It’s probably not best practice for a preacher to say this publicly, but my sermon this weekend was pretty awful. I think it’s because I’ve psyched myself out thinking that my congregation isn’t interested in the esoteric, mystical theological nerdiness that I care about, so I got tangled up in knots trying to figure out how to craft a relevant message instead of listening to what God had given me to say, which is why it never came together. So first I wanted to say I’m sorry to anyone who was there. And I wanted to try to write now what I should have pulled together more coherently before I stood up in front of God’s people. What I wanted to say in my sermon is that the Bible is so much more than a reference manual or a rulebook; the reason it’s called “God-breathed” is because God wants to use it to make our existence inspired, which means to live in the freedom and delight of His breath.
There’s been an outburst this past week from evangelical women bloggers against the idolatry of virginity. Three prominent posts have come from Sarah Bessey, Rachel Held Evans, and Emily Maynard. It’s been amazing to read in the comments about the toxic things that youth pastors and parents have said to conservative evangelical girls about sex (“No man will ever want you now,” etc). I grew up in a more moderate evangelical environment where I never encountered anything like purity balls or abstinence pledges. So I wanted to respond to Emily Maynard’s challenge to articulate a more holistic account of sexuality. Because I do believe that sex is a powerful force whose abuse can wreak havoc on our ability to worship God. And I also recognize that there are some very unhealthy distortions that have been at play in the evangelical consciousness. And I think that ultimately it all boils down to what we think heaven means. I’ll explain. Continue Reading
Since it’s the last day of 2012, I have to cover three months in this final post of looking back so I’m going to give myself 12 posts from the past three months instead of just 10. This fall, we experienced two alternatives for responding to an election season: preachers endorsing political candidates from the pulpit or Christians coming together across the political spectrum to celebrate communion. Jerry Sandusky got convicted for his crimes, so I asked what would need to happen for him to enter into God’s kingdom and feast at the heavenly banquet with the boys he molested. I watched with anguish and tried to be fair in what I wrote as Israel and Gaza went to war. And Rachel Held Evans became this year’s Rob Bell after her Year of Biblical Womanhood drew a furious reaction from the evangelical establishment. So here are 12 from October to December. Continue Reading
It’s always interesting when someone else says something that you’ve said exactly the way you said it and then you want to critique it for the same reasons that somebody else critiqued you. Greg Boyd preached a sermon about God’s wrath two Sundays ago called “The Judgment Boomerang” that helped me understand some inadequacies in my own reflections on it. I agree with Boyd in very essential ways, but I disagree with him in one very fundamental way. So I wanted to lay out the unhealthy, un-Biblical conception of God’s wrath that Boyd and I both react against, then share Boyd’s solution to it, and then share my concerns with Boyd’s solution and what I would propose instead, even though I know I’m still on a journey to figuring this out. Bottom line is that God’s wrath has a constructive purpose in the universe and that purpose is on display right now in the grief and anger with which our country responds to the horrific shooting in Connecticut. Continue Reading
Original sin. There are few Christian doctrines that cause more scandal for people living today. How could God be angry at humanity for something a guy named Adam did a long time ago? Is that what original sin is about? Does Adam have to be a historical figure for original sin to “work”? A certain kind of Christian seems to take pleasure in this scandal because it provides an opportunity to demonstrate a certain kind of piety that says, “Well, He’s God and therefore He’s just, so maybe you’re not really a Christian if you find this disagreeable.” Well I decided I wanted to take a look at original sin’s scriptural proof-texts and then consider the concerns motivating three major Christian theologians who developed and tweaked original sin’s doctrine — Augustine, Aquinas, and John Cassian — to see if something has been lost in translation over the centuries. I’m dividing this up into several parts. Originally, I was going to deal with all of the proof-texts in part one, but I’ve found a whole lot to talk about in Romans 5:12-21 by itself, so here goes. Continue Reading
I’ve been reading through Augustine’s anti-Pelagian writings in which he spends a whole lot of time arguing emphatically why unbaptized infants deserve to go to hell because of Adam’s sin. It seems like the damnation of babies was a huge sticking point for Pelagius and his followers and part of why they were inclined to say that the doctrine of original sin was ridiculous. The core of Augustine’s argument against Pelagius rests upon a literal interpretation of John’s two verses describing the salvation of the two sacraments — 3:5: “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” and 6:53: “Except ye eat my flesh and drink my blood, ye shall have no life in you.” Though I don’t have time to trace the historical development of this literal attribution of salvation to sacramental observance, I cannot help but wonder if Augustine’s Biblical literalism and the magisterial inertia of the church in following his claims uncritically led to the formulaic view of the sacraments which created the atmosphere of “Pelagian” salvation by works that triggered the Reformation. I realize I’m being mischievous, but the irony is too delicious. Continue Reading
When the Reformation happened in the 1500′s, there were very different assumptions in place about who had the authority to interpret scripture. The Biblical “literalism” that evangelical America takes for granted today was not at all the standard. It’s important for evangelicals to recognize that “literalism” is not a claim about the authority of scripture, but about the authority of the interpreter. It concerns whether I need a priest to interpret the Bible for me (which would be a conservative position) or if I can open the Bible to any given verse and interpret it for myself (which is not a conservative but a populist claim). Both Martin Luther and John Calvin relied heavily in their treatises on the work of 4th century theologian Augustine to make their case for breaking with Roman Catholic tradition. Their argument was conservative (the present church has strayed from an apostolic orthodoxy in the past) rather than populist (screw tradition; I have the authority to read the Bible for myself). One way to describe the crisis of Biblical interpretation today is that the evangelical descendents of the Reformation have betrayed the original Reformers with the populism of Biblical “literalism”; we need to return to the heremeneutical standard of the master-theologian to whom Luther and Calvin tethered their thinking.
I have been reading off and on through Catholic theologian Henri de Lubac’s Paradoxes of Faith for the past few weeks. It’s structured in a really unique way. It has chapters, but each chapter is basically a collection of 30 or so eclectic thoughts on a theme ranging from one sentence long to about one and a half pages. It’s a great thing to read when you’re somewhere you can’t concentrate super-hard to follow an intricate trajectory of thought for 100 pages or something. So I highly recommend it. This time I’m probably going to try to quote De Lubac more and do less commentary because he says so many thought-provoking things that desperately need to be heard in the church today. De Lubac was actually a huge influence on Pope Benedict (which honestly I find a little hard to believe because he’s so feisty). Continue Reading
As the pastor of a politically “purple” congregation, I need to tread lightly on the controversy surrounding Mitt Romney’s remarks about 47% of Americans not paying income tax. I am trying my best to transcend the superficial “issue” level of our increasingly absurd political conversation so that I can yank out the theological roots of the bad weeds that we find in our commonly held assumptions. I really believe that America’s problem is fundamentally theological (and it’s utterly bipartisan). One dimension of it is the impoverished understanding of “individual rights” that Ross Douthat and others have linked to the corrosive impact of secularism (which John Milbank correctly categorizes in Theology and Social Thought as a self-disavowing sect of Christian-rooted thought that has gone atheist). Paul Ryan was right to observe that our “rights” have become dangerously stripped of their bark if there is no longer an assumption that we are “endowed by our Creator” with them (and not by whichever majority of Americans happens to be in power). But the irony is that many of the very people who cheer when they hear lines like, “Our rights come from God and nature, not from government,” actually embrace secularism when the question is framed differently. To say that we are a society of “makers” and “takers” is a profession of disbelief in the relevance of the one true Maker. If I believe that everything I have and everything I have used to gain what I have is a gift from God, then He is the only Maker and we are all takers with one Father who commands us to care for each other as brothers and sisters. Continue Reading
What does the battle between good and evil look like? Who or what evil entities are we supposed to fight against? When I was a young social justice activist, the Bible verse I pulled out for an answer to this question was Ephesians 6:12, where Paul writes, “We wrestle not against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers.” Instead of seeing the battle of good and evil in terms of concrete, identifiable adversaries on a battlefield, I figured our battle as Christians was against “the system” which victimized oppressors and oppressed alike. I used to get annoyed with “spiritualized” interpretations of this verse, in which normally charismatic Christians argued that Paul was talking about demons and evil spirits and not things like the stock market, the prison industrial complex, etc. However, I have since come to the conclusion that my charismatic friends had a deeper insight than I had appreciated. Continue Reading