Tag: Theology

Why I think about God

Why I think about God

This blog is about the big questions that keep me up at night, especially the ones that have to do with God.  Here, I write about the books I read, the questions I ask, the podcasts I listen to.  Most of the time, it’s pretty heady stuff.

But who cares?  Why spend so much time thinking about faith?  To many Christians, my project will likely seem unnecessary, overly intellectual, an exercise in missing the point. Continue reading “Why I think about God”

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resisted my attempts to treat the Bible as an unquestionable answer book, inerrant text, ground of truth, and clear historical document.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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Christian Tradition and Drumming Tradition

Three years ago, I discovered my need for (and eventually, love of) theology.  By that time, I had already been playing drums and taking music very seriously for nine years.  Many lessons that I learned as a musician have turned into crucial guides along my journey of faith.

Christians and Tradition

Tradition inevitable comes up when Christians talk about what we can, should, or do believe.  After 2,000 years of Christianity, it’s hard to find a topic that previous generations of Christians haven’t already wrestled with.

So what do we do when our questions overlap with the questions of previous generations of Christians?  Does “being a Christian” mean that we’re obligated to agree with whatever most Christians throughout history have believed?  Lately, many conservative Protestants have begun touting “orthodoxy” or “historic Christianity” in this way, evidently hoping that Tradition will be a less slippery and divisive tool for ousting heretics than the Bible has turned out to be.

Alternatively, should we be suspicious of our forefathers and mothers?  After all, most generations of Christians lived in markedly premodern contexts.  Their philosophical assumptions and social views can strike us today as being offensive, degrading, ridiculous, and outright weird.  Should we assume that their opinions, however “orthodox” they may be, are irrelevant and oppressive until proven otherwise?

I suspect that most Christians today relate to Christian tradition somewhere in between those two extremes.  Perhaps they take some standard Christian beliefs to be non-negotiable (the Nicene Creed comes to mind), while many (most?) other beliefs remain safe to question.

Luckily, my experience with music has shown me another way to relate to tradition.

Drummers and Tradition

For six years, I took weekly or biweekly private drum lessons from well-educated professional drummers.  I quickly learned that serious drummers have a certain reverence for the great drummers who came before us.  The general public may not be familiar with names like John Bonham, Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, Gene Krupa, and Steve Jordan, but among drummers, those guys (and many others) are treated like deities.  In some of my lessons, I even had to write out, note for note, what a great drummer played on a recording.  Like many serious drummers, I’ve spent hours dissecting a single five minute drum part, trying my best to get inside the head of a drumming legend.

As drummers, we take our “Tradition” extremely seriously.  But even the best, most nerdy (yet mature) drummer will readily admit that the “point” of drumming isn’t simply to re-create the music of the giants of the past.  Being a good drummer doesn’t mean simply copying old material and pasting it into our own performances.

In fact, merely repeating the work of the masters would be a great disservice to them!  The genius and value of those trailblazers was their ingenuity, their innovation, their creativity.  They exhibited the art of drumming in new contexts, demonstrating the rich depth of this art in ways that hadn’t yet been imagined.  It’s crucial that we spend time learning from their music so that we can make our own innovative new music.

How to be a Christian Drummer

Christians can learn a lot from drummers about how to be faithful to tradition.

Taking the Christian tradition seriously isn’t the same as uncritically parroting whatever previous generations of Christians have believed.  Drummers understand that the genius of the old masters was that they found new ways to be an awesome drummer.  Would anyone remember Origen, Augustine, Anselm, Luther, Schleiermacher, and the like if they had simply re-stated whatever Christians had said in the past?  Being faithful to our tradition could mean finding new ways to be an awesome Christian in today’s world, just like the great theologians of the past.

If we get stuck merely repeating the beliefs of prior generations of Christians, our theology can get pretty boring – kind of like drummers who use every song as an opportunity to do their best Neil Peart impersonation.  Following the example of previous generations of Christians need not mean uncritically repeating whatever they believed.  (And let’s not forget that the example of Jesus and Paul is an example of tradition-unsettling!)

Of course, that doesn’t mean that we should ignore the tradition, either.  Far from it!  How could we face the daunting task of describing Christian faith in a pluralistic, postmodern, post-Holocaust context if we didn’t search the work of previous Christians for insights?  Studying great drummers of the past inspires and equips me to be more innovative in my own context.  Why couldn’t studying the great Christian thinkers of the past serve the same function?

Some Christians today seem to see the Christian tradition in grayscale, reducing it to a set of beliefs that must be believed or suspected to a greater or lesser degree.  As a Christian drummer, I see the Christian tradition in color, challenging me with the question “What will you make?”

What is the Bible? Pt3: A ‘Ground’ for Truth?

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

2013 Me: I’ve been thinking about our conversation about inerrancy, and I’m not convinced.  I realize that thinking about the Bible in terms of inerrancy doesn’t do justice to its awesome stories and its ability to change my life.  But honestly, I’m so full of doubts right now and I’m really hoping that, with a little work, I can make the Bible into an absolutely true, God-given document, and then I’ll be able to base my subsequent truth-claims on the Bible!  I don’t mind squishing the Bible a bit to make that happen.

2016 Me: Let’s take a minute to really think about this “ground of truth” business.  Let’s assume for a moment that fundamentalist Christians are right and that God really did “write” the Bible word for word.  Let’s say that God really cares as much as you do about pure facts.  And let’s also imagine that you’ will eventually resolve all of the potential contradictions that you notice within the Bible.  Now what?  How do you get that Truth off the pages?

I’d just read the Bible, get the Truth, and use that to answer all my questions, of course!  How hard could it be?

It could be very hard!  Consider the sheer multiplicity of Christian denominations (by some accounts, there 9,000 of them), many (most?) of which claim that their own specific beliefs are clearly supported by Scripture and that everyone else is getting it wrong.  Let’s not forget that both pacifists and violent colonists, slave-owners and abolitionists, Luther and his Catholic enemies all passionately argued that the Bible is on their side.  If it’s really so easy to find the meaning of Scripture, then why do Christians find support for so many contradictory beliefs in the same Bible?

Obviously, most people interpret Scripture incorrectly because they want to force the Bible to confirm whatever they already believe.  But I won’t do that; I’ll stay open and let the Bible correct me.

In your US History class, you had to read a sermon by a pro-slavery Civil War-era pastor.  Did his use of the Bible seem particularly forced?

I remember that sermon.  Honestly, he didn’t sound very different from the Christian speakers today who talk about how the Bible condemns homosexuality.  They all seem genuinely concerned about what the Bible has to say.  The scariest part of reading that sermon in history class was that he was so persuasive!  It really seemed like the simplest interpretation of Scripture supports slavery.

So maybe intentional mishandling of the text doesn’t explain the diversity of interpretations of the Bible.  But if it’s not a problem of intentional misreading of the Bible, then how do so many people get so many different meanings from the same book?

Perhaps the context in which you read a verse, a passage, or the entire Bible itself determines what meaning you end up with.  Maybe different people interpret the Bible differently, and that’s why they come to such differing conclusions.

That’s it!  I know how to make the Bible Absolutely True again!  I bet the Bible was most true back when it was first written down – you know, back in its original historical context.  But most Christians aren’t historians, so they read the Bible out of the correct context!  If I just do some research and find out what the Bible originally meant, then I can finally side-step all of this ambiguity and get to the one true meaning of Scripture, and after that I’ll be able to ground truth in Scripture!

In one sense, I agree with you.  If you’re going to treat the Bible as a bank of true information, then you have to specify which context it should be read in, and the original historical context probably has the best shot at being “correct.”  But here’s the problem: by picking one specific and complicated method of interpreting the Bible, you have made it impossible to ground Truth in the Bible.

Wait – why not?  Why can’t I have both?

Judging between different interpretations of the Bible requires you to make truth-judgments before you interpret the Bible and have its meaning to work with.  If the meaning of Scripture is going to be true, you must already have your Truth before you start interpreting it, or else you’ll likely interpret the True document incorrectly and end up with non-Truth.  If you need to work out a correct method of interpretation before you crack open the Bible, then the meaning of the Bible is dependent on your opinions about truth – and not the other way around!

Reading the Bible requires assumptions: assumptions about which translation of Greek/Hebrew to English is best, what the words in your English translation mean themselves, how to reconcile seemingly contradictory verses and passages, what is literal and what is figurative, etc. etc. etc.  The text can’t tell you which assumptions to make in order to get the right meaning; even if the Bible did include a methodological prelude, you would need to make a bunch of assumptions on your own before you could even read that!  What you bring to the Bible determines what you can find in the Bible.  Again, if you need a concrete example of just how big a difference interpretive assumptions can make, look to the shocking diversity among “Bible-believing” denominations.

In order to turn the Bible into the “ground of Truth,” you would need to first elevate your own interpretive decisions and assumptions to the status of Absolute Truth.  Otherwise, a limited, human interpretation of a limitless, Absolute Truth remains, for all practical purposes, limited and human.

You ruin everything!!

Sorry.

First of all, I don’t forgive you.  Second of all, I’m going to ignore all of your confusing theoretical ideas.  I want to find the meaning of the Bible in its original context anyway.  Maybe I can get past your theoretical roadblocks once I have the original meaning in my hands.

Fine.  Then next time, we’ll talk about the Bible within its original historical context – a topic that I’ve explored through one college class (I took New Testament at Virginia Tech, taught by the incredible scholar and professor Elizabeth Struthers Malbon) and the 16 books on that subject that I’ve read on my own.

Click here for “What is the Bible? Pt4: Historical Document?