly sow the seeds of Biblicism. Let me explain from my background how easy it is for Biblicism to surface in a budding life of faith. If you were born in the Bible-Belt in the twentieth century, raised in a Protestant church through Sunday School, Training Union, and Vacation Bible School, you may recall an old childhood song about the Bible.

The B-I-B-L-E

Yes, that’s the book for me

I stand alone on the Word of God

The B-I-B-L-E

Of course, I still love this old song. It fueled a passion in me as a young boy for Bible study and compelled me to learn how to connect my new faith with my daily life – what many call developing a “Christian worldview.” At the same time, if one is not careful in standing “alone on the Word of God,” he/she may believe that a positivistic view of Scripture is the only way to go. The quest can digress into a never-ending task of deciding who is right and who is wrong about the Bible, and a never-ending task of defining who is in or who is out of your group with the “right” answers. This “bounded-set” type of thinking can easily lead one to be obsessed with trendy buzz-words that shape a false confidence in one’s own sacred canopy. The quest for uniformity in biblical interpretation is maddening and not the way to go for a healthy maturing faith in my estimation.

Biblicists tend to think that Bible discovery is like a well-paved “straight and narrow” roadway. There is one correct view of the Bible (i.e. only one true Christian worldview), and the Biblicist is convinced that he/she has it. Unfortunately, Biblicists unwittingly turn what they hope to be a high view of the Bible into an unhealthy view of the Bible as a Holy Handbook filled with divine oracles about everything in life. For a Biblicist, understanding the “true” meaning of Scripture is as easy as the open road.

Open Road

Here is how you can know that you have been bamboozled by Biblicism. Has the Bible really yielded “clear” and “straight” answers for everything important in your life? Consider how the following examples have not led to unified answers among Christians from your own experience.

  • What does Christian Dating/Marriage look like?
  • What is Christian Parenting?
  • What is a Christian view of Eating/Dieting?
  • What is the Biblical way of Handling Stress?
  • What does the Bible have to do with Scientific Facts?
  • What is Christian Leadership?
  • What is the Christian view of Retirement Planning?
  • What does Christian Politics look like?

Furthermore, has the Bible really yielded “clear” and “straight” roads of theological precision? Consider the following examples.

  • What should Christian growth look like?
  • What is the right mode of Baptist?
  • What is the biblical model of church governance?
  • What does the Bible really teach about hell?
  • What is the clear biblical teaching about divorce and remarriage?
  • What is the right view of women in ministry?
  • What is the accurate teaching about the doctrine of the rapture?
  • What does biblical authority say about the millennium?
  • What did the atonement of Jesus really accomplish?
  • What does the Bible clearly teach about eternal security?
  • What is the one true Christian view of war?
  • What is the clear biblical teaching about predestination and free-will?
  • What does the Bible say is the real purpose of the church?

An honest and sobering critique of Biblicism suggests that many of us have been bamboozled. Frankly, the clear open road of the Bible has come to a dead end. Not only is Biblicism epistemologically naïve, it domesticates the Bible – forcing God’s Word to be what it is not – a divine instruction manual for the betterment of your life.

End of Road

A Better Way Forward

Fortunately, there is a better, more healthy way forward for a maturing person of faith – one that embraces biblical mystery and recognizes that the pathway of Bible discovery may not always be so smooth and precise. A better way forward is not an anti-foundational relativism that suggests that there is no place for reason and truth in a life of faith. Instead, a better way forward will be marked by the often rough terrain of post-foundationalism, or more plainly, as a faith-based critical realism.

A Better Path

We can know something, but we actually know in part. We can see something, but we actually see in part. The better way forward is framed by a broad “mere Christianity” and encourages open interdisciplinary dialogue. A better way forward is iterative and humbly recognizes that sometimes our biblical views are simply wrong and must be changed.

Is there a name for this better way forward? Some may like referring to it as a “Christ-centered narrative approach.” This approach recognizes that the Bible is much more story than it is a divine and didactic instruction book for life. Put positively, biblical authority is located in the grand story of Christ in the Bible. A Christ-centered narrative approach points to how Jesus, who also held a high view of Scripture, taught others how everything in the ancient Scriptures pointed to himself. In this way, biblical authority is mediated not through our exclusive, subjective, and formulaic interpretations of the Bible, but rather through the historical witness of Christ in Scripture. The point of a “Christ-centered” narrative approach to the Bible is that there is a more honest and humble way forward for people of faith who believe that the Bible is God’s inspired Word.

I do not mean to suggest that a “Christ-centered” approach is anything new or novel – or that it is the only “true way” to read and understand the Bible. It is interesting to note, however, that even before the early church had a full Bible as we do today, the church embraced what they referred to as “the rule of faith.” That is, the early church recognized the centrality of Jesus and therefore placed the narrative of His birth, life, death, resurrection and return as the essential Good News of the Christian message. Today, we can see this same thinking in other “Christocentric” confessions, such as the beloved 2000 Baptist Faith and Message statement about Scripture:

  • “All Scripture is a testimony to Christ, who is Himself the focus of divine revelation.”

Personally, I have found a Christ-centered narrative approach to the Bible to be more satisfying, more honest to my ability to understand the text fully, and even more respectful to the rich diversity and mystery inherent in God’s Holy Word. Moreover, I am less likely to be judgmental about one’s opinion about a particular biblical teaching, and also more open to how God may be supplementing, affirming, and even correcting my biblical knowledge with the great discoveries and progress that is made in other fields of study.

Perhaps it might be helpful to end this blog by contrasting a Biblicist view of the Bible with a better way forward – a way that admittedly does not provide nice and tidy answers to all of our questions, but nevertheless draws us closer to the ways of Christ and His centrality for all of life – another way to simply profess that indeed Jesus is Lord.

A Biblicist Approach A Christ-Centered Approach
There is one clear meaning of the Bible. The Bible is multi-vocal.
The Bible is primarily a Holy Handbook of divine oracles and universal laws to help us manage life. The Bible is primarily a divine historical narrative about God’s on-going restoration of all creation through the Person of Jesus Christ.
Is Exclusive: Depends upon systematic theology to define what is right and wrong. Is Inclusive: Encourages systematic theology and interdisciplinary dialogue to learn multi-dimensional nuances of Christian truth.
Epistemology is based upon modern rationalism and foundational premises. Epistemology is based upon critical realism and post-foundational premises.
Chief Quest: Find the right biblical model in order to support a particular interpretation or system of thought. Chief Quest: Move people of faith together toward Christ within a framework of generous Christian orthodoxy.

Instead of being bamboozled by the weird rigidity of Biblicism, I hope you’ll prefer to walk in the simple wisdom of Psalms:

“Your Word is a lamp to my feet
and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105).

***My basic argument of this blog entry is greatly indebted to the following:

  • Christian Smith, The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism is not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture, 2012.
  • John Franke, Manifold Witness: The Plurality of Truth, 2009.
  • Stanley Grenz and John Franke, Beyond Foundationalism: Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context, 2000.
  • Merold Westphal, Whose Community? Which Interpretation?, 2009.
  • Rachel Held Evans, A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband “Master”, 2012.
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The Spirit of God & the Contagious Breath of Hope

In light of the recent news story below, I felt inspired to supply the underlying narrative.

Dig Deep for Africa

Once upon a time (all great stories begin this way), a young African woman lived in a small obscure village in southern Ethiopia. She had a beautiful baby girl who was unfortunately very ill and needed great care. Through remarkable courage and surprising unselfishness, the young woman set out on foot for a long journey to relinquish her baby girl to a remote childcare center with a singular hope for a better world for her child.

And the Spirit of God moved with the breath of hope.

The childcare center offered the only real opportunity for the baby to be given the medicine, food, and clean water she needed to survive…and ultimately even a remote chance to be adopted out of the poverty and oppression experienced by her birth family.  Yet despite the odds, the baby girl was given the name Netsanet by her birth family – a name that means “freedom” – in hope that she would escape the pain and suffering that had plagued her village for generations.

And the Spirit of God moved with the breath of hope.

At the same time on the other side of the world, one very fortunate couple – who already enjoyed parenting three special boys of their own – was given an opportunity to travel thousands of miles away from their home in East Tennessee to adopt this little girl. Once home and embraced by a loving family and a hospitable community, little Netsanet grew strong, happy, and healthy. It wasn’t long before the couple found a way to offer more hope and encouragement to Netsanet’s birth village. The couple was delighted to find an organization that builds wells in Ethiopia. After months of saving and planning, the result was a newly constructed water well, dedicated in Netsanet’s honor, that would provide clean water for 200 families and 2,000 students in the same obscure village where the story began.

And the Spirit of God moved with the breath of hope.

One evening in a short presentation to their local church family, the couple recounted the amazing story of Netsanet’s life, the courage of her birth mother, and subsequently what a blessing it was to be able to provide clean water for the poor village in Ethiopia. The couple finished their presentation that evening not knowing that among the adults attending the service was a young boy who was paying particular attention to the part of their story about the lack of clean water in Africa. “If people really need clean water, why are we not doing something about it?” he reasoned.

And the Spirit of God moved with the breath of hope.

This week, our church celebrated the “Dig Deep for Africa” campaign led by our children’s pastor, and the children under her care who committed their time for months to raise money for a clean water well in Africa. Though the goal was initially to raise enough to build one well, the children actually raised enough money to build a new well in Uganda, and repair another well in Sierra Leone.

Maryville kids provide clean water for villages in Africa

The Spirit of God moves even today with the breath of hope. Who will be affected next?

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Maryville kids provide clean water for villages in Africa

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Freedom’s Wellspring

In my blog entitled Life Matters, I have set out to explore a simple idea – that life is embedded with meaning and value without having to ascribe something else to it. I have found it ironic that the more I focus on the needs of others (and why their lives matter), the less time I have to be consumed by my futile quest of justifying the significance of my own life. It’s actually quite liberating.

Perhaps this is why Moms do not get sick very often – there is no time to be sick and think about your own troubles when you are taking care of all the others that are sick and needing assistance.

Why does life matter – really? Jesus once said that the objective evidence of being one of his disciples is the outward practical expressions of having love for one another. Interestingly, he did not suggest that the evidence was relegated to the cognitive domain alone, as if theological precision was somehow the key to following him. Instead, Jesus pointed to simple praxis – that we must practically demonstrate love for one another. If life indeed matters, as I suggest, then I am compelled to think of others and act in their best interests. Let me share how this has played out in recent months…

John 13:34-35
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

We received some really exciting news to share. After visiting Ethiopia twice last year, and seeing first-hand the struggles these resilient people deal with on a daily basis, Angelia and I decided to explore how we might be able to do something more for them – something helpful and immediate – something that would say to them that their lives matter today…even to people they do not know on the other side of the world. Because the needs in Ethiopia are so basic to life, we quickly formed an idea… A WELL FOR CLEAN WATER!

One of the images we will never forget from our six hour drive to Durame from the capital city of Addis Ababa was the number of people we saw walking great distances for usable water. In fact, we would later learn that as a daily chore, many people in Ethiopia must walk several miles to get water, and then are faced with the difficult and perfunctory task of carrying their supply back to their homes.

UNICEF reports that Ethiopia suffers from some of the worst water issues in the world. Official figures state that only 31% of households have access to safe water and only 18% have access to sanitation facilities. This problem is compounded by the fact that water quality is very low, increasing the likelihood of water-borne diseases such as diarrhea and dysentery. Even having “access” to water is problematic in Ethiopia. For those living in rural areas, having access means that women and children must walk up to six hours a day to collect dirty water in 40-50 pound jerrycans from contaminated sources. Obviously no one should have to live like this!

Note the yellow plastic jerrycans at the front of the stores.

So last fall, we took our family on a brief trip to Nashville to visit Mr. Joseph Smith from Healing Hands International. Joseph is the Director of Operations, and just happens to be an expert in working with mission initiatives in various parts of the world – including Ethiopia. He loved our idea of putting in a clean water well in Ethiopia. In fact, after explaining how clean water wells work in developing countries, Joseph gave us hope that we could actually build a well for the people in the area where our daughter Netsanet is from. Healing Hands International had secured a 42 well agreement with Ethiopia.

How thrilled we were to know that there were people already on the ground in Ethiopia with rigs for drilling and locations identified as possible clean water sources. With a little money, time, persistence, and good weather, Joseph promised us that it would be very doable to bring life sustaining clean water to a number of needy people in Ethiopia. And so, armed with our simple belief that “life matters,” even for folks on the other side of the globe, we started the journey of building our first water-well in southern Ethiopia.

Our goal was to locate a clean water source somewhere close to where our daughter Netsanet was born. Within a couple of months, Joseph had his crew working with the Church of Christ Mission and had identified the perfect location for us. Joseph helped us secure an approved location inside the town of Durame, the administrative center of the Kembata Tembaro Zone in the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples region in Ethiopia. This was the exact town where Netsanet’s first orphanage was located!

After the American driller had completed his work in late February of this year, an Ethiopian crew took over to complete the pump and test the water. Just a few days ago, we received news (and pictures) that our pump was now active and working.

The well itself is located at the Zato Shodera School in Durame. The school accommodates 2,000 students and will support about 200 family units. Joseph reported to us that these families have never had a clean source of water before now. He also told us that the well will provide them safe water for the rest of their lives.

When the pictures of the new well arrived, I was overcome with excitement (and tears of joy). As I looked closely at one of the pictures with the children crowding around the pump, I couldn’t help but notice how much the little girl on the far right looked like our Netsanet!

Joseph provided another picture that showed the same little girl getting some clean water for herself, as her friends looked on with excitement. Yes, I cried a little more in thinking about how that girl could easily have been Netsanet.

In that same region of Ethiopia several years ago, an obscure Christian woman of little means named a baby girl “Netsanet,” which literally means “freedom,” in hopes that God would spare her child by one day allowing her to be free from the oppression and struggles fated for her family. She, too, intuitively knew that “life matters.”

What would unfold in a chain of events since that time is hard for me to comprehend. Little Netsanet would suffer the painful separation from her birthmother for the chance to be free. Last year at this time, Netsanet realized her freedom by coming to American and being adopted into our family. Today she thrives and brings a smile to all who know her. She is a wellspring of life and love. It is because of her that clean water now flows in her homeland. In a humble demonstration of love for one another, Freedom’s wellspring brought life to those in great need.

Matthew 25:34-40
Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36  I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

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Rachel Held Evans on Love – “It’s That Simple, It’s That Hard”

Sometimes you run across something beautiful – something that causes you to pause inexplicably – something that takes you to another place, if just for a brief moment. I often live for those times, don’t you? Let me share with you…

Last night, I had one of those moments. I was finishing Rachel Held Evans’s Evolving in Monkey Town when I ran across her simple heart-felt description of LOVE. After reading it again, I was transfixed for a few moments, allowing it to steep slowly into my brain. To be honest, the book itself has been working me over quite a bit. It has challenged my thinking and made me uncomfortable at times. At the same time, Rachel’s big ideas have hit home as well, resonating with many of the sentiments that have crossed my mind over the past few years. Rachel writes as a skeptical millennial Christian – born and raised in the Bible belt, and literally submerged into the culture of fundamentalist Christianity for most of her life. Her journey is about moving from certainty, through doubt, to faith (23).

 

For those of us familiar with the Christian ghetto language of evangelicalism, there are times in her book that you simply laugh out loud – this of course is followed by times when her critique of our faith drops your jaw and reminds you of how many things the church has butchered over the years. Here are a few of her zingers:

  • The apologetics movement had created a monster…it was only a matter of time before I turned the same skeptical eye upon my own faith (79).
  • Pond-scum theology is the premise that human beings have no intrinsic value or claim to salvation because their sin nature make them so thoroughly disgusting and offensive to God that he is under no obligation to pay them any mind…it makes Jesus look like a fool for dying for us, and it leaves his followers with little incentive to seek out and celebrate the good in one another (116-117).
  • Apologists like to say that following Christ shouldn’t mean checking our brains at the door. Perhaps it shouldn’t mean checking our hearts either (130).
  • Perhaps being a Christian isn’t about experiencing the kingdom of heaven someday but about experiencing the kingdom of heaven every day (173).
  • While I still believe that Jesus died to save us from our sins, I’m beginning to think that Jesus also lived to save us from our sins (175).
  • Doubt is the mechanism by which faith evolves (219).
  • Most of the people I’ve encountered are looking not for a religion to answer all their questions but for a community of faith in which they can feel safe asking them (222).

Rachel is a postmodern person of faith – without the familiar posturing so characteristic of a prior generation of evangelical Christians. That’s right – she is not a republican, she is not for war, she thinks women are able to serve the Lord just like men, she believes in evolution, and she has the audacity to point out the fact that even the best “Bible-believing” Christians “pick and choose” what they believe and practice from Scripture. Ouch Rachel!

Rachel also recognizes that she was fortunate enough to be a winner in what she rightly calls “the cosmic lottery” – being “lucky” or perhaps “blessed” enough to have been born to wonderful parents in a loving Christian home in America. She contrasts this to those who are not “lucky” winners in the lottery of geography in order to make a sobering point: “I sometimes wonder what sort of convictions I might have held had I lived in a different time and place” (21). Rachel convicted me (once again) of the dichotomy between the world’s rich and poor, and how simple geography plays such a defining role.

Of course, I cannot say that I agree with all of the ideas in her book (and I’m guessing that she would be just fine with that too), but I also cannot deny how compelling and familiar her faith story is. Towards the end of her text, she finally pens eloquently – and in a way that I have been previously unable to articulate – what I have been writing and thinking about for some time now in terms of the breakdown of naïve rationalism and the important implications of living in a post-foundational world. In a word, Rachel calls it LOVE – “it’s that simple and that profound. It’s that easy and that hard” (209).

Here is how Rachel explains it, and I hope you find it as beautiful as I do (the music crescendos, the lights dim, and the curtain is raised):

How ironic that the most important fundamental element of the Christian faith is something that is relative, something that cannot be measured with science, systematized with theology, or managed with rules. How fitting and how strange that God should hide his biggest secret in that present yet elusive thing that poets and artists and musicians and theologians and philosophers have spent centuries trying to capture in some form but that we all know the minute we experience it. How lovely and how terrible that absolute truth exists in something that cannot really be named (210).

I’m interested to see what some of you think about Rachel’s description of love. Does her description resonate with you?

Posted in Apologetics, Church, Discipleship & Spiritual Formation | 5 Comments

Still Hunting Eggs: A Brief Easter Reflection

I never found all the hidden eggs at Easter, but I always enjoyed the hunt. The key is to stay at it – not to give in to an empty basket. I know this can be frustrating – especially when you have been searching so long without any trace of the treasure you know (or at least hope) is out there somewhere. If your basket is empty too long, the temptation is simply to walk away resigned to the notion that there are no more eggs left to find – or even worse – perhaps there never were any eggs in the first place – that the whole hunt was some kind of cruel hoax.

This thought has taken me some time to learn, but I am beginning to see the wisdom of Frederick Buechner’s big idea:

“All I can do with real assurance is [echo] the effect that here and there even in our world, and now and then even in ourselves, we catch glimpses of a New Creation, which, fleeting as those glimpses are apt to be, give us hope for this life and for whatever life may await us later on.”

I know this idea isn’t very romantic – nothing like the fanciful idea I once held as a younger Christian that there are sustained waves of Christian thought and practice showering our communities and world with the “Good News” of Jesus. “Saving the World for Jesus” makes a nice bumper sticker, and a good youth rally I suppose, but it doesn’t seem to match closely with reality these days. The sad fact is that we Christians often tend to “eat our own” rather than stand tall as exemplars of Christ’s love and grace. And when we cannot even get along with one another, the love we are peddling finds no room in the marketplace of daily life. Without the evidence of love among us, the quest for hidden eggs – artifacts that demonstrate the transforming power of faith – is just a fanciful child’s game with no apparent grounding in reality. But I am not ready to leave the quest just yet. Here’s why…

Though Buechner’s idea is not romantic, at the same time, it is not hopelessly dystopian either. Yes, I recognize there is little warrant to dream of a world (at least the world as we know of it now or in our immediate future) where love and grace permeate every corner of life – where collective peace prevails over narcissism in every land – where love is the ubiquitous hardwiring in the human heart. Nevertheless, I keep asking the question: Can we still have hope? Are there real pockets of progress – evidence of faith gone viral – not in a just a technocratic sense, but an intentional movement to go from the biblical Page to Practice? In short, are there any hidden eggs of treasure out there? To this end, though perhaps more modest than before, I resolve not to lose my grip and drop my basket in despair. I still desire and expect to find an egg or two from time to time…something splendidly transcendent that reminds me of God’s power at work in the hearts and minds of myself and others.

Admittedly, the biblical framework we put around the gospel – our latest and greatest “perspectives and insights” – are never quite right. Our theories are always better than our practice. Like a beautiful frame without a photograph (or a golden egg with no treasure inside), our orthopraxis is often left wanting and empty. But, as Buechner suggested, “here and there in the world and now and then in ourselves” we see signposts pointing to God’s kingdom and grace. There is an occasional trail of evidence that the Divine is nearby.

Don’t hear me wrong – I’m not advocating a “we can find God if we try hard enough” kind of spirituality. I recognize that it is God who finds us first. What I am concerned about is the evidence, or lack thereof, that He found us and invited us to the hunt. Where is the evidence that the Great Creator has found us, prompting us to a life of faith and practice? Like the hunter of eggs, surely we go about our lives with the hope that there is an occasional treasure to be found among us – evidence not only that faith is real, but that faith truly changes things for the better. Yes, the New Creation is “usually hidden” – but thankfully not always out of sight.

As I reflect again on the significance of Christ’s resurrection at Easter, I am choosing to think well not only about the forgiveness of sins – the forensic justification that Christ secured for me on the cross – but also about the victory He demonstrated over death and evil. And because of this victory – this demonstration that God’s kingdom has been inaugurated on earth – that it has indeed broken through the outer and inner layers of our world – I find myself continuing my search for “hidden eggs” of great treasure in my life and in the lives of others that provide further evidence of God’s New Creation among us.

Let this Easter season be a time you enter the hunt (or continue the hunt) with me. Realistically, you won’t find all the eggs – but surely “here and there and now and then” something of beauty will be made manifest.

Here is an encouraging thought: While on your hunt for the hidden treasure, be conscious to plant a few eggs of your own to encourage the search of someone else. Here and there and now and then our lives must manifest Christ. Easter is not the end, but only a New Beginning.

Revelation 21:5
And He who sits on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.”

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Take Care Lest You Forget Episode One

How good are you at remembering things? I confess; I stink at it. Google Calendar and my iPhone are necessary tools to navigate my life with any regularity nowadays. I’m the guy always looking for his keys (have you seen them?) and the pen I’m desperately trying to find is often parked over my ear. I sometimes walk in a room with a determined step, but then forget why I entered in the first place. I can’t remember the names of old friends, neighbors, and yes, sad to say, it often takes me one or two tries to attach the right name to the right child of mine.

Speaking of my children, yesterday I took all four of them to see Star Wars Episode I. I know we have seen it 1,000 times before (and you probably have too) – but as my boys reminded me, we had not seen it in real digital 3D at the Regal Pinnacle mega-plex, with its lavish stadium seating and endless supply of tasty treats. As we watched the all-too-familiar movie together, transfixed as if seeing it for the very first time, I was struck by the contrast of what I was doing this time last year.

One year ago today, Angelia and I were in Durame, Ethiopia, a very small town in the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People’s Region (SNNPR) of Ethiopia. February 13, 2011 was the first day we saw our daughter, Netsanet Wataro, face-to-face. In contrast to the lavishness of the Regal Pinnacle mega-plex, Angelia and I sat on a tattered carpeted floor in a poor, but surprisingly clean and functional orphanage. In contrast to the large quantities of everything that the Regal serves up “at the right price,” in Durame, we just had a small cup of coffee and a few bites of unsalted popcorn. I hope you can imagine the great contrast – to see Netsa today all propped up pristinely in a large comfy captain’s chair, arms encircling a tub of buttery salty popcorn so enormous that you could barely see her 3D eyeglasses peering over the top at the big screen…and of course, slurping through a 24 inch straw on a sugary soft-drink too heavy to lift. Goodness, how life has changed for her in just 1 years’ time!

February 13, 2011: Episode I

With this cacophony between Ethiopian struggle and American luxury before me, I had a moment of sadness about it all. Perhaps “conviction” is a better word – this overwhelming feeling of thankfulness for our blessings, but with a pronounced pain of reality that life’s struggles in Ethiopia continue for so many. May I never forget what I experienced in Ethiopia – what I saw, felt, smelled, heard, and tasted – of a world so far removed from my own.

In my moment of reflection, I was reminded of a major theme in Old Testament history – to “take care lest you forget the Lord your God.” This theme is repeated over and over again, as if God somehow knew of human proclivity to cry out to him in times of great struggle, and yet to so easily forget Him when times are better. How easy it is to lose sight of where we came from – to forget what He did (and is doing) for us and among us every day. Have too many of us in America so actualized a perverted state of “blessed hollowness” described in the ancient text below?

Deuteronomy 8:11-18

11 “Take care lest you forget the LORD your God by not keeping his commandments and his rules and his statutes, which I command you today, 12lest, when you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them, 13 and when your herds and flocks multiply and your silver and gold is multiplied and all that you have is multiplied, 14then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, 15 who led you through the great and terrifying wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water, who brought you water out of the flinty rock, 16 who fed you in the wilderness with manna that your fathers did not know, that he might humble you and test you, to do you good in the end. 17 Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ 18 You shall remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your fathers, as it is this day.

I applaud the Star Wars folks for knowing how to keep a great story fresh and in front of us generation after generation. Many of us still sit captivated today by this fanciful and epic tale. Seeing Episode I again with my children reminded me of the real quest before me: can I can keep Netsa’s story fresh and alive and in full 3D as well? Can I “take care lest I forget” the plight of so many wonderful Ethiopian people – and surely so many others just like them across our globe in other nations – people who struggle for safe drinking water, basic medicine, adequate shelter, and general education. As Christ prayed in the Lord’s Prayer for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, surely He desired for us to be mindful and take action for those so less fortunate and so needlessly suffering.

What a witness of the greatness of the Star Wars story as it will again assemble millions who are willing to remember Episode I. With our pocketbooks in hand, so many of us will take time to hear and see once again how the great Star Wars saga all began. It seems to me that the church today could learn a lesson from this powerful force in contemporary culture. What do we need to do to shake us out of our suburban comforts and to extend love to others – in our workplaces and halls of leisure, in our neighborhoods, civic clubs, churches (yes churches too) and, if you dare the thought, even to those whose names and faces we do not know around the world?

Perhaps we too could affect millions if we would “take care to remember” our First Love. For Christians, our Episode I is simply this: God so loved us that He moved First among us to bless us, not because we are such awesome and deserving people, but SO THAT we would extend our blessings to others – all for His good glory and honor. If we “take care lest we forget” Episode I of God’s grand story, maybe we’ll then recognize His Kingdom come – a Kingdom that is indeed “out of this world.”

Psalm 67:1-2

1 May God be gracious to us and bless us
and make his face shine on us—
2 so that your ways may be known on earth,
your salvation among all nations.

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