The Story of King Jesus: Good Friday

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Jesus did good things everywhere he went.
He healed the sick. He fed the hungry.
He rescued people from all sorts of problems.

Jesus did everything God wanted.

But some people still didn’t want to do things God’s way.
They didn’t want Jesus to be their king.
They wanted to be in charge for themselves.

So one day, some powerful people decided to stop Jesus
before he could take away their power.

They arrested Jesus. They took off his clothes.
They nailed him to a wooden cross
and watched him die.

Jesus never fought back. He never raised a sword.
He never even raised a finger.

                                    – from The Story of King Jesus

Continued tomorrow…

Passing on our faith like Moses

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Today I’m writing for More to Life Magazine about how the Israelites shared their faith, how it can shape the way we share our faith with our kids, and how it inspired my book, The Story of King Jesus.

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Last year, my daughter turned four. As a parent, I feel the same burden many Christian parents feel: I want to pass my faith to my children. I want my daughter to know Christ. I want her to walk with him for the rest of her life.

But I also know the odds are against her.

Research shows that a majority of young people who grow up in church disconnect from their faith or their church—or both—later in life (source: Barna). Let that sink in: more than half of those who make a decision for Christ as children will exhibit no meaningful sign of it by the time they reach adulthood.

It’s not for a lack of effort on our part. Over the years, we’ve come up with a host of tools to help us share the gospel—the Sinner’s Prayer, Four Spiritual Laws, the Romans Road…

Anyone remember the Wordless Book—or its relatively more recent incarnation, the Wordless Bracelet?

But our tools and methods for passing on our faith are failing us. More importantly, they’re failing our children.

So what do we do? The answer might just be closer than we think…

Read the rest at More to Life Magazine.

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Telling the story well: “God made the world to be his home”

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About this series: As I shared in the introductory post, I believe “getting the gospel right” means telling the story well. This is what inspired me to write my book for kids, The Story of King Jesus. Over the next few posts, I want to share a few aspects of this story that I believe are key to telling it well. 

It all began with God.

God made everything you can see.
(And even things you can’t see!)

God made the world to be his home.

                                    – from The Story of King Jesus

Growing up, I thought this world was doomed.

Like many Christians, I thought it was destined for the furnace. I looked forward to the day when I would be evacuated from this world, along with my fellow believers, and ushered into an ethereal paradise.

Actually, I wasn’t looking forward to it all that much. As a teenager I would ask God to delay his return long enough for me to experience what life has to offer: getting married, having a family… OK, that’s a pretty noble way of describing what it was I didn’t want to miss out on.

Then I would beat myself up for praying this way, for treasuring “worldly” things over “spiritual” things. Maybe I didn’t deserve that one-way ticket to heaven after all.

My gospel was mainly about escaping this world.

I had the end hope of the gospel wrong because I didn’t understand how the story began. My gospel began with the world gone wrong—and therefore a world not worth saving—not the world as God made it.

If we understood how our story begins, we’ll end up with a very different view of where it’s going. (Plus I could’ve  saved myself a lot of needless teenage guilt.)

So let’s go back to the beginning.

Many of us read Genesis 1 with an eye toward the mechanics of creation. But the biblical origin story is far more interested in the why of creation than the how.

Genesis 1 depicts God giving order and purpose to creation. The land is “good” not simply because it’s there, but because it produces vegetation. The stars, sun, and moon are “good” not simply because they’re there, but because they help mark sacred times, days, and years. They give light to the earth.

Created elements are introduced in order of increasing complexity and importance. Vegetation, then animals, then people. And then it stops. Chapter 1 comes to a close at day 6, with human beings seemingly the pinnacle of God’s creative work.

Except the story continues into the first few lines of chapter 2, which briefly mentions day 7 before turning to a second account of creation. But day 7 is more than an epilogue to the previous story. Remember, things have been moving in increasing order of importance, which means day 7 is the whole point of the story. The seventh day is the day God “blessed” and “made holy,” not days 1-6. The seventh day is what it’s all about.

The seventh day is when God rests—and that is the high point of creation.

Observing the parallels between Genesis and other ancient creation stories, Old Testament scholar John Walton notes that creation was typically followed by divine rest. In these stories, deities always rested in temples.

“Rest” in this case was not the cessation of activity but the beginning of something. It was like a king taking his seat on the throne after his coronation. The hard work of becoming king was done, but the even greater work of ruling was yet before him.

However, there was one crucial difference between Genesis and these other stories: other deities needed someone to build a temple for them. Their houses were crafted by human hands. Not so with God and his temple, to the apostle Paul later declared. God doesn’t need anyone to build him a temple because he’s already built one.

Where is God’s temple in the Genesis story? Where does God rest?

It’s all around us. The cosmos, heaven and earth, is God’s temple.

“Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool,” God declares through the prophet Isaiah. Throne, footstool… these were temple artifacts. This is temple language.

In other words, God made the world to be his home, his temple. Then he invited us to share it with him.

(If anyone says the Old Testament is where we find law and the New Testament is where we find grace, remember what God did at the beginning when he invited us to share his home—his world, his temple—with him.)

This changes how we understand the gospel.

This changes the trajectory, the end goal, of the gospel: it’s about God dwelling with us again.

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We see it over and again throughout the story. First, in the primeval garden, where God walks in the garden, his temple, in the cool of the day. Humans are exiled from the garden after the fall, but in some ways it’s as much an exile for God as it is for us. God’s creation—his very home—is turned against him. Heaven and earth are temporarily severed from each other. But God won’t give up on his creation.

God keeps coming back to earth—first to dwell in buildings made by Israelite hands. Initially he occupies a portable tabernacle in the wilderness. Later his presence fills their temple in Jerusalem. In Ezekiel, God departs the temple shortly before Israel goes into exile—a replay of the earlier scene in the garden.

But still God keeps coming back.

Next, he comes to dwell with us in human form, as Jesus—God in flesh and blood.

According to the scriptures, God will return to dwell with us again, this time bringing a whole city with him (which prompted an interesting conversation with my 4-year-old about how big God’s arms must be).

At the end of all things, God will mend the breach between heaven and earth for good.

This changes how we view the gospel. It means this world matters. It matters to God, so it should matter to us.

It means salvation is not just about me and where I go when I die. Salvation, as seen in the Bible, is all-encompassing. It’s “the renewal of all things, not just individual human souls.

This is the story we should tell our kids—a story in which their lives, their choices, and their participation in this world matter. A story where, instead of pressuring them to renounce “worldly” desires for “spiritual” things, we help them to see and welcome God’s presence in all things. A story where the life of this world is not renounced but redeemed.

If we miss how our story begins, we’ll miss where it’s going. If we settle for an escapist gospel, we might just find ourselves moving in the opposite direction as God.

We keep trying to escape the world; God keeps trying to break into it.

God made the world to be his home. Starting our gospel here will make all the difference in the world.

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Firmament image via Exploring Our Matrix. John Walton quote via Christianity Today.

Getting the gospel right? Or telling the story well?

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When I was in seminary, we talked a lot about “getting the gospel right.” We read books about it. We wrote papers on it. We attended conferences about it. We each had our own (often conflicting) ideas of what it meant.

It’s easy to see why “getting the gospel right” is such a big deal for Christians. We believe the gospel has the power to change everything. So it’s worth making an effort to get it right—or at least try.

Yet the older I get, the less at ease I am with this phrase, for a couple reasons. I’d rather talk about “telling our story well.”

For one thing, I’ve seen firsthand how “getting the gospel right” nurtures a particular kind of arrogance. I’ve seen it in myself. I became convinced that me and my like-minded cohorts were the only ones who had it right. Everyone else was “compromising” the gospel in some way. After a while, even minor theological disagreements were conflated with the gospel itself. Soon, everything was a gospel issue. “Getting the gospel right” became a euphemism for agreeing with me on, well, whatever I decided you had to agree with me on for the sake of the gospel.

Two, we talked about “getting the gospel right” in the same way you’d talk about getting the answers right on a test. “Getting the gospel right” meant ticking the boxes next to a list of propositional statements, making sure we thought the right kind of thoughts about abstract theological concepts.

There’s just one problem. The gospel, as defined by scripture itself, is not a list of abstract concepts. It’s not something you can reduce to a few spiritual laws or sum up with a handful of verses extracted from the book of Romans.

What we often call “the gospel” is really just a set of propositional statements that we’ve separated from the story.

None of which is to say these statements are unimportant. But abstract theological concepts are NOT the gospel.

The gospel is a story.

Which means if we care about “getting the gospel right,” then we need to tell the story well.

This is not a new idea. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the people of Israel were told to share their faith with the next generation by telling their story of rescue. Not by delivering a theological treatise. All the decrees, laws, and rituals—they were not the story itself. They were not “the gospel,” as it were. They were prompts to tell the story:

When your children ask you in time to come, “What is the meaning of the decrees and statutes and the ordinances that the Lord our God has commanded you?” then you shall say to your children, “We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand.”

Getting the gospel right means telling the story well. It means telling the whole story. It means it matters what kind of story we tell. For example…

  • Is our story about personal salvation only? Or is it about something bigger?
  • In our story, are we saved from something, or are we also saved for something?
  • Is the story we tell about escaping this world or transforming it?
  • Do we begin our story in Genesis 3 or in Genesis 1?
  • Are we passive agents in our story, or does God invite us to play a meaningful role?

I want to tell the story well for my children, which is what led me to write The Story of King Jesus.

Over the next few posts, I’d like to share some aspects of this story that came alive for me as I wrote. We’ll look a few key phrases from the book, which I believe are central to the story we should be telling our kids:

“God made the world to be his home.”

“Taking care of his good world.”

“Making the world right and good again.”

“Our king gave us a job to do.”    

When we make these things part of the story we tell, I believe we can offer our kids a faith worth living for.

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Image by Nick Lee

Six things I’ve learned reading The Story of King Jesus to my daughter

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Every night before bed, my daughter Elizabeth gets to pick two books for us to read.

As far as she’s concerned, The Story of King Jesus will always be the book I wrote for her—and it is—so it’s been making regular appearances in our bedtime routine. We’ve read it a few dozens times now since our first copy arrived.

For my part, the book is an experiment of sorts. I believe we shortchange the gospel when we reduce it to a handful of Bible verses or condense it into a formula you recite. I believe we shortchange our kids when we fragment biblical narrative into isolated stories and treat them as moral fables. I believe our kids deserve a bigger gospel. They deserve to have the Bible presented as a single, coherent story.

The Story of King Jesus is my attempt to do just that. I want to prove it’s possible to share our faith without shortchanging either the gospel or our kids.

My daughter is 4-1/2. She’s just now taking her first steps of faith. I know better than to declare victory yet. But what I’ve witnessed so far gives me a lot of encouragement.

Here are six things that I’ve learned while reading The Story of King Jesus to my daughter…

1. She can (and will) use the book to delay bedtime. And I’m all right with that.

OK, I don’t know what implications it has for nurturing her faith. But Elizabeth knows how to use the book to stretch out her nightly routine.

The most sacred bedtime rule in our house—we read each book ONCE—is in tatters when she gives me those big, sad eyes and asks me to read “her favorite book” one more time. Yeah…she knows how to play me.

I find myself in less of a rush, too. I’ll confess… I’ve sped through some of her books at bedtime (Goodnightstars-goodnightair-goodnightnoiseseverywhere-THEEND), but I slow down for this one. Because this story matters. I want her to absorb every word.

Even her regular interruptions are more easily welcomed because, well…

2. She asks surprisingly good questions.

The other night, she interrupted me as we got to the exodus part of the story, where God’s people “were slaves in another country.” We’ve read these words many times, but this time Elizabeth wanted to know what slavery is.

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So we talked about how some people try to own and control others, how this is part of what we mean when we say “God’s good world is broken.” We talked about how “making the world right and good again” (another phrase from the book) means making it a place where everyone is free, where everyone is treated with respect, and where we love everyone they way God loves us.

I love that she’s asking the kind of questions that will help her connect her emerging faith to the world around her—so she can see that God doesn’t just save us from something; he invites us to become part of making the world right and good again.

Kids need to see that our faith makes a difference in this world, not just the next one. The gospel is about far more than where we go when we die. As Benjamin Corey wrote, it’s not about escaping this world; the gospel about transforming it.

Watching Elizabeth process The Story of King Jesus, I’m reminded that our kids know how to ask good questions. We don’t have to shove answers down their throats. We just have to nurture their innate spiritual curiosity.

3. She is naturally drawn to Jesus.

Elizabeth lights up whenever we get to the part about Jesus. As soon as I read the words “something new happened” and “God sent someone special,” she gets fidgety with excitement. She wants to recite the next part before I can read the words, “God sent his only Son, Jesus.” She wants to take in every picture of Jesus doing “good things everywhere he went,” and she wants to tell me about each one. (Some of her interpretations are more creative than others.)

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The Bible is all about Jesus. Jesus fulfills and transforms Israel’s story all at once. The purpose of the Bible is not to serve as some kind of rulebook or user manual, but to point to Jesus, the true logos, the final Word of God.

When we keep Jesus at the center of our gospel, our kids find someone with whom they can connect—perhaps more easily than we do.

4. She’s connecting some of the dots for herself.

The other night, when we got to the part about the kings of Israel—“Some kings were good. Some were bad. Mostly, the kings did whatever they wanted.”—Elizabeth added, “Yeah, just like the very first people.”

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She already gets that Israel’s story is an echo of the garden story—God creates people, gives them a home, offers to live with them, but the people go their own way and lose their home. She’s starting to get that this is our story as well, that it’s not just a story about people who lived a long time ago. She’s starting to understand that what God wants for the “very first people,” and what he wants for Israel, is what he wants for us: to make the world right and good again so we can live with him once more.

5. This story can hold her attention.

My daughter doesn’t have a lot of sit in her. I don’t think she’s ever sat through an entire movie—except maybe Frozen, and that was only once. Come bedtime, her ability to focus, such as it is, usually goes out the window. (In other words, she is a normal kid.) But for all the times we’ve read The Story of King Jesus, it still holds her attention. She wants to know the story behind each image. She’s learned parts of the book by heart. She talks about it during the day.

I think we have a tendency to sell our kids short. We turn the gospel into sound bites. We give nuggets of Bible stories, rendered unrealistically cute and reimagined as moral fables, because we don’t think our kids are up for more than that. We should have more confidence in them and in the story we tell—because, well…

6. She—and other kids like her—can grasp the big story of the Bible, if we give them a chance.

I remember years ago teaching a Sunday school class using a “youth-friendly” denominational curriculum. The kids in my class were bored senseless. I couldn’t blame them. So was I.

So we ditched the curriculum; instead, I started telling them the big story of the Bible (because it was clear no one had ever done this for them). The atmosphere changed immediately. Kids who had been sleeping with their eyes open sat bolt upright. They started asking questions. They wanted to know where the story was going.

As Scot McKnight wrote in The King Jesus Gospel, “We need to regain our confidence in the utter power of proclaiming the one story of Jesus.” To this, I would add we also need to regain our confidence in our ability to tell this story well—and in our kids’ ability to embrace it.

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The Story of King Jesus is available at bookstores now.

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Available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, CBD, Thoughtful Christian and your local independent bookstore.

Why it takes more than a “Youth Sunday” to show kids they matter

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When I was a kid, our church held a “Youth Group Sunday” service once a year, usually right after we got back from church camp. Generally it was an evening service—we were Baptist and it was the 90s, so that was something we still did. Also, our AM service was televised. (Again, we were Baptist and it was the 90s.) So letting the youth group take control of an evening service seemed a bit… safer.

During “Youth Group Sunday,” the music was a little more contemporary. We performed badly acted skits. In place of the sermon, we’d share post-camp testimonies—a chance for us to tell everyone how “on fire for God” we were going to be (for the next couple of weeks).

Then everything went back to the way it was.

We were expected to be quiet in church once again. As a reward for our (relative) silence, we were entertained with our own activities, our own Bible studies with the requisite “edgy” videos, even the annual ski trip. Everything was carefully structured to cater to our demographic niche.

Strangely, the greatest impact on my spiritual formation during those years came not from all the age-specific programming, but from a handful of older members who crossed the generational divide to mentor some of us. Their presence did more to show us we mattered than anything else the church did.

Today, the defection of Millennials (those born in the 80s and 90s) is no small source of hand-wringing among church leaders. And here’s the kicker:

All that age-specific programming, along with token gestures like “Youth Group Sundays,” aren’t the answer to keeping them in church. In fact, they might be part of the problem.

Tom Fuerst, a UMC pastor, suggests Millennials aren’t attending church because, well, they’ve never had to. All our specialized programming has effectively kept them out of the sanctuary for most of their formative years.

Hear me out on this: age-appropriate spiritual formation opportunities are a GOOD thing. But, taken to an extreme, they might be sending an unintended message to our kids: you don’t matter. 

Tom writes:

You created structures and systems of “doing church” that taught us that our presence in the communal gatherings were relatively irrelevant. We learned from your structures, not necessarily your example.

Millennials who grew up in churched families sometimes don’t feel like they belong in church because they have never participated in church on a week-to-week basis. We’ve never believed (because we’ve never been taught) that our weekly presence, despite age, matters to the vitality and mission of the church.

To echo something another writer, Amy Peterson, shared this week, I want my kids to have an intergenerational church experience. That’s one reason why I, like Amy, have found a home in the Episcopal Church.  But church isn’t intergenerational unless the kids are truly part of it. We need to welcome kids into the sancutary…yes, even the fidgety ones. They need to be more than passive observers, too. They need to be shown they are fully valued members of our communities—token gestures like the occasional “Youth Group Sunday” will not do that. They need to see that our worship is incomplete without their participation. They need to see that, as Tom put it, “their voice matters to the mission of God in the world.”

I guess that’s why I like the fact we have acolytes in our services. But I wonder if that’s enough. Is there more we can do to engage kids—without patronizing gestures—to show them that their presence and participation matter every bit as much as the adults’?

And not just so we can boost our numbers, but because participation is vital to spiritual formation. Kids learn by doing. They learn by being included. As I’ve written elsewhere, we don’t learn the faith so we can belong; we belong so that we might learn. In a lot of our churches, we get this backward. It’s no wonder so many of our kids check out when they reach adulthood.

And that’s where the final caveat comes in: it’s not enough to welcome kids into your worship if it’s not participatory. If your worship is primarily a passive experience for all but those on stage—if the main event is someone lecturing for 30-60 minutes while everyone sits in silence—then you might need to rethink how you do church before you ask younger people to take part. Otherwise the question will be, take part in what?

I don’t have all the answers to how we go about welcoming kids as integral members of our worship and mission. But until we figure how to do this better, there’s not much point worrying about how we’re going to get Millennials to come back to church.

First, we need give them something to come back to.

Image: fumcuhurch.com

Good and not-so-good reasons to share an #Ashtag selfie

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Confession: I may or may not have posted an Ash Wednesday selfie in years past. Not so I could win a publisher’s contest offering free merchandise in exchange for so-called #ashtags (that IS troubling), but because I was taken by the novelty of the ceremony.

Admittedly, it seems odd to call an ancient ritual “novel.” But that’s what it was for me—and for others like me, who grew up in nonliturgical church settings. Strangely enough, it was in an evangelical megachurch that I first received the imposition of ashes. When the church started experimenting with liturgy in its worship, I was hooked. The perceived novelty was intoxicating in the best way, precisely because of the way liturgy invites into us into something bigger than ourselves.

Many of us are just now stumbling into the liturgy. And for us it’s like a discovery. The weekly Eucharist, the prayer book, the liturgical seasons—we had no idea these things existed, much less how powerful they are. So for some of us, an #ashtag (much as I hate that term) might simply be an expression of our excitement at this “new” way of faith we’ve “discovered.”

We’re like infants taking our first steps in a world where everything is captivating, new, and exciting. And because social media is a natural extension of our lives, posting an #ashtag selfie might, for some, be the most natural way of sharing what the liturgy means to us.

On the other hand, there’s a time for putting away childish things. And Ash Wednesday selfies might be one of them. It worries me when organizations try to make a promotional opportunity out of a sacred ritual. There’s something incongruous about taking a lighthearted selfie moments after a ceremony meant to remind us of our mortality. It’s like “whistling past graveyards,” as David R. Henson put it. It reduces a holy encounter with the immortal God into a social media trend. It inadvertently shifts the focus from the divine to ourselves, as Peter Chin suggests.

Is that really such a good idea?

Perhaps coincidentally—or perhaps not—the incongruity of the #ashtag selfie is highlighted a little too well by the appointed gospel reading for Ash Wednesday:

“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.

“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

The appointed reading challenges us to think critically about our practice of Ash Wednesday selfies. Now, I don’t believe most people sharing #ashtags are doing so primarily to win others’ approval—though there is something dangerously intoxicating about seeing the number of likes or retweets your post gets. For most, I think the practice is a genuine expression of what the liturgy means to them, and a genuine desire to share that with others.

Still, I hope we reach a point where those of us for whom all this is new no longer need #ashtags, where the ceremony itself is enough, where our initial exuberance gives way to a quieter, less visible—and ultimately more sustainable—form of piety.

Image: Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College on Twitter

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.

—//—

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.

—//—

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

—//—

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.

Four things I want for the Episcopal Church

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The Episcopal Church breathed new life into my faith. The Eucharist, the liturgy, the people—I don’t know where I’d be in my journey without them. Most likely untethered, without a spiritual home.

Judging by the reaction to my last post, I’m not alone.

I’ve been part of this community long enough now that I should probably stop thinking of myself as a newbie. It’s been long enough for me to know there are challenges ahead. For all the good there is, we’re an imperfect community.

I don’t have answers to the challenges facing the Episcopal Church. But there are four things I hope will shape our response…

1. Don’t be afraid of the future.

The Episcopal Church is in decline, at least numerically. There’s no point denying or dismissing it. Yes, it’s part of a larger trend affecting all major denominations. No, it doesn’t have as much to do with the church’s position on divisive issues; it’s far more to do with demographic shifts and our failure to keep up.

But the decline is real. It cannot be wished away. My friend and Episcopal priest Nurya Love Parish has plenty of research providing the necessary context.

Decline is painful. We’ll see more churches close in the years ahead. We can either wring our hands about the future, or we can help shape it. Either way, things won’t be as they were before. Episcopalians will no longer enjoy privileged status in American society. And well… good. Privilege has a way of breeding apathy. God, on the other hand, has a way of diminishing the mighty to remind us of our weakness—often (and this is the good news) so he can work through us in new and better ways. We can resist, exhausting our resources to prop up a crumbling edifice, or we can build something new.

Death of one kind or another is coming. It always does. The question, as one of our priests put it, is whether we can “fathom resurrection” on the other side. I think we can.

2. Don’t be afraid to challenge people (as long as you have something worth challenging them with).

One of the things I love about the Episcopal Church is that it gave me space to just be. When I first arrived, there wasn’t a ton of pressure to sign up for this program or volunteer at that event. If you need a place to heal or acclimate or reset your spiritual journey, you can do that here. And you should.

At the same time, some of us have been coming for a while now, and we’re ready to be challenged. There’s a caveat, however: if the challenge you have for us is all about maintenance or survival, then we’re probably not interested. But if you have a vision for the future, a way to be part of what God is doing to renew and remake the world—then sign us up. We’re ready to contribute to something bigger than ourselves.

Just ask. 

3. Don’t be afraid to proclaim the gospel.

OK, I’ll admit… I hate it as much as you do when the subject turns to evangelism. For me, it brings up too many memories of going door to door, handing out tracts and peddling Jesus to strangers. Episcopalians have good reason to be skeptical of much of what passes for evangelism.

We don’t have to manipulate people into the kingdom. We don’t have to be like Sandwich Board Guy outside Westlake Center in Seattle, with just about every doom-laden Bible verse scrawled onto his placard.

But evangelism, whatever else it may be, involves proclamation. Granted, announcing that a Jewish preacher came back from the dead doesn’t carry the same shock or novelty it once did. The proclamation that “Jesus is risen” doesn’t turn heads the way it might have 1,900 years ago.

The real challenge is to demonstrate how resurrection changes things. It’s a challenge that requires us to always move outward, engaging meaningfully with the communities and people around us.

Our proclamation will look and feel different. Thankfully, it’s not the heavy-handed sales pitch that others have used. (What do I have to do to get you into a relationship with Jesus today?) At its best, it’s an invitation to explore, to journey together.

But let’s not hesitate to share it. Let’s not forget, there are lots of people searching for something transcendent. (Check.) There are plenty of people who long to be part of a community where all are welcome. (Check.)

There aren’t many places that can say they offer both. We can. Let’s invite others to share the ride.

4. Don’t mistake “speaking up about injustice” for “standing with the poor.”

The Episcopal Church is not afraid to speak out on difficult and sometimes contentious issues: Ferguson, climate change, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Syrian refugee crisis, domestic poverty. There’s a whole public affairs office dedicated to addressing concerns like these.

I love that about my church. The kingdom of God is every bit as much about life in this world as it is the life of the world to come. We should speak prophetically to our institutions of power, and we should do so in solidarity with the most vulnerable members of society.

But we should not forget that speaking up about injustice is not the same as cultivating justice. Advocating for the poor is not the same as standing with the poor. As my friend Ian (one of my first guides into the Anglican tradition) shared recently:

The Church is called to stand with the poor, to be with the poor and even (as controversial as this may sound in our suburban bubble) to be poor in solidarity with those in need. Leaders in the Church should be modeling what it is to be with those in need.

This is not always easy when you have a reputation for affluence—or in a denomination where, according to the Episcopal Café, churches “that are truly flourishing are located disproportionately in affluent neighborhoods and have affluent members.”

Our best hope for nurturing justice is (again quoting Ian) by “modeling a better way, a new way of living that turns the conventions and values of the dominant society upside down.”

In the process, we may discover that some of our own conventions and values need turning upside down, too. We should remain open to that possibility.

—//—

I love the Episcopal Church. (But then, if you read the last post, you know that already.) I believe there is a bright future for us. But it depends on us seeing church as a movement first and an institution second. It will challenge us to reimage what it means to be the presence of Jesus in the 21st century—as each generation before us has had to do in their own time—without abandoning the traditions and practices that make our church such a life-giving place for so many.

Again, I think my friend Ian put it well: “The church is at its best when it is open, humble, and sacramental.” May we be all of these things and more as we move into an uncertain future.

Photo by Greg Westfall on Flickr