Theology for the rest of us

one percentersWhen I started in the business of being a minister 42 years ago, I entered into the world of theology…the study of God, religious beliefs, and the Bible.  Years of my life have been dedicated to reading and studying what others have written.

That’s what you do as a would-be theologian.

But through the years, there has been a slow shift.  In my young adulthood, I devoured books.  I was thoroughly impressed and deeply influenced by the writings of pastors, commentators, and Bible scholars who didn’t just wade out into the deep end of the sacred book, but mined it.

I have spent untold hours re-reading interpretations and explanations and commentaries, with my head spinning, as I tried to make sense of their complicated theories and weighty analysis of the pages of Scripture.

Even though they all spoke of the Bible as God’s word for everyone, I have grown to see it has been turned into a textbook, designed to be dissected, analyzed, and illuminated for the masses…by the hyper-educated and masters of theological academia.

Fortunately (or unfortunately), I get it.  Most of the time, I can debate and argue religious concepts, interpretations of the Bible, and the whole of church history, with the best of the ecclesiastical eggheads.

Here, you want to be impressed?  I know about arcing, mirror reading, and redaction criticism.  Yup.  I can tell you the difference  between prevenient  grace, irresistible grace, and common grace.  You want to know about mongerism, modalism, molinism, inclusivism, text criticism, cessationism, open theism, or penal substitution?  I’m your guy.

My point?  Pleeeeez don’t be impressed.

In recent years, the term “one-percenter” has become popular, as it relates to the top 1% of the world’s wealthiest people and the control they have over the world’s finances and the power it wields.

I’ve concluded there are also the theological one-percenters...that super small group of highly educated, religious elite, who spend their lives studying and teaching theology, for the benefit of the 99%.

That group loves to write.  They love to speak and produce conferences that other theological one-percenters attend, in order to listen to each other.  They read each other’s books.  They subscribe to each other’s blogs and troll the comment sections, looking for an opening to prove each other wrong.

They believe the other 99% need them, in order to fully understand what God’s book is saying.  But the truth is, most people don’t have a clue what they’re talking or writing about.

And it’s not because people are ignorant.  It’s because the theological one-percenters have made it soooooo confusing!

Apparently, they are impressed with each other, though.  They keep writing and selling.

I’m not naive.  Theological academia has its place and certainly serves its purpose.  The study of God’s word deserves solid scholarship and careful consideration.  I’m grateful there are people who have dedicated their lives to it.  But I’m pretty sure the Apostle Paul didn’t intend for this level of academic surgery to be performed on his letters.

And I’m definitely sure Jesus didn’t intend for libraries of books to be written to explain everything he did and said…by people who always seem to appear way smarter than He ever was.

It just isn’t that complicated, is it?

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This road I travel. #2

This Road 2Having grown up in a church tradition that believed it had sole possession of the correct interpretation of all the most important passages of the Bible, I realize I was already starting in a pretty big hole.

I was humbly and politely trained by my church leaders to view all other religions, denominations, cults and independent religious groups with at least a skeptical eyeand some with complete disdain.  Early on, I learned to identify the different faith groups in my community by certain distinctives that were simply wrong:

  • The Methodists had women pastors.
  • The Lutherans could smoke on their church patio.
  • The Baptists made you get re-baptized to be a member of their church.
  • The Presbyterians sprinkled babies and called it baptism.
  • The Samoan Congregational Church across the street didn’t practice communion.
  • The Episcopalians used real wine in their communion.
  • The Catholics had nuns and their priests couldn’t get married.
  • The Church of God in Christ by my house passed around rattlesnakes in their services.
  • The Assembly of God folks spoke in tongues.
  • The Seventh Day Adventists only met on Saturdays, not Sundays.
  • The local AME Church said God wanted everybody to be wealthy.
  • The Church of Christ didn’t use musical instruments.
  • The Greek Orthodox had crazy looking pictures of old people everywhere.
  • The Jesus People had long hair, torn jeans and were always barefoot.

But WE were the right ones.  Seriously.  My church (and others in our non-denominational club) held tightly to the inspiration and inerrancy and infallibility and the absolute authoritative truth of the Bible.  And we based our beliefsand assumed our doctrinal and ecclesiastical high horseon the foundation of God’s Word.  At least our understanding of it.

Looking back, the funny thing about this is every one of those faith groups believed (and still do believe) that THEY were right, also.  And each one of the practices and beliefs that make them distinct are based on their understanding and interpretation of the same Bible we all use.

So here’s where I’ve landed after a lifetime of studying the book and following Jesus:

If I were God, I would have made the book a lot easier to understand.  Good, godly, compassionate, gifted, educated Kingdomworkers have spent centuries studying it and arriving at different conclusions about what God is attempting to communicate.   I don’t think this dilemma will be ending anytime soon.

I’ve grown to accept the “humanness” of the Bible.  It was written by humansfrom their perspectivereflecting their  journeystheir emotions (see the Psalms)their flawstheir unique positions in the flow of history and culture.  I believe they wrote exactly what God intended for them to write, but I don’t believe they wrote robotically.

The Bible doesn’t exist in a vacuum.  Humans read it, study it, interpret it, and apply it.  And we don’t study it in a vacuum, either.  We always bring our preconceptions, our biases, our cultural bents, and our personal stories to the study desk.  We cannot avoid our humanity when we come face to face with scripture.  And I think that’s exactly what God intended.

I still believe in absolute truth.  But I don’t think that any of us can know all of it absolutely.  If we could, I’m not sure faith, as we know it, would be necessary.  Sight, experience, evidence and intellect would be all that was necessary.

I agree with my friend, Sean.  You should read his comments in yesterday’s post.  First, I believe my position perches me near a slippery slope.  But I like it here.  I no longer speak, think or act with an attitude of spiritual superiority that comes with believing my interpretation of the Bible is inerrant or infallible.

I am almost always willing to rethink what I have come to believe and entertain that I might be wrong, if posed with credible, humble and thoughtful opposition.  I still believe there is a list of essentials one must affirm to be in right standing with God, but that list is waaaay smaller than it used to be.  I believe this to be the way of grace.

Second, Sean said something really profound:  “In my opinion, God brings us closer to him through study, not interpretation.”

Enough said.  It’s time to study.

This road I travel

This Road 2Now that I’m back from traveling, it’s time to get busy with this new series on changes I’ve experienced in my life that I said I was going to start.

In my younger days, I was taught in both the classroom and through modeling, that following Jesus was pretty much a black and white proposition.  I was told to believe the Bible.  I was taught the Bible was to be my only rule of faith and practice.  I grew up believing the Bible contained the answer to every important life question.

I held on to the notion that the Bible didn’t just contain truth, but that it shared equal stage with Jesus.  When he claimed to be the way, the truth and the life, it was just assumed the words “Jesus” and “the Bible” were pretty much synonymous.

The Bible was the tangible presence of Jesus in the world.  Jesus = truth.  Bible = truth.  My religious heritage taught this phrase:  The Bible says it.  I believe it.  That settles it.  But the older I got, the more I began to see a different picture.  A fuzzier picture.  A more complicated picture.

What I failed to realize in my youth is now something I see clearly.  Whenever a Bible teacher (minister, seminary professor, author, Sunday school teacher, Bible study leader, whatever…) actually teaches the Bible, they are giving their version of the truth.  Their opinion.  Their commentary.  Their spin.  Their bent.  Every time.  All the time.

They might be reflecting their parent’s opinionor their former preacher’s opinionor the opinion of the latest theological book or blog they have just reador the party line of their denominationor the seminary professor’s insights they gleaned from a few years of sitting at their feetor years and years of personal study and reflection.

No matter.  Any way you cut it, it’s still personal insight and interpretation.  And ever since the day the Bible began to be mass-produced and put in the hands of people, we have been free to read it and come to our own conclusions.

Does that make everybody’s opinion equally valid?  Of course not.  Should we go with majority rule?  Does any one denomination, theological tradition, or religious heritage have a corner on the truth?  Of course!  Mine does.

I bet you didn’t know I had a better hotline to God than you do?  Yeah.  Right.

Is there really only one “right” interpretation of every passage and teaching in the Bible?  Maybe.  But we will never know which one that is until we meet the truther, Jesusface to face.

I know this creates some sticky questions and the ground I walk on sometimes feels like thin ice.  I’m well aware of all the things I’m saying when I declare my allegiance to a shade of gray, rather than boldly and defiantly demanding my own way and my own interpretation of God’s revealed word be bowed to.

But things have changed for me.  My love for God’s word remains the same.  My commitment to studying it and teaching it the best I can is deeper than it’s ever been.  But I no longer worship a book.

The Bible I possess is not perfect.  Only Jesus is.

Mine is mine. Yours is yours.

OpinionsI’ve been sitting here this evening sorting through all the things I could write aboutbecause I need to write?  Maybe.  Because you need a healthy dose of my perspective?  Meh.

So many topics.  So many opinions.  I’m sure you can’t wait to hear mine.

The Michael Sam “kiss”the abduction of the 180 Nigerian schoolgirlslegalized potthe Donald Sterling fiascodrone strikesthe $60M Plano football stadium will stay closed because of structural flawsCalifornia wild firesdid Prez Obama take a pay cut like he promisedthe “new” 24…

Or how about some Farra-isms on theology and church life hot buttons?

The big stink with a bunch of the high-profile neo-Calvinist church leadershellthe inerrancy of the Bible debateopen theismpredestinationchild abuse scandals in the churchwomen pastorssegregation on Sunday mornings in America… young adults leaving the churchscience vs. creationmoney issuesviolence in the Biblesin (take your pick)and so many more.

Or maybe you’d like to hear my opinion on the various ways to smoke brisket?

I’ll be the first one to admit that things can get pretty confusing, and even frustrating, at times.  It’s hard work to have an opinion about so many things.  It takes time and emotional energy and huge amounts of discernment for me to find a resting spot on so many topics and agendas.

All of them don’t share equal importance.  Not every one of them fight for top billing in my intellectual and spiritual war room.  But my search process and conclusion-building in each one of them is an integral part of my faith journey.  My opinion on each one of them is a vital part of my faith development.

What I believe (and the truth I continue to build my life on) is not all static.  It is neither fixed, nor immovable.  The God who never changes is not equal to my personal interpretation of the Bibleor the times we find ourselves in.   My changing opinions (whenever I have them) are never to be confused with an unchanging God.

But just like in a court of law, the flow of the story line is always subject to new insight and new information.  The church throughout history has always recognized the fluidity of Bible interpretation.   I do, likewise.  (Take what I am saying at “face value”.  Be careful not to read more into what I am expressing.)

The point is, I continue to work hard at seeking the truth of God’s revelation.  I work equally hard to live it out as a 21st century follower of Jesus.

Don’t let my study (and opinion-making) take the place of yours.  I own mine.  You need to own yours.

It’s that important.

Come on. Really?

PreacherI’m going to begin teaching through the letter to the Romans on Sunday mornings in a few weeks.

Unlike many who come from a particular, and popular, theological tradition these days, I don’t believe the letter to the Romans is the most important part of the Bible.  Nor do I believe it is the lens through which every other part of the Bible is to be filtered and interpreted.

I happen to believe the life and words of Jesus are the standard and everything else falls right in line behind him.  But that’s another post.

So, in my study this morning, I come across the website of this reeeaaallly famous contemporary pastor-teacher and I stopped to check out what he had to say about preaching through Romans.  Now I don’t necessarily run in his theological campand I definitely don’t agree with many of the doctrinal cornerstones he finds in Romans, but I do respect him and his commitment to serious study of the word.

However, I was kind of blown away by something I found there.

He has archived his entire preaching series through Romans.  It’s a mere 225 sermons.  225.  Over four years of Sundays.  On the surface, the magnitude of that number is beyond impressive.  As somebody who teaches the Bible every week, I’m humbled by his focus and diligence.  Not to mention the hard work and discipline it must have taken to keep every sermon fresh and creative.

But there’s another side.  The entire letter takes about an hour for the average reader to complete.  But it takes ONE GUY nearly 200 hours to explain it?  That’s a lot of hammering.

He’s not alone.  Whole volumes have been written on single words out of the Bible.  Booksby multiple authorshave been written on single concepts out of the Bible.  Hey, I am personally guilty of spending 42 weeks preaching through the Sermon on the Mount.

Did Jesus really need me to take that long to explain what he was sayingsomething that takes about 20 minutes to read?  Really?

I wonder if, in our effort to be scholarly and thorough and dedicated to Bible exposition, we aren’t simply pushing our own agendas. I wonder if we aren’t guilty of taking something that is really pretty simple and making it much more complicated than the Bible writers and characters intended it to be.

Here’s one thing I know:  There’s no way I’m taking 225 weeks to preach through Romans.

The “real” modern family

ModernFamilyI am no expert at this.  I’m not a sociologist.  I’m not a politician.  I’m not biologist.  I’m not a philosopher.  I’m not a historian or a cultural theorist.  I’m just a dude who’s lived a long time and logged a lot of miles walking next to people and trying to listen for the voice of God in the midst of it all.

And I’ve got some opinions.

Modern is a word we’ve thrown around a lot in my lifetime.  We were captured by modern architecture and  modern fashion and modern cars and modern thinking.  We love Modern Family.

Pardon my middle school mentality (and limited scope of definition), but for today’s thought, modernity refers to the movement of history out of the medieval and agrarian eras, into the more modern era, characterized by the development of capitalism, secularization, industrialization, enlightened thinking and rationalization.  (Again, give me freedom to be overly simplistic…I’m trying to stick to 600 words!)

As a modern baby-boomer, I was born into solid American modern thought and action.  I was raised with the belief that everything known, or worth knowing, was already known and established.  It was woven into our politics and our educational systems and my church and theology.

This notion of having everything figured out was a dominant value in my upbringing.  It was important that everything fit neatly into boxes.  It was important that everything have concise, linear answers.  It was important that everything make perfect “sense”.

For a church guy, lack of answers = shallow faith.  Doubt was not allowed.  Questions demanded quick, logical answers…given by the authority figures in the church (that meant whoever was my preacher at the time).  Being “right” was not only expected, it was treasured.

And then it was leveraged against all those who questioned or disagreed.

Look, I’m grateful to have grown up with an education…and a work ethic…and a moral compass…and values that are reflected in the character of Jesus.  I really am.  I’m grateful to live in modern times, with all the industrial and technological advances that make my life easier and more enjoyable.

The toaster is an amazing device for making breakfast full of pleasure.  I should know.  I used mine today.

But we no longer live in a modern world.  Most would say we live in post-modernity.  Or beyond.  And the fact that the church is stuck in the industrial era…the era of “knowable” and “absolute certainty”…is hurting the cause of Christ.

We can often look silly, or even petty, as we try to give simple and dogmatic answers to every theological challenge or scientific conflict coming from inquiring post-modern minds.  Sorry.  But I’m of a mind that everything cannot be explained by simple, linear reasoning.  Shoot me.

Also, when we (the church) are intellectually or philosophically challenged, it’s pretty hard to give condescendingly simple, and right answers…and explain why there are thousands of different Christian denominations that each claim to have the right version of the truth…at the same time.  Talk about egg on your ecumenical face.

Maybe it’s okay to just admit we don’t have all the answers and we are all just pilgrims on a common path that’s full of existential speed bumps and theological pot holes.  

We all have the same book to guide us.  We have the same Spirit to walk along side of us.  We all have limited understanding.  None of us are perfect.  The table we sit at is pretty big.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Pass the toast, brutha.

The ghetto of being right

soap boxThe world is full of people who are right.

People who know better than others.  People who are experts in those critical areas of life that others of us are merely pedestrians with ill-informed opinions.

The willingness of people to stand boldly and proclaim their insights are superior to others  is amazing to me. Simply because theirs are different from mine.  About the economy.  About social justice.  About creation.  About the sovereignty of God.  About church metrics.  About the BCS.  About racism.  About marriage.  About public education.  About parenting.  About dog ownership.  About the end of the world.  Whatever…

Look…I’m an opinionated guy.  I have beliefs about politics and social issues and sports and music and theology and relationships and money.  In fact, I feel pretty strongly about a lot of things.  We all should.

As a Bible guy, most all of my important opinions are informed and influenced by my understanding and commitment to the revealed word of God.  It’s the way I roll.  And no Bible teacher should ever express his or her interpretations of the holy book without adequate study and deep conviction.

But the reality is our world is full of people who claim to be committed to the study and the authority of the Bible…yet they come to opposite…and sometimes deeply conflicting…conclusions, as a result.  About politics.  About social issues.  About theology.  About relationships.  About all of it.

It’s beyond amusing to me that people look to their pastors and Bible teachers to speak with absolute authority, as the anointed, gifted, called and most revered mouthpieces of God.  Yet we all disagree with each other.  No wonder people are conflicted about this Jesus we claim to know.  Sheesh.

I will continue to invest myself and my time wisely in the pursuit of truth.  You should do the same.  You have a brain and the same book I do.  To fail to do so is simply lazy and an affront to the good gifts that God gives to all of us.

I will keep working to have every opinion and every insight flow from a world view that is shaped by the life and words of Jesus.  You should do the same.

I will pray for wisdom daily.  I will wrestle with God and not give up the intellectual or moral fight.  I will listen carefully to those that are smarter than I am and be careful to vet my sources of information, as best I can.  You should definitely do the same.

And I will be grateful that Christ has liberated me from the need to be right all the time…and that he continues to patiently set me free from the ghetto of intellectual and spiritual superiority.

And because of that freedom, I am now growing more and more capable of loving people the way Jesus loves me.  Wow.

I hope that’s the same for you.