Is the Bible’s Story What We Say It Is?

The way that the Bible’s story is often pitched in evangelicalism is that the point of life is that everyone has sinned, thus infuriating God and causing Him to send everyone to hell, and you have to ask Jesus to forgive you or you won’t go to heaven. So the point of life is actually afterlife, getting to heaven. Sometimes this story-line is expressed with an even more sinister tone:  a friend of mine the other day summed it up when asked, What’s the point of earth in this version: “just a testing place to see if God will let you into heaven.”

But I noticed some time ago that if you read the Old Testament you would never come away with this story line. Reading the Old Testament, the point of it all doesn’t come across that everyone is sinful and God will take you to heaven if you ask forgiveness. In the OT, the storyline goes more like this: life on earth is being ruined by violence, oppression and injustice. God wants people to live uprightly, the opposite of those things, and to follow Him and His ways for a good life here. Jesus, when asked, summed up the OT with “loving God” and “loving your neighbor.” The point is explicitly summed up in verses like Micah 6: 8

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
    And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
    and to walk humbly with your God.

This is a story about life on earth and how God wants it lived, and that the problem is the destruction of shalom here on earth. This is not a story about earth as a testing ground to see who makes it to heaven.

Consider the following books and ask yourself if their message is about making it to heaven: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy? Chronicles? Kings? The Psalms? Esther? Jonah?  The Prophets? Hmmmm.

As for after-life, in the Old Testament we get a comment about resurrection in Job, a two verse mention of the Great Judgment in Daniel, and a handful of verses in Psalms about escaping Sheol or dwelling with the Lord all my days.

The Old Testament seems to be about life on earth. But we talk like the New Testament is about life after earth. Why the switch of subjects? Is there really a switch? Or have we simply prioritized some texts, skipped over or misread others, and assumed things about phrases like ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ which are different than what Jesus actually meant? If we assume Jesus came as an answer to the problem presented in the Old Testament, why do the New Testament answers (as we typically discuss them) sound like they are about a different problem?  Some have suggested that we have gotten this point-of-life-is-escaping-hell-and-gaining-heaven from the soaking Christian theology got via passing through Greek philosophy. Perhaps we’ve developed a Christianity focused so much on afterlife that we’ve missed the point of much of the Bible.

Earth is Not Detention Hall, Part Two

Part One can be read here  https://toddrisser.com/2013/11/12/earth-is-not-detention-hall-part-one/

The tikkun olam (repairment of the world) is a doctrine so lost in American evangelicalism, most modern Christians have never even heard of it. In fact, it is very common for life-long church-goers to say to me at funerals “I get the heaven thing, but what’s this about the resurrection of the body?” Resurrection and repairment of the world are two doctrines that go inseparably hand in hand in the Scriptures. Somehow we’ve lost track of some major parts of the Bible’s story.

I find it difficult to enumerate in a small space the vast, profound difference between believing earth is a short rehearsal before we leave forever, and believing that earth is the locus of God’s redemption, now and forever. This has profound effects on how we view the Creation, the scope of salvation, environmental and foreign policy, and a host of issues in our lives here and now, and tomorrow.

Seeing the world as God’s beloved creation, emerging/postmodern Christian faith has a stake in the state of this world. They realize atheist Sam Harris asks a good question when he asks “Can people who believe in the imminent end of the world really be expected to work toward building a durable civilization?” (Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation, xii).

Rapture theology and end of the world despair is a two hundred year old rabbit trail that gained lots of traction in American folk theology, but that earlier Christians never believed. Getting back to a biblical eschatology is in itself a good thing, and of course affects our soteriology and morality here and now. Postmodern Christians, not longing to jet away to some ethereal heaven, have theologically compelling reasons to engage this world’s problems and conundrums with the Way of Jesus, and thus bring about more of the justice,  reconciliation and shalom God desires for His creation, which longs for the Day (Romans 8: 19-22).

Earth Is Not Detention Hall, Part One

“Left Behind” theology and other questionable bible exegesis (confusing ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ with a place away from earth where we spend eternity, etc) have  created a view of this world as detention hall. Having a long and thorough personal knowledge of detention hall, I can tell you that all you want to do in detention hall is successfully get out of there. The modern evangelical Christian attitude toward earth has been boiled down to “get me out of this run down trailer park of a planet before God’s tornado touches down.” (I think I owe Rob Bell for this turn of phrase). Or, in the words of Mark Driscoll, “fortunately, the pastor told us about the rapture, and how, if we don’t watch television and do vote Republican, we can fly to heaven just before Jesus opens a can of whoop in the end. This man was on a mission, but it wasn’t very missional. His mission seemed to be simply to get off the planet as soon as possible, which didn’t sound very incarnational to me.” (Mark Driscoll, Confessions of a Reformission Rev., 50). Believe it or not, I have actually had a missionary say to me the best thing he could have done for some ‘natives’ in his area, was mow them down with a machine gun after they received Christ. Is there any more glaring example of a heaven-focused, earth-denying salvation?

Drawn back to Scripture’s story  by such New Testament scholars as N.T. Wright, more and more mainstream Christians (led initially by the emergent movement down this road), have left off these “tired old theologies of abandonment and escape” (thanks again Rob Bell for this phrase), to embrace the biblical doctrine of ‘the renewal of all things’ (Matthew 19:28; Acts 3: 21, Romans 8: 19-25 etc), the call to doing the works of the Kingdom now (Matthew 25: 34ff), and the encouraging promise that none of that will have been in vain (I Corinthians 15:58). We are not oiling the wheels of a car about to go over a cliff. In fact, the Bible’s story ends with us here on earth, not far away in heaven. Heaven, it turns out, is vacation in between death and resurrection. Not our final home.

This is a dramatic theological shift: Postmodern Christians don’t see earth as a temporary and unfortunate part of God’s plan. With the early Christians, they don’t understand the Scriptures to say God is planning on tossing the earth in a scrap heap while we all jet off to some spiritual / non-physical heaven. They read in the Scriptures of God redeeming and restoring His good creation on the Day of the Lord and a resurrected life here on earth in the Age to Come.

This Is What Churches Should Do

Ok, I’ve been out most all week deer hunting in my spare time, so finally here it is:

(names are changed)

Rhoda is a single mom struggling to make ends meet. Her brother and sister in law used to worry about her involvement in New Age spirituality or Wicca. She became a Christian at our church around 5 years ago. Almost immediately she became a Super Inviter, drawing all kinds of people in.

Jimmy and Fire arrived in our town about a year ago with their 3 children, the clothes on their back and five dollars. They put their kids up at Fire’s mom’s place since they had no way to take care of them; they had no home, no jobs, no food. They had smashed their life against the rocks of addiction in Florida. Rhoda had known Fire in school, so this single mom with two kids of her own struggling to make ends meet said to Jimmy and Fire “move in with me until you can get life together.” Rhoda put out word and people at our church started gathering things this family of 5 would need.

Rhoda invited Jimmy and Fire to church. They decided this was a point in life to make a change. Within a very short time they had tasted and seen that the Lord is good, and turned their lives over to Him. Prayer and a new life of faith became the norm for them.  Their repentance (metanoia – about face) was the real deal. They both got jobs, started living responsibly and got their kids back. They got an apartment. Rhoda put out word and the people of our church outfitted the place from top to bottom with what a family of five needs to live. We’re talking furniture, kitchen gear, bedclothes, you name it. Our congregation showed them love. A family in our church gave them a minivan. (Keep in mind the people in my church are not rich! Many, if not most, of them would qualify for government assistance). All this happened without anyone asking me. The pastor was not the one who orchestrated all this.

Jimmy and Fire are at Sunday morning small group, Wednesday nights and Sunday worship.  They are engaged in learning and growing. They’ve made relationships with other couples and brought people to church. They renewed their lease recently for the first time in their married life. “That felt good,” Jimmy told me. They’ve received their one year sobriety coins. They help other people. They ask me for ways to give back to the church. They are both enrolled in college on-line. When I told Jimmy I happened to have a battery for his van, his reply was “Thanks man, but let me be a man and get my family our own battery.”

God is very clearly doing wonderful things in Jimmy and Fire’s lives. Rhoda was a gift of God to them, gave them a base to get their feet under them. As part of that, I can’t help but think that our church reaching into their lives tangibly beyond Sunday worship had something to do with their incredible turn around. I know we hesitate to prescribe things all churches should do, however I believe this is exactly the kind of thing churches should be doing. 

I just backpacked Pine Creek Gorge with my son

Every year before he goes back to college my oldest son and I go backpacking somewhere for two or three days. This year we climbed the West Rim Trail of Pennsylvania’s Grand Canyon/ Pine Creek Gorge into the Natural Area and then packed down to the creek and camped under the hemlocks beside the stream. Juvenile Common Mergansers, a bald eagle and perhaps the nicest smallmouth bass I’ve ever caught were some of the creatures we shared the Gorge with.

Each year we take along a couple copies of a recent theology book and have a blast reading it simultaneously laying in the tent at night and talking back and forth about it.  This year we took N.T. Wright’s Simply Christian, a book that’s been out for quite some time, but which Tanner had never read. I heartily recommend it:  it’s one of the best introductions to what we really mean by Christian spirituality for the postmodern world. Wright is the leading New Testament scholar on the planet, an Anglican who has been at the forefront of both Pauline and historical Jesus research for more than two decades.

As we were soaking up the extreme beauty of the Gorge we talked about the bizarre Left Behind version of Christian eschatology in which they imagine God abandoning  His good creation – the earth – and destroying it. “Why would anybody be attracted to such an ugly and disheartening  story?” I asked my son rhetorically as we stood in the creek. We commented what a joyful addition to our lives the biblical doctrine of the renewal of all things has been for us. That is, the Bible teaches that, rather than betraying it, God intends to renew the world, healing Creation of all its ills – and all of the mountains, rivers, dolphins, bluejays, wildflowers  et etc  will still be around for us to thrill to enjoy in the Age to Come. What a better, more Gospel “Good News” story than the toxic, twisted Left Behind plotline.

In the next blog I’ll cite the biblical references for the healing of all Creation.

Emergent church book titles that sum it up

The “Emergent” conversation within (mostly Western) Christianity has believed for quite some time that we are in the midst of a massive rethink, the coming of an end to one era in Christian thought and practice, and the beginning of another (which has happened several times before of course). This often makes some people who are deeply invested in the current institutions and doctrinal systems of modern Christianity very apprehensive, and even calls down accusations of heresy. But this was the case each time one historic era of Christianity died and a new one was birthed. Look at the titles of these books. Do they give you a feel or sense or idea of some of emerging Christianity’s themes?   These are by no means the only excellent books on the subject out there, but these have titles that are indicative:

 

Signs of Emergence: A Vision for Church That Is Organic/ Networked/ Decentralized/ Bottom-Up/ Communal/ Flexible {Always Evolving} (Kester Brewin, Baker, 2007)

Post-Modern Pilgrims: First Century Passion for the 21st Century World (Leonard Sweet, B&H, 2000)

A New Kind of Christian: A Tale of Two Friends on a Spiritual Journey (Brian McLaren, Josey-Bass, 2001)

The Search to Belong: Rethinking intimacy, community, and small groups (Joseph Myers, Zondervan,  2003)

Jesus Brand Spirituality: He wants His religion back (Ken Wilson, Thomas Nelson, 2008)

The Radical Reformission: reaching out without selling out (Mark Driscoll, Zondervan, 2004)

Church Re-Imagined: The Spiritual Formation of People in Communities of Faith (Doug Pagitt and the Solomon’s Porch Community, Zondervan, 2003)

The Next Reformation: Why Evangelicals Must Embrace Postmodernity (Carl Raschke, Baker Academic, 2004)

Jesus Wants to Save Christians: A manifesto for the church in exile (Rob Bell and Don Golden, Zondervan, 2008)

Making Sense of Church: Eavesdropping on Emerging Conversations about God, Community, and Culture (Spencer Burke, Zondervan, 2003)

The Emerging Church: Vintage Christianity for New Generations (Dan Kimball, Zondervan, 2003)

and last but not least, and getting the award for longest subtitle, of course:

A Generous Orthodoxy: Why I am a missional + evangelical + post/protestant + liberal/conservative + mystical/poetic + biblical + charismatic/contemplative + fundamentalist/Calvinist + anabaptist/Anglican + Methodist + catholic + green + incarnational + depressed-yet-hopeful + emergent + unfinished CHRISTIAN (Brian McLaren, Zondervan, 2004)

Why SOME older, Modern Christians are encouraged by Postmodernism or ‘Why Postmodernism is a good culture for the church to evangelize in’

  Quite a few Christian leaders are actually encouraged, seeing the postmodern world as one where Christianity will fit in much better than it did in the modern, rationalistic, science-as-god worldview. No one needs to prove that the dominant modern secular worldview was utterly skeptical of ‘spiritual experiences,’ or ‘religion’ for that matter. While spirituality fell out of vogue in the modern world, except as sort of an upscale hobby for people into that sort of thing, the postmodern world is unapologetically spiritual. Have you noticed? Name a type of spirituality  and it’s probably growing.

My favorite summary of why postmodernism could be a good thing for Christianity comes from Baptist Reggie McNeal in his book The Present Future: Six Tough Questions for the Church. If I can sum up his description, drawing from some of his colorful turns of phrase, it is this:  ‘God took a beating in the modern world’, relegated more and more  to the edges of the universe. Church leadership migrated from being about otherworldy insight and spiritual rites to being a scholar of antiquities and eventually a CEO with organizational science being the chief qualifications. Science and technology increasingly  shifted the modern practice of Christian faith to focus around head-knowledge. As a result ‘the North American church is largely on a head trip’. ‘We have a rational faith. The test for orthodoxy typically focuses on doctrinal stances, not character and spiritual connectedness to God and others.’ Consequently, most modern discipleship is heavily unbalanced: revolving around acquiring facts rather than following Jesus.

Just about the time the (evangelical, in this case) church had thoroughly imbibed everything modern, the culture went looking for God. We scrubbed sanctuaries of religious symbolism while the culture started searching for sacred space. About the time we adopted business models the culture is searching for spiritual communities. After we erased the mysticism that was at the heart of most of Christian history for a head-oriented fact finding mission, the culture rediscovered the deep human thirst for spirituality. And so, McNeal contends, much of the modern church is less spiritual than the culture around it! We need to get back out in the culture, he says, because room for God is growing in, (and increasingly even central to), the postmodern worldview. We no longer have to argue that there might be value to spiritual life. Postmoderns already get that.

One of the laments of the church in the modern world was that people were obsessed with materialism and consumerism and not interested in matters of the spirit. But in postmodern culture we find a renewed desire for meaning and purpose beyond materialism and consumerism. Methodist Robber Webber saw these shifts as well suited to Christianity and welcomed the responses emerging from the church (see his books The Younger Evangelicals and Ancient-Future Faith).

So some older evangelicals are heartened that the ancient Christian faith finds itself once more in a cultural milieu where it thrives: surrounded by other gods and competing faith claims, Christian spirituality can point people already interested in ‘spirit’ to the one who made their spirits:  Jesus.

New Testament Scholar NT Wright has said it like this:

“We Western Christians mostly bought a bit  too heavily into modernism, and we are shocked to discover that it has been dying for a while… the answer to the challenge of postmodernity is not to run back tearfully into the arms of modernism. It is to hear in postmodernity God’s judgment on the follies and failings, the sheer selfish arrogance, of modernity and to look and pray and work for …  Christian mission in the postmodern world… and enabling our world to turn the corner in the right direction.” (NT Wright, The Challenge of Jesus, 168).

In the postmodern worldview which deconstructed, and no longer buys into, the meta-narratives modernism had sold, Wright (one of e/E/p folk’s favorite theologians) calls us to living out the true metanarrative of Scripture’s story of God, Israel, Jesus and the world.

Part of the point of postmodernity under the strange providence of God is to preach the Fall to arrogant modernity. What we are faced with in our culture is the post-Christian version of the doctrine of original sin: all human endeavor is radically flawed…. And our task, as image-bearing, God-loving, Christ-shaped, Spirit-filled Christians, following Christ and shaping our world, is to announce redemption to the world that has discovered its fallenness, to announce healing to the world that has discovered its brokenness, to proclaim love and trust to the world that knows only exploitation, fear, and suspicion. (NT Wright, The Challenge of Jesus, 183-184).

Many Christians believe the cultural milieu of postmodernity is fertile ground for people to hear the gospel – more fertile, in fact, than the modern era was.  Which brings us to the subject of what street-level postmodernism is NOT.