Losing track of God

[T]oo often Christians do not realize how subtly we are dissuaded from the theocentric perspective that should characterize faith. We live in an age of super-subjectivism, in which how we are experiencing things determines their reality. Subjectivism is evident in such slogans as “If it feels good do it.” Not so evident is the way subjectivism distorts our society’s approach to religious phenomena.

Postmodern interpretation of scriptural accounts center on the perceptions of the disciples rather than on what Jesus was teaching about His kingdom, or on the experience of the children of Israel rather than on what YHWH was showing them about covenant purposes and faithfulness. Last Sunday,  I heard a sermon that focused primarily on dimensions of life that bend women over, but hardly mentioned anything about the Jesus who healed a deformed woman (Luke 13:10-17)

Because the twenty-first century mind is characteristically inward-turned, this subjectivism has invaded our theology, as can be seen in much contemporary Christian ethics, as well as Christian music. Several years ago a large dramatic Easter pageant shocked me when the words from Handel’s Messiah, “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,” were changed to “when we shall see his glory.” That shift might not seem so drastic, but think of the dichotomous difference of perspective it indicates. Now the emphasis is on how we, subjectively, are (or are not) seeing God’s glory, rather than on the objective fact of YHWH’s revelation.

– Marva J. Dawn, Joy in Our Weakness

Holy Spirit & Bible then and now

I was going on about not having had an opportunity yet to pick up a copy of Adam Hamilton’s new book on the Bible, when someone very graciously sent me a copy. It arrived today. Is there anything better than free books in the mail?

Rather than skip to the chapters on hot-button issues, I skimmed through many chapters of the book and then went to the back where Hamilton turns from questions and critical reflection to what he calls an “honest and reverent view of Scripture.”

Here is one paragraph in which he summarizes things:

To reiterate the basic premise of this book: You are not dishonoring God by asking questions of scripture that seems inconsistent with modern scientific knowledge or geography or history. And you are not being unfaithful to God if you ask questions of a verse that seems inconsistent with the picture of God seen in the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus. This is possible because you recognize that the Spirit’s inspiration of the human authors of scripture was similar to the Spirit’s work in your own life. The Holy Spirit prompts you but does not dictate. The Spirit whispers to you, but you don’t always hear correctly. The Spirit’s work in your life does not make you inerrant or infallible.

Hamilton’s emphasis on the Spirit reminds me of his charismatic background. I take his argument to be that the Holy Spirit today inspires people the same way it inspired the biblical authors, so our experience of the Spirit can and should inform our encounter with the Bible.

This might lead to ask why we treat the Bible as special. Aren’t worship songs and religious writings of our day — or other religions — just as inspired as the Bible, then? Hamilton responds to these questions in his chapter about whether the gospels can be trusted when they tell us about Jesus. He argues that the historical proximity of the authors — at least the New Testament ones — to the events they describe and the value the church has found in the writings warrant our giving them special attention and authority. I take this as saying the Bible’s authority comes from the circumstances of its writing and its usage in the church, not the unique nature of its inspiration.

In the end, if I am close to reading Hamilton correctly, most of the arguments that he makes on specific questions, including his controversial “three buckets” framework for classifying parts of the Bible, come down to this matter of what it means to say the Bible is inspired.

I’d be interested in the thoughts of others who have read his book or who have thoughts arise by reading my all-too-brief description of this point.

The meaning of salvation in Resident Aliens

Since the 25th anniversary re-release of Resident Aliens, I’ve been reading the book again in bits an pieces.

Ever since my first reading of the book, I’ve struggled with the ways that the narrative-based theology and ethics the books advocates undermines or sets aside historical Christian ideas.

For instance, here is how the book describes the nature of salvation:

Here, with our emphasis on the narrative nature of Christian life, we are saying that salvation is baptism into a community that has so truthful a story that we forget ourselves and our anxieties long enough to become part of that story, a story God has told in Scripture and continues to tell in Israel and the church.

There is something appealing in this, but it also troubles me when I stop to think about it.

My primary source of discomfort is that it makes salvation about freedom from anxiety and self-centeredness. Or not freedom so much as forgetfulness. For all the ways that the authors write about Christian ethics being incomprehensible without Jesus Christ, their definition of salvation comes down to the commonplace notion that it is good to be caught up in something bigger than ourselves.

In the end, salvation is about learning to see the world differently and learning to tell our own story in reference to a different story than we did before anyone taught us the story of Jesus. In the end, salvation is about getting our mind right.

In other words, salvation does not appear to have much of anything to do with the Holy Spirit grabbing hold of sinners and breaking up stony hearts.  Nicodemus need not be troubled by the implications of this. He just needs to learn how to inhabit a new story.

The salvation offered in the book feels much too safe. It feels well suited for a Duke University classroom or an encounter group. It feels like it leaves much too much room for the distant and ironic stance that allows us to talk about salvation without being shaken up by it too much.

10 marks of good religion

Scot McKnight lists 10 Marks of Good religion taken from reading a book by Mark Thielen. The author’s contention that the answer to bad religion is not no religion, but good religion. Here’s the list:

1. Good religion impacts the way we live. It’s got to do more than re-arrange our Sunday schedule. I have to admit that I have tired of the theologians who contend that Christianity is not about what we do but about what we believe, or the one in whom we believe, and that preaching the imperatives of the Bible is sinful — as if God didn’t know how to talk to us well or as if Jesus didn’t know how to preach or as if the apostles should have cut their letters in half. Orthodoxy without orthopraxy mocks Jesus.

2. Good religion prioritizes love. What’s the point? The Jesus Creed!

3. Good religion engages in service.

4. Good religion provides a prophetic voice. Mandela, Tutu, consumerism, environmental irresponsibility — and Thielen provides a brief sketch of a theology of the environment (pp. 90-93).

5. Good religion builds community.

6. Good religion is hope filled.

7. Good religion keeps an open mind.

8. Good religion practices forgiveness: it’s hard work, takes time, does not condone bad behavior, does not always lead to reconciliation, and is for our benefit.

9. Good religion promotes gratitude.

10. Good religion practices evangelism: lifestyle, relational, invitational.

Resident Aliens: Confessing church

The confessing church seeks the visible church, a place, clearly visible to the world, in which people are faithful to their promises, love their enemies, tell the truth, honor the poor, suffer for righteousness, and thereby testify to the amazing community-creating power of God.

– Hauerwas & Willimon, Resident Aliens