The only question worth asking

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Here is the full quote from Yale New Testament professor Dale Martin:

I have tried to illustrate how all appeals to “what the Bible says” are ideological and problematic. But in the end, all appeals, whether to the Bible or anything else, must submit to the test of love.

To people who say this is simplistic, I say, far from it. There are no easy answers. “Love” will not work as a foundation for ethics in a prescriptive or predictable fashion—as can be seen by all the injustices, imperialisms, and violence committed in the name of love.

But rather than expecting the answer to come from a particular method of reading the Bible, we at least push the discussion to where it ought to be: into the realm of debates about Christian love, rather than into either fundamentalism or modernist historicism.

We ask the question that must be asked: “What is the loving thing to do?”

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The context for this quote is a lengthy but illuminating piece on the meaning of two Greek words, arsenokoites and malakos, both of which occur in 1 Corinthians 6, a passage many read as condemning all same-sex intimacy.

Martin demonstrates convincingly (for me, anyway) that modern scholars read too much—or perhaps too little, depending on your perspective—into the meaning of these words. But at least in the case of malakos (unfortunately rendered “sodomites” in the NRSV), the correct meaning is no less troubling. It introduces just as many interpretive problems as it solves.

(Spoiler alert: Martin argues the correct translation of malakos is “effeminate,” adding weight to accusations of misogyny laid at the apostle Paul’s feet.)

In the end, Martin concludes that we can’t resolve every interpretive difficulty in Scripture—nor should we try. No matter what our view, conservative or progressive, and no matter what our approach to Scripture, fundamentalist or historicist, we all run into difficulties when reading and applying the Bible. It doesn’t always work to just “do what the Bible says.” It’s not that simple. Which is just as well, because sometimes the Bible says to “annihilate” people.

Nor do interpretation and application suddenly become easy once we cross from the Old Testament into the New. We are still 2,000 years removed from its context. We are still listening in on one side of conversations that took place in a much different world.

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The good news is, the apostle Paul (yes, the same Paul who rather unfortunately suggested that “effeminate” people will not inherit the kingdom of God) gave us the key to answering the age-old question, “How should we live?” And the answer is not, “Line up as many Bible verses as you can find on a given topic and try to make them all say the same thing.” Because sometimes that doesn’t work.

The answer, according to Paul, is to obey the one command that fulfills all the other, sometimes conflicting commands:

For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  

He also says, “If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other,” proving that sometimes, the application of ancient Scripture to our context IS rather straightforward.)

Another way to put it is, as Dale Martin did, is to always ask one question, no matter the issue: What is the loving thing to do?

Original photo by Abhi on Flickr

Name that quote: the Bible vs. the Quran

Goodness. A few weeks ago, it was Stephen Fry. Last week it was President Obama. Everyone seems to be beating up on Christianity these days.

Of course, that’s not quite true. Neither man was attacking anyone’s faith, despite what the clickbaity headlines would have us think.

In addition to having a cooler accent and more colorful taste in neckties, Fry is an atheist. He pulled no punches as he denounced a “capricious, mean-minded, stupid God” he doesn’t believe exists. Obama, on the other hand, is a Christian. In his remarks at the Presidential Prayer Breakfast, he took pains to distinguish between distortions of faith and the real thing:

Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history. And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ. Michelle and I returned from India—an incredible, beautiful country, full of magnificent diversity—but a place where, in past years, religious faiths of all types have, on occasion, been targeted by other peoples of faith, simply due to their heritage and their beliefs… So this is not unique to one group or one religion. There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith.

Both men’s statements were met with protestations of innocence. Who is this God you denounce, Stephen? some Christians wondered aloud—despite the fact that many imagine God pretty much exactly as Fry described. Obama’s remarks were greeted  with a similar defense: Slavery and the Inquisition? They were distortions of true Christianity, Obama! (Which was sort of his whole point to begin with.)

It should be noted the president could’ve pressed his case further. He could have mentioned Rwanda, where the church was complicit in one of the worst acts of genocide since the Holocaust. He could have mentioned Srebrenica, where thousands of Bosnian Muslims were slaughtered. He could have brought up the colonization of Africa, which was steeped in an imperialistic, racist brand of Christendom.

Obama’s goal was not to pick on Christianity but to point out how “religious faiths of all types” are vulnerable to distortion—particularly when they’re used to justify violence or discrimination against those who differ from us in some way.

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A rather less gray Obama at the 2009 Prayer Breakfast (credit: whitehouse.gov)

Unfortunately, this nuance was lost on those who can’t pass up the chance to be seen being outraged on TV. A former Virginia governor called Obama’s remarks “the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make.” Catholic League president Bill Donohue undertook to rewrite history, claiming—and you’ve got to admire his ambition here—that the Crusades were all justified and the Inquisition was something the Church was barely involved in.

Ravi Zacharias, a widely respected Christian apologist, called Obama’s remarks a “presidential blunder” representing an “absence of wisdom” the likes of which he’s never before seen. “The president obviously does not understand the primary sources of [Christianity or Islam] to make such a tendentious parallel,” he concluded. (My friend Nathan Smith has a thoughtful take on Zacharias’ response.)

So how about those primary sources then? Tell you what, let’s make a game of it. Read the quotes below and see if you can guess which come from the Bible and which are from the Quran. (Note: For the sake of the exercise, I’ve generalized references to God and/or specific people where necessary.)

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1. We took all his cities at that time, and we utterly destroyed the men, women, and little ones of every city; we left none remaining.

2. When we resolve to raze a city, we first give warning to those of its people who live in comfort. If they persist in sin, judgment is irrevocably passed, and we destroy it utterly.

3. So he made a vow to God, and said, “If you will indeed deliver this people into my hand, then I will utterly destroy their cities.” God listened to his voice.

4. When God delivers them over to you, you shall conquer them and utterly destroy. You shall make no covenant with them nor show mercy to them.

5. Slay the idolaters wherever you find them. Arrest them, besiege them, and lie in ambush everywhere for them.

6. You shall destroy all the peoples whom God delivers over to you; your eye shall have no pity on them.

7. Fight for the sake of God those that fight against you, but do not attack them first. God does not love aggressors.

8. The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms; He will thrust out the enemy from before you, and he will say, “Destroy!”

9. He left none remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as God had commanded.

10. Do not spare them. But kill both man and woman, infant and nursing child, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.

11. Slay them wherever you find them. Drive them out of the places from which they drove you.

12. True believers fight for the cause of God.

13. This charge I commit to you, according to the prophecies previously made concerning you, that by them you may wage the good warfare.

14. Let those who would exchange the life of this world for the hereafter, fight for the cause of God.

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Yes, context matters when reading the Bible’s more violent passages. Various Christian traditions have different ways of handling these passages, but the vast majority agree on at least one point: we cannot use these texts to justify acts of violence today. Christians can account for the presence of these statements in our Bible without believing they’re somehow normative for us.

And that’s the point.

Muslims can make the same argument about their “problem texts,” if they like. I don’t get to decide what someone else’s holy book teaches—especially if, like most Christians, I’ve read even less of the Quran than I’ve read of the Bible. I don’t get to decide what the Quran says based on what a handful of extremists do with it—any more so than others get to decide what the Bible teaches based on how the KKK has abused it.

None of which is to fall back onto some kind of squishy religious relativism. I believe the Bible. It’s my holy book. Rather, this is about simple human respect. Or, as the president put it, “basic humility.” Yes, we should push back when others try to distort our faith. But we should be also avoid the temptation to disparage or misrepresent someone else’s faith.

Who knows? If we showed a little more respect for each other, it might be the start of a more peaceful world.

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Answers:

1. Bible (Deuteronomy 2:34)
2. Quran (17:16)
3. Bible (Numbers 21:2-3)
4. Bible (Deuteronomy 7:2)
5. Quran (9:5)
6. Bible (Deuteronomy 7:16)
7. Quran (2:190)
8. Bible (Deuteronomy 33:27)
9. Bible (Joshua 10:40)
10. Bible (1 Samuel 15:3)
11. Quran (2:191)
12. Quran (4:76)
13. Bible (1 Timothy 1:18)
14. Quran (4:74)

By the way, if you’re into this sort of thing more than, say, a BuzzFeed quiz on which animal from Lord of the Rings you are, check out this post comparing things complementarian Christians have said to excerpts from ISIS’ manifesto on women.

What struck you about these quotes from the Bible and the Quran? How did they seem similar to you? How did they seem different?

Stephen Fry’s God is no straw man

“Bone cancer in children? What’s that about? How dare you. How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault. It’s not right. It’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?” That’s what I’d say.
—Stephen Fry

It is right for God to slaughter women and children anytime he pleases. God gives life and he takes life. Everybody who dies, dies because God wills that they die. God is taking life every day. He will take 50,000 lives today. Life is in God’s hand. God decides when your last heartbeat will be, and whether it ends through cancer or a bullet wound. God governs. So God is God! He rules and governs everything. And everything he does is just and right and good. God owes us nothing.
—John Piper

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Stephen Fry clearly struck a chord with his impassioned denunciation of God. It’s fast approaching exceeded five million views on YouTube. There’ve been no shortage of responses, either—even Russell Brand weighed in with a video rebuttal… before he had time to make his bed, apparently.

For me, however, the response that resonated most deeply was not a rebuttal. It was my friend Ian’s heart-wrenching story of how he can relate to the anguish Fry articulated, even though (unlike Fry) Ian identifies as a Christian.

Other responses, for the most part, fell more clearly into the “rebuttal” category. Many expressed surprise or bewilderment at Fry’s depiction of God. That’s not the God we know, they protested. Where did Fry get the idea that God is the author of eye-burrowing parasites or bone cancer in children?

It turns out, we don’t have to look far to find the answer.

The second quote at the start of this post is an actual thing a prominent Christian pastor and author has said. Not someone on the lunatic fringe. Someone squarely in the heart of mainstream evangelical Christianity. “It is right for God to slaughter women and children,” John Piper argues. “Anytime he pleases.” Because whatever God does, according to Piper, “is just and right and good.”

Bone cancer in children.

Eye-burrowing worms.

According to this view, God is the author of both. Such a God is every bit as capricious and unreasonable as Fry says he is, because he does not operate according to a consistent or predictable ethic. Whatever this God decides to do is, in that moment, “right and good”—for no other reason than he chose to do it.

Such a God provides no credible standard of morality for us to live by. Such a God cannot be trusted. Such a God cannot be said to be “for us” in any meaningful sense. Such a God exists purely for himself, for his own glory. And if this God decides that slaughtering a million children is the thing that will bring him the most glory, then according to Piper, he is entirely right to do so.

None of which is to pick on Piper per se, rather to point out that there are lots of Christians who hold the same view of God, even if they haven’t been as diligent as Piper in unpacking it full implications. (I disagree strongly with Piper, but I respect him for following his theological convictions to their logical end.)

Indeed, you can build a case for Piper’s view of God through a selective reading of Scripture. Isaiah 45 says God brings both prosperity and calamity. “When disaster comes to a city,”  another prophet asks rhetorically, “has not the Lord caused it?” Both statements ought to be read in their immediate literary and historical context, but it’s far easier to universalize them.

And of course, there are a number of places in the Old Testament where God appears to orchestrate, even command, precisely the sort of atrocities which Fry laments and Piper accepts as normal divine behavior.

Now, I happen to believe there are other explanations which make better sense of the full sweep of Scripture. I happen to believe this is one of many reasons why we shouldn’t treat everything in the Bible as “a list of normative behaviors” (to quote Zack Hunt).

I happen to believe that Jesus is the primary lens through which we see and understand God rightly. Everything else we might say about God—including everything else the Bible might say—must be filtered through this lens. (Note: not discarded or dismissed. Filtered.)

I happen to believe the image we get from Jesus is of a God who emptied himself of power instead of using it against us—something that Giles Fraser pointed out in his response to Stephen Fry. I believe in a suffering, vulnerable savior who set out to right all the wrongs that Fry listed—and I believe this is the most definitive, tangible image of God we have. Not the God who slaughters children at a whim.

But that’s not really my point. The truth is, it’s easy to get up in arms at what Fry said about God. It’s easy to take offense—and then go on the offense. It’s easy to ostracize those who see reality differently than we do.

What’s not so easy is to listen—in this case, to acknowledge that Fry was not attacking a straw-man version of God. He was describing precisely the kind of God that many Christians believe in and worship.

If we do not allow Jesus to fully shape our understanding of God, we will end up with exactly the kind of deity that Stephen Fry so forcefully denounced.

What an atheist’s crucifix taught my child about faith

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It was a crucifix that caught my daughter’s eye during ArtPrize this year.

There’s no shortage of crucifixes to be found at the annual art competition. From the 2011 popular vote winner, depicting a bored looking, white American Jesus backlit by a Kinkade-esque sunset, to one of this year’s installations, “The Moment, Endured,” a more severe portrayal made entirely from nails.

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Left: “Crucixion” by Mia Tavonatti; right: “The Moment, Endured” by Bill Secunda

“The Moment” was actually one of two crucifixes displayed outside St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, one of the venues for ArtPrize. But it was the other one, a piece called “Love Does Not Harm,” that made my 4-year-old ask me to stop the car as we were driving by a couple Saturdays ago.

We circled the block a few times until we found a place to park. The sky couldn’t make up its mind between “partly sunny” and “vaguely apocalyptic,” so I put her in a stroller and we made a run for it.

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“Love Does Not Harm” is the work of a local designer named Timothy Gabriel. His crucifix doesn’t exactly play on subtlety. If Mia Tavonatti’s “Crucifixion” pandered to a deeply religious West Michigan audience, “Love Does Not Harm” poked it with a stick.

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The silhouetted figure is made up of anti-gay slogans. It hangs from a cross comprised of similar rhetoric. The entire scene is draped against a rainbow banner declaring that “Love does not harm.”

The piece drew attention for the political statement it made (and because the artist claimed it was vandalized during ArtPrize). But I wish we’d focus less on the controversy and more on the scripture Gabriel featured. Romans 13:8-10 is, I believe, one of the seminal texts of the New Testament.

“Love does no harm to a neighbor,” Paul writes. Every other law there is—don’t murder, don’t steal, etc.—is summed up in this one command: love others. Do not harm.

Paul is not breaking new ground here. He’s echoing one of the most pivotal teachings of the gospels, in which Jesus declared that “love God” and “love your neighbor” are the two greatest commands in the Bible—and that they are two sides of the same coin. The way you demonstrate love for God is by loving your neighbor. You cannot do one without the other.

Would any of us like to argue that we’ve kept this law perfectly? When have we ever been good at “doing no harm” to those who are different from us?

Gabriel’s piece does not major on subtlety or nuance. Nonetheless it invites us to consider one of the more central teachings of the New Testament and its implications for us today. Regardless of how we may think about sexuality or marriage, “love does no harm” is an idea that should make us pause and reflect.

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Of course, I didn’t get into all this with my daughter. She’s too young to read the words that made up the silhouetted figure. But she recognizes a picture of Jesus on the cross when she sees one, even when it’s abstract. Her eyes were especially drawn to the colorful words behind the crucifix, so I told her what they said.

We talked about “love does no harm” and what this means. We talked about how we should treat those who seem different. We talked about how this is part of what it means to love others the way Jesus loved us.

And then we went home and had lunch.

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A week later, we made one more visit to ArtPrize.

As we were driving, out of the blue my daughter asked if we could see Gabriel’s piece again. “The one that says, ‘Love does not harm,’ ” she explained. Then she told me what it means—how we should accept others, no matter how similar or different they are. She remembered our week-old conversation almost perfectly.

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The artist invited people to leave responses on the back. Elizabeth happily drew lots of squiggles.

Artistically, it may not have been the greatest piece at ArtPrize this year. It may have struck some as heavy-handed. And of course, many will find it divisive. But the core idea, “love does not harm,” shouldn’t be controversial. Gabriel’s piece helped my daughter grasp something central to the Christian faith—how we are called to love as Jesus loved.

If you read the title of this post, then you know the not-so-surprise ending: Timothy Gabriel is an atheist. In his official ArtPrize bio, he refers to himself as a proponent of secularism. And I am eternally grateful to him for teaching my daughter something important about Christianity.

When we stop viewing those who are different from us—whether it’s in their orientation or their beliefs—as enemies, we might just find they have something to teach us.

What have you learned about your faith from surprising sources? 

Photo of “Crucifixion” via ArtPrize.org

A prayer for our enemies

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From the Book of Common Prayer:

O God, the Father of all, whose Son commanded us to love our enemies:

Lead them and us from prejudice to truth;

deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge;

and in your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you;

through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

(HT Jim Vining, image via Kurt Willems)

Jesus died because you didn’t clean your room (and other things we tell our kids)

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This kid obviously cleaned her room for Jesus.

Last week was VBS at my church. It was the first time my daughter was old enough to participate. I filled in as a backup crew leader. Think small group leader, but with more herding kids from one activity to the next. Also, pretending to know the motions to the songs, which occasionally meant spinning in circles while everyone else was jumping up and down.

The curriculum we were using* was all about God’s unconditional love. Which is a great theme to highlight, especially when you’ve only got a couple hours a night to engage kids, many of whom have no other connection to the church. If I could choose just one message to share with kids, this would be it. (Even if I can’t get the hand motions right.)

One night, we were supposed to talk about the fact that God loves us even when we do wrong. The curriculum did a nice job walking through the story of Jesus’ death on the cross. It also had a few suggestions for how to explain why Jesus died. One of them was to share some examples of sin that kids can relate to.

Like not cleaning your room.

Why did Jesus die? Answer: because your room is a mess and you didn’t tidy it up like you were supposed to.

I get that we have to keep things simple for kids. But is this really the best way to explain Jesus’ death? Is there no other way we can unpack for kids the idea that the world is broken and in need of rescue and repair?

Do we trivialize the gospel when we make it about “sins” like not cleaning your room? Do we sell our kids short by not telling them a more meaningful story?

Later that night, I saw proof that the kids in my group were itching for a better story, that they didn’t need a trivialized, oversimplified concept of sin in order for the gospel to make sense.

The makers of the curriculum wanted to address real issues that kids face, and they wisely included bullying as one of the featured topics. During the discussion time that evening, the change in my group was palpable. Suddenly, these kids—who wouldn’t take anything seriously all week, who spent the whole time cracking jokes and posturing for each other—got very serious. They listened. Each had a story to tell. Multiple stories, actually. You could see the hurt in their eyes. Each of them had been bullied at some point. Heck, they even wanted to know if I had been bullied as a kid. (Asking me a serious question—that was a first.)

Our kids understand the world is not how it should be. They don’t need us to soft-pedal it for them. They don’t need to be fed trivial examples of sin in order to understand Jesus’ death.

We don’t need to treat our kids as if they’re porcelain china, as if they’ll shatter into a million pieces if we’re honest about the way the world really is. Just ask them if they’ve ever had a run-in with a bully, and you’ll realize: they know what sin is.

They deserve a gospel that makes sense in the real world. And that, I think, is the main shortcoming of a primarily legal or transactional approach to the gospel. It reduces sin to a theological abstraction, one in which not cleaning your room is every bit as serious as murder or rape or bullying. It says naively that “all sin is sin,” when all sins are not, in fact, created equal. (For more on the problems of equalizing sin, see this post by R.L. Stollar.)

This, by the way, is one reason why I’m increasingly drawn to the Christus Victor view of the atonement, why I believe it makes the most sense of what Jesus did on the cross (knowing that the significance of Jesus’ death cannot be reduced to a single theory of atonement), and why I think it opens the door to sharing a better gospel story.

Christus Victor says we are captives of a broken world. Yes, some of that darkness resides in us. We are both victims and culprits. We are trapped in a cycle of sin and death, but we also contribute in ways both small and large. Christus Victor says that Jesus’ sacrifice was God’s victory over sin and death, as opposed to appeasement for the trivial “sins” of a 4-year-old who doesn’t clean her room.

Our kids deserve a better story.

(Although, if it will get my almost-4-year-old to clean her room…)

Related post: The gospel sketched for kids

*In case you’re wondering, the VBS curriculum we used was Weird Animals by Group Publishing. There are many, many good things about this curriculum: the way they tied in stories of impoverished kids in other parts of the world (and respected the dignity of those kids)… the way they highlighted God’s unconditional love… the fact that they created a music soundtrack that won’t drive parents batty. (No, really. My daughter is STILL singing the songs.) But when it comes to telling the redemptive story of the Bible, I think we can do better. 

Image by Paul Walsh on Flickr

Polarization and the church: is a third way possible?

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Last week, the Pew Research Center shared their findings from a 20-year study of polarization in American politics. The short version: it’s getting worse. But polarization is not just a political phenomenon. It’s a religious one too.

Polarization is more than just disagreement with someone. It’s the tendency to view that person as your enemy, as a threat to everything you hold dear. In a Christian context, polarization manifests itself in rejecting the validity of someone else’s faith, or by saying things like, “If you accept X, then you’ve undermined the gospel, the Bible, Christianity, etc.”

We don’t have to look far to find those who’ve been impacted by this kind of polarization, whose humanity has been reduced to an abstract “other” so we can more easily marginalize and dismiss them.

Our disagreements aren’t going away anytime soon. The question is, can we have our differences and still find a way to live together?

Al Mohler has said quite forcefully there can be no “third way”—at least not when it comes to the subject of homosexuality. And as he pointed out, Tony Jones has said pretty much the same thing from the left. In response, Zach Hoag has written a couple of posts (here and here) defending the idea of a third way.

Some have said the third way is at best a temporary stopping point on the way to something else. The idea of a third way—making room for people on both sides in your church—sounds good in theory. But what do you do, for example, when a same-sex couple asks you to officiate their wedding? What do you do when you finally have to choose one side over the other?

Is a third way about allowing for time for discernment and reflection together—with the assumption that the clock is ticking and we’ll have to come to some kind of resolution eventually? Or is it a commitment to live in community even if we never come to agreement? Is that even possible?

I don’t have good answers to these questions. I’m still wrestling. I have some doubts about the viability of a third way, partly because I like things to be black and white.

The truth is, I always have…

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I’ve never been good at negotiating a third way, regardless of which side of the ideological spectrum I sat on. In my college days, I was one of the more conservative kids on a conservative evangelical campus. I would argue loud and long with my comparatively more “liberal” friends. Politics, women’s ordination, homosexuality. You name it, we argued it.

What I didn’t realize until years later was they were modeling a third way in how they responded. They never rejected me as a person. They never questioned the validity of my faith, even though I’m quite sure they found some of my views (and how I expressed them) repugnant.

Even when my arguments crossed the line from debate to personal attack, even when I demonstrated precisely zero interest in what they had to say (which was often), even when they got so frustrated with me they had to get up from the table—we always came back together the next day. They always welcomed me back to the table. We didn’t soft-pedal our disagreements. But we found a way to live together in the midst of them—which was almost entirely to their credit and not mine.

Since then, some of my views have shifted—in part due to the example of those who refused to write me off. I don’t care for the term “liberal” because it carries a certain stereotype of someone who says the Nicene Creed with their fingers crossed (if they say it at all). That’s not me. Nevertheless, not all my views are as cut-and-dry as they once were.

But I’ve held onto my old polarizing tendencies. I’m still a fundamentalist at heart. (Yes, progressives can be fundamentalists.) Whichever side I take, I still have an ugly habit of viewing those I disagree with as enemies. As “other.” And this kind of polarization is an inherently dehumanizing force.

—//—

Whatever the merits and limitations of a third way, if it’s just about being superficially nice, then it’s not worth the effort. Benjamin Moberg argues that civility and respect are important, but eradicating injustice matters more. Not everyone who disagrees with you is a threat to the church, not by a long shot. But some may pose a genuine threat—to the church and to those who seek shelter within its walls. There are some whose very notion of the way of Jesus seems diametrically opposed to the man himself…

Those who insist on shutting certain people out.

Those who make exclusion a badge of orthodoxy.

Those who harbor abusers and blame their victims.

Those who cannot see the dignity and worth—or faith—of those who are different from them.

The third way, as I understand it, isn’t about trying to please everybody. If you don’t want to sit in the same pew as people who are different from you, then the third way is not for you.

If the thought of receiving communion from a priest who is gay makes you cringe, the third way may not be your thing. If you cannot share the peace of Christ with those who don’t share your views on same-sex marriage, then you may have to find another way. “Fundamentalism won’t fly,” as Zach Hoag writes. “Movement will be required on both sides.” That is, movement toward each other as fellow image bearers and, yes, as fellow Christians.

That’s because the third way is about affirming the genuine faith of [insert your favorite scapegoat here]. When you can do this, what you’re really affirming is that you and they are part of the same family. You are bound to them, and they are bound to you.

That may be as far as the third way can take us. But even that might be enough to blunt the worst effects of polarization on the church.

—//—

The third way that Zach and others have proposed is not a solution to all our problems. But I don’t think it’s meant to be. Like I wrote near the beginning of this post, the limitations of a third way become evident the moment a church is asked to bless a same-sex marriage or hire a female priest or take any other action that forces it to favor one side over the other.

Choices have to be made. What makes the third way compelling is not the avoidance of choice but the refusal to be enemies in the midst of making that choice. Others may choose to see us as their enemy, and we can’t help that. But we don’t have to return the favor. We can offer a hand to anyone who’s willing to walk with us, even as we wrestle with our differences, as we try to discern together where the Spirit is taking us.

The third way is the stubborn refusal to put ideology ahead of people or theology ahead of love.

Polarization wants to convince that ideas matter more than people. The third way doesn’t mean ideas don’t matter. It’s means we don’t forget that people always come first.

Related Post: People of the third way

Photo by 55Lancey69 on Flickr

Questioning the evangelical answer machine

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As Christians, we like to have the answers. It’s the whole “asking questions” part we’re not so sure about.

Take a look at how much energy the evangelical industrial complex devotes to giving answers. If you search for products with the word “answer” in them, one Christian retail site has more than 16,000 results. The Jesus Answer Book. The Bible Answer Book. The COMPLETE Bible Answer Book. The Big Book of Questions and Answers. The Big Book of Bible Answers.

We have Answers in Genesis to allay our nagging concerns about the origins of the universe. We have our very own Bible Answer Man. We’ve outsourced questioning so that others can come up with the answers for us.

But what’s the underlying motive to this preemptive strike on questions? Is it fear? The fear that if you ask one wrong question — or one too many questions — the whole edifice of faith will come crashing down?

If you take a closer look at the scriptures, you begin to see just how little they resemble our modern-day obsession with answers. The biblical story is full of unanswered questions.

The whole book of Job is an exercise in asking hard questions, a reminder how little we know, how little we can be sure of. What’s even more amazing about this story is that God is summoned to give an account to account by a riches-to-rags alleged miscreant.

The better part of Job is taken up by his friends’ attempts to silence his questions. They accuse him of wrongdoing. They insinuate that he’s guilty of heresy and blasphemy. They posit canned answers to Job’s complex questions.

Yet Job persists.

You have to give him credit. Job was bold. He assumed the right to question God. The language of his complaint is that of a lawsuit, of someone taking their adversary before the judge — except, for Job, his adversary and judge are the same person.

In other words, Job just wants his day in court. He wants permission to ask the hard questions.

And he’s convinced that God will be OK with that… if only God would show up:

If only I knew where to find him;
that I might come even to his dwelling!

I would lay my case before him,
and fill my mouth with arguments.

I would learn what he would answer me,
and understand what he would say to me.

Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power?
No; but he would give heed to me.

There an upright person could reason with him,
and I should be acquitted forever by my judge.

When God does finally show up, Job doesn’t get the answers he’s looking for. Only more questions, a stark and humbling reminder that the universe is big and mysterious and that our knowledge — our answers — don’t even scratch the surface.

But Job was not condemned for asking questions. Job was vindicated. His friends, on the other hand, were rebuked for trying to shut him up, for trying to silence his questions with hastily contrived answers.

How many of us could stand in for Job’s friends? Afraid to ask questions. Desperate for airtight answers to supress our nagging doubts.

It’s not that answers are bad — when there are some to be had. It’s what kind of answers we seek. If the answers you give (or receive) are meant to end the conversation rather than nurture it, they are probably the wrong kind of answers.  

To follow God is to ask a lot of questions, including some that can’t be answered — not even by all 16,000 answer books at your Christian bookstore.

It’s not about personal piety.

Some mornings, I plow through the Daily Office (a relatively new discipline for me) more so I can check it off my list than to let the words speak into and through me. Sometimes, I’m more interested in returning to my coffee before it gets cold.

Sometimes I approach the Daily Office with an overactive left brain, trying to analyze each reading, as if the mark of a successful morning prayer ritual is whether I “get something out of it” or how many “ah ha” moments I have.

And then some mornings, a reading or prayer stops me in my tracks. I find myself turning it over in my head throughout the day. This morning’s New Testament reading, for example, caused me to question our definition of piety.

Piety is not one of those sexy religious terms (like “infralapsarianism”). It gets a bad rap, thanks in no small part to the association with Puritans and…well, yeah, pretty much the Puritans. Morgan Guyton defines piety as “zeal for doing and saying the right things according to your value system.” For evangelicals, piety is often characterized as having a regular “quiet time” (or doing the Daily Office, if you’re more liturgically minded), reading your Bible, etc. For the truly hardcore, piety might even include fasting. In other words, mostly inward-focused activity.

We individualize just about everything in the American religious experience, and piety is no exception. We’ve come think of it primarily in terms of personal sanctification or holiness — essentially a spiritualized form of self-improvement. Tony Robbins and Jesus rolled into one.

Which is great (apart from the Tony Robbins bit). Deepening your personal devotion to Christ is important. But in today’s reading, the apostle Peter reminds us that personal piety is not an end unto itself:

Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart.

Real piety (not the sanitized, Christian bookstore version) is outwardly focused. Piety — what Peter calls the “purifi[cation] of your souls by your obedience to the truth” — leads somewhere. It leads to “genuine mutual love.”

A few lines earlier, Peter admonishes readers to “be holy,” which we tend to either write off as some idealized, impossible standard (not least because it involves becoming more like God somehow) or reduce to inwardly-focused activities like praying and reading our Bibles. For Peter, the whole point of becoming holy is so that we can love each other. The measure of our holiness is how well we love.

Peter was not the first to draw this connection, and we are not the first to lose sight of it. The book of Isaiah depicts the Israelites trying to vindicate themselves before God, primarily on the basis of their personal piety:

“Why have we fasted,” they say,
“and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
and you have not noticed?”

The problem, according to Isaiah 58, was their personal piety had not led to mutual love. It had not demonstrated itself in compassion for their neighbors and justice for the oppressed.

On the day of your fasting, you do as you please
and exploit all your workers…
You cannot fast as you do today
and expect your voice to be heard on high.
Is this the kind of fast that I have chosen,
only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it for bowing one’s head like a reed
and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?

(You can almost hear the exasperation in the prophet’s voice.)

Is this not the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?

If your piety — your zeal, your religious devotion — does not cause you to become more loving, more compassionate, more outwardly focused, then it is not piety. If it does not lead you to welcome the stranger, to open your doors to the marginalized, and to speak out for the oppressed and excluded, then your piety has not drawn you any closer to God than you were before.

Which brings me back to the Daily Office. Like I said, it’s a fairly new discipline for me. I find its rhythm meaningful in a way that “personal devotions” never were. Even when I do the readings on my own, I’m joining my voice with countless others — meditating on the same scriptures, reciting the same prayers. I find something quietly powerful in that.

But if I’m not doing this so I can become more loving, more welcoming, more openhanded and compassionate toward my neighbor, then what is the point?

When God kept vigil

The night before his death, Jesus asked some of his closest followers to keep vigil with him, to “watch and pray.” We’ve been keeping a different kind of vigil in our house as Lent draws to a close: feeding, comforting, changing, rocking our newborn son through the small hours of the night. It’s made for a strange contrast during Holy Week — marking the death of Jesus while we celebrate new life in our family. Becoming a father again has made me wonder what it meant for God to be a “Father” on the night Jesus was sentenced to die.

Some would have us see Jesus’ death as a legal transaction to satisfy the demands of an angry God. They think God sent his Son to the cross to appease divine wrath against us. A just and holy God cannot tolerate the presence of sin, so he poured all his fury onto Jesus, and then he turned his back on him.

But what if God was there all along, keeping vigil with his Son? After all, isn’t that what fathers do?

I believe Jesus died in our place on Good Friday. I believe he bore the weight of sin and death on his shoulders, as he strained for each breath, scratching his already flayed skin against the rough texture of a Roman cross. I believe this was God’s plan of rescue, how he ransomed the world from sin and death.

But if God is in some way a “Father” (there are also maternal descriptions of God in Scripture, to be sure) — and if this term says something meaningful about God’s character — then it has to have some correspondence to the human experience of being a father.

Becoming a father for the second time has reminded me that I could never, ever turn my back on my child. If I did, I would cease to be a father in any meaningful sense of the word. Believe me, there are times — especially in the middle of the night — when I’d rather turn over, go back to sleep, and let my crying son fend for himself. But that’s not what fathers (or mothers) do. We nurture. We comfort. And when there is no comfort to be had — when my son is crying simply because this strange new world is too much for him — we keep vigil.

That’s what I think God was doing the night before his death. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” was not a declaration of abandonment so much as a plea for God to draw near. (It helps if you read the whole psalm that Jesus quoted.) Fathers don’t abandon their kids.

When morning came, God did not send his Son to the cross. God himself went to the cross. God died so we could live. And through this death, he showed us the way to live. He showed us what it means to be a father who never, ever abandons his children, even in the darkest hours of the night.