Archives For Scripture

I kicked off a church-wide Bible Study today on scripture and sexuality, starting with how we understand and interpret the Bible generally. Below is the lecture I wrote from which I riffed in the class as well as the audio of the class. If you’re a member of my parish and missed it, here it is. If you’re a Christian or just someone curious somewhere else here you go.

Session One — Interpreting the Bible

Prayer & Rubric

I’d like to frame our first session together with this quote from St. Augustine of Hippo, who, after the Apostle Paul, is likely the most importantteacher for all believers on the Protestant side of the Christian family tree. It’s often erroneously attributed to John Wesley, but it comes from Augustine. Not only do I want it to serve as our prayer for our time with one another, I think it also provides a helpful rubric around which we can discern the questions about sexuality before the Church today. 

Here’s the quote:

“In essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity.” 

No matter where you fall on the issues dividing the Church, no matter what side of this debate you’ve chosen or will choose, this is the framework with which we should all be discerning the questions with which the Church wrestles at the present moment. Is a traditional understanding of Christian marriage essential to the proclamation of the Gospel such that we insist upon uniformity, or is it a doubtful matter over which we can grant those with whom we disagree latitude to disagree with us? Likewise, we should ask whether a liberalizing of the Church’s understanding of Christian marriage is essential so that we insist the entire Body support it; that is, is full inclusion of LGBTQIA Christians constitutive to our understanding of the faith— is it a justice issue— such that something less than a progressive policy is a betrayal of the faith? What is essential to our message that requires consensus? And what is just important to us that might permit liberty towards another? 

What Augustine calls doubtful matters, the ancient Church labeled “adiaphora.” 

Adiaphora are matters not regarded a requisite for faith and thus permissible for disagreement.

I would argue that marriage and ordination, on their face, are not essential to the Christian message and mission, especially for Protestants; however, I would also argue that some ways, progressive and conservative, of speaking about same-sex marriage and gay ordination do threaten to obscure or undo the essential message of the Gospel, replacing it with a version of the false Gospel scripture warns us against in Galatians.

Note too, as we proceed, that caritas, from which we get charity is the same root word in the New Testament as grace. Regardless of how we think and feel about these matters, as members of the Body and thus as members of one another, we ought to gift one another the grace to impute to them only faithful, sincere motives.

Guiding Parameters

I’ve been a pastor for twenty years. In my ministry, I’ve met a lot of United Methodists who read Adam Hamilton, Beth Moore, the UpperRoom, and the WashingtonPost, but not many who read the Bible with the same care with which they put together their fantasy football team or follow their preferred candidate in the primary. Sexuality is like a lot of issues where people in and out of the Church make assertions (from their tribe’s vantage point) like “the Bible says…” or “Jesus said…” without a firm scriptural foundation.

My goal in this Bible Study is for folks at the end of it to understand how people who worship with them might disagree with them on the questions dividing the larger Church and, by understanding, contribute to the hospitality necessary for a diverse community of faith. I want us to be able to get beyond shallow Christian-splaining like “the Bible says…” and, for that reason, I do not plan for us to look at the oft-cited clobber passages on homosexuality until the fourth or fifth session. Today, I want us to explore what is the Bible and how we interpret it. Next week, I want to use my conversation with Professor David Fitch to help us think about how we use the Bible to discern God’s leading as a local community. For the third week, rather than turning to passages that prohibit sexual behavior, I want us to study first the Bible’s positive understanding of intimacy by looking at the Song of Songs. From there, we’ll look at how we read Genesis in light of the Apostle Paul and the ancient marriage rite, and then we’ll turn to the Letter to the Romans and how the Old Testament proof texts connect not only to Paul’s understanding of sexuality but to the adoption of all of you Gentiles into the People of God.

Because it’ll be a couple of weeks before we even get to those passages that lurk whenever someone asserts “the Bible says…” I wanted to establish some parameters about the scriptural witness so that folks on both sides of this issue can step back and pause, realizing that their position isn’t as strong as they might think nor is their opponent’s perspective as weak as they might presume. There’s a reason the larger Church is divided on the subject of sexuality; scripturally-speaking, it’s not a slam dunk for either side. This should not surprise us. The Bible is not about sexuality— more on what the Bible is “about” later.

Here are the “Yes, but…” parameters that should chasten our conversation:

1. Yes, homosexuality is given minimal attention in scripture, and where it is mentioned it is most often mentioned in an illustrative fashion. But, where homosexuality is referenced illustratively it is used as a negative example— usually, as a for instance of Gentile behavior. 

2. Yes, homosexuality is not a matter that receives attention in Jesus’ preaching and teaching. But, that’s an argument from silence, and Jesus’ teaching explicitly endorses the male/female normativity of marriage.  

3. Yes, Jesus teaches that marriage is between a man and a woman (“from the foundation of the world”), but St. Paul adapts Jesus’ unambigious teaching on divorce to allow for divorce in the specific cases (I know Jesus said, but I say to you). 

4. Yes, the New Testament Church understands marriage as between a man and a woman. But, marriage is an evolving institution in scripture (Abraham?!)— and, the early Church’s first expectation was for believers to remain single and celibate. Indeed, the celebration of marriages was forced upon the ancient Church by the Roman empire.

5. Yes, it’s true that some of the prohibitions people cite against homosexuality are contained within Old Testament purity codes which have been superceded by the Christian new covenant. But, it’s also true that the early Church at the Council of Jerusalem (Book of Acts) singled out which Levitical codes still bound believers. These include the commandments regarding sexuality.

6. Yes, the Book of Acts shows the Holy Spirit working to expand and open up covenant belonging beyond what the Church deemed permissible from their prior reading of scripture (e.g., Cornelius, Ethiopian eunuch). But, the early Church did not conclude from the Spirit’s inclusive work that their scriptures had been wrong; they realized instead that their reading of their scripture had been wrong— God had always intended the inclusion of Gentiles (Isaiah 60). This same tension is true when it comes to the issues of slavery and women in leadership. The Church concluded they’d misread the dominant themes of scripture in favor of a few verses which supported their prejudice. The Church did not conclude that scripture was wrong about slavery or women.

7. Yes, homosexuality is nowhere affirmed or even condoned in the Bible. But, nowhere in the Bible is what we think of today as monogamous, faithful homosexual relationships even countenanced. 

8. Yes, the Church has historically defined marriage in terms of one man and one woman. But, the Church historically has not demanded immediate agreement about marriage when it has been at odds with the cultural norms of a given mission field. Namely, Christian missionaries have long tolerated polygamy in the mission field in order to advance their mission of proclaiming the Gospel. 

If the above is true, if there’s a tension in scripture when it comes to these questions, then why do so many Christians on both the traditional and liberal ends act as though there’s no ambiguity about what God thinks about these matters?

What God Thinks

 When it comes to our God talk, sexuality in scripture is not unique. We live in a culture where, thanks to the internet, everyone is an expert on anything they want to spend a few minutes investigating online. Consequently, there’s no dearth of Christians making pronouncements about what God thinks on any number of issues. If you don’t believe me, you’ve obviously not spent any time on Facebook or Twitter, CNN or Fox News. Just this weekend, for example, I heard from Christians that God is very angry and will judge evangelicals for their support of Donald Trump’s administration. I also heard from Christians that God is responsible for Donald Trump’s administration— that Donald Trump is like Darius in the Old Testament— and that believers are encouraged to pray for him. This week I heard Christians on news channels insist that the restrictive abortion laws in some states around the country were the work of God. I also heard that the protests against those laws was God at work. This week I was told that God is very unhappy with conditions at our southern border, and I was also told that God wants us to have safe and secure borders. This week on Christian Twitter I read that God hates gay people and will punish his Church for its increasing inclusivity, and I also read that God affirms gay people and wants a more open and affirming Church.

Even when Christians look to the Bible for guidance on issues that impact our lives, we come to different conclusions. Some of us, for example, come to scripture with a fundamentalist frame of interpretation, looking for the most binding verse on a given topic. Others of us approach scripture from a liberal frame, searching for the least restrictive verses (“God is love; therefore, whatever strikes as love is acceptable”). 

Depending on the issue, most of us vacillate between being fundamentalists or liberals. 

For instance, some of you are red-letter fundamentalists when it comes to Matthew 25 and what sounds like Christ’s command to care for immigrants or the poor in our midst, but when it comes to the incarnation you’d prefer to chalk it up as myth. Likewise, some Christians are fundamentalists when it comes to what the Bible says about marriage but when it comes to the New Testament’s teaching on money and possessions or violence they’re quick to attribute the teaching to an ideal achievable only in the Kingdom. On the one hand, some United Methodists are literalists when it comes Jesus’ welcome of outcasts and sinners (i.e., LGBTQIA people) but, on the other hand, they want to “demythologize” the accounts of the bodily resurrection of Christ. 

Just as an aside, this last example is a very real dynamic in the UMC, and it’s why I may be inclusive on this particular issue but I’m in no way a progressive.

We come to passages, picking and choosing.

We switch how we approach scripture depending on the questions and issues before us. 

This is because very often our ways of reading the Bible are in fact methods of self-justification. 

We all have previously arrived at opinions on various issues, and we go to scripture looking for verses to buttress them. This in part is what it means to be a sinner. We not only make God in our image; we read God’s word according to our image too. 

Recognizing our own sinfulness and our proclivity to self-justify, it’s important for Christians to come to the Bible with an understanding of what the Bible is and what the Bible is about, and it’s important for Christians to come to the Bible with one another. 

Just as verses and passages cannot be read in isolation from what the Bible is about, Christians cannot read the Bible in isolation from one another. 

What is the Bible?

What we call the Christian Bible was codified by the Council of Nicea in 325 AD, and despite what Dan Brown would have you believe there was little dispute about what should and should not be included in the canon. Think about the dating behind what we call the Bible. This means that Christians worshipped the crucified and risen Jesus Christ as Lord, baptizing believers into his death and resurrection and celebrating the eucharist, for three centuries without the Christian Bible. Consider too— until very recently, most Christians could not read. Discipleship until recently in history has been informed by but not dependent upon reading scripture.

Therefore, asking “What does the Bible say about…?” is the wrong place to start when it comes to our questions and issues because it obscures how the witness of the Church begins not with the Bible but with the apostolic testimony to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Christian message begins not with the Bible but with the kerygma, the announcement of the Gospel that we find summarized in passages like 1 Corinthians 15, Galatians 1, Peter’s Pentecost sermon, and woven into the ancient baptismal and eucharistic prayers which predate the New Testament. 

The message about Jesus, in other words, precedes the message of Jesus. 

Another way of putting it: The Gospels were written for the Gospel (as found in the Epistles); the Epistles were not written to flesh out the Gospels. 

Why is this important? 

When you come to the New Testament especially but the Bible generally, you should be mindful that it was written and codified to be in service to the apostolic witness that “the Lord Jesus Christ, gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father (Galatians 1).” 

The Bible’s purpose is not to give you a purpose-driven life, for example, but to point you to Christ. The Bible’s purpose isn’t firstly to tell us what Jesus did (and taught us to do) but to show us what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. So, when it comes to the issue before the Church today, if you believe, for example, that marriage must be between a man and a woman, but you don’t believe God physically raised Jesus from the grave, then you’re misusing the text of scripture. Ditto if you argue that the Church should become more inclusive of marginalized people but you’re not so keen on the notion that Christ died as a substitute and sacrifice for our sins. 

Like any other book, the Bible’s primary plot should determine how read its parts. This is what scripture refers to as “rightly dividing the word of truth, between Law and Gospel” (2 Timothy 2.15). 

The primary subject of the Christian Bible— shocker, I know— is Jesus Christ in his bleeding, dying, and rising for us. 

Cross and Resurrection. Sin and Redemption. Atonement and Grace.

How do we know this to be true?

We know it to be true historically in that the preaching of the apostles is older than the books of the New Testament. We know it too from Jesus himself. As Jesus tells the disciples on the road to Emmaus: 

“Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.” 

All of the Bible, Jesus teaches the disciples on Easter, testifies to himself.

Jesus makes the very same point in John’s Gospel: “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf.” 

Even the organization of the Bible echoes the point. What we have in scripture as the Old Testament does not not match what Jews today would recognize as their Hebrew Bible. This is because the early Christians took their Jewish scriptures and reorganized it, concluding it with the prophet Malachi, in order to foreshadow the arrival of John the Baptist and thus the incarnation of Christ. 

We speak often about “believing the Bible” but this is to put the matter wrong. Actually, this is to treat the Bible in the way that Muslims regard the Qu’ran. Notice, the Bible is not an item listed to be believed in the Apostles’ Creed; rather, the creed recites the plot summary of the Bible. The Bible reveals what we are to believe about God’s work of salvation in Christ Jesus; the Bible by itself is not an object to be believed. 

We worship Jesus Christ, as Christians. 

We do not worship the Bible.

All of which is to say that before we can discern what the Bible says about a given subject, we must understand what is the Bible, which includes an understanding of what the Bible is not. 

What the Bible is Not

The Bible is not a Museum, a collection of historical curiosities from which we can learn information about the past. The Bible is not a Spiritual Gym, a place to help us strengthen certain areas of our spiritual, personal, or moral life. The Bible is not a collection of Proverbs which give us nuggets of wisdom on the good life— though the Bible does contain Proverbs. The Bible is not mythology nor metaphor— though the Bible employs both mythology and metaphor. The Bible is not a set of Teachings on what God would have us to do or how God would have lived— though the Bible does contain teachings. The Bible is not a Library of loosely connected books. 

The Bible is like JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. 

Like Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, the Bible is a collection of stories, letters, songs, histories etc. that, taken together, tell a single overarching story. In The Lord of the Rings, the macro-story is about Frodo and the fellowship destroying the ring of power in order to free Middle-Earth from its enslavement to the Dark Lord, Sauron. In the novels, Gandalf frequently smokes what the reader is led to assume is marijuana. Gandalf’s superiors even chastise him for how his smoking muddles his mind. Now, are there passages in The Lord of the Rings about the relative goodness or badness of smoking? Yes. Is The Lord of the Rings about smoking? No. Could we make conclusions about smoking from reading The Lord of the Rings? Sure. Would it be odd and in some ways a violation of The Lord of the Rings to flip through it looking for textual support for what The Lord of the Rings says about smoking, pro or con? Absolutely. When it comes to sexuality, we often treat the Bible in exactly that way. We’re forcing the Bible to answer questions that are subsidiary to its primary story.

That’s not what it’s about. 

It’s about Christ freeing us from our enslavement to the Dark Lord. 

The Bible, in other words, is not meant to give us a Jesus-flavored answer for whatever questions we bring to it— it’s not a religious Ouja board. The Bible is meant to convey something very specific to us. 

The Thirty-Nine Articles of the Book of Common Prayer are the doctrinal standards of the Church of England whence John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, came. Article Six summarizes what we’re to confess about scripture: 

“Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.”

Scripture, Article Six states, contains not everything God has ever thought about anything we can think up but everything necessary for you and I to be saved in Christ alone by grace alone through faith alone. And because scripture’s purpose is salvific, Article Six says, anything not in it cannot be required of us. It’s not essential, to get back to the quote from Augustine. It’s a doubtful matter, and we give freedom.

What Article Six says about scripture is simply what scripture itself says to us. 

John ends his Gospel with this PS: 

“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” 

If the Bible was a set of teachings, law, or proverbs according to which we’re supposed to live— if it was Law— then certainly you would want to include everything Jesus said and did. But if the Bible is about our coming to a saving faith in Christ as Lord, then John thinks he’s given you everything you need to know. 2 Timothy 3 makes the same point when it says to us: “…to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness…” Timothy doesn’t say all scripture is equally important. Timothy says all scripture is useful. And by scripture, Timothy has the Old Testament in mind, and by righteousness Timothy means firstly Jesus Christ himself who is the only Righteous One and who gifts us his own righteousness by the baptism of his death and resurrection. This is but a way of saying what John tells us at the beginning of his Gospel: Jesus is the Word of God.

Jesus is the one Word which God speaks to us: 

“The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (John 1).

When we refer to the Bible as the Word of God (for the People of God), we mean it in a penultimate sense. 

Jesus is the Word of God to whom the testimony of scripture reliably bears witness to us. The Heidelberg Catechism teaches that the “preaching of the word of God is the Word of God;” that is, when scripture is proclaimed faithfully and received faithfully then (and only then) is it the Word of God, for then the Risen Christ uses it to bear witness to himself. Whenever we conclude the reading of scripture in worship, we implicitly recognize that God’s Word is not fundamentally what is on the printed page but is the Living God attested to by those words on the printed page. 

The Three-Fold Form of the Word

The theologian Karl Barth makes a similiar point with a helpful visual— what he called  the Three-Fold Form of the Word of God. 

Barth illustrated the Word of God as three cocentric circles.

The inner circle is Jesus Christ, the one Word of God. The next middle circle is scripture, the Word which witnesses to the Word. The outer circle is the Church, the Communion of Saints, the tradition of receiving scripture’s testimony And, outside the third circle is you and me, the community of present-day believers. 

The Three-Fold Form of the Word is a helpful cipher. For one, it protects Jesus from our partial and prejudiced readings of scripture. For another, it reminds us that we worship the Living Christ not the Bible. Third, it illustrates how we must read the Bible in light of how the Bible has been read before by the saints. Most important of all, it reminds believers like us that we’re all on the outer circumference separated from the one Word of God by several layers of transmission and hearing only an arc along the perimeter; such that, we cannot afford to ignore what other believers along the circumference hear and discern God say through scripture.

We must be formed by the ancient prayers of the Church before we can pray well on our own, spontaneously. Like learning scales must precede a musician’s ability to improvise and jam, so must we pray— and, I would argue, read scripture. Apart from such formation, we bring to prayer and Bible-reading a self unformed by the saints. Thus, greedy people will pray greedy prayers, frightened people will pray frightened prayers etc. The same holds true of scripture. Progressive people read the Bible progressively. Conservative people read the Bible conservatively, and prejudiced people read the Bible prejudically. 

We need to interpret the Bible with other believers and the whole company of heaven. If, for instance, you interpret a scripture passage in a new way, a way that no one else has ever interpreted it, you’re wrong. 

We need to read with others, and we need to do so knowing that Jesus is the Word of God at the innermost of the circles. 

The Bible must be interpreted christocentrically. 

Reading the Bible Like a Movie

Jesus Christ, both what he said and did and what God has done in him and spoken to us by cross and resurrection, is the interpretative lens (the hermeneutic) by which we read all of scripture. The Bible itself gives us this hermeneutic. John’s Gospel calls Jesus the “logic” of creation. This is how Paul interprets his own Jewish scripture. Paul reinterprets the Law given to Moses by God in light of the cross and resurrection, concluding that the purpose of the Law is to convict us of sin and turn us, all of whom fall short, in repentance to the mercy found in Christ. Paul says that Jesus is the telos— the end and the fulfillment— of the Law. In Colossians, Paul says that Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of creation, in whom all things were made and find their summation. 

Put another way, the Bible should be read in the same manner in which you re-watch a film. Upon a second viewing, the climax of a film shapes how you watch the prior scenes. In this case, the climax of the movie that is the Bible is our redemption in Christ. 

We read backwards into the Bible from the cross, and forwards towards Revelation from the cross.

For example, we read the creation of Adam and Eve with the command “be fruitful…filling the whole earth…” in Genesis in light of the New Testament’s announcement that the command is now closed for Christ “has filled all in all.” Likewise, we read that the covenant of marriage was established by God in Adam and Eve— as the wedding rite does— in light of the New Testament’s teaching that the “covenant of marriage signifies the mystery of the union between Christ and his Church.” We read Exodus’ warnings about sinners’ names being blotted out of the Book of Life in light of Revelation’s conclusion where it’s the Lamb’s Book— not the Book of Life— that imputes to us admission in the Kingdom. We read the commands of the Law in both testaments in light of the Gospel message that “Christ has borne for us the curse of the Law (it curses us because not one of us can meet its demands perfectly) by becoming a curse in our stead.” 

Our scripture today in worship— we read the parable of the sheep and the goats in light of the Gospel message that the Lamb of God was made a goat and judged in our place so that goats like us might be counted among God’s faithful flock. 

Another way of saying that we should read the Bible christocentrically is that we read it, as 2 Timothy commends, dividing the Law from the Gospel; so that, our interpretation of scripture does not cloud its central claim that “By grace you have been saved in Christ through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2). 

Beware False Gospels

This verse from Ephesians is an especially critical hermeneutic for Protestant Christians. Martin Luther (and John Wesley) said the Church stands or fall on the doctrine of justification; that is, what justifies us before God is not the righteousness we accrue by our deeds or doctrine but solely (sola) our trust in the perfect righteousness of Christ credited to us by our baptism into his death. This is what we pray over the water at every baptism; “…clothe them Christ’s righteousness; so that, dying and rising, she may share in Christ’s final victory…”

In an ultimate sense, the only thing that counts for the Kingdom is Christ credited to us by faith. When we read christologically, dividing Law and Grace, we’re able to read scripture in submission to the Gospel promise that through faith alone in Christ alone “there is now no condemnation.” Our takeaway from a purity code from Leviticus, therefore, isn’t that it’s an antiquated custom based upon a byegone taboo. That may be the case but that’s not neither interesting nor a christological way of reading it. Rather, we read such a prohibition understanding that the condemnation merited by those who fail its demand has been borne by Jesus Christ upon the cross. 

This is an important distinction, I think, in how we conduct the conversation about sexuality, for it doesn’t say the biblical Law is wrong. It proclaims that the Law, which Paul calls holy, righteous, and good, has been fulfilled. 

In Galatians, possibly the oldest book of the New Testament, Paul warns Christians against adding any other stipulation to the Gospel of grace alone in Christ alone through faith alone. Christ plus anything else added to it, Paul admonishes, is no Gospel at all. 

Christ + ________ is a false Gospel. 

Paul’s warning can be rephrased in terms of the Augustine quote with which we started. 

What is essential over which we must have unity?

The Gospel of grace alone in Christ alone through faith alone. 

What are doubtful things over which we can grant one another freedom?

Every other deed and doctrine we might derive from the Bible, culture, or politics.

To make doubtful things essential, Paul writes in Galatians, is to preach a false Gospel. 

So the questions for us as community of readers, wrestling with sexuality and the Bible are simple questions even if a consensus answer is not easy to find. Is a traditional understanding of marriage essential to the Church’s mission to proclaim the Gospel? Does gay ordination get in the way of the Church’s mandate to preach the message of grace? Asked from the other side: is the full inclusion for LGBTQIA Christians into the rites of marriage and ordination a “justice” issue constituitive of and essential to the Gospel message itself? Or, does understanding it in terms of justice and liberation impose upon traditionalists something added to the Gospel which must also be affirmed? Is “All means all” required confession for all believers. Likewise, does a traditional understanding of sexuality impose upon liberals something added to the Gospel which they must believe?  

In advocating our respective positions on sexuality, are we creating false Gospels, adding doubtful beliefs and behaviors to the essential message of grace? That liberal and traditional Christians now view sexuality as an issue worth schism suggests both sides have raised doubtful beliefs to the level of essential beliefs, which, Paul would warn, are false Gospels.

If Christ alone and his righteousness credits to us the Kingdom, then— I believe— essentializing any particular understanding of marriage and ordination, liberal or conservative, confuses the criteria by which we should be evaluating those vocations. If marriage and ordination are indeed “doubtful things” over which we can disagree in freedom, then the criteria by which we assess them is not the Kingdom but the Community, the Body of Christ.

Faith alone silences every charge for any sin against us; therefore, Christians shouldn’t be debating sexuality with terms like sin/abomination/rights/feelings,etc., because eternity is not at stake. Rather, Christians should be discerning sexuality in the very terms the ancient marriage and ordination rites give us:

Would this same-sex couple’s marriage build up the Body of Christ? 

Would this gay Christian, called by God, build up the Body of the baptized through ordained ministry?

For Episode 79 of Crackers and Grape Juice, we talk to Alice Connor, an Episcopal priest who serves as a college chaplain in Cincinnati and is the author of the new book Fierce: Women of the Bible and Their Stories of Violence, Mercy, Bravery, Wisdom, Sex, and Salvation. 

You can find out more about Alice and follow her at Fierce Ass Women.

Coming up, we’ve got conversations for you with Tripp Fuller and Richard Rohr as well as live interviews we recorded with Stanley Hauerwas and Bishop Sharma Lewis. 

And beginning in Lent (and we’ll see where it goes) we’ll be debuting a lectionary-based offshoot of the podcast, spending 20 minutes or so every week with each other and with notable guests to break down the coming week’s lectionary scriptures. We’ll kick that off in advance of Ash Wednesday with the one and only Fleming Rutledge.

Stay tuned and thanks to all of you for your support and feedback. We want this to be as strong an offering as we can make it so give us your thoughts.

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Portrait Karl BarthReading Karl Barth is like chewing sunflower seeds. It’s salty and hard and it cuts you in little ways that hurt and linger for days. The past couple of weeks I’ve posted some critical reflections on the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, the doctrine which professes that Scripture, the Word of God, is illuminated to us by Tradition, Reason, and Human Experience. The church that first made me a Christian was Wesleyan, United Methodist. The theologian who made me a nominally interesting Christian, however, was not John Wesley but Karl Barth.

I’ve taken some shit for those previous posts from other Methodists wondering why I’m exalting Barth at Wesley’s expense. It’s true they make queer (don’t worry, I don’t mean gay!) theological bedfellows; in fact, Barth had Methodism particularly in mind when he brutally attacked the pietism of his day. Nonetheless, I think Barth is a helpful voice for Methodists in the 21st century as Barth’s eyewitness stand, in both World Wars, against the dangers of cultural Christianity makes him a prescient guide in post Christendom. What’s more, Wesley himself looked well outside of his own Enlightenment Anglican tradition. Those of us who just parrot Wesleyan theology and stay within our particular denominational stream are doing something very un-Wesleyan.

Still, if there’s a discontinuity between Barth and Wesley on anything it’s the fourth vantage point of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, Experience. I hardly need to link to any stories about the issues presently dividing the larger church and point out how Experience is given a priority in negotiating those debates. Experience is often the primary perspective at odds with Scripture and Tradition. Beyond these debates, for many in our post-everything world our personal experience is the only authority to which we’ll submit. The primacy of Experience is undisputed in our world today and in Wesleyan theology it’s validity is unquestioned. Barth however would challenge us to consider whether our Quadrilateral should not instead be a Triangle, doubting that our personal experience is even an appropriate vantage point from which to receive revelation, the Word of God.

Barth takes a dim view of Experience in general, believing that the subjective turn to the individual’s experience of God obscures the objective, once-for-all, reality of Christ. We believe in Jesus Christ, Barth says over and again, not in our experience of Christ. Our experience is not salvation; salvation has been achieved through cross and resurrection quite apart from any experience we may have of it. It’s true- you’re saved, in other words, whether you ever believe it and experience it personally or not. This, I digress, is what allowed Barth to have such a hospitable and non-anxious presence towards unbelievers.

Barth does not share the sunny Wesleyan assessment of Experience, for it implies, more generally, that an encounter of God is somehow given in human nature, that we are, as creatures, wired to apprehend our Creator. For Barth, it’s true we’re predisposed to long for and apprehend the divine and, to him, nothing could be more idolatrous. Barth nods along to Fuerbach’s critique that most of our theology is only anthropology. Our ‘experience’ of God, Barth judges, is most often only an experience of ourselves projected onto god; therefore, the only true experience we can have of God is the experience God gives to us. Experience of God is received it is not self-derived.

And this is where it gets tricky for the Quadrilateral because, as scripture attests abundantly, the experience God gives us of God frequently contradicts our personal experience of the world.

Think Saul on the way to Damascus or Peter receiving a mystical Spirit-given dream that upends his religious categories.

Our experience in and of the world is not a reliable means of discerning and illumining revelation because revelation is most often received as an intrusion upon our world. Grace does not confirm our experience of the world; it disrupts our experience of the world, and because we’ve made a world that pretends Jesus is not King that grace is most often felt as a kind of violence to our world and our experience of it.

The Spirt seldom confirms our personal experience of the world; it instead convicts it and sometimes condemns it.

For Barth, any appeals to ‘the Spirit led me to…’ should be met with skepticism if they do not lead the led to tears.

karl_barthDuring Lent, as many of my professional Christian colleagues were forsaking sugar, shots, and selfies, I was instead taking on an additional discipleship discipline:

Reading Karl Barth’s Dogmatics.

After a year of stage-serious cancer, I shouldn’t have to give up shit for Lent, for I’d already suffered longer than Jesus did in the wilderness. I theologized. Plus,  reading Barth is not penitential at all.

Last week, on a whim, I brandished my reacquaintence with Barth against that most cherished of United Methodist idols, the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, the doctrine which professes that Scripture, the Word of God, is illuminated to us by Tradition, Reason, and Human Experience. Through a Barthian lens, I suggested that the Quadrilateral inevitably conjugates scripture’s testimony into the past-tense and that, according to Barth, Scripture is not the record of how God met us in Christ. Scripture is the ground on which the Risen Christ elects to meet us today.

But, from Barth’s perspective, that’s hardly the only problem with the Quadrilateral that we attribute to Wesley. Saying, as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral does, that the Word of God can be illumined by our Tradition, Reason, and Experience suggests that Scripture’s address to us is lying there in the text, waiting, for us.

Not only does this construe Scripture as the texts in which God once spoke rather than the medium by which God speaks today, it falsely promises that God’s Word will be heard in Scripture so long as we approach it with faithfully our Tradition, Reason, and Experience.

Or, to put it differently, Experience, Reason, and Tradition are the means by which we get God to speak to us through Scripture.

For Barth, though, Revelation by its very nature- no matter how many prayers for illumination we utter- cannot be guaranteed precisely because Christ is Risen.

God is not dead, and Jesus is a Living Lord; therefor, the Word of God is no less free today than in the pages of scripture. Just as with Hannah and Sarai, just as in Mary’s womb or Christ’s empty tomb, God is always free to surprise and reveal in ways we’re not expecting and, in this case, God is free NOT to reveal in ways we’re expecting.

God is free to show up, as to Moses at the Burning Bush, and God is free not to show up, as in the 400 years preceding the Burning Bush.

It’s no accident that when God condescends to us in the logos, Jesus Christ, we push him out of the world on a cross. The Word of God intrudes upon our world, as almost a kind of violence, and so is not tied to it. It cannot be calendared or calibrated for it never ceases to be grace, a gift we can neither earn nor expect.

Too often the Wesley Quadrilateral implies that revelation is latent within the text of scripture and that our use of Reason, Experience, and Tradition are the keys by which we unlock it. Barth however insists that the God we find pursuing us in scripture is self-objectifying. God seeks after us; we cannot seek after God- any god we discover in our seeking is not God but a god. There’s no such Christian thing, in a Barthian sense, as a Seeker Service. All of us are only and always the sought.

To say God is self-objectifying is to assert, against so much of our liturgical assumptions, that God wills at specific times to be the object of our speech, eating, and prayer, but other times God wills not to be our object, which means a more proper response to scripture in worship is to say: ‘This is the Word of God for the People of God. We pray. Thanks be to God.’

Likewise, the great thanksgiving is not a magic incantation recited by a shaman that guarantees God’s presence in the eucharist. The Holy Spirit is invited to pour out upon the table; the Holy Spirit is not compelled to condescend. The Great Thanksgiving and the Prayer for Illumination are just that, prayers, pleadings, petitions for God to reveal God’s self. They are not methods but practices of faith. Hope and trust.

For Barth, we cannot approach, apprehend, know, or even believe in this God through any means other than God’s own present and ongoing revelation. God must elect to come to us in our speech and bread, as in Mary’s womb it is no less in the pulpit or at the table. God doesn’t always elect to reveal himself to us for when God does reveal it is always necessarily a miracle.

I suppose some might see in this bad news, that revelation isn’t 100% fool-proof predictable, but I think Barth would point out that good news of this free, electing, self-objectifying God is so much better; namely, that God does not consider it beneath God to rest on the lips and in the hands of creatures, like us, of such low estate. 

We’re only yet into Eastertide, the season where for 50 days Christians remind ourselves that Jesus Christ, raised from the dead once for all, is, despite the Church’s best efforts to render him otherwise, a Living Lord.

There’s no better time than the season of resurrection to wonder if the Wesleyan Quadrilateral can bear the weight of our Easter God.

For those of you who have not had to pledge allegiance to it for Methodist ordination exams, the Quadrilateral describes how Wesleyans conceive of the doctrine of revelation. Calling it the Wesleyan Quadrilateral is an anachronism but we can attribute it to him honorifically for Wesley did practice the methods of the Quadrilateral in his preaching and teaching. It’s popular to analogize the Wesleyan Quadrilateral to a three-legged bar stool, an ironic analogy for a people who once foisted tee-totaling upon America.

3-legged-stoolImagine Scripture as the seat of the stool, on which we/the church/the world (it’s never clear) rests. The three legs of the stool, which equally support and balance it, are Tradition, Reason, and Experience. In other words, we Wesleyans deploy the creedal tradition, our mental faculties, and our experience of the world to illumine the bible.

It’s common today to praise our particular Wesleyan approach to scripture as a perspective perfectly suited for the contemporary world; in that, it avoids the dangers of fundamentalism on the one hand and an unmoored mysticism about the bible on the other.

Having recently dipped back in to Karl Barth, the theologian on whom I cut my teeth, I’ve wondered what sort of theological Kung Fu Barth might wreak upon the Quadrilateral.

The tendency in United Methodism to remodel the stool so that Scripture becomes no longer the base but a fourth leg equivalent to Tradition, Reason, and Experience, underscores, I think, a latent deficiency in how the Wesleyan Quadrilateral treats scripture and, more importantly, the Living God who freely chooses to speak through it.

I expect Barth, whose massive Church Dogmatics are best understood as a theology of revelation, would object to our Wesleyan Quadrilateral on that specific ground. We Methodists, reared on Enlightenment liberalism, approach scripture not unlike archaeologists armed without excavation tools, Reason, Tradition and personal Experience, in order to extract some meaning or truth from the text. Such a posture, Barth would argue, unavoidably conjugates scripture’s testimony into the past-tense. We ask with Experience, Tradition, and Reason what the biblical text meant in its original context, what God said, and it’s up to us, using those same tools, to infer an application for today.

Contrary to the Quadrilateral, Barth insists that scripture is not a sourcebook but is a living witness. It’s not an inanimate object but is the means through which Christ elects to speak. Scripture is not the word of God, bound in the past; scripture is the medium by which Jesus Christ, the Word of God, reveals himself. John Wesley was an Enlightenment era priest so it’s not surprising perhaps that the Quadrilateral attributed to him reflects the modernist tendency to begin with ourselves instead of God. If he was feeling punchy, I imagine Barth might imply that we Wesleyans with our Quadrilateral actually betray docetic tendencies with scripture. It only ‘seems’ like revelation but isn’t really to us for it requires us to yield any word.

Against us, Barth proclaims again and again that Jesus Christ, as the Risen Living Lord, is the agent of revelation NOT the object of revelation. The Risen Christ is the Revealer not what is revealed. And, I wouldn’t have admitted this when I applied for ordination, I think this is the view of revelation the contemporary world- or, at least the mainline church- needs today.

For Barth, Jesus is not only a Living Lord but he’s free. Our knowledge of God, our faith in God, is in God’s hands not ours.

Our Tradition, Reason, and Experience will deliver us nothing of God unless God so elects.

The word of God, for Barth, isn’t waiting in the pages of scripture, dead and dormant, waiting to be sought. You can only seek a god who is dead. The Living God seeks after us.

The Word of God, Jesus Christ, is alive and discovering us. Truth isn’t just sitting there in the pages of scripture waiting to mined by our lights; Truth is a resurrected person moving outside of scripture, encountering us, calling us, transforming us.

Scripture is not the record of how God met us in Christ.

Scripture is the ground on which the Risen Christ elects to meet us today.

Why Did Jesus Come?

Jason Micheli —  June 25, 2015 — 1 Comment

Untitled101111I’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.

Cancer has gotten me off writing these for a few months now but, back by semi-popular demand, I hope to get back in the swing of things.

You can find the tag for the previous posts here and on the sidebar to the right.

III. The Son

10. Why did Jesus come?  

There’s no need to ask me.

Ask his cousin, John: Jesus comes in order to bear away our proclivity to point the finger and scapegoat one another, the sin that is at the very foundation of the world; so that, we can be at-one with God and each other.

Ask his mother, Mary: Jesus comes to bring the Jubilee, the year of the Lord’s favor, in which the lowly are lifted up, the powerful brought down from their boardrooms, the proud scattered in the presumptions of their heart, the rich sent empty away and the poor have gospel brought to them.

Ask his father, Joseph: Jesus comes to be a light to the nations, the 2nd Abraham through whose family, called church, the whole world might be blessed.

Ask Matthew: Jesus comes so that his birth, from nothing, would inaugerate a New Creation of which his resurrection- Sin and Death having done their worst- is vindication.

Ask John, his Beloved Disciple: Jesus comes to give flesh to the invisible image of God, showing us the authentically human, abundant life God desires for each of us. But, he comes to take us beyond mere creature hood too, bearing us in his flesh, through his Spirit into the life called Trinity; so that, God can love us not as creatures but as God loves God.

Ask his disciples: Jesus comes to be our Passover, liberating us through his broken body and poured out blood from the Powers which bind us, into a life of freedom for love and service.

Ask the Pharisees: Jesus comes claiming to be the Son of Man, forgiving sinners (refusing to condemn them) while judging the nations and those who serve them as their true lord.

Ask Pontius Pilate: Jesus comes to witness, even unto a cross, to the ‘truth’ that God alone rules the Earth.


Ask him yourself: He comes to invite us to turn away from the ways we reject our creature hood (which we call ‘sin’) and to turn towards a life of grace and gratitude (which he calls ‘the Kingdom of God’).

He does not come– notice, in order to suffer a monster’s torture meant for another, to assuage our guilt or to placate an anrgy deity. Nor does he come to bless our political causes in this life, secure our passage to the next one or reinforce maxims we can surmise apart from him, i.e. that ‘All you need is love.’

“Repent of your sins and turn to God, for the Kingdom of God is near.” -Matthew 3.2

Portrait Karl Barth§23.1

If nothing else, Karl Barth provides a needful salve for the Christian blogosphere.

The sheer breadth and length of Barth’s Dogmatics could fool you. Despite how much hot air Barth devotes to theology, Barth believes theology’s primary task is to listen.

Listening, for Barth, entails the Church standing as subject under the word which testifies to the Word of God, Jesus Christ. But for Barth, this ‘listening’ is not like listening to the Nixon tapes or to a Taylor Swift mp3. Because the word witnesses to the Living Word, ‘listening’ to what God speaks through scripture is always a listening afresh. Ironically, Barth argues that treating scripture as the words God said (versus the words God uses to say) inescapably risks wandering from God’s word.

Those most beholden to a wooden doctrine of scripture as the (once-for-all) Word of God are those most vulnerable to straying from the word God speaks through scripture today.

§23.1 of the CD in a nutshell:

God speaks in Christ the Logos and the word of scripture which testifies to the Logos,  but God speaks still in the word that is the proclamation of the Logos in Church.

That’s Barth’s 3-Fold Form of the Word of God, still a cure for whatever form of conservative or liberal fundamentalism may afflict your faith.

Nevertheless, a part of me (the Thomistic, Wesleyan part) recoils at the way Barth so thoroughly equates obedience to the Word with right speech and right doctrine about God. What’s been a persistent note throughout volume 1 of the CD here becomes a more obvious and dominant theme in §23.1 as Barth turns to the mode of ‘listening.’

Barth goes all in with dogma here:

“the existence of an orderly Church dogmatics is the unfailingly effective and only possible instrument of peace in the church.”

I suspect the equivalency Barth draws between obedience to the Word and right dogmatics about God is why my commitment to re-reading the CD has foundered of late. As opposed to the witness of his life, there’s no sense in this volume of the CD that obedience to the Word entails doing as much as it does dogma.

So maybe Barth’s riff on ‘listening’ here isn’t what the Christian blogosphere- or the Western Church in general- needs to hear at all. Because…

Christians in the West- blue or red, liberal or conservative- are in absolutely zero danger of being regarded as sufficiently zealous for their dogma.

Too many Christians today equate discipleship with possessing the ‘faithful’ position on a given issue. For the most part Christians are known for what or who they’re against- or what or who they’re for- either of which are largely declarations of doctrine and not reflections upon Christian doing.

So maybe Barth’s riff on ‘listening’ here isn’t what the Christian blogosphere- or the Western Church in general- needs to hear because, the truth is, we’re so bad at listening to others.

And each other.


As much as I flinch at the way Barth likens listening to God with right dogma about God, §23.1 has gotten me thinking.

The first centuries of the Church were given to establishing the bounds of correct Christian belief, and for understandable reasons. The ancient Church’s discernment has bequeathed us the creeds, which provide us the contours of ‘orthodoxy.’ The ancient Church’s resultant debates have identified for us heresies, those beliefs which fall beyond our right praise of God.

But the creeds reflect the time and place and uncertainties of the Church which gave them to us.

Is Christ God or man?

Is God One or three?

From whom does the Spirit come?

Reading §23.1 I can’t help but think-

We who are so good at dogma about Jesus but so bad at doing like Jesus could use a creed for our time and place.

One that defines ortho-praxy with the same degree of precision as the Nicene creed unpacks the immanent Trinity.

We could use a new creed that could help us, who are so preoccupied with policing beliefs, name heresies of Christian action with the same sort of specificity the Donatist heresy spelled out wrong belief.

What would an ortho-praxis creed for our place and time and uncertainty look like?

‘….we believe an ungenerous person is not really a Christ-follower…’

What about someone who never actually prays? Or refuses to forgive their ex? Or give up their racism? Can one support state-sponsored execution and still be said to worship the state-executed Jesus? What of sex? Drones? The unborn? War?

Is everything sans ‘belief’ in Christ just up for grabs, left to be shaded according to one’s personal political hue?


What would it look like if the same sort of consensus on praxis was demanded across Christ’s Body that was once demanded on dogma?

Yes, it would take long to hammer out such consensus- it did then.

Yes, it would be painful and costly- it was then.

After all, if Barth’s right, if those beholden to a God spoke in the past perspective risk straying from God’s Living Word, then those of us who don’t think our new place and time and uncertainty might require a new kind of creed risk the very same thing.

Untitled101111I’ve become convinced that 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.

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.

You can find the previous posts here.

II. Witness

12. Is the Bible our only authority? 

Of course not.

Jesus Christ, the fullness of God made flesh, who reigns the Earth from the right hand of the Father, is our sole authority.

Jesus is Lord not the Bible nor our imperfect interpretation of it.

The Bible is our primary witness to Christ, but even the Bible’s witness is mediated to us by the witness of the saints and our own experience of the Holy Spirit’s work in the world- the gift of the world itself speaks to the sheer gratuity of God.

And because all truth is God’s truth, our reason and apprehension of the created world elaborate upon (and sometimes correct) the witness to God we find in the Bible.

‘Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.’

– Acts 2.36

13. Are the Bible’s words about God accurate?

Not inherently, no.

The words of scripture are human words, the same words we use to describe ordinary objects like bears, coffee and computer keys. The words themselves possess no inherent capacity to speak of God.

The fullness and meaning of the Word, Jesus Christ, cannot be mined by any number of human words; therefore, scripture cannot be understood as a fixed archive of truths about God as though faithful description of God is reducible to regurgitation of scripture.

Indeed, as the creed’s reliance on the term ‘substance’ makes clear, faithful witness to God may require words that go beyond the language of scripture.

Within the language of scripture itself, the words do not all testify to God in the same way. As St Thomas notes, words like ‘rock’ or a ‘warrior’ can describe God only metaphorically while words like ‘good’ and ‘love’ can be taken literally if analogously.

“But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” – John 21.25

14. Do Christians who read scripture grasp God better than non-Christians who do not read scripture?



God is transcendent, the reason there is something instead of nothing, Being itself not a being within the universe. Scripture does not render God any less transcendent nor does scripture rein God in to the universe of knowable objects.

So scripture does not provide us with a schema by which the transcendent God becomes comprehensible.

Because God, by definition, remains unknowable to creatures- known only insofar as he makes himself known- there is no ground on which Christians can claim to grasp God’s essence any better than non-Christians.

Rather, what makes Christians different from non-Christians is that Christians know how, apart from grace, nothing they confess of God can be true, and that even where Christians succeed, by grace, in confessing the truth about God they can never know how it is true.

‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord”, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”

-Matthew 7.21

Untitled101111I’ve become convinced that 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.

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.

You can find the previous posts here.

II. Witness

10. Is the God of the Old Testament the same as the God of the New?

Were the evangelists who wrote the New Testament liars?

Was Jesus?

To disavow the God of the Old Testament not only commits the oldest of heresies, it makes unintelligible the central claim of the New Testament: that the God who raised Jesus from the dead and made him King of the Earth is the same God who raised Israel from slavery to a king in Egypt.

Both testaments of scripture testify to the one Word of God, the Logos, the Son.

The Word that takes flesh in Mary’s womb is the selfsame Word that spoke creation from nothing into being.

Because scripture is not the literal word of God but the mediated, collective witness to the Word of God, Jesus Christ, its testimony is not always clear or consistent, which can lead to the conclusion the two testaments depict two different gods.

The variation in how the testaments depict the one God; however, should be attributed to the differences of perspective among their witnesses not differences between their gods.

“There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.” – Matthew 19.17

11. How we do understand divine violence and wrath in the Old Testament?

Short answer: In submission to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ.

Longer answer: The Old Testament is the witness of Israel and the prophets to God and, as such, it narrates their experience of God and narration, by necessity, requires language and even our best language hang like ill-fitting clothes on the true God.

To believe that my sin can provoke a change in God (wrath) is idolatry.

It is to make God a god, another object in the universe.

Israel’s relationship with God, to which the Old Testament testifies, was most frequently marked by their sin.

Sin is something that turns God into a projection of our guilt and self-loathing so that we no longer see the true God at all. Instead we experience God as a judge, a paymaster, as angry and vengeful and violent. Thus the Old Testament’s depiction of God’s anger towards Israel’s infidelity reveals more about Israel’s infidelity than it reveals the true God.

Moreover, Israel’s election to love God in the world was also an election to suffer. The Old Testament is not simply any people’s testimony to God; it is the testimony of a people who often found themselves oppressed in a world that knew not God. Thus the Old Testament’s depiction of God’s anger and violence towards reveals more about Israel’s hunger for justice than it reveals the true God.

Finally, Jesus Christ is the full revelation of God. Christ reveals perfectly to which the Old Testament can only point. And in Jesus Christ we discover a God who commands us to turn the other cheek, love our enemies and pray for them; a God who commands us to put away the sword and would rather die than kill.

‘No one has ever seen God; it is God the Son who has made Him known.’ – John 1.18

Untitled101111I’ve become convinced that 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.

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.

You can find the previous posts here.

II. Witness

8. How Do I Read the Bible?

The bible should not be treated as a talisman as though it will yield any answer to any question we might ask.

Scripture does not ask us to treat it as a magical object. It does not call for our passive reverence; scripture expects our engagement. With that mind, I offer some guidelines for you to consider when reading a given text:

1. Scripture should be interpreted in light of its historical and cultural context.

This is where an annotated, academic bible can transform your reading of scripture. Knowing the original context of a given passage not only can open up that text to new and fresh hearings it can also prevent uninformed, personal interpretations that are wide off the mark of the text’s original intent.

2. Scripture should not be bound by its original context either.

If, as we believe, God’s Spirit can use the testimony of the past to speak a fresh Word to us, then knowing the original context can help us sort out right and wrong interpretations but it does not limit our interpretations. That is, what Paul said is not necessarily what Paul says to us to day.

3. Scripture should be read theocentrically, with God at the center as its primary protagonist.

Maybe this strikes you as obvious, but in our culture today many Christians value scripture only for its utility, for what it says to me. Scripture should necessarily have implications for our lives so long as we realize that it’s not first of all a story about us. The parable of the prodigal son, for example, is primarily an illustration of God’s character; it’s not first an illustration of us. ‘What does this passage say about God?’ is a question that should always precede ‘What does this passage speak to me?’

4. Scripture should be read corporately.

The bible is the story of God’s engagement with God’s chosen People, Israel and the Church. The bible is testimony about God for the community of God; therefore, you can’t truly read the bible rightly apart from God’s People. Reading scripture with others, on Sunday morning or in small groups, is the best way to hear clearly what the Spirit says today to us. Jews and Christians read in company with others, adapting and even submitting our understandings to the understandings of our fellow saints, living and dead.

5. Scripture should be read in light of one’s own context.

This is both a caution and a command. Realize that what you see or hear is determined by where you stand. A poor Mayan woman in Guatemala who’s suffered exploitation and war will hear the Magnificat differently from a white, upper class woman in the United States. Very often the Word both these women will hear will be a true Word for their context.

‘Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light for my path…’ – Psalm 119

9. What Plot Does the Bible Narrate?

The worst thing someone can try to do is read the bible from beginning to end. Rather, each and any piece of scripture should be approached with an eye to the whole and how it fits.

There is a thematic, and theological, unity to scripture.

Scripture is not unlike a symphony in which there is a dominant theme returned to again and again but within the larger piece there are any number of variations.

The same is true of scripture. There is within all the stories a dominant theme:

The creation God declared ‘good’ is distorted by Sin. God is determined to get what God wanted in the very beginning. God calls Israel so that through their friendship and witness God’s creation might be redeemed. This is what the Old Testament is about.

Then, in the New, God becomes incarnate in Jesus Christ to be the 2nd Adam, the New Abraham, for us, and until God brings forth the New Heaven and the New Earth he calls the believing community to embody in every aspect of their lives the life that is made flesh in Jesus Christ, a life which Easter and Pentecost make possible for us.

And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall webear the image of the heavenly man.’

– 1 Corinthians 15.40

Untitled101111I’ve become convinced that 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.

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.

You can find the previous posts here.

II. Witness

7. Can I Interpret the Bible by Myself at Home?

Don’t be silly.

You quite literally cannot read the bible by yourself.

Scripture, what we call the word of God, is the testimony to the one Word of God, Jesus Christ, and it is the corporate testimony of Israel and the Church.

Just as scripture is the witness of those who’ve come before us, it must be read in light of and in submission to the interpretation of those who’ve come before us, the saints and doctors of the Church.

If one is repelled by the rigidity of biblicism, then reading the bible for how it can enliven and enlighten your own personal faith is an understandable alternative. If one shares the modern presumptions of historicism and thinks things like virgin births just can’t happen, then reading the bible for individual devotional purposes is again an understandable alternative.

Yet reading the bible for ‘what it speaks to me’ is fraught with its dangers.

The Word of God, Jesus Christ, is mediated to us through the testimony of a People.

Scripture is a communal witness and its primary intent is to incorporate us into that Body of witnesses.

So then the sermon on the mount is not first about you as an individual being merciful, it’s about the Church, the community of disciples, being merciful, which only secondarily entails you being merciful.

1 Corinthians 13, where Paul rhapsodizes about love being patient and kind, is not about an individual’s love and the love of a married couple. It’s about the character of the believing community, which secondarily entails your own character.

The Reformation’s notions about the private individual are very modern and very Western assumptions that are by and large alien to the world of the bible. Reading the bible from or for a personal perspective can be appropriate so long as you come to the bible with that understanding.

But stripping scripture away from its communal identity, risks turning it into a talisman we turn to for answers rather than transformation.

What’s more, reading the bible only from the lens of our private devotion also risks spiritualizing or simply missing the essentially political character of much of scripture.

The Hebrew Bible, after all, is the testimony about a God who rescued Israel from oppression and the New Testament is how that God took peasant flesh and ended up executed at the hands of an occupying military power. Those are unavoidably political stories that have implications well beyond the personal life of faith.

“Then the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, ‘Do not write, “The King of the Jews”, but, “This man said, I am King of the Jews.” ’  

– John 18.21


Untitled101111I’ve become convinced that 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.

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.

You can find the previous posts here.

II. Witness

5. What’s Wrong with Reading the Bible Literally?

Biblical literalism attributes a supernatural origin to scripture. The bible, in this view, is the direct, unfiltered Word of God. 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, it is held, is as free of error as had it fallen from heaven printed and bound. This view of scripture is a modern belief, arising only in the late 19th century.

Such an absolute assertion of scripture’s divine origins and textual infallibility provoke several significant problems.

First, positing every word of scripture as the literal, inerrant word of God flattens the whole of scripture, making every word just as important and authoritative as any other. The purity of codes of Leviticus are now logically equivalent in importance to the sermon on the mount, God’s instructions to the take the holy land by bloodshed as critical as Christ’s self-sacrifice.

By flattening scripture and making it all of equal import, the central thread gets lost:

the One Word of God, Jesus Christ.

Biblicism makes Christian scripture, like the Qu’ran, into a collection of equally authoritative precepts, teachings and codes instead of diverse, polyvalent testimony to the saving love of God made flesh in Jesus Christ.

Second, demanding that every word of scripture be infallible forces the Christian 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. So then a literalistic rendering of the creation story, for example, forces some Christians to dismiss evolutionary theory or prehistoric life.

Gripping onto scripture’s infallibility can also lock Christians into defending or perpetuating the social mores of the cultural context in which scripture was first recorded.

Third, biblical literalism is an unmediated revelation.

Scripture is the Word of God with or without the testimony of faithful witnesses.

While, in the fundamentalist minds, this secures scripture from the acids of the modern world, it does 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, it is instead presented in an authoritarian mode.

Scripture is something to which we must conform; it’s not something which invites us into a transformative relationship.

“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.”

– 2 Timothy 3.16


Untitled101111I’ve become convinced that 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.

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.

You can find the previous posts here.

3. (How) Is the Bible the Word of God?

The Bible is the Word of God in that scripture- when proclaimed rightly and received faithfully- is the reliable testimony to the one Word of God, Jesus Christ who is the logic of God made flesh.

So when Christians use the term ‘the Word of God’ they’re actually referring to multiple forms whose authority and ‘infallibility’ varies by degrees.

Imagine, for instance, the image of three concentric circles.

At the center, in the inner, centermost circle, is the Logos, the eternal Word of God that was made flesh in Jesus Christ.

Christ is the only capital ‘W’ word of God in which Christians believe and after which Christians conform their lives.

Next in the trio is the testimony to the Word of God given to us by Israel, the prophets and the Church. This testimony to the Word of God is the word we call scripture.

In the final, outermost, circle is the word of God as its proclaimed and interpreted in the worship and ministry of the Church to which Christians will often reply: ‘This is the word of the God for the people of God/Thanks be to God.’

The only true, literal, infallible, eternal Word of God then is Jesus Christ, the Logos of God.

The bible is the word of God in that it points us to the one Word of God, Jesus Christ.

Our reading and preaching of scripture is- or perhaps more apt, becomes– the word of God for us only when it faithfully proclaims and embodies the one Word of God, Jesus Christ.

“Many other signs therefore Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.” – John 20.30-31

4. Should We Interpret the Bible Literally?

The form of the scripture text should determine how you interpret scripture.

If the scripture text is poetic, then you should it interpret it poetically. Metaphorically.

If the scripture text is exhortative, then you better go and do whatever it says. Whatever is the best modern-day equivalent of what it says.

If the scripture text is parabolic, then you should scratch your head and look for the scandal of the Gospel. Or whatever would be likewise scandalous in our day.

If the scripture text is fabulous, then you should dig for the deeper meaning, the text’s artist seeks to show rather than simply tell. e.g., Garden of Eden.

But when Christians refer to the bible as the word of God, don’t forget that while Christianity is indeed a revealed religion, the revelation of the Word of God is a mediated revelation.

Our access to the Logos comes to us only by way of scripture and the Church. Scripture therefore is not revelation. The pages and printed words in your bible are not, in and of themselves, the Word of God. They are our testimony to God’s Word as its been disclosed to Israel and the Church. Because of that testimony, scripture is authoritative for us and it is sufficient for communicating all we need to know of and follow this God.

At the same time, one’s testimony is never identical with the person of whom one testifies. Scripture’s testimony can only partially and provisionally capture the mystery of the eternal Word.

None of this threatening should be threatening, however, because the Word of God, Jesus Christ, is a mediated revelation.

Testimony can be imperfect without jeopardizing the perfection of the One to whom scripture testifies.

In other words, the bible does not (always) need to be interpreted literally because we do not believe in the bible; we believe in the One to whom the bible testifies. We worship Jesus Christ not the bible.

And, it should be pointed out, Jesus himself did not interpret scripture literally:

I say “You are gods,

sons of the Most High, all of you;

nevertheless, you shall die like mortals

and fall like any prince” (Psalm 82 vv. 6-7)


barth_in_pop_art_5There’s something fragile, foolhardy and yet frighteningly beautiful about the vantage point that ministry offers upon the faith of ordinary believers and their extra ordinary, in the pejorative sense, priests and pastors.

On more than a one occasion, I’ve sat through a pointless church meeting or an inane clergy gathering and been struck by this realization: the very testimony to which we respond every Sunday ‘The Word of God for the People of God/Thanks be to God’ was written by believers who, in all likelihood, were every bit as sinful, ignorant, and only partially faithful as the people gathered around me right now.

Prefixing the author of Luke with ‘Saint’ lends him beatific hues. Thinking of the author of Luke as the chair of your Church Council, however, might give you pause before you chime in ‘Thanks be to God’ next Sabbath.

And yet ministry also offers a glimpse into the mysterious depth of an ostensibly ‘simple’ faith. Alongside the regular dosage of bitter reality, ministry also provides concrete confirmation that, in spite of ourselves, the living God can be known and, even more remarkably, the unknowable God can be witnessed to by people like us who don’t know nearly as much as we pretend.

Now, there are Christians for whom those initial sentences constitute not just a couple of paragraphs but heresy.

For them, scripture is a miracle on par with the incarnation itself. Some many Christians would describe the miracle of scripture as ‘inerrancy;’ that is, God has miraculously kept the Bible free from any error. The Bible’s power and authority then derive from its being devoid of any historical mistakes (worldwide census in Luke 2), theological inconsistencies (Mark’s Gospel vs John’s), or scientific problems (Genesis). Indeed many Christians treat the ‘Word’ as though it fell from heaven, printed and bound and translated in to the King James; therefore, it must be without error.

Such a ‘high’ view of scripture, however, comes with much risk, for if scripture’s power and authority derives from its inerrancy then even the most inconsequential of historical, scientific, or theological errors threaten to undermine the whole.

When the authority of scripture is based not on God but on a particular doctrine about scripture, confidence in God can easily unravel.

The recent debate between Bill Nye the Science Guy and that idiot creationist from Kentucky is but one obvious example. At stake in that particular debate was neither science nor faith in God but in one particular doctrine of scripture.

The same is true of the debates around same-sex marriage. At their most base, in both senses of the word, their debates about scripture’s authority.

One of features that first drew me to Karl Barth was how he charts a fresh, vigorous way forward through the stale liberal-conservative divide over scripture.

According to Barth in §19.2, the “miracle of scripture” is not its inerrancy- the groundless supposition that God kept the Bible free from humanness, especially human fallibility and sin.

No, the miracle of scripture is indeed a subset of the miracle of incarnation:

God makes himself known through what is human, always limited and partial, and frequently mistaken:

… the prophets and apostles as such, even in their function as witnesses, even in the act of writing down their witness, were real, historical men as we are, and therefore sinful in their action, and capable and actually guilty of error in their spoken and written word.

To the bold postulate, that if their word is to be the Word of God they must be inerrant in every word, we oppose the even bolder assertion, that according to the scriptural witness about man, which applies to them too, they can be at fault in any word, and have been at fault in every word, and yet according to the same scriptural witness, being justified and sanctified by grace alone, they have still spoken the Word of God in their fallible and erring human word.

Around Christmastime, Christians make a lot of hay out of the fact that in Christ God takes flesh- and not any pristine, idealized flesh but the very ordinary stuff of our lives. As the ancients believed: ‘that which is not assumed is not healed.’ In other words, for our entire fleshly selves to be redeemed our entire fleshly selves are somehow mysteriously present in the Incarnate One.

Seldom however do we make the same hay out of scripture’s incarnational nature, yet the miracle is the same. God can use the most human of mediums for revelation and grace. In a certain sense, for Barth, to wish the Bible were something other than what it is (a fallible, human witness) is akin to wishing the Incarnation were less human and more spiritually sanitized than it was:

If God was not ashamed of the fallibility of all the human words of the Bible, of their historical and scientific inaccuracies, their theological contradictions, the uncertainty of their tradition… but adopted and made use of these expressions in all their fallibility, we do not need to be ashamed when He wills to renew it to us in all its fallibility as witness, and it is mere self-will and disobedience to try to find some infallible elements in the Bible.

That is, to ground the Bible’s authority and power in something other than God is to unwittingly long for a God other than the God we have: the God who reveals himself through corrupt, finite, sinful things.

For Barth, biblical inerrancy is a rejection of grace: it rejects the gift God has given us (an unmerited, incarnational text) in favor of something we deem, through our doctrine, to be better.

But ‘better’ is not an appropriate category when speaking of grace.

barth_in_pop_art_5Karl Barth began his Church Dogmatics as the historical-critical method of interpreting scripture waned and fundamentalism waxed.

To this day both liberals and fundamentalists have problems with Karl Barth.

Exhibit A~ this choice quote from the beginning of §19.1:

‘Scripture is holy and the Word of God, because by the Holy Spirit it became and will become to the Church a witness to divine revelation.’

Why do liberals hate on Barth?

Wanting to be counted as a ‘legitimate’ discipline by the social sciences, liberals lauding the historical-critical method approached scripture with the pretensions of neutral objectivity, treating the formerly revealed text as any other time-bound, humanly-authored text. Not surprisingly, the historical-critical method only proved about the scriptural text what we now know about any text: they’re ripe fruit for our manipulation. Supposed neutral, objective scholarship of Barth’s day rendered a scriptural text and a Christ therein perfectly fashioned in the image of turn of the century German prejudices.

Barth skewers it better than me:

“There is a notion that complete impartiality is the most fitting and indeed the normal disposition for true exegesis, because it guarantees a complete absence of prejudice. For a short time, around 1910, this idea threatened to achieve almost canonical status in Protestant theology. But now we can quite calmly describe it as merely comical.”

In the CD, Barth distances liberates the practice of theology from the presumptuous strictures of the historical-critical method. Scripture, Barth reiterates throughout §19.1, is  self-attesting and self-verifying.

The bible cannot confirm claims made from outside and brought to it. The Word instead claims to witness to God’s revelation in Christ, the One Word of God, and when one enters the Word one discovers- is encountered- by the truth of its witness. Admittedly, the circularity of Barth’s argument is not without its problems, but I think Barth would argue (and I would concur) that those problems pale in comparison to the ones provoked by the sinful pretension to a neutral, objective appraisal of the text.

On the other hand, Barth also wants to distance dogmatics from the heresy of biblical literalism.

Scripture witnesses to the One Word of God, the Second Person of the Trinity.

Scripture is not itself the Second Person of the Trinity.

Scripture is not the image of the invisible God, Jesus is.

Perhaps most importantly, the Son is eternal and was present at creation, scripture was not present at creation:

“…by the Holy Spirit it became and will become to the Church a witness to divine revelation.”

Barth’s straddling both sides of the modern liberal-fundamentalist divide here. Barth wants to acknowledge the insight of historical-criticism (scripture is incarnational, every bit as flesh and divine as Jesus was) without abandoning the authority and truth of scripture’s witness to revelation. At the same time, Barth wants to stress the uniqueness and reliability of scripture’s witness without going down the rabbit hole of demanding that every jot and tittle come straight out of a burning bush.

In one sense, you could accuse Barth of cherry picking the most palatable of what the two sides serve, but by doing so I think Barth stumbles upon a very unique and powerful observation:

Scripture is authoritative in that it witnesses reliably to Christ as the revelation of God, but scripture became authoritative.

And scripture’s ongoing authority is always a becoming.

There is no ‘isness’ to scripture.

To put it a bit clearer, Barth creates the space for a progressive revelation in scripture without jettisoning the authority of scripture. As with any courtroom witness, the witness of scripture is sometimes clearer than it is at other points but this fact does not undermine the overall veracity of the testimony. That to which the witnesses points remains.

The problem with biblical literalism, which Barth aims to correct here, is that it conceives of the bible as eternal, outside of and unconditioned by time. While Barth stresses how there is no ‘isness’ to scripture, literalism speaks as though there’s nothing but a ‘wasness’ to scripture.

Literalism’s effect is to strip the biblical narrative of any meaningful chronology.

If scripture is all the inerrant Word of God, timeless (and thus contextless) then there is no sense in which scripture reflects ongoing development of thought or faith.

And if there is no development- no ‘progressive revelation’- then it’s hard to see how there’s any genuine relationship between God and humanity.

No where is Barth’s point more obvious than with how scripture reflects upon the meaning of Jesus’ death.

Often Christians and non assume the meaning of Jesus’ death is obvious or self-evident within the canon. Not so.

Within the New Testament, believers find how the meaning of the cross is the subject of ongoing, developing reflection.

The meaning Jesus himself ascribes to his impending death is not the meaning Paul ascribes to Jesus’ death in Romans which is not exactly the meaning Paul ascribes to Jesus’ death in 2 Corinthians or Ephesians, which is not the same meaning John ascribes to it in Revelation. Nor are any of those meanings necessarily exactly how the early Church understood Jesus’ death.

Where Jesus speaks of his death’s meaning in terms of the liberation of Passover (…‘Son of Man came to give his life as a ransom for many…’), Paul speaks of Jesus’ death with metaphors of substitution, exchange and recapitulation. In Colossians Paul sounds a note not unlike the one John attempts in Revelation: the slain lamb having disarmed the powers of this world.

What’s powerful about Barth’s ‘becoming by the Spirit’ take on scripture is how it recognizes and allows for- even celebrates- this give and take reflection and wrestling within the canon itself.

How remarkable is it that Paul and the other apostles felt the freedom to expand upon the meaning of Christ’s death beyond what Christ himself gave? How counterintuitive is it that the early Church did not feel the compulsion to canonize and harmonize these disparate perspectives into a single view?

In other words, it’s clear from reading scripture itself that scripture is always a ‘becoming.’

And what else could it be, really, if wrestling with scripture is a fundamental act of faith?



‘The Word of God for the People of God’

‘Thanks be to God.’

That’s the usual response after the reading of scripture in my church’s worship as it is most congregations.

And whenever I read scripture during the liturgy, I preface the reading with the invitation ‘Listen for the Word of the Lord’ rather than the imperative, common in many churches: ‘Hear the Word of the Lord.’

I prefer the invitation over the imperative because, as we all know, not everyone within hearing of the scripture reading has actually heard the Word of God.

To hear the Bible read is not to have heard the Living God speak.

It’s not so simple or so easy. I like to invite people to listen for God’s Word in much the same manner as I’ll shush my boys while we’re hiking in the mountains. Be quiet, still yourselves, the scripture reader is telling the congregation. Listen for God’s Word because it might just pass you by.

When it comes to God’s Word, active discernment not passive reception is required.

One of the old confessions of the Church acknowledges as much by professing:

‘The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.’

That is, the word of God (scripture) is not a living, active witness to the one Word of God (Christ) until it’s been faithfully read, faithfully proclaimed and faithfully received by its hearers.

(That’s how you can disqualify preachers who use the Bible for other ends, i.e. Joel Osteen)

The scripture reading then is as mysterious as any other part of the liturgy, eucharist included, because to hear the Word of God is not merely to hear God’s previous revelation read it’s to participate in God’s ongoing revelation in the present.

This the mystery Barth tackles in §16.1 of the Church Dogmatics.

Barth’s already wrapped together as diverse topics as Christology, Pneumatology and the Trinity under his Volume 1 heading ‘The Word of God.’ Now Barth applies the doctrine of revelation to God’s revealing of himself to humanity.

As Barth points out relentlessly, Jesus, the God-Man, is the singular revelation around which all Christian speech of God must cohere. Nevertheless God’s revelation also comes to people who receive and respond to it.

Just how is it that people hear the Word of God (Christ) in the word of God (scripture)?

How is it that some hear God speak?

Which begs another question: Why is it that others do not?

To answer the former question, Barth turns to the Holy Spirit. Barth is often accused of being so radically Christo-centric that he has no place for the Holy Spirit in his theology, but here in §16.1 Barth points to the Holy Spirit as the agent through whom God reveals today.

Not only is it a deep mystery that God speaks; it’s as deep a mystery that we hear.

For Barth the human response ignited by the Holy Spirit is part of the same “revelation” as Christ himself. Every worship service in a sense is still a part of the very first Christmas Eve. It’s part of the same unfolding of God’s Word taking flesh.

This is not unlike what Paul tells the Corinthians: that God was in Christ reconciling the world and now this ministry of reconciliation has been given to us. We’re the extension of Christ, God’s revelation, to the world.

Anyone who accepts the invitation to listen for the Word of God is accepting a summons.


Download My New eBook

Jason Micheli —  November 1, 2013 — 2 Comments

DESIGNJust imagine how awesome the conversation, text messaging or email exchange could go:

You: Say, I just downloaded this pastor’s new ebook. It’s really great. You should check it out.

Friend: Really? What’s it called?

You: 100 Foreskins

Friend: Come again.

You: No pun intended, right?

2 Timothy 3 states:

“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.”


100 Foreskins is my attempt to test out Timothy’s bold assertion.

Is there something worthwhile about David’s gross dowry of 100 foreskins? Can we actually learn something from the story of the bare-a@#ed Isaiah prophesying in the nude? Can God get to us through the random bits of the Bible?

You can download the book here or by clicking on the image on the sidebar in the right.

Tell your friends.

Just think, now you can have my voice in your head and my words on your tablet without every worrying about the first-world problem of no wifi access.


Felidae-and-Watership-Down-the-duncanlovr-club-13678772-1024-768The following is a small group reflection for our church-planting team:

Richard Adam’s beloved novel, Watership Down, tells the story of a warren of rabbits setting out to make their home in a new place.

That’s right, I’m telling you a story about a story about rabbits.

Bear with me.

Fiver, a small, nervous rabbit, develops what can only be called a messianic intuition, convinced by a hunch that something dreadful is about to befall their Sandleford warren.

Fiver confides his fear to his brother, Hazel, and together they attempt to warn the elder Chief Rabbit, Threarah. Their ministrations prove unsuccessful, and Fiver and Hazel are dismissed as doomsayers.

Marginalized for their belief, the brother rabbits decide to leave their warren. They are joined in their journey by other rabbits like: Dandelion, Pipkin, Hawbit, Blackberry, Buckthorn, Speedwell, Acorn, Bigwig, and Silver.

As the group departs, their former home is destroyed under a housing developer’s bulldozer.

They set out to make the long journey to what will be the new location for their community: Watership Down. Along the way, the group of rabbits encounter challenges rabbits seldom encounter. They must cross a stream, navigate an open road, sneak through a fox-infested bean field.

Never having made a community in a new location, their challenges go against the grain  of everything rabbits know about being rabbits. They long to stop running, to dig deep down into the earth and stay in one place.

How do the rabbits tackle the obstacles and challenges in their path?

The answer turns out to be a surprising one.

The one thing that unites the rabbits and fills them with hope and courage are their stories- the stories their parents told them, the stories of their past, the stories about their forebears.

[What stories did you learn in your family? Growing up, what stories about your family were you taught?]

The rabbits of Adams’ novel tell especially stories of the clever rabbit hero, El- ahrairah.

Yep, the ‘El’ in the hero’s name is neither accidental nor coincidental. This is meant to be a primal, transcendent story.

With fur and floppy ears.

The first story they learned and the first story they tell is the ‘Blessing of El-ahrairah.’ In it, Frith, the god of the rabbits, allocates gifts and attributes to each species. Frith gives cleverness to the foxes, for example, and sight to the cats.

According to the story, El-ahrairah is so distracted with dining, dancing and mating that he misses out on the best gifts so Frith, realizing rabbits will now be at the mercy of other animals, gives El-ahrairah the gift of strong, hind legs.

Frith tells El-ahrairah, “be cunning and full of tricks and your people will never be destroyed.”

Fiver, Hazel and their community of rabbits hear in such a story their reason for being.

It’s their creation story and their ground of hope.

As they set out to make their lives in a new place, this story reminds them of why they exist at all and how they are to practice and embody that existence.

More than simply “explaining” why rabbits have strong legs, the story illuminates the rabbit’s task in life: to live in the world by trusting their stories and speed.

And each other.

As the rabbits make their journey to their new location, they’re frequently confronted by a challenge and, each time, they stop and seek a way forward by narrating their core stories of El-ahrairah.

The stories remind them of their identity and their purpose.

New places, in other words, point out the importance of old stories.

So not only have I just told you a story about a story about rabbits, I’m now going to tell you that floppy-eared story is actually a bible story.

Yep. A bible story starring rabbits.

Almost 600 years before Jesus was born, Judah’s King Josiah died just as the Babylonian Empire was ascending in power. After a long siege, Babylon finally razed the city of Jerusalem in 587 and topped that destruction with the added humiliation of exiling Israel’s citizens to live in a foreign land.

In a new place.

In that new place, the Jews were allowed to live in their own communities. They were free to build homes, earn a living, practice their own customs and religion.

They just couldn’t return home.

Much like rabbits, making their way in a new place, God’s People turned to their stories.

As Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann says, exiles are driven back to rediscover their most shaping memories and to practice their most critical commitments.

In a new location and the challenges it brings, Brueggemann writes, the stakes are too high. It’s not surprising then that you would turn to the elemental stories to guide your actions and let the unessential fall by the wayside.

As theologian Stanley Hauerwas, commenting on Watership Down, observes:

“…all new communities must remind themselves of their origin.

A people are formed by a story which places their history in the texture of the world.

Such stories make the world our home by providing us with the skills to negotiate the dangers in our environment…”

[What scripture story or stories have helped you ‘negotiate’ a particularly challenging moment in your life?]

New communities need to remember their core stories.

Those core stories remind new communities how they’re to negotiate the challenges of their new environment.

You see, a story about rabbits is really a story about God’s People.

It’s a story about the exile.

But it’s a story about any new faith community too.

Having made the long journey to a new location in Babylon, the Jews turned to their stories of ‘journey’ for identity and purpose. The stories of Abraham and Sarah’s journey into an unknown future, of Moses’ long journey in the wilderness, of Joseph’s journey away from home and back again and of Jacob’s journey away from God and back again- in exile those stories reminded Israel what it meant to trust God alone.

Not El-ahrairah but Elohim.

What about us?

Setting off for a new location.

Working to plant a new community.

Facing new challenges.

In Brueggemann’s terms:

What are the most important memories to which we should turn on our journey?

What are the promises given in those memories which we should practice during our journey and even after we’ve arrived?

[Which stories of scripture do you think are essential for our identity and purpose?]

While we don’t have a floppy-eared forebear, we do have Jesus.

The memories to which we turn for identity, purpose and guidance are the stories of Jesus. And the stories about Jesus.

And the promise we should practice- well, the first promise at least- is the promise found in the Church’s very first memory of Jesus.

The “Incarnation.”

Literally, God taking on ‘carne.’

The Holy becoming Meat.


As Paul puts it, quoting an ancient hymn:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

Very often the Incarnation is a doctrine employed to ‘prove’ Jesus’ divinity. It’s a dogma that reminds us that ‘this Jesus is really God.’

But like much in theology, the inverse is true too.

The Incarnation is a way of reminding us that ‘Because God is Jesus, Jesus is really human.’

To make it plain: Jesus is how God decides to incarnate what it means to be human.

Jesus is our model for genuine, God-intended-designed-humanness.

Jesus is the prototype.

And here’s the stop-you-in-your-tracks kicker: God was in Jesus, embodying and modeling what it means to be human, a good 30 years before Jesus began his official ministry.

That is, God was in Jesus for 30 years before anyone took notice that Jesus was in any way unique.

That is, God was in Jesus in such ordinary, everyday ways no one noticed that this Jesus was actually God.

Like many things in theology, the inverse is also true.

God was in Jesus in many ordinary, everyday ways that were true even if they escaped people’s official notice.

Allow me an ‘ergo.’

Ergo, God is present in the many ordinary, everyday things we do in Jesus’ name.

[What is one ordinary way you’ve experience God’s presence through another?]

If one of our most elemental memories as Christians is that God was incarnate in and as Christ, then one of the first promises we’re called to practice together:

We promise to be incarnational. 

We pledge to use our ‘flesh’ to convey the love and presence of God in the most ordinary, everyday things we do.

With others. And with ourselves.

You see, according to the logic of incarnation, it’s not that ‘worship’ is where the God stuff happens. Rather, all stuff is where God happens…if we take time to notice and name it. Meetings, small groups, passing out bulletins, welcoming a visitor are all acts- potentially- of worship. A handshake to a newcomer is- potentially- as sacramental as bread and wine.

Incarnation means we treat everyone and everything we do as holy, as receptacles of God’s presence but, even more so, Incarnation means we take Jesus’ way of life as the blueprint for how we are to embody God to, for and with another.

And when you look to what Jesus would do:

You find a willingness to relinquish all desires and interests in the service of others.

You find an openness to go where people are rather than wait for them to come to you.

You find an awareness that the ‘mode’ of ministry is every bit as important as the ministry’s ‘message.’

As Michael Frost outlines it, Incarnational Christianity entails:


An active and open sharing of our lives with the community and the invitation to others share their lives with us. Incarnation is the opposite of putting up facades.

An employment of the language and thought forms of those with whom we seek to share Jesus. Jesus used common speech and stories that were accessible to all. He seldom used jargon, technical terms or insider speech. To be incarnational means we presume the presence of outsiders, newcomers and unbelievers.

A preparedness to go to people, not expecting them to come to you. Jesus was unique among ancient rabbis. He didn’t wait for people to come to him. He went out and sought and called followers. To be incarnational is to be invitational in everything we do as Christian community, which of course requires we plan so as to make it easy to invite others.

A confidence that the Gospel can be communicated in ordinary ways, through acts of servanthood, loving relationships and good deeds. Volunteer activities are not means to the ‘real ministry’ of the Church; they are ministry and worship in and of themselves.

Michael Frost clarifies Incarnational Christianity further by stressing how Christians can learn from the success of what sociologist Ray Oldenburg calls ‘third places.’

Rather than the home or work, third places are those additional spaces in people’s lives where they can easily interact, make friends, discuss issues and develop community.

It’s in third places, says Ray Oldenburg, that we let our guard down and allow people to know us more fully, to share and discuss subjects that truly matter. Starbucks or the traditional British pub are obvious examples of ‘3rd places.’

[What are your 3rd places? Where are you most ‘you?’

What ‘works’ about that 3rd place?]

Needless to say, 3rd places become even more important for Christian communities who do not have a building of their own.

For Christians to be incarnational, Frost argues, they must relearn how to engage others- as Christians- in the 3rd places in their lives. To compartmentalize our faith into something we do in private, in a sanctuary, on a Sunday morning goes against the very essence of incarnation.

Frost also suggests that Incarnational Christianity requires churches to learn from the success of 3rd places in our culture.


[Why is it, for example, that a 3rd place like Starbucks is often better than the Church at developing community and connection?]

[Or perhaps a better way of putting the question: what gets in the way of Church being a viable 3rd place for more people?]







help_my_unbelief-1One of my threadbare laments is how my particular peculiar vocation places me on par with the drunk uncle at most social (meaning secular) functions.

Like cocktail parties, children’s birthday parties and wedding receptions.

Like the drunk uncle, most everyone’s fine with my presence there and certainly no one has the stones to ask me to leave, but nearly everyone is happier to have the preacher off in the corner where he will cause minimal embarrassment and not make the guests feel uncomfortable.

A healthy part of the discomfort, I think, is that most unchurched people presume a preacher can only talk about God.

Routine banter about politics, for example, will lead inexorably to the A or the H words, leaving polite conversation far behind.

Talk of sports will provoke inane analogies to carrying crosses and any lull in the conversation might let a foot in the door for the pastor’s church membership timeshare pitch.

But more so than any of those reasons, I think a good number of people, churched or not, assume pastors are people with 100 Proof faith.

No uncertainties. No struggles. No questions.

No nagging doubts that, like a too small blanket, refuse to wrap you up snuggly from head to toe.

Unlike them.

Of course, the assumption that pastors are people without doubts is complete crap. Just like my mechanic knows better than me what’s likely to break next in my car, pastors spend day after day negotiating the particulars of this faith and we know, better than most, how fragile is the foundation.

I mentioned in my sermon for this weekend:

“being a pastor, I’ve heard all the reasons not to believe before and, as a Christian, I struggle with all of them myself.” 

I thought it an innocuous line, but it yielded me 3 queries in the line of worshippers leaving church and 4 other rapid response emails.

They all wanted to know what it is I struggle to believe.

What questions to which I’m still seeking answers.

And what doubts make my faith remain like a too-small blanket.

Fair enough. I brought it up, and since I’m enough of a Calvinist to think the pulpit isn’t the most appropriate place to explore doubts (it’s a place to proclaim the Gospel) I can at least give space to such questions here.

Struggle/Doubt/Question #10: Scripture

As a preacher, scripture is a constant companion in my life.

Actually, scripture is more like the college suite-mate that your best friend invited along to share the apartment.

Sometimes you get along with them grand.

Sometimes, when it’s the two of you, there’s just nothing they’ve got to say to you.

Other times you want to throw them through the window because they refuse to do their share of the chores.

Because I work so much with scripture, my struggles/doubts/questions aren’t what you might expect.

I don’t struggle with whether or not scripture is the Word of God. Search ‘Word of God’ on this blog and you can read why (clue: Jesus is the Word of God). I recognize but don’t lose sleep over scripture’s antiquated or gringe-inducing sections.

No, my struggles/doubts/questions about scripture are summed up excellently by a comment ‘Tracy’ left to a post:

...The Bible itself is contradictory, and silent on some topics. 

On most really interesting subjects, we can quote scripture to arrive at completely different answers.

In other words, the bible seems more complicating than clarifying, much of the time.


‘Tracy’ didn’t say so but he/she could’ve pointed out how any scroll through Facebook will show how ‘sincere’ Christians use scripture to buttress diametrically opposed positions, perspectives and politics.

‘Tracy’ didn’t ask it but I will: one wonders how often Christians use scripture to reinforce arguments they would’ve made had they never met Jesus?

‘Tracy’ didn’t bring it home, but I will: how often do I ‘use’ scripture to decorate a decision I’ve already long since, even if subconsciously, made?

And that’s my pastor’s nagging question.

As a preacher, I know better than most how malleable the biblical text can be with the right exegesis and just enough rhetorical flair.

When so many other followers of Jesus Christ hear something quite different in a given text, how do we know what we’re hearing in the text is the Word of God?

How do we know we’re not just hearing ourselves in a subconscious, but loud, voice?

And, ‘Tracy’ might take it a step further, if we’re unsure of what God is speaking, upon what grounds can we definitively say God ever spoke?


14luhrmann-art-articleLargeKarl Barth believed all of Christian belief is premised on three little words at the Bible’s beginning: ‘…and God said.’ 

Ours, Will Willimon likes to say, is a loquacious God.

He calls Abraham. He puts words on the lips of prophets. It’s his word, scripture says, that was with God in the very beginning and it’s the Word that kicks in Mary’s pregnant belly.

We can only speak of God because God has spoken.

If God had not spoken, then we could say nothing about God- even if God still existed, we should remain silent.

Our words could never hope to capture even a hint of truth about God had God not spoken.

But because God has spoken our speech about God does correspond to something real and objective.

Our knowledge of God is knowledge of God, and not of ourselves, because God acts, God speaks, and God enables us to hear and to receive.

This is the lynchpin of Christianity for Barth, not the resurrection or the incarnation or the atonement. It’s whether or not ‘…and God said…’ is true. If God didn’t speak, then everything else collapses like a house of cards.

‘…and God said…’ is the lynchpin of contemporary skepticism too. 

Consider this excerpt from T.M. Luhrmann’s editorial in the NY Times about evangelicals’ experience of God in prayer. She’s an anthropologist, who recently released a book, When God Talks Back, on the same subject.

I soon came to realize that one of the most important features of these churches is that they offer a powerful way to deal with anxiety and distress, not because of what people believe but because of what they do when they pray.

One way to see this is that the books teaching someone how to pray read a lot like cognitive behavior therapy manuals. For instance, the Rev. Rick Warren’s “The Purpose Driven Life,” one of the best-selling books of all time, teaches you to identify your self-critical, self-demeaning thoughts, to interrupt them and recognize them as mistaken, and to replace them with different thoughts. Cognitive-behavioral therapists often ask their patients to write down the critical, debilitating thoughts that make their lives so difficult, and to practice using different ones. That is more or less what Warren invites readers to do. He spells out thoughts he thinks his readers have but don’t want, and then asks them to consider themselves from God’s point of view: not as the inadequate people they feel themselves to be, but as loved, as relevant and as having purpose.

Granted she’s an anthropologist so this is the angle you’d expect her to take (and I share her assessment of The Purpose Driven Life), but notice: her initial presumptions are:

A) God doesn’t actually speak and

B) Religious experience originates not in God but in us. 

This is exactly what Barth is trying to say no to in his heavy-footed, dense, wordy way.

Barth would say no to T.M. Luhrmann who can’t imagine that ‘and God said…’ could true.

Myers Karl Barth painting 1But Barth would also say no to Rick Warren et al who imagine God can be reliably/predictably called upon and experienced.

For Barth, just as the words of scripture aren’t the word of God until God chooses, in freedom, to make them so, our experience of God is also dependent on God’s freedom to act or not act upon us.

Sometimes, you go to God in prayer and God is silent.

Not there.

Dark nights of the soul happen.

This has to be the case for Barth because God is never under our control, not in the pages of scripture and certainly not in our religious experience.

And, Barth would caution, just as in scripture we enter ‘a strange new world’ not like our own, when God enters our experience and self-knowledge- through prayer- it’s equally strange.

Back to Luhrmann:

In many evangelical churches, prayer is understood as a back-and-forth conversation with God — a daydream in which you talk with a wise, good, fatherly friend. Indeed, when congregants talk about their relationship with God, they often sound as if they think of God as some benign, complacent therapist who will listen to their concerns and help them to handle them.

Barth would respond to this by opening up a great, big can of NEIN.

Nein: prayer isn’t a back-and-forth conversation with a therapist who’s always in his office, waiting for you.

For Barth, God is more like Jacob on Lost, sometimes he’s there.

And sometimes he’s elsewhere.

But he’s always worth searching after.

Barth would say, nein: if the God you experience in prayer is like the one above, a benign therapist, it’s a god you’ve created in your image- it’s not the God who created you in his image.

Only the God who sometimes doesn’t speak back to you in prayer is the real God. Only the God who sometimes scares, startles, upsets and judges you with what you hear is the God of the Bible.

Barth for Dummies Summary:

The Bible is not a magic genie lamp. 

Prayer is not a magic genie lamp. 

God is free to act- or not- as God wills. 

Were it not so, prayer would cease to be an act of faith on our part.

And it would cease to be grace, an unmerited gift, on God’s part. 

And when God does act in our lives, just like in the bible, what God wills seldom corresponds to what we want.