Tag Archives: Bible

A Little More on Story…

Christian worship is principally neither an affirmation of general truths nor an interior state of communion of the soul with God…but is rather a social meal- and word-centered communication informed by the key events of the Christian story.    – David F. Ford

One way to understand ourselves as part of the story is to worship in that manner.  Yet, corporate worship happens for most of us just on Sunday mornings, and the rest of the week we often fail to capture the idea of story in our lives.  A few thoughts:

We often refuse to see ourselves in the story, strangely, by trying to take the story apart.  I’ve been reading a book called Amazing Tales for Making Men out of Boys (I’m actually reviewing it…it’s not that I’m finally trying to become a man).  The author simply tells stories of courage and daring.  No explanation or how-to-apply-these-truths, no five main points from each story.  Just a story about what it means to be a courageous man.  I find them incredibly refreshing, and clarifying.  They inspire me in ways that the author never could if he boiled three main points out of them after reading the story.  I just want the story, and to see the possibility of myself in it.

By picking the story apart and saying its essence is in five truths, we’ve lost the power of the story.  If the most important thing was the five truths, that’s what the author would have written.  

The task of soteriology is, then, to show how the reader is included in the story and how the story is or can be the story of that reader’s redemption.   – Michael Root

My brother wrote today on views of the cross, and although the work on the cross and a person’s response are different, perhaps they stand on either side of redemption.  But we strive so hard to communicate how the cross works because it comes from a story, and that story doesn’t fit neatly into one idea.  It encompasses many.  Thus, we see why various writers of the New Testament (and after) have gotten at the cross in myriad ways, explaining the story in a way that makes sense, or stirs, them.  

And I’m somewhat of an existentialist when it comes to this story.  As Michael Root wrote, we must present the same story in different ways for different people.  Redemption comes when we understand ourselves as part of the gospel story.  The church has presented the story in many different ways.  We read the same gospels and pick out various aspects with which we identify.  And Jesus offers identification to all of us.  For on the cross, he identifies with anyone lonely, or abandoned, or suffering, or abused, or shamed, or betrayed, or oppressed, or falsely accused, or mocked, or…anyone.  A political prisoner would resonate with one aspect of the story, a wife who had been cheated on another, a lonely high schooler another.  This is the power of story.  It points at one central truth, but can offer inclusion to so many people.

So, we don’t pick the story apart.  So, we find the aspects that inspire us, and let others be inspired by other aspects.  Not that we can never pick the story apart (study is a good thing) or never check to make sure we’re still all talking about the same story, and haven’t strayed to a gospel that only aims to liberate political prisoners.  

But getting back to my daily point: in my experience, there’s no easy answer to understanding our role in the story of redemption.  Just as there’s no easy answer to living out this role.  Yet, we must read the stories, the large chunks of the Bible that we often skip over, focusing only on the palatable truths of the New Testament (and those we often water down).  We must sit with them, and see ourselves in them, or at least see that we are part of the same redemption story.  We must let them stir us.  God has acted in unbelievable ways, and if we really began to believe that he’s done some of what the Bible claims, then I think we have some praying and acting and loving to do.  

When we begin to do this, to see God’s grand story, then we begin to see it everywhere.  In stories we read, even horrific ones, we see glimpses of redemption.  In the short stories that we tell when we catch up with friends.  In movies we watch, we may see a parallel to God’s story.  In our own lives, through thinking and journaling and talking, we see how God has been moving and perhaps what role he has for us to play.

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Ramifications…

So, perhaps understanding some of the functions of the Bible-as-foundational-story will help understand more of my meaning.  Here are a few rather random outcomes of this idea.

1) The “Christian” book or “non-Christian” book: these labels are not necessary.  Never particularly helpful, now we can see story in a new light.  A book’s value, therefore, is based on how well it lines up with the Biblical story.  Christians can embrace all story, especially that which has its essence nearest to the story of creation, fall, redemption, restoration (to put it very, very succinctly).  We can reject certain books on the lines of it’s not a good story because it doesn’t tap into the true essence of story.  And, we can embrace so many “secular” books on these lines, because time and time again writers have intuited that the Biblical story is the story that our souls lines up with, even without putting those words to it.  

1b) Breaking down story this way means that Christians can best understand any story, because we best understand the full story of human history, and what makes a story either true or good.

2) For the Christian-who-is-a-writer, then, his or her duty is to re-create reality as he or she sees it.  That is, he sees reality in the context of the true Biblical story, and he recreates this reality in his writing.  Just as you may not be able to tell a Christian from a first meeting, or even a fourth, you may need a variety of writings by one author to tell that he is, indeed, a Christian.  But, over time, you see that the full Biblical story has precedence in his writing.  Thus, by reading The Heart of the Matter you may not know Graham Greene is a Catholic writer, but the scope of his work gives you a fuller picture of his belief, because his stories match the essence of the Biblical story quite closely.

3)  In our postmodern age, we can communicate the gospel via story.  Story, as Jesus taught with parables, let’s the individual find his or her own truth: our propositional truths about the gospel, so offensive to society today, aren’t necessary to lead with.  Yet, understanding the full story of the gospel, each individual will come, eventually, to quite similar basic truths: the story of creation, fall, humanity’s hopelessness, Jesus’ incarnation and death and resurrection (eucatastrophe) and our hope today both in restoration now and full restoration in the future.  By communicating the gospel in this way to culture today, we avoid the propositional truths that many reject, and we let each person get caught up in the story.  Not only this, but in many ways the story offers a fuller picture of the gospel than the propositional truths that often have made the gospel an issue only about the future of an individual soul.  While it is this, it is much, much more.

3b) Thus, a person who seeks liberation finds it in the Biblical story, but also eventually finds more.  A person who seeks healing finds it; a person who seeks love finds it; a person who seeks meaning finds it; a person who seeks hope finds it; a person who seeks community finds it; a person who seeks…you get my drift.  Story meets people where they are in an effective way that ideas cannot necessarily, and brings them to a higher place.  Story also doesn’t allow half-gospels: liberation theology sees it is only part of the story, as well as the saving of an individual soul, as well as the theology of creation, etc.

Finally, I’m not saying to throw out propositional truth.  Rather, propositional truth has its place, but can no longer be given the highest perch if we want to both a) connect to society and b) understand the Biblical story in its fullness.  That is, there is a reason why the Bible is primarily story and not propositional truth.

In the next few days, I’ll try to post on “what does all this mean to me, today?”

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It’s All Ritual…

So I had this thought today as I was pulling away from the bank: it’s all ritual.

Let me put it into context.  I just finished The Shack, a book that explores grief, loss, relationship, and God (mostly God).  It is a book that I both really liked and made me a little sad.  I really liked it because it explores topics such as suffering, free will, heaven, intimacy with God, guilt, among many others, and it articulates some of these frustrating theological concepts.  More than anything, it reminds me that God is a God of love and relationship, a God who is always with us and desires more than anything to be intimate with us.  For all this, I really liked it.  Additionally, it tackled some tough theological concepts (free will, anyone?) and, while certainly not offering a concrete conclusion, it does offer some insight.  It made me sad, however, for the small reason that the writing itself doesn’t have much going for it.  The ideas are great; the writing is average at best.  This makes me sad not because it won’t reach a good number of people in our culture today (it will), but because it won’t have staying power: a book that is read fifty or a hundred years later needs both ideas and writing.  I think some of the ideas have enough going for them to last fifty or a hundred years, I don’t think the writing does.

But I digress.  A line in The Shack, when God is talking to the main character, has God saying “nothing is about ritual.  It’s about relationship.”  I found myself nodding as I read this line.  Until I pulled out of the bank today.

Think about it.  What do you do before you go to bed?  Brush your teeth, put on your pajamas, etc.  How about when you get up?  Do you shower or eat breakfast first?  Do you read the paper or check news on the internet?  (I’m a breakfast-shower-internet person, myself.)  We do these things consistently because we have developed morning or evening rituals.

Brooke, during the school year, would call me everyday around 4pm.  If she didn’t call, I’d call her.  We’d ask about each other’s days and talk about what we wanted to do that night — generally not too much.  We didn’t plan it, but it became ritual over time: Brooke’s school day ended at 3:30 but she never left then and it was a good time to call and connect.  It became a ritual.

I think that we hear this word — ritual — and get scared of it.  I know I do.  I hear it and think of church services where you stand up and sit down and recite verses without thinking.  I think of being told to read my bible or pray a certain number of minutes everyday.  And, in these cases, the ritual can rob the relationship.  It can cause obligation or unthinking and unfeeling action.  But, that doesn’t mean we get rid of ritual.

Other rituals, even spiritual rituals, hold deep significance whenever I get to do them.  Communion or witnessing a baptism are reminders of who God is and who I am, of my relationship with the Creator and Redeemer God.  These rituals are central to followers of Jesus, they are symbols and reminders.  

The answer, I think, is to embrace ritual without being bound by the ritual.  Embrace ritual for the deeper meaning behind it.  I brush my teeth before bed so I don’t get cavities; I shower in the morning so I don’t smell; I call Brooke because I love her.  I need rituals in my life — and they are quite present in my life when I take a look — but don’t want them to define me.  It’s about the ritual when the meaning gets lost, when the ritual itself becomes the object.  When I read my bible because that’s what you do I am voiding a brilliant activity from the relationship that makes it brilliant.  When I read my bible every morning to connect with God, because I need connection with Him, I embrace ritual without it defining me.  Maybe I miss a morning: no big deal.  Maybe I find other ways to connect.  Good.  

I want to be someone who forms rituals and habits that make me a fuller person, more connected and alive, while never acting simply for acting’s sake.

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The Slavery of Chocolate…

I brought my lunch with me to work today: spaghetti and meatballs.  I had cooked it right before I left, so it was still warm when I got to the church (those of you who know me realize that I usually don’t waste the time to re-heat food) and I sucked it down while trying to finish this Sunday’s gathering.  Afterward, I printed something off in the main church office.  While in the main office I realized that there were a couple cookies left over from a funeral reception earlier this week.  Since I was at the funeral I figured, hey, I can have one of those cookies.  I picked up a big chocolate chip cookie and it was the consummate end to an already satisfying lunch.

I listened to a podcast today by a guy named Steve Chalke.  He’s from London and thus he sounds extremely bright with that British accent.  I found myself silently agreeing with him from time to time, enjoying his accent and message.  He helped found Oasis Trust and Stop the Traffik and was informative and funny.  Steve’s message was on Genesis 1, on man and woman being made in the image of God — all men and all women — and that we have a responsibility to live that out today: to treat others as image-bearers, to give dignity and respect to everyone, to stop human trafficking.  

Steve gave statistics on trafficking: human trafficking made more business that Microsoft last year, there are over 17,000 people trafficking every year in the United States primarily for the sex industry (which is probably a gross understatement, since no one puts “sex slave” on their census forms), 50% of worldwide trafficking is in children.  It was enough to move me, but almost too much information to get me to act.

Then, Steve gave an action point.  Which is nice.  Or convicting.  

He said that at least 12,000 kids have been trafficked into the Ivory Coast from Mali and are working as slaves.  A little research of my own shows that 284,000 kids are working in the Ivory Coast and other African farms in hazardous conditions.  The trafficked kids, the other children in hazardous conditions all work on cocoa farms, where we get our chocolate.  About 43% of the world’s chocolate comes from the Ivory Coast.  

I think about my chocolate chip cookie today.  Maybe the cocoa was picked by enslaved children.  Maybe it was picked by children period.  Maybe not — but I’m sure that some of my chocolate has been.  

What to do?  Only eat fair trade chocolate.  As consumers, we vote with our wallets.  When William Wilberforce fought to stop the slave trade in England, he encouraged everyone to stop eating sugar and show the plantation owners that they cannot hold slaves.  Today, we must do the same: stop eating chocolate that we cannot account for and eat only chocolate with the logo on this page.  

I want to make a difference with the way I spend my money.  I want to communicate that everyone is made in the image of God.  I want to live this way all the time, even when I’m eating a serendipitous chocolate chip cookie in the middle of a Friday.

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Reconstruction

Since writing is a process through which I think and develop ideas, I’m continuing to think about language as it relates to spirituality.  In my last post on the subject, I essentially deconstructed some of the language that springs out of churches.  Yet, deconstruction without reconstruction is simply destructive; it doesn’t help in the long run.  I’ve been left with pieces, and it is time to start building again.

Last night I picked up The Message, Eugene Peterson’s interpretation of the Bible in contemporary English.  My copy, which I used a lot in college, is dog-eared and full of notes and it was enjoyable to look at some of the margin notes that I hadn’t seen in a few years.  I remembered that Peterson was basically doing what I was talking about; he was attempting to bring a modern understanding to the Bible.

Some of his phrases were quite helpful.  Take, for example, the following sentence from Romans 1:

I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes…

Peterson renders it:

It’s the news I’m most proud to proclaim, this extraordinary Message of God’s powerful plan to rescue everyone who trusts him…

For myself, Peterson’s rephrasing brings a new understanding to the text.  Words like ‘gospel’ or ‘salvation’ encounter a new meaning: the Message of God, his plan to rescue.  For myself, and my guess is for many others in a news-laden society, the idea of rescue is somewhat familiar: I have seen it helicopters hover over homes in New Orleans or Chinese soldiers digging out quake-destroyed buildings rescuing people.  God is a god who rescues; this is his Message.  I can see this and understand it in a new way.

This is the starting place for my reconstruction: seeing where others have already gone.  In the upcoming days (I’m on vacation with some college friends and Brooke this week and posts will probably be sporadic) I’ll continue these reconstructive ideas.  Also, I hope to give some of my understanding of Biblical authority, which, I believe, gives people today the authority to do this deconstruction and reconstruction.  

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Language and the Bible…

So, I’m continuing on the cliché and spirituality theme, but I would like to offer a comment: clichés in reference to how we express ourselves aren’t necessarily bad, it is simply that we generally don’t think about them.  Clichés take away our power to see and communicate.  Yet, if clichés are thought about and examined, especially in reference to spirituality, they are fine to use from a personal standpoint.  My issue is that most people — myself included — don’t think about them, and in public they also lose value unless properly defined.

What I’m writing about today, however, is what to do with phrases found in the Bible that have subsequently either lost meaning or had their meaning altered.  For example: born again.  This is found in John 3, as Jesus talks to the rabbi Nicodemus, he uses this phrase.  It has different meanings in different traditions, but roughly means being reconciled to God and made new.  Some traditions would define this primarily as baptism, some as an intense experience, some as assenting or believing in the claims of Jesus in the gospels (obviously, there’s a lot of overlap, but different traditions stress different facets of faith).  The words born again gained recognition in popular culture in the 1960’s and 1970’s, as the movement Jesus People used the term often.  Born again went along with intense conversion experiences, and increasingly, devout Christians.  Chuck Colson wrote a book entitled Born Again in 1976, also subtly tying the phrase with conservative politics, whether intentional or not (Colson was chief counsel for President Nixon).  

Thus, born again to the follower of Jesus means being reconciled to God, re-created by the Spirit, and living an entirely different life and identity than before.  In popular culture, however, born again means conservative, dogmatic, narrow-minded.  What are we to do?

I argue that we need new language.  If we are Jesus followers, we are living out a new covenant as outlined in the New Testament.  The two biggest figures in the New Testament — Jesus and Paul — constantly redefined and invented language.  Jesus defined being reconciled to God in myriad ways, he defined the Kingdom of Heaven through use of story after story after story.  Paul, too, used a blend of Roman and Hebrew influences as he wrote letters to young churches, constantly using words and forms in new and dynamic ways.  

We need to hold to the ideas and language of the Bible while subverting and playing with language of our own.  Born again doesn’t work?  How about re-created?  Have you heard ‘salt of the earth’ too many times?  How about color in the world?  These are fairly simply and inane examples, but the important part is that we recapture the dynamic language of the Bible and re-stress the radical and revolutionary belief in a God of the Universe who is personal and loving and sacrificial.  

The important part is that we accurately communicate to the world who we are and what we believe, and that we understand and think about who we are.  If we are thinking about this, new language will come, or old language will re-establish itself.  Paul, who wrote many letters now in the New Testament, uses different terms as he addresses different communities.  He uses many of the same terms, but also writes his letters with language that directly refers to his audience.  Why don’t we do the same?  

We have a holy writ that serves as a starting point, and we must draw from that — again and again — as we use, refine, adjust, and develop language.  We must see how writers of the Bible thought and spoke, how they defined revolutionary ideas.  We figure out how those ideas relate to us today — not adding to the ideas, but not letting our language reduce the ideas, either. Because the language in culture is constantly evolving, we must take the permission that these writers have given us, as Spirit-led people, to develop language constantly relevant and evolving, too. 

That’s how this blog got its name.

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Cliché and Spirituality

Since I am one of the biggest offenders — someone who often uses clichés as he expresses himself spiritually, a letter of critique to myself:

Gabe,

I’d like to address, today, the use of clichés within spirituality — particularly Christian Spirituality (since you are in such a community and tradition).  If clichés make us less human, what about clichés within Christian Spirituality?  How do they rob us of understanding and relationship?  And you know, Gabe, quite well how clichés fill your spiritual world and language.

When you pray, why do you ask God do just do something?  He is the God of the universe, and you want Him to “just” do something?  Why do you ask God to be with people — He is present everywhere, and the final promise of Jesus in Matthew is that God is with people.  Is that the best the God of the universe can do — just be with somebody?  

What do you mean when you want God to bless someone?  To make them happy?  To make them content?  To give them scads of money?  Why don’t you ask for that, rather than a word that you never really think about.  What does bless mean?  And really, most of your friends are quite blessed: they have cars — which 90% of the world doesn’t — and good homes and jobs and you as a friend (who could beat that?).  

How about the Lord’s will?  Can’t you argue that, in some way, everything that has ever happened is the will of God?  When you say, “your will, Lord” is that an out, an escape if things don’t happen the way you want?  Can things happen against God’s will?  

Or calling — what is a calling?  A passion lived out?  Desire?  Your passions worked out in prayer and relationship with others?  Doesn’t a calling end up being whatever you happen to be doing?  

Beyond these words are other words that, really, have become so loaded in society that it is misinforming to use them: born again (conservative, southern), the lost (people who don’t belong), saved (see appropriately titled movie), conversion (that’s the best you can do for radically re-orienting your life?), even Christian (*shudder*).  

You see, Gabe, these words don’t adequately communicate what you want to communicate.  Words like “be with us” fail to capture the actual profound God-of-the-Universe-in-relationship-with-you reality that happens during prayer (and, not during prayer).  Words like “bless” generally don’t communicate what you actually mean, and are sort of watered-down happy-feelings that you want to send to someone else.  Can’t God do a lot more than send happy feelings?  And words that are loaded simply divide and push away people who need God’s love the most, because they have rarely felt it.  Would you tell a friend he is lost?  Then why do it behind his back?

Gabe, you don’t really pray all that much (despite the fact Paul said you should pray unceasingly … but that’s another issue).  When you talk to a God bigger than you can imagine, stronger and more loving than your mind can grasp, is this the best you can do?  You drop into a certain lingo of happy feelings and temporary hopefulness?  Or, do you want God to re-orient your life and the lives’ of those around you, radically offering love in profound ways, grace in scandalous ways, and help from a Helper Spirit, not a simply a happy spirit?  By falling into clichés, you lessen your expectations of God — and thus your understanding of God — and paint yourself as a caricature, unable to express yourself uniquely to The God.

I’ll stop there.  May this be the beginning of breaking through your language, not trapping yourself or other people or your expectations of God in clichéd and trite language.  Rather, may you unblushingly approach God in prayer and lovingly re-define Christian Spirituality to those unreconciled to God and turned off by the insider language of the church.

Sincerely,

Your Soul

P.S.  C.S. Lewis wrote, in his essay Weight of Glory, “if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak.”  Sometimes your language — the way you express yourself — weakens your desires.

Tomorrow: Wait!  Isn’t some of that language in the Bible?

 

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