I am now writing exclusively over at the Christians In Context blog. Click on this banner to be taken there!

Redeemer Church

Redeemer Church
Looking for a church in the Omaha area? Come check out ours on Sunday mornings at 11!

Friday, February 20, 2009

Read the Bible like a newspaper

"Do you take the Bible literally?" This is a question that I've been asked on more than one occasion and it seems to be a common challenge for the Christian. While my first reaction was to say "yes, of course", I realized this wasn't true. I don't take Jesus' parables literally. I take them for what it seems the speaker and author intended: a fictional story to illustrate a literal truth. I don't take some of the Song of Songs literally. I take it for what it seems the author intended: poetic literature. (I'm certain that Solomon's wife didn't really have a neck like a tower)

I've found that one of the easiest answers to this question is this: "I read the Bible like I read the newspaper". As I considered this further, I found it to be a very effective analogy (though never perfect, as no analogy ever will be). Consider: a newspaper is written by many different authors and in various styles, so different portions must be interpreted accordingly. But the reader can't just interpret the paper however they like. One must read each article and section in the way that the author(s) intended. Consider the confusion if the comics section were taken literally. And just like the Bible, the context of the surrounding page and section helps clarify the author's writing style and intent.

So just as we read and interpret the cover story in the newspaper differently than the advice column and differently than the political cartoons, we read the historical naratives in the Bible differently than the Proverbs and differently than the parables.

And now a couple qualifications for those over-analytical minds. Of course the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and moral authority in Scripture put it on an entirely different level of writing. I use this illustration simply to show how familiar people really are with the concept of interpreting one body of literature in different ways based on context and author's intent. It also serves to show that the reading is not entirely subjective and up to the reader to decide "what it means for them".

Monday, February 16, 2009

Who dies with toys anyway?

Have you noticed how popular our cars have become as a medium for our beliefs and arguments? For Christians, you can buy a fish. For evolutionists, a fish with legs. For Christians fighting back, a TRUTH fish eating the fish with legs. And, in return, a Darwin fish with legs eating the Jesus fish. There's pro-gun and anti-gun. There's pro-choice and pro-life. If you've got anything you feel strongly about, it can probably be boiled down to one terse sentence and stuck on your car.

One of the "bumper debates" I've seen taking place on our highways revolves around materialism. One bumper sticker reads "He who dies with the most toys . . . wins." And in reply, "He who dies with the most toys . . . still dies."

I remember growing up learning about the pharaohs of Egypt and their practice of being entombed with their chariots, jewelry, furniture, and everyday necessities. I was also horrified to learn that a pharaoh's servants, concubines, and even pets would often be killed and buried along with him. As I recall this now, I can think of no better picture of the dies-with-toys-wins mentality. And yet, I think I live in a nation of people who would amass, hoard, and kill to be buried with such things if only they had the clout, power, and god-status of a pharaoh. The only thing sadder than dying with your stuff is dying (and killing) for your stuff while you're still alive.

Which brings us to the latest book I am reading, Worldliness: Resisting the Seduction of a Fallen World. And as contributor Dave Harvey asserts, "Austerity and indulgence won't cure the bankruptcy of soul and emptiness of life that commonly result when our covetous desires are allowed free reign . . . Jesus was quite serious in saying, 'How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!' (Luke 18:24). But this doesn't mean God is biased against the rich; it means the rich are often biased against God. Their affluence feels like it meets needs, but it really diverts attention from the Savior to their stuff."

Unfortunately, most Americans (even the Christian ones) have fallen in to the trap of materialism. We neglect those in need, those in third world countries and those next door, for the sake of a nicer car, newer house, or an impressive DVD collection (yes, that one's me). In this way, we are dying and killing for stuff. We choke our hearts with the fat of possessions, rather than the lean love of Christ. Of course, I am not advocating selling every possession and living on the street. But when we love what we amass more than Christ, we are becoming like the pharaohs of Egypt. Who will suffer and die just so you can have more things in your tomb?

Thursday, February 12, 2009

How do you respond?

I've had my share of spiritual conversations, and I've been audience to a few as well. I have found that being a faithful follower of Christ is often as much about how you answer as what answers you give.

When engaging a person who doesn't claim to be a Christian, they will almost always have reasons. Some will be well thought out, like the problem of the existence of evil. Some will be less so, like "I just don't think much about that sort of stuff". Some will be historical, like the Crusades and witch trials. And still others will be emotional and experiential, like the personal experience of being browbeaten by a Christian parent.

What ever the case may be, we are always presented with a choice of how to respond to challenges, doubts, questions, and criticisms of Christianity. In order to stimulate some self-reflection, I'd like to discuss a couple of the ways one may respond:

Retreat. This is often the path of least resistance. I've been guilty on more than one occasion of simply biting my tongue when I didn't even want to involve myself in a conversation. While Christ and his followers were metaphorically smeared in the mud, I stood idly by. This can be a tempting course especially if one is new to Christianity or feels unprepared to talk about their faith. While I personally devour any book on apologetics (the defense of the faith), one doesn't have to be well-versed in all the arguments for Christianity to get involved. Often a personal account of a life changed is more powerful than a book full of arguments. Of course, there are times when not saying anything can be the most effective witnessing tool. However, I've found St. Francis of Assisi's quote "Preach the Gospel at all times, and when necessary, use words" as an easy excuse for those too lazy to read up or too afraid to speak up.

Retaliate. This is returning challenge for challenge, and intensity for intensity. Retaliation lies on the other end of the spectrum from retreating from a conversation. I've seen conversations go bad very quickly as a "defender of the faith" burns all their bridges by being defensive, aggressive, close-minded, or just plain hateful. Retaliation can rear its ugly head in many different ways but it is characterized more by the tone and intent than by the content. For just one example, there is a way to discuss the reality of hell, and many ways not to. While, at times, retreat can be a proper response, I've never seen retaliation used well.

Reject. This seems to be a popular angle in today's culture. Since Christianity is getting such a bad rap, I'll just reject what ever is most offensive and keep the rest. This can be as simple as rejecting the title of Christian ("I'm not a Christian, I am a follower of Jesus"). Or it can be the rejection of orthodoxy and parts of Scripture that don't sit well with us or others (like the rejection of hell resulting in the rising popularity of universalism). The question of whether rejection is a good approach or not lies squarely upon what it is you are rejecting. While I don't have a problem with it in principle, you can only reject so much of what is offensive about Christianity before you are either forced to reject Christianity altogether or resort to the last response.

Reform. While changing a person's heart is in the hands of God, we can often help remove some of the roadblocks in a person's mind. This is rooted in reforming a person's concepts (or more often misconceptions) of Christianity in a way that is winsome, honest, humble, and gracious. For instance, every time someone wants to bring a laundry list of Christian tragedies (from the Inquisition to Ted Haggard and everything in between), I carefully remind that one can't judge a belief on its abuses. In fact, against most criticisms and challenges, I find the life of Christ to be the most compelling answer on almost every level (historical, spiritual, existential, etc.) I see my role as simply one of removing myself and as many misconceptions as I can out of the way so that they may see the beauty of the gospel.

"Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders, making the most of the opportunity. Let your speech be seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person." Colossians 4:5,6