Plug in ‘the Church’ as an experiment

An interesting way to expose the difference between two things is to take out the subject of great quote and replace it with something else to see if it still works.church-300x199

If your replacement X cannot work in place of the initial Y then you are forced to ask ‘why is this the case?’

Let me give you an example:

(The Church) was there to remind the (society) of what it had flouted: art, pleasure, gender, power, sexuality, language, madness, desire, spirituality, the family, the body, the ecosystem, the unconscious, ethnicity, life-style, hegemony. This, on any estimate, was a sizable slice of human existence.

When I find a great quote or list, I try to plug-in ‘the church’ and see if could be true historically.

I would love to be able to say that the church has been about these things:

  • art
  • pleasure
  • gender
  • power
  • sexuality
  • language
  • madness
  • desire
  • spirituality
  • the family
  • the body
  • the ecosystem
  • the unconscious
  • ethnicity
  • life-style
  • hegemony

If that has not been the case, then, I have to ask “why not?” and it is often that search which is telling.

If the church has not, or is not, about promoting those things then what has it represented? It is that search which is illuminating.

What is keeping that sentence from being true of the church?

 

Here is a second set of examples. All of these quotes are from the same chapter:

(The Church) refuses to identify freedom with any institutional arrangement or fixed system of thought. It questions the hidden assumptions and purposes of competing theories and existing forms of practice. It has little use for what is known as ‘perennial philosophy’. (The Church) insists that thought must respond to new problems and the new possibilities for liberation that arise from changing historical circumstances.

I want the above quote to be true! If it is not, then what is keeping it from being so?

 They investigated the ways in which thinking was being reduced to mechanical notions of what is operative and profitable, ethical reflection was tending to vanish and aesthetic enjoyment was becoming more standardized. (The Church) noted with alarm how interpreting modern society was becoming even more difficult. Alienation and reification [turning people into things] were thus analyzed in terms of how they … robbed the world of meaning and purpose, and turned the individual into a cog in the machine.

The above quote is challenging because it is almost possible.

The next one is just for fun.

(The Church) lost its ability to offer an integrated critique of society, conceptualize a meaningful politics, and project new ideas of liberation. Textual exegesis, cultural preoccupations, and metaphysical disputations increasingly turned (the church) into a victim of its own success. The result has been an enduring identity crisis.

Any guesses as to who this was actually referring ?

  • Textual exegesis
  • cultural preoccupations
  • and metaphysical disputations
  • victim of its own success
  • enduring identity crisis

These 3 quotes are from chapter 1 in Critical Theory a very short introduction. The first quote was from Terry Eagleton. After Theory (Kindle Locations 325-327) in reference to Cultural Theory and the traditional Left.

Why am I attracted to both Cultural and Critical Theory? Maybe it is because they are often about the things I desperately wish being a pastor was about …

I find this experiment helpful in attempting to crack assumptions about what the church is and has been.

I will never tire of reminding people that there is a gap between what many think the church is and what the church can be.

 

What do you think? Does the experiment work? Is it helpful? 
Any quotes that you love we could try it with? 

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Y is for Y2K

In December 1999 I got a call from a newspaper reporter. They were calling pastors and religious leaders in our city to see what they were telling their people about Y2K. Y-Y2K

When the article came out I was the only pastor who was telling their people not to worry and that the real fear was people panicking and doing stuff like pulling all of their money out of the banks.
This was especially odd because I was part of a denomination that majored on eschatology and was very end-times focused.
I had multiple friends in that group who made major purchases (like extra freezers) in preparation. One close friend went in with another family and bought a trailer full of food and supplies and had it parked in a remote location … but then they had to worry about guns in order to protect the trailer in case of societal breakdown.

The alarm and drastic measures are telling. There is something about the way that we have been taught to read the Bible that makes us especially susceptible to panic. By calling the Bible ‘the word of god’ and not distinguishing genres we end up creating a tight little system of end-times expectation that repeatedly fails us.

I became a bible-believing christian during the cold-war era. Communist Russia was our biggest threat and christian books and TV shows were filled with very specific projections about how current events lined up with biblical prophecy.
On the latest TNT I told Tripp that we were taught to read the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other – because they lined up!

Not understanding that apocalyptic literature in the Bible is a critique of the present order and a hope of future deliverance makes us vulnerable to panic.

We are taught that apocalyptic elements in the Bible are predictive instead of prophetic critique and this is creating the problem that leaves us so susceptible.

In my short lifetime I have seen so many predictions come and go. I have seen layers and layers of moving onto the next thing a passage means without even acknowledging that 6 months ago we were told it was something different.
There is a sort of amnesia required to stick with this way of reading the Bible for more than a couple of years.

I have seen more than 40 antichrists come and go. Everyone from foreign leaders to Popes to Presidents have been said to be the Antichrist.
This exposes a second problem with eschatological expectation.
Every time I hear the phrase ‘the Antichrist’ I know I am in trouble. The person has not done a close reading of the Bible.
If you read the 4 passages in the New Testament in which this phrase appears you will be left asking why we think that a world leader is this character. The answer is that in eschatological readings there is a great deal of amalgamation.

Amalgamation happens when you take a character like ‘antichrist’ and blend it with an Old Testament character like ‘the prince’ from Daniel 9 or a the bad-guy from Revelation 13. You take all of the villains in all of apocalyptic literature and meld them into one super-baddy.

I just had a talk this weekend with a denomination leader about how end-times expectations have changed in their lifetime. We talked about young leaders and how different their eschatology is from 50 years ago.

My hope is that in the next 3 decades that sincere people of faith get fatigued on this unfulfilling way to read the Bible and this next generation is released and empowered with an understanding of genre that does not leave them susceptible and vulnerable to panic over sensations like y2k and franchises like Left Behind.

The world is in too great a need for really great people to be distracted by thinking that apocalyptic is A) predictive and B) about the 21st century.

Link: previous post about the book of Revelation

Artwork for the series by Jesse Turri

 

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X is for X-ray

Something a little different today. 

100 years ago was the beginning of what became known as World War I. X-Xray
I am fascinated by the changes that have come in that 100 year period.

The transition from the 19th to the 20th century houses a fascinating and rapid shift in both politics and technology (to name just two fields).

The build up to World War I is a study in what seems like not just a different time but wholly different world at points. Like learning the geography of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth or the kingdoms and families in The Game of Thrones, the world before the great war seems alien.
You have to get up to speed on such things as the Habsburg Dynasty and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Eschatology is an interesting entry point to this conversation. At the beginning of the 20th century, Post-Millenial views were the overwhelming position for protestant churches and denominations. The optimistic view of human progress and societal transformation brought an expectation of ushering in the Kingdom of God and a reign of peace and prosperity that would fill the whole earth. The horrors of the war brought that to an end. There was no ‘war to end all wars’ and by the end of the 20th century (the Christian Century) Post-Milleninial views were as a rare as telegraphs.

The beginning of the 20th century also saw seismic shifts in technology. The telephone, the airplane, vaccines and the radio mark the the era. The Xray illustrates the point as well as any other from this era.

The ability to see into the human body is remarkable. It transforms not just how we practice medicine but how we conceptualize the human body.
I read a passage a while ago, which I can now not find, where an author wondered how the apostle Paul’s writing would have changed if he had been able to take a trans-Atlantic flight or if he had seen that famous picture of the earth as a little blue marble as seen from the moon.

Which brings us to the question at hand as we begin to wrap up this series:

If technology and medicine, communication and psychology, economics and politics – and every other field – get to (and are encouraged to) advance, evolve, adapt and transform … why is religion so bound to the thinking of the pre-moderns and the ancients?

There is something peculiar about religious thought that needs to be examined. I understand those who want to conserve the tradition – I don’t agree but I understand the conservative impulse.
I prefer an approach that is incarnational and contextual. I see christianity as embodied (in-body) in a time and a place. All theology is contextual theology (as folks like Bevans and Shreiter say) and our faith must be re-callibrated, re-formed and re-membered within our cultural context.
Faith, like language, does not happen in a vacuum. It is (in)hereted. There is a given-ness to it. But faith is also in-acted and em-bodied.

This is a delicate dance to both honor the tradition and express in our time and place the truth of what was passed on to us.

The 1500’s had both Copernicus and William Harvey. The former told us that the earth revolved around the sun, the latter that the heart was responsible for blood circulation. In science the telescope and the microscope changed everything.

We live in the nuclear age. The Xray, the nuclear bomb and the microwave are just the tip of the iceberg. I have not even touched on TV, cell-phones, no-fault divorces, Christian-Mingle websites and credit-card giving machines in the pews.

Why, when every area of our lives from medicine to politics to economics to psychology is updating and evolving … why would religion insist on holding to the cosmology, metaphysics and epistemology of the pre-modern world?

When we get sick, even conservative/traditional folks will take an aspirin and get an x-ray.
The Christian faith, based on the story of incarnation, is designed to be embodied in a time and place. To hamper this process of adaptation and adjustment is to not only miss the point of the entire story but to worship an idolized moment in the development of its trajectory.

I would love to address the formerly enchanted world (without supernaturalism)  and the concept of second naiveté – but here is what I really want to leave you with:

The gospel is designed to be (in)carnate and (em)bodied. We have no fear of losing the gospel’s essential character by appropriating it to our time and our place. We live in a world come of age. It is time for a response to nuclear theology.

 Artwork for the series by Jesse Turri

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W is for the Word of God (and Wesleyan Quad)

There is no phrase that is more misused, or more contentious, than The Word of God. We might need to take a vacation from throwing the phrase around as a tight summary until we pull it apart and clarify its multiple uses. W-WordofGod

The Word of God, when used properly, carries three layers of meaning:

  1. Divine Communication. The prophets used the phrase in the Hebrew Testament to convey weight and authority. They had a message for the people of God that could be encouragement, directive, corrective, or illuminating.
  2. Logos – divine wisdom. New Testament believers are treated to a syncretistic twist when the Gospel of John prologue draws off the greek notion of logos and then shockingly says what no greek thinker could fathom saying: “the word became flesh and dwelt among us”.
  3. Revelatory elements in the scriptures. When the Spirit who inspired the original works illuminates the message again for a contemporary audience, it is said to be ‘the word of God’. (Thanks be to God)

For clarity I will now refer to the first and third meanings as ‘the word of the Lord’ and the second as the ‘Logos made flesh’.

The pitfall that some fall into is that they take this last sense (revelatory elements within scripture) and attempt to make it concrete (or foundational). Doing so is to erroneously confuse the messenger and message, the vessel with the element, the sign for the object.

Calling the Bible the Word of God is as inaccurate as it is accurate. It is not exactly true … but it is true enough that it is tempting. The problem is that it confused the ‘curves ahead’ road sign on the mountain road for the road up the mountain. It is not that they are unrelated – it is that they are not equivalent. The map may be accurate, and trustworthy for the journey, but it is not the landscape itself.

Knowing the map well is not the same as going on the journey.

This is the important difference between a sign and symbol.

  • A sign points to a greater reality … even if it does so imperfectly. The yellow and black ‘curves ahead’ sign on the mountain road is not telling you the exact sequence of twists and turns ahead. It is not map. It is alerting you to something bigger than itself.
  • A symbol, when used theologically, is a sign that participate in the reality that it points to. In this sense, the Bible contains the potential for the word of the Lord, it records instances of the word of the Lord, and it tells us about the Logos made flesh. The Bible is thus not unrelated to the Word of God but is not exactly equivalent either. It records and points to a greater reality (like a sign) and under the influence of Holy Spirit inspiration participates in that reality to which it points (symbol).

One can see the problem in legal court and in Sunday school. It is ironic to place one’s hand on a Bible and swear ‘to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help you God’. The irony, for those who have actually read the Bible, is that it says in two New Testament passages not to do such things. We are not to swear by things but to simply let our yes be ‘yes’ and our no, ‘no’. That should be enough. We don’t need to swear by heaven or earth or anything like God. It is an odd practice.
Similarly we see things like this in the songs we learn as children:

The B-I-B-L-E,
that’s the books for me,
I stand alone on the Word of God

The Bible is not a book. It is a collection of 66 books by different authors in different centuries representing different histories, perspectives and opinions utilizing diverse genres of writing. This is part of why you can not say ‘the Bible says’.
When we say that ‘the word of God is living and active’ or that ‘all scripture is God breathed and useful’ we are right … but we must avoid the temptation of too quickly boiling those three into down into one interchangeable phrase lest we miss the awesome power and invitation provided by the interplay between them.

Now, if we mean that because of what we learn in the Bible, we hear the word of the Lord and believe in the Logos made flesh … that would be fantastic. ?If, however, we mean that the Bible is equivalent to the Word of God, then we have set our children up to be confounded, frustrated and spiritually impotent.
We have given them a road sign and told them it was the adventure. ?The word of the Lord propels us on a journey! To walk the way of the Logos made flesh, to know the truth of that which was in the beginning – with God and was God – and to live the life of the ages (eternal life).
To paraphrase a famous line – we are like children making mud-pies out of dirt in the back alley while there are real pies waiting in the kitchen.

Part of the problem is that we have try to cram too much into the phrase ‘the word of God’ and asked more from it than can be expected from any sign or symbol.
The most helpful thing I have found to address this problem is called the Wesleyan Quad. The quadrilateral is composed of 4 elements:

  1. Scripture
  2. Tradition
  3. Experience
  4. Reason

Those 4 elements also work best in that sequence.
– We go to scripture first for it records examples of the word of the Lord and points us to the Logos made flesh.
-We next consult the tradition, for religion has a given-ness to it. We inherent a living tradition and participate in its practices, rituals, ceremonies, train of the thought and teaching.
– We also recognize that importance of our community-experiences. No one is spiritual or religious on their own like no one uses language alone. We learn a language from others and use a language to communicate with others. It is not enough to know of a religion – one participates and thus experiences. We learn from and incorporate our community-experiences.
– Finally comes reason. We are made in the image of God and that divine Logos (reason) was given to us to exercise responsibly. We are not called to be robots who mechanically parrot the inherited sentences in rote repetition. There is a deep need to think about things so that our tradition does not become a dead artifact, or worse, a false idol.

The danger of what has been called ‘Bibliolotry’ is not simply that it makes the Bible ‘a paper pope’ or ‘the 4th member of the trinity’ (as bad as those seem). The danger is in missing the way, the truth, and the life that is available to us by instead settling for a road-sign instead of an adventure.

 

I would love to hear your thoughts about my distinction between the Word of God as the word of the Lord, the Logos made flesh and the Bible. 

Artwork for the series by Jesse Turri

For more read my earlier posts about Inspiration and about Revelation.

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TNT: S T U for the ABC’s of Theology

Micky and Callid join Bo to discuss Salvation, Theopoetics and Universalism for the ABC’s of Theology. S-Salvation

You can read the original posts here:

S is for Salvation (Micky)

T is for Theopoetics (Callid)

U is for Universalism (Bo)

 

You can follow the rest of series here [link] 

Artwork for the series by Jesse Turri

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7th Inning Stretch for the ABC’s of Theology

I was out of town this week on a youth service trip and want to thank Micky and Callid for taking S and T in our ABC’s of Theology series.A-Atonement

You can also hear Callid and Kristina Keefe-Perry chat about M N and O on a little TNT podcast. I wanted to take this opportunity to clarify a couple of things before we make the turn toward the final series of letters.

  • Respond to questions about the Book of Revelation
  • Flesh out my answer in Micky’s video about Salvation
  • Explain why I went with ‘theopoetics’ instead of other (more famous) T words

I will do this in reverse order. Callid (and a few FB friends) were questioning the selection of ‘theopoetics’ over words like trinity, theosis and theodicy. We covered trinitarian matters in P is for Perichoresis. While I love the Eastern notion of theosis (becoming like God), this series is really focused on concepts that we need to engage going forward in the 21st century.

I am a big fan of theosis and love those who embrace/reclaim this ancient notion. They are often paired with both mystic appreciation and a commitment to spiritual disciplines.

Theodicy (the problem of evil) is a big one. After the events of the 20th Century – specifically WWII – there can be no doubt about the centrality of evil and human nature to any theological consideration.

  • Where is god in all of this?
  • Why is our experience so different than the ancients?
  • Is it technology?
  • It is society?
  • Has the world changed?
  • Has God changed?
  • Has our understanding of God changed?
  • Is the world no longer enchanted?

I try to cover this when I talk about The World Come of Age (Bonhoeffer) or what others call The World Transformed (Hunt) or what Kaufman calls The Nuclear Age.

The simple fact is that the 20th Century – between technology and war – changed the world and radically altered what we call society. The reality of living in the 21st century are very different than they were in the 12th – let alone the 2nd. The questions of the 21st century are not answered by repeating inherited answers or by parroting ancient thought.

Farming, hygiene, reading, telephones, banks, travel (airplanes) …. there are thousands of examples of how different our existence is from those in previous centuries. Even the way was imagine our self (identity) and community (belonging) has changed.

So theodicy is a major issue, but I wanted to add something to our theological tool-belt that will help us going forward. Theopoetics is one of the most important ideas – and one of the most vibrant contemporary conversations – that we can engage in. It impacts everything from how we read Genesis and Revelation to how we approach the ancient creeds and how we conceptualize our god-thoughts and convey ourselves in god-talk. That was the thinking behind selecting theopoetics for T.

 

Salvation:  In S is for Salvation Micky shared her video. I provide the opening response and folks had several questions about it.

What we are talking about in salvation happens at 3 levels:

  1. The Life of the Ages. Jesus talked about it and unfortunately it gets translated into English as ‘eternal life’ which people think happens after death and then have to try and explains how it impacts life here. Some say it starts here and carries on and is intensified after you die. The whole thing is much clearer and more powerful if you call it ‘the life of the ages.’
  2. Reversal-Restoration-Reconcilation from Eden. The story of Eden shows us three fractures – from God, from each other and from the Earth. Salvation is a process of reconnection and participation in right relationship and the community of creation. Shalom is the word. 
  3. The Jewish notion of Tekkun Olam. This is the restoration of all things. NT Wright has a famous version of this bringing all things to right.

Salvation therefore impacts everyone and everything. It is not only about a tiny part of you (your soul) after it leaves your body. It is about your body and the earth that it comes from … and every other body on that earth.

 

Revelation: Folks liked my take on the book of Revelation … but then wanted to know what to do with it. Here are some suggestions:

  1. Enjoy it. Don’t be scared by it. Look into the 2nd century imagery and learn how apocalyptic works as a genre.
  2. Then take that knowledge and examine Jesus’ statements in the Gospels as well as the second half of Daniel.
  3. Mess with your friends who have been sold a Left Behind version of faith with historical perspective.
  4. Give our artists, poets, film-makers and dreamers permission to create political critiques of the 21st century like the author of Revelation did for first two.

Once you are relieved of the notion that Revelation is about the future, you can get down to the series task of examining, critiquing and challenging  the existing structures and systems of our day. Tripp and I chat about this stuff for the last 20 min of this week’s TNT.

Later today the podcast for P Q & R will come out.

___________________
You can catch up on the whole series below:

A is for Atonement

B is for Baptism 

C is for Christology 

ABC Podcast (TNT)

D is for Deconstruction 

E is for Empire 

F is for Fideism 

DEF Podcast (TNT)

G is for Genre

H is the Hermeneutics 

I is for Infallible, Inerrant, Impassible, Immutable 

GHI Podcast (TNT)

J is for Justification

K is for Kenosis (and Kingdom) 

L is for Liberation (and Logos) 

Podcast for J K L (TNT)

M is for Metaphor (and metaphysics)

N is for Neoplatonism

O is for Open & Relational 

Podcast for M N O (TNT)

P is for Perichoresis

Q is for Quest for the Historical Jesus 

R is for Revelation and the Book of Revelation

Podcast for P Q R (TNT)

S is for Salvation

T is for Theopoetics 

U is for Universalism (and Ultimate Concern)

Podcast for S T U (TNT)

V is for Vatican II

W is for the Word of God

X is for X-ray 

Y is for Y2K 

Z is for Zebra 

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Q is for Quest for the Historical Jesus

The Quest for the Historical Jesus is a topic that I am both annoyed and intrigued by. Chalk this reaction up to my evangelical upbringing but I am like a high-schooler in the midst of drama. Q-Quest

“They drive me nuts, I hate listening to them talk! … What did they say? Tell me everything.”
I am both attracted to and repelled by the work and findings of this movement.

Before we go any further, lets see how Justo L. González introduces it:

Historical Jesus: Often contrasted with “the Christ of faith,” the phrase “historical Jesus” is somewhat ambiguous, for sometimes it refers to those things about Jesus that can be proved through rigorous historical research, and sometimes it simply means the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth. The phrase itself, “historical Jesus,” was popularized by the title of the English translation of a hook by Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1910). In this book, Schweitzer reviewed a process, begun by Hermann S. Reimarus (1694-1768), which sought to discover the Jesus behind the Gospels by means of the newly developed tools of historical research. After reviewing this quest of almost two centuries, Schweitzer concluded that what each of the scholars involved had discovered was not in fact Jesus of Nazareth as he lived in the first century, but rather a modern image of Jesus, as much informed by modern bourgeois perspectives as by historical research itself.

Essential Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 1905-1916). Kindle Edition.

González goes on to explain that much of the quest was abandoned after Schweitzer’s findings but has recently reappeared in a minimalist expression (what are the bare facts that can be validated?).

Grenz is clear about this historical quest – that its proponents think Jesus:

  • never made any messianic claim
  • never predicted his death or resurrection
  • never instituted the *sacraments now followed by the church.

All of this was “projected onto him by his disciples, the Gospel writers and the early church. The true historical Jesus, in contrast, preached a simple, largely ethical message as capsulized in the dictum of the “fatherhood of God” and the “brotherhood of humankind.”

Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 1089-1093). Kindle Edition.

A modern manifestation of this quest is seen in the Jesus Seminar.
You can hear our podcast about with John Dominic Crossan from this past May.

I am deeply indebted to those in Historical Jesus research. I never knew any of this stuff (like Empire) as an evangelical pastor. It has been both eye-opening and disorienting (not to mention the theological whiplash).
I have problems with so many of the conclusions reached but am so grateful for the depth of engagement and sincerity of scholarship. My faith has been enriched and informed in ways I could never have imagined.

There is just something about the whole enterprise that gets under my skin and rubs me the wrong way. It is possible to be grateful for a pebble in your shoe as you journey?

Even as I write this I am thinking, “I don’t like where y’all  take this… but I need to know what you know. I just want to draw different conclusions than you do.”

This, of course, is the danger of venturing outside your comfort zone.

Artwork for this series by Jesse Turri

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P is for Perichoresis

Perichoresis is the most beautiful and elegant picture of the Christian godhead that many Christians may be completly unaware of.P-Perichoresis

The easiest way to break down the word is:

  • Peri – as in perimeter
  • Choresis – as in choreograph (from the Greek word to ‘give away’ or ‘make room’)

It is the dance of the godhead. The picture is of movement and inter-relatedness. It is the constant exchange of moving around the edge – always providing space in the center. The concept is also known as cicumincession or interpenetration.

Circumincession: The theological concept, also referred to as perichoresis, affirming that the divine *essence is shared by each of the three persons of the *Trinity in a manner that avoids blurring the distinctions among them. By extension, this idea suggests that any essential characteristic that belongs to one of the three is shared by the others. Circumincession also affirms that the action of one of the persons of the Trinity is also fully the action of the other two persons.

Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 254-256). Kindle Edition.

In the gospels God points to Jesus and says “this is son in whom I am well pleased”. Jesus says “I do only that which I see the father doing”. The spirit anoints Jesus and empowers him to point people to God. Jesus leaves and sends/is replaced by the presence of Holy Spirit. This Paraclete leads into all truth and reminds us of what Jesus said (John 14:26).

Admittedly, talk about the Trinity gets complicated quickly. This is why so much contention surrounded the early churches’ councils and creeds. The filioque clause caused a schism between Easter and Western branches of the church in the 11th century.

Modern arguments abound regarding the hierarchy of Father-Son-Spirit. Contemporary conflicts multiply about the gendered language of trinitarian thought and moving toward formulations such as Creator-Redeemer-Comforter.

In fact, the list of early century heresies and modern attempts to revive or reformulate theories about the Trinity can make ones head spin. It takes upper level philosophy and vocabulary to explain how 3 can be 1 or how a monotheistic religion has 3 persons in the godhead. It gets even more complicated when one has to explain exactly what happened on the cross and where exactly ‘god’ was.
It can be done but it is sticky and messy to say the least.

Then there is the whole matter of the ‘economic’ trinity and the ‘ontological’ trinity. That is for another time. Suffice to say that examination and exploration of trinitarian theories are deep.

One sure thing is that we have a beautiful legacy in this perichoretic picture of the inner-life and dance of god from the 3rd century.

 

Artwork for the series provided by Jesse Turri

* another complicated distinction many may not know is that when speaking of the Trinity use of the phrase ‘person’ does not , in any way, conotate the modern/contemporary understudying of personhood. God is not a person in that sense. Theologians use it as a ‘super-category’ – almost like a place holder that they know needs to be defined, clarified and expanded later. 

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I is for Infallible, Inerrant, Impassible and Immutable

Note: all relevant ‘I’ words will be placed in italics.I-Inerrant

It is an unfortunate quirk in the English language that leads negatives – or negations – to begin with the letter ‘I’.

The resulting effect is that some of the most problematic and even disturbing words in the theological tool-shed begin with ‘I’.

  • Infallible
  • Inerrant 
  • Impassible
  • Immutable 

These are just a sample, but are the 4 that we will focus on today.

These four ‘I’ words are just a sample of the kinds of words that lay-people can find both intimidating and infuriating about theology. Some have even lost their faith over these ‘I’ words.

Don’t even get me started on irresistible grace and infralapsarian – two concepts that hard-core Calvinists will bring up.

I say this in all seriousness. There is something about ‘I’ words which exhibit the most intense aspect of the difficulties when delving into theology. Many people point to words like these as an example of exactly why they are not interested in theology.

I have named 6 problematic ‘I’ words so far – but I will offer 2 more (inspiration and incarnation) as examples of ‘keeping it simple’ as an antidote to becoming disillusioned.

Let’s deal with the Bible first and then with God.

We live in a unique time of history where those who claim to believe the Bible the most attempt to place two words not found in scripture upon the Bible:

Inerrancy: The idea that Scripture is completely free from error. It is generally agreed by all theologians who use the term that inerrancy at least refers to the trustworthy and authoritative nature of Scripture as God’s Word, which informs humankind of the need for and the way to *salvation. Some theologians, however, affirm that the Bible is also completely accurate in whatever it teaches about other subjects, such as science and history.

This is admittedly a tough line to hold. The more that one learns about Biblical scholarship or historical criticism the tougher it gets. Inerrancy is an outside idea imposed upon the Bible that the Bible itself and thus has a tough time living up to its claim. It does not, however, mean that the Bible is not trustworthy!! This is my point! One can trust the Biblical narrative without having to elevate it to the level of inerrant.

Infallibility: The characteristic of being incapable of failing to accomplish a predetermined purpose. In Protestant theology infallibility is usually associated with Scripture. The Bible will not fail in its ultimate purpose of revealing God and the way of *salvation to humans. In Roman Catholic theology infallibility is also extended to the teaching of the church (“*magisterium” or “*dogma”) under the authority of the pope as the chief teacher and earthly head of the body of Christ.

Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 726-731). Kindle Edition.

Infallibility is better than inerrancy. Infallible can simply mean that the Bible will accomplish that which it is meant to accomplish. That seems fair enough on the surface.

Here is my contention: Why do we need to assert that it is guaranteed to accomplish the task? Where does that need for certainty come from?
Why isn’t it enough to say that the Bible is ‘inspired’ and leave it at that?

Inspiration: A term used by many theologians to designate the work of the Holy Spirit in enabling the human authors of the Bible to record what God desired to have written in the Scriptures. Theories explaining how God “superintended” the process of Scripture formation vary from dictation (the human authors wrote as secretaries, recording word for word what God said) to ecstatic writing (the human authors wrote at the peak of their human creativity). Most *evangelical theories of inspiration maintain that the Holy Spirit divinely guided the writing of Scripture, while at the same time allowing elements of the authors’ culture and historical context to come through, at least in matters of style, grammar and choice of words.

Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 731-736). Kindle Edition.

2 Timothy 3:16 talks about scripture being ‘god breathed’ . I think that should suffice and that attempts to impose external expectations upon the scriptures are futile (impotent?).  Whenever someone wants to talk about the ‘original’ texts, one only has to ask about them to see this folly.

It’s like calling the Bible ‘the Word of God’. The problem is that the New Testament refers to Jesus as the Word of God. Christians rightly refer to the testimony about Jesus as the scriptures. In this sense, they are words about the Word.
The problem starts when we want to upgrade the concept beyond its capability to sustain that we which we are attempting to assert upon it.
I would love if Christians would simply be satisfied with believing that the Bible is inspired by God’s Spirit and not attempt to make a claim on it that it can not sustain.

Now let’s talk about God.

The God that is revealed in Christ is, for the Christian, both informative and formative. It both sets a precedent and provides an interpretive lens.
As with the Bible (above) it is disastrous when we import foreign concepts of God (in this instance from Greek ideals) and impose them upon the revealed nature of Christ seen in the incarnation.

Immutability: The characteristic of not experiencing change or development. Certain understandings of God posit the divine reality as incapable of experiencing change in any way. Some theologians, however, assert that this concept owes more to Greek philosophical influence than to explicit biblical teaching. Many contemporary theologians distinguish between God’s eternally unchanging, faithful character and God’s ability to respond in different ways to changing human beings in their temporal, earthly situation.

Impassibility: The characteristic, usually associated with God, of being unaffected by earthly, temporal circumstances, particularly the experience of suffering and its effects. Many contemporary theologians reject the idea of divine impassibility, suggesting that it reflects Greek philosophical, rather than biblical, concerns. However, the Bible clearly teaches that God cannot be swayed in any way to be unfaithful to what God has promised. Still, it is seemingly impossible to associate pure impassibility with God in light of the fact that Jesus Christ, as the fullest manifestation of God, experienced suffering on the cross.

Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 704-709). Kindle Edition.

You can see why these concepts are contentious. They are imported from somewhere else and then imposed upon the narrative of Scripture. In my opinion they are incompatible and thus unsustainable.

Our great hope is found in the in-carnate god. We will return to this concept in two days with the letter ‘K’ for kenosis.

I would love to hear your thoughts, concerns, questions and comments.

 

BIG thanks to Jesse Turri for providing the artwork for each letter!

If you are interested you can see the early post about reading the Bible according to Genre or check out the art of Hermeneutics (interoperation).   You may also want to look into the temptation of Fideism.

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Who Loves Us? or What’s Up With Worship Music?

I am a passionate worshiper. I sing loudly and feel the songs deeply. As a former drummer, I also dig rockin’ worship.worship blue

Having said that, my recent travels have given me reason to pause. In three different states – in three different regions of the country – I have had the pleasure of attending three different worship services. It was not lost on me that although they are three different denominational backgrounds, they all sang almost identical worship sets.

Now, the uniformity in contexts that proudly eschew liturgy is fascinating enough – but will have to wait.
What I want to focus on today is that in all  three services the exact same song appeared … and it is a troubling song in the context of public worship.

I know that looking at contemporary worship music is a delicate affair. I have at times comforted those who are worried about worship. I have at other times needed to be reminded of the poetics involved corporate singing.

It is with appropriate caution that I offer a modest critique of this very popular song. I only bring it up because it is so emblematic of a larger issue that needs addressing.

The song is “How He Loves Us”. Here is how the song starts:

He is jealous for me,
Loves like a hurricane, I am a tree,
Bending beneath the weight of His wind and mercy.

 

Right off the bat we have 4 problems:

1) Who is ‘He’? The song never references God at all.  It never introduces a character and then refers to ‘him’ by pronoun the rest of the time. There is no referent for ‘he’. It is odd to introduce a pronoun without an antecedent.

Herein lies the problem: the assumed ‘you’ (or in this case ‘he’) of modern worship music is too comfortable. I don’t mean in a ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ sort of way. I mean in an christendom assumption that everyone in the room means/thinks the same thing.
This presumption of identity is the exact thing that we need to be correcting/ deconstructing with good and meaningful worship!  Instead, we go early and often to therapeutic songs about belonging, identity and longing.

2) Mercy Doesn’t Bend Trees. I get the imagery of the hurricane. It is fine to allude to imagery and even use allegory. Music is expressive! I get that. But if you are going to employ a device … stick with it.

‘He’ is a hurricane, I am a tree. Fine. Wind bends trees. Got it. What is the mercy part? Mercy doesn’t bend trees. That line doesn’t make any sense.

Herein lies the problem: the thoughtless jumping into and out of poetic devices is distracting to anyone who is actually thinking about what they are singing. If your going to employ imagery – go with it. Stick with it. As worshipers we will give you plenty of permission to be creative. Just don’t be distracting.

3) Who are you singing to? The next line of the song then shifts voices/audiences.

When all of a sudden,
I am unaware of these afflictions eclipsed by glory,
And I realize just how beautiful You are,
And how great Your affections are for me.

We were just singing about ‘Him’ and now you (singular) are singing to ‘You’. What happened there?  It is like this song loses its train of thought or switches into and out of storytelling mode impulsively.

Herein lies the problem: contemporary worship songs have become so emotive that what may be appropriate for the song writer’s personal/private experience may not be as suitable for public/corporate worship.

4) He Loves Us. The chorus then has another shift in voice and audience and now ‘we‘ are signing about ‘Him’. The music swells and settles into a powerful and constant sway. The audience comes together into full-throated unity. It is an amazing crescendo and it resonates deeply in our hearts as we remind each other of the deepest truth in the universe: God is love (I John 4:8) and that love is for the whole world (John 3:16).

Herein lies the problem: the chorus is beautiful and deep and meaningful and true. So my concern about the distracting and scattered nature of the song up to this point may lead someone to ask “You don’t like that song? I love that song! It means so much to me and I experienced God’s love when we sang it.”  And that is the problem! Because songs are so powerful and people’s experience in/of them is so profound and meaningful … we need to be more careful with the stuff we throw up on the powerpoint projector.

My concern is not with the sincere congregant who throws themselves whole-heartedly into a worship chorus and isn’t analyzing every detail of the progression and theology. God bless them!
My concern is with the leadership that chooses and orchestrates the worship gathering! We need to love, lead and protect people because they are vulnerable when they on their knees – with their eyes closed – and their hands raised to heaven. That is a vulnerable position and we are asking them to offer their whole hearts to God – we can’t be this sloppy and unquestioning in our song selection.

 

I could go on with my critique of this song. It gets weirder and more erratic. I don’t want to beat a dead horse though. 

Let me close with this: If you were to take the lyrics of a song and plug them into one of those ‘word bubble’ generators, if ‘He’ is the biggest word + ‘God’ never appears in the song = the song is making assumptions we cannot afford to make in the 21st century.

In a post-modern post-christendom context, people are coming in with both great needs and massive assumptions. We are missing the very opportunity that worship of the living God provides when we don’t challenge those assumptions (of both God’s identity as well as  our own identity) and meet those needs of forgiveness, acceptance and belonging.

It is time to ask again what the purpose of worship is and then select songs accordingly. Otherwise we are missing an opportunity to teach about God and introduce people to that God who loves them so very much.

I would love to hear your thoughts, questions, concerns and corrections. 

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