The Process is the Solution

I once knew a family that didn’t do Santa Claus with their kids at Christmas. The reason they didn’t do Santa Claus was because they felt it might lead their children to doubt the existence of God. You see, Santa is basically an old man living far away at the top of the world. He gives you what you want because he loves you. And nobody ever gets to see him. And many children think of God as an old man living far away in heaven who answers our prayers (gives you what you want) and you never get to see him either. So their concern was that when the kids discover that Santa isn’t real (sorry if that’s a shock to you), that would sow the seeds of doubt about whether they were being similarly bamboozled when it came to believing in God. No seriously, that’s what the mom told me. I’m not making it up at all.

I actually think that the experience of finding out that Santa isn’t real, when handled decently well, is a good thing for kids. It’s a safe way to teach them that sometimes you believe things that aren’t actually true. And it’s OK. Life doesn’t end. The presents don’t stop coming. Yeah, you lose a little bit of the magic. But it’s not the end of the world. The real fun of Christmas doesn’t come from in believing in magic; it comes from expanding what brings you joy beyond just receiving. Christmas is much bigger and richer than presents that show up by magic if you’ve been good. It’s just like Christianity that way.

Unfortunately, this whole “never allow doubt, never consider that you might be wrong, never question the reality you’ve be taught” mentality is exactly how a good number of people teach their kids to approach the faith. I know that the people who do this and think this way believe they are doing the right thing. But the hubris of it is astonishing.

In order for me to teach my child never to doubt, question or challenge what they have been taught about God, I have to be confident that what I have taught them about God is 100% accurate and complete. I have to be so certain that my faith experience and theology represents the pinnacle of the Christian faith that it would be foolish and dangerous us for them to ever seek anything better than what I’ve got. And if you believe that about your faith, um, well, I don’t know how to tell you this, but, hmmmm . . . how to put this delicately? Maybe if I pet your unicorn while I figure out how to say this without sounding like a jerk? I know they must exist somewhere in your world, because your world clearly doesn’t work the way my world does. Continue reading


The Entrance Leads to the Whole

So, know anyone with some really bad theology? Like you hear them talk and all you can hear are the lies, errors and misrepresentations they are spouting and it makes you want to scream? OK, maybe you don’t actually care about theology that much. It’s probably better if you don’t when you get right down to it.

But, we all know people who are intensely passionate about their opinions. And hey – if just putting your theology into the category of “opinion” offends you, well, passion’s not a bad thing. But that’s not really here nor there. My point was that some people have terrible theology. Like Westboro Baptist. And . . . well, we won’t get into the rest. Let’s just say there’s no end of churches believing really wacky things.

Of course, it doesn’t all lead to crazy land. Some people have theology that you just think is wrong. Like Jehovah’s witnesses. I had a pair who stopped coming after I told them that living forever on Earth would never, ever be desirable to me. Because until I can reside with the God of the universe, I will not be content. There’s more to the world than our little planet and our people. They were appalled that I would reject the gift of eternal life. I was going to go into the role of the mosquito in the ecosystem to illustrate that their perfect Earth couldn’t exist, but they left before I had the chance. But again, not my point.

What I really want to talk about is why we need to stop worrying so much about how wrong everyone else is. We’ve been doing that for a while now and I’m not sure what we think we’re going to gain by keeping it up. We disagree. About almost everything. Maybe we need to get over it and start building on a different foundation. Continue reading

Becoming People of the Story

Christian theology, while it’s often thought of as an argument over who’s right and who is wrong, can actually be understood as the stories we use to explain the reality of God, the reality of human existence and how to live in right relationship with God, neighbor and self. Using the bible and varying doses of church tradition and reality, we’ve written thousands of different stories, each purporting to be THE Christian story. Except the idea that any of us has found THE Christian story is preposterous.

Jesus said there was one narrow path to him and we’d know we’d found it by its fruit. And I can say with confidence that not a damn one of the stories Christians have told produced fruit worthy of my God. None of them is good enough. Some are clearly better than others, but all of them are wrong.

At best, the different theologies are like placeholders, explaining the best we’ve been able to figure out thus far. At worst, they are ideological prisons keeping people enslaved to a story utterly inferior to the real one. But none of the stories deserve our allegiance. Only Christ does.

In Islam, Christians are called “People of the Book”. Jews also call themselves “People of the Book”. I think we need to become “People of the Story”. Continue reading

Exegesis and Why Noah Isn’t a Jewish Hero

So . . . heard any good exegesis lately? What’s an exegesis, you ask? (Or maybe you don’t ask. Too bad. I’m going to tell you anyways.) Exegesis is simply the practice of explaining a section of text from the bible. So, a lot of sermons include exegesis because they start with the text and then offer an explanation as to their meaning.

A good exegesis is a thing to make the heart sing. My favorite are the ones that show you something in the text you never noticed or understood before. Typically these explanations draw on what the preacher knows about the history, the cultures involved, the language and nuances which aren’t clear in translation, other Christian’s interpretations, the text’s relationship with other texts. It should also be spiritually astute. And it should always be humble enough to offer a possible way to read the text, not the only possible way. That’s not asking much, now is it?

I’m not sure that the wider public really appreciates what it takes to teach (or explain or exegete) scripture well. But even a two bit preacher with no education and terrible theology has devoted more time to studying scripture than the average person has ever devoted to any idea in their life. Obviously, this is no barrier to preaching some really stupid, dull and idiotic stuff from the pulpit. But we’re all merely human. We’ll have to trust that God can get it all sorted out eventually.

One of the things I’m going to start doing is passing along clips of really good exegesis that I come across. Because I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that you’ll like them as much as I do. Because we’re geeky like that. No, actually because they’re really good. And if you have to be geeky to see that, so be it.

Anyhow, I’ll just start with the insight of Rabbi Shmuley Boteach on the role, character of and errors of Noah in the bible (it’s not your typical exegesis, I suppose. But close enough):

the principal distinction between Noah on one hand and Moses and Abraham on the other is that Noah accepts God’s judgement. . .

Noah is not a hero in Jewish lore. Continue reading

The Embodied God

Fairly often, I run across something that makes my soul say, “yes, yes, yes!” (No, not like Sally in the deli from When Harry Met Sally. Get your head out of the gutter. It’s not very much like that at all. Not really. . . Much. . .)

Anyhow, I’ve been meaning to do a better job passing along such things to y’all. Cuz who couldn’t do with a little more “yes, yes, yes” in their soul?

From Nadia Bolz-Weber:

Instead of a religion revealed through philosophical constructs – easily reasoned out and understood, instead we get a God inconveniently revealed in people, and food and wine and water and bodies and pies and oil and beer. When God chose to come and take on human flesh and walk the earth and break bread with friends it was as though God was baptizing the material.  As though to say “stop looking for me in the heavens when you aren’t even close to understanding the majesty of a loaf of bread” or as Jesus puts it, if you can’t understand earthly things you’ll never understand heavenly things.

You can read the rest of the message here. But I wanted to share this part in particular. I’ve written before about letting go of the idea of the sacred and the profane. A lot of Christians are afraid to do this because they’ve been taught to fear the world. They think that the world is sullied and dangerous to believers. But Jesus’ teachings and example demonstrate just the opposite.

God didn’t redeem us as a disembodied light speaking from the clouds at us. He redeemed us by joining us here in creation. Which means that God, who is incompatible with darkness, evil and sin, had no problem living within creation. These bodies and bodily functions and drink and food and illness and menstrual problems are not incompatible with God. In fact, they testify to God.  That’s a pretty remarkable thing, if you take it seriously.

If we want to testify to God, then we’re going to have to learn to testify to God in this material world. The bible says that the created world testifies to God. Perhaps our job is to learn to recognize God at work in creation all around us. Not in spectacular miracles or times when creation doesn’t work the way it normally does. But in the everyday. In bread rising or a seed sprouting. Maybe even in other human beings. Perhaps even in ourselves.

We don’t have to be afraid of the world. It’s good enough for God, after all.

What To Do About Bad Theology

theology-2A few years ago, I had the chance to spend some time with an African American couple who pastored a small church in an urban area. They were good, kind hearted people with a real passion for God. And they knew the bible better than anyone I’ve ever met. One night we sat down and opened the bible and spent about 3 hours doing the best, most interesting bible study I think I’ve ever been a part of. The really odd thing about it was that they held some of the worst theology I’ve ever encountered.

The worst of it was that they taught that people of African descent bore the mark of Cain and were uniquely cursed among all the people of the earth. Africans had been cursed due to their worship of demonic spirits, their abhorant tribal practices and the division of tribalism which lead to violence and dehumanization of other Africans. Evidence of the unique depravity of African people was their willingness to sell each other into slavery. (Just so we’re crystal clear – this isn’t what I think. This was the teaching of this couple, who were themselves African American.)

Not quite as bad, but still erroneous was their teaching that in order to overcome the curse put on them by God, people of African descent needed to walk the same path by which God redeemed Israel. Emancipation from slavery was their escape from Egypt. Next they must receive and keep the law which would lead to them being grafted onto the house of Israel so they could inheret the work of Jesus. Essentially they lived and practiced their faith much like Messianic Jews.

The “best” part of their theology was rejecting all patterns of thought which were part of the mentality of those who were cursed. They identified the mentality which kept them tied to the curse mainly with tribalism which among African Americans was typified by gangs (ie quick to anger and be offended, us vs them outlook, a willingness to resort to violence, rituals by which members gained access to the group, a will to power). They also rejected the sort of legalism which took away their God-given right to do things like drink wine, play cards, dance, go to the movies, etc. Instead, they encouraged, kindness, humility, tolerance, ready forgivess, patience and other Christian virtues. And they threw in some prosperity gospel style “believe and think right, reap the benefits” thinking for good measure.

All in all, I think I can safely say they had some bad theology going. If I had met them a few years earlier, I probably would have been so repulsed by it that it would have kept me from enjoying their company, much less engaging in scripture study with them. I probably would have tried to argue with them; convince them to see the error of their ways. I would have been angry that there were people spreading the sort of theology which defames God like that. Instead, I went to their church picnic, drank wine and covered my head with a scarf to pray with them.

Now, you may not ever have the chance to meet Christians with such wild theology, but odds are good that there are theological beliefs which drive you to the point of wanting to commit violence. It could be neo-reformed theology, partriarchal teachings, pro or anti-gay marriage theology, legalism, liberalism, or some other ism that drives you nuts. We Christians have a very bad track record of being able to tolerate differences in theological opinion. Yet unity among believers is a common teaching of the New Testament. It was one of the things which Jesus prayed for us, in fact.

What I have come to understand is that since our ability to grasp truth fully is limited, God’s concern is less that we believe the right things and more that what we believe is drawing us closer to him. And the truth is that we hold so many theologies not simply because we’re evil or unthinking sheep or don’t care about truth. Rather, we hold so many different theologies because there are so many different ways of being wounded, confused and needy. Different theologies can meet different needs.

That couple I met with their terrible theology? They and the members of their church came from violent, gang infested neighborhoods where the disciplines of the middle class didn’t exist. They had inherited a history of unspeakable cruelty and oppression towards their people. And their theology, mistaken as it was in many ways, was helping them make sense of and overcome all of that. The narrative of God’s curse on Africans helped them understand their history and find a way beyond it. The discipline of keeping the law helped them learn the sort of disciplines which middle class people often take for granted – planning, budgeting, keeping a schedule. Framing the dysfunction around them as tribal remnants or oppressive, slave mentality made it easier for them to recognize and reject the water of dysfunction they were swimming in. It was terrible theology, but it served a real purpose for these particular people in this particular time.

Again, their’s is a rather extreme example. But the truth is that those theologies which make you want to wretch may well be just what someone else needs. And it could well be that the theology which brings you life would do nothing for them. We all need different things on our way to a greater truth.

Of course, bad theology isn’t always so benign for those who hold it. It can, in fact, destroy people. It can engender abuse. It can make people’s hearts hard or shatter them. It’s not always without consequence. And it’s for this reason that a lot of people expend a lot of time and emotional energy speaking against bad theology. Which to a certain extent is fine. I guess. But more and more I wonder if this urge to argue and divide doesn’t really stem from our own immaturity and lack of faith.

First of all, God doesn’t need us to defend him. As Crystal St. Marie Lewis says, “When a god begins to require the custodial protection of those who worship him, he is no longer a god. He becomes an idol.” Without realizing it, many of us think that God can not handle those who defame him without our assistance. That if we don’t step in to mount a good defense, bad theology will win and God will lose. The truth is that God will make himself known in his own way and his own time with or without our assistance.

The second issue is that we have actually underestimated the scope of the problem; there’s a lot of evil theology out there. Much more than you think, in fact. Any theology which isn’t completely true is evil. God is light and in him there is no darkness. If it’s not God, it’s dark and evil. So there’s evil in your theology and in mine. But, whether it’s evil in our theology or in the theology of others, the answer isn’t to search it out, cast it out and rise up against it. Rather it’s to allow God to do that work. The bible says, “what the enemy meant for evil, God uses for good.”

Our part isn’t to fight, but to obey. Jesus said not to resist the evil man. Paul instructs us to keep our eyes on what is good, true, pure, praiseworthy. Evil is overcome by goodness. Do good to those who oppose you.

I know, I know, “all it takes for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing.” And yes, Jesus spoke out against the bad theologians of his day. But consider that doing good isn’t being passive. Often, doing good is an assertive challenge. Especially when working from a position of less power than the one promoting evil. Greg Boyd recently wrote a book in which he argued that God has choosen to do battle through the “weak power of love” instead of by taking hold of the strong power of aggression which we humans prefer to do battle with.

And those bad theologians Jesus told off? They provoked confrontations with him. He wasn’t sitting to the side when these people taught, pointing out all their errors and condemning them. With few exceptions, Jesus followed the edict to promote what you love rather than bash what you hate. We should do likewise.

I know that this seems like really bad advice. God’s instructions usually make for bad advice. Which, I suppose is why we so rarely follow them. But ultimately, we need to put our faith in the power of God and not our own. We need to look at these things with spiritual eyes rather than measure them with human methods. Do you trust in God and the work of the Holy Spirit to lead the bride out of all the bad theology? Do you trust that if you seek first the Kingdom – not go to battle for it, not defend it, not defeat its enemies – that God can handle the rest? If so, then may I suggest that the next time you run into some really bad theology, you simply recognize a brother or sister in Christ and love them the best you can?

Raising Jesus and Original Sin

I have this theory about how it was that Jesus came to be born without sin and it is just that – a theory. But I thought I’d share it with y’all because it has real implications for those of us who are or will be parents. Traditionally, it has been taught that Jesus was born without sin because he was conceived without sex. Because somehow it seems, the act of sex by our parents mysteriously implants this dark stain of sin on us at conception. While there is a verse in Psalm 51 which can be read to confirm this view, I personally find the idea that my parents having sex to conceive me made me sinful unreasonable and unconvincing.

Sex is a good thing. God told Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply. Sex allows the two to become one – to reach past ourselves into another. It brings joy and satisfaction into our lives. It is the means by which we bring forth life and become co-creators with God. It can be misused, to be sure, but how could something which is fundamentally a good also be the thing which stains us before we even have true being? Not to mention that the mechanics of how something my parents did when I wasn’t even there made me bad are problematic.

I don’t think that Jesus’ lack of sin had its roots in the way he was conceived. Rather, my theory is that his lack of sin came about due to something far less mystical and more practical – from his parents. Mary and Joseph had been told prior to Jesus’ birth that this child would be the messiah. Which means that before he was even born, his parents understood that Jesus was good, holy and anointed. Don’t you suppose that this knowledge influenced the way that they parented?

Orthodox Christianity teaches that Jesus was both fully man and fully God. But most Christians tend to give short shrift to the idea that Jesus was fully man. Rather, they seem to think of him as just playing at being human. He resided in a human body, sure, but otherwise, he was God. Continue reading

Does God Sit Around Monitoring Our Thoughts? And Other Pertinent Questions

Are there any limits on suffering? Does God sit around monitoring our thought? Does God know everything that’s going to happen before it happens? These are some big questions which I’m going to be tackling today. But first, if you haven’t already, you really do need to go read my last two posts so you won’t be totally confused:

Why Was The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden?

The Fall Wasn’t Our Fault

Don’t worry – they’re all short. This post will still be here when you get done.

‘Kay? All caught up? Alrighty, then. So, I’ve been talking about the story of the fall for the last couple of days. But for the moment, I want to rewind a bit and go back to Genesis 2. In that chapter, God brings the animals to Adam to be named. Words are powerful things – “In the beginning was the Word . . . Through him all things were made.” Naming has been seen in many cultures and in many times as an act with great mythological and symbolic power. And God gave the power to name and label the creatures of his own creation over to the man. This is the act of a God who is willing to allow for the unpredictable and in not threatened by what he doesn’t direct.

One of the grand arguments of Christianity is whether God knows exactly what is going to happen at all times or if events can be unexpected and unpredictable. I wrote yesterday and in another post on time that I think that there is a difference between God as he exists outside of time and God as he acts within the flow of material creation and time. Outside of time, all that is and will be and ever was exists together and God is complete, whole and unchanging. Within the material world where time exists, God is in dynamic relationship with his creation which does act and unfold in unexpected and unpredictable ways. In fact, I believe that God enjoys this aspect of creation. I think it gives creation an almost game-like quality and allows for true relationship. When God handed the naming of the animals over to Adam, God lost nothing. God does not have our dysfunctional need for control and predictability. He is sovereign all on his own to the point of being able to hand the naming of the animals off to humanity.

I bring all of that up because one of the questions raised about what I’ve been sharing regarding the story of the fall is whether God knew it was going to happen. It was made very clear to me that the answer is no. Not only was it not part of his plan, it was not something which had been anticipated. As I explained yesterday, the accuser had a role to play in God’s kingdom but it in no way required inviting children into an adult game. Continue reading

Bloggy Linky Goodness

OK, OK, you got me – I skipped Bloggy Linky Goodness last week. I’m sure there was a perfectly good reason. Which I’d tell you if it was actually important. Or if I had enough brain power left to try to remember what it was. But it’s back! Hooray!

Before I get started, allow me to share one of the weird things I’ve been thinking about. First, the number 40. Remember how it rained for 40 days and 40 nights for Noah? And how the Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years. And Jesus retreated to the desert for 40 days before starting his ministry. And it takes 40 days to gestate a human baby. Coincidence? I think not.

Now on to Bloggy Linky Goodness: Continue reading

The Transfiguration and Being Known

One of the things I have become fascinated with over the last few years is the experience of Jesus. Hebrews 2:17-18 says:

For this reason [Jesus] had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.

I don’t think many Christians understand the full implications of this. Too many of us have this idea of Jesus as super-human. A Jesus who just knew everything – never had to figure anything out, never struggled with doubt, never had to work to forgive, never wondered what his purpose was – in other words a Jesus who doesn’t actually share in our struggles. Continue reading