Friday, August 31, 2012

The Absolute, Worse Thing That Ever Happened to the Bible

Chapters and verses.

Not simply because chapter divisions break up a good story--none of the gospel writers wrote their work with embedded chapters.  Each gospel was meant to be read (and heard!) as one, long story. 

Neither because chapters and verses lead to misguided interpretations of Paul's letters.  Romans is one, long argument.  You can't take a verse or two from Romans, examine it, then stick it back in.  Indeed, Paul builds argument upon argument in Romans like Jenga blocks.  Pull the middle block out and the whole thing falls down.  The only way you'll know what Romans 10:9-10 means is to read Romans 1:1-10:8 and 10:11-16:27.

Yes, context is crucial.  Yes, chapters and verses imply it's not.  But, that's not the most horrible thing about these man-made, artifical divisions.

Chapters and verses spawn "Bible References."  And, why do we have Bible References?  Well, they're often used to prove our answers to certain questions are "biblical."  Now, they can serve as literary pointers to certain parts of Paul's argument or Luke's story.  That can be helpful.  But, that's not how we use them (either as writer or reader).  Readers rarely "look up" the reference (my wife points this out all the time, either in her reading or when listening to Sunday School lessons).  Because, if we looked up the reference, we might be led to say, "Hey.  That's not what that means." Then, we'd all have to get our Bibles out, read the verse in context, which would take a lot of time that we don't have, and then we'd be left with the unsettling reality that most Bible References don't support the nice, clean, simple answers we need.  Life is more complicated than that:  relationships, work, money, jobs, help, society, culture--these things are very complex.  So, most of us want at least one thing in our life that's not complicated:  our faith.  And, here's the really dangerous part, that's what most writers/speakers know.  We don't want a faith that's hard to think about.

Enter Bible References.  Confused about your relationships?  Read this verse.  Want to have a successful job?  Read this verse.  Want to feel better about your life, your world?  Read this verse.  Want to know why these people are wrong and we're right?  Read this verse.  Want to know what to believe about the most important decisions in your life?  Read this verse.

"Who has time to read the whole thing?  We should be grateful we have experts to point us to the important parts.  Besides, who wants to read the parts that don't answer our questions?"

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Infallible Christian

I've recently stumbled upon a nearly universal presumption that lies beneath every Christian claim:  we understand Jesus.  It had never occurred to me that all of us work with an undeniable view of Jesus Christ.  I don't think I've ever heard anyone say:  "I don't understand Jesus" . . . or even "I may have misunderstood Jesus here, but I think I'm right about this . . ."  Indeed, every single one of us believe we get him.  We know perfectly well who he was, what he was trying to do, and what he would think about any given situation.  That's why, whenever we hear someone's different "opinion" about Jesus, we never question ourselves--whether we could be wrong.  Oh no.  We immediately jump to the conclusion (I mean every single one of us--the academic and the nonacademic, the religious and the irreligious, the pious and the profane) that they must be wrong.

And yet, if that is true, then most of us get Jesus wrong.  We've misunderstood him.  We don't know him as well as we thought.  We've deceived ourselves.  And, there's the rub.  None of us are willing to admit we might misunderstand him because all of us must believe we know him.  It's as if Jesus were our intimate, personal best friend.  "He knows me and I know him."  It's astonishing to me how quickly those two worlds collapse into one:  Jesus and me.  "The way I see it is the way Jesus sees it.  His thoughts are my thoughts.  My prejudices are his prejudices.  My ways are his ways."  Because, if we ever came to the place where we were willing to admit otherwise (Jesus doesn't think like me!), then we would feel as though we had lost our best friend.  But, the truth of the matter is, we'd only lose ourselves.

Albert Schweitzer was right:  we all create Jesus in our own image.  When we answer the question Jesus posed to the twelve, "Who do people say that I am?", we're quick to talk about how wrong everyone else could be.  And when we answer the other question, "But who do you say that I am?", we are really talking about ourselves.

Monday, August 20, 2012

New Sermon Podcast

A former student of mine, Danny Dyer, has put together a podcast: a collection of sermons that I have preached here and there.  The link appears on the right, "Sermon Podcast."  He/we may be adding some more material--perhaps even talks at conferences--in the future.  This is all very new to me.  When he first suggested the idea, I thought, "Who listens to preachers?"  And yet, after the first week, the down loads exceeded the bandwidth allowance and the podcast froze up.

Who would have thought?  Well, Danny did.  Thanks, friend, for all your help.

Thursday, August 16, 2012


The NT world operated with a clear sense of the sacred and the profane.  Sacred space--a domain of undeniable divine presence--was carved out of profaned space.  Temples marked out special territory.  That which was profane was common.  So, special ways of negotiating sacred space clearly sanctioned behavior for those who lived and breathed the common world of the profaned.

In one respect, Jesus tore down the binary world of sacred and profane by virtue of the Incarnation.  God moved into all space when Jesus walked among us (this was the lesson learned by the anonymous "samaritan woman").  The kingdom of God invades every corner of the earth because God's work is irrepressible.  Jesus compared it to weeds and leaven.  Once it takes root, saturates one little corner, there's no stopping it.  Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven . . .  This is an invasion, a reclamation project, a retroactive decree, an undoing of the undone.  When two worlds collapse into one, it is apocalyptically sacred.  God is at work everywhere.

But, when it comes to words, we seem to lose what we gained when The Word became flesh.  Indeed, we may claim the sacred renovation of all things seen.  We speak of visions and dreams.  But, what of audition?  What about the things we hear, the words we speak?  Does God's kingdom invade every corner of our conversation?  When we dare to speak for God do we speak of God?  Is there such a thing as divine grammar?  Are words the stuff of heaven or earth?  Can common words ring a celestial bell?  Or, are we just as able to drag the heavenly down to Sheol?

Recently, I heard a colleague say (self-effacingly) about his co-workers, "They give me more mercy than I deserve."  And, for the first time, it began to dawn on me that what I mean by mercy is not what other Christ-followers mean by mercy.  The difference (may I be so bold to claim) is as wide as heaven and earth, sacred and profane.

Notice the presumption.  To some (perhaps many?) there is such a thing as deserved mercy.  And what would that look like?  Well, in America, mercy is deserved when you try hard and still fall short.  Or, when you have good intentions but don't measure up.  Or, when you say you're sorry.  Or, when you promise to do better.  Or, when you make the same mistake twice.  But, what about those who don't try hard, or have evil intentions (like being selfish), or always blame others, or only make empty promises.  Three strikes and you're out.

The problem, of course, is that our American definition of mercy (which has leavenously seeped into the sacred vernaclar of the forgiven) is not biblical.  It's not Christian.  Literally, it's not of Christ.  When mercy is deserved it ceases to be mercy.  Deserved mercy is an oxymoron.  There's no such thing as giving someone "more mercy than they deserve."  What's possible on earth is impossible in heaven.

How do I know that?  Because God doesn't operate that way.  His definition of mercy (Jesus Christ!) is sacred, even for the profaned.

When will we learn to freely give what we've freely received?