Crackers & Grape Juice Silhouette Tagline InvertedFor Episode #31, Teer and I sat down for a conversation with Nathan Gilmour, Professor of Humanities at Emmanuel College and host of the Christian Humanist Podcast. As part of our conversation we invited a mutual college-bound friend, David King, to talk with Nathan about his advice to new students.

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heresy_GMSI’ve been reading Roger Olson’s new book Counterfeit Christianity: The Persistence of Errors in the Church, a book about Christian heresies that is vastly superior to my own writing on them. Nonetheless, I thought this would be the perfect time to pull my ‘Top Ten Heresies‘ posts from 4 years ago out of the vault.

Heresy = Beliefs considered anathema by the ecumenical councils of the Christian Church

If Orthodoxy = ‘right praise’ then heresy = ‘wrong praise.’

*Leviticus 10: wrong praise = a very big deal

If Stanley Hauerwas is correct to assert that most Christians in America today are ‘functional atheists;’ that is, most Christians live in such a way that it makes no difference that God raised Jesus from the dead, then surely even more Christians today are inadvertent heretics, trodding paths of belief the ancient Church long ago labeled dangerous detours.

Today these ancient errors of the faith can be found wearing many different guises. For all you know, you might be wearing one too.

By pointing out what Christians DO NOT believe, we can get one step closer to what we do.

Heresy #3: Pelagianism

What Is It?

You tell me.

See if you can comb the cobwebs of your memory and regurgitate the little bit ‘bout Pelagius you probably learned in European History.

Seriously, no?

Well, did you not see the kick-@#$ Clive Owen King Arthur movie a few years back? Wherein Arthur gets re-imagined as a virtuous knight precisely because his adoptive guardian was Pelagius? No?

The movie also stars Keira Knightley, an actress who induces if not heretical thoughts then definitely sinful ones.

Okay, for those forgetful and unaesthetic among you, Pelagianism is the heresy which denies the existence of – and therefore power over us- original sin.

Consequently, Pelagianism asserts that people possess the capacity to choose the good through their own unaided, created natures.

Put in more Pauline terms, we can be saved- actually the passive there is incorrect in this case- we can achieve salvation through our efforts apart from God’s grace.

Pelagians can dismiss original sin one of two ways. Either by contradicting Augustinian readings of Paul and dismissing the notion that the sin of Adam is transmitted to us biologically. AKA: Through the S word. Or, by emphasizing certain passages of Paul and declaring that the power of Sin has been defeated on the Cross by Christ.

Already perhaps you can sense why Augustine saw Pelagianism as both an especially pernicious but also an exceptionally thoughtful heresy.

Who Screwed Up First

You don’t get a heresy named after you if you’re not the first or at least most articulate spokesmen for your anathema.

As Clive Owen reminds us, Pelagius was a British theologian who taught in Rome in the 4th and 5th centuries.

Pelagius had the ill fortune to have lived the same time as St. Augustine of Hippo who was even more astute a thinker than he. Zosimus, the Bishop of Rome (which eventually become the Pope’s office) condemned Pelagius in 418.

Nevertheless, Pelagius’ legacy lives on in more than just celluloid, abiding throughout the centuries just as Pelagius insisted Sin did not.

Much like a vaccine, Pelagianism lurks latent throughout the Body of Christ and one could make a solid case that Mormonism is really just Pelagianism dressed up in a short-sleeve, white-button down.

How Do You Know If You’re a Heretic?

If you believe that God does not care what religion a person practices so long as that person tries to live a good life, then your mind- or your squishy little heart- has got Pelagius’ fingerprints all over it.

If at a funeral, or in the planning of one, you summarize: ‘__________ wasn’t religious at all but he was a good person, then as compassionate as you no doubt are your logic is that of Pelagius and not the Gospel.

If you teach your kids that the meaning of Christmas is that they better be good- not naughty- or Santa won’t give them any gifts, then you’re not only setting them up to inherit some pretty effed up understandings of God you’ve also, like Pelagius himself, got the definition of grace exactly wrong.

If you presume that Christianity is essentially about ethics (about serving the poor, clothing the naked, waging peace) then you’re definitely showing symptoms of a bad case of Pelagianism.

Not to mention, you’ve confused the Gospel (Jesus’ overcoming Sin and Death and being Raised to the right hand of the Father) and the Gospel’s effects (being set free to live a life like Jesus).

If you issue altar calls, require Jesus prayers or accept only adult baptisms because to be a Christian a person must ‘make a decision for Christ’ then, like Pelagius before you, you’ve over simplified the mystery that is Sin and Grace and you’ve turned conversion into yet another ‘work.’

If you act as though all non-Christians or non-churchgoers are bad, decadent or morally corrupt and self-righteously think that your participation in church makes you a better person, then you’ve once again over simplified the mystery that is Sin and Grace in all our lives, believer and unbeliever.

And you’ve forgotten that God’s grace is active everywhere and in every life preveniently; that is, before any of us ever ‘choose’ God.

If you think that ‘real’ Christians or ‘bible-believing’ Christians or ‘faithful’ Christians must believe/vote/think/act this way on that issue, then you’ve been seduced by Pelagius’ reduction of the complexity of the world into right/wrong, black/white issues.

If you see the Eucharist as nothing more than a memorial to a soon-to-be prisoner’s last supper and, for that matter, if you see all of creation in a non-sacramental way then you’ve got some Pelagian germs in you.

After all, God’s grace has more than just a negative connotation. It isn’t only active in our overcoming of our individual sins.

Grace illumines and animates and charges everything last thing around us.

If you say ‘I do’ foolishly thinking you can have a fruitful marriage apart from God then you’re what practical theologians call ‘a Pelagian.’ Pelagius had to have been celibate. Seriously, marriage is hard enough with God.

If you’re not raising your children in a particular faith tradition because ‘you want them to make up their own minds when their older’ then not only are you instead raising them in the faith called ‘American Individualistic Consumerism’ you’re also assuming a Pelagian capacity in your children to grow up ‘good’ and ‘wise’ apart from grace.

If you insist your nation, its leaders or its founders (cherry tree, _____ was really kind to his slaves) always have good and pure motives then you are a Pelagian, refusing to see how the murky reality of Sin and Grace exist in every person, every tribe and every issue.

Likewise, if you ignore that the lifestyles of Western culture are made possible on the backs of the poor in the developing world then…Pelagian.

If your red politics depends on a Horatio Alger myth of every individual pulling themselves up by their bootstraps then you’re politics have a bit of Pelagianism in them, ignoring that Sin is more than what individuals do but also what is done, systemically to others.

Of course, if your blue politics depends on depicting the poor and downtrodden as uniformly noble, well-intentioned and ‘good’ your politics are likewise infected with a heresy that is, if nothing else, simply unrealistic.

Persons Most Likely to Commit This Heresy Today

Parents (especially of the helicopter, dragon, playdate variety)

Americans

United Methodists

The Nones

Celebrities

Mormons

Funeral Planners

Republicans

Democrats

Home Remedies

Watch Kiera Knightly in King Arthur and be reminded that, despite our good virtue, some sins (lust for example) abide.

To apply this same principle on a more systemic level, watch Django Unchained.

Spy on your kids when they don’t think you’re looking. And notice that Augustine was right, the little bastards have the devil in them.

Sing ‘Amazing Grace’ and then remember that it took what’s-his-name several many years after he was ‘found’ to actually stop buying and selling people.

Affirm the caveat postscript that every Methodist ordinand must: ‘….with God’s help.’

Most Common Heresies: #4

Jason Micheli —  August 25, 2016 — 1 Comment

heresy_GMSI’ve been reading Roger Olson’s new book Counterfeit Christianity: The Persistence of Errors in the Church, a book about Christian heresies that is vastly superior to my own writing on them. Nonetheless, I thought this would be the perfect time to pull my ‘Top Ten Heresies‘ posts from 4 years ago out of the vault.

Heresy = Beliefs considered anathema by the ecumenical councils of the Christian Church

If Orthodoxy = ‘right praise’ then heresy = ‘wrong praise.’

*Leviticus 10: wrong praise = a very big deal

If Stanley Hauerwas is correct to assert that most Christians in America today are ‘functional atheists;’ that is, most Christians live in such a way that it makes no difference that God raised Jesus from the dead, then surely even more Christians today are inadvertent heretics, trodding paths of belief the ancient Church long ago labeled dangerous detours.

Today these ancient errors of the faith can be found wearing many different guises. For all you know, you might be wearing one too.

By pointing out what Christians DO NOT believe, we can get one step closer to what we do.

Heresy #4: Biblicism

What Is It?

Okay, so it’s really my own pet peeve and not an official ancient heresy- only because it’s so far removed from how the first Christians thought, believed and read their scripture that it never became an issue.

So then:

Biblicism attributes a supernatural origin to scripture.

The Bible is the direct, unfiltered Word of God.

Ironically, it’s an approach to Christian scripture that has a correlative in how Muslims understand the Qu’ran as containing the very words God dictated to the Prophet.

Scripture then is as free of error, as though it fallen from heaven printed and bound rather than the fruit of prayerful reflection, testimony, oral tradition and a long process of canonization.

Because scripture is the direct, eternal unfiltered Word of God, scripture’s meaning- according to biblicism- is both clear and obvious to the average, individual believer and, more heretically, it’s available to individuals apart from an encounter with the Risen Christ and submission to a community of interpretation and practice.

In other words, if the Bible alone is the Word of God on paper you don’t need the Word made flesh, and if the Bible is the clear Word of God you don’t need a community to tell you how the saints before you heard and embodied that Word.

Who Screwed Up First

While Christian fundamentalists often present this approach as the traditional way of understanding scripture, they do so with a remarkable lack of historical awareness.

Like the other ‘fundamentals’ the literal, inerrancy and infallibility of scripture only arose in late 19th century as the Church combated what it took to be the corrosive effects of the modernist movement.

Interestingly, at the same time some Protestants were making the infallibility of scripture one of the five ‘Fundamentals’ Roman Catholics were taking the similar step of developing the doctrine of papal infallibility.

A longer historical view bears out that biblicism is the outlier within the Christian tradition.

The practice of Midrash in Judaism reveals the great deal of openness, creativity and flexibility with how believers approached Torah, which to Jews’ minds never has but one meaning.

Jesus’ own Midrash (the Sermon on the Mount) and Paul’s (Romans et al) show how the rabbi from Nazareth and the former Pharisee knew that the freedom to reinterpret texts was a cultural norm.

In addition, the Church Fathers’ voluminous writings illustrate how the first Christians read scripture not literally but allegorically even while ‘literally’ accepting certain faith propositions.

How Do You Know If You’re a Heretic?

If you believe that every word of scripture is the literal, inerrant Word of God and thus you flatten the whole of scripture, making every word just as important and authoritative as any other, you’re Exhibit A in the case against biblicism.

Your heresy now makes the purity of codes of Leviticus logically equivalent in importance to the Sermon on the Mount. Your heresy makes God’s instructions to the take the holy land by bloodshed as critical and as revealing of God’s eternal character as Christ’s non-violent love unto the Cross.

If you flatten the the narrative arc of scripture and makes it all of equal import, losing the plot by turning narrative into a collection of equally authoritative precepts and principles, teachings and codes, instead of diverse, polyvalent testimony to the saving love of God made flesh in Jesus Christ, then you might self-identify as a bible-believing Christian but the Church Fathers would finger you as a heretical Christian.

Intentionally or not, you’re holding onto the bible to keep Jesus at arm’s length.

If you demand that your nation or culture or church hold on to antiquated prejudices, faulty scientific assumptions or an untenable worldview simply because every word of scripture is infallible, then you are a good example of how biblicism is hardly a harmless heresy.

Because you force your fellow Christians in to a kind of cognitive dissonance where we must ignore or disavow what we learn in the natural world should our learning seem at odds with scripture, as though God lies to us because God’s truth is only to be found in scripture.

Your literalistic rendering of the creation story forces fellow Christians either to dismiss evolutionary theory or prehistoric life.

Your literalistic interpretation of Revelation and the eschaton allows fellow Christians to dismiss stewardship of the environment or the danger of climate change.

Your heretical grip on scripture’s infallibility can also lock your fellow Christians into defending or perpetuating the social mores of the cultural context in which scripture was first recorded, holding on so tight to the past we forget to look for what the Spirit is doing today. You’re so determined to repeat what God said that you forget to use what God said in order to recognize what God is saying. Now.

If you say that ‘the Bible said it and that’s good enough for me’ then you’re a heretic who believes that scripture is an unmediated revelation, requiring not the testimony of faithful witnesses, before you and around you.

And while you might think you’re protecting scripture from the acids of the modern world, you do so at the expense of any role for God’s People. Rather than the Word of God being mediated through the testimony of God’s People, and hence being inherently relational, you make it authoritarian text. You make scripture something to which we must conform more so than something which invites us into a transformative relationship.

You’re a biblicist who’s forgotten that our scripture, like our Lord, is incarnational- both divine and human.

That said,

If you treat scripture purely as an historical document, if you ignore the confessional intent of scripture in order to get at ‘what really happened’ or ‘who was the real Jesus of history’ then you’ve swallowed the biblicists’ bait, bought into their game, and are making the very same mistakes as them.

You think you can unpack the written word apart from the Risen Word and his Body, the Church.

Persons Most Likely to Commit This Heresy Today

Marcus Borg

Reza Aslan

Protestants

Muslims

John Shelby Spong

Evangelicals

James Dobson

The Religious Right

Fundamentalists

The Media

Home Remedies

Tear up a Bible or throw one down on the ground, stand on it, wait for lightening to strike and when it doesn’t remind yourself: ‘I worship Jesus Christ, the Word of God, not the Bible.’

Read just 2 Gospels straight through. Notice the discrepancies. Feel your doctrine slip away. Notice how the presence of Christ abides.

Celebrate Easter early without the New Testament, just like the first Christians managed to do.

Make friends with a Catholic, Orthodox Christian or Jew.

Read Karl Barth’s treatment of the 3 Fold Word of God and give thanks.

Most Common Heresies: #5

Jason Micheli —  August 24, 2016 — 2 Comments

heresy_GMS

I’ve been reading Roger Olson’s new book Counterfeit Christianity: The Persistence of Errors in the Church, a book about Christian heresies that is vastly superior to my own writing on them. Nonetheless, I thought this would be the perfect time to pull my ‘Top Ten Heresies‘ posts from 4 years ago out of the vault.

Heresy = Beliefs considered anathema by the ecumenical councils of the Christian Church

If Orthodoxy = ‘right praise’ then heresy = ‘wrong praise.’

*Leviticus 10: wrong praise = a very big deal

If Stanley Hauerwas is correct to assert that most Christians in America today are ‘functional atheists;’ that is, most Christians live in such a way that it makes no difference that God raised Jesus from the dead, then surely even more Christians today are inadvertent heretics, trodding paths of belief the ancient Church long ago labeled dangerous detours.

Today these ancient errors of the faith can be found wearing many different guises. For all you know, you might be wearing one too.

By pointing out what Christians DO NOT believe, we can get one step closer to what we do.

Heresy #5: Patripassianism

What Is It?

Patripasiwhat?

I’ve given it the hump #5 position on this list, but Patripassianism definitely should be ranked #1 on the Silly Assonance Heresies list.

Here’s your clue.

Patripassianism:

from the Latin = patri– “Father” and passio “suffering”

Any guesses now as to it’s meaning?

That’s right, Patripassianism is a 3rd century heresy which asserts that the divine nature (either in the First Person of the Trinity or in the divine nature of the Second Person) can suffer.

Patripassianism = God Suffers(ed)

Patripassianism = If God Suffers(ed), then God Changes(ed)

I suspect the heretical nature of that claim is far from self-evident for some of you so perhaps an additional, foundational definition is in order.

Impassibility: from Latin

in = “not”

passibilis= “able to suffer, experience emotion”

Impassibility = God is eternally perfect and complete in God’s essence

Impassibility = God is transcendent

Impassibility = God is independent of all things unto God’s self and is not causally dependent on any other being and therefore cannot be affected (caused to have an emotion) by another being.

Impassibility = a first order, ground-level, Reading Rainbow, phonics-like theological maxim of the Church (and the philosophers before them).

Patripassianism, however, was perhaps the logical, if erroneous, fruit of the Church simultaneously contending with the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation. After all, if Jesus is the eternal God incarnate and Jesus suffers and dies on the Cross, then does the statement ‘God suffers’ become a theological possibility?

Do the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation render it feasible to claim that on Golgotha God suffers?

Indeed can we now say, as Hans Urs Von Balthasar puts it in a creative, poetic flourish that remains nonetheless stale, slipshod heresy that from Good Friday Eve to the dark night of Holy Saturday God is dead?

Or to give it a postmodern spin (that for its use of ‘I’ as a starting point remains hopelessly ‘modern’ and Enlightenment-bound) can we claim that on Christ’s Cross we see God suffering in solidarity with us?

Who Screwed Up First?

While the lineup of heretics is long in this instance, credit goes to Sabellius, a priest who insisted that the Trinity was ‘economic’ alone; that is, rather than the Trinity being comprised of 3 distinct ‘persons,’ the Trinity named 1 God who acted in time in 3 distinct ways (as Father, Son and Spirit).

Sabellius’ (mis)understanding of the Trinity is a heresy for a different day, but suffice it to show how Trinitarian doctrine is often the keystone for every other Christian belief.

Get the Trinity wrong and it’s easy to wind up with a Son who can’t save you and an angry Father from whom you’d rather be saved.

Because Sabellius misconstrued the Trinity, he was victim to further misconstruing the divine nature, seeing in the Cross the suffering of God.

Following Sabellius, well-intentioned 5th century doofs like Peter the Fuller and John Maxentius held that in the Passion both Christ’s human and divine natures suffered.

Into the late 19th and early 20th century, the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, the father of ‘Process Theology,’ postulated that God- likes his creatures (if you’re not an assbackwards creationist)- evolves over time as God interacts and relates to his creatures. God changes- ancient heresy wrapped in flattering ‘modern’ garb.

Another Patripassian is Jurgen Moltmann, a post WWII German theologian. In the wake of the holocaust, Moltmann felt convicted that the only plausible Christian confession was that on the Cross we see the eternal God shedding himself of eternity to suffer in solidarity with his oppressed creatures.

An understandable, humane, empathetic but ultimately ill-conceived conjecture about the Cross.

How Do You Know If You’re a Heretic?

If you read the Bible’s descriptions of God’s anger, wrath and changing dispositions towards his People as literal rather than as part of Israel’s and the Church’s testimony to their relationship with and experience of God and thus figurative descriptions, then you’re a Patripassian in the hands of an Angry God.

If you think of the Trinity in terms of Nouns and Attributes (Father who is Sovereign, Son who Redeems, Spirit who Anoints) and you do not think of the Trinity in terms of Verbs (God who is eternally ‘fathering’ the Son in the friendship of the Spirit) and thus you forget that there was NEVER a time when God was NOT like God-in-Christ, then you’re a Patripassian who needs to memorize the Nicene Creed.

If you assume that for God to be ‘loving’ God cannot be ‘unchanging,’ then you’re either a Patripassian or poor philosophy student who’s confused dispassion (as in transcendence of) with unpassion (as in lack of).

The former is the only news good enough to pin our hopes, the latter is nothing. Literally nothing.

What’s more, if you assume a loving God must change then you’ve not taken the next logical step to realize that God must also then be affected by sin, suffering and evil, which opens another morally revolting can of worms (more below).

If you, like Calvin before you, posit that God planned the ‘Fall’ in order to reveal God’s glory, then you’ve introduced deficiency or ‘need’ in to God’s essential nature and you’re a Patripassian who needs to reread Colossians 1.

Likewise, if you think, like the other JC before you (Jean Calvin) that God requires suffering and death in order to manifest certain of his attributes then you’re a heretic who has forgotten the most basic of Trinitarian beliefs: that God is eternally, perfect and complete unto himself and doesn’t ‘need’ to do anything to reveal anything ‘more’ about himself. He is now, forever will be and always has been already ‘more.’

If you believe that God changes as a result of his everyday interactions with us, then you’re not far from asserting that God is the direct, efficient cause of every moment and event in time- that ‘everything happens for a reason.’

While this might seem romantic on the set of Lost, it can develop a nasty aftertaste when you realize you’re on the same logical ground as Pat Robertson holding forth in the aftermath of a natural disaster.

Like Pat,  you’re suggesting that every innocent’s suffering, every misery, every cruelty in our world in some way furthers God’s good, redemptive ends in history, which may give you a morally intelligible universe but it comes at the expense of a morally loathsome God.

You apparently believe in a God whose nature is established not eternally but in time through commerce with evil, and that doesn’t sound like Jesus.

Better just to admit you’re a heretic and repent.

If you need an anthropomorphized God rendered on your own terms and insist that, like any good boyfriend or girlfriend, any God worth loving would change as a result of his relationship with you, then you’re a heretic who would make God more determined by possibility than by actuality.

That is, you’ve not quite comprehended 1 John 4’s proclamation that just IS LOVE.

Fully, completely, essentially, perfectly.

God doesn’t change because, unlike your boyfriend or girlfriend, God doesn’t need to change. Doesn’t need to become more perfect or more loving.

If you think that Jesus had to die in order for God’s wrath towards sinners to be ‘satisfied’ then you’re really suggesting that Jesus’ death on the Cross effects a change in disposition in God towards humanity.

You’re suggesting that the Cross changes, the otherwise eternal, God’s feelings.

God’s affected by something we do, kill Jesus.

So even though you’d likely think yourself more orthodox and definitely more biblical than the lot of us you are nevertheless a heretic, tripping over the most elementary of ancient principles: God’s apatheia.

Impassibility.

For, as David Bentley Hart likes to argue and the entire Orthodox tradition with him:

A God who suffers or otherwise changes can never be a God who is love, even if at the end of the day, God proves to be loving.

Only One who is already eternally and fully within himself ‘love’s pure light, who is in and with all things but remains above and free from all things, only that One can be considered a God of Love.

With a capital, uneraseable L.

Persons Most Likely to Commit This Heresy Today

Emergent Christians

Tony Jones

Process Christians

Mainline Pastors Preaching Funerals

Liberal Christians

John Piper

Mark Driscoll

Neo-Calvnists

Everyone After Any Death, Accident or Tragedy

Joel Osteen

Most Contemporary Christian Songwriters

Home Remedies

Memorize the Nicene Creed, especially the ‘true light from light’ part.

Look at a picture of Jesus and say out loud: ‘God has always been like Jesus.’

Vow. Promise never to say again:

“God did this…”

“This happened….”

“___________ died, got cancer….”

“….For a reason.”

Instead remember: God would never do that because God has always been Love.

13502037_1615405398788080_7321135075900787492_nMorgan sported a nice maroon negligee for an early morning conversation with Teer and Jason about the exclusivity of Jesus. So is Jesus really the only way?

We’re now up to 1k individual downloads per episode.

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Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. It’s not hard and it makes all the difference. 

It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

Again, special props to my friend Clay Mottley for letting us use his music gratis. Check out his new album.

    14021732_10207304739360375_480901097151863019_n Here’s this weekend’s sermon on the Gospel lection from Luke 13.10-17. The sermon below feels incomplete without the rendition of South Park‘s Satan song “Up There” that preceded the preaching in worship. I owe the Scooby Doo angle to my inter-webs friend Richard Beck and his awesome new book Reviving Old Scratch.

 

When the Comedy Central animated series South Park debuted in August 1997- after a pilot episode the year before became one of the internet’s first viral videos- it created much controversy and met with many indignant complaints for the way it parodied Christianity generally and Jesus particularly.

For example, in the Y2K episode titled “Are You There God? It’s Me, Jesus” (my personal favorite episode) Jesus worries that for the new millennium we may crucify him again and, turns out, Jesus wasn’t so crazy about being crucified the first time.

So Jesus decides to do something cool to distract for us from crucifying him. He organizes a Rod Stewart comeback concert.

And in the pilot episode, “Jesus vs. Santa,” Jesus challenges Santa to a cage fight to settle once and for all, to the theme song from Mortal Kombat, the real meaning of Christmas.

The carnage doesn’t cease until Jesus and Santa are pulled apart by the gay figure skater, Brian Boitano, who teaches them that the real point of Christmas is presents, to which Kyle, the lone Jewish boy in South Park, observes “If you’re Jewish you get presents for 8 days not just 1.”

Naturally, the episode ends with all the children of South Park converting to Judaism.

When South Park debuted 20 years ago this week, it sparked heated controversy. The Christian Childcare Action Project protested that “children’s ability to understand the Gospel would be hindered and corrupted” by South Park.

While the Christian Family Network complained that South Park impeded their work to restore morality to our nation and protect the American family.

Twenty years ago this week, for many Christians, an animated television series posed an ecclesial emergency, threatening to inoculate us against the Gospel.

And, of course, the single cultural force that has done more damage than any other to our ability to speak Christian is a long-running animated TV show.

It’s just not South Park.

It’s Scooby Doo.

I mean, that’s obvious, right?

—————————-

     I didn’t become a Christian until I was 17 and, even then, I only did so kicking and screaming. I think my being born again was every bit as painful and drawn out as my initial birth because of Scooby Doo.

     I should’ve seen it coming. GI Joe, which came on every weekday before Scooby Doo, had warned me that “knowing is half the battle” and I knew how every episode of Scooby Doo was going to go. So I should’ve known Scooby Doo was forming me in such a way to make it impossible to read the Gospels rightly.

     Scooby Doo has aired continuously on television since 1969. It’s spun off into dozens of series and 37 films, including three due out this year.

Scooby Doo has been everywhere for a long time so, chances are, you already know all about Scooby Doo. You could probably sing the theme song right now if prompted, and now you’re probably singing it in your heads instead of listening to me.

Chances are, you already know that “the gang” is led by Fred Jones, the blond Hardy Boy lookalike who apparently owned not one orange ascot and white v-neck sweater but an entire wardrobe full and that, despite being a detective, seemed clueless about Daphne, the hot red head in the miniskirt who always played not so hard to get.

Scooby Doo has been around a long time so I’m betting you already know all about it. You know that Vilma not Ellen was the first lesbian on TV. You know that Scooby and the gang drove around in a van decorated with flower-powered artwork, constantly complaining of having the munches…so, no mystery there.

And you probably know that Scooby Doo would often feature crossover guest stars, like the Harlem Globetrotters, and characters from other non-animated shows like the Andy Griffith Show, which is odd and just shows how baked they were because, otherwise, you’d think it would’ve occurred to a team of detectives that the real mystery in Mayberry is “Where are all the black people?”

But that’s the problem, the Gospel-corroding problem with Scooby Doo. 

There’s never any mystery.

Not once. Not in any episode.

Is there any actual mystery.

——————————

     * Every Scooby Doo episode follows the exact same pattern.

The sleuths of Mystery Inc. drive their psychedelic Mystery Machine van into a little town where a rattled resident lets slip how their quiet hamlet has recently been haunted by some ghost, spook, or monster.

Scooby and the gang then commence an investigation, examining clues and interviewing locals. Eventually- every time, every episode- contrary to common sense and all the previous episodes, Vilma will suggest the gang split up. Always a bad idea.

The gang will then encounter the ghost or monster in a hair-raising way, but eventually, after a suggestive hit or two of Scooby snacks and a comedic chase scene, they’ll nab the creature.

And always, every time, Scooby and his friends will unmask the monster, revealing- every episode, no exceptions- it to be not a ghost or a monster but someone from the town using the monster to scare people away from noticing their shady, criminal, very much human, activity.

At the end, unmasked, the crook will always walk off in cuffs grousing “…and I would’ve gotten away with too, if it weren’t…”

Fred, Vilma, Daphne, and Shaggy- they should drive a trippy van called the Secular Enlightenment Machine because there is never any mystery.

Every monster is just a man in a mask.

All Scooby Doo has to do, we’ve learned in every episode since 1969, is peek behind the spooky mask to learn what’s really going on.

——————————

     Whether Scooby Doo has shaped us or whether Scooby Doo reflects us, we try to read the Gospel the same way.

We try to look behind the spooky, supernatural covering of a text to figure out what’s really going on.

And so when we came to the Gospel text where Jesus exorcises a Gerasene demoniac, who’s been left to wander a graveyard in chains, we pull away the spooky mask and we say that what’s really going on is that Jesus healed a man with a severe mental illness.

Or when we come to one of the many Gospel texts where Jesus heals someone of an unclean spirit, we try to pull away the mask and we conclude that what’s really going on is that Christ healed someone of epilepsy.

We try to pull away the mask on a text like today’s from Luke 13, where a daughter of Abraham has been bound by Satan for 18 long years, and we expect to discover that what’s really going on here is that Christ has healed her of an inexplicable paralysis.

Demons and devils- they’re just monster masks, we say.

And like in Scooby Doo if we but pull off the mask and peek behind it we’ll discover the human problem behind the spooky story, the mortality behind the mystery, the simple explanation behind what’s really going on.

Spirits and Satan- they’re just symbols, we say.

Except, by definition, symbols can never be pretend or make believe.

By definition, symbols (bread, chalice, cross,) always point to something real.

And that’s the problem with trying to pull away the spooky mask to see what’s really on in the Gospel behind it.

Because even if demons and devils, spirits and Satan, are just masks to you, even if you don’t think they’re real, that doesn’t change the fact that Jesus did.

“This woman is a daughter of Abraham whom Satan [with a capital S no less] has bound for 18 long years.” 

      Go back and look at today’s text.

That’s not the Pharisees attributing Satan to her paralysis. That’s not the Chief Priests saying she’s been bound by Satan. That’s not the disciples or Luke implying it.

That’s red-letter.

That’s Jesus saying that whatever has ailed this woman is because Satan has bound her in his captivity, and you don’t need me to point out that Jesus wouldn’t have bothered to say that if it wasn’t also true, in less obvious ways, about all the rest of his listeners.

Which, includes us.

——————————

     Thanks to Fred and Vilma, we think we have to pull away the monster mask from the Jesus story in order to understand what’s really going on, when, in fact, it’s no longer possible to understand what Jesus thought was going on if you pull away the demons and devils from the story.

You can’t Scooby Doo-ify the Gospel.

Because when you pull away the monster mask, you tear off too much of the Gospel with it.

Call it what you will:

Devil

Death, as Paul does in Romans

The Principalities and Powers, as Ephesians does

Satan, as Jesus says here

Lucifer, the Prince of Darkness, or the Adversary, as Jesus does elsewhere

Call it what you will, the sheer array of names proves the point. “The Devil,” as Richard Beck says, “l is the narrative glue that holds the New Testament together.”

     The language of Satan so thoroughly saturates the New Testament you can’t speak proper Christian without believing in him.

Even the ancient Christmas carols most commonly describe the incarnation as the invasion by God of Satan’s territory.

Whether you believe Satan is real is beside the point because Jesus did.

To pull off the monster masks and to insist that something else is going on behind them is to ignore how Jesus, fundamentally, understood himself and his mission. It’s to ignore how his first followers- and, interestingly, his first critics- understood him.

The Apostle John spells it out for us, spells out the reason for Jesus’ coming not in terms of our sin but in terms of Satan. John says: “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the Devil’s work.”

And when Peter explains who Jesus is to a curious Roman named Cornelius in Acts 10, Peter says: “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power…to save all who were under the power of the Devil.” 

When his disciples ask him how to pray, Jesus teaches them to pray “…Deliver us from the Evil One…” 

You can count up the verses.

More so than he was a teacher or a wonder worker. More so than a prophet, a preacher, or a revolutionary, Jesus was an exorcist.

And he understood his ministry as being not just for us but against the One whom he called the Adversary, the monster behind so many human masks.

——————————

     Our impulse is to Scooby Doo-ify the Gospel, but we can’t.

The mask can’t come off because it does the Gospel comes off with it.

     If there’s no Devil, there’s no Gospel.

No Devil, no Gospel.

Because, according to the Gospel, our salvation is not a 2-person drama. It’s not a 2-person cast of God-in-Christ and us.

It’s not a simple exchange brokered over our sin and his cross.

According to the Gospels, the Gospel is not just that Jesus died for your sin. The Gospel is that Jesus defeated Sin with a capital S. Defeated, that is, Satan.

The Gospel is not just that Jesus suffered in your place. The Gospel is that Jesus overcame the One who holds you in your place. It isn’t just that Jesus died your death. It’s that Jesus has delivered you from the Power of Death with a capital D, the one whom Paul calls the Enemy with a capital E.

     According to scripture, there is a 3rd character in this story.

     There’s a third cast member to the salvation drama.

We’re not only sinners before God. We’re captives to Another. We’re unwitting accomplices and slaves and victims of Another.

And even now, says scripture, the New Creation being brought into reality by Christ is constantly at war with, always contending against, the Old Creation ruled by Satan.

And the battlefield runs through every human heart. Obviously, I realize that likely sounds superstitious to you. Fantastical.

But you tell me-

Take a look at the suffering and poverty and violence, the oppression, the hate, the exploitation splayed out all over your newspaper pages every day. And you tell me it doesn’t require an almost willful fantasy not to believe the human race is captive to some other Power, in rebellion still against God.

Genocide isn’t wrong; it’s evil.

So, you tell me the monster masks scripture gives us aren’t the best explanation for what’s really going on in our world.

—————————-

     Look- we’ve all been watching Scooby Doo since 1969.

There’s no way I can convince you today to stop trying to look behind the monster masks in these spooky stories. There’s no way I can make you believe in the Devil if you don’t already.

But maybe, I can show you why we need him, why, without this third character in the salvation story, the Gospel is no longer Gospel. It’s no longer Good News.

Because-

When we Scooby Doo-ify the Gospel

When we push Satan off the stage of the salvation drama

When we cut the cast down from three characters (God, Us, and Satan) to two characters (God and Us)

What happens is that we end up turning God in to a kind of Satan.

—————————-

     Just a few weeks ago, I received an email in my inbox, from someone I do not know. Sometimes having a blog has its downsides. The fact that the sender still has a hotmail address tells me plenty about them.

Anyway, the sender felt compelled to email me to tell me that he believed “God gave me incurable cancer because of my ‘liberal views on gays and Muslims.”

Nice, huh?

After I dug my fingernails out of the wood of my desk, I snarled the same four-lettered expressions you’re wearing on your faces right now.

But step back from the nastiness of it and it’s not that unusual of an assumption. I have cancer and the sender of the email assumed there must be a reason (from God) that I do.

A few days after I received that email, a woman came up to me, here in the sanctuary, after the 9:45 service.

She’s has a kid my son’s age. She lost her husband a a couple of years ago after a long illness. Only weeks after her husband died, she found out she had a serious form cancer. After surgeries and treatments, she’d thought she’d beaten it.

She came up to me after worship a few weeks ago to tell me goodbye. Her cancer had come back and it had spread. She was going home to her family, she told me, so that they could care for her daughter after she died.

Crying, she wondered the same question she’d asked when she was first diagnosed: Why is God doing this to me?

Not nearly as nasty as the email but it was the same assumption.

After I hugged her, before I could even get out of the sanctuary, a man came up to me and wept in a stoic sort of way, telling me how his college-bound daughter had fallen into addiction yet again.

And he put it into different words, but it was the same question with the same assumption lurking behind it, like a face behind a mask: Why is God doing this to us?

We talk like this all the time.

The difficult pregnancy or the scary prognosis, the marriage that can’t heal or the dream that didn’t come true even though you prayed holes in the rug-

LIFE HAPPENS

-and we think God must be punishing us.

That this is happening for a reason.

That this suffering is because of that sin.

That God is giving us what we deserve.

Life happens and we want to know why: why is God doing this to me?

We speak like this all the time, as if there must be a direct, causal, 1-to-1 correspondence between God’s will and every event on earth and in our lives.

There’s a reason for everything, we say.

But think about it- a world where there’s a reason [from God] for everything is a world where there is no gap between the already of what Christ has done and the yet of what Christ promises still to do.

     A world where there’s a reason [from God] for everything is a world already exactly as God would have it be.

     But that’s not the world as scripture sees it.

But you can’t see that world when you reduce the cast of the Gospels’ salvation story to two, God and us.

If there’s only two characters in the drama, then of course God must doing X, Y, or Z to you. There’s no else to blame.

The world as the Gospels see it is not a world where everything is exactly as God would have it be or where everything that happens to you is because God willed it upon you.

There is a third character in the story.

The world as the Gospels see it is a world still in captivity to the Principalities and Powers, still in rebellion to Sin. Still in bondage under Satan. Creation is at best a shadow of what God intends.

The world of tumors and tragedies, addictions and atrocities, is NOT a world where everything is the unfolding of God’ will but a world still alienated from him because there is Another, an Adversary, always contending against God.

     —————————-

     “This woman is a daughter of Abraham whom Satan has bound for 18 long years.” 

Notice, unlike so many of us, Jesus doesn’t say God gave her her illness. Unlike so many of us, Jesus doesn’t blame it on God.

You may not believe in the Devil, and I can’t convince you today.

But you need the him.

You need the Devil to remember that whatever you think God is doing to you God isn’t. God isn’t your Accuser. God isn’t a kind of Satan. God doesn’t cast blame upon you or dole out to you what you deserve.

      You may not believe in the Devil, but, trust me, I hear enough people ask ‘Why is God doing this to me?’ to know that you need to recover that third cast member in the salvation story.

You need to get Satan back on the stage.

You need the Devil to remember that God never gives us what we deserve and always gives us more than we deserve- God responds to the crosses we build with resurrection.

You need Satan back on stage in order to remember that if there’s a reason for everything in our world and in our lives then, as often as not, those reasons are NOT God’s reasons but Another’s doing.

You may not believe in the Devil, but you need him.

You need him in order to remember that no matter what your life looks like, when God looks upon you God sees a prodigal child for whom he’ll never stop looking down the road, ready to celebrate.

You need to stop trying to look behind the mask.

You need to get Satan back on stage.

Your salvation drama is incomplete without a cast of three.

Because when you pull away the mask, you tear off the very best good news there is:

When you look upon a face of suffering you do not see the face of God.

You see the face of his Enemy.

 

 

 

 

Most Common Heresies: #6

Jason Micheli —  August 21, 2016 — 1 Comment

heresy_GMS

I’ve been reading Roger Olson’s new book Counterfeit Christianity: The Persistence of Errors in the Church, a book about Christian heresies that is vastly superior to my own writing on them. Nonetheless, I thought this would be the perfect time to pull my ‘Top Ten Heresies‘ posts from 4 years ago out of the vault.

Heresy = Beliefs considered anathema by the ecumenical councils of the Christian Church

If Orthodoxy = ‘right praise’ then heresy = ‘wrong praise.’

*Leviticus 10: wrong praise = a very big deal

If Stanley Hauerwas is correct to assert that most Christians in America today are ‘functional atheists;’ that is, most Christians live in such a way that it makes no difference that God raised Jesus from the dead, then surely even more Christians today are inadvertent heretics, trodding paths of belief the ancient Church long ago labeled dangerous detours.

Today these ancient errors of the faith can be found wearing many different guises. For all you know, you might be wearing one too.

By pointing out what Christians DO NOT believe, we can get one step closer to what we do.

Heresy #6: Donatism

What Is It?

The rigorist belief that the Church must be a Church of ‘saints not sinners;’ therefore, Christian clerics must have a pure of character and an unwavering fidelity in order to effectively discharge their priestly duties.

Who Screwed Up First

Donatus, a Berber Bishop in the 4th century.

‘Donatism’ arose as a direct result of the persecutions Christians suffered under the Roman Emperor, Diocletian.

In a nutshell, there were a number of Christians, including clergy, who recanted their faith or who handed over ‘holy things’ to the empire rather than face a punishment that could prove fatal.

Once the persecution ended, the Church faced the tricky dilemma: What to do with those priests who hadn’t stood strong in the face of persecution?

Should not clergy be the outstanding example of which laity are the norm?

In particular, does their character (or lack thereof) now call into question how effective they are in presiding over the sacraments?

Is the Eucharist no longer a sharing in the Body and Blood of Christ because one of these cowardly, wimpy priests said Mass?

Donatus labeled those priests who had caved under persecution ‘traditores’ and claimed that their infidelity render their priesthood, especially their administration of the sacraments, invalid.

Laying his rhetorical smack down and judging it a heresy, St Augustine, who was in his former life no stranger to matters of impure moral character, concluded that Donatism underestimated the extent to which sin afflicts every person (and so misunderstood grace) but also reduced the sacraments to objects of human administration rather than means of God’s grace at which the priest is merely a servant.

In sum, ministers need not be perfect for God to use ministers for grace’s sake.

How Do You Know If You’re a Heretic?

If you- subconsciously even- need your pastor to be a perfect Christian because you are lackadaisical about practicing your own faith then you might just be a modern day Donatist.

If you avoid the complexity in your own marriage or family by projecting on to your pastor the Platonic ideal of what it means to be a spouse or parent and needing him/her to be the perfect parent and the perfect husband or wife then you’re verging on heresy.

If you put your pastor on a pedestal and feel disappointed when your pastor turns out to be an actual, real, living-breathing human being then Augustine would lay the smack down on you too- though, chances are, you’d be disappointed in him too.

If ‘decorum’ is a more urgent standard by which you judge your pastor than ‘disciples made’ then you’re just a Donatist with a Flannery O’Connor twist.

If you expect your pastor to do Christianity for you and your congregation (visiting all the sick, praying at every meeting, leading every ministry, welcoming every newcomer…) then, like a certain Berber before you, you’ve got it all backwards.

If you really don’t trust in your heart the Gospel of grace and thus do not trust that the Church is a place for sinners and thus need your pastor to be a saint (your hagiographic version of) then the good news is you’re a heretic. The bad news is you might not have ever truly converted in the first place.

If you’re more upset by what your pastor wears or whether your pastor swears than you are by the number of people in your community who know not Christ then not only are you why the ‘Nones’ want to have nothing to do with the Church you’re why Augustine wanted the Donatists to have nothing do with the Church.

If you would disqualify entire groups of ‘others’ from ministry by implying that only the sinless qualify for ordination, then 1) shame on you and 2) heretic.

If you’re a pastor who encourages any of the above presumptions, then more so than any others you’re a Donatist in 21st century guise.

Persons Most Likely to Commit This Heresy Today

Joel Osteen

Church People

Adherents of Civil Religion

Denominational Leaders

The Religious Right (well, until they sold out to support The Donald)

Home Remedies

Take the log out of your own eye.

Read St Augustine’s Confessions and breath a sigh of relief that he’s not your pastor.

Get to know your pastor.

Repeat until memorized: ‘While we were yet sinners, Christ died for the morally pure, well-spoken, ideal spouse, perfect parent, flawless leader, doubtless, ungodly.’

Most Common Heresies: #7

Jason Micheli —  August 19, 2016 — 2 Comments

heresy_GMSI’ve been reading Roger Olson’s new book Counterfeit Christianity: The Persistence of Errors in the Church, a book about Christian heresies that is vastly superior to my own writing on them. Nonetheless, I thought this would be the perfect time to pull my ‘Top Ten Heresies‘ posts from 4 years ago out of the vault.

Heresy = Beliefs considered anathema by the ecumenical councils of the Christian Church

If Orthodoxy = ‘right praise’ then heresy = ‘wrong praise.’

*Leviticus 10: wrong praise = a very big deal

If Stanley Hauerwas is correct to assert that most Christians in America today are ‘functional atheists;’ that is, most Christians live in such a way that it makes no difference that God raised Jesus from the dead, then surely even more Christians today are inadvertent heretics, trodding paths of belief the ancient Church long ago labeled dangerous detours.

Today these ancient errors of the faith can be found wearing many different guises. For all you know, you might be wearing one too.

By pointing out what Christians DO NOT believe, we can get one step closer to what we do.

Heresy #7: Antinomianism

What Is It?

In his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul famously asks his interlocutor, ‘if we’re saved by God’s grace and not by our deeds then should we keep on sinning so that God’s grace may abound even more?’

Antinomians are those who, not realizing Paul’s question is a rhetorical one and not bothering to read Paul further, answer: ‘Sure, why not?’

Displaying that logic does not always steer you true, antinomians hold that since the advent of Christ and the Gospel of grace, the Law, that is the moral conduct prescribed by God to his People in the Old Testament, is neither of use for Christians nor an obligation.

In other words:

If faith alone is necessary for salvation then the Law is unnecessary. 

Who Screwed Up First

While its roots go back to the ancient Church and its regrettable attitude towards Jews and their scripture, antinomianism is the crappy, white-elephant gift Protestantism has given the larger Church.

Antinomianism was the Jacob to the Protestant Reformation’s Esau, the inevitable and subsequent counter-charge to the Reformation’s critique of the Catholic Church’s ‘legalism’ and ‘works righteousness.’

You could blame Martin Luther who first projected onto the New Testament Pharisees, including Paul, the abuses of Luther’s own Medieval Catholicism. You could blame Martin Luther, for antinomianism is the predictable outcome to redefining the Gospel primarily in terms of justification by faith alone.

But the antinomianism reached its high point in the 17th century Puritan Colony of Massachusetts when Anne Hutchison, daughter of an Anglican priest, subscribed to the ‘free grace’ theology of John Cotton, a renegade Puritan preacher.

Hutchison found Cotton’s critique of Puritanism’s works righteousness persuading.

Hutchison then proved persuasive herself, recruiting others to the free grace movement.

Soon the Puritan leaders of Massachusetts (ie, Men) were persuaded to excommunicate and dispatch Hutchison. The regrettable theology of Hutchison was matched by the regrettable gender politics of the Church.

How Do You Know If You’re a Heretic?

If you divide- and thereby render schizophrenic- God’s revelation of himself in the Old and New Testaments by saying that ‘Jews try to earn salvation by doing the works of the Law while Christians receive salvation by grace through faith,’ then you might be an antinomian.

You might be antisemitic too.

So was Luther.

But at least Luther, on paper, understood that desiring to live out the ethic of the Law was the fruit of any true encounter with the grace of God in Jesus Christ.

If you think Jesus does away the obligations of the Law rather than A) amping up the expectations of the Law and B) revealing in himself the Law’s all-along-aim then your ancestors might’ve hailed from the Bay State.

If you think you got right with God because you once came down during the altar call, invited Jesus into your heart and got born again during a moment of orchestrated, liturgized peer pressure and now it doesn’t matter if you cheat on your wife, give the poor only pennies and don’t bat an eye at the injustices of the world then you, my friend, are exactly why the Catholic Church got so bent out of shape about Luther nailing his Theses into the church door.

If you imagine that Christianity is really about love and that we should love others without the expectation or invitation for them to conform their lives to the Cross, then you’re an antinomian.

If you believe the Church should welcome everyone as they are and never critique their character or habits (thus leaving them as they are) then you’re a free grace- Bonhoeffer would say, cheap grace- heretic.

If inclusivity is a more urgent exhortation for you than calling others to conversion, repentance and a cross-bearing life then the one thing you’re NOT inclusive of is orthodoxy.

Persons Most Likely to Commit This Heresy Today

Marcus Borg

The Nones

Americans

United Methodists

United Methodist Pastors

All other Mainline Protestants

Evangelicals

Most Contemporary Christian songwriters

The Religious Right

Progressive Christians

Baby Boomers

Celebrities who opine about religion and ethics

Home Remedies

Read Paul’s Letter to the Romans, all of it- especially those chapters at the end no one ever quotes.

Read the Gospels and ask: Where does Jesus imply we just have to have faith?

Look at yourself in the mirror and consider: Do I want grace to be so amazing because the content of my character isn’t?

Become Mennonite.

Or get to know Jew. Start with Jesus if you haven’t met him yet.

heresy_GMSI’ve been reading Roger Olson’s new book Counterfeit Christianity: The Persistence of Errors in the Church, a book about Christian heresies that is vastly superior to my own writing on them. Nonetheless, I thought this would be the perfect time to pull my ‘Top Ten Heresies‘ posts from 4 years ago out of the vault.

Heresy = Beliefs considered anathema by the ecumenical councils of the Christian Church

If Orthodoxy = ‘right praise’ then heresy = ‘wrong praise.’

*Leviticus 10: wrong praise = a very big deal

If Stanley Hauerwas is correct to assert that most Christians in America today are ‘functional atheists;’ that is, most Christians live in such a way that it makes no difference that God raised Jesus from the dead, then surely even more Christians today are inadvertent heretics, trodding paths of belief the ancient Church long ago labeled dangerous detours.

Today these ancient errors of the faith can be found wearing many different guises. For all you know, you might be wearing one too.

By pointing out what Christians DO NOT believe, we can get one step closer to what we do.

Heresy #8: Fundamentalism

What Is It?

A) The strict adherence to and elevation of particular religious principles and values over and against all others- even the person and character of Jesus Christ- thereby making such principles the absolute test of fidelity.

B) Believing the complexity of scripture and the peripatetic nature of Christ can be distilled into abstract, general principles which one can assent to without submitting oneself to a community that is committed to the embodiment and practice of the faith.

Who Screwed Up First

Admittedly, fundamentalism is not actually an ancient anathema; nonetheless it’s one that I imagine would cause Constantine, were he still around, to convene another ecumenical council.

Even though fundamentalists purport to represent authentic (‘4 Square,’ ‘Bible-Believing’) Christianity, fundamentalism is really quite a new phenomenon, starting in late 19th century America as a reaction to the corrosive effects of both Darwinism and modernism.

If we’re going to assign blame for the blight we know as Christian fundamentalism, then let’s lay it at the feet of A.C. Dixon, the original editor from 1910-1915 of ‘The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth.’

‘The Fundamentals’ identified 1) Biblical Inerrancy, 2) the Virgin Birth of Jesus, 3) Penal Substitutionary Atonement 4) Physical Resurrection of Christ and 5) the Second Coming of Christ as the essential doctrines for an orthodox Christianity.

How Do You Know If You’re a Heretic?

If you insist on defining the ‘Gospel’ exclusively in terms of ‘Penal Substitution’ (the belief that Jesus suffered, as a substitute, God’s wrath toward you) and if you find Penal Substitution foreshadowed and alluded to in every nook and cranny and every last syllable of scripture then you just might be a fundamentalist.

If you spend more time arguing for the literal, physical resurrection of Jesus than you do actually living a risen life that’s been set free from Sin and Death, then I’m sorry but you’re a fundamentalist.

If you think you’re ‘saved’ because you believe Jesus died for you and it matters not that in your life you resemble Jesus not at all, then you’re a fundamentalist in the most fundamental definition of the word. You’ve taken an idea and made it more important than following and worshipping Christ.

If you think Christianity is about beliefs instead of discipleship, that ideas are more important than character, that the right doctrines in your head (or on your church website) are more important than the cruciform shape of your heart then, yes, you’re a fundamentalist.

If certain ‘faith-based’ values or principles (Inclusivity, Compassion for the Poor, Diversity, Justice, Care for the Environment) are more precious to you than a brother or sister in Christ who disagrees with you, then you might call yourself ‘Progressive’ but you’re really a blue-hued fundamentalist by a different name.

If you think the letter of scripture- or your reading of it- deputizes you for ugly, un-Jesusy, Pharsaic behavior towards another (‘Love the sinner, hate the sin’) then you’re the worst kind of fundamentalist.

If you spend more time bemoaning the decay of American culture than you do pursuing the 21st century equivalent of ‘eating and drinking with sinners’ then you’re a heretic and, what’s worse, you probably don’t realize it.

If you’re preoccupied with labeling other Christians as heretics (but not in a cheeky way like this) then: pot meet kettle.

If you spend more time on your opinions than you do in prayer, then you’re like me and, regrettably, I’m obviously something of a fundamentalist.

Persons Most Likely to Commit This Heresy Today

Marcus Borg (rest his soul)

Emergent Christians

People who want the Ten Commandments posted in public spaces.

Americans

Delegates, Clergy and Lay, to Denominational Conferences

Most Contemporary Christian songwriters

Southern Baptists

Any Christian Leader who appears on Cable News

Home Remedies

Read Matthew 19.16-30 and take Jesus at his Word.

Abstain from Christian blogs.

Fast from Cable News.

Become politically neutral for an electoral season.

Really get to the know someone, in all the complexity of their life, who is completely different from you.

Be honest about the complexity of your own life and relationships.

Pray. Alone. In a closet if you have to.

Most Common Heresies: #9

Jason Micheli —  August 17, 2016 — 1 Comment

heresy_GMSI’ve been reading Roger Olson’s new book Counterfeit Christianity: The Persistence of Errors in the Church, a book about Christian heresies that is vastly superior to my own writing on them. Nonetheless, I thought this would be the perfect time to pull my ‘Top Ten Heresies‘ posts from 4 years ago out of the vault.

Heresy = Beliefs considered anathema by the ecumenical councils of the Christian Church

If Orthodoxy = ‘right praise’ then heresy = ‘wrong praise.’

*Leviticus 10: wrong praise = a very big deal

If Stanley Hauerwas is correct to assert that most Christians in America today are ‘functional atheists;’ that is, most Christians live in such a way that it makes no difference that God raised Jesus from the dead, then surely even more Christians today are inadvertent heretics, trodding paths of belief the ancient Church long ago labeled dangerous detours.

Today these ancient errors of the faith can be found wearing many different guises. For all you know, you might be wearing one too.

By pointing out what Christians DO NOT believe, we can get one step closer to what we do.

Heresy #9: Arianism

What Is It

The belief that the God the Son is subordinate to God the Father, effectively dismantling any coherent doctrine of the Trinity.

Arianism was the provocation for and is the context behind all that ‘begotten not made…one being with the Father’ jargon in the otherwise beautiful Nicene Creed.

Arianism was also the provocation for the real St Nick to pimp-slap another delegate at the Council of Nicea.

Who Screwed Up First

Attributed to Arius, a Christian leader from Alexander, Egypt (250-360). Arius taught that the Son of God was neither pre-existent nor eternal despite what John 1 and Colossians 1 testify.

Rather, Arius held, the Son was created by the Father for God’s redemptive purposes; therefore, the God Christians worship is not an eternal community of coequal persons exchanging self-emptying love, otherwise known as the Trinity. The God Christians worship is just God.

How Do You Know If You’re a Heretic?

If you woodenly think ‘the Trinity is not in the Bible’ and instead insist, conspiratorially, that it’s a doctrine invented by ancient Church bureaucrats then you’re most definitely an Arian.

If you believe Jesus was a good teacher of God’s love and compassion but balk at the notion that Jesus always was, is and forever will be God (Col 1) then instead of leaving milk and cookies this Christmas just leave an apology note because Santa just might kick your #%@.

If you (mis)understand the atonement in such a way that you treat Jesus as someone who protects us from God the Father; that is, the Son and the Father’s wills are not one and the same, then even though you probably consider yourself a bible-believing Christian you’re actually a heretic.

If, rather than submitting yourself to a community of fellow sinners and ancient texts, you insist that you ‘can worship God better in nature’ (ie, play golf) then you may not be that theologically deft but you’re still an Arian. You’d never discover something like the Trinity in nature nor a God as counter-intuitive as Jesus.

If you dismiss Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (love thy enemy, turn the other cheek) as naive or hopeless ideals rather than to-do’s straight from the lips of the eternal God, then the Nicene Creed was written just for you.

If you think religious people are all basically the same because ‘we all believe in God after all’ you’re the spawn of Arianism.

If you think Christmas, when we celebrate the infinite becoming finite and taking flesh in Mary’s womb, is for children…heretic.

Persons Most Likely to Commit This Heresy Today

Marcus Borg

Readers of Dan Brown

Mark Driscoll and John Piper

Most Contemporary Christian songwriters

Evangelicals who exclusively pray ‘Father God’ prayers

Liberal Democrats

Tea Party Republicans

Unitarians

Mormons

The unimaginative

Home Remedies

Read Colossians 1 and marvel at the mystery

Memorize the Nicene Creed (this will prove hard for Protestants)

Burn any and all Dan Brown books on your grill

Read the Sermon on the Mount the Gospels and say to yourself: ‘God said this.’

Use ‘Jesus’ in any sentence where ‘God’ would do.

13502037_1615405398788080_7321135075900787492_nThe summer has been a busy time, and it’s been a while since my Crackers & Grape Juice co-conspirators have all recorded a podcast together. Morgan, Teer, and I recently got up at the butt-crack of dawn to discuss the Confessing Church Movement and just how we understand the Gospel.

In this episode, I rib Morgan for being on the Confessing Church’s mailing list in the first place and later I rant about the Confessing Church Movement co-opting their name from those few Christians who resisted the rise of Nazism in Germany.

We’re now up to 1k individual downloads per episode.

You can download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here.

So PLEASE…

Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. It’s not hard and it makes all the difference. 

It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

Again, special props to my friend Clay Mottley for letting us use his music gratis. Check out his new album.

rp_Untitled101111-683x1024-683x1024.jpgFor the past 18 months, I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation. The reason being I’m convinced its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

You can find all the previous posts here.

III. The Son

22. Why Did Jesus Give Us the Eucharist?   

Because Christ is our Passover.

When Jesus sits down with his betrayers on the night of the Passover, their table in the upper room looked like any other Passover feast. Except Jesus changes the familiar script.

When Jesus takes the bread with the lamb, he doesn’t say This is the body of the Passover’ as he’s supposed to say. He says ‘This is my body broken for you.’ And when Jesus pours the third cup of wine, the cup of redemption, the cup that remembers the deliverance God worked all in Egypt; Jesus doesn’t say: ‘This is the blood of the Passover.’ He says: ‘This is my blood…’

So then, while the meal is known by many different names (The Lord’s Supper, Communion, Eucharist, etc.), Jesus intends it most fundamentally as our Passover meal whereby Christ redefines the bread and the wine; so that, they now signify him. He is the first born son who is the price for deliverance. His blood, streaked on the doorposts of our hearts, marks us out his elect People. He is the New Moses, who leads us from captivity to the Pharaohs of Sin and Death to be a pilgrim people, living as God’s peaceful alternative to the Principalities and Powers of this world.

As in the Exodus of Israel, where God was present to his People during their sojourn, in a pillar of cloud and fire, the bread and the wine become the means by which the Risen Christ is present to us on our pilgrimage.

Because only God can reveal God, the bread and wine of the Eucharist are more than bread and wine.

They are, literally, a New Creation. They are the substance through which God speaks Christ into our presence. They become Christ in that the Word is made flesh, not through a womb but through wine and bread, and dwells among us.

Therefore, the Eucharist is not simply a foretaste of the Kingdom to come; it is the Kingdom come, where strangers and sinners from East and West, North and South, gather to celebrate at Table the wedding feast of Father, Son, and Spirit.

“People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God.”

-Luke 13

Most Common Heresies: #10

Jason Micheli —  August 11, 2016 — 1 Comment

heresy_GMSI’ve been reading Roger Olson’s new book Counterfeit Christianity: The Persistence of Errors in the Church, a book about Christian heresies that is vastly superior to my own writing on them. Nonetheless, I thought this would be the perfect time to pull my ‘Top Ten Heresies‘ posts from 4 years ago out of the vault.

Heresy = Beliefs considered anathema by the ecumenical councils of the Christian Church

If Orthodoxy = ‘right praise’ then heresy = ‘wrong praise.’

*Leviticus 10: wrong praise = a very big deal

If Stanley Hauerwas is correct to assert that most Christians in America today are ‘functional atheists;’ that is, most Christians live in such a way that it makes no difference that God raised Jesus from the dead, then surely even more Christians today are inadvertent heretics, trodding paths of belief the ancient Church long ago labeled dangerous detours.

Today these ancient errors of the faith can be found wearing many different guises. For all you know, you might be wearing one too.

By pointing out what Christians DO NOT believe, we can get one step closer to what we do.

Heresy #10: Gnosticism

What Is It?

From the Greek word, ‘gnosis,’ meaning ‘knowledge.

Gnosticism believes that the material world in which we live was created not by God but by a demiurge. The material world then, ‘the world of the flesh,’ is inherently imperfect and was never an occasion for God to declare ‘it is very good.’ This led Gnostics to disavow the human nature of Jesus.

The material world is to be shunned and overcome in favor of the ‘spiritual world’ where God resides, ie, ‘heaven.’

One achieves salvation, escape from the world of the body to the world of the soul, by means of wisdom available only to a few.

Who Screwed Up First

Though not the first, the prophet Mani (216-274 AD) was a gnostic whose teachings exerted the most influence on ancient Christianity.

Mani’s gnostic dualism between the spiritual world of light and the material world of darkness led him to distinguish between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New and to a rigid dichotomy between good and evil people.

How Do You Know If You’re a Heretic?

If you think Christianity is about ‘spiritual’ things- or timeless ‘truths,’ then you’re probably a Gnostic.

If you think Christians believe that our souls goes off to heaven when we die, then you’re most likely a Gnostic. And if you think the goal of Christianity is to go to heaven when we die, then you definitely are a Gnostic.

If you’ve forgotten that Christianity teaches the redemption of all creation (New Creation) and not evacuation from creation (‘the rapture’) then you’ve slipped into Gnosticism.

If you think God does not care about the Earth or that the physical, material things in your life are not good gifts from God (thus means of grace) then you’re a Gnostic whom St Augustine would declare ‘anathema.‘

Persons Most Likely to Commit This Heresy Today

Marcus Borg (rest his soul)

The authors and many readers of the Left Behind novels

Funeral Directors

Most Contemporary Christian songwriters

Fundamentalist Evangelicals

Mormons

Baby-Boomers who excuse their lack of discipleship by describing themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious’

Home Remedies

Read Genesis 1 and take God at his Word.

Prepare and eat good food.

Pour and drink a glass of good wine.

Have sex.

Or just hold a baby.

HBC_Covers_EndTimes_FINAL_2.25.16Teer and I recently had the privilege of interviewing Jeff Pugh on his new book The Home-brewed Christianity Guide to the End Times: Theology After You’ve Been Left Behind

I first “met” Jeff through his book Religionless Christianity: Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Troubled Times. If you’ve been duped into reading that crap Eric Metaxas book on Bonhoeffer then here’s an alternative.

Jeff is an ordained United Methodist Elder in Virginia and teaches Religious Studies at Elon College. If I have anything to say about it, he’s going to be a Crackers and Grape Juice Regular as we seek to develop an East Coast flavor for Tripp Fuller’s Home-brewed Christianity family.

Everyone knows someone who subscribes to what Jeff likes to call “batshit crazy” theology about the eschaton. Take a listen so you can learn to understand your sister-in-law, co-worker, or neighbor.

You can download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here.

We’re up to 15K listeners now.

We’ve got more listeners per episode than the average UMC has on Sunday am.

In fact, if podcasts were churches, we’d be the pastors of one of the largest United Methodist Churches in the world.

Even better, we do this s#$% gratis, in our own free time just because we think ordinary people in and out of the church need conversations about God, faith, and life without stained-glass language.

So PLEASE…

Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. It’s not hard and it makes all the difference. 

It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

Again, special props to my friend Clay Mottley for letting us use his music gratis. Check out his new album.

If you’re receiving this by email, here’s the link to the podcast: http://www.spreaker.com/user/crackersandgrapejuice/episode-28-leaving-left-behind-behind

 

quote-that-thing-of-hell-and-eternal-punishment-is-the-most-absurd-as-well-as-the-most-disagreeable-george-berkeley-16387-4The smell of chicken thighs browning in a cast iron skillet with olive oil and garlic, onions and peppers sautéing next to them, reminds me every time of my grandmother. Every old guy who walks out of church on Sunday morning smelling of Old Spice recalls my grandpa. My handwriting, down to the same black felt tip pen, is his. The small of my wife’s back feels to my hand as much me as my eyes when I rub them. I can’t imagine the world other than seeing it as I’ve learned to see it from her. And if we’ve done even a partial job of parenting, then one day our boys will say the same about us.

My point:

We are who we’ve loved.

From this incontrovertible axiom follows an equally incontestable assertion:

Hell for some would be Hell for all.

If who I am is constituted by the memories given to me by those I’ve loved, then what would it mean for me to be in heaven were they in hell? Heaven would be a torment to me, or if their memory blotted out from me, to spare me the pain of their damnable suffering, then the part of they constituted would likewise be erased. To believe in an eternal hell for some is likewise to believe that the host of heaven have been, in decisive ways, hollowed out, as much shadows of their former selves as CS Lewis famously sketched the souls in Hell.

My teacher David Bentley Hart puts it better than me:

“[There is] an incoherence deeply fixed at the heart of almost all Christian traditions: that is, the idea that the omnipotent God of love, who creates the world from nothing, either imposes or tolerates the eternal torment of the damned.

It is not merely peculiarity of personal temperament that prompts Tertullian to speak of the saved relishing the delightful spectacle of the destruction of the reprobate, or Peter Lombard and Thomas Aquinas to assert that the vision of the torments of the damned will increase the beatitude of the redeemed (as any trace of pity would darken the joys of heaven), or Luther to insist that the saved will rejoice to see their loved ones roasting in hell.

All of them were simply following the only poor thread of logic they had to guide them out of a labyrinth of impossible contradictions; the sheer enormity of the idea of a hell of eternal torment forces the mind toward absurdities and atrocities.

Of course, the logical deficiencies of such language are obvious: After all, what is a person other than a whole history of associations, loves, memories, attachments, and affinities? Who are we, other than all the others who have made us who we are, and to whom we belong as much as they to us?

We are those others.

To say that the sufferings of the damned will either be clouded from the eyes of the blessed or, worse, increase the pitiless bliss of heaven is also to say that no persons can possibly be saved: for, if the memories of others are removed, or lost, or one’s knowledge of their misery is converted into indifference or, God forbid, into greater beatitude, what then remains of one in one’s last bliss?

Some other being altogether, surely: a spiritual anonymity, a vapid spark of pure intellection, the residue of a soul reduced to no one.

But not a person—not the person who was.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Trumping Our Fears

Jason Micheli —  August 7, 2016 — 1 Comment

IMG_8787Here’s this weekend’s sermon on the lectionary Gospel reading from Luke 12. I wish I had a recording of the band’s rendition of ‘It’s the End of the World as We Know It’ that accompanied the reading. Shout out to my friend Andrew DiAntonio for the collage art for the August Luke series.

For the last two weeks, I’ve been teaching a two hour class every day at Wesley Theological Seminary on the Theology and Practice of Mission for about thirty licensed local pastors from all over the country.

I can only imagine how much it tightens some of your sphincters to think of me shaping and influencing other pastors into how to do ministry.

Lest you worry, I taught them the basics for success:

  1. Get yourself a past-his-prime, passionless, shoot-from-the hip senior pastor who can serve as the straight man to all your jokes.
  2. If your bishop ever calls at 10:00 PM to ask if you think the word ‘Toilet’ is appropriate for conversation, then- like Peter Venkman Advises Ray Stantz in the only good Ghostbusters movie, Say No.
  3. Despite #2, Nothing you say will ever offend your congregation like preaching what Jesus preached. Straight up.

Teaching these last two weeks reminded me of when I was a licensed local pastor 16 years ago. Believe it or not, Aldersgate is not the church where I made all my first mistakes.

One of my first mistakes, in fact, was attending my first clergy meeting.

I had just started my first semester as a student at Princeton, and I had just been licensed to pastor a small congregation outside of town when I received an email notifying me of that month’s clergy meeting.

I was only a rookie, a licensed local pastor. I didn’t know any better. So I actually attended the meeting.

It was held at a church in downtown Trenton, in a rough neighborhood. The church had chain-link fence covering the stained glass windows.

A blue vinyl banner hung down against the stone wall of the church. On the banner was a photograph of a dreadlocked man praying. The banner read: ‘Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors: The People of the United Methodist Church.’

An ironic slogan, I thought, when you considered the four cameras mounted on the corners of the building and how to get into the church you had to go around to the back, ring a security buzzer on a steel door— the kind you see on Orange is the New Black. From there, some faceless person buzzed you into a foyer where you first had to show identification and submit to a cavity search.

Assembled for the clergy meeting were fifty or so mostly older pastors. And when I say old, I mean like you-know-who-old: like, our wizened, vacationing (I mean, sabbath-taking) Dennis Perry.

After a perfunctory devotional time and the obligatory announcements, the agenda belonged to a woman who worked in the Office of United Methodist Communications.

She’d come to the meeting that day to preview for us some of the commercials the United Methodist Church was planning to air on television and on the radio.

The commercials were part of a multi-million dollar Igniting Ministry advertising campaign designed to attract new and younger members. Today our advertising campaign is Rethink Church. Same pig, different lipstick.

The woman was dressed like a Lululemon mannequin. Her eyes were lit up and her smile was wide. She was brimming with excitement to be the first to show us what she obviously thought were the best commercials this side of Billy Mays’ sham-wow. .

She rolled a TV cart out to the center aisle of the sanctuary. With much ado in her body language, she pressed play on a VCR which, even in the year 2000, felt antiquated.

The opening shot of the commercial had rain dribbling down a window set against a grey, gloomy sky. A voiced-over narrator said: ‘Today is my fortieth birthday, and I don’t know where I’m going.’

And then some more rain dribbled down a window set against a grey, gloomy sky. And then it said: ‘Come to the United Methodist Church. You’re welcome.’

When the commercial was over, she pressed pause.

I looked around and, to my surprise, I saw pastors nodding their heads. Nearly all of them were smiling.

‘That’s great,’ some of them said.

‘That will really speak to young people.’

‘This will revitalize the Church.’

The woman from UM Communications was beaming.

‘Any other thoughts?’ she asked.

You’ll be happy to know the people of Aldersgate are not responsible for making me the way I am. Even then, only ankle deep in my first month of ministry, I was cynical and contrary.

‘I don’t get it’ I said.

And everyone turned and stared at me.

‘What don’t you get?’ she asked with a frown.

‘Well…I mean…the commercial doesn’t mention…you know…like…Jesus.’

‘Young man,’ she said through a forced smile, ‘these commercials are designed to appeal to the unchurched, to people who are afraid that their lives don’t have meaning or significance.’

‘But what’s the problem with mentioning Jesus?’ I asked.

She bit her bottom lip and said: ‘Our research showed that specific references to Jesus would make the advertisements less appealing.’

I suppose she had a point.

Maybe it’s better to lure people to church with promises of giving their lives meaning and significance.

Maybe it’s better to hook people with the promise that God can quell all your fears and anxieties. Solve all your problems.

Maybe it’s better to do that than just dump Jesus on someone all at once.

Take today’s Gospel- not the tiny little snippet the lectionary thinks you can handle without freaking out but take all of Luke 12. Take the whole passage, what provokes and what proceeds what the lectionary allows you to hear today.

First, in verse four, Jesus warns not the masses but his disciples- warns them:

“Do not fear those who kill the body, and after that can do nothing more to you. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear the One who, after you have died, has the power to cast you into hell. Yes, fear that One.”

In other words, fear me.

Jesus says.

And then, right after today’s little lectionary snippet about not being afraid, Jesus tells a white-knuckled, Wes Craven parable about a Master who returns home after a long absence, and when the Master discovers his servants have not done what he commanded them to do, the Master- get this, you’re going to love this– cuts them into pieces and casts them off.

In other words, fear me.

Jesus says.

What do you do with a Jesus like that?

A few weeks ago I preached that “God is at least as nice as Jesus.”

But if Jesus is God in the flesh, then a correlative truth is:

“God is at least as scary as Jesus.”

Just think: how would you turn a Luke 12 Jesus into an effective advertising campaign?

Instead of rain dribbling down a window, would you maybe film the forsaken fiery garbage dump that Jesus calls Gehenna and we call Hell? ‘Come to the United Methodist Church,’ the ad could say, ‘where Jesus promises to come back and cut you into pieces if you don’t do what he commanded.’ 

An ad like that would break the internet faster than an Orlando Bloom, in full bloom, vacation photo.

Or what if you kept the footage of the rain dribbling down the window. ‘Are you afraid in these uncertain economic times and in our terror-filled world?’ the narrator- who in my head has to be Ed Harris- could query. ‘Come to the United Methodist Church and let Jesus give you something much, much bigger to fear.’ 

Just before today’s passage, a Pharisee invites Jesus and the disciples to dinner at his house. The appetizers aren’t even on the table before the Pharisee rebukes Jesus for sitting down to eat without washing up first as both courtesy and commandment require.

And Jesus, ever the delicate dinner guest, shouts back at his host: “You Pharisees clean the outside of the cups and dishes, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness.” 

That is, Jesus calls them hypocrites- of pretending to be something they are not. Jesus accuses them of pretending to be different when they are just like everyone else, of pretending to be holier in order to put themselves above the crowd.

After they leave the Pharisee’s dinner table, a crowd of thousands- a mob, really- starts to tag along after Jesus and the disciples. And there’s no other provocation. No one says anything or does anything. There’s no other provocation than that the disciples now find themselves among this crowd, this mob.

And Jesus turns to them, to his disciples standing there among the mob, and he warns his followers away from a different kind of hypocrisy.

A different kind of hypocrisy:

“…my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that can do nothing more. Fear him who, after you have died, has authority to cast into hell.”

      Where Jesus accuses the Pharisees of pretending to be something they’re not, Jesus warns his disciples against pretending not to be something they are.

Disciples.

Where the Pharisees’ hypocrisy is meant to elevate them above the crowds in order to make them superior, Jesus warns his disciples against an hypocrisy that would blend them into the crowd in order to make them safe.

     Do not pretend not to be the disciples you are, Jesus warns. Do not pretend not to have heard what I’ve taught you. Do not pretend not to know what I’ve commanded you. Just because you fear what the crowds might say about you or do to you, do not pretend you’re not who you are, who I’ve called you to be. Just because you’re afraid, do not pretend that you’re not different from the crowds. 

Yes, following me in a world like ours might be scary, Jesus says, but it’s not as frightening as me. The worst the world can do to you is kill you. I have the power, after death, to throw you like so much rubbish into a dumpster fire.

And just in case his warning isn’t clear, Jesus then tells not the Pharisees, not the crowds, but tells his disciples- tells us- a parable about the Second Coming.

A story about a Master who comes back and finds that his servants have not done what he told them to do.

When the Master returns, he cuts his servants into pieces, for to those who have been given much responsibility much is required.

Jesus says.

Right after telling us, his little flock, not to be afraid.

 

She pressed ‘Play’ on the VCR and sampled a few more of the dozen or so Igniting Ministry commercials.

One had a woman sitting down against a soft-focus background. She was bent over, her elbows leaning on her knees. Maybe she’d been crying or just pondering. The commercial was again filmed in a depressing kind of grey, gloomy palette.

And then came the voiceover: ‘If you’re searching for meaning in your life, we invite you to join us this week. Our hearts, our minds and our doors are always open.’

She pressed ‘Pause’ after that one and the comments that followed were every bit as euphoric as they’d been in the beginning.

Now, far be it for me to be argumentative, but she’d called me young man and that got my blood up. So I raised my hand.

She looked long and hard over the pews before finally calling on me.

‘So, do any of these commercials mention Jesus?’

She took a deep breath and explained all over again the marketing strategy of targeting people who fear their lives lack meaning, direction, significance.

‘Well, what happens if these commercials actually work?’ I wondered aloud.

She just looked at me, confused.

‘What happens if these commercials work and people show up at church looking for a little comfort in their lives and what they end up with instead is Jesus?’

Some of the pastors chuckled.

They all thought I was joking.

 

The Book of Common Prayer contains an old litany that guides us to pray “Lord, save us from a sudden death.”

Where most of us hope to die suddenly, painlessly, and in our sleep, the Christians before us dreaded the prospect of dying before they had the opportunity to confess their sins and reconcile with those they’d sinned against. Where we fear meeting Death, the Christians before us feared meeting God, having not done what God commands us to do.

I don’t know that I’ve ever noticed it before, but maybe that’s what we mean when we sing that God’s amazing grace not only relieves all our fears it also teaches our hearts to fear.

To fear God.

It’s become cliche but no less true to observe that ours is a culture captive to fear and the ugliness fear exudes.

Fear of eroding values and traditions.

Fear of dim economic trends.

Fear of immigrants. Fear of Muslims.

Fear of terrorism and violence.

Look- I’m not suggesting those fears are all illegitimate, but- for Christians- those fears are all misplaced.

     Those fears are all misplaced because- as Christians- we ought not to fear those fears more than we fear our Master, Jesus Christ.

I wish as much as anyone we had a Master who told us “Do not be afraid little flock” and left it at that. Unfortunately Jesus Christ seems less interested in comforting us in our fears than in giving us all new fears to deal with, fears we wouldn’t have if we hadn’t met Jesus.

Fears we wouldn’t have if we could just blend into the mob and pretend not to be who we are. His disciples.

And Christ’s disciples are those people who are not more afraid of immigrants strangers, not more afraid of enemies and the Muslim Other, not more afraid of violence and Death, hardship and harm- not more afraid of those fears than we are afraid of him.

For Christ commanded us- he didn’t suggest to us-

He commanded us:

To welcome the Other- that’s Matthew 25.

To show hospitality to the immigrant- that’s one of the Sinai

commandments.

To not obsess over our pocketbooks and portfolios but trust that the Lord will take care of our tomorrow – that’s Luke 12.

To love your enemy and pray for them because while you were his enemy, Christ died for you and Christ has given you his ministry not of retaliation but reconciliation- that’s the Sermon on the Mount and St. Paul in sum.

Christ has commanded us, his servants, to live in this sort of love. Not because it makes sense. Not because it’s good red or blue politics. Not because it’s a strategy to make our world more safe. But because this is how he first loved us- says the Apostle John.

Of course, the bad news is that we believe he’s coming back to judge how well we’ve done what he told us to do.

The Master’s standards for his servants is higher than for anyone else, Jesus says. To know the Lord’s will and NOT do it is far worse than not knowing the Lord at all.

     You see, it’s not that Christians are unafraid.

     It’s that we have a fear others have the luxury never to know.

    We have a fear that trumps all our other fears.

We have the fear of the Lord. Or, we should.

The good news in that is that you do not get out of being afraid by trying not to be afraid.

Trust me, take it from someone who was afraid he was going to die a year ago. You don’t get out of being afraid by trying not to be afraid. That only makes you more fearful.

The only way NOT to fear

The only way NOT to fear is to realize Jesus Christ would have us fear him. And, by fearing him, we can begin to recognize how finite and sometimes even foolish are the fears that the crowds give us.

Look, I’m not an idiot.

It’s natural to fear the Other.

It’s natural to fear the immigrant. It’s natural to fear the enemy. It’s not natural to welcome them. It’s not natural to show them hospitality. It’s not natural to pray for them and to try to love them.

We need to be formed, re-formed, into something so unnatural.

We need this Table. We need to come to this Table where Jesus Christ is host and invites Judases like us to be his guests. We need to come to this Table where Jesus offers undeserving us his broken body and his poured out blood and gives us again his unnatural, catch-all commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you.”

 

wesley-420x320-whiteI just spent the last two weeks teaching a class at Wesley Theological Seminary on the Theology and Practice of Mission to a group of about 30 licensed local pastors from around the northeast. They were a great group of people and I had fun engaging them, to the extent I engaged them. I’m definitely not called to teach, but I enjoyed it.

These were my key ideas for each our two hour classes:

Mission Not Missions

The Church only has one mission. It’s singular not plural. In fact, the Church does not have a mission, the Church is missional by its very nature. Mission is joining the work of the Father’s Son who forsakes his royal inheritance and journeys prodigally into the far country of Sin to bring all that belongs to the Father back to the Father’s home. Mission is thus characterized by prodigality, risk-taking, sacrifice and sent-ness.

Mapping the Far Country

The Son, as the One through whom all things were made, knew the far country into which he ventured. What’s the ‘far country’ into which God is sending the Church? In order to announce and embody the Gospel to our culture, we must be able to articulate how that culture manifests itself in our local context, realizing that the primary mission for the Christian Church today is not Asia or Africa but North America.

The Message Creates the Mission

The announcement of the Gospel creates Christians. The announcement of the Gospel makes the Risen Christ present and wherever Jesus is present, Jesus sends his people into the world. God is active agent of mission not the Church. As Karl Barth says God created through speech, and God still creates through speech, choosing in God’s freedom to be present in the words we speak about the one Word. Proclamation, primarily in preaching but also through the practices, creates mission.

Cultural Liturgies vs. Church Liturgies 

Why do we have a gate around many of our altars? Why are sanctuaries structured like lecture halls? Why does the pastor hold the cute little baby who’s been baptized and not a congregation member who just took a vow to that baby? Why are so many of our songs and hymns sung in the first person singular where God is the object not subject? Much of the Church’s practices and proclamation reflect our Christendom heritage and the individualistic culture in which we’re located. To be missional the Church needs to reshape its practices to send its people out to join the Son’s work in the world.

Practices Not Programs 

The Church is the social space of Christ’s Lordship. The Church does not build the Kingdom it discovers the Kingdom as it joins God’s work in the world through the Holy Spirit. The Kingdom is present in the announcement and enactment of the Lordship of the Risen Christ thus mission isn’t done in the generalities of bumper stickers but in the concreteness we find in Jesus’ own ministry. Mission is not projects or programs, or writing checks to faraway places or raising your hand at a meeting, but discovering needs along the way of extending the practices of Christ: eucharist, gathering at table, reconciliation, welcoming the stranger, being present with children and the poor, anointing the sick, exorcising the captive, praying for the Kingdom.

With Not For

The poor are not a project. They’re not even ‘poor.’ Mission in submission to the incarnational model of Christ is a relationship of accompaniment in which we do ministry ‘with’ the poor not ‘for’ them; so that, we empower them to realize their hopes and we realize our own poverty. Jesus preaches the Kingdom belongs to the poor now not far off in the future. Mission is making “the poor” agents of the Kingdom rather than just recipients of our Kingdom work.

Making Disciples 

The priesthood of all believers is the great unfunded mandate of the Protestant Reformation, an impoverishment exacerbated by the Mainline Church’s captivity to corporate models of leadership that substitute committees for commitment. Mission engagement is a primary way the local church makes disciples…of their own people.

A Non-Anxious Presence  

The Gospel is that the world has already been changed, atonement has been made and the Principalities and Powers have been defeated, and God is even now finishing the transformation begun in Christ. Mission is not about changing the world so much as it is about witnessing through our life together the change already brought by Christ.

4371604984_6212ed3d58_zFor Episode #27, Bishop Will Willimon talked to Crackers and Grape Juice Live at Jurisdictional Conference. For you non United Methodist nerds, JC is our quadrennial festival of bureaucracy where we elect bishops.

Willimon, author of the new book Fear of the Other: No Fear in Love, talks with Teer and talks crap on me.

You can download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here.

We’d love for you to give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

Again, special props to my friend Clay Mottley for letting us use his music gratis. Check out his new album.

Here you go:

And if you missed it, here’s an episode we recorded in June with three soon-to-be-ordinands, including my friend Taylor Mertins.

Cancer is Funny (?!)

Jason Micheli —  August 3, 2016 — 3 Comments

MicheliCover_FINALApparently, unbeknownst to me, my forthcoming Fortress Press book is available for pre-order on Amazon. Hell, it’s even the #1 New Release in Religious Humor, no big feat considering how humorless we are as a tribe.

Almost a year ago, Fortress approached me to ask if I’d consider writing about my cancer exile and wandering.

Some have questioned the appropriateness of the title. Fair enough. Obviously, it was meant to grab attention.

“How can something so painful and horrific be funny?” I’ve been asked.

Don’t forget, I’m not nor will I ever be ‘cured’ so I get better than most the unfunny bits of cancer.

Still, I believe cancer is funny because God is present in cancer.

John Chrysostom, a fourth-century Christian clergyman, whose oratory netted him the nickname John Goldenmouth, once preached, “Tears bind us to God not laughter.” 

You might expect to find such esteeming of seriousness and suffering in a religion with a cross at the front of every sanctuary and an execution at the heart of its story, but the Gospels frame their narratives not from the perspective of the crucifixion, but from the hindsight of resurrection’s happy surprise. In other words, the laughter of Easter, not the laments of Good Friday, should determine for us how we conceive of God and ourselves as God’s creatures.

Everyone assumes that suffering leads the sufferer to God, and sometimes it does. Suffering can knock down all our other (self-) defenses so that we can finally, wholly, depend upon our maker. But if suffering leads us closer to God, suffering should not leave us mirthless.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a French philosopher and priest from the twentieth century, posited as a sort of first principle:

“Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.”

The first time I heard my youngest son’s belly laugh, I marveled over how a celibate like Pierre had understood about God what it took fatherhood to teach me.

Everyone assumes suffering leads you closer to God. And no one registers surprise to hear how cancer has led someone to a deeper (i.e., more serious) faith, but people betray something like shock when you suggest to them that cancer can be funny.

If God is Joy, then we can’t rightly be said to have grown closer to God, through suffering or any other means, without a marked increase in joy, and with joy comes laughter.

Mirth and levity that only the good news of grace makes possible.

Despite the finality with which he expressed it, John Chrysostom was only partially correct. Tears, and the suffering that provokes them, can in fact bring us closer to God by leaving us no other options but turning to God.

But tears and suffering cannot fetter us to God.

Only joy can bind us fully to the God who is most infallibly Joy.

Cancer is funny, then, because the suffering occasioned by cancer draws you nearer to God, and the closer you get to God, the louder laughter becomes.

Pre-Order the Book!

The more people who do, the more people will happen upon it by accident. The whole reason I wrote about my cancer in the real, raw language I was feeling was because of the number of people I met still carrying unresolved grief and pain from cancer in their own family. I wrote about my cancer the way a lot of people (non-pastors) speak so that those people might find a way to speak their grief, worry, rage, and laughter.

It’s available on Amazon for pre-order.

Check it out.

Order another copy for someone who might be helped by it.

Here’s the book

If you get this by email, here’s the link to cut and paste:

https://www.amazon.com/Cancer-Funny-Keeping-Faith-Stage-Serious/dp/1506408478/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1470192757&sr=1-1&refinements=p_27%3AJason+Micheli

salient-logo-retina-1Our final Wild Goose interview was with Emily Joy, an incredible poet who lives in Nashville.

Emily grew up homeschooled in a fundamentalist family. She went to Moody Bible Institute where she was one of a handful of women to major in theology (in this decade). They discussed online feminism, intersectionality, and the importance of listening to your heart. Then Emily closed with her viral poem “How To Love the Sinner and Hate the Sin: Five Easy Steps.”

Download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here.

Puppy Dog Eyes: 

Give us a review there in the iTunes store. It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.