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.

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The Optimism of The Kingdom

The Strengthfinders assessment lists “positivity” as one of the top 5 ways that I’m hardwired. When I read their detailed description, it did sound like me, and most everyone who knows me remarks about being upbeat and optimistic; however, I don’t think I’m an optimist by nature. In fact, as I think about my childhood, I think I was born tempermentally pessimistic.

It’s the Gospel of Jesus that makes me an optimist.

When I became serious about being a Christian at age 14, my outlook drastically changed. A couple decades ago I became aware that folks in my tribe (Nazarene) were using a phrase “the optimism of grace.”  I think this is a good phrase.

Here are some things that make me optimistic:

Nothing we do for the Lord is in vain.

The Spirit of Jesus is loose in the world, and you can’t stop Him.

The Creator God is about restoration, redemption, healing what is broken.

God is present, right here with me.

The Creator of the world believes mercy triumphs over judgment.

Jesus came to set the captives free.

God’s Spirit develops in us love joy peace patience kindness goodness faithfulness gentleness and self-control.

The Gospel brings us hope, joy, laughter, deep heart contentment, and a meaningful purpose in life.

God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

God isn’t willing that any should perish but that all might come to repentance and new life.

The earth is full of Yahweh’s glory, He is everywhere, and nothing is more powerful than Him.

So I don’t believe in handwringing, woe-is-me religion. Rather than seeing every day as “a losing battle against sin” (an awful phrase I read somewhere recently), I see it as another day the mustard-seed Kingdom has grown yet larger. And that makes me an optimist.

A Different Understanding of ‘Gospel’

Maybe we are witnessing a shift in what we understand ‘the Gospel’ to be about. I’m coming across more and more examples of orienting Christian theology around the Creation narratives and the question ‘What was God’s original intent for Creation?’ Instead of starting with 16th century questions regarding how to get to heaven, the questions center around what the Creation narratives, and subsequent Scriptures,  tell us about God’s desire for how the Creation/Earth should look now. What His will is NOW on Earth (aka the Lord’s prayer).

This gives us a different starting point than what we traditionally think of in Western Christianity. We usually characterize the starting point of the Gospel as “How do I get to heaven?” This shift starts us by asking “What is God’s will for Earth?”

Instead of the controlling question being about life after death, it’s about life before death.

Instead of the controlling question/metaphor being “there’s a hell to shun and a heaven to gain,” this is “heaven is vacation between death and resurrection BACK ON EARTH – which is the centerpoint of God’s interest and redemption.”

This also casts the point of Jesus’ coming differently:  In the first case ‘Why did Jesus come?’ is answered with: “to get me to heaven.” In the second: “to enact God’s will on Earth – to restore shalom and Original Intent of the Creator for his humans and world.”

This might be why some of my Reformed/Calvinist friends are so upset by some of today’s shifts. It changes the narrative entirely. And if you are holding onto the Reformation’s narrative with both hands as if it is the sine qua non of the Gospel, then this shift in perspective is not one you like. It may explain the Reformed antagonism vs NT Wright regarding his work on the meaning of justification – because Wright reaches for a much larger biblical narrative than the Reformation question of ‘how am I justified?’

I wonder if this is a shift in Christian theology in general?  If it is, it’s big.   It changes what the whole gospel is about! Instead of the whole point being ‘getting to heaven,’ this conceptualizes the Gospel to be about  restoring God’s will for life on Earth – bringing our lives, and every aspect of life on our planet (ecology, politics, human rights, relationships, etc etc etc), under the Lordship of Jesus and God’s original intent for life on our world.

Some people have called this a bigger Gospel than the one most of us have grown up with. It looks more and more to me that you can legitimately demonstrate this understanding of ‘Gospel’ in the New Testament when you take off the glasses of theological assumptions you’ve grown accustomed to reading with. I am very confident that this is how the Old Testament characterizes humanity’s problem.

 

Why N.T. Wright is the Most Important Theologian Alive Today

N.T. Wright, former Anglican bishop of Durham, England, is the leading New Testament scholar in the world. He has been at the front of historical Jesus research for a generation as well at the front of Paul scholarship during the same time. It isn’t every generation of Christians who gets A) a world-class Bible scholar who is also B) a passionate, evangelical follower of Jesus, C) a very skillful writer with wit and color,  and D) an extremely wise person who can remain gracious and Christlike in the midst of controversy. Many generations get people who are 2 or 3 of these things together, rarely all four. You know you are on your game when publishers come to you to ask you to write the 21st century version of C.S. Lewis’ works (Simply Christian as the Mere Christianity for the postmodern world). There are certain Christians whose life’s work affects our understanding of the Gospel for a generation, or even multiple centuries. Wright’s work falls at least into the first category.

Specializing in the literature of the first century, Wright counsels us to read the New Testament in light of how people were writing and talking during that same time period. What were their expectations? What did they mean by certain words? How did they understand the Old Testament? Without careful attention to such things, Wright reminds us we are likely to simply read our own assumptions and theological ideas into the text. Or read the ideas of our favorite Reformation theologian from 400-500  years ago into the text.

Wright’s scholarship – and its ramifications – concerning Jesus, Paul, the Kingdom of God, and what the Gospel is even about, are landmark, groundbreaking. Entire sections of Scripture, Wright contends, have been mistaken to be about one thing when they are really about another. The results are big. For example, if you think Jesus’ apocalyptic sayings are about the end of the world, you expect certain things, the kinds of things prophecy preachers love to talk about. And these theological assumptions have deep social-political real world results:  fast-tracking weapons to the Middle East makes sense in that worldview, you are contributing to fulfilling prophecy! (BTW Is it alarming to you that evangelical church attendance correlates in statistical studies with approving of the use of torture?) However, if you think Jesus’ words are about the destruction  of Jerusalem in 72 AD and they are NOT about the end of the world, a whole other future comes leaping out of the pages of Scripture, a future written about, but which has been skipped over and ignored, due to the way we interpreted Jesus’ apocalyptic sayings.

For those who have inherited a Christianity which has not been able to answer adequately certain kinds of questions, or gives answers that are largely unsatisfying, N.T. Wright might be a life saver. Among other things, he opens the door to a larger, grander Gospel than many people grew up with.

Reading Paul differently than the Protestant Reformers

The Protestant Reformers of the 15th and 16th centuries have handed down to us a way of reading Paul which basically boils down to “Romans and Galatians give us the framework for what Paul really wanted to say; the other letters fill in the details here and there.” Said that way, it’s quite an assumption, isn’t it?

The Reformers were hunting for answers to questions which perplexed them in their day. And they found answers. They calibrated those answers according to the thought systems and categories of their own day and age. The question is, were the answers they found actually what Paul was talking about himself, in his own day? Once you assume that what is on your mind is what was on the biblical writer’s mind, you start reading everything through the  lens of those assumptions; you start hearing and seeing things in the text the writer was not actually saying.

The world’s leading New Testament scholar N.T. Wright proposes a thought experiment. What if we DIDN’T assume that Romans and Galatians are what REALLY count, and that the other letters are second-place  fillers?  “Suppose we come to Ephesians first… Colossians close behind, and decide we will read Romans, Galatians and the rest in light of them (Ephesians and Colossians), instead of the other way round.  What we will find, straight off, is nothing short of a (very Jewish) cosmic soteriology. God’s plan is ‘to sum up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth’ ….and as the means to that plan God’s rescue both of Jews and Gentiles …now coming together in a single family… the sign to the principalities and powers of the ‘many-splendored wisdom of God’. [1]

If this unity of all mankind, Wright goes on, Jew-and-Gentile as the sign of God’s coming reign over the whole world, had captured the Reformers’ hearts and minds, and they only THEN went and started fitting in Romans and Galatians, what would we have gotten? “…the entire history of the Western church, and with it the world, might have been different. No split between Romans 3:28 and 3:29. No marginalization (in Reformation theology) of Romans 9-11….” Wright goes on to list much more.

In short, we’d end up with a different theology and a different picture of the Gospel. (And, I might add, the Reformers’ teachings would not have been used in anti-Semitic persecution of Jewish people!)

So, should we just assume Romans and Galatians are the real deal and the other letters take second place? Or should we be trying to hear Paul all over again? And if we do, will we find that the Reformers were answering questions in their day, but not necessarily accurately describing what Paul was talking about?  These are the kinds of questions that lead many of us to contend that we continually need new theology, up to date with everything we can learn about the Scriptures, and what the writers were talking about in their own time and situation.

 

 


[1] N.T. Wright Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision. IVP 2009.

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.