Are You Hungry for Bible Study?

Yesterday I opined that far too often in Sunday school settings we settle for the simple, trivial answers to questions. Often that is exactly, and only, what the teacher is searching for. It is a process that has been ingrained in those of us who have been in church class settings for most of our lives. We learn it early in childhood, and the template never changes. Questions are meant to keep the class moving, and if anyone offers a deeper, or different, answer than that which is expected, the whole process bogs down and we actually have to think. I believe there are a number of reasons why we have fallen into this slovenly routine.

First, these surface level answers are a great equalizer. Everyone has heard that the Pharisees are the bad guys in the New Testament, and everyone (or most everyone) has access to Hebrews 11:1 as the answer to the definition of faith. If someone raises their hand and answers with the same answer that I was going to give, I can feel good about myself, and equally feel good about my neighbor.

These answers are also simple – in the sense that there is no complexity to them that requires further examination. Once we learn that the entire point to the parable of the “Good Samaritan” is that if we see someone beside the road that is beaten and half-dead we are supposed to put them on our donkey and carry them to the nearest inn, we have the text mastered and we can get ready for the worship service. The thing about the parables (or at least, many of them) is that they made the original audience furious with  Jesus. If we somehow do not get that edge as we read these stories, haven’t we totally missed the point? In other words, there is much about the Bible that is complex, and it is exactly in that complexity that we are to see ourselves and recognize our sinfulness. To turn every story into a third grade morality play is a horrible way to study the Bible!

I guess that gets me to my third point, and really my major point. We are just lazy students of the Bible. When, for example, was the last time you have really been challenged by a Bible class? If you are a teacher, when was the last time you really made your students uncomfortable? We want the easy, the simple, the milk. Teaching classes that challenge is hard work – it requires hours, not minutes, of preparation, and it requires a mind-set that not only allows for challenging discussion, but actually fosters it. It means actually having to tell a student that his or her response is wrong, or maybe not wrong but inadequate. That means risking upsetting a member, and we all know that is a sin that cannot be committed! Being a student in a class that provokes both thought and response is equally discomforting. It means my cherished answers might, in reality, be wrong. It means I might have to actually listen to my classmate as he or she shares a response that I have not considered before. It means that I might actually have to read ahead and come to class prepared to engage with the material (heaven forbid!!).

To push that point just a little further – when was the last time you assigned an outside book, or were requested to buy an outside book, as the basis for a Bible class? Once upon a time that was the norm – now it is almost unheard of. I think I have a pretty good idea why we have stopped doing that. One, making someone buy a book is just so gauche – it might be expensive (and we can’t make the church actually pay for educational material) or it means that a student is actually engaged with the class subject; two, it might be written by someone “outside the faith” and we cannot under any circumstances be challenged by someone else’s thinking; or three, materials written by our “sound brothers” are just so insipid that there really is no point in buying the book, because they only reinforce the trivial answers that we were going to give anyway. Whatever the reason, I just see fewer and fewer outside reading materials being mandated as supplemental texts.

So much has been said and written about why churches are losing members. Entire forests of trees have been cut down to make paper that has been compiled into books with answers to that question. Could it be, is it even possible, that one very real reason so many younger people are leaving the church is that they come hungry for Bible study and leave even hungrier?

How many times will you go to a restaurant and, instead of the sumptuous entree that you ordered, receive a bowl of cold cereal “because it was easier for the cook to prepare.”

Yea, I thought so.

Teachers, either challenge your students to deeper Bible study, or let someone else teach. Church, demand your teacher give you more than these trivial platitudes. Let us get back to serious Bible study!

The Triviality of “Sunday School Answers”

Hope I don’t step on too many people’s feelings here, but something occurred to me this morning that kind of put a burr under my saddle. That burr is the triviality of most “Sunday School Answers.” What I mean by that is answers that have been rehearsed and refined through the ages to the point that they no longer mean anything, even if they once did. I would add here that the teacher is very likely expecting these canned answers, so he/she exclaims “That’s right” with every offering, and the wheels get so stuck in mediocrity that the bus never gets anywhere.

I have quite a few examples, unfortunately, but here are just the worst offenders:

“Who are the Pharisees?” Answer – those mean, bad, ugly, self-righteous, greedy, conniving miserable little creatures that were the chief instigators of Jesus’s crucifixion and were enemies of the early church. Except that the apostle Paul was a Pharisee who became God’s chosen  vessel to preach the gospel to the Gentiles. And except that it was a group of Pharisees who came and warned Jesus that Herod was out to kill him (Luke 13:31). And except that once we grasp who the Pharisees were and what their goal was, if we were alive in the first century we would have honored them and tried to emulate them. I have never heard a “Sunday School Answer” that says, “We are” because we love to hate the Pharisees, and truth be told, we are a LOT more like the Pharisees than we dare admit.

“What was a publican/tax collector?” Answer – Once again, those mean, nasty, ugly, greedy, conniving money grubbers who conspired with the Roman government and lined their pockets with ill-gotten booty. Except that, when Jesus went to eat with a publican/tax collector, there sure seemed to be a lot of people in the room. And, over in the corner, there were always a Pharisee or two. Hmm. Seems to me that if the publicans/tax collectors were so vile, so hated, so worthy of death, that there would have been precious few of them alive very long to line their pockets with any ill-gotten booty. Likewise, it seems to me that, just like IRS agents today, publicans and tax collectors in the first century would have been viewed negatively by some, positively by others, and simply tolerated by the overwhelming majority. Point of fact – Matthew/Levi had to have been part of a worshiping synagogue or he never could have accumulated the understanding of the Old Testament that he obviously did have as witnessed in the writing of his gospel. He was among the “upper crust” of society, as he had to have been well educated (could not have been an agent of the Roman government and been a grade-school drop out) and the Greek language of his gospel is beautiful. All the evidence we have from Matthew firmly rejects the “Sunday School Answer” that is so glibly given.

Which leads me to, “Describe the first disciples, especially the apostles.” Answer – Well, they were poor, uneducated, ordinary working caterpillars that Jesus rounded up, poured a ton of the Holy Spirit into, and suddenly became brilliant, theological butterflies. Um, if you read the gospel accounts of the calling of the apostles, and add to that what Peter said after Jesus’s crucifixion, the real picture is nothing of that sort. Reading carefully, it appears that Peter, Andrew, James and John had a thriving fishing business going, perhaps in conjunction with James and John’s father, or perhaps under him. Peter’s speeches in the book of Acts, as well as his letters and the writings of John, indicate that while neither might have been professionally trained rabbi or scribe, they were well beyond being simply literate, common yokels. Once again, the Greek of Peter and of John, while not having the flowery effect of the book of Hebrews, or as being as tightly constructed as the gospel of Matthew, are beautiful examples of written Greek. The final rejection of the “uneducated, common man” misnomer of the early apostles (taken and misapplied  from Acts 4:13) is the staggering beauty and complexity of the book of Revelation. NO! God chose “common men” to be sure – they were not the Plato’s and Aristotle’s of the world, but they were not ignorant. I fear this answer has more to do with our aversion to theological education today, and with the (overused to the point of illegitimacy) dictum that you do not have to be educated to understand the Bible. That statement is true to an extent – you do not have to have a secondary degree in theology to read and understand the Bible. But just a cursory glance at some of the so-called “spirit led” utterances of modern preachers and the writings of the hundreds of “churches” in the world confirms that just because a person can read the Bible does NOT mean that he or she can correctly understand it.

“What is faith?” Answer – Hebrews 11:1, either quoted verbatim or paraphrased. The point is that faith is almost exclusively viewed as a mental, a rational, concept. Except that the entire chapter of Hebrews 11 stresses the behavior of those who are praised as having faith. It is a chapter of action, of specific and vibrant action verbs. Nowhere is it intimated or specifically stated that “By faith, ‘X’ sat in a pew on the Sabbath and checked of his/her weekly attendance requirement.” And except that the book of James fervently challenges that “rational only” view of faith. Yes, faith has a rational, mental component. But, if you stop there (at verse 1 and don’t read the rest of Hebrews 11, or the book of James) you end up with an ghastly anemic view of faith. Hebrews 11:1 is the “Sunday School Answer” that most teachers are looking for, and that is just very sad to me. It’s like saying a banana split is made with ice cream, and omitting the important details of the bananas, the various flavored syrups, the fruit of one’s choosing, the whipped cream, and the cherry on top.

Okay, maybe I’ve got that burr from under my saddle. I hope that if you are a teacher of a Sunday school class, and you ask one of these questions (or dozens more like them), you do not let your students get away with these pat, and all too often, trite answers. The questions only have validity if the teacher presses beyond the safe and sanitary answers that we have created, and have passed on from one generation to the next. The Pharisees suspiciously look to me like an awful lot of elders and the “little old lady” pew in many of our churches. The tax collectors kept the engine of the Roman government moving forward – and paid for roads to be built, navies to sail, and peace to be kept. A theological education is not a wicked choice of a career, and we desperately need more honest and faithful theologians in our schools and in our churches. And, lastly, faith is just so, so much more than suffering through a sermon one hour out of a seven day week.

Let us ascend by climbing lower – and deeper! – into God’s word of truth.

Questions (?)

My last post introduced a question about a text in the gospel of Mark (no, not 16:9-20, but that’s a good one too). It is a question for which I have no solid, concrete, irrefutable answer. Many people don’t like that. Their entire faith is built on the existence of solid, concrete, irrefutable answers to every question. In fact, they don’t even like the existence of questions, period. For them, the Christian life is one big, solid, irrefutable truth.

Does your preacher/pastor/priest allow you to ask questions? Are questions allowed in your Bible classes? I don’t mean the childish or self-promoting questions that are intended to trip up the teacher or to promote the superior intellect of the questioner. While we are at it, I do think there are stupid questions – only because the intent is deceptive and mean-spirited. I do not believe any question that has as its focus the desire to learn should be considered “stupid.”

Returning to the topic at hand – what is the official, or even maybe more important the unofficial, policy regarding questions where you worship? Without knowing anything at all about your church, I can fairly confidently make one declaration – if your preacher/pastor/priest or church leadership does not allow, and even encourage, honest, seeking questions then you are a part of a sick church.

I am blessed, richly blessed, to have been able to ask questions in my youth and young adulthood. Like most twenty-somethings, at the ripe old age of, say, 22, I was pretty confident I knew all there was to know, or at least all that was needed to know. That came to a pretty emphatic end. Then, I entered a second phase of my education – my masters degrees – in which I came to realize that maybe I did not even know the right questions to ask. Flash forward some 20+ years and in my doctoral studies I came to yet a third realization about questions: sometimes the question is far more valuable than any answer that is purported to solve it.

Pause for a moment and consider Jesus’s parables. How many of the parables are really open ended questions? Oh, we try to tidy them up and make them self-contained little stories complete with moral and application. I think this just illustrates our ambivalence, or actual irritation with questions. “Just get to the point and move on, preacher!” “Don’t leave the sermon hanging on a question, give me something I can apply in my life!” As a good friend once pointed out in a class on the parables, we want to sanitize the parables and derive and answer that implicates the Pharisees or the Sadducees so that we do not have to deal with the messy, and very problematic, possibility that Jesus is telling the parable to implicate OUR behavior.

I cannot help but believe that one reason so many young people are leaving the church (well, young and middle aged and old) is because the decades that we have spent denying or limiting the honest and seeking question have finally come home to roost. Yes, I am well aware of the research into why people are abandoning the church, and I think each of them has validity. But, thinking back to my teen years, I really do not remember a time in which my Sunday school teacher welcomed us asking questions. My parents allowed me to question, to be sure, and I think maybe that is just one of the reasons why I am so confident in my faith today. I do not believe because I have all the answers, I believe in spite of my questions and my inability to answer them, because I believe there is a God in whom I can trust.

In re-reading this post something occurred to me – I have been “trained” in two different evangelistic methods, and both of them emphatically reject the value of the student asking any questions. The “evangelist” is to deflect every question, to refuse to answer any curiosity the student may have, and is taught to stay “on subject” throughout the entire lesson. Wow. How  completely un-Christ like. What these methods teach, unconsciously for sure, is that the teacher has all the answers, all the truth, and that questions are not and will not be allowed in this church. Just believe what I am telling you and keep your questions locked away.

How utterly pathetic. Not every question has equal value, to be sure. Some questions are “red herrings” meant to deflect attention from a particularly troublesome aspect of the lesson. I get that. But to reject every question? To suggest that no question is worthy of discussion? To imply that the teacher turn a deaf ear to the honest and searching aspect of a seemingly benign question – these are just repugnant concepts to me. Thank goodness Jesus was never trained in these evangelistic methods.

I hope that if you are in a situation where you cannot honestly and faithfully ask a question, that you will be able to find a place where that is allowed. Just remember, Jesus never rejected an honest question – in fact he almost went out of his way to create them. Do not ever settle for a spiritual home in which questions are forbidden.

A Fascinating (and Problematic) Text

I was doing some “heavy lifting” (at least for me) in preparation for our mid-week Bible study. Unfortunately, our teacher had a last minute need to take care of, so I was unable to have all of my questions answered. So, maybe this post is a little premature – but this is a fascinating (and to me, fun) text to consider.

The text under discussion is John 12:39-40, quoted here from the ESV:

Therefore they could not believe. For again Isaiah said, ‘He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, lest they see with their eyes, and understand with their heart, and turn, and I would heal them.’

Okay, issue number one: this is NOT what the passage in the book of Isaiah reads. You can check me on this, but in the ESV the passage in Isaiah 6:9-10 reads:

Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.

So, in John the point of view of the speaker has changed from the Old Testament view. In the Old Testament, the passage is a command to the prophet – it is something that the prophet must do. In John’s quotation, it is something that has been done by an unidentified “he.” So, either John, or the manuscript from which John is quoting, has slightly altered the text. Now, digging a little deeper, I discovered that John’s rendition is perfectly acceptable if you add different vowels to the Hebrew consonants. (Technical aside here: originally Hebrew was written using only consonants. Later, “vowel points” were added underneath the consonants as a benefit to reading the text. Try this – take any paragraph and remove all the vowels. You can still read the words, but it takes some doing. So, in the text above, if different “vowel points” are placed under the consonants, you can legitimately arrive with the “point of view” that John quotes in his gospel). Fascinating.

But it gets even more fascinating.

The text from Isaiah 6:9-10 is quoted (or alluded to) in all four gospels and in the book of Acts (Matthew 13:14; Mark 4:12; Luke 8:10; John 12:39-40; and Acts 28:26). In Matthew, Mark and Luke the text comes in context with Jesus’s parable of the sower. In Mark and Luke the Isaiah passage is only  paraphrased, so we can eliminate those passages. What is fascinating is that in Matthew and Acts the text is quoted, not from the original Hebrew, but from one Greek translation of the Hebrew, called the Septuagint. Once again I quote from the ESV (for continuity):

For this people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them.

Notice that the Greek version (quoted by Matthew and Luke in Acts) follows the Hebrew in the sequencing: heart-ears-eyes-eyes-ears-heart (in John’s quotation it is eyes-heart-eyes-heart). In the Greek version of Matthew and Acts the hardening, the stopping of the ears and the blinding of the eyes is a past event (as in the gospel of John), but it is clearly insinuated (and in the case of the eyes, clearly stated) that it is the people themselves who have made it impossible for God to heal them. In John’s version the agent is an unidentified “he” who is separate from the “I” who would heal the people.

All of the above is fodder for the textual critics, those who pore over ancient manuscripts and attempt to decipher the chain of events that leads one author to quote (or paraphrase) a text in one manner while another will quote (or paraphrase) the same text in a different manner. Quite honestly, that study is miles above my head, although I do find it immensely interesting.

No, what I find to be particularly fascinating (sorry to use a word so repetitively), is that it exists at all – either in the Old Testament message of Isaiah, or especially in the New Testament message of the gospel writers and in Luke (quoting, as he was, the apostle Paul quoting Isaiah).

Why would God command Isaiah to make it impossible (or, at the very minimum, difficult) for the people to repent? And why would Jesus quote this problematic text, and why would Paul once again quote it as he attempted to preach to the Jews in Rome?

In Isaiah, the prophet clearly understands the problem. He asks, “How long?” He struggles too. Isn’t the point of a prophetic message to encourage or to facilitate repentance? God’s response, in verses 11-13 seems to be that there must be a time where people can actually see the results of their rebellion. In other words, God is telling Isaiah, “These people are not going to take your words to heart. So, I am going to show them that your words are the truth – they will turn a ‘deaf ear and a blind eye’ to your prophecy until I prove to them that your words are my words. But by then it will be too late for them, they will be in exile. Yet, for future generations, their obstinacy will be an object lesson, and maybe their children will ‘hear and see.'” Okay, all of that is my conjecture, but it seems to make the most sense to me. A Hebrew scholar I am not – but putting all the passages together that seems to me to be the gist of God’s message.

Jesus, knowing God’s intent, then pulls those same words to use for his generation. The people to whom he speaks are just as “deaf and blind” as were Isaiah’s audience. They too are just too unwilling to accept his words as truth. Ditto for Paul’s audience in Rome.

Some people just refuse to hear God’s message. Until, that is, God acts decisively, and by then it will be too late. God sent the audience of Isaiah into exile. God destroyed the Jewish nation that rejected and crucified Jesus. Paul said that God would “cut off” the branch that was institutional Judaism to “graft in” the Gentile nations. Done, done, and done.

So – is there any message left of Isaiah’s warning for us today??

Do we have any lasting issues with racism, with class distinction, with xenophobia? Do people today still lie, cheat, steal? Is everyone completely honest as they fill out their tax reports? Is there any problem with war, nations hating nations? Do we have any problems with murdering unborn babies? Are we facing issues of abhorrent sexual behavior? Are there questions of people who refuse to accept their God-given sexual nature? Are humans more or less likely to love and take care of one another? Are we “husbanding” our earth as God commanded his first humans to do? Do we fully and completely worship God as our creator and redeemer?

No, now that I think about it, I guess not. I guess Isaiah doesn’t really say anything to us after all.

Fascinating.

The Seductive Atheism of Modern Christianity

WARNING: THE FOLLOWING POST IS POLITICALLY INCORRECT. IF YOU CANNOT HANDLE READING OPINIONS THAT ARE DIAMETRICALLY OPPOSITE TO TODAY’S PAGAN CULTURE, PLEASE DO NOT CONTINUE.

[Author’s Update: It has occurred to me that I need to confess my own bent and brokenness. I am not claiming to be perfect in any way. I need God’s Holy Spirit to straighten me out on a daily basis. My prayer is that, if somehow I can help someone see the error of their thinking, that maybe God can write straight with me as a twisted pencil.]

I just don’t get it. I’m so lost anymore I question my own sanity. I’ve started this post a dozen times in my mind, and each time I just keep coming back to the same phrase, the same confusion. I just don’t get it anymore.

Once upon a time (and quite literally, for almost 2,000 years), the basic premise of the Christian gospel could be stated like this: I am a broken, sinful person and I need the saving blood of Christ to forgive me and I desperately need the power of God’s Holy Spirit to redirect my life in accordance with God’s will.

Today, the popular Christian mantra is this: I’m perfectly okay, and I don’t need the blood of Christ, but I sure do appreciate his loving acceptance of my broken lifestyle.

Just recently, and within weeks after a pagan priestess who repudiated virtually every major tenant of Biblical sexual morality was raised to the highest level of evangelical sainthood, an article has appeared in what many consider to be the flagship periodical promoting evangelical Christianity. The article effusively praises a “Christian pastor” who is openly homosexual. He proudly proclaims that Jesus did not “make him straight,” but that Jesus did remove his shame and guilt. So, he is openly gay, and unashamedly someone who claims to be a leader of a “Christian” church. One of my social media feeds is overflowing with praise for this person’s courage.

I just don’t get it anymore.

I’ll be honest here and put all my cards on the table. This kind of “Christianity” is nothing more than atheism light. It is not the biblical Christianity at all. The best I can say for it is heresy. The worst is . . . it is purely Satanic. Let me explain to the best of my limited ability.

The (il)logic behind so much of our sexual culture today can be summarized with the following syllogism:

  1. I am sexually attracted to members of my sex (male to male, female to female).
  2. I was given this attraction at my birth – I was created to be homosexual.
  3. God cannot condemn that which he created within me.
  4. Therefore, God accepts and even blesses my homosexual relationships.

An additional proposition is sometimes added by those who reject actual homosexual activity, but never-the-less accept the possibility of homosexual “attraction.”

5. Attractions, whether homosexual or heterosexual, are amoral, and therefore God cannot judge or condemn me for the feelings he created within me.

The only proposition of the above that I can accept is #1, because feelings are just that – feelings. I steadfastly reject propositions #2-5. I believe that if you hold them you must reject the biblical teaching of the nature of God, and therefore, if you accept proportions 2-5 you have become a functional atheist, despite any claim to a “Christian” faith that you might have.

One thing that everyone involved in this debate can agree on is that the Bible, as it stands written, uniformly rejects homosexual behavior. The Mosaic code, the lists of immoral behavior in the New Testament, and even Jesus’s promotion of marriage as between one man and one woman cannot be denied. What is denied is that these prohibitions and denunciations are truly God’s intent. So, let us examine proposition 2 in light of this biblical message.

If, as it is argued, homosexual urges are inborn, if they are a creation of God, then God must be viewed as a moral monster, for he condemns that which he has created. In fact, he labels that which he has created an “abomination,” and “gives men up” to what another biblical author would call “dishonorable passions.” If proposition 2 is correct the moral and ethical teachings of the Bible become absurd, incomprehensible. Not to be too dramatic, but the teachings of the Bible become demonic. How can a God who excoriates certain behaviors that he himself created to be exercised be worthy of any kind of love or devotion?

The only way out of this conundrum is to reject what the Bible says about homosexuality, and to posit that what God really believes about homosexuality is not to be found in the Bible, his revelation, but rather it is to be found in human feelings. “God” then becomes a human construct – a mere invention to support and defend my personal inclinations. This is really the definition of paganism (pagans hold to the concept of a god, or gods, but these gods are merely an extension of a human quality).

Bottom line – if you accept proposition 2 you deny the nature of God. Ergo and therefore, whether pagan or atheist, the result is the same. You have rejected the God that is revealed in the Bible.

So, what about propositions 3 and 5? Does God hold us accountable for our thoughts, our “attractions”?

According to the tenth commandment, he most certainly can, and does. Covetousness is not a physical action. One does not commit covetousness with one’s hands or feet or tongue. One commits covetousness by being attracted to the possessions of another, and then allowing those attractions to grow into other feelings – those of jealousy and greed. What is the solution? To argue that since God created the feeling of attraction for someone else’s wife or donkey or bigger barn that somehow that attraction is legitimate and blessed? NO! The solution is to repent and to be thankful and grateful to God for what he has blessed you with.

Jesus himself provided the clearest refutation of propositions 3 and 5 in the Sermon on the Mount when he condemned the emotions (feelings, “attractions”) of anger and lust. Yes, Virginia, Jesus does condemn that which occurs between our ears if God has already condemned the actions that those attractions ultimately lead. If, as we have already noted, God has condemned homosexual behavior, then it is impossible to argue that God somehow blithely overlooks homosexual attractions.

A fatal fallacy is promoted when homosexual attractions are compared to, and equated with, heterosexual attractions. God NEVER condemned heterosexual activity. He did LIMIT heterosexual activity, and condemned improper and abusive heterosexual activity in the strongest terms (rape was punished by death!). Jesus’s condemnation of lust leading to adultery is a case in point. Males are by nature attracted to females, and females to males. That attraction is not sinful, because the sexual union of male and female is itself not sinful. What IS sinful is the illicit attraction of a married man to a female that is not his wife (and, by extension, a woman to a man who is not her husband). There is no possible way a homosexual attraction can be appropriate, because the resulting behavior is uniformly condemned throughout Scripture.

So, if propositions 2, 3, and 5 are all demonstrably false, what can we say of the conclusion in proposition 4? If you are going to hold to any level of the unity and eternalness of God’s holy nature, you must accept that proposition 4 is just as false. It is a lie. It is one of Satan’s greatest deceptions.

This is where I lose my sanity – this is where I just don’t get it. Almost every day, obviously in liberal publications but increasingly in articles promoted by conservative Christians, the pagan concept that “the human is as the human feels,” is becoming the standard by which Christianity is measured. If I feel I am a Christian, then by God I am a Christian and Scriptural truth be damned. To walk down that path one must, it is necessary, to reject the very nature of God as recorded in the text of the Bible, and, forgive me if I am wrong here, but if you reject the nature of God you have become a functional atheist, a pagan, regardless of your claim to orthodoxy.

It occurred to me as I have been questioning this issue, that it is truly ironic that the Christian faith, which struggled so mightily during the first three centuries of its existence to try to understand the nature of Christ, how he could both be fully human and fully God, could now some 1,700 years later founder on the simple question of what it means to be a male or a female. We have sunk from trying to understand the greatest mystery of the nature of God, to debating what it means to have a penis or a vagina.

You call that progress?

I just don’t get it.

For the Love of Words

Harvey Porter, long-time preacher and hero of mine, once said that in order to be a good preacher you had to be a lover of words. My father bequeathed to me many quirks, but maybe one that I value the most is a profound love of words. I have seen him reading Ogden Nash and laughing so hard tears came to his eyes. My father loved a beautiful poem and beautiful song lyrics. To him words were not simply objects to be thrown around mindlessly, but tools to be treasured and protected.

Words move us, shape us, comfort us. Conversely, words can cut, inflame, and injure. While other animals have the ability to communicate using sounds, only humans have the ability to create and share the specific meaning of individual sounds called words. There are countless languages on the earth, but none without meaning, and none without the use of specific, individual words.

There is something profound, and even mystical, then, that the gospel writer says that Jesus was the Word of God. The Divine Being that is beyond and transcends all understanding, descended into this world to be known as the Word.

All of which is to point to the death of words, of language, today. Words used to have meaning – words used to be signs that pointed to a fixed and immutable truth that lay behind the vocalization of certain sounds. Take the word truth for example – on one level the word is simply a combination of a sequence of vocalizations that, on their own, have no significance. On another level the word points to something solid, secure; as I mentioned above, immutable and eternal.

But, today, even truth is dying. We are told there is no immutable, eternal truth. Truth is a construct, truth is what we want it to be, truth is transitory, cultural, and ephemeral.

Pardon me for being old-fashioned, out-of-date, and stodgy, but I treasure words. I value words not only for the beauty that they reveal, but for the beauty they contain in-and-of themselves. There is a quality, an aspect, of words that I hold to be precious. Even though the eternal concept of Truth cannot be affected by the degrading of the physical word truth, its value in the economy of language does suffer. The mention of truth used to make gentlemen stand up and remove their hats. Now, all it does is engender snickers and guffaws.

All of the preceding leads me to the question that motivated this post – what does the word Christian mean anymore? That is to ask, what does it mean to be a Christian? Is one a Christian simply because he or she is not a Muslim, a Hindu, a Buddhist? Is one a Christian simply because he or she says that he or she is a Christian? Is there some definable, measurable quality that would identify a person as a Christian? If so, what is it? How would we identify it?

There is a collection of writings that, for roughly two thousand years, men and women have used as a measure of what it means to be a Christian. We call that collection of writings a Bible, a word that simply means book. The Bible is a book of books, comprised of millions of words. Those words are not just any kind of words, however. For those who have historically used the adjective “Christian,” those words are believed to have come to us by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit of the Holy God. They are not, in other words, just inspirational words, such as the words of the great Greek, Roman, or English poets. No. These words are believed, are confessed, to be the words that God himself gave to his chosen penmen (and perhaps, penwomen). To deny that those words are inspired of God, and even to deny the truths that those words communicate, has, for those two thousand years (and even longer, adding the history of the Jewish people), meant that one is outside of the boundaries of the church. In other words, you cannot deny that which creates the identity of a person or group, and then claim the identity of that person or group.

There are people who reject the inspiration of the Scriptures. They therefore reject the foundational truths revealed in those Scriptures. They may selectively borrow certain qualities or virtues promoted in Scripture, but for them those qualities are simply inspirational, and therefore not crucial (note, the root for crucial is the cross – that which is crucial is founded of the truth of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross).

Here is where, for me, the “rubber meets the road” (to use a colorful colloquialism). It is simply impossible to deny the inspiration of the Bible, and deny the historical and moral teachings contained in those Scriptures, and then claim allegiance to the One to whom those Scriptures point. It is not enough to claim a belief in the historical life of Jesus. It is not even enough to claim that this Jesus died to forgive the failures of mankind.

If you deny the claims that Scripture makes about itself (or, that the authors make regarding their writings) then you cannot claim participation in the realm, the kingdom, that the Scriptures identify – the kingdom of God. To me its that simple.

I am enough of a realist to understand that in the ebb and flow of history, the meanings and the usage of words changes. Take, for example, the bastardization of the word gay. Gay used to mean happy, carefree, exuberant. Now it is used to describe a deviant sexual lifestyle.

I question whether the word “Christian” can have any linguistic value today. I know the truth behind the word has not changed, but because we use the word to describe everything from trinkets and baubles to the precise and exacting exercise of theology, the word has “literally” become vapid, insipid, meaningless. I think for the time being the phrase disciple of Christ has more validity. You can measure discipleship, you can challenge it, test it, qualify and quantify it. Not so much with the adjective, Christian.

I love the word Christian, however. In its pristine form it means, little Christ. Those who honorably claim the name seek to become like Jesus in every way. In order to do that we must rely on the words he loved and meditated upon – the Holy Scriptures that we call the Old Testament. We must also rely on the words of those whom He inspired to continue his message – the Holy Scriptures that we call the New Testament. We must love the Word, and we must love the words.

And, for anyone who does not love the Word, let him or her be anathema. (1 Corinthians 16:22). If anyone who preaches a gospel contrary to the gospel preached in the Scripture, let that one be accursed (Galatians 1:8, 9)

The Impossibility of Heresy

Thomas Merton on heresy –

In the climate of the Second Vatican Council, of ecumenism, of openness, the word ‘heretic’ has become not only unpopular but unspeakable . . . But has the concept of heresy become completely irrelevant? . . . Or is error something we no longer consider dangerous?

The Catholic is one who stakes his life on certain truths revealed by God. If these truths cease to apply, his life ceases to have meaning.

So then: what is a heretic?

A heretic is first of all a believer. Today the ideas of ‘heretic’ and ‘unbeliever’ are generally confused. . . It [heresy] is, however a problem for the believer who is too eager to identify himself with their [the unbeliever] unbelief in order to ‘win them for Christ.’

Where the real danger of heresy exists for the Catholic today is precisely in that ‘believing’ zeal which, eager to open up new aspects and new dimensions of faith, thoughtlessly or carelessly sacrifices something essential to Christian truth, on the grounds that this is no longer comprehensible to modern man. Heresy is precisely a ‘choice’ which, for human motives (rationalized perhaps as ‘grace’), selects and prefers an opinion contrary to revealed truth as held and understood by the church. It then proceeds to teach this opinion contumaciously even against the sincere protest of the faithful (not merely the carping of a few bigots). [Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, p. 338-339]

Why in the world am I quoting the words of a Roman Catholic Trappist monk, with whom I would have far more to disagree with than to agree? Because, oddly enough, I have much more respect for someone who is willing to defend their beliefs, than for anyone who is willing to sacrifice what they think they believe, or used to believe, in order to salvage any measure of popular admiration.

Once upon a time, it was actually possible to “commit”  heresy, to be a heretic, simply because the church zealously defended a robust, specific, and exclusive concept of truth. Now, because everyone is entitled to their own opinion and we have to be “tolerant,” “affirming,” and “inclusive” of every opinion no matter how bizarre or ridiculous, heresy is impossible.

But, follow me here. If the rhetorical concept of evil was totally and completely erased, everything would be “good.” Murder would be good. Rape would be good. Lying, cheating, stealing, all would be “good,” because there would be no concept of “evil” with which to label these activities. In that sense, the meaning of “good” would likewise be erased. There can be no concept of the ethical or the “good” without the opposing concepts of the unethical or “evil.”

If the rhetorical concept of “heresy” is erased, then, likewise so is the rhetorical concept of truth. “Truth” then becomes whatever one wants it to be. In the profound words of Merton above, truth then simply becomes a choice and an opinion with no reference to any external authority.

Today we have erased the concept of heresy at the horrifying expense of erasing the concept of truth.

If you doubt me, just follow any kind of religious publication and see what happens when someone utters or writes the “H” word. “You better be careful” say all the nervous nellies. “You can’t call someone a heretic just because they disagree with you.” Well, no. No one is saying that. But, you can identify someone as a heretic if they deny or reject a specific teaching of Scripture that the church universal has accepted and proclaimed for virtually all of its 2,000 year existence.

A few months ago, a young evangelical hero publicly proclaimed that the God of the Old Testament was not the same God of the New Testament. A long, long time ago a fellow by the name of Marcion said the same thing, and was purged from the church as being a heretic. A few people had the courage (and the insight) to recognize that what the young hero was saying was virtually identical to what Marcion taught, and called the hero a heretic. You would have thought they called him the antichrist. “You cannot label him a heretic just because he has a different interpretation than you.” Well, no. Once again, no one ever said that. But to specifically deny that the God of the New Testament is the same God as the Old Testament is a heretical teaching. Ergo and therefore, the young hero is a heretic.

Just recently a young female author passed away and she has been duly canonized and beatified into evangelical sainthood. Commentators have been tripping over themselves trying to be the most effuse in their praise of her opinions. I may be the only one to say this, but if the Thomas Merton’s definition of heresy above has any merit at all, this woman was a heretic. She may have been a believer (I cannot affirm or deny that judgment), but she clearly made choices that deviated from Scriptural norms, she actively promoted those choices and opinions and denigrated those who defended truths that have been sustained by the church since its inception.

Read the paragraph from Merton above again that begins with the words, “Where the real danger of heresy exists. . . ” Substitute the word “Christian”  for “Catholic” (or, if you are Catholic, leave it there, or if you are comfortable with understanding Merton’s ecumenism, leave it there as well) and think about it for a while. Both the evangelical hero who denies the eternal nature and unity of God and the one-time evangelical author (she actually left “evangelicalism” and moved to the Anglican church) who denied the inspiration of Scripture and the divine nature of God as revealed in human sexuality, sought to promote their heresies in order to “win people to Christ.” They both thought that the more traditional, read “biblical,” view was too confining, too exclusive, too demeaning. So, let’s just create a new and different God for the New Testament, a God of love, of kindness, of acceptance, a God who would never stoop to such behaviors as executing disobedient people (well, Acts chapter 5 excluded). Let’s just create a Christianity where there are no distinctions between male and female, let’s just do away with that repressive concept of “one man, one woman united in marriage for life.” Let’s just do away with that silly myth that the Holy Spirit could inspire an author (or authors) to teach and proclaim such clearly inhumane doctrines. Let us be able to pick and choose which teachings in the Bible we find acceptable, and let us be free to reject those we find unacceptable; and above all, let us be free to excoriate those who hold those traditional teachings we find so repugnant.

I find it somewhat embarrassing to have to go to a Roman Catholic, Trappist monk to find a cogent discussion of the possibility, even the necessity, of labeling certain teachings and teachers as heresy and heretical. I wonder what he would say of the Roman Catholic church of 2019.

I don’t think I have to wonder what he would think about someone who denied the doctrine of the unity of God throughout the Bible, or of someone who denied that all the Scriptures were inspired by the Holy Spirit of God.

I know this is politically incorrect (as this entire post has probably been) but I think the “H” word needs to made possible again.