The un-Gospel

To hear many evangelicals today, the Gospel goes something like this: “For God so hated the world that, in his white-hot fury, he sent his only Son to save a relatively few lucky souls out of it (the lucky mice who find Jesus the cheese in the maze), and then, when the oil runs out in the Middle East, Jesus is coming back with our grandmothers who already went to heaven. Up in heaven, our grandmas have developed quite a violent streak while spending time with Jesus, plus learned the arts of war, and Jesus will be done with all that talk of forgiving your enemies, so He is returning with our grandmothers to kill everyone who hasn’t figured it all out yet, probably starting with the Muslims, but maybe also the Soviets. Once the battlefield is six feet deep in his enemies’ blood, God will burn everything He ever created on this planet to a cinder, including everyone and every place and everything you’ve ever loved. You see, even God himself can’t fix his world without resorting to the same kind of violence used by Rome against his Son, and used by IS in Syria today. And all those people who didn’t hear about Jesus or figure out the truth about which religion was right are going to have their lives sustained over trillions of years while they burn on fire. But those of us in heaven won’t mind, because we will forget anything sad about Earth. The End.”

It’s stunning we’ve had the audacity to actually call this “good news” when in fact it’s bad news for almost every person God ever created, and terrible news for all the living beings in all the world. This isn’t the Gospel, it’s the un-Gospel. And it’s what tons of people in church in America actually think the Bible teaches.

It’s no wonder people in our culture today, both modern and postmodern, hear a story told like that and say “I want nothing to do with something as sick, toxic, and twisted as that. I want to be a better person than I am right now. And do good in the world. I want to believe a beautiful story, not a dark and awful one. I will go check out Buddhism.”

I’m so glad that’s not the gospel, although for many years I thought it was. Most of historic Christianity has not believed this dark, terrible tale. The Bible tells a much better story than this, we just need to take off the 19th-20th century American evangelical glasses and learn to read the Bible for what it says. God, it turns out, has a long range project going on to heal and restore and redeem the world. He is not going to burn it to a cinder, our translation of 2 Peter is terrible, check most commentaries. As is made clear across Scripture, God plans to rescue all creation, the planet Earth itself, as all creation longs for the day of its liberation. See John Wesley’s comments on Romans 8: 19-22. We have every reason to be optimistic about the future, because God is at work in the world, and Jesus has triumphed over sin, death, and hell. Everything: economic systems and governments, societal justice and the environment, individuals and nations, is called to be transformed under the Lordship of Jesus.

That’s the Gospel.

“Is it Time for Atheists to Hunt Bigger Game?” by Chase Madar

I like this article, not because I agree with every single word, but because it reminds us that there are many “gods” people believe in, including enshrined political or economic theories, that should be questioned. And that, as usually occurs when people go fundamentalist in their beliefs, when you do question some of these assumptions, people begin to freak out. That true-believer mentality is not limited to theological questions; our world at this very moment is being DRIVEN by beliefs like the ones critiqued in this article.

http://america.aljazeera.com/opinions/2015/5/is-it-time-for-atheists-to-hunt-bigger-game.html

Left Brain/Right Brain, Life, and Spiritual Knowledge

Towards the end of the last blog’s quote of N.T. Wright, Wright says “We cannot use a supposedly objective historical epistemology as the ultimate ground for the truth of Easter…..  not because we don’t believe in evidence and argument, not because we don’t believe in history or science, but because they will have been overtaken by the larger reality from which they borrow, to which they point, and in which they will find a new and larger home.” It’s not hard to see why someone could say he is pulling a cheap end-run, trying to skirt the argument,  encapsulating science within a larger epistemology, like Hinduism encapsulating Christ within its pantheon, arguing for a both-and approach, when everyone with our Western Enlightenment mindset knows the question is really either-or.

However, I think Wright is actually expressing something thoroughly true to human existence. (Richard Rohr also does very good work in this area, among others, see his Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi). There are certainly more ways of “knowing” something than empirical science. I know that I love my wife, I know that I will be deeply content the next time I am surf-fishing, I know what musical transition will sound good, I know when I have done the right thing, I know my children, I know how much pressure to apply to jump the first step of our staircase, I know that that sunset will thrill my daughter. None of these types of knowing are based around empirical scientific evidence. Knowing that you love someone may be the most accessible example in everyday life. Humans know all kinds of things, all day, every day, which have nothing to do with empirical scientific proof. Western Enlightenment has acted like really only empirical evidence matters in the real world of grown-ups, but real life indicates conclusively that that is nonsense.

We have a left brain and a right brain, and I mean it literally, but more than literally as well, to say a person needs both sides of the brain to be alive. The left crunches numbers and facts, the right handles, music, art, beauty, intuition. The left handles science, the right handles spirituality. As the former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Jonathon Sacks, has said, science takes things apart to see how they work, religion puts things together to see what they mean. And I would argue that human experience shows, that when we opt for simply one dimension, we lack a balanced, healthy, whole life.

Even within Christian spirituality this is evident. We can’t go on simply reading. We need to sing – it’s literally a different part of our brains. We need to get up and do something as an expression of the imago dei, because sitting and being only cerebral will distort, and sometimes literally kill, us. (Sitting too much is linked in numerous medical studies to early death). We need to interact relationally with other people. We need our imaginations fired, which is not the empirical part of our brains, to receive the benefit of exemplary causation, a much more powerful reality than “role model” and one medieval Christianity understood thoroughly in its attention to the role of the saints. One evidence of this is the number of evangelical protestant – oriented people who struggle so much with a male authority-figure image of God because of bad experiences with their fathers or other male leaders. Well, with our down-grading of Mary’s role in Christian spirituality, we’ve taken away from them a feminine aspect in Christian devotion that earlier generations had access to, and we’ve stuck people with only a get-over-it option, which other generations weren’t trapped in.

All of that to begin to say, though of course we can’t unwind it all in a blog post, that science, though it contributes wonderful things to our life and understanding, is not the only dimension of human knowledge which we need for a full, flourishing human life and civilization. Nor can science prove or dis-prove something like the resurrection of Jesus.

The NT doesn’t support our Western doctrine of Original Sin

In Luke 5:31-32 (HCSB) – Jesus says “The healthy don’t need a doctor, but the sick do.  I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” It’s very clear here that Jesus considered some people in his generation to be in right standing with God already, before the atonement on the cross. The Book of Hebrews lists many, many heroes of faith who were righteous long before Jesus came. But the way most of us understand the idea of original sin is that everybody on the planet has some sort of cosmic evilness in them that makes God furious and the only way to get out of an eternity of hell is to be lucky enough to hear about Jesus and say the sinner’s prayer.  So, the point of Jesus’ coming is this: everyone in the world is born with a condition God is furious at, so he is sending everyone in the world to hell, (like punishing a kid for having Down’s Syndrome) and Jesus comes as the medicine so you can go to heaven.

It’s like we’ve changed stories. Because you would never read the Old Testament cover to cover and come away with that idea: that the point of the story is that God is sending everyone to hell due to original sin, unless they confess the Messiah, whereupon the can go to heaven.  You would never even remotely come away with that idea from reading the Old Testament. The storyline in the Old Testament is that Yahweh created the world and it is being despoiled by violence and idolatry and evil and God wants people to live rightly in His world. So it’s like we’ve switched storylines in between the Testaments.

So the question is, is there a change of story, or are we mis-reading our New Testaments? Logically, Jesus the Messiah came to solve the problem presented in the Old Testament: to put God’s world right. Much Protestant theology, however, acts as if Jesus came to solve the problem OF the Old Testament: as if the problem is the way people related to God in the Old Testament (the Law) which now has to be remedied (by grace).

While grace and the atonement are certainly central realities in the New Testament, I think we’ve gotten mixed up about the storyline. I will say it again: the Old Testament never remotely suggests that the central story of the world is that all humanity is sinful and going to hell and can only go to heaven if they accept the Messiah. No, the Messiah is coming to set the world right, including the people in it. This is a story about this world, not an insurance policy for lucky insiders regarding the afterlife.

The Rabbit Trails of Revival and Anointing

A friend of mine recently described to me the experience of attending a church which was obviously losing its grip on its members. Week after week, year after year, the congregation was exhorted to “keep coming or you will miss God’s anointing! It’s right around the corner, we can feel it! God’s going to do something big! If you leave and go somewhere else, you’ll miss it!” This was accompanied by long prayers begging for God’s anointing.

I could relate. I grew up in an atmosphere where ‘revival’ was described and looked for in the exact same way. It was always felt that it was ‘just around the corner.’ “God’s going to do something big soon – I can feel it! We’re about to have revival!” This too was accompanied by lots of prayers for revival, eventually books and prescriptions were written for how to get God to pour out revival.  Previous revivals in history were studied to find the common elements – the key to unleash the power. Translation: if we would just get a little more earnestness, more committed, repent more, or develop some other spiritual attribute, God would finally relent of his chintzy, cheapskate tight-fistedness with his revival coin.

Sorry, I’m not buying.

The assumptions behind all of this are full of holes. It reminds me of the phrase used by Nazarene theologian Mildred Bangs Wynkoop forty years ago: “Credibility Gap”. First, what’s wrong with what happens in the faithful gathering for worship, week after week, year after year? For thousands of years God’s people have been sustained, nurtured, strengthened and empowered through gathering together for the reading of the Word, the celebration of the sacraments, the worship of God in song, praying together, and – not least – the community of togetherness in Jesus’ name. What’s lacking in that? The frantic pleas for revival and anointing imply that that’s not enough;  there’s a lack, a deficiency. All that happens in weekly worship: the lives changed, the attitudes transformed, the newness of life poured out, the life trajectories re-directed, the joy imparted, the welcome of new people with authentic love, the strengthening, encouraging, purpose, mission, community – nope –  apparently not good enough. Second, all this begging for revival and anointing  acts like God is really hard to convince, doesn’t like to part with his revival stash, or is bound by a notebook full of addendums and legal restrictions regarding when and when not He can do His thing.

Seriously?

In the sophisticated modern church of the second millenium, here’s what this tends to look like: pastors running around always working things up for the next push, the next event, the next program, the next Big Thing that will finally be the magic button to get their church to be whatever it isn’t, and flood their doors with urgent seekers. As soon as they finish the current  Big Deal, they start running toward the next one, rounding up (tired) ‘volunteers’ and urging people to give their spare time to this next big event they imagine will be the equivalent of rubbing the Genie’s Lamp of Church Growth.

I get tired just describing it. And I’m not going to spend my life doing any of that.

I don’t think God is reluctant with His unction. I don’t think He’s bemused watching us scramble trying to find the hidden cheese of revival in His maze.  I don’t think there is ANYTHING wrong with what God does week after week in the regular Sunday morning gathering of His people. New peoples’ lives are being visibly transformed;  longtimers are sustained, helped, encouraged; people are called into ministry; new ministries begin; people hear a call to pastoral leadership, get educated and start churches or join the work here; there is nothing wrong with what goes on.

What I do think is happening is that both Nazarenes and Charismatics can look back within living memory to the beginnings of both of our movements. The enthusiasm, newness, Big Push for the common goal and comradery of a fresh vision that characterize almost any kind of new movement, religious or not, gets longed for again, not to mention idealized. But anyone familiar with the sociological lifespan of movements knows that they don’t stay in that phase. Looking back longingly to the early part of the organization’s developmental phase is to miss out on the benefits of the current part of the lifespan. It’s like a parent looking back so longingly at the toddler phase of their children’s lives that they fail to enjoy them in their 20s.   They miss out on what is in front of them. You may have noticed that the 20-30 somethings that left evangelicalism for the Mainline churches (or started their own), don’t wring their hands week to week for revival or anointing.  They enjoy what the community of faith is and does.

I don’t think we are going to manipulate God into when He does extraordinary acts of revival.  History shows that if we think there’s a formula for that, we’re mis-interpreting those Bible verses. If it were as simple as us pulling the right levers on the heavenly machine, we’d have had God dancing to our tune like a puppet long, long ago.  I’m not going to wring my hands about what God does in church, wishing for something else. What He does with us week after week, just as He has for thousands of years, is a profound good. There’s no deficiency.

Our best, their worst

This is sort of part two to How do you judge a denomination?   https://toddrisser.com/2013/12/16/how-do-you-judge-a-denomination/

One of the things we need to beware of is comparing our best to someone else’s  worst. We do this all the time. A family member of mine once remarked “Man, those Catholics are really screwed up.”  Having read the gigantic 1994 Catechism, and knowing he hadn’t, I asked “What do you mean?” He went on to describe some Catholics he knew. Of course the ones he was describing were folks who went to Mass once or twice a year, considered themselves Catholic, and didn’t practice the Christian religion at all. I said something like, Are you kidding me? Of course comparing a lapsed, non-practicing Catholic to the best Nazarenes you know makes it look like we are way better than them – how about comparing apples to apples? You don’t think I can show you people who attend a Nazarene church once in a blue moon, who if asked would say “yeah, I’m Nazarene” whose lives are a wreck ? They’re all over the landscape! You can’t think of one group’s worst representatives on the one hand, and think of your group’s best representatives on the other, and call that a fair comparison. This should go without saying, but we do it all the time.

If we are in a group we esteem, we tend to conceptualize that group by its best results. When we aren’t part of a group, or don’t like their theology, etc., we tend to think of the bad examples of why we don’t think they are all that great. Want to compare Catholics to Nazarenes? Put one of our best up against Mother  Teresa or Francis. Want to look down on Pentecostals? Try comparing your life to my great, great Aunt Evelyn. I have “sort-of” “former”’ “non-practicing” “lapsed” Nazarenes all over this town whose fractured, messed up lives would give any lapsed Catholic a run for their money! We don’t accomplish any valuable evaluation of a religious group’s health or end-results by comparing our best to their worst.

How do you judge a denomination?

After two glorious weeks of doing something more important than thinking theology – deer hunting in the Pennsylvania mountains with every bit of my spare time – I am back. Here’s a thought: how do you judge, “size up,” or evaluate a denomination, church, tradition, or even other religion?

I get asked this all the time. Someone will say to me “what do you think about the _______ (fill in the blank) – Methodists? Mormons? River Brethren? Episcopalians? Catholics ? You get the idea. And that usually evokes something like the following musings.

How do you “judge” a group? Do you evaluate them by their official, published theology? Or do you evaluate them by what their current working theologians actually believe (which is often different than their published ‘official’ line on a subject. Those kinds of official changes take time).  Or do you evaluate them by what their top-tier leader(s) believe? Or, do you evaluate them by what the majority of their members believe? (This is often different than what their published theology says, what their theologians currently think, AND what their leaders say!) Alternately, do you drop all of those tests-for-orthodoxy, and come at it from a different approach – evaluate a group by the kind of Christians they produce? Churches, denominations, etc. often produce better Christians than their theology would logically lead to! Or, to put it another way, their theology may be wide of where yours is, but the quality of the Christians they develop is nevertheless fantastic.

A couple thoughts about this: contrary to what we would assume, poor theology doesn’t necessarily result in poor following of Jesus. It doesn’t necessarily result in low returns in love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, gentleness, humility and self-control.  Weird doctrines and strange practices don’t stop people from loving Jesus and living how he says. Said another way,  strange ideas are not able to keep the Spirit of  Jesus out of the room. And they can’t stop Jesus from working in someone’s life. This is axiomatic. Just as high prices do not actually mean high profits, poor theology doesn’t actually mean people follow Jesus poorly. Obviously by the existence of this blog, I am deeply interested in theology. However, we need to recognize that judging a group by its theology, at whatever level, does not give us a picture of something even more important: how its members follow Jesus, and how their hearts reflect the characteristics His Spirit develops in us.