Christianity 201

November 23, 2013

Finding the Divine in the Human Transcripts

The mere suggestion that today’s devotional, yes devotional comes from Rob Bell is enough to cause some eyes to glaze over; and the sound you hear is the sound of some people clicking away at this point. Rob Bell has, in very little time, emerged as a very controversial writer, whose work probably asks more questions than it answers.

But he makes you think. And that’s consistent with my goals here at Christianity 201. He’s started a series on his blog titled “What Is the Bible?” (Not to be confused with Phil Vischer’s excellent DVD series for kids, “What’s In The Bible?”)  As I write this, Rob has 14 chapters posted, and I do admit to having no idea where he’s going and what he’s going to say next.

In the very first section, he echoes words being said by other writers that we are putting too much pressure on the Bible to respond to questions it was never intended to answer. That whatever level of inspiration we ascribe to scripture — and there are three or four — we are beginning with words that flowed from some individual’s pen (so to speak), or as Bell puts it, “Someone wrote something down.”

The following is some of the first section of What Is The Bible?, however, as we do here at Christianity 201, I’ve taken the liberty of formatting obvious scripture citations in green and indented:

Rob Bell 2013Many of the stories in the Bible began as oral traditions, handed down from generation to generation until someone collected them, edited them, and actually wrote them down, sometimes hundreds of years later. That’s years and years of people sitting around fires and walking along hot dusty roads and gathering together to hear and discuss and debate and wrestle with these stories.

The people who wrote these books had lots of material to choose from. There were lots of stories floating around, lots of accounts being handed down, lots of material to include. Or not include.

(There’s a line in the Old Testament book of 1 Kings 11 where the author writes

As for the other events of Solomon’s reign-all he did and the wisdom he displayed-are they not written in the book of the annals of Solomon?

Well, yes, I guess they are…it’s just that we have no idea what the author is referring to. Interesting the assumption on the author’s part that not only do we know this, but that we have access to these annals. Which we don’t.

We see something similar in the gospel of John where it’s written

Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of disciples, which are not recorded in this book

and then the book ends with this line:

Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.

It’s as if the writer, just to wrap things up, adds Oh yeah, I left a ton of stuff out.)

The authors of the books of the Bible, then, weren’t just writing, they were selecting and editing and making a multitude of decisions about what material and content furthered their purposes in writing and what didn’t.

These writers had agendas.

Luke: I too decided to write an orderly account for you…
The Book of Esther: This is what happened…
John: These are written that you may believe…

There were points they wanted to make, things they wanted their readers to see, insights they wanted to share. These writers, it’s important to point out, were real people living in real places at real times. And their purposes and intents and agendas were shaped by their times and places and contexts and economies and politics and religion and technology and countless other factors.

What does it tell us about the world Abraham lived in that when he’s told to offer his son as a sacrifice he sets out to do it as if it’s a natural thing for a god to ask…?

The David and Goliath story starts with technology-the Philistines had a new kind of metal, the Israelites didn’t. The story is under-girded by the primal fear that comes when your neighbor has weapons that you don’t have-like spears. Or guns. Or bombs.

Why does the Apostle Peter use the phrase there is no other name under heaven…? Where did he get this phrase and what images from military propaganda would it have brought to mind for his listeners?

Real people,
writing in real places,
at real times,
with agendas,
choosing to include some material,
choosing to leave out other material,
all because they had stories to tell.

Of course, in the broader world of hermeneutics (Biblical interpretation) this might be just one of many approaches. But I offer it today as refreshing way of rethinking scripture. Later in the section Bell writes:

When people charge in with great insistence that this is God’s word all the while neglecting the very real humanity of these books, they can inadvertently rob these writings of their sacred power.

All because of starting in the wrong place.

You start with the human. You ask those questions, you enter there, you direct your energies to understanding why these people wrote these books.

Because whatever divine you find in it, you find that divine through the human, not around it.

Each section of What Is The Bible? links to the following section, and new sections are currently being added almost daily.  Here again is the link to part one.


November 21, 2011

So Which Christian Authors Rank Highest on Your “Don’t Like” List?

Filed under: Uncategorized — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:21 pm
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In the Christian blogosphere, many blogs are characterized by the number of authors, churches and movements they are opposed to, rather than the ones they like.  And in an age where clicking a “like” button is all consuming, I suppose that’s actually a little backwards.

I’ve often expressed passion here for certain authors, but am extremely unlikely to devote a blog post to condemning an author; while for some blogs, this is their entire reason for being.

So I wade into this one with fear and trepidation, but I think it’s important to not only be aware of who or what movements are influencing us, but also how these authors or movements are casting influence.

For that reason, I was very intrigued with an article by C. Michael Patton at Credo House, Why Do We Love C. S. Lewis and Hate Rob Bell? (A sentiment I don’t share, by the way.)

Some answers Michael put forward:

  • re. C. S. Lewis: “…With all of these foibles, I seriously doubt any evangelical church would take a second look at his resume were he to apply for a pastorate at their church today. In fact, this list alone would be enough for many to call him a heretic. However, we still love him. We still read him. We still defend him. We still hand out his books by the dozens to friends and family who are struggling with their faith.”
  • re. Rob Bell: “…From what I have read and seen, he seems to have far fewer theological problems than C.S. Lewis. In fact, on paper, he is probably more evangelical than C.S. Lewis. He might even make it through the interview process at most evangelical churches. He, like Lewis, has written many works about the Christian faith… However, evangelicals don’t like Rob Bell. He is not beloved. “
  • re. C. S. Lewis: “…You see, while C.S. Lewis has a great deal of theological foibles, his ministry is defined by a defense of the essence of the Gospel. The essence of who Christ is and what he did are ardently defended by Lewis, saturating every page of his books. His purpose was clear: to defend the reality of God and the Lordship of Jesus Christ. All other things set aside, this is what you leave with every time you read Lewis. The problematic areas are peripheral, not central…”
  • re. Rob Bell: “…However, with Rob Bell, the essence of who Christ is and what he did seems to be secondary. One has to look for those things as they weed through his defenses of non-traditional Christianity. Whereas Lewis’ ultimate purpose is to define and defend “mere” Christianity, Bell’s “mere” Christianity is but a footnote to a redefined Christianity. Bell’s focus is to challenge, question, change, reform, and emerge from traditions that bind us. Traditional apologetics, orthodoxy, and foundations are brought into question from beginning to end. Christ’s reality, deity, exclusivity, and the hope of the Gospel proclaimed receive an occasional footnote (if at all) from Bell.”

Patton’s central thesis:

  • “Another way to put this is to say that in the ministry of C.S. Lewis, the central truths of the Christian faith are the chorus of his songs, with the occasional problem in the stanzas. However, with Bell, the chorus of his song is filled with challenges to traditional Christianity and if you listen really closely to the stanza, you might get an occasional line of orthodoxy.”

Sample of reader comments:

  • …Who says “we” like C.S. Lewis. As a Fundamentalist Baptist C.S.Lewis was not a genuine Christian. He was a Heretic. Bell is an impostor and not a genuine Christian either. These men do not represent Biblical Christianity but a counterfeit type.
  • Lewis’ writings bear fruit among non-believers. For example, I have a relative who was a non-believer, and he credits Lewis as having a big role in convincing him of the Christian faith. Lewis gets a lot of rope because of examples like that. We’d rather a person become a believer and perhaps disagree with us on certain doctrines, than for that person to not become a believer at all.
  • It’s always interesting to read the Evangelical take on people like Rob Bell or Brian McLaren. For me, if people like that did not exist, I would be unable to be a Christian. I have never been able to subscribe to Evangelical Christianity, nor do I want to. C.S. Lewis was a great discovery for me years ago because he was like a breath of fresh air in a “traditional” faith that didn’t provide answers to questions I was asking, nor support for those questions. Since, I have graduated to greater “heresy” even than Rob Bell, and I find my faith and my life and my thinking all enriched as a result.
  • I appreciate the writings of Lewis and Bell because they say the same things I am thinking, or ask the same questions I am asking. It is their transparency and honesty at the risk of offending what is “true” or the “right answer” that draws me in. When I read “A Grief Observed,” with Lewis’ description of God behind a locked door, this cold, foreboding silence from Heaven was exactly the experience I had with God. Likewise, in “Love Wins,” Bell asks questions he has asked as well as questions others have asked him. It is an invitation and a conversation many of us want to have. That struck a deep resonance with me.

Read the whole article and add your comment at Parchment and Pen blog.

August 15, 2010

Guessing at the Right Answer

Today’s post is jointly posted today here and at Thinking Out Loud

A decade and a half ago I was just finishing a one-year part-time contract at the local Christian school, teaching Bible, art, music, language and spelling.

Split grade seven and eight spelling to be precise. A weekly list. A weekly test. The one piece of the job I could farm out to my wife, whose spelling is dead-on accurate. (And proofreading, if you have anything that needs doing.)

This morning we visited the church where, 15 years ago, half of the students in the Christian school attended; and one of them, who was not in my class, informed me that both my wife and I had been had.

Turns out, if they didn’t know how to spell a word, they would simply write down some other correctly spelled word. My wife would mark the word as correct, never suspecting that they were up to something. (And not noticing the variation in words, since she was doing two grades at once.)

Isn’t church like that?  We give right answers, not so much to direct questions, but insofar as we say the right things and use the right words and phrases. Even if we’re giving the answer to a question that’s not being asked. (“It sure sounds like a “squirrel” but I think I’m supposed to say “Jesus.” *)

As long as we’re providing responses that are not stained by the messiness of misspellings, we’re given the proverbial red check mark by our church peers. Nobody ever suspects the possibility that they are being had.

We’ve lost the ability to say, “I’m not sure;” or “I don’t know;” or “That’s an issue I’m wrestling with in my own spiritual life.” We’re too proud to say, when we don’t know a particular ‘word,’ something like, “That’s a part of the Bible I’ve never studied;” or “That’s an area of theology I’ve never considered;” or “That’s a particular spiritual discipline that isn’t part of my personal experience.”

So we just give the so-called “right” answers that will get us by. Or we change the subject. Or we say something incredibly complex that has an air of depth to it.

Today I read an article in a newspaper, The Christian Courier which quotes Rob Bell as saying, in reference to his church and preaching style, “…We want to embrace mystery rather than conquer it.” In many churches they want the latter. And if someone does “conquer” all things spiritual, we give them some letters after their name which mean Master of Theology, or Master of Divinity.

Years ago, when our youngest son didn’t know the answer to a question I would ask at our family Bible study, he would just say, “Love?” It was a good guess. (One night it was the right answer.) He figured he couldn’t go wrong with “Love” as the possible answer, though he always raised his voice at the end admitting he wasn’t quite sure.

Well guess what? I haven’t mastered it. I’m working on it. I don’t know.

And I have one more thing to say to all of you: Love?

*if you don’t know this story, it’s in the sidebar — as well as being the theme — of this blog.