Sunday, June 26, 2011

Commenting on the Bible

If you know anything about me you probably know that I like the Bible.  In fact, I think it is great.  Every time I let it, it amazes me.  But it didn't used to.  In fact, I used to think the Bible was...well...kind of boring.    There's a simple reason for that - I had no idea what this book was.  I mean, I knew it was "the word of God," "inspired," even "infallible."  For all that, I thought God could really have used an editor.  I thought I knew what the Bible was, and indeed I knew quite a few facts about it.  I could win Bible bowls with the best of them.  But when I started taking these books (and realizing that they are different books, not merely chapter divisions by another name is a good start) seriously, they blew me away.

It turns out the Bible was not something that I could domesticate - far less so is the God it reveals.

I've been learning how to take God's book on its own terms.  To survey its landscapes and inhabit its world.

Anyway, I've been thinking about an undertaking that's probably way too ambitious for me, but I want to start blogging through the Bible.  I was thinking a while back about what my ideal Bible commentary would look like, and I came up with a few things.  (For starters, I wouldn't write it, I'd leave that to smarter, more eloquent people.)

How have people read the text in the past?  Are there intra-biblical readings of the text by later authors? How did earliest Christians, at least up to Nicaea read the text?  What did they take for granted?  What did they debate?  What were their insights?  How did they preach it?

How are people reading the text today?  I want to know what modern and post-modern scholarship has to say.

How we can't read the text.  i.e. interpretive fallacies/pitfalls.  Leaving room for legitimate ambiguities while warning where others have seized upon a word, phrase, or image to import foreign beliefs.

Background information.  Of the factual/historical/linguistic/social context variety.

Literary context.  Connecting a passage with the larger narrative/logical flow, showing where it fits and how it functions.

Paths for contemplation and application.

...aaaaaaand it would probably have a music playlist for each book of the Bible.  :)

So I'll be working on this a bit, and I invite you to contribute.  When you're reading your Bible and have an insight great or small, when you feel like sharing your knowledge of scribal traditions in the Ancient Near East, when you read an epistle and notice features of its outline, when you see the relevance of Jesus' words for today, when you reimagine the poetic verse of prophecy or feel moved by a song, head over to The Christian's Bible wiki.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The agony of goodness

If you're already a fan, you might get what I'm going for, but if not, indulge me this passage.

'"But why couldn't Quirrell touch me?"

"Your mother died to save you. If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love. He didn't realize that love as powerful as your mother's for you leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no visible sign... to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever. It is in your very skin. Quirrell, full of hatred, greed, and ambition, sharing his soul with Voldemort, could not touch you for this reason. It was agony to touch a person marked by something so good."'

I've been in churches that didn't much care about the non-Christian world, though to greater or lesser degree they might have paid lip service.  But for the most part, how Christians are to interact with the non-believers around them is a pretty important topic for most churches.  Of course there are things like love, kindness, etc. but I'm thinking particularly of how we interact in regard to culture.  Ours [American, western] is a "culture of death," a culture that serves Mammon, whose god is its stomach, etc.  There's a lot of bad to be said about our culture.  I know a lot of Christians who think the best response to this is to become more and more insular - homeschooling, watching only Veggietales even into their teens (because Disney is too racy) and Fireproof after getting married, listening only to "Christian" music, etc.  But there are a lot of problems with this (not least of which is that the observant Christian will find the occasional treasure within our culture).  

On the other hand, I know quite a few people who insist that "relevance" is important.  Christians should be familiar with pop culture, perhaps even hyper-familiar.  Personally I tend to lean a bit more to this side, although not as far as most.  There's a real danger here because any culture in which we participate shapes us, and I've known far too many Christians who, little by little, become completely unremarkable people.  Perhaps they retain a few odd customs like going to church, but that's it.  Or even that may get left behind.

Which brings me back to the quote.  I believe there is no more powerful message to the culture around us than to be ourselves.  The more truly and completely we live out the goodness of the God who created this world, who gave us a place in it, and who redeems us, the more we are different from what the world around us is but more like what it knows (deep down) it needs.  Christians marked by the love and goodness of God are painful to be around when you don't feel good and you can't remember (or never knew) what love was like.  But it's a good kind of pain, a kind of pain you can't stay away from.  It's a beautiful agony.

Of course I know this is oversimplified.  Too often we cause our neighbours agony of an entirely different kind.  Or even just the annoyance that normal human beings cause each other.  Rather than being good we are goody two-shoes.  Or just pretend to be good but hold on to ugly and selfish attitudes, thoughts and behaviors in secret.
In real life, being so good it hurts to be around gets complicated, and it's not easy.  At the very least, it's kind of exhausting!  I mean, to approach every encounter - whether riding the bus or talking to my neighbour or going to work every day - without protecting myself or my ego, without seeking something from others but seeking to give to them, without getting annoyed when my own plans are disrupted...In fact, I don't think we can do it!  I think that's why we need and why we have been blessed with the spirit of God.  So I think the work of Christians in the world around them is to live following God's spirit in every moment.  
We do that individually and together, and even when we do it individually we need each other for strength, but that's another topic.

Recommended Reading: Sticking with C.S. Lewis, I heartily recommend Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra.  (Actually, I recommend the whole trilogy, but not for now, and I'm really only recommending the first so the second makes a bit more sense.)  In Out of the Silent Planet Lewis ponders our planet's condition of (what theologians call) "fallenness" and imagines pretty much the rest of the universe continuing on as God had intended.  This leads a space-traveling character, as well as the reader, to ponder fallen humanity, modernity, the post-war West.  Perelandra resumes these themes and paints a great picture of Edenic life (and resurrected life).  It's a great work of Christian imagination and one of my favorite books.  If you've ever thought that sitting on clouds strumming harps sounds boring then (#1 congratulations for not stupidly buying into churchy nonsense, and #2) this book is for you.  
Although your bookstore probably has these under "science fiction" they're really theological novels...only bookstores don't recognize that as a category.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Sooner or Later you'll find out...

there's a hole in the wall.  "O God I believe, please help me believe."

A friend got me thinking tonight with his question about what it takes to really 'get it'.  i.e. I can know about Jesus and the resurrection, but why is it that I can go through year after year never seeming to get it, to really live it, any more than before?

I would venture to guess that most Christians have had that feeling.  Or at least tiptoed toward it, peered over the edge coming as close to a ninety-degree angle as they dared before fear made them turn back and maybe pretend to have conquered, or decide not to be concerned with, that challenge.
And it is scary.  It brings up uncomfortable questions, like what is Christianity really all about?  Why do I keep believing this stuff it doesn't seem to be doing me any good?  What does it mean to live as a Christian - what does that life look like?  Is it always a struggle? an obligation?

Our conversation veered away from this question before I had a chance to weigh in, but it got me thinking.  Thinking about how I didn't 'get it' before, and how that changed.  I went through a period where I disbelieved in Christianity.  Not 'doubted', but truly disbelieved.  I spent time trying to figure out what to believe in, what was true, and to shorten a long story I came back to Christianity but I knew that needed to look different from the fundamentalist distortion I had known growing up.

But even then Christianity was mostly something I 'knew', not something I had internalized.  I didn't 'get it'.  Ultimately I don't think I could ever have understood things like grace and the resurrection had it not been for the brand-new experience of feeling loved.  That wasn't all it took, but it was essential.
I had foreseen the end of my paths - whether a life of hedonism, or graceless religion, or humanism - and despaired.  But in the actual experience of being loved by someone who would continue to care about me and show me love even when I committed offence, I began to understand grace.  There were a couple of important people, but I'll talk about one.
I imagine we all go through life winning friends and earning enemies...or if not enemies, at least people who aren't too keen on us.  But I once earned an enemy who instead treated me as a friend, and I couldn't get over it.  It didn't make sense.  It wasn't normal.  Sure, there had been others who wanted my friendship even after I had rebuffed them, but these were people who needed something from me.  I provided at least some measure of what their emotional needs required.  But this other friend didn't need me, by all rights shouldn't even have liked me, and still offered friendship.  During this process I came to understand more clearly that God's grace isn't just an example of bizarre mathematics (sin = hell but sin x 1,000,000 + Jesus = heaven) - it's a relationship.  And it's like the best kind of relationship imaginable, except that it's better because you could never have imagined it.

So that was one piece, but there's another that has been just as important.
I spent a few years studying life intently.  I read philosophy, fiction, poetry, neuroscience, evolutionary biology, psychology, economics, sociology, politics, etc.  (Of course I still do all of these things, but with a different purpose.)  I reflected, I wrote, I conversed, and I came to a certainty that can best be summed up as despair.  I can't explain all now, but if you dig down deep enough into any system you come to a fundamental hopelessness.  "Vanity" or "emptiness," one Teacher called it.
Everything points either to God or to this "emptiness."  

So I started to contemplate what it is that God is really all about.  What are God's purposes for people, for the world, for Christians.  Along the way I had to discard a few dogmas and I found that there are a few things that are only safe to believe after you've spent good time doubting them.  To introduce another ellipsis, I came up with a shorthand that is now the title of this blong - theology of joy.  I'll spend some time addressing that from different angles, but to introduce the topic,

  1. God created this awesome universe, crowned by humans, who got to lead, create and care for it.  The humans and God were not alone, they were made to be together and with God.  The humans lived in a garden where they got to enjoy a world that was awesome.  God gave them important responsibility as caretakers.  After a day's work, the humans and God spent time together during the evening.   
  2. Things got messed up and God worked in some interesting ways to move people back in the right direction, eventually choosing one family within humanity to lead and care for the rest.  People relearned a lot about who God is and what God is like.  That family's execution of their task was hit-and-miss, 
  3. But eventually Jesus came and did it right.  Finally God's reign is growing on earth 
  4. And soon earth and the heavens will be remade and we'll all be hanging out in a garden again!

I had to unlearn a lot of dogmas along the way - e.g. that heaven is a place where a bunch of Christians will be singing all the time; breaking the speed limit once is the same as murder, etc.

Text: 1 Peter 1:8,9

Listening to: the beautiful Brandi Carlile - Live at Benaroya Hall.  BTW she's an alumna of my high school.
Recommended reading: C.S. Lewis - The Chronicles of Narnia.  These are generally classified as children's literature, but I think all truly great children's literature is worth reading for adults, too.  And this series in particular is a classic.  In each book (some more than others), Lewis tells a great story with a lot of charm, but also communicates a lot of theology in a poetic way.  Too often Christians think theology has to be done in a prosaic or logical way, but when you look at the Bible, there's only a small portion of it that fits that mould.

I like an honest doubt better than a truth blindly held.