Tag: My story

What is the Bible? Pt5: Medium of God’s Word?

This is Part 5 in a series of posts about the Bible.  (See Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.)  The format of this series is an imaginary conversation between 2013 Me (in bold) and present-day Me (in regular type).

2013 Me: in the past four posts, you have resisted my attempts to treat the Bible as an unquestionable answer book, inerrant text, ground of truth, and clear historical document.  Now I’m out of options – is there any other way of thinking about the Bible?

2016 Me: Yes, I think so.  There is a way of thinking about the Bible that consistently works for me: The Bible is a medium of God’s Word to me and my community.

That can’t be right!  That’s exactly what I believed before I encountered doubt!

But if the meaning of the Bible depends on the context it’s read in, and if you won’t specify which culture or field of scholarship is the right context, you end up with a meaningless Bible!  Without a fixed Scripture, you’ll hear all kinds of words! How will you ever know which ones are from God?  How could the Word of God be anything but fixed?

But how could God’s Word be fixed?!  If God truly cares about our needs and truly knows each specific situation, then the Word of God to us will be ever-changing.  A once-and-for-all set of abstract truths would be insufficient to meet the incredibly diverse life-settings of Bible readers.

Even individuals within relatively fixed cultures find that God has different things to say to them at different stages of life.  By refusing to limit my reading of Scripture to a single meaning or context, I am opening my ears to hear more of what God might be speaking to me.  I discern God’s Word among the words of Scripture in light of my history with God – to discern God’s Word outside of the history of relationship would be an act of infidelity!

Now I see what you’re doing here:  you’re just rationalizing a kind of individualism that gives you permission to ignore the interpretations of everyone else!

Quite the opposite!  To me, reading Scripture is like getting an eye exam: we sit down, look at the fuzzy symbols before us, and cycle through our bank of lenses until what we’re looking at jumps out at us with crisp precision.  When reading Scripture, I cycle through different interpretations of the text in front of me until the Word of God to me leaps out of the page.

We pick up new lenses when learn to read the Bible like other people, so it helps to listen to other interpretations, whether they come from a contemporary historian, a narrative critic, an oppressed peasant in South America, a 4th Century Bishop in North Africa, the elderly woman in your small group, etc.  The last thing I want to do is ignore alternative interpretations.

This is all so scary!  The Evangelicals warned me that abandoning inerrancy is a slippery slope, and you’re proving them right.  Isn’t your view of the Bible a radical break with Church tradition and the faith that you grew up with?!

Yes and no.  On one hand I am probably in a tiny minority; most Christians (both past present) would probably insist that the Bible has some fixed and self-evident meaning.  The church you grew up in would certainly affirm that traditional view.  I am, in theory, quite idiosyncratic as far as Christians seem to go.

On the other hand, my theory of the Bible undergirds a surprisingly traditional and Baptist-friendly way of reading the Bible.  Since I really do believe that God speaks through the Bible, I continually return to Scripture in search of a new Word from God.  Insofar as the preoccupation with cold, hard, facts is a markedly modern condition, my own theory of the Bible is a kind of postmodern theory for a markedly premodern way of reading Scripture.

Okay, okay.  Maybe your way of thinking about the Bible isn’t the worst one available.  Maybe it’s even “Christian” enough to be count as faithful.  But what about all of my doubt?  Can your approach to the Bible really handle my tendency towards skepticism?  Every time I try to read the Bible, I notice verses and stories that seem wrong – the Bible is so full of violence, apparent contradictions, sexism, etc.  How do I read the Bible when my tough questions get in the way?

Actually, I think that your questions are more of an opportunity than an obstacle.  Maybe reading the Bible is like that weird story of Jacob wrestling with God.  Maybe if you really wrestle with the text and insist that God give you a blessing, you’ll end up like Jacob: a new identity, a blessing, and a limp.

I would really like to believe all of that, but how does it work in practice?  What do I do when the passage rubs me the wrong way?  How do I find God in something that seems so wrong?

For starters, when a passage bothers you, stop and really explore what seems so wrong to you.  Let your questions bring your values to the surface of your consciousness, and continue prayerfully reflecting once they arrive.  If you think of the Bible as a place for encountering God rather than a deposit of information, it makes sense to bring your otherwise-derailing questions with you into your Bible time.

If you can’t find God in the passage you’re looking at, try a different lens!  If you’re reading Scripture in search of the Word of God to you, there’s no reason why you can’t consider verses and passages “out of context”!  Be like Jacob – don’t leave until you get that blessing.

But sometimes the doubt is bigger than that.  Sometimes it’s not just the passage – sometimes I’m not sure if God “speaks” at all.  Sometimes I’m not sure if I believe in “God”!  Sometimes I really want to read the Bible but my doubts get in the way.

If you want to read the Bible when you’re not sure about God, why not give it a shot?  It’s hard for me to imagine how reading the Bible with your heart and brain engaged could turn out to be a particularly bad thing.  At its core, my theology of the Bible is simply an open invitation to search for God in the pages of Scripture.

This conversation has wandered from doubt to inerrancy to interpretation to history and back again.  In a way, I feel like this theory of the Bible is simply a return to the exciting and open-ended practice of Bible-reading that I grew up with.  It has all come full circle.

Some postmodern philosophers talk about “deconstruction” as a way of clearing away the inevitable contradictions in thinking about something, and creatively constructing new ways of expressing that thing.  You end up with what you started out with, yet everything has changed.  Faithfulness to what you started out with is the very reason that you had to change it.  My relationship to the Bible (and faith in general) has undergone a deconstruction.  Like Jacob in the story, I have emerged from that struggle with a blessing and a limp.

 

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Do I Exist? – Reading “Orthodoxy” by G.K. Chesterton

I read G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy three years ago. The cover of the copy that arrived from Amazon is almost as colorful and exciting as Chesterton’s writing – but not quite.

Orthodoxy Cover

I couldn’t possibly do justice to the brilliance of this entire book in a single post, so I won’t try to do that.  Instead, here are three lessons I learned while reading Orthodoxy that stuck with me long after I finished reading the book:

1. Thinking can make you crazy

Imagination does not breed insanity.  Exactly what does breed insanity is reason.  Poets do not go mad, but chess players do.  Mathematicians and cashiers go mad, but creative artists very seldom.

-G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy [1]

Regardless of whether or not this is a fair characterization of mental illness, my own experience is consistent with Chesterton’s description of madness.

Chesterton’s book introduced me to questions of epistemology, the branch of philosophy that deals with how we know and what we can know.  Before long, I was desperately trying to figure out whether or not I exist.  That phase, lasting for several months, was more than a curious intellectual puzzle; I was so shaken by the apparent impossibility of this question that I lost sleep, had frequent migraines, and felt sick to my stomach for days at a time.

Throughout the experience, Chesterton was giggling in a corner of my brain.  He had warned me of this exact problem.

But why was I unsure of whether or not I really exist?

2. Thinking can undermine thinking

Reason is itself a matter of faith.  It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all. [2]

There is a thought that stops thought.  That is the only thought that ought to be stopped.  That is the ultimate evil against which all religious authority was aimed. [3]

Insofar as religion is gone, reason is going, for both are of the same primary and authoritative kind.  They are both methods of proof that cannot themselves be proven. [4]

First of all, props to Chesterton for basically predicting the postmodern turn some 60-ish years before it fully arrived.  I’ve heard some interviews of philosopher John Caputo in which he describes postmodernism as the subversion of the authority of Reason and likens it to the Enlightenment’s subversion of the authority of the Church.  Sound familiar?

Second of all, I blame Chesterton for my crisis of existence.  In a chapter appropriately titled “The Suicide of Thought,” Chesterton described religious authority as the necessary defender of Reason. In order to really discern whether or not reason is reliability, we would need to begin our work without assuming the reliability of reason from the get-go.  But if reason must be evaluated without using reason, how would we evaluate it?

Where do you go after you arrive at the end of Reason?  Chesterton seems to suggest that that you only have two options: You can take Chesterton’s route and become a starry-eyed high church Christian.  Or, if you happen to find the authority of the Church impossibly un-believable despite your best efforts, you can “go mad,” maybe have a few migraines and convince your friends that you are out of your mind.  I, of course, took the second route.

3. Pragmatism can be very helpful

I agree with the pragmatists that apparent objective truth is not the whole matter, and that there is an authoritative need to believe the things that are necessary to the human mind.  But I say that one of those necessities precisely is a belief in objective truth. [5]

Like many of the books I read during this period of my life, Orthodoxy gave me questions that I couldn’t ignore and answers I couldn’t accept.

Chesterton seems to have found a relatively fixed and sturdy package-deal of Christian beliefs stated in the Apostles’ Creed and interpreted according to Church Tradition.  He evidently started with the givenness of Christian doctrine as it presented itself to him, and this whole surprisingly coalesced with what he found most reasonable and practical.

Personally, being helplessly curious about the creation of what the Christian doctrine that is given to me, I have found the origin and history of these doctrines to undermine the sense that they are necessarily a package-deal to be accepted or rejected as a whole.  Ultimately, the solution to Chesterton’s intellectual and spiritual journey could not and cannot be my own.

I did eventually arrived at a working solution to the problem of whether or not I exist, but I did not find that answer in Orthodoxy.  Eventually I found a way forward in Who’s Afraid of Relativism?, which coincidentally was also written by a die-hard proponent of orthodox Christianity, but that’s a different story for a different day.  For now, suffice it to say that a general sense of pragmatism was a crucial link between Chesterton’s work and the American school of philosophy that eventually freed me from Chesterton’s threatening “Suicide of Thought”.  Chesterton taught me to take a break from worrying about what ought, and to pay some attention to what is – although, as Chesterton recognized, the is always includes some amount of ought.

Orthodoxy is at once a hilarious and deeply insightful book and I am so glad that I read it when I did.  Chesterton’s work was an excellent teacher, giving me wonderful questions and pointing me in helpful directions.

References

[1] Chesterton, G. K. Orthodoxy. New Kensingtion: Whitaker House, 2013. 31. Print.

[2] Ibid. 31. Print.

[3] Ibid. 32. Print.

[4] Ibid. 32. Print.

[4] Ibid. 35. Print.

Reading Rob Bell’s Love Wins

Controversy erupted in the Evangelical Christian community when Rob Bell released the book Love Wins: A Book About heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.  In fact, the controversy began even earlier than the book release; the first salvos of the ensuing Christian vs. Christian war were fired in response to the book’s preceding promo video, in which Rob questioned if Ghandi was really in Hell.

I remember the hysteria when the book first out.  At that time, I was among the Christians who searched YouTube for tense interviews in which pastors and pundits laid the smackdown on Rob, confronting him with Bible verses and unyielding logic.  I hadn’t read the book, but I didn’t need to read it to know that it was wrong; after all, the Bible is pretty clear about Hell.  Looking back, I vaguely remember being open to the possibility that maybe people who didn’t hear about Jesus would get the chance to go to heaven, but even so, the suggestion that everyone would get to go was laughably false.

That was all back in 2011, during the last of my youth group days.  When I picked up tLove Wins for the first time, it was almost 2014 and my faith was in a very different place.

In fact, I read Bell’s Love Wins despite being fairly uninterested in the question of whether people go to Hell or not.  The idea that God would honor people’s decisions, coupled with my teenage experiences of actively making decisions that I thought were immoral, made it pretty easy to imagine a truly loving God nevertheless allowing some people to opt out of the party on the clouds.

For me, reading Love Wins was about identity and doubt.  Identity: Would I remain in the club of Christians who laughed about how obviously stupid certain books were without ever having read them?  Doubt: Since I had recently discovered my own frightening propensity to doubt, could Bell’s approach to the question of Hell serve as a model for how to faithfully navigate my own questions?

Identity: Would I continue to desperately cling to the certainty that I grew up with, even as that certainty continued to slip away?  Doubt: If my uncertainty won out, would the ensuing plummet cost me my entire faith?

Despite what you might have guessed from Rob’s critics, Love Wins doesn’t ever take a strong stance on who does or doesn’t go to Hell.  Bell raises a lot of interesting questions, probes the pros and cons of different perspectives in the way that only Rob Bell can, and looks carefully at a bunch of Bible verses and passages (those who say that they believe the Bible instead of Rob Bell must be talking about some other Mr. Bell…).  Even though he expresses serious doubts as to how a God of second chances could become to a God of punishment as soon as a person dies, Rob never quite picks a specific answer to the question “Who (if anyone) goes to Hell when they die?”

From that description, you might think that Rob Bell’s book is, as his critics say, a bunch of wishy-washy lack of commitment posing as “authenticity.”  For me, it was quite the opposite!  Remember, back when I read Love Wins in December of 2013, I wasn’t looking for a persuasive view of the afterlife; I was trying to navigate doubt and identity.

To my question “Can I ask tough questions and still be a Christian?” Love Wins gave a firm and persuasive Yes.  To the question “Am I crazy and/or sinful for being unsure about some standard Evangelical Christian beliefs, even the ones that everyone says are ‘clearly’ supported by Scripture and/or Tradition?” Love Wins delivered an equally unyielding No.

I still have one vivid memory of reading Love Wins.  I was riding along in the family van during winter break, probably coming back from or going to my grandparents’ house for Christmas.  It was night, but I was reading Bell’s book on my laptop’s Kindle app.  As my brother and mother slept soundly, my dad squinting out along the dark highway, I was fighting back tears.

It was the second-to-last chapter of the book, and at that point Rob is basically preaching about how good and loving God is, all intertwined with stories of a woman who cuts herself and parables of Jesus, lest the rhetoric get too abstract.  Amid Rob’s rhythmic poetry and one-sentence paragraphs (classic Rob!), I felt that same too-good-to-be-true love and acceptance that I had known before my doubts.  Maybe the God who had loved me despite my sins as a teenager could even love me despite my uncertainty as a young adult.

It took me some eight more months and 21 more books to settle on that point; a childhood of implicit and explicit threats of eternal damnation are not un-learned in a day!  Even so, in hindsight, Love Wins was nothing short of gospel to me: from the dead-end of my life up to that point, it made a new way forward, complete with a new identity, grasped by love beyond the limits of my belief.

A Recipe for a Crisis of Faith

About halfway through my college career (I majored in an unrelated field – Civil Engineering), a flood of doubts threatened to wash away the faith that had given so much meaning, hope, and direction to my entire life up to that point.

If I had to sum up the whole experience in one word, it would be “confusion.”  At the time, I was confused about everything: specific beliefs (Is the Bible inerrant?  Is there such a thing as “Absolute Truth”?), my day-to-day life of faith (Why does God seem so distant?  How do I pray in the midst of doubt?), my emotions (Why do I feel so lonely all of a sudden?), my future (How long will this last?  Will I still be a Christian once the smoke clears (if it ever clears)?), and my confusion itself (Why is this happening to me?  Why can’t I make it stop?  What is happening to me?).

In my “journal” at the time (“journal” is evidently Christianese for “diary”), I wrote that I felt as though I was blindfolded in an underwater fistfight: both utterly disoriented and locked in a desperate struggle.  For an entire year, I was perpetually drowning in confusion.

Three years later, after spending a bunch of time reading and thinking, many of those earlier issues have been resolved– at least for now.  I’ve managed to remain a “Christian” in a meaningful sense of the word without turning off my brain.  In many ways, this blog is an attempt to document the solutions – however temporary – that I’ve found to the most threatening questions and challenges that I’ve run into.

One of those questions that I’ve more-or-less resolved is the questions of why I was so confused about my faith all of a sudden.  Hindsight is 20/20!

Looking back, I’m less confused about why I encountered a crisis of faith and more confused about why it took me so long to get there.

For starters, I’ve been asking “Why?” almost non-stop ever since I was a small child.  Additionally, during a time that was very formative for my faith, our church was caught up in the so-called “worship wars”: a dispute sweeping the nation that seemed to be (to my eyes, anyway) a throwdown of older Christians who wanted to only sing old-fashioned hymns in church vs. younger Christians who embraced change and infused rock-style music into their worship.  As a member of the younger crowd, and with support from the Christians who I looked up to, I learned to question what was by and large taken for granted by earlier generations of Christians.

Even more fundamentally, I was brought up in two different worlds: the world of secular-ish Reason that I encountered at school and the world of Evangelical Christianity that I encountered at church.

In math class, I learned that it doesn’t matter how much you “believe” something to be true: you get an ‘F’ unless you can follow the logical rules that everyone agrees on.  In history, I learned that smart people have always disagreed with each other and that Christians have done some pretty despicable things in the name of God.  In English class, I learned that a text is open to many meaningful interpretations.  In band, I learned that exhilarating and moving experiences can and do happen outside of church.  In science class, I learned that answers come after investigation (not before!), and that commonsensical intuition can turn out to be wrong.

But my Doubt Bootcamp didn’t stop when I came home from school.  At church, I was taught that people are “fallen” and therefore not only capable of being wrong, but naturally disposed towards wrongness.  I was taught that my faith should be my own, having to do more with my personal relationship in God than with memorizing someone else’s doctrine.  In my own journey of faith, I learned that God is surprising, regardless of how much I learn from the Bible or sermons.  I was told to love my neighbor, which inevitably (or especially!) meant getting to know people with different religious views.  And even though I was pretty effectively sheltered within Evangelical Christianity, I eventually came to realize the sheer diversity of beliefs among Christians, even though we all read the same, supposedly crystal-clear Bible and prayed to the same Jesus-incarnating God.

Even without listing specific conflicts between the worlds of Evangelical Christianity and public education (or between my individual religious beliefs themselves!), it’s hard to imagine my formation not eventually resulting in a crisis of faith. Although my initial experience of doubt was very confusing at the time, the fact that I eventually experienced  faith-related doubt might be the least confusing thing in the world!