My Interview with Beyond the Box Podcast from the Wildgoose Festival

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

UPDATE: Brian McLaren's new book Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? has a rather controversial chapter in it that deals with wrestling with violence in the Bible.

The main arguments and exegetical arguments in it are based heavily on my Sojourners article where I show how Paul dealt with violence in the Old Testament, and propose that we should read our Bibles the same way.

In this podcast I discussed that article, while I was at the Wildgoose Festival and got a chance to sit down for an interview with Raborn Johnson from the Beyond the Box podcast:

Listen at Beyond the Box Podcast

Download on iTunes

Download Mp3 
(right-click to download)

Ray and I actually got to  spend a lot of time just hanging out together after that interview with Michael Hardin, Brad Jersak, and Kevin Miller, having these really wonderful in-depth conversations together where we would all just completely lose track of time, and our necks would all hurt from nodding so much.

If you are not familiar with Beyond the Box you really should check it out (and not just because yours truly is there). They have tons of really awesome interviews that I have really enjoyed listing to, so check it out!

Here it is in iTunes

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Rethinking the Wesleyan Quadrilateral

Saturday, July 14, 2012

In seminary we learned to interpret the doctrine using something called the Wesleyan Quadrilateral which looks to four sources: Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. The primary source of knowledge here is the Bible, followed by church tradition.

It all sounds quite reasonable, but as I really studied the New Testament what I found was that Jesus and the apostles used a very different criteria: The New Testament perspective is not based on a rigid adherence to Scripture or tradition. It is primarily based on their experience. The disciples had experienced God come among them in Jesus. They had experienced that the messiah had not come as a warrior as they expected from their reading of the Bible, but had instead given his life. They had experienced Jesus rising from the dead. And finally, the early church was now experiencing that salvation had been made available to all people, to gentiles!

All of this, it must be stressed, completely contradicted how they had all read their Bibles up til then, and completely contradicted the religious tradition that had inherited. They did not come to these conclusions because of a new discovery in exegesis, they came to these radically new views through experiencing what the Spirit was doing among them! This caused them to consequently go back and re-read their Bibles again, trying to make sense of what was happening.

Fact: If the apostles had taken the dogmatic approach to reading their Bibles that so many of us have, then they never would have accepted Jesus as messiah, and they never would have preached salvation to gentiles.

Both the idea of a suffering nonviolent messiah and God's mercy towards gentiles simply did not line up with what they had expected from their reading of Scripture. This is not conjecture on my part, it is something they explicitly state (see for example Peter's two exclamations of "Never, Lord!" first in Matthew 16 where he forbids Jesus to go to the cross, and again in Acts 10 where he resists offering salvation to gentiles). However, the apostles stayed open to what God was doing in their midst, even when it expanded their understanding of truth.

If we want to follow in the apostle's footsteps, then we need to move in that same trajectory, rather than tethering ourselves to a supposed "biblical" view that loses step with what the Spirit is doing.

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Re-Thinking the gospel #2: The gospel and violence

Monday, July 09, 2012

Last time I discussed how a preacher in the park said that God would send you to hell for stealing a stick of gum. Now what would you say if a person answered, 

"Well, I have never stolen anything. In fact, I have perfectly kept all of God's law. I have no problem keeping all of the commandments!"

Perhaps you would then quote Paul where he says, that no one can keep the law. Except that Paul doesn't ever say this. And guess who the person is who makes the above claim of being the perfect law-keeper? Big drum roll please... 

It was the Apostle Paul.

That's right, Paul says in Philippians 3:6 that he has kept the Torah "faultlessly." He tells us that he was "Hebrew of Hebrews," and has no problem keeping the law perfectly. Yet Paul tells he considers all of this to be "garbage" compared to Christ. Why?

Because of what it did to him.

Despite this spotless record Paul considered himself to be "the worst of all sinners." Not because he had broken any commandments or laws. Again, he was "faultless" here he tells us. No, the reason Paul tells us is "because I was a blasphemer and a violent man." Paul had participated in the violent persecution of the followers of Jesus, and he did this because he thought he was being faithful to God.

When Paul says he is a "blasphemer" this does not mean he was cussing. It means that because of his hurtful actions, he gave God a bad name. Today we experience the same thing: people who preach hate and hurt in God's name drive people from God. They give God a bad name, they make God seem like monster. When people reject this abusive image of God, that is not the blasphemy. The blasphemy, Paul tells us--his blasphemy that he came to be ashamed of--was misrepresenting who God was. As he writes (speaking to people like his former self) "God's name is blasphemed among the gentiles because of you."

Now, the ironic thing is that when people like that preacher tell us that God will send us to hell for some minor infraction, they base this on Romans where Paul says "All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God." Because of this, we get the idea that God is the one with the problem. So we need to tell people that God is really mad at them for some trivial thing they did. It's a message completely detached from life that paints God as a petty legalist.

The thing is, this is not at all Paul's point in Romans. His focus when he says that above statement in Romans is on violence, and more specifically on religious violence. Paul is addressing a religious audience who want God to judge, who want wrath to be poured out on the hated Gentiles. Paul is telling them--and he knows this firsthand because he had participated in this religiously justified violence himself!--that this way leads to death. He is not addressing irreligious sinners and telling them to repent of law-breaking, he is addressing religious people who believe in divine retribution and telling them to repent of that.

Now that is a sin that matters! If our only problem is that we tell a white lie or cuss when we stub our toe, then that is really pretty trivial. Many people would argue that God ought to be able to just overlook trivial things like that. After all, they would say, why can't God forgive like he tells us to? But what Paul is dealing with here is hatred, murder, and violence. People killing each other in the name of God and justice. Now we are dealing with some really serious heavy stuff that does real damage, devastating families, destroying lives. God cares about this because he cares about us.  God cannot just overlook that, because it is really hurting people he loves. Paul is not talking about trivial infractions, he is talking about sin which devastates and destroys. Paul is talking about violence.

Not only is this a very serious thing Paul is addressing, it is also quite subtle: It's pretty easy to recognize that alcoholism is bad (indeed it is a very serious sin that causes real harm). It's also easy to recognize that criminal behavior is bad (and it certainly is). But it's a lot harder to recognize the kind of thing Paul is addressing, because this is violence and hurt done in the name of God and justice. What Paul shows us is that you can be religiously "faultless" and still cause severe harm, still spread hate, still advocate for violence, but do it under the cover of God and country, do so while justifying your actions with the Bible! That was Paul's sin, and that is precisely what Paul is addressing in Romans. 

Paul is telling us that the gospel is about breaking out of that way of hurting others in God's name, breaking out of the logic of retributive justice, and entering into God's way of restorative justice demonstrated in Jesus Christ. That's an understanding of the gospel that is not only a much more accurate reading of what Paul is actually saying in Romans, but is also an extremely relevant message for us today.

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Re-Thinking the gospel #1: Sin and Chewing Gum

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Yesterday, I was walking through Dolores Park and heard a street preacher, saying "If you've ever stolen a stick of gum, then you are guilty of sin! If you've ever looked at Facebook at work, then you've stolen from your employer, and that's sin!" Of course we all know where he was headed: If we have sinned--even with a trivial infraction like a stick of gum--then God who is holy must punish us for all eternity in Hell unless we accept Jesus right now.

I mean, seriously, gum? Why can't God just get over it? Is God less moral than all of us are? This is not a picture of holiness, it is a picture of a petty tyrant. Aside from the horrible picture of God that this gives us (and honestly, who could ever love, trust, and feel safe around a God like that?), what this ultimately does is trivialize sin. It makes sin into a petty infraction of little consequence.

We live in a world with real hurt. All you need to do to see this is read the headlines, and you will see story after story of terrible injustice, violence, and suffering throughout the world. So much so it can overwhelming. If you spend the time to really listen to those around you, and will hear stories of deep hurt, broken families, broken people. We do not need to make up fake problems about chewing gum. There are plenty of real problems and hurt in our lives.

Jesus does not focus on gum, or even going too far with your girl friend in Jr High school, or dropping an F-bomb when you stub your toe. His overwhelming focus was on things that have deep and devastating effects on people's lives--the alienation and estrangement that can come from poverty, sickness, and  injustice. That's what Jesus spent the majority of his time focusing on. They matter more because they have more profound consequences. If you feel worthless, condemned, cut off, this is devastating in a way that affects the whole course of your life.

And here's the thing: Jesus did not tell people that this was a sin. He did not tell them to repent of this. Instead, he demonstrated the care and nearness of God to them. He healed the wounded and embraced the untouchable. The biggest problem, as Jesus saw it, was not that we had done things that were wrong and needed to seek forgiveness from an angry God. Our biggest problem was that people felt cut off from God, forsaken.

This, I would propose, is the #1 struggle that people have with God today. What drives so many people to atheism is not selfishness or hedonism, but the experience of abandonment in the face of suffering, grief, and injustice. In fact, it is a problem that touches us whether we are people of faith or completely secular. In the face of debilitating illness or tragedy we can feel isolated and alone. Similarly, those who have experienced violence know as well that this can make you feel helpless and abandoned.

These are things that can bring us to act in hurtful and destructive ways, but the root problem is not this hurtful behavior (this is a mere symptom), our problem is separation. Our problem is relational.
Now, of course where there is hurt and injustice, there are not only victims, but also those who have hurt others. Surely it is right to call people on their hurtfulness, but the focus needs to be on helping these people to develop empathy, and all the more, our main focus really needs to be on caring for those who have been hurt.

This was the clear focus of Jesus. Yes, he confronted those who hurt others (especially those who did so in the name of religion). Yes, he taught us all to walk in the way of compassion and empathy (which he referred to as  "love of enemies"). But the majority of his time Jesus spent caring for those who had been shut out and wounded, his focus was on victims.

Yes, you heard me right: when we place the focus on sinners in need of repentance we do not share the focus of Jesus. That is simply not how he understood his mission, how he understood the gospel.
It is part of it, but when we make it primarily about this we shrink the gospel, and make it irrelevant to those who are not struggling with this particular issue. In focusing on defining ourselves as "sinners in need of repentance" we have placed the focus on redeeming those who harm others (which includes us), often ignoring the needs of those who have been harmed (which includes us, too). This is simply not the focus of Jesus.

It is good to seek to redeem those who harm, but this cannot mean that we neglect to care for those who have been harmed. That's why Jesus cared so much about issues of poverty, sickness, and a host of other social issues tied to self-worth which can separate a person from God and life which we as the church have so often overlooked. Read the gospels and note that Jesus spends the vast majority of his time demonstrating God's love to those who feel cut off due to suffering and injustice, and relatively little time telling people to repent. In fact, when he does tell people to repent it is almost always addressed to the religious people who were shutting out the poor and the least!

Again, the point here is not to condone sin, not to say "we have grace so let's do whatever." Far from it! The point is to recognize that the problem is much bigger than rule-breaking, and the gospel actually addresses that big problem in a very deep way.  We don't need to make up fake problems (like chewing gum). There are very real problems that we all experience right now, and Jesus clearly addresses these problems. This is what we need to deal with.

That means that the gospel is not some irrelevant problem that we need to convince people they have (God is mad at them for some minor infraction or because of original sin), but rather it addresses our real need in a real way. That includes hurtful behavior (what we call "sin") but it goes way deeper than just the outward behavior--it deals with the heart.

God is not a petty legalist who is angry about every stick of chewing gum. It's just the opposite: God wants us to care for the other. God wants us to care for those whom we value the least. If God cares about sin, it's because God cares about you and me. "As you have done it unto the least of these, you have done it unto me." God cares because God loves us, and wants us to stop hurting each other. So what we need to learn is how to love like Jesus does. That has nothing to do with rules and everything to do with relationship.

The focus therefore is not about how "good" you need to be in order to make it into heaven, or on whether God can overlook that bad thing you did. It's not about using Jesus as a legal loophole so you can get your ticket to heaven. That ultimately leads to self-focus, and we need to instead be relationally-focused. We need to care about hurting each other, we need to be active in making things right. Because, to paraphrase Jesus on the sermon on the mount: You are worth much more to God than chewing gum.

Next time: Paul's view of sin as religious violence in Romans

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A Christus Victor presentation of the atonement [VIDEO]

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

I don't normally like these kinds of skits, but this is just beautiful. It really captures the gospel, both in how it captures the real depth and harm of our brokenness, and also in how it shows how God in Christ acts to break us out of our hurtfulness and restore us into a loving relationship. I can't watch this without crying.

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