Sunday, June 19, 2016

The Cause of Mass Murder: A Heart Condition

 Many of you are probably sick and tired of hearing about the shooting in Orlando, Florida.  You’ve heard all the arguments about Islamic terrorism; the acceptance of gays and lesbians, and the calls for gun control.  You’ve heard the same pundits say the same things that they said after Sandy Hook and San Bernardino.  You’ve probably heard several religious leaders rush in to speak and offer their thoughts, prayers, and assertions of what we should do.  You’ve heard crickets from me.  I’ve been silent, and you may wonder why.

 I have become more and more convinced that we do ourselves a deep disservice by failing to take the time to reflect and think about things that happen and what we say in response to those things.  I have become more and more convinced that the 24 hour news cycle and the need to control the narrative have actually done more harm than good.  Instead of allowing fear, anger and grief to subside and clear thought to occur, our comments are instead governed by fear, anger, and grief.  You might ask, “What’s so bad about that?”  I respond, “How many times have you done something in anger that you later regretted?”  Odds are, the answer is not a pretty one.

 And so, I hope that this morning, I will not be speaking in anger, or grief, or fear.  I hope I am speaking with love, compassion, and hope.  I hope that I am speaking the truth in love and am neither a noisy gong or a clanging symbol.  I hope that I can speak at a level much deeper than guns or sexuality or religion.  I hope that I can dig down and address the level of the human heart–the level where hatred arises and where massacres get their grounding.

 For it is my sincere belief that if you have trouble understanding why someone had enough hatred to kill 50 people and wound 50 others, then I would submit that you neither understand human history; human nature; or what lies in the deep recesses of your own heart.  For the human story is full of violence, hatred, and murder–even and especially toward the innocent.

 The Christian narrative is not shy about confronting this reality.  In fact, addressing violence and hatred are woven into the fabric of Jesus’ story–particularly His death.  For Jesus was a victim of such hatred and such violence.

 We pick up this morning in Mark chapter 15 right after Pontius Pilate has had Jesus flogged and handed over to be crucified.  We must take just a moment to understand now what is happening to Jesus.  We know He is innocent.  We know Pilate has condemned Jesus to save his job.  We know the crowd is blood-thirsty because they feel like Jesus has betrayed them and given them false hope.  Pilate begins the blood letting through flogging.

 Roman flogging was violent and nasty.  If you have seen Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ”, you have gotten a visual image of what such flogging was like.  The Romans would take a whip composed of several leather straps.  Embedded in these straps were pieces of bone or metal, and then this was used to whip a prisoner all over his or her body.  Pieces of flesh would be ripped from the person.  Oftentimes bone was exposed.  The front and back of the body were flogged sometimes resulting in a person’s guts becoming exposed.  I would apologize for the visual images, but I want you to see and know the extent of the cruelty that Jesus faced.  I want you to know the pain that he endured at the hands of fellow humans.  He was bound.  He was naked.  He was helpless.  He had committed no crime, and yet, he was brutally beaten and had his flesh ripped open by this flogging.  And this was just the beginning of His humiliation.

 After the flogging, Pilate handed Jesus over to the Roman soldiers, and they all took turns mocking Him.  They placed a purple robe over him.  They placed a crown of thorns upon his head.  They mocked Him and struck Him.  They made fun of the claim that he was King of the Jews.  He looked like no king.  He acted like no king.  He was no king to them.  They took a reed and hit him up beside the head with it, driving the thorns deeper into his skull.  Blood ran freely down Jesus’ face.  Then, they spit upon Him.  They knelt before Him and said, “Hail, king of the Jews!”  Of course both of these actions were mockery.  The spitting was an imitation of the kisses they would give the emperor.   Their statement “Hail, king of the Jews!” was an imitation of the “Hail Caesar!” they would proclaim to their real king.  They had no respect; no compassion; only hatred and animosity toward Jesus.  After they had had their fun, they took off the purple robe.  Understand that the blood from the flogging would have coagulated on this robe, so when they ripped it off, it would have caused severe pain and the blood to begin flowing once again.  This is humanity at its worse.

 Then, they put the cross-bar on Jesus’ back and made him carry it toward Golgatha.  Understand this: Jesus has had no sleep.  He has been flogged and has lost copious amounts of blood.  He hasn’t eaten.  He is tired, wounded beyond belief, and weak.  He is now expected to carry a 30 or 40 pound piece of wood on his bloody, beaten back raked by bone, metal, and leather.  This is complete and utter cruelty.

 He heads to Calvary.  He isn’t going to make it.  He is too tired.  Too weary.  Too weak.  The walk carrying the cross-bar will kill him, but that would deprive everyone of seeing Jesus die humiliated.  The Roman escort calls upon a bystander–Simon of Cyrene father of Rufus and Alexander to carry the cross for Jesus.  Mark probably includes these names because these folks were well known in the early church and were witnesses to these things.  Mark is saying, “If you want to know whether or not this is true, ask them.”  Simon carries Jesus’ cross for Him, and they arrive at Calvary where one more indignation will be heaped upon Jesus.

 N.T. Wright, biblical scholar says this:

 The cross was a political symbol long before it became a religious symbol.  Pilate knew the crowds knew, the chief priests knew, and Jesus knew, what it meant.  It was the ultimate symbol of Roman power.  It said, “We are in charge here, and this is what happens when people get in our way.”  They had crucified thousands of rebel Jews when Jesus was a boy in Galilee.  They would crucify thousands more when they took Jerusalem in AD70–so many they got bored, and experimented with hanging people up in different positions and attitudes until they ran out of wood.  And in between those two devastating repressions of revolts they crucified lots of people for a variety of reasons, often on small pretexts.  Polite Romans didn’t even mention the word “crucifixion” or “cross”. The reality was so brutal, ugly and repellant.

 This is what Jesus is nailed to.  It carried an even worse meaning for the Jews.  William Lane writes in his commentary:

 The public exposure of an executed person branded him as one cursed by God, in accordance with the provision of Deuteronomy 21:23: “for he is accursed of God who hangs on a tree.”  These words were applied equally to one who was crucified.  When the chief priests and the crowd demanded death by crucifixion for Jesus they expressed the conviction that he must take his last breath on the cross as one “accursed by God.”

 And those standing watching the proceedings treated Jesus as if He were accursed by God.  They mocked Him.  They used the sayings of the false witnesses against Him.  They dressed their words in piety, “If he comes down from the cross, then we will believe in him.”  And then the piece de resistance, “He saved others, but He cannot save Himself.”  And there is a bitter truth in that statement–a bitter truth indeed.

 Walter Liefield says this about that statement, “Their statement ‘he can’t save himself’ is both false and true.  In the sense they meant it–he does not have the power–it is false.  But in a profound sense, if Jesus was to fulfill his messianic mission, he could not save himself.  His death was necessary for man’s redemption.”

 For it is on the cross that the God immanent is redeeming the world.  It is on the cross that the God immanent is working to change the hearts of men so that they turn from violence and hatred.  It is on the cross that the God immanent is showing a love beyond measure–a love which is intended to melt even the hardest heart.  It is on the cross that the God immanent confronts violence and hatred and dehumanization and responds with the words, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.”

 The question becomes how does this happen?  How does Jesus’ actions on the cross lead us to have changed hearts?

 Let’s consider the issue of hate crimes and the cruelty of mass murder.  What causes such things?  Is it religious ideology and firmly held convictions?  No.  The Amish are some of the strictest religious adherents in the world, and they don’t kill anyone.  Just having firm convictions will not lead you to kill someone.  Is it access to weapons?  Again, no.  Some of the areas with the highest concentrations of weapons have the lowest instances of murder and crime.  Is it viewing another’s actions as wrong that causes mass murder?  Again, no.  We categorically call other people’s actions as wrong all the time, but we do not generally go around killing another person because we disagree with them.  None of these things grasp the reality.  The reality is what Timothy Keller calls the slippery slope of the heart.

 For you see, in the slippery slope of the heart what happens is that I look at another person and see what they are doing.  I judge them as wrong, AND I feel morally or ethically superior to the other.  I feel like I am a better person; a stronger intellectual; in a higher plane of spiritual or moral thought.  As I look at the other person with this air of superiority, I begin to caricature the other people.  I only emphasize their flaws.  I make blanket statements that do not encapsulate the entirety of the person.  Once I begin this caricature process, the other person or group becomes less than human.  They become less than me.  They deserve punishment or to be silenced or even to be killed.  What leads people to murder people in mass is a heart condition where someone feels morally superior to another.

 The Orlando shooter felt morally superior to the folks he killed.  The Sanhedrin felt morally superior to Jesus.  The Romans felt morally superior to Jesus and to the thousands of other Jews that they crucified.  Once they felt this, it was not long before each of these was able to dehumanize and then treat the other as less than human committing atrocity after atrocity after atrocity. 

 And each of us believes at some level we are morally superior than others.  Each of us at some level believes our particular position on given issues are right.  Each of us believes that if everyone just believed as we believed and did what we did then the world would turn out okay.  Each of us is apt to point the finger at others as the ones who need to change and conform because, by God, we are the ones who have it right.  And the answer is not to throw right and wrong out the window.  The answer is not to throw truth claims out the window.  For heaven’s sake.  If we did that, then we would never be able to judge mass murder as wrong!!  Think about that!!!

 The answer lies at the heart of the Gospel.  The answer lies at the heart of why Jesus could not save Himself.  The answer is that we are all moral failures.  The answer is that we are all morally inferior.  As St. Paul put it, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”  And we cannot save ourselves.  If we could save ourselves, then we would have a reason to boast.  We would have a reason to feel morally superior.  But we are saved only and solely by God’s grace.  We are saved only and solely by God’s love poured out by Jesus on the cross for sinners.  “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.”

 If we are all morally inferior, and if we are all saved by sheer grace and by no actions of our own, then we absolutely cannot caricature another person.  We absolutely cannot dehumanize another person.  We share intimately with others the same condition.  We share intimately with others the same salvation.  We are all sinners.  We are all saints.  The dividing line is that there are those who have not come to the realization of the Gospel.  There are those who do not know their brokenness and so they feel morally superior.  There are those who do not know they are loved and so all they feel is self-loathing.  It is our job as those who have met our dying Savior hanging on that cross to lead others to Him.  It is our job to lead others to the God incarnate who will humble them and reveal to them their sin and then who will embrace them with nail scarred hands.  And when this occurs, their hearts, hopefully like ours, will be transformed.  Their self-righteousness will leave.  Their views of others will change, and hatred will cease.  Simply telling another person to stop hating will not change anything.  Getting others to Jesus will.  Amen.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Do You Want Justice?

 Perhaps you have heard the name Brock Turner.  If you haven’t let me fill you in on this boy.  Turner was caught sexually assaulting an unconscious woman at Stanford University in California.  The details are grim, but those of you with daughters, I want you to consider what you would do to a person you saw raping your daughter when she was passed out from drinking too much.  As a dad, the idea of a rusty knife, nail, old wooden barn, and lighter fluid come to mind.  I would want complete and total justice.  However, in the case of Brock Turner, he received a sentence of six months in the county jail with the high probability he will only serve three months.  He could have been sentenced to up to 14 years in prison, so he gets off very, very light.  Too light in my estimation and in the estimation of many, many people.  Those of us who believe this sentence was wrongheaded are asking, “Where is justice?”

 The cry for justice is a loud and strong one throughout the centuries.  If you read through the Old Testament, you will see over and over again the cries of God’s people for justice.  You will hear the cries of the prophets for justice.  You will see how God demands justice.  It is not without reason that God Himself declares, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”  (Exodus 21:23-24; Leviticus 24:19-20; Deuteronomy 19:21) Deuteronomy 19:21 even goes so far as to say, “Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.”  Show no pity.

 True justice demands no pity.  True justice means that those who are guilty pay a price equal to what they have done.  True justice means that no matter if you are a lowly peasant or a high king, the law applies equally to both, and there is no give or take.  But justice also means that the innocent are left alone.  The innocent are protected.  Justice also means that the victims are compensated and cared for.  The Old Testament had quite a bit to say on this as well.  Care for the widow and the orphan are repeated over and over and over.  Concern for the well being of the poor and disenfranchised are highlighted by the prophets at every turn. 

 And justice isn’t just demanded in the holy Scriptures.  There is something deep within the fabric of nature that calls for justice.  There is something deep within the fabric of our beings that clamors for just behavior.  I showed a youtube video at the last senior service about what happens when two monkeys are paid unequally for performing the same activity.  One monkey is given a cucumber for handing a researcher a rock.  The second monkey is given a grape.  Guess what happens?  Here’s a hint, if you have children, give one child an apple and give the other an ice cream cone.  See what happens next.

 We long for justice.  Plain and simple.  And so, when we hear stories like Brock Turner, we recoil.  Justice isn’t being served.  Not in the least.  And when we look at Jesus’ trial, I think we should recoil as well–for justice is being mocked once again. 

 We know that the Sanhedrin, or Jewish leaders have broken nearly every rule in the book governing the trial of a criminal as they brought a sentence of death upon Jesus, but they did not have the power to put Jesus to death.  Only the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate could do that.  As the Roman empire expanded, one of the ways it kept power and control was by holding the power of the death penalty.  Local courts could try individuals, but to put them to death was reserved for the Roman governors.  Judea was no exception, so the Sanhedrin had to bring Jesus to Pilate.

 Pilate is an interesting character as far as we know.  Paul Maier wrote a very intriguing historical fiction regarding this man, and it is very eye opening.  Pilate was a social climber.  He wanted to do a good job and work his way up in the Roman empire, and this meant handling some jobs that weren’t exactly fun.  Being procurator of Judea was one of those jobs.  The Jews were traditionally stiff necked and difficult.  They had a history of rebelling.  Pilate knew these things, and he also believed he could handle them.  He encountered no small amount of difficulty, and it is safe to say that he was not on the friendliest of terms with his subjects.  Interestingly enough, he served as procurator of Judea for eleven years which is quite a long amount of time considering the difficulties he had.

 Pilate was charged with keeping the peace.  The Jews, particularly at Passover made this job very, very difficult.  As the Jews remembered how their God delivered them from the hands of oppression, they were apt to look for any reason to throw off their current oppressors: the Romans.  Pilate worked hard to keep the peace which is why he was in Jerusalem.  He normally resided on the coast, but during this time when the population of Jerusalem exploded with pilgrims, his presence was necessary. 

 This is why the Jewish leaders were easily able to bring Jesus to him for trial.  And you will note the charges the brought before Pilate.  Jesus is not being accused of blasphemy.  Jesus is being accused of calling himself the King of the Jews.  Pilate’s question in Greek can be expressed as follows, “You are the king of the Jews?”  It could be read contemptuously.  It could be read accusingly.  We don’t know for sure.  What we do know is that Pilate is not swayed by the Jewish leaders’ accusation.  Pilate knows these leaders do not respect him and would just as soon have him gone.  He can also perceive that Jesus is no king, and he really is no threat to the peace.  As N.T. Wright says, “he didn’t bother to round up any of his followers.”

 Jesus responds, “You say so.”  Mark Edwards says this about Jesus’ response, “In reply to Pilate’s question, Jesus responds, “You say so,” with emphasis on You.  It is not a direct affirmation, or else Pilate would have immediate grounds for execution.  But neither is it a denial.  The reply is suggestive, as if to say, “You would do well to consider the question!”

 And Pilate does.  He has to.  He is having to navigate a very sticky situation with the Sanhedrin, the Jewish pilgrims who are there for Passover, and a crowd that is growing as they watch the proceedings.  The Sanhedrin begins making all of their accusations. Jesus remains silent.  Pilate is amazed.  Pilate knows that Jesus is innocent of the charges being brought against him–after all, Jesus hasn’t been stirring up a rebellion.  Jesus hasn’t been putting together an army.  Roman spies would have known this, particularly since Jesus had been in public day after day after day.  Pilate knows that the Sanhedrin has it out for Jesus.  So, Pilate decides to stick it to the Sanhedrin by offering to set Jesus free as part of the Passover custom of releasing a prisoner.

 There are no other records of this Passover custom outside of the biblical accounts; although there are some accounts of similar things happening in other countries around the Roman empire at the time.  Mark tells us; however that members of the Sanhedrin work the crowd.  They begin inciting the crowd to ask for Barabbas.  Here is an interesting twist to the story.  After all, the crowd used to be highly supportive of Jesus.  The crowd used to hang on his every word.  What has changed?  How are they so susceptible to the Sanhedrin at this point?  Remember, the Jews did not believe that the Messiah would ever be arrested or tried.  They believed that the Messiah would conquer Israel’s enemies with God’s power and might.  Jesus wasn’t doing a very good job of that.  Jesus wasn’t calling down God’s power now.  It is my surmise that the chief priests were working the crowd with these facts.  The chief priests were calling Jesus a fraud.  He obviously was no messiah.  Therefore, Pilate should release Barabbas.  At least Barabbas had fought against the Romans.  At least Barabbas was trying to overthrow Israel’s enemies.  Jesus wasn’t doing anything.

 The crowd demanded Barabbas. 

 Pilate was incredulous.  “Then what should I do with Jesus, the ‘king of the Jews?”

 “Crucify him!”

 Why such hatred?  Perhaps even the Jews had their limit.  After so many false messiahs, after so much disappointment, all of their frustration and anger was poured out toward Jesus.  This fraud; this charlatan must be put to death.  It is only right.  Their disappointment can only be appeased with blood.

 “Why?” Pilate asks.  “What evil has he done?”

 There is no reasoning at this point.  The crowd is beyond reason.  They shout all the more, “Crucify him.”

 Pilate, knowing that he must choose between justice and his job keeps the peace and orders Jesus crucified.  It is a great injustice.  The innocent is sentenced to death, and the guilty goes free. 

 Now, let me read to you N.T. Wright once more at this point.  It is a long quote, but worth pondering.

 And therefore, within Mark’s story, we find also the deeply personal meaning.  The story of Barabbas invites us to see Jesus’ crucifixion in terms of a stark personal exchange.  Barabbas deserves to die; Jesus dies instead, and he goes free.  Barabbas was the archetypal Jewish rebel: quite probably what we today would call a fanatical right-wing zealot, determined to stop at nothing to bring in a version of God’s kingdom which consisted of defeating Roman power by Roman means–in other words, repaying pagan violence with holy violence.  No doubt many Christians in Mark’s community, and others who would read his book, had at one stage at least flirted with such revolutionary movements.  Reading the story of a guilty man freed and the innocent man crucified, it would not be hard for them to identify with Barabbas, and to view the rest of the story with the awestruck gaze of people who think, “There but for God’s grace go I.”

Just so, Mark is saying, God’s grace, God’s sovereign and saving presence, is exactly what we are witnessing in this story.  When we learn to read the story of Jesus and see it as the story of the love of God, doing for us what we could not do for ourselves–that insight produces, again and again, the sense of astonished gratitude which is very near the heart of authentic Christian experience.

 The guilty go free.

 The innocent gets condemned.

 The innocent dies in place of the one who should be condemned.

 This is a microcosm of the Gospel–the knowledge that Jesus takes our place as condemned sinners which allows us to go free.

 You might object to this right here.  You might object and say, “This is a travesty of justice!”  And you would be right–particularly if you neither understand your own sinfulness or the love and justice of God.

 First, our sinfulness.   You will notice that I shifted from your to our.  “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”  And this sinfulness goes much deeper than simply the things that we do.  Everyone does bad things.  Everyone makes mistakes on a regular basis.  This is hardly worthy of condemnation.  None of us here this morning have committed murder, so why do we stand condemned before God?

 Deep down in the very recesses of our hearts is a driving force that we are all born with.  Deep down in the very core of our being is a driving force that leads us to live for ourselves–to see ourselves as ultimately important; to portray ourselves as better than most; to put on facades of perfection, beauty, wealth, and independence so that we look like we have it all together; to strive for our own safety and security first and foremost and then to look at the world around us and perhaps, perhaps offer a token or two of charity toward another–but only if they meet our criteria.  Deep down, we are inherently selfish and self-serving only engaging in activities if we get some benefit or some sense of self-worth.  There is a reason biologist Richard Dawkins wrote a book entitled The Selfish Gene!  There is a reason John Stossel once did a documentary piece titled, “Greed is Good”!  This is who we are deep down, and you can deny it if you choose, but spend enough time in reflection and examination of your own motives, you will see that this is simply a fact. 

 And if you act for yourself all the time; if your ultimate motivation is your own safety and security; if your motives are “what can I get out of this”; then who in your universe is god?  The answer is: yourself.  Do you want to know why there is so much turmoil in the world?  Do you want to know why there is warfare?  Do you want to know why there is hunger and thirst and poverty?  Go no further than our inherent, selfish nature.  We are all part of this problem.  How much so?  This week I heard an interesting quote about extinction.  For it is a reality that as humanity has flourished, many species have become extinct, but if humanity were to become extinct, it would be many other species that would flourish.  Think on that for a few minutes as you consider the impact we have had on this natural world.   And what would be the just punishment for our species for all the damage we have done?

 And if God is a just God, what should He do?  If God is a God of justice, shouldn’t payment be made for this destruction?  Shouldn’t death be visited upon us for the tremendous amount of death and suffering we have caused?  If you believe in justice, true justice, you know the answer is in the affirmative.

 And death is served.  Death is visited, but not upon us, but upon the God who entered into the world.  For this is where God’s love enters into the picture.  This is where God’s love makes itself known in an amazing way.  For though we deserve death, God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through Him.

 Jesus took our death upon Himself to satisfy the demands of Justice, and He pardoned us and allowed us to go free because of his love for us.  Justice and mercy have met singularly in the Christ event.  What transpired at Jesus trail when Barabbas was released is a foretaste of what we will experience next week as we travel to the foot of the cross–the place where God poured out His love for you and for me.  Amen.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Fostering Creativity for the Future

I am offering up quite a different post than usual today.  This post is about education and the current state of education in the state of Texas.  I invite you to not only read this, but share it with your local news papers.  I have already submitted it to many of my local papers.  I am disgusted by the current system of education, and I know--I absolutely know--that many within that system are sick of it too.  There might be change on the horizon, but we must continue pushing.

By: Kevin Haug

 Nobel Prize winning theoretical physicist Richard Feynman once said as he spoke about science, “And the fun of it is, all these things which you see, that you notice in the world...and all these things you can understand, from these simple pictures.  And that’s kind of a lot of fun to think about.  I don’t want to take this stuff seriously. I think we should just have fun imagining it and not worry about–there’s no teacher going to ask you questions at the end.  Otherwise, it’s a horrible subject.”1

 Feynman spoke these words in a documentary video titled “Fun to Imagine.”  As one watches this video, one is struck by how Feynman offers a radically different view of the world as he speaks of atoms and subatomic forces.  It is safe to say that this man could see the world in a way that most of us cannot.  And it was his ability to imagine the world in such a fashion that enabled him to win the Nobel Prize for physics. 

 It could be argued that the world progresses scientifically, technologically, and socially because of the use of the imagination.  People dared to think differently; be creative; envision a way of doing things that had not previously been done before.  Many were met with resistence.  Imagination almost always is.

 Take for instance our children.  Children oftentimes think very differently.  In his talk before the RSA, Sir Ken Robinson quoted a study done on the divergent thinking of children found in the book Breakpoint and Beyond. Divergent thinking is not defined as creativity, but it is an essential capacity for creativity.  It is, according to Robinson, “...the ability to see lots of possible answers to a question; lots of possible ways of interpreting the question; to think...laterally; to think not just in convergent or linear ways; to see multiple answers not just one.” 2

 The study asked 1500 kindergarten children how many uses they could come up with for a paperclip.  According to their own standards of what would make a divergent thinking genius, 98% of the students achieved that level.  The same students were tested five years later.  Only 32% achieved the genius level.  Five years later, the number dropped to only 10%.  The study then asked 200,000 adults over the age of 25 the same question.  Two percent managed to score at the genius level.  What happened.  According to Robinson, “They were educated.”3

 Now, Robinson does not believe education is the only factor at play here.  There are definitely other factors, but why might education be a very important one?

 According to Robinson, “We are now running educational systems where mistakes are the worst things you can make, and the result is: we are educating people out of their creative capacities.”4

 It doesn’t take a person too long to figure out that Robinson is correct.  For not only are we “educating people out of their creative capacities”, we are doing so in an alarming fashion.  Consider the following problem that was given to my fourth grader:

 The number 15,_56 rounded to the nearest thousand is 15,000. Which numbers could be the missing digit?

 A. 1,2,3,4,5
 B. 1,2,3,4
 C. 0,1,2,3,4,5
 D. 0,1,2,3,4

 There are two correct answers to this problem.  Both B and D are correct, however if your student chooses B, he or she will be marked incorrect because the “best” answer is D.  Imagine being right yet being counted wrong.  And this sort of reasoning is being used as a measure of our schools, our teachers, and our students in the form of the STAAR assessment.

 Most–no, correct that–every teacher that I have visited about this is incensed at what they are being forced to teach their students.  Every teacher who I have conferred with despises counting something wrong that is actually right because the “right” answer is the “better” answer.  Every teacher I visit with absolutely detests the state mandated Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills which are required strictly to pass the STAAR.  To a teacher, I hear, “These students are not cognitively ready for these kinds of questions.”

 Not only are they not cognitively ready, to prepare students for these sorts of questions, their creativity is squashed, and their confidence gets shattered.  They are not taught that multiple answers are right.  They are not taught to expand their sight.  They are taught to narrowly limit their vision to fit the standardized version imposed by the Texas State Board of Education and the Texas Education Agency.

 Fortunately, these boards have done some extensive work in the past year to evaluate the current process of educating our students.  There is also a ground swell of rebellion against what the state is doing to our children.  The question is whether parents or the testing business will win out.  Unfortunately, money is often more persuasive than the reality of life.

 And what is that reality?

 An extended quote from Robinson:

We know three things about intelligence.  One, it’s diverse.  We think about the world in all the ways we experience it.  We think visually.  We think in sound.  We think kinesthetically.  We think in abstract terms.  We think in movement.  Secondly, intelligence is dynamic.  If you look at the interactions of the human brain...intelligence is wonderfully interactive.  The brain isn’t divided into compartments.  In fact, creativity, which I define as the process of having original ideas that have value, more often than not comes about through the interaction of different disciplinary ways of seeing things...And the third thing about intelligence is that it is distinct.5

   When Robinson talks about intelligence being distinct, he means that each kid has a certain type of intelligence that needs to be unleashed instead of packed away.  He uses the example of Jillian Lynne who was not doing well in school; whose teachers thought she had a learning disability; who was taken to a doctor because she couldn’t sit still in class.  The doctor upon examination and consultation with Jillian’s mom said, “Mrs. Lynne, your daughter isn’t sick, she’s a dancer.”  Jillian’s parents put her into a school of dance, and she went on to choreograph Broadway hits like “Cats” and “Phantom of the Opera.”6

 Today, Jillian would likely be put on Ritalin and suffer through school as a C student.  There is probably no way she would pass the STAAR.

 And she shouldn’t have to. 

 Education is much more than a test.  It is much more than trying to make everyone into mathematicians and scientists.  It is much more than trying to make sure that everyone gets the same right answer or best right answer.  We do not need a bunch of cookie cutter citizens.  We need creative minds who can envision a better future.  We need divergent thinking and the courage to imagine the possibilities.  We need the bravery to try and fail and to try and fail again.  We need schools to unlock this potential in our children.  We need our schools to help our kids imagine.  This fact was not lost on Richard Feynman, and it shouldn’t be lost on us as well.

1. Feynman, Richard. “Fun to Imagine”

2. Robinson, Ken. Sir Ken Robinson, “Changing Paradigms”

3. Ibid.

4. Robinson, Ken. “Do Schools Kill Creativity?”; Ken Robinson; TED Talks.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Your Alligator Mouth...

 Critics of Christianity rightly point out that those of us who are church members fail miserably when it comes to practicing what we preach.  I am reminded of a Facebook meme that basically says, “People covered with tatoos and piercings are often some of the nicest people you will meet while those who sit in church pews on Sunday morning are often some of the most judgmental you will meet.”  There is some truth to this saying, although you cannot use it as a blanket statement.  Not all tatooed and pierced people are extremely kind and nice, and not all church attendees are judgmental. 

You simply cannot judge a book by its cover.  But, I think you can easily say that those of us who attend church do not, by any means, live up to the expectations that God has for us.  In fact, we fail miserably.  It is not something to be celebrated, but it is something to be admitted.  It’s part of being humble.  Pride can do an awful lot of damage.  Just look at what happens to Peter.

 Peter is the chief disciple.  Throughout the book of Mark, he’s the guy who is always out spoken.  He’s the one who speaks when no one else will.  He’s the guy who takes action when everyone else seems frozen.  He’s the one who takes risks; who is brash and daring; who is self-confident when everyone else seems weak.  Earlier in Mark’s gospel, Peter has had the audacity to question Jesus and try and put Jesus in His place.  Peter didn’t come out on the good end of that exchange, by the way.  And at the beginning of this chapter, Peter made some brash statements. 

 When the disciples had gathered with Jesus for the Last Supper, Jesus announced that one would betray Him and that all would abandon Him.  Peter confronted Jesus.  “Though all may fall away, I will not abandon you.”  Jesus responds, “Truly I tell you, before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.”  Peter doubles down at this moment.  Peter becomes vehement, “If I have to die with you, I will not deny you!”  In a very real way, Peter is chiding Jesus.  Peter is saying, “Jesus, I know myself better than you do.  You can’t tell me I will do this.  You don’t know my heart.  You are absolutely wrong, Jesus.  I know better.”

 Peter is a classic example of two wonderful sayings.  The first: Pride goeth before the fall.  Second: Your alligator mouth is going to get your parakeet rear end in trouble.  (Sorry, I can’t use the real quote in a sermon.)  Both of these statements come to fruition as Jesus’ prophecy about Peter comes true.

 We turn our attention now to our Gospel text as we finish up the 14th chapter of the book of Mark.  Jesus is on trail in the home of Caiaphas–the high priest.  He has been falsely accused.  False witnesses have been presented.  None have been able to agree.  Jesus is more than holding His own.  Caiaphas then asks Jesus, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed?”  If Jesus would have remained silent; if Jesus would have lied; He could have saved Himself.  But Jesus would not lie.  Neither would He remain silent at this critical juncture. “I AM,” Jesus says, “And you will see the Son of Man coming with the Power and seated on the clouds.”  This statement is seen as blasphemy, and the court decides to put Jesus to death.

 In stark contrast to Jesus who stands trial without fear and without compromising the truth, we now have Peter.  Mark puts this here intentionally to show us just how different we as humans are from Jesus. 

 Interestingly enough, Peter is there, at the high priest’s house.  When Jesus was arrested in the garden of Getshemane, Peter initially fled, but something within him made him follow.  His brash assertions in the upper room were taking hold, so he knew he had to follow through with his declarations.  He managed to get to the chief priest’s house and follow the proceedings.  However, Peter didn’t anticipate that he would not remain anonymous.

 A servant girl sees Peter warming himself by the fire and says, “You also were with Jesus, the man from Nazareth.”  The girl’s words in Greek are actually strong and contemptuous.  They are better translated, “You were with that Nazarene, Jesus!”  Peter is now put on the spot.  He is now being accused, and the accusation is true.  What will Peter do?  Will he admit his connection with Jesus, or will he seek to save his skin? 

 Peter replies, “I do not know or understand what you are talking about.”  The two Greek words are interesting here.  Literally, the sentence should be translated, “I do not know or know what you are talking about.”  It sounds strange, but you need to know exactly what Peter is saying in the Greek.  You need to know the depths of his denial and his lie.  Mark Edwards says this in his commentary, “Mark’s two Greek verbs for “know” are only an apparent redundancy.  The first (oida) tends to denote theoretical knowledge, and the second (epistamai) practical knowledge; Peter’s denial is thus a total denial–in theory and practice!”  Walter Liefield adds this, “Peter denied her charge by “using the form common in rabbinical law for a formal, legal denial.”  Think about the extent of what Peter says here.  Think about how Peter is essentially covering his tail legally with his denial, AND how Peter unequivocally states that he has no type of knowledge what-so-ever of who Jesus is.  It is a bald faced lie.  An utter and complete denial.  The cock crows the first time.

 Oh, and it gets worse.

 The servant girl is undaunted by Peter’s lie.  She begins working the crowd around Peter.  She tells them that Peter undoubtably was with Jesus, and Peter offers up his second denial. 

 I have to wonder just what continued to transpire here.  Did the servant girl continue to talk with the crowd?  Did they begin working things out for themselves?  Did they question Peter from time to time?  Something must have been going on, because the final time it is not the servant girl who confronts Peter.  It is the crowd itself.  They turn to Peter and say, “Certainly you are one of them; for you are a Galilean.”  How did they know Peter was a Galilean?  The other Gospels report that they heard Peter’s accent.  It would have been like you or me talking in our southern drawl up in New York City.  We would stick out like a sore thumb because of the way we talk.  This is what happened to Peter.  They heard his speech.  They knew Peter was Galilean.  They knew Jesus came from Galilee.  The association was made.  The accusation followed.

 And this time, Peter becomes vehement again.  Mark tells us, “But he began to curse, and he swore an oath, ‘I do not know this man you are talking about.’” Several of the scholars I consulted say that Peter is swearing to God.  Peter is basically saying, “May God rain condemnation upon me if I am lying–I do not know the man.”  Peter is so scared out of his mind that he is calling down the wrath of God upon himself with his lies so utter and complete is his denial of Jesus.

 One calls to mind what Jesus says in Mark chapter 8 verse 38, “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”   Or Matthew chapter 10 verses 32-33, “Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.”

 The cock crows again.

 Peter realizes what he has done and weeps.  He is a broken man.  He has failed.

 Boy do I know how Peter feels.  Maybe you do too.  I mean, I know that it is the job of every Christian, including myself to proclaim Jesus without reservation.  I know it is the job of every Christian, including myself to unashamedly bring Jesus into the conversation and point to His will in the world.  But when those opportunities arise, my backbone seems to disappear.  You may scratch your head at that because I am a pastor.  Yes, I am, and it is one thing to stand in front of you here this morning and preach where generally I get very little criticism, and another thing to be out in the public interacting with people who could go off and get offended at the drop of a hat. 

 For example, on several occasions, I’ve had people drop the spiritual but not religious card.  They are happy to report that they believe in God, but they just don’t go to church or feel the need to worship or believe that everyone has their own path they need to follow to find God.  I mean, I know what I am supposed to say here.  I know I’m supposed to confront the fallacy in this thinking.  I know I am supposed to gently say, “You know, that’s really a cop out.  That kind of religion costs you nothing.  It’s basically self-affirming, and you are really worshiping a god you created instead of the god who created you.  I know when it comes to the many path approach, I’m supposed to say something to the effect of, “You know, the world’s religions make all sorts of different claims about God.  The Muslims do not believe Jesus was God, but Christians do.  How can they both be correct paths?”  I know I’m supposed to do this.  I know I’m supposed to bear witness, but most of the time, I take the easy way out.  I either don’t say anything or simply say, “Well, that’s interesting.”  I fail to bear witness to Jesus, and I shake my head in bewilderment.  And don’t think that you are off the hook.  We all have a responsibility of doing the same thing.  We all have the responsibility of proclaiming Jesus.

 But we fail.  We don’t measure up, and I believe it’s high time we admit it.  I believe it’s high time we recognize our failure.  And I also believe it’s time that we recognize that growth in faith is a process.  It can and does take many years before we reach that point where we courageously proclaim our faith.  And the good news in this: yes there is good news, is that Jesus shows us the utmost compassion even in our failure.

 I am now going to turn to the book of John to show how this works.  I am going to look at an encounter between the risen Jesus and Peter.  Now, I am going to read this text using the nuances of the Greek because I think it will help us immensely.

 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me–unconditionally with all your heart--more than these?’ Peter said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you–like a brother.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ A second time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me–unconditionally with all your heart?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you–like a brother.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ He said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me like a brother?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me like a brother?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you like a brother.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.’ (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, ‘Follow me.’

 Now, what is the significance of this exchange between Peter and Jesus?  First off, it is a three fold
admission of love paralleling Peter’s three fold denial.  Peter is getting a chance to redeem himself.  Secondly, we see Jesus asking Peter whether or not he loved him with agape love–the unconditional love of one who is willing to lay down one’s life.  And Peter cannot admit this love.  Peter cannot love Jesus in this manner.  Peter cannot get to that point where he loves Jesus as much as Jesus loves him.  And yet, Jesus says, “Feed my lambs; tend my sheep; Feed my sheep.” 

 Then Jesus tells Peter that one day, in the future, Peter will have that kind of love.  Peter one day will suffer and die for Jesus.  Peter one day will be dragged before governors and councils and be threatened with death, and Peter will die with the name of Jesus on his lips.  Peter’s heart is in a process of being transformed.  Fear is not easily overcome, but when you stay rooted and grounded in the gospel, it will be transformed.

 This is the good news for you and me.  God is not done with us yet.  God is still working and moving within us.  God is still in the process of transforming us, but we need to realize this.  We need to realize that we haven’t arrived yet.  We need to realize we still do not proclaim Jesus with our lips.  We need to realize we don’t love Him with our whole heart and mind and soul and strength.  We need to admit our brokenness before him and weep for it.

 For it is in the midst of our brokenness that Jesus dies for us.  It is in the midst of our brokenness that He saves us.  It is in the midst of our brokenness that He lays down His life to redeem us.  And it is His love that will transform that brokenness.  This is the power of the Gospel.  The power of the love of God who came to save the world.  To save you.  To save me.

 “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through Him.”

 Do not think too highly of yourself for you continue to deny Jesus.  Do not become too down on yourself because God is still transforming you.  Live in this tension and pray for the day when you will have the confidence to proclaim Jesus without fear.  Amen.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

The Bible Battle

For centuries Christians have argued about how to interpret the Bible. 

In it's earliest days, the Church poured over the Old Testament.  After all, this was Jesus' "Bible."  Jesus constantly quoted "The Law and the Prophets," calling attention to many things regarding the Messiah most Jews either forgot or ignored.  I have no doubt Christians and Jews debated the interpretation of these texts repeatedly.

Then, the Church began to have sacred texts of its own.  The apostle Paul wrote numerous letters to beginning churches throughout the Roman empire.  These letters were seen not only as valuable to particular contexts, but they carried significant weight for any and all Christians.  These letters were circulated throughout the churches in the Roman empire.

Along the way, four Gospels were written about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  Each of these ancient biographies had different foci.  Each of these biographies had different views of events.  Their timelines varied only a bit in Matthew, Mark and Luke, but were extremely divergent from John.  Despite this, the early Church found these four Gospels to be an authoritative revelation of Jesus.

Other books and letters were added along the way.  Some received a heartier welcome than others.  Various interpretations arose regarding the Christ event; the nature of Christ; the divinity of Christ; the relationship between God and creation; and so on and so forth.  Appeals to Scripture became normative.  Some interpretations won out over others.  Some interpretations became doctrine. 

The process was not always clean.  In fact, it oftentimes was messy.  Marcion was convinced that Christians should abandon the Old Testament with its angry, bloodthirsty God and instead focus on the revelation of Jesus.  The Christian Bible should consist only of the book of Luke, the letters of Paul and a few other epistles.  Marcion obviously lost and was branded heretical.

I share this brief introduction to show that the Bible has always been in a battle of sorts.  There has always been a battle of interpretation and value.  There has always been a battle to set parts of the Bible as having more of a priority than others.  This battle is not going to go away anytime soon, and I will certainly not resolve anything by this post.

One may then ask, "Well, then why type it in the first place?  If there has always been a battle and there always will be a battle, then isn't your wading into the fray a waste of your time?"

It is questions such as these which give some credence to the idea our lives are determined by forces beyond our control.  Why indeed?

It is because I think such battles are still worth fighting particularly in our cultural milieu.  In fact, I am beginning to think it is the lack of such battling--check that--the misplaced battling over Scripture that has severely affected many mainline denomination's effectiveness in doing mission and ministry in our cultural climate.

A Bit More History

Before wading into the current climate, I think it instructive to visit the last climate and the last big Bible battle.

The age of the Enlightenment provided the background for the last battle of biblical interpretation as science and reason took center stage.  This age invoked the scientific method as the best way to obtain knowledge of the physical world.  The methodology proved so successful that its application found its way into the humanities: the social sciences if you would prefer.  Psychology, Sociology, History, Literature, and even Theology were affected by this methodology.

This caused no small amount of angst in regards to biblical interpretation.  The idea that the universe was governed by unbreakable natural laws led many to abandon the idea of miracle as written about in scripture.  The historical-critical reading of scripture provided interpretations of the texts which differed from the status quo.  Some questioned the reliability of the documents as historical and sought to separate the myth from the reality. 

Others, seeing this, planted their feet firmly in response.  They considered such interpretation and understanding as dangerous.  They responded with the thoughts of biblical inerrancy and infallibility.  God's Word was not to be tampered with or monkeyed around with!  It was the authority no matter what science said! 

You can still hear this battle being fought from time to time especially if you enter into any intra-Christian argument on the world wide web.  Accusations of fundamentalism and anti-scientific accusations abound along with retorts of a refusal to adhere to God's Word and a willingness to pick and choose what one wants to believe.

The Battlefield Has Shifted

Unfortunately, the battlefield has shifted significantly, and the battles that are often fought miss the mark substantially.

The age of the Enlightenment was the age of science and reason, but the age of science and reason met its match in two places: in postmodernity and during World War II. 

Post-modern philosophy found its biggest proponent in the philosopher Nietzsche.  Nietzsche undermined any philosophical appeal to transcendence.  "There are no ideals," Nietzsche proclaimed.  He is more famous for uttering the phrase, "God is dead."  The same idea applies: there is nothing beyond ourselves to which we can appeal as "good", "evil", "right", "wrong", "just", and the like.  Everything is simply a matter of one's perspective.

The scientific and mathematic community ran into limitations as well.  Heisenberg introduced the uncertainty principle stating that observation affects the outcome in the quantum world, so we have had to wrestle with how our own biases affect our observation.  Goedel showed how our mathematical, philosophical, and scientific systems are based upon certain unprovable assumptions and how within our systems there will emerge statements of truth that cannot be proved.

Culturally, World War II destroyed any assumption that science and reason would lead us to a more just and healthy world.  When a scientifically advanced culture like Germany could obliterate six million people because of hatred and greed...well, that put a damper on positivism.

These historical phenomena deeply inform our current culture AND our approach to Biblical interpretation. 

The Rise of Perspectivism

Mainline denominations, still stuck in Enlightenment Bible battles have been ill equipped to face postmodernity and its affects on biblical interpretation.  For we have failed to grasp the reality and dangers of perspectivism.  In fact, because of our sympathetic nature, we have actually embraced it.

Many mainline denominations to this day embrace identity theology: white theology, black theology, feminist theology, Latin-American theology, LBGTQ theology.  The experience of the community (or person) becomes an important lens in understanding the theology itself, and all voices should be welcomed at the table.  While the table indeed is open to any and all, a very disturbing result can take place.

This can best be shown in a conversation I had recently over what exactly happened on the cross at Calvary.  I believe the New Testament witness is pretty clear that on the cross Jesus offers himself as a sacrifice of atonement for sin.  The great weight of the evidence supports this.

Interestingly enough, my dialogue partner said, "Sometimes, in explaining stuff, we risk robbing it of its power."

How does explaining the cross rob it of its power? 

Well, in this current culture, the interpretation of an event only has power in how a person interprets said event.  In the case of the cross, it only has power through my lens of experience.  It only has power in-so-far as I see it having power.  Depending upon your experience, it will affect you differently: hence the need for so many varying theologies. 

And the need for many biblical interpretations.

Again, a recent example taken from a Facebook discussion on the nature of God.  One poster said that his understanding of God as revealed in Jesus led him to discount the Old Testament witness of God commanding the destruction and obliteration of entire cities and cultures including women and children.  For him, God is love means that God cannot kill in this fashion.  His experience of God led him to discount the biblical witness.

The Response of the Church

Most mainline denominations fell squarely in the historical-critical embrasure of science camp.  Striving to stay philosophically relevant, they have also tended to become perspectivist.  Hence, if anyone appeals to a particular part of scripture to bolster an argument--particularly an argument over the application of the Law, one is met with the accusation of fundamentalism or worshiping the Bible instead of the God of the Bible.  If one makes a theological appeal--even if that appeal is fundamentally sound--then one is told, "Remember, this is simply your perspective."

Again, in my theological dialogue I spoke of identity theology, and I laid out my case for our identity as Christians.  My dialogue partner (DP) responded throughout.

Me: I believe as Christians we find our identity only in Jesus.
DP: Absolutely.
Me: I believe when Jesus said, take up your cross, He meant that we are supposed to die to our race, our color, our sexuality, anything that we think comprises our identity.
DP: I agree completely, but keep in mind you are coming at this from a white theological perspective.

I blew up at this point.  Probably shouldn't have, but did.  Should have retorted: it isn't a white theological perspective at all.  It's a brown skinned, Jewish theological perspective.  Wasn't quick enough.  I hope you see how experiential perspective begins to trump sound theology.  In its elevation of inclusivity as a modern day idol, many mainline denominations no longer have any basis for critiquing theology.  All are equally heard and almost equally welcome--even if they are contrary to biblical theology and teaching.

Re-elevation of Biblical Authority

I am no fundamentalist.  Neither do I believe the Bible to be inerrant.  I do believe the Bible is reliable.  I do believe the Bible is the Word of God, and I believe it should be the source and norm of all theology and understanding for Christianity.  When I say source and norm, I believe it should be the final authority in helping us understand who God is; how God has revealed Himself particularly in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus; and how to understand the implications of the cross and resurrection.  I believe the biblical witness has drawn out these matters, and I would like to argue why mainline denominations should put our trust in them rather than in experience and perspectivism.

First, we must decry perspectivism.  We cannot allow Nietzsche to win the day with his idea of relativism.  This is quite easily done because perspectivism gets hoisted on its own petard.  You cannot say, "truth is dependent upon your perspective" because then that statement must be an objective truth in and of itself.  But the statement cannot be objective because "truth is dependent upon your perspective."  Logically, the stance fails.  Secondly, no one lives as though everything were just dependent upon our perspectives.  We all have notions of fairness, justice, peace, etc.  No one believes that a strong person should just be able to take from a weaker person because he is strong.  Perspectivism does not give you the ability to decry such an act.  We all believe in some sort of truth even if we don't quite know what that truth is.  This is easily demonstrated in the moral realm.  Take a look at the following video:

Nearly everyone would agree that "paying" unequal amounts for equal work is wrong.  There is something not only deeply embedded within us but within the world that demands justice.  It is not simply a matter of perspective.

Secondly, we must realize the severe limitations of experience.  There is no scientist or philosopher who uses experience as a measure of truth.  None.  Why?  Experience is far too subjective a measure for truth.  As theologians, we should be doubly skeptical because not only is experience subjective, it is also affected by our sinful nature.  One of the things I think Nietzsche got correct was his suggestion that we all have a "Will to Power."  Essentially, this means we try to further our own agendas even without realizing it.  The person trying to achieve heights of power is exercising his will to power as is the one who says, "We should strive to serve instead of to get ahead."  Both of these people are seeking their own will to power in the best way they see fit.  Christianity would call this original sin.  When we articulate our own theologies based in our own experience, this sin infects the process even without our knowing it.

In addition to this, contrary to my dialogue partner’s assertion, basing an event’s power upon a person’s or group’s experience of that event actually robs the event of its power.  The event has no meaning in and of itself.  This is an inherently dangerous position to take because if an event only carries meaning based upon a particular interpretation, then there is no critiquing that interpretation.  There is no basis for changing one’s mind.  There is only a perspective.  And another perspective.  And another perspective. 

This is best illustrated in my response to one of my dialogue partner’s assertions about non-denominational churches, “Second, I think your line of questioning in regards to unaffiliated non-denoms is right on target, and I share your concerns.  However, I am a bit flummoxed by how it is possible to allow for a wide range of interpretations and understandings while being critical of competing theologies?  For instance, how can you call a particular theology wrong unless you know what is right?  I have no problem calling Osteen a charlatan, fraud, and false teacher.  In my estimation, he deserves every one of those titles because the prosperity gospel he preaches is completely antithetical to the Gospel (rooted and grounded in sacrificial atonement, Rom. 3 and quite a few other places).  If I am open to the possibilities of more than a few interpretations and understandings of the Gospel, then, to insure logical consistency, I have to be open to the possibility Joel has it right.

Third, we must confront those within the Christian faith who wish to diminish the authority of Scripture based upon experience.  We must unflinchingly say: the Bible is the ONLY source we have of the revelation of Jesus.  The Bible is the ONLY source we have of the God who revealed Himself in the history of Israel.  There is no other source for this revelation.  If you claim that the source is flawed, then so is your articulation of God.  If you claim the New Testament is unreliable, so is your articulation of Jesus.  You cannot go to the only source we have of Jesus, call it unreliable, and then come up with a reliable portrait of Jesus based upon unreliable material.  You will only construct your own, personal Jesus. 

Fourth, we must strive to understand the scriptures as the early church understood them.  I use the historical/critical method of studying the scriptures all the time.  I am blown away by the insights each and every week as I prepare for my sermons.  I am blown away by how that which was relevant in the time of Jesus is extremely relevant today.  Anyone who decries that the biblical witness isn't relevant to our time and place today isn't studying the scriptures very well.  The theology of the early church; of the Gospels; of Paul; of John; of Peter confronts our narcissistic, self-absorbed, idolatry in a massively transformational way--a way I am convinced much of the mainline church is missing.

As I preach from week to week, I see myself more as an art historian.  It is one thing to walk into a museum and look at a Monet.  One can easily see the beauty of one of his paintings.  But when an art historian begins to give the background to the painting; when he or she points out the certain brush strokes and the difficulty of the medium worked with; the painting takes on a whole new life.  Delving into the scriptures in this manner is very important because it allows lay folks the ability to appreciate their cursory read, AND it brings it to life in detail.

Fifth, we must put to bed the old battles.  We should retire the words fundamentalist and inerrancy.    There really isn't a battle between faith and philosophy/science anymore.  There is no need to consider miracles as myths.  The world has moved on from this.  In fact, it is only the most hard core atheists who call into question whether or not miracles are possible.  We know that science is limited.  We know that so called natural laws do not cover all possibilities.  We know that whether or not an event happens is based upon probability not certainty.  Miracles are extremely improbable.  They are not impossible.  Science cannot tell you whether the sun will appear on the horizon tomorrow with certainty.  It can say the sun will appear on the horizon with a great deal of probability.  The two are not the same.  Christians who lessen the authority of scripture based upon an outdated model of science are doing themselves no favors.

If this blog contributes anything to the Bible battle, I would like for readers to consider it a shot toward trusting the biblical witness.  I would like for readers to consider the Gospels as ancient, historical biography based upon eyewitness testimony--testimony which begs to be trusted first and then examined.  The Gospel writers were not irrational fiction writers longing to embellish the teachings of a moralist.  They were earnestly seeking to relay the teachings and events of the life of Jesus.  Each writer does have a particular agenda and theological take, but we, like the early church, should consider these portraits together.  As in the case of a trial, the more eyewitnesses we have, the more clearly we can begin to reconstruct what happened--even if those eyewitnesses disagree on certain details.

Further, I commend that we view the entirety of the biblical canon through the cross and resurrection.  This gets into sticker territory, I know.  For what does the cross and resurrection mean?  For the majority of scripture: it is the sacrificial atonement of the God incarnate to reconcile the world with the God transcendent.  Viewing the scriptures through this lens gives coherence to the entire story without having to pick and choose based upon our experiences.  It allows us to understand the wrath of God in the Old Testament along with the amazing love shown by Jesus.  It finally allows us to coherently understand many difficult passages in the New Testament epistles.  Finally, it gives us a tremendous tool in engaging our world today.  While much technology has changed, the very nature of humanity has not changed.  It is this basic nature of humanity that the  Bible is trying to address.  If we do not come to some sort of agreement in how to interpret the Bible as mainline Christians, and fail to address the root of human nature, we will continue our slow decline into oblivion and leave the proclamation to those who do.