The Story of God

Over the last couple days, I’ve been watching The Story of God on Netflix, and enjoying it immensely. The series is hosted by Morgan Freeman, who travels around the world to speak with representatives of different religions in order to find out what they think about things like the soul, creation, the end of the world, the nature of God, and how we as humans relate to God. He explores the world’s major religions (Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc.), but he also features ancient faiths that no longer exist (e.g. Egyptian, Druid, Mayan, Aboriginal, Aztec). He puts them all in dialogue with one another and explores their relevance to contemporary discoveries in fields such as neuroscience and artificial intelligence. He does a marvelous job of treating every religion fairly, asking good questions, and allowing his interlocutors to simply speak on their own terms.story of God

One of the things I really love about this series is that it highlights both the similarities and stark differences between the world’s major (and minor) faiths. As you watch this, it is made abundantly clear that deep within human beings and their respective cultures there is a longing for an encounter with the Divine and the hope that things can be better than they are.  At the same time, when you watch this program, you see that the religions of the world really are not all the same. There are some very common similarities, yes, but you can’t say they’re all saying the same thing without doing serious damage to each faith’s particularities.

As I’ve been watching this show, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about how Christians can dialogue with all these different faiths in a constructive way. Unfortunately, I think when we talk about other religions in some Christian circles, we often tend to caricature them or talk about how we can “disprove” them. We want to evangelize, which is a good thing, but we sometimes approach these encounters as if they are a war, rather than a conversation about good news.

I think Christians can sometimes be afraid to appreciate the truth or beauty in other faiths. This is understandable. After all, we believe in one God who exists in three persons, and that Jesus is the perfect revelation of who God is. We hear Jesus’ words that nobody comes to the Father except through him (John 14:6), and we see that the Bible has plenty of negative things to say about idolatry and the false gods of the ancient world. Since we believe in the truth of our faith, we see other faiths as either deceptions or seriously misguided. To appreciate their beauty or the insights that they may have, could run the risk of falling into deception, which is something we rightly want to avoid.

However, I think that it is a very good thing for Christians to have an accurate picture, not a caricature, of other faiths. That is something that only comes by listening to a faith’s adherents speak on their own terms. This is something that every good missionary knows. You cannot effectively speak to people about Jesus, if you do not know the questions they are asking, the problems they are facing, and what they already think about God.

Furthermore, it is not a bad thing to recognize and appreciate the beauty and truths that other religions can grasp. In fact, I think this is a very biblical idea. One of my favorite passages to illustrate this is Paul’s speech to the Athenians in Acts 17:

Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.

24 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands.25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.26 From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. 27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. 28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’[b] As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’[c]

29 “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. 30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed.He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17: 24-31).

Notice how well Paul balances his conviction about the exclusive revelation of God in Jesus with appreciation for the Athenians attempts to find God. He does not tell them they are wicked idolaters or try to disprove Zeus’s existence. He commends them for their efforts and says, “God has made us inherently religious. We’re all looking and groping in the darkness to find God. Now here is what you have been looking for.” He even cites one of their poets for discovering the profound truth that in God we “live and move and have our being.”

This morning I was thinking about this as I was reading my Bible, and I happened to be in John 12. Jesus has come into Jerusalem and is being very clear about his mission and impending death. He tells everyone, Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:31-32). This means that the cross is the judgment of the world whereby Jesus conquers the power of the evil one, and through this, will be drawing everyone to himself.

This got me thinking, are we aware of the ways Jesus is drawing people to himself? Could it be that in the some of the truths that the world’s religions share, those can function as avenues that Jesus is using to draw people to himself? Can we see other faiths, not as mere caricatures, but as expressions of the universal human longing to know God, which is met and fulfilled in Christ?

This documentary has been challenging me to see and appreciate the beauty in the different religions of the world. As a Christian, I’m committed to the belief that Jesus Christ alone is the perfect revelation of who God is, and the world’s exclusive savior, but at the same time, I have been challenges to appreciate the best of how human cultures have attempted to find God. I don’t think those things are mutually exclusive.

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Identity Politics is the Legalism of Progressive Evangelicals

I am not the first person to draw the conclusion that identity politics functions as a form of religious orthodoxy, but it is something I have been noticing more and more in progressive evangelical circles. I believe this is a serious problem because, while identity politics on its surface appears to be highly compatible with Christian values such as compassion and mercy, underneath it is nothing but resentment and scapegoating of people regardless of their individual guilt. All one has to do is read some of the work that this ideology’s evangelical adherents write to see that they have simply been enslaved by the legalism, guilt, and shame of evangelical fundamentalism, but in the clothes of being “woke.”  obey

Yesterday, I came across an article published on Missio Alliance, a Christian writing collective I have published with. In their earlier years, I really appreciated their emphasis on mission and their broad, evangelical convictions; they really felt like my tribe. However, over the last couple years, I have noticed that the material coming out from them has become increasingly dominated by identity politics. I have submitted some of my own theological critiques of it such as this article, which I wrote in response to a piece critiquing “white privilege.” Sadly, it seems that the religion of identity politics continues to hold sway, and I’ve been finding much of what comes out to be both  misguided and uninteresting.

Yesterday’s article, “What the Collision Between Covington Catholic School Boys and Nathan Phillips Reveals About White Supremacy,” was, once again, a predictable exercise in sharing the gospel of being “woke.” For some reason, I read it, and as I thought about it yesterday, I was struck by how much this ideology is truly a legalistic religious message dressed up as gospel. I encourage you to read the whole article to get the full picture of what the author is saying, but I want to draw some attention to the specifically religious elements of this way of thinking.

The author of this article, gives her version of the now notoriously mis-reported conflict between the Covington Catholic School boys, the Black Hebrew Israelites, and Nathan Philips. It is clear that the schoolboys, who are white and male and wearing MAGA hats (itself, undoubtedly a stupid choice for them) are the bad guys due to their race and sex. The Black Hebrew Israelites and Nathan Phillips, in her narrative, are likewise due to their race, the sympathetic characters.

Throughout the article, she clearly reveals this bais. For example, she describes the Black Hebrew Israelites as “a religious sect that rejects a European Christianity that does not affirm their black identity or connection to Old Testament Israel,” as opposed to a radical, potentially violent fringe group that has raised the eyebrows of the Southern Poverty Law Center, hardly an organization committed to white supremacy. According to her, when they saw the Covington boys in their MAGA hats, this is what happened: “To many people of color, the MAGA message affirms a gospel of white supremacy and an allegiance to an oppressive empire. The Black Hebrew Israelites verbalized this understanding to their historical oppressors.”  By “verbalizing this understanding,” she apparently means calling the boys names like “faggots,” “incest kids,” and harrassing one of their black classmates.

Nathan Philips then comes in, drumming, because he “perceives a threat.” She informs us, “his actions communicated that white people are a “perceived threat” to many people of color.” She then recalls a trip she took to the site of a terrible massacre of Native Americans in the 1800s and how it became occasion to highlight the inherent problems of white males. She then concludes with a list of things white males can do to atone for the sins of the past and find redemption, because, “white men do not get to shortcut their way to justice or reconciliation.”

Her path to redemption is the following:

  1. Repenting of the lie of white supremacy and the idolatry of the American empire in all of its forms.
  2. Listening to the voices and stories of people of color when they tell the truth with their words, bodies, acts of protest, and worship.
  3. Submitting to the leadership of people of color, and supporting organizations that are led by people of color.
  4. Purchasing the books and resources provided by people of color who are committed this work.
  5. As part of their spiritual formation and God’s redemptive work in them, white men must be willing to sacrifice, to lose something, to count the cost of their discipleship.

The Gospel of Being Woke

This is a pretty typical piece to come out of the corners of evangelicalism that are allying themselves with identity politics and the broader progressive social justice movement. Like most ideologies, it contains certain amounts of truth. Of course, history is full of horrible examples of bigotry, racism, and violence. So is the present. Yes, men who are from white countries have committed many of those atrocities. Yes, and most importantly, being a disciple of Jesus involves humbling ourselves and submitting to one another out of love (though it seems this article requires it out of guilt).

Yet, at the same time, show me any culture or ethnic group of people who do not have blood on their hands. Show many any system or culture that does not, in some way, unintentionally or not, privilege some people over others. Women have also done their fair share of oppressing others.

I don’t think it is inaccurate to say that western culture, while far from perfect, is the most egalitarian culture that has ever existed. We have a long way to go, but at least by aiming at equal treatment and opportunity for all, we have come a long way. Yet, when you read this sort of material, you get the impression that we are the most oppressive culture that has ever existed.

I’m not saying that there are not problems with the way things are, or that racism is not a problem. What I am saying, is that the way of identity politics does more harm than good because it functions in the same way as the most fanatical religion. It’s not even a Christian religion because it seeks again to divide (by race, gender, sexual preference, etc.) what Christ has abolished. Furthermore, it scapegoats as especially sinful certain groups of people based on those things. The only way out of guilt is by following a carefully lined out path of redemption, by which you might at least hope to gain partial atonement for your sins.

The Christian gospel says all people are guilty of sin. No race or gender has the market on being wicked or righteous. All are in need of grace which has come to us in the life and resurrection of Jesus. In response to grace, we are transformed and taught to forgive and to see all people everywhere as deeply loved by God who gave his son for them.

This is the gospel of identity politics:

  1. Original sin lies in one’s race, gender, sexuality, and some are more guilty than others.
  2. Western culture is especially oppressive because it was founded to benefit white, straight, Christian males.
  3. The sinfulness of “whiteness” and “maleness”/patriarchy is so ingrained in us that it is unconscious, but fear not, we have a path of redemption.
  4. Acknowledge your guilt and complicity in the system, whether or not any of your ancestors actually committed any crimes, much less yourself.
  5. Once you are born again (“woke”), live in a perpetual state of shame for your complicity in the oppressive system. Vigilantly police your thoughts and your speech, or you will be cast out and beyond redemption.

Progressive evangelicals are in serious danger of letting this form of legalism derail us from the gospel. Just as fundamentalism operates on constantly changing rules, neurotically policing one’s thoughts/ideas, and imposes guilt and shame on certain people whose sins are worse than others, identity politics does the exact same thing! It does not offer forgiveness or the grace of Jesus in any meaningful sense. It simply teaches people to cover up their own sins and come down especially hard on those of others.

 

 

A Playlist for Winter 2019

At any time during the year, I often find myself listening to certain songs more frequently than others. I don’t know how to explain it, but certain songs will stand out to me and I will find myself returning to them over and over again while I’m working around the house or writing.

I’ve been using Spotify for about a year and one of the things I love the most about it is the ability to create playlists that I can listen to anytime. I just put together a playlist of 11 songs that I’ve been really enjoying over the last month or so, and thought I would share it.

If you know my musical tastes, it won’t surprise you that there’s a lot of alternative country/americana, folk, and rock. There’s some old stuff and newer stuff on it, too. The link below should take you to it on Spotify, but if you don’t use that but want to check it out anyway, there’s a list of the songs below. Enjoy!

 

  1. Scarecrow in the Garden–Chris Stapleton
  2. Mohammed’s Radio–Warren Zevon
  3. I Sang Dixie–Dwight Yoakam
  4. Sugartooth–Brandi Carlile
  5. Only Son of the Ladiesman–Father John Misty
  6. Living in a Minor Key–Shooter Jennings
  7. Wait by the River–Lord Huron
  8. Lights of Cheyenne–James McMurtry
  9. Walls–The Lumineers
  10. Mission in the Rain–Jerry Garcia
  11. Carl Perkins’ Cadillac–Drive by Truckers

 

Best Books of 2018

books.jpg2018 was a pretty busy year for me, full of a lot of changes. Between getting married, moving to Nevada, traveling, buying and renovating a house, and starting a new job in a new line of work, life has been moving pretty fast. Yet, in all this change, reading has been a constant for me, as it always has been. I definitely didn’t read as much in 2018 as I have in previous years, but I did read several good books from a variety of genres.

If you are looking for some good reading, here are the five best books I read this last year.

  1. 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos by Jordan Peterson. This is my favorite non-fiction book that I read. It’s self-help, psychology, science and philosophy all in one. It’s full of great wisdom for living a meaningful life as it relates to rules about “standing up straight,” not doing things you hate, learning how to listen, and why you should always pet a cat when you come across one.
  2. Inferno by Dan Brown. This was the first Dan Brown novel I’ve read, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I started reading it in Florence after watching the movie on Netflix. The book is set in Florence, so it was pretty cool to read while spending time in the same city. If you’re looking for a fun thriller that forces you to consider some serious ethical questions, I would recommend it.
  3. Bi-Vo: A Modern Day Guide for Bi-Vocational Saints by Hugh Halter. This is a pretty short book, but it made a huge impact on me as I was discerning my next career move earlier this year. It’s extremely readable and practical for those who feel called to ministry but are not employed by the church.
  4. A Splendid Savage: The Restless Life of Fredrick Russell Burnham by Steve Kemper. This is a biography of the man who inspired Lord Robert Baden Powell with the ideal of what a Boy Scout should be. Burnham was an adventurer in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He was a gold prospector in the Southwest, Yukon, Mexico, and Zimbabwe. He fought in range wars in Arizona and served as a scout for the British army in the Matabale and Boer wars. He made and lost fortunes, tried to farm oranges in California, survived several horrible battles, and was involved in a government project that tried to introduce hippos to the swamps of Louisiana. Few people know about him anymore, but back in the day, he was somewhat of a celebrity for his exploits.
  5. Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places by Eugene Peterson. This book is part of his series on spiritual theology. Peterson aims to show how Christian spirituality ought to be grounded in the Trinitarian nature of God. He deconstructs the sentimental spirituality that we often find in church, and reminds us that it all begins in the “fear of the Lord.” He shows how Christ is present in creation, history, and community. It’s a great read if you’re looking for some solid, practical spiritual theology.

It’s hard for me to narrow it down to five books, but there you have it, my top five of 2018.

Born of the Virgin Mary

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Christmas is coming in a few days and it’s very likely that many of us are going to be reading the birth accounts of Jesus in Matthew and Luke. I, myself, began reading Luke this morning, which contains the most lengthy and detailed account of Jesus’ conception and birth. This got me thinking about the miracle of the virgin birth, and how it has been such a stumbling block to so many Christians, as well as its significance as something we say we believe when we recite the Apostle’s Creed.

First of all, the virgin birth is more properly called the virginal conception. Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the virgin Mary’s womb. Technically speaking, a virgin birth is a misnomer. So, for this post, I’ll say virginal conception.

For those of us who say “I believe in Jesus Christ…born of the virgin Mary,” without crossing our fingers, can we actually articulate why this is an important doctrine to believe? Is the virgin conception simply something miraculous that we are asked to just accept as an act of faith, or is it trying to teach us something deeper about the identity of Christ?

I think the answer is the latter. The virginal conception functions primarily as a sign to the world. It signifies two things: 1)  that the person of Jesus was possessed a divine nature and truly human nature from the very beginning, and 2) that the salvation of the world begins with God’s initiative that invites human participation in his work.

Objections

Before going further, let me briefly summarize the historical and theological objections to the virgin conception. This is an extremely detailed and vast subject, so I will condense the objections, and likely skip over some. This is an attempt to give the average layperson a picture of why people have objected to it, before explaining why it is important to maintain this affirmation of Christ’s virginal conception.

Historically, critics have tended to object to the story’s supernatural elements and have pointed out that in the ancient world, stories abounded about a significant figure’s miraculous birth circumstances. The story of Jesus, in this line of thinking, is no different. Secondly, some scholars argue that the stories in Matthew and Luke contain various historical inaccuracies or discrepancies, which suggest that the stories were later developments that the gospel writers developed for theological reasons.

Theologically, some Christian theologians have pointed out that within the Bible itself, there is little to no focus on the virginal conception as a doctrine. None of the New Testament letters mention it, the preaching in Acts never mentions it, and only two gospels mention it. Overall, it doesn’t play a big doctrinal role in the same way that other events, such as his resurrection, do.

In addition, some theologians have argued that it actually complicates other, more important affirmations about Jesus, such as his true humanity.  For example, if Jesus did not have a human father, then he cannot really be said to be truly human and to have fully shared in our human experience.

Others have argued that the virgin birth complicates the more important doctrine of Jesus’ preexistence prior to the incarnation. In their reading, the virgin birth narratives strongly suggest that Jesus’ identity as the Son is based in his origin in Mary’s womb, rather than essential to his being one with God throughout all eternity.

The Sign

Despite these objections, I think the doctrine of the virgin conception is still important to affirm both historically and theologically. The reason is because it functions primarily as a sign to us of what God is up to in the incarnation in the same way that the bread and wine function as a physical sign of what God has done for us.

While God very well could have reconciled the world to himself without having Jesus be born of a virgin, he chose to use that mode of entry to demonstrate the unity of the divine and human natures in one person and to show that God delights in asking human beings to participate with him in his work.

Orthodox Christianity has affirmed Jesus’ preexistence as the Son and that the divine and human natures were united in one person. The virgin conception helps us to illustrate this fact and so it acts as a physical sign of its truth. Now, one can hold to the orthodox position on Jesus’ nature and preexistence without the birth stories. After all, Paul and John teach this in scripture and never explicitly mention the precise nature of Jesus’ birth. Yet, the early church believed these stories and elevated them in the creed precisely as the way God demonstrated to the world that in the person of Jesus the pre-existent divine nature and a human nature met.

Without affirming the historical nature of the virgin conception, it seems difficult to avoid arriving at some sort of adoptionist Christology. Adoptionism, which the early church rejected as heretical, says that Jesus was born as a mere man and later in his life was “adopted” as God’s Son, either at his baptism or his resurrection. This view basically says he received his divine nature later in life. If Jesus was conceived through sexual intercourse, adoptionism seems to be the logical conclusion because the divine nature would have had to enter the existing human embryo, at the earliest, if not later in his life.

The virgin birth stories also illustrate an important insight into God’s ways of working in the world. God uses willing, but messed up, human beings to accomplish his purposes within the world. God, of course, initiates salvation apart from human effort, but, God always calls people to participate in his work. This is true in his calling of Abraham, Moses, and the Israelites to be his people. His call to Mary to carry Jesus and the call to Joseph to support a wife pregnant under mysterious circumstances is one more instance of this. Even Jesus accomplishes the redemption of the world through his willing obedience to the father (Philippians 2:8). This is a sign of the missionary nature of God, in that he uses ordinary people to accomplish his work, though he is the one who initiates it.

Conclusion

The virginal conception of Jesus is an important thing for us to believe because it acts as a sign that illustrates some of the most profound affirmations about Jesus’ identity and God’s nature as a missionary God. We should not be ashamed to recognize that God uses strange physical signs as a way to teach us. After all, that is exactly what he does with sacraments like communion and baptism. Sure, one could have a  Christian faith without them,  but we would miss out on the gifts that they bring to us. It is the same way with the virgin conception. It is something we are privileged to believe and affirm because it functions to give us all a deeper glimpse into the nature and workings of God.

Some Sunday Night Karl Barth

This Advent I’ve been reading Karl Barth’s collection of talks, The Word of God and the Word of Man. It’s his earlier material, and some of it even dates to his time as a young pastor, before he was a well-known theologian.

I’m currently in chapter 5, “The Problem of Ethics Today,” and there are some passages in there that are pure gold. I thought I would share a few of my favorite quotes.Karl Barth

” The meaning of our situation is that God does not leave us and that we cannot leave God. It is because God himself and God alone lends our Life its possibility that it becomes so impossible for us to live. It is because God says Yes to us that the No of existence here is so fundamental and inescapable…It is because the deathless life of God is our true portion that the necessity of death reminds us so inexorably of the sinful narrowness of our will to live. Through our doom we see therefore what is beyond our doom, God’s love; through our awareness of sin, forgiveness; through death and the end of all things, the beginning of a new and primary life. It is when man is most remote from God that God in his mercy seeks out and finds him” (p.98-99).

This is Barth doing dialectical theology. That is, God’s Word of grace to human beings is always something that comes from outside. We do not have the ability to work our way to it, but must simply receive it. This grace, this divine YES to us, comes to us in the midst of our fallen state which brings  judgment (the divine NO). Barth is here offering a re-working of some classical Reformed Christian ideas. He draws heavily from Paul, Luther, and Calvin. This may not seem all that radical to American evangelicals, but Barth was butting heads against the established European liberal Protestantism with its visions of ultimate human progress.

“Man’s will is and remains unfree: he lives and will live to the end of his days under the annihilating effect of the fall; his goals from the least to the highest will be of a different kind from the final goal, his conduct will be evil, and his achievement not only incomplete but perverted” (p.99).

This is Barth re-stating the Reformed doctrine of Total Depravity. That’s the idea that sin has affected humankind and its attendant structures to the effect that even our best moral works and efforts falls short of God’s original intention for us. In Barth’s context, Switzerland 1922, Europe was reeling from the disillusionment World War I caused from the idea that Christian civilization would advance into a glorious future due to technology and progress. They had just seen that technology and progress nearly kill off an entire generation of young men.

“In this world there is no salvation and no certainty apart from the unique forgiveness of God, by which the sin of the pious and the not pious, the sin discoverable in all life relations, the sin underlying the whole system of human ends, is covered” (p.100).

“Faith and revelation expressly deny that there is any way from man to God and to God’s grace, love, and life. Both words indicate that the only way between God and many is that which leads from God to man. Between these words–and this is the inner kernel of the theology of Paul and the Reformation–there are two other words: Jesus Christ” (P.105).

Solution is certain because salvation is certain, the salvation of man, the redemption of the body, of the creature, of the lost and imprisoned creation of God. Salvation is certain because the new man is present from above, bringing the new heaven and the new earth, the kingdom of God” (p.105).

If the above won’t preach, I don’t know what will.

This sort of writing is what makes me love Barth. He is incredibly realistic about the fallen human condition and incredibly hopeful regarding the reach of God’s grace.

 

My Ten Favorite Theologians

On one of the blogs I follow, the author put up a post on his top ten theologians who have influenced him the most. I thought that was pretty cool and interesting, so I decided I would do the same.

These ten theologians have each been a really big influence on how I think about God, life, the Bible, and ethics. This list definitely is not exhaustive and they are not rank-ordered in any sense, except for the first two, I would say.

So here they are. I’ve given their name, hyperlinked to learn more about them, and a single sentence (or two!) on why they are so influential to me. Hopefully, if you are looking for some new theological thinking, you can find it from some of these masters.

  1. Karl Barth. Barth has been my favorite theologian for a long time because he has helped guide my theological ship, so to speak, between the shallows of theological liberalism and the rocks of fundamentalism. He also reminds me over and over that the subject of all theology is the God who reveals himself to us in Jesus, and that this God is beyond our control.
  2. Martin Luther. Most know him as the one who sparked the Protestant Reformation (for better or worse!), but I love him because his discovery of the radical nature of grace was born out of his own existential struggle with his own guilt before God (his anfechtungen, as he called it in his native German). His idea that we are simul justus et peccator, simultaneously sinner and saint is a very psychologically and spiritually useful truth to live by.
  3. Wolfhart Pannenberg. Pannenberg was a theological genius who was a master of nearly everything he set his mind to (legend has it he would read 500 pages a day!). He offers a corrective to some of the places where Barth is weak, such as reminding us that God reveals himself in history and that the resurrection of Jesus is a taste of the future that broke into the present.
  4. Lewis Smedes. He was an ethics professor at Fuller seminary who retired way before my time. His books are extremely practical and masterfully blend compassion and realism.
  5. Rene Girard. Even though he was technically not a theologian, much of his work is theological. He introduced me to the idea of “mimetic theory” and scapegoating. His theory of the atonement is one of the big ones in theological discussion today.
  6. N.T. Wright. His work on Paul is groundbreaking. His work on Jesus is great. He’s scholarly and pastoral at the same time. Need I say more?
  7. David Fitch. His books on the church and mission have been very influential on me. I also really enjoy the podcast he co-hosts, talking about theology, missional Christianity, ethics, and things of that nature.
  8. Stanley Hauerwas. He’s helped me refine much of my thinking about how the church is called to be an alternative to the systems of the world. While I no longer share his extreme pacifist convictions, he makes a great mental dialogue partner, challenging me to ask myself whether I am more of an American or more of a Christian.
  9. Dietrich Bonhoeffer. His works on ethics, discipleship, and “religionless Christianity in a world come of age” continually inspire me. Every time I return to Bonhoeffer, I’m both inspired and challenged by his courage.
  10. Eugene Peterson. I wrote earlier about his impact on me HERE. My list wouldn’t be complete without him.

There’s a lot of other theologians I could mention, but these are my top ten. If you enjoy theology, who would some of yours be, and why?

What I’m up To, What I’m Hoping For

I’ve been pretty quiet on the blog for the last month due to the fact that my wife and I have been incredibly busy moving to a new town and remodeling our new house. We have literally been working on the house for eight hours every day for the last month. After a full day of remodeling and then taking care of the other daily responsibilities, I haven’t had a lot of energy for blogging.

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I have had some free time over the last day or two, so I wanted to give a bit of an update on where I am, what I’m up to, and what I’m hoping for in the future. We’ve made a big change in our lives with this move, and I wanted to share some of the “why” for it.

First, the Silicon Valley commuting life was killing me. Last summer (2018), I was working at the church in Menlo Park and living in San Jose. I was driving about 56 miles a day through heavy traffic just  to get to work and back home. It was not uncommon for me to be spending three to four hours a day sitting in my car on the 280 freeway. In addition, my Nissan Xterra only gets 18 miles per gallon and gas was about $3.30 a gallon. It was clear to me that the commuting aspect of my life was not sustainable in the long term if I wanted to stay sane.

Second, we also both just wanted to get out of the craziness of the Bay Area sooner rather than later. While there are many great things about that region of California, the pace, cost, and crowds were really starting to grind on us. I was never all that fond of it, to begin with.

As all of this was going on this summer, I began to consider more seriously the possibilities that a “bi-vocational” life might offer. That is, I would leave my paid position at the church, find a new job in a place I love, and settle in to be part of the community and do ministry there. Rather than sit around and wait for the “perfect” church job to show up somewhere, we decided we would go where we would like to live and find ways to do ministry there.

As I was considering this change, I read a great book called Bi-Vo: A Modern-Day Guide for Bi-vocational Saints by Hugh Halter to help me formulate a vision and plan for this new chapter of my life. I also took a lot of inspiration from other bi-vocational pastors such as David Fitch, who reminds me that “it’s not two jobs, it’s one life” for the Kingdom. These, and other resources on the bi-vocational life have helped me consider some more creative visions for what life and ministry could look like for me in the future.

As we looked for opportunities in places we would like to live, Chelsae ended up finding a job in Minden, NV, a beautiful community on the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevada. We bought a house and we are settling down in our new community. My plan is to start working a job, serving a church, continuing to write, and teach whenever I can. I really love the Carson Valley, and I believe that loving the place where you are is important for doing ministry.

There’s a lot of unanswered questions about what this all will look like and where it will go, but I’m pretty excited to find out.

 

The Death of “The Pastor”

About a week ago, I saw that one of my favorite spiritual and theological authors had passed away. Christianity Today reported that Eugene Peterson died at the age of 85 after entering hospice a week earlier. While the news of his death was not a surprise to me, I was saddened, as he was someone whom I hoped to meet somehow one day before he passed. Now, I’ll just have to wait until the resurrection.

I didn’t come to love Eugene Peterson’s writing until a couple years ago. Prior to that, I had vaguely known who he was as the man who wrote The Message, the well-known paraphrase of the entire Bible. I had read bits and pieces of The Message here and there and sometimes found it to be a helpful interpretation of certain biblical passages. Other times as I explored that paraphrase, I found it to be a bit awkward and was unimpressed. I never felt compelled to buy a copy of The Message for myself.

When I was at Fuller, however, I took a class on spiritual formation and vocation where we were assigned to read his book The Contemplative Pastor, and I was hooked on his writing.  The Message is an impressive work, but his writings on the spiritual life and the vocation of “pastor” have left the deepest mark on me. Since that first class, I’ve been consistently reading his books, which are many.

One of the things I love the most about his writing is how masterfully he blends exegesis of Scripture with practical insight for living the life of a Christian. Unfortunately, many Christian authors who attempt to write a “biblical” perspective on anything exegete the Bible as if it is a legal document giving us a step by step process. Or, they pull random verses out of context and use them as sound bites from God, which happen to support their argument.

Peterson didn’t treat the Bible as a wooden legal text or as God’s Twitter account, but had the rare gift of pulling readers into the stories of the Bible, helping them to see how the God of the prophets and the New Testament is still at work in our churches and communities. Peterson, himself a great reader of novels, was able to present the Bible in a way that was informed by the best scholarship, but was also actually interesting.

His writings on the pastoral life, specifically, and the spiritual life, more generally, did a lot to give me a vision for my own life and ministry. He was not a fan of megachurches and the branding, marketing, and corporate strategies that they require, by necessity. Reading him, I was consistently reminded that our faith is not a product to be mass produced and marketed in the manner of Wal-Mart or McDonalds, but is a gift from God that must be taken with the utmost seriousness.

He was not anti-evangelism or against getting the faith to great numbers of people in ways that are understandable –the existence of The Message is glaring proof of that! Rather, he cautioned against becoming more concerned with being “relevant” over faithful. Peterson reminds us that the pastor’s job isn’t to be the CEO of a Christian corporation, but is to  teach the Bible, to offer spiritual direction, and walk with people through the joys and difficulties of life while pointing them to the reality of God’s grace in their lives. That’s not an original idea for the vocation of pastor, but an ancient one that our American, evangelical Christianity needs to recover, in many places.

One other thing I appreciated about him was his rural, western roots. He grew up in a small town in Montana, which he eventually retired back to. He regularly drew on his love for the land and the people in his writing. Being from a small, rural town myself, I resonate with his love for the place he came from.

So, for someone who has never read any of Eugene Peterson’s books, where is a good place to start? While I haven’t read all of his books yet, the three I would recommend to start with are:

  1. The Pastor: A Memoir This is his beautifully written, engaging memoir. If you want to get a glimpse of his life and thought, that’s a little “lighter” reading, this is a good place to start.
  2. The Jesus Way: A Conversation on the Ways that Jesus is the Way. This book examines the lives of a few Old Testament figures and how Christ is seen in them and how they point to Jesus in their successes and failures.
  3. Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work. This is a book on how to do the work of ministry in a way that’s biblical and relational. It’s a great alternative to the corporate-leadership trend that has reigned in American churches for the last few decades.

Finally, here is a video of him describing what he looks for in good preaching. This gives you a good insight into how he thinks. I couldn’t agree more with him on this!

 

 

 

Sam Harris, Jordan Peterson, and Biblical Inspiration

A few months ago, Jordan Peterson had a series of dialogues/debates with atheist philosopher Sam Harris on religion, facts, and values. The videos are quite long and the content is pretty dense, at times, but it’s fascinating to tune on a conversation between these two highly intelligent men as they discuss the most important aspects of human existence.

Neither of them are religious in the sense of personal commitment to an established, institutional tradition, but they are doing theology. Harris is an atheist who is one of today’s most harshest public critics of religion. Peterson is not religious in the traditional sense, but advocates for religion’s utility in understanding and guiding human life. Christianity, for him, is especially useful for this, though by his own admission he doesn’t attend church. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, when Peterson says “God,” he means the thing at the top of our hierarchy of values. Yet, here they are, talking about God, what that word may or may not mean, and how our beliefs about God affect the sort of world we make. It’s basic theology in its purest sense.

Yet, when I watched the debate, I couldn’t help but wish that they had a professional theologian or practicing Christian philosopher in the discussion with them. Neither of the men are ignorant of “street-level” Christian theology, but there were a number of points that they made and assumptions they operated under, that I took issue with as someone who has had a formal theological education.

The biggest one was Sam’s (mis)understanding of Biblical revelation and inspiration. Throughout the debate he constantly dismisses the Bible’s value because it does not fit his criteria of perfection. His understanding of how Christianity treats the Bible is limited to that of the most rigid and naive fundamentalist. That is, Sam’s dismissal of the Bible is because it does not bear the marks of what one would expect of a text that was “dictated” to the authors by an “omniscient being.”

Listen to Sam and Peterson’s back and forth on the nature of the Bible’s inspiration in the video below. It starts at 1:08:34 and the conversation ends at about 1:15:00.

 

At 1:12:10, I laugh because Harris says, “When you read the Bible, you can turn every page of that book, and you will not find evidence of omniscience.” The reason this is so funny is because only a very small (and misguided) portion of Christians would ever claim that the Bible displays “evidence of omniscience.” Harris is basically attacking a straw man.

What do I mean by that?

Harris assumes that the ground of Christian faith is the book we call the Bible, which was allegedly dictated by God to reveal a comprehensive theory of everything. For Harris, if the Bible gets one detail wrong, or doesn’t conform to the the scientific era standards of accuracy on every detail, then you might as well throw the whole thing out and abandon faith.

Well, if my faith rested on that standard, then I would have to give it up, too. The reality, however, is that the ground of Christian faith has never been on the Bible’s accuracy on every scientific and historical detail as determined by our modern standards. The ground of Christian faith from day one has been the historical person of Jesus and the fact that his disciples saw him and experienced him after he was crucified. Even if one does not believe that Jesus was resurrected bodily, there is no other explanation for the rise of Christianity out of 1st century Judaism than that his disciples, at the very least, believed he was.

The resurrection was reported as an event in history that revolutionized the disciples understanding of who God was and their own identity as Jews. The New Testament writings, from the gospels to the epistles and Revelation, do not claim to be newly revealed knowledge from God, but are responses to the resurrected Christ. If you don’t have a resurrection, you don’t have Christianity, and you don’t have a New Testament.

The books that make up our New Testament became part of the Bible, that is, were canonized, because they were recognized by the church as faithfully and accurately testifying to what the apostles had taught about Jesus. Their value as inspired by the Spirit, and thus as revelation, is based on the fact that they faithfully point and instruct people in the way of Jesus, God’s ultimate and final revelation (Hebrews 1:1-2). Similarly, the Old Testament functioned to the people of Israel as testimony and reflection on God’s action in history, calling Abraham and later the people of Israel out of Egypt so that he could make a covenant with them.

Scripture, then, is not meant to be judged on how well it conforms to modern standards of science, but in how it points us to Jesus.  Even Christians who use the language of “inerrancy” for the Bible, generally will qualify what they mean by that. They don’t mean “dictation,” and they generally will emphasize that God’s inspiration of Scripture was accommodated to some extent to the understandings of the biblical authors. I’ve written a little more about this here and hereWhen one loses sight of this fact and tries to make Scripture do something it is not intended to do, then of course it will fail.

Harris attacks a version of inspiration that very few educated Christians actually hold.  It’s really a straw-man he’s attacking, and that’s an easier target, of course. Peterson, unfortunately, lacks the theological precision to point this out to Sam. I think if they could have added a theologically trained person to the panel, the discussion would have been even better. Someone would have been able to call out some of the basic theological misunderstandings, at least.