Theology Matters

In my last post I made what some might consider a rather harsh statement: that certain books that speak of a god and spirituality are not worth the paper they are written on. A kind reader asked why I should think thus. It was a fair question and a good one. I felt a brief answer was not enough, so here, in an extended response, are my thoughts as to why I have such visceral responses to theological pablum.

In a phrase: theology matters. Good theology, healthy theology, sound theology – all of these are critical for a sound, healthy, spiritual life. If you eat healthy food chances are you will remain healthy. Eat garbage every day, all day long, and sooner or later you will get sick or die. My issue with certain books that are huge best sellers but contain only theological junk is that their very popularity masks their emptiness. Everybody loves Twinkies (and so do I!), but Twinkies are not health food. In the United States we have been inundated with such products lately, from Heaven is for Real and God is Not Dead and most recently, The Shack. Bad theology is not a recent invention, however, as Joseph Smith (no relation, as far as I know) duped millions with his work of theological fiction, The Book of Mormon.

Since that latest buzz focuses on The Shack I will make a few comments here specifically related to that book, but the fundamental flaws of that book are common to many, if not all, of the recent attempts at popular theology.

First, The Shack purports to be a parable, that is, a picture to describe an attribute (or attributes) of God that are not otherwise seen. The problem is the author does not know the difference between a parable and a caricature. The Shack is NOT a parable – it is a caricature in which one aspect of God’s being is so grossly distorted as to make it a farce. When Jesus told a parable about God’s forgiveness or mercy, it was just that – a parable. God remained a God of justice, a God who will make things right through the punishment of sin.

The god of The Shack has done away with punishment of sin. The god of The Shack is all about everyone going to heaven. Like a grandmother who loves all her grandchildren and refuses to punish any, the god of The Shack is basically unable to confront, and is utterly powerless to overcome, evil. Just think of the basic premise – why would any god not punish the killer of a small child (the whole background story of “the shack,” the place where the little girl was murdered)?

The character that represents Jesus in The Shack says that he is the best way to get to this god, but the Jesus of the gospels is the ONLY way to the real God. If you live in the universe of The Shack, it matters not if you are a Christian, a Buddhist, a Muslim, or even a basically moral atheist. All roads lead to “papa,” although if you are willing to accept the Jesus figure you might get to “her” sooner.

Why does this matter? Why can’t I say (as so many have said in so many different venues) “If reading The Shack brings you closer to God, then good for you, and good for The Shack.” Very simply, if you think you have come closer to god through The Shack, you have only come closer to a god of your own making – a false god, an idol. It is not the God of Mt. Sinai, nor of the manger in Bethlehem, and absolutely not the God of calvary.

As evidence, I share two stories from the Old Testament: Exodus 32:1-6 and 1 Kings 12:25-33. In both stories images of calves are formed for the purpose of worshiping God. You have to understand this – the images were used in the worship of YHWH. The context makes this clear. And in both stories the principle architects of the images (Aaron and Jeroboam) are soundly punished for their creation of these “guides to worship.”

Why did God not say, “Well, if the calves bring you closer to me, good on you and good on the calves”? Why punish Aaron, Jeroboam, and all the people who worshiped the calves, especially since they were ostensibly worshiping God? The reason is the calves were NOT God, and by pointing away from the true God, the calves were objects of spiritual sickness. They were symbols of rebellion – of rejecting the one true God.

Why do I object to theological fictions such as The Shack, God is Not Dead, and Heaven is for Real? Because at their core they are golden calves. The authors (and the millions of people who are mesmerized by them) may have good intentions, but their theology is base, it is corrupt, and it is corrupting.

If a person thinks that he or she is coming closer to God by reading any of these books (or seeing the movies), what happens when he or she reads of the true God in Scripture? What happens when the person reads that God hates sin, that God is a just judge, and will punish those who rebel against him, and especially those who kill little girls? What happens when the person discovers that God hates charlatans and those who seek to build wealth and fame from peddling false ideas about Him and his creation? At that point the person will either have to reject the comfortable, impotent, beggarly god of these works of fiction, or he or she will have to reject the God of Scripture. The two are not inches apart – they are light years apart.

There are great works of fictional literature which point to the God of Scripture. C.S. Lewis comes immediately to mind. I am not against fictional works that praise and glorify God. I would not even object to a caricature of God if the work is clearly identified as such (George Burns in O God comes to mind – no one thought THAT was serious theology, but the story did have a good point).

In some ways I hate to be so negative. I would be much more popular if I preached what these books claim to say about God. I just have one problem in doing so.

It’s not good theology – and theology matters.

Don’t Read That Book!

I did something today that I never thought I would do. It was so out of character that I feel dizzy. It was so out of character that I am looking around for Rod Serling. I think I may need to go lie down for a while.

What was my crime, my despicable act of self-renunciation? I threw a book away before I finished reading it. I was not even half-way through reading it. I was duped into thinking it was worth my money and my time. I have been violated. I wasted both time and precious money on something that was worth neither. Oh, the humanity.

The experience has left me seriously jaded. Usually I can sniff through all the hype and advertising that accompanies new book promotions. For some reason this one slipped through my radar. But, whatever does not kill you makes you stronger (or so the saying goes), and you can bet I will not soon be so gullible. The experience also got me to thinking about the money we spend on books (and, perhaps even to a greater extent, movies), so I thought I would pass along some helpful hints from my sorely bruised ego.

Don’t buy, or read, a book just because a lot of people have bought, or read, the book. The Book of Mormon and The Shack have both sold millions of copies – and neither is worth the paper it is printed on. There are plenty of good books in the fiction category. Don’t fill your mind with trash.

Don’t buy, or read, a book just because it is published by a major, reputable publishing firm. This is usually a good barrier against literary riffraff, but this is where I got sucker-punched. If possible, pay attention to who is endorsing a book (these days, no book is published without a half-dozen or more “celebrity” endorsements). There are some names that telegraph to me that the book is solid gold – and there are some names that if I see them attached to a book, I know it is solid waste landfill material.

Don’t buy or read a book just because a “popular” writer has his/her name attached. It is a dirty little secret in the book printing business, but ghost-writers abound, and you would probably be surprised at how many really well known “authors” are just as curious at what is written in a book that has their name on it as you are. They may give a brief outline, and they may read it first and offer some suggestions and fine-tune some points, but they are not the “author” as much as the “approver.”

You may be curious as to the title and/or author of the book I threw away. Well, I am not going to give the book or the author the free advertisement. For me to throw a book away, especially in the middle of reading it, should be enough to let you know it was awful.

My theme in this blog is “ascending lower.” One of my major theses is that we can never climb higher unless we are willing to subject ourselves, to go lower, and to allow others to teach us. I do not want to change that, but at the same time, it must be emphatically stated that there must be a limit to our self-limitation. We cannot expose ourselves to garbage without smelling like garbage. We cannot expose our mind to literary junk and hope that somehow we can transform it into a piece of art.

Let us always choose the path of submission, of willingly choosing to go lower. But, please, for the sake of everything that is good and holy and beautiful, do not fill your mind with trash!

Jeremiah 6:16 and Context (A Cautionary Tale)

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Very few Old Testament passages hold a position of honor among preachers and teachers within the Churches of Christ. That is due largely to the influence of Alexander Campbell and his “Sermon on the Law.” From Campbell’s day forward his heirs have solidly proclaimed the New Testament as the book of the church, and some would even narrow that to Acts – Jude (Revelation being much too dangerous to handle).

Very few, but not none. One passage that ranks in importance just slightly lower than Acts 2:38 and Romans 16:16 is Jeremiah 6:16. This verse is the bulwark that protects many favored traditions, and more distressingly, the failures of many in past generations. Whenever the discussion becomes too edgy or uncomfortable, Jeremiah 6:16 is a safe and constant refuge. I was reminded just recently of what a powerful hold this verse has on many. It should – but not perhaps for the reason that they think it should. I come this day not to bury Jeremiah 6:16, but to honor it for the powerful text that it truly is in its context.

This post could easily end up in the thousands of words long. For simplicity I will try to abbreviate as much as possible. To cut to the chase, in order to understand Jeremiah 6:16 we really need to back up to chapter 2. In a lengthy and sometimes dense argument, the LORD (through Jeremiah) accuses both Israel and Judah of gross idolatry and moral decay. In a plaintive cry that summarizes much of the entire book, the LORD asks,

Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are no gods? But my people have changed their glory for that which does not profit. Be appalled, O heavens, at this; be shocked, be utterly desolate, declares the LORD, for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water. (Jer. 2:11-13, ESV)

Central to the accusations that the LORD makes against his chosen people are two related actions. One, they repeatedly ally themselves with foreign nations instead of depending on God for protection and deliverance (2:17-18), and two, they participate in the worship of those nations’ idols, figuratively described as sexual fornication/adultery (3:6-10).

In spite of these transgressions, the LORD still holds out forgiveness to the people, if they will but return to him:

Return, faithless Israel, declares the LORD. I will not look on you in anger, for I am merciful, declares the LORD; I will not be angry forever. Only acknowledge your guilt, that you rebelled against the LORD your God and scattered your favors among foreigners under every green tree, and that you have not obeyed my voice, declares the LORD. Return, O faithless children, declares the LORD; for I am your master; I will take you, one from every city and two from a family, and I will bring you to Zion. (Jer. 3:12-14 ESV)

Pure and faithful worship, however, must be accompanied by pure and faithful behavior:

If you return, O Israel, declares the LORD, to me you should return. If you remove your detestable things from my presence, and do not waver, and if you swear ‘As the LORD lives’ in truth, in justice, and in righteousness, then nations shall bless themselves in him, and in him shall they glory (Jer. 4:1-2, ESV)

Run to and fro through the streets of Jerusalem, look and take note! Search her squares to see if you can find a man, one who does justice and seeks truth, that I may pardon her (Jer. 5:1 ESV)

Particularly galling to the LORD is the behavior of his prophets and priests:

For from the least to the greatest of them, everyone is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest everyone deals falsely. They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace. (Jer. 6:13-14 ESV, see also 1:8, 2:26-28, 5:30-31)

That leads us then to the verse in question, Jer. 6:16:

Thus says the LORD: ‘Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.’ But they said, ‘We will not walk in it.’ (ESV)

As should be clear by now, the LORD is not, and Jeremiah is not, urging the Israelites to return to some pristine time of their history. He is pleading with them to return to GOD. The “ancient paths” are the practices that demonstrate their allegiance to GOD – truthfulness, justice, righteousness (in Hebrew understanding – doing right). A major component of this “returning” involves confession of sin. And, not to be forgotten, another critical component is the faithfulness and righteousness of the spiritual leaders of the people.

I fear that too many times when I hear Jeremiah 6:16 being quoted, what is intended is a “return” to a “golden age” of the church, invariably the period when the Churches of Christ were growing at an exponential rate during the late 1940’s through the 1970’s. The “ancient paths” are not the rigorous moral and ethical demands of Sinai, but an almost mythical time in which every man “dwelt under the shade of his own vine.” We all want to sing with Archie Bunker, “Those were the days.”

The truth is – just as with Israel and Judah – there never has been this period of utopian perfection! Every text that we have in the New Testament is there as a testimony that someone, somewhere was NOT believing what Jesus taught, or was NOT doing what Jesus commanded. We simply do not have a picture of a perfect church for one simple reason – the church has never existed in perfection. The “ancient paths” do not refer to a time of pristine church practice – either in the first century or the 19th or the 20th. The ancient paths refer to God’s entire law and gospel – both religious (worship) and moral (ethics/behavior).

I most firmly believe that Jeremiah 6:16 needs to be preached from our pulpits and taught in our classes. But – it needs to be preached and taught in context! Applications that are drawn from that text need to be consistent with Jeremiah’s own purpose – as appropriately directed to the church in the 21st century.

Let’s preach it, brothers, – but let’s preach it straight!

When Translators Let Us Down

As a result of a recent request, I have been researching the nature of the church. As a beginning point I have been studying the use of the word ekklesia in the New Testament. That Greek word is the word virtually always translated “church” in our English translations. How we arrived from ekklesia to church is fascinating, but too complicated to really unpack here. Suffice it to say that our English word “church” derives more from the Greek kuriakon than the Greek word ekklesia. This, then, has some fascinating and ultimately negative repercussions.

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To begin with, the word ekklesia is best translated “assembly” “gathering” “meeting” or perhaps “congregation” although the last word continues to have a religious connotation that was not inherent in the Greek. You can see how ekklesia has a secular, and even legal, meaning through passages such as Acts 7:38 and 19:32, 39, and 41. Here translators do not want to confuse the reader with any “loaded” terminology, so that actually translate ekklesia to be either “congregation” (as in 7:38) or “assembly” in the passages in chapter 19, which is more like a mob or a riot.

The problem is, that in using the word “church” in every other instance in the New Testament, unintended interpretations creep in and the more simple meaning of many passages is obscured. Let me illustrate.

Let’s say we have a member of the Church of Christ, a Roman Catholic, and a totally dispassionate non-believer in the same room. We ask a simple question – “What do you mean when you say the word ‘church'”? I am going to guess (as I am not Roman Catholic), that the Catholic is going to think of the church universal, with all the imperial accoutrements – the Pope as the vicar of Christ, and the attendant Cardinals, Bishops, and Priests, and the formal liturgy of the Mass. On the other hand, my response would be to imagine each individual congregation of which I have been a part – Galisteo and Cordova in Santa Fe, Montgomery Blvd. in Albuquerque, Barrow Rd. in Little Rock, etc. That is, I think of individual congregations, and more than likely I picture specific buildings. For the Roman Catholic this would be what he or she pictures when he or she hears the word parish. The non-believer will probably have any one of a dozen different images depending on his or her experience with the church – maybe a Christmas or Easter pageant, a wedding or a funeral, a Bible-thumping preacher that condemned everyone to hell, or an ornate but basically useless building.

However, change the word to “assembly” and those differences are most likely to disappear. Assemblies can only refer to one thing – groups of people. To say, “the assembly of Christ” or “the assembly of God” (note lower case “a”) means a group of people connected in some form or fashion to Christ or to God. “Assembly” does leave room for some theological fine-tuning, but it does get away from buildings and hierarchical leadership structures and open caskets and Easter egg hunts.

I firmly believe that is why, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the word ekklesia was chosen by the New Testament authors to describe the people of God. It was already in use through the Greek translation of the Old Testament, (therefore it did have a link with the first covenant people) and it could be differentiated from its closest synonym, synagogue. Synagogue had already acquired a formal, and rigid, meaning in the first century A.D. Ekklesia was essentially a secular term, and therefore the early Christians could use it to communicate what it meant to be the people of God without having to “un-teach” the heavily laden Jewish connotations of the word synagogue.

If we would simply translate the word as “assembly” a host of problems disappear (although perhaps not all, and perhaps others would creep in). Try it. When you see the word “church” read “assembly.” Is the meaning enhanced for you? Are some passages now more clear in meaning? Are some possible misunderstandings removed?

It is for me – but, then, I am kind of weird.

Blessings on your Bible study.

Reinterpreting Scripture – An Interesting Parallel

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While meditating on a totally unrelated subject recently, a fascinating line of thought occurred to me. There is an obvious (if one takes the time to think about it) process that is followed if and when Scripture needs to be “reinterpreted” or “reimagined” to fit a particular need. My example includes the process of introducing, and then accepting, the practice of infant baptism; and the current process of introducing, and therefore accepting, women into larger and more influential roles of leadership within the church. Notice how this plays out in innocuous, and seemingly innocent ways.

First, there is an existential crisis – a challenge to the “status quo” of accepted orthodoxy. In regard to infant baptism, it was the death of infants and children first considered too young to be candidates for baptism. What of their eternal destiny? If the door to eternal life hinged on baptism, and they died unbaptized, how could anyone be certain of their eternal rest with God? With the current question of women’s role in the church, the issue has been joined with the role that women have in secular society. Women serve with distinction in every level of life, from governmental to financial to education to public service. Why, then, deny them leadership roles in the church?

Second, the Scriptures are scoured to find and answer that permits a “reinterpretation” or a “re-imagining” of the previously held standard. Ergo, stories of entire “households” being converted and baptized are viewed as evidence that quite possibly, and even probably, children and infants were baptized because virtually every “household” includes children. Similarly, passages such as 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 and Galatians 3:27-28 are suddenly transformed not only to allow, but to mandate, a role of leadership for women in the church. These passages then become proof-texts (passages lifted from their context to prove a point that is tangential to their original meaning, at best), and passages that conflict with the “new” interpretation are dismissed if not entirely excised from the discussion.

Third, a new theology then develops from the first two steps. History is revised to emphasize aberrations from the norm, and the greater part of church history is repudiated with emotionally or theologically laden terms which amount to ad hominem attacks or straw-man arguments. This is not to argue that there were not groups in the first few centuries that baptized infants, nor that there were no groups that had women in influential roles. It is simply to argue that these fringe groups are re-cast as models of orthodoxy, and the larger practice of the church is re-cast as aberrant.

The final step is then not only logical, but inescapable. Those sympathetic to the “new orthodoxy” are described in the most glowing terms, and those who object to the “re-interpretation” or “re-imagining” are vilified. The only true Christians are those who accept infant baptism (because, who would want to send thousands of deceased infants and children to hell?) and those who accept women, or even demand that women serve, in leadership roles (woe to those barbaric, knuckle-dragging troglodytes who revel in their macho, male chauvinism!).

Christians of every age must live in tension with their cultural standards. Some of those standards may be closer to biblical teaching than others. Some may be virtually indistinguishable from biblical standards, while some may be at the opposite end of the spectrum from God’s intent. Ascending to faith through a descent through submission to God’s word demands that we examine each question and each crisis with our eyes (and intellects) wide open, and that we exercise a willingness to reject what the world dictates as something that must be accepted. Christians do not receive our worldview from the pages of the morning paper, but rather from both a broad and deep reading of the inspired Scriptures.

Be careful whose voice you listen to . . . Satan did not stop with his deceptions in the Garden of Eden. His most powerful question is still, “Did God really say . . . ?”

Admit It – We ALL Have Presuppositions!

One of the most difficult, if not THE most difficult, obstacles to overcome when we approach Scripture is the acceptance of the fact that we come to Scripture with a preconceived bias. HORRORS! “That may be true of you, bub, but my intentions and purposes are as pure as the driven snow!” may be your immediate response. With all due respect to your meteorological observations, that self-proclaimed innocence is just flat out wrong. We ALL, every single one of us, come to Scripture with preconceptions. Only by admitting that fact can we weed out the possible mistakes those preconceptions are prone to create.

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An oft-used illustration is appropriate here. It is as if when we peer into the pages of the Bible that we look into a deep well to see what is at the bottom. The image that we see, reflected as if we look into a mirror, looks remarkably like our own face! We see our country when we examine the ancient Israelites. We see our cities when we read of Corinth or Rome. We see our happy little church when we pick up a copy of Ephesians or Colossians. Even the aroma of the flesh pots of Egypt share the same comforting smell of our kitchens.

As I said before, so now I say again – this is only how it can be! We never stood toe-to-toe with Pharaoh. We cannot understand what it must have sounded like as the Passover lambs were slaughtered in Jerusalem. We have no way of experiencing a mob riot at the Ephesian amphitheater.

But we CAN, and I dare say that we MUST account for the fact that when we read the Bible we admit our preconceptions. Then, by bringing them out into the open, we can ask whether they augment, or distort, our conclusions.

Here, for example, are just a few of the preconceptions I bring to my study:

  1.  The Bible is the inspired word of God. I do not hold to the concept of “verbal dictation,” but I am constantly amazed at how the accounts related in the Bible can only cohere if there was a single, divine, overseeing presence that both created and preserved this book.
  2. Although written for a specific time period, the Bible was preserved as a record of how God expected his people to believe and act throughout all of history. The Pentateuch (Genesis – Deuteronomy) was written not just for the ancient Israelites – but for us as well. Corinthians was certainly addressed to a congregation in the Mediterranean, but for Christians in the 21st century as well. Note the sequence: to the Corinthians, but for all time.
  3. God never changes, Jesus never changes, and the lessons provided through the stories and codes recorded in Scripture do not change. Murder is still a sin, and elders are still supposed to be husbands of one wife.
  4. God in in heaven, and I am on earth, therefore my words about His word should be few, and those few words should be carefully thought-out and prayerfully delivered.

I could probably come up with many more. The point is, we, as humans, are bounded by time and culture. Some of that culture is positive, some of it is neutral, and some of it is positively perverse. Our culture, however, causes us to view the Bible with a certain lens – a lens of bias. I am a male, American by nationality, relatively well educated (how much of that education has actually stuck is a matter of debate!), and a young baby-boomer by generation. Each of those characteristics flavors how I read the Bible. If I do not take those characteristics into consideration, I can end up with a horrid misinterpretation of the Word of God.

So, let’s face it. We all come to Scripture with a preconceived bias. The critical question, then, becomes whether I can honestly let the Bible correct that bias (or destroy it completely), or whether my bias distorts the meaning of the text.

Eating at the Garbage Dump

Even after all these years, my professor’s words still ring in my ears. “You can tell how hungry someone is,” he said, “by paying attention to the garbage they are willing to eat.”

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I think of those words often, but especially when I see and hear how popular some forms of diluted Christianity have become. I speak specifically of the numerous examples of the “I died and went to heaven and saw Jesus” books and movies and the inexplicable (and to me, disturbing) popularity of books like The Shack, which promote a heterodox, if not blatantly blasphemous, view of God and Christ.

The latter has now been made into a movie, and social media sites are all abuzz discussing whether a person should, or should not, see the movie. I have not read the book, and I steadfastly refuse to support the production of such works with my money – but I will make a few observations based on my review of those who have read the book and who discuss the movie.

First, serious theologians from all branches of Christianity denounce the movie. When you have bow-tie Baptists and rockin’ Pentecostals agreeing that this is bad stuff, well – I suggest you consider their words carefully. A number of reviews spare no words in describing the message of the book -pure heresy. Even those who suggest the book is worth exploring do so very cautiously, and stress that the content is a parable, and a bad one at that.

Second, most of the reviews that are unequivocally positive come from individuals that, in my estimation, are quacks who either produce or promote an equally shallow form of Christianity (Eugene Peterson comes to mind). I can tell a lot about a book by reading the names of those who endorse it. I was shocked, and to be quite honest, dismayed, to read someone who I have come to trust and admire who endorsed both the book and the movie. There is a back-story to his endorsement of the book, however, and I will give him a pass, at least on this one.

The book purports to be a parable, but the author clearly crosses a line between “parable” and “distorting Scripture.” If you want to read a quality parable, or better, allegory, read C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. Lewis famously refused to go where the author of The Shack boldly went, because he was not willing to put words into the mouth of God. The Shack not only puts words into the mouth of God, those words directly contradict the words God revealed in his inspired book, the Bible.

The Shack was supposedly written to present a different view of God for those who are suffering and cannot understand the biblical God. I suggest rather that it is an all-too-common view of an entirely different god – the god of the author, an idol that is purely the creation of a human mind. As one reviewer put it, “If you find yourself being drawn closer to God by this book, I have to ask: what god are you being drawn closer to?”

I find it very interesting many authors who produce the “died and saw Jesus” books and books like “The Shack” have major issues with the images of God found in Scripture (read their histories and back-stories). These purported true stories and especially the fictional stories are designed to correct what the authors believe are mistaken understandings of God. That to me is a critical point. God revealed Himself in the pages of Scripture. God ultimately revealed Himself in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The God who many of these authors disparage and blaspheme became human so they could have a vision of the divine. Man has turned God’s greatest blessing into a curse – and all for a nice, tidy profit to boot.

I have to admit I just do not understand the process, and to be honest I do not want to. I do not want to understand that way of thinking. It just bothers me deeply when so many are feeding at the garbage dump when we have the messianic feast set before us.