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People are not broken

I was on vacation last week, so I didn’t blog until Friday.  I missed jumping on the train with the rest of the people who responded to Steve McCoy’s tweet about teaching our children they are “deeply broken.”  There are still ripples from that tweet, and at no point has Steve bothered to apologize for his tweet.  Instead, he’s chosen to troll Stephanie Drury on her Stuff Christian Culture Likes Facebook page, and he’s responded to the criticism (which has been vast) with defensiveness.  He’s claimed that what he meant was that he personally does teach children that they are loved, though still sinful.  The problem is, he tweeted something which had no context and wasn’t followed up with anything further.  Plus, you know, the fact that what he said is wrong in the first place.

People screw up, make mistakes, do terrible things, hurt each other, sin, whatever you want to call it.  We’re not perfect, and none of us can claim that we always do the right thing in every situation.  But we are not “broken.”  Objects can be broken, but humans cannot be.  The word broken implies a need to be fixed or changed or repurposed in some way.  It doesn’t make any sense to apply that to people.

Since that tweet and its fallout, I’ve seen many people talking about the shame they’ve felt because they were taught from a young age that there was something fundamentally flawed about them.  This is common in Reformed Christianity, though it appears in various forms in all sorts of denominations.  It’s based on the first premise of Calvinism, the doctrine of total depravity.  While I don’t actually agree with that particular theology (or Calvinism in general), I can see how it could be taught in a less threatening manner.  There is no excuse, on the other hand, for teaching anyone that they are “broken.”

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, because I’ve been doing some reading from autistic people.  And yes, I’m referring to autistic people rather than “people with autism,” because this is how many autistic people choose to identify.  The reason for doing so (in their words) is to emphasize that it is not something separate or external to their core as people–it is a vital part of their existence and make-up.  It is this specific thing which makes me angriest about the “deeply broken” tweet.

After reading this excellent post by Michael Scott Monje, Jr. about person-first language, I began thinking about my son’s ADHD.  There is only “person-first” language to describe him–he’s a boy with ADHD.  I wish there were a different way to describe it, though, because without his ADHD, my son would be an entirely different person; he wouldn’t be himself.  The urgency for such language increased after reading Steve McCoy’s tweet.

My son spent fourth grade in a classroom with a teacher who viewed him as, in a way, broken.  I’m not necessarily criticizing her; it’s a common perspective in educational settings.  I’m bringing it up because it’s the same thinking that leads to telling children they are broken in church settings.  It’s a view of people–particularly those who don’t fit some expectation of “normal”–that leads to shaming them and turning them into “others” with whom we’d rather not associate.

The problem with that is that we can easily rationalize poor treatment of anyone we see as “broken.”  When we teach children from a young age that they are broken, who they are at their core becomes irrelevant.  My son’s ADHD and my friends’ kids autism are part of their “brokenness” rather than being something of value that makes them uniquely themselves. Rather than helping them understand their own identity, the language of brokenness shames them into thinking that they require fixing.  Even for children who do fit into cultural and religious norms, these words are damaging and can lead to years of struggle to feel whole, particularly for those who develop physical or emotional challenges later on.

Instead of defending this terrible language, why aren’t people like Steve McCoy listening to those who have been deeply hurt by this teaching?  Why aren’t they apologizing for the use of abusive, triggering language?  And why in God’s name aren’t they urging us to have a view of our children that emphasizes their worth?

My son is not “broken.”  He is not flawed, damaged, or otherwise ruined.  These are not words he needs to hear, particularly as a child who does not fit with what’s expected.  My daughter also has some things about her that make her different from other girls her age, and she does not need to be told she’s “broken” either.  Failure to tell them that they are “deeply broken” will not lead to a belief that they are perfect and sinless.  That concept is not necessary; they already know that everyone messes up.  They are learning that who they are is not the same as what they do, and they are learning that there is a big difference between behavior some people don’t like and behavior that actively hurts someone else.

Instead of teaching our children that they are broken, I propose that we love them, cherish them, and teach them that they are precious, beautiful people.  Instead of raising them on the doctrine of total depravity, how about we simply correct behaviors that are hurtful and harmful?  How about we seek their forgiveness when we do the wrong things?  We don’t need to make children–or adults, for that matter–feel ashamed of who they are at their core; they will meet plenty of people willing to do that for them.  It’s our job to assure that they know how deeply loved they are.

 

Notable News: Week of September 29-October 5, 2012

Lots of around-the-web goodness for you all today.  This week’s best posts are all over the map for content.  Enjoy!

1. Roger E. Olson on “Evangelical Inquisitions”

This timely post is spot-on about the way that some Christians like to play Doctrine Police with other Christians.  At our house, we call it doctrinal purity.  It’s the idea that there is one absolutely correct way to interpret Scripture and if you don’t do it that way, you are in error and must be disciplined.  I have to admit, I’m not fond of the term “evangelical” in this context.  This is not necessarily a hallmark of evangelicalism, only of extreme conservativism.  There are plenty of wonderful evangelicals who hold Scripture in high regard but don’t adhere to a strictly conservative reading.  Rachel Held Evans, Brian McLaren, and Mel White come to mind, for example.

Which brings me to…

2. Denny Burke is an idiot

Or at least he isn’t very kind to Christianity Today’s article on women to watch.  Instead of appreciating the diversity of women on the list, he goes off on how CT didn’t do enough to highlight the differences in belief about women’s roles.  Well, of course, Burke, you fool.  The point of the CT article was to honor Christian women and what they’re doing, not point out their doctrinal error (see above).  I don’t normally read the comments, but the first comment says, “Rachel Held Evans — what do you mean, ‘non-evangelical’?”  This got my attention, so I read on—only to discover a long, long discussion about whether Rachel Held Evans is or is not evangelical.  Because that’s the real point, of course.

And speaking of women…

3. Slacktivist shreds Kent Shaffer

Oh, Slacktivist.  You are so many, many kinds of awesome.  This post quotes Shaffer’s disgusting response to Christian women bloggers and links every single word to a blog written by a woman.  And in case you missed my mad tweeting about it, I’m on that list too!  (It’s in the last set of links, the final word “always.”)  I am honored to be counted among the likes of Alise Write, Andrea Cumbo, Grace, Kimberly Knight, Crystal St. Marie Lewis, and others.  Many thanks to my cousin for pointing this out to me, I would have missed it otherwise.  (And double points for this being posted on my birthday!)

4. If only

If only this were a sign that Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill were moving into the 21st century.  I agree with this woman’s points, but I doubt that her actual presentation at Mars Hill will be anything outside of the narrowly defined roles that church expects from women.  Still, nice to see another woman who doesn’t like women’s conferences.

5. On juggling

Shannon M. Howell says it nicely.  We all have a lot of plates to keep in the air.  If anyone figures it out, please email me.  I’ll get to your message sometime next month.

6. Boy Scouts of America are idiots too

And right here, folks, is exactly why my son is not a boy scout.  (Not that he is or isn’t gay, but I won’t give my money to an organization that actively discriminates against people who are non-het and non-religious.)  Keeping a hard-working kid from being awarded his Eagle Scout is just not cool, I don’t care what your policies are.  Seriously, BSA? Get a new hobby.  Also, if your kid is a scout, sorry, but I’m not buying your popcorn.

7. Jonathan Zeng: heartache and hope

This piece is beautifully written.  It breaks my heart that there is still such discrimination against people for who they are.  At the same time, Zeng captures the spirit of creativity and working out our pain.  I am reminded again of the importance of standing alongside people in the midst of trials.  I hope that we are teaching our children to do the same.

I hope you all have a great weekend, see you Monday for the next installment of 50 Shades!

Why I’m not a fundamentalist

There is a somewhat negative connotation to the word “fundamentalist” (in my opinion, with good reason and a measure of accuracy).  But the kind of black-and-white thinking associated with fundamentalism is actually present in the majority of conservative Christianity (“evangelical” or not) to at least some extent.  Most churches teach a variation on exactly the same theme.  The sad part about it is that this theme isn’t “ancient.”  It isn’t a Jewish theme, and it isn’t even present in the oldest forms of Christianity.  Not the way it’s taught now, anyway.  This excerpt sums it up nicely:

The overarching story of fundamentalism, based on a highly literal and selective interpretation of the story of the Bible itself, goes something like this: God created the world; man was created good; Adam and Eve sinned; man was corrupted, and came under God’s condemnation, specifically the judgment of eternal punishment, i.e. hell; God sent Jesus to take the punishment for us; if we become (properly born-again) Christians, we will go to heaven and be saved from hell. It is a story about good versus evil, God versus Satan. It is a story in which the world is a battleground between the two.

When you become a fundamentalist Christian, typically by being “born again”, you become a part of that story. A distant and alien story about God and a group of people thousands of years ago becomes the story of how you yourself, two millennia after the cross, crossed over onto the right path and became destined for heaven.

You will join a community where the big story will be told over and over again, whether explicitly or implicitly, in the songs you sing, the sermons you hear, the conversations you have, the language you use and the rituals in which you participate. Present-day fundamentalists may well see themselves as part of a story about how society is getting worse and worse as standards decline and the ungodly have their wicked way, a story about how people have overcome by resisting this decline and how you too can overcome. Within the big story are smaller stories, whether hypothetical or attached to actual events, about how accepting this, that and the other is the beginning of the slippery slope into heresy and apostasy.

As in all good stories, there is a cast of characters, of heroes and villains. The world is divided up unambiguously into Believers and Unbelievers, the Saved and the Unsaved. The Believers are faithful, Bible-believing, valiant defenders of eternal truth, heavenbound. Unbelievers are godless, blinded, hellbound. There are the Liberals, pretend Christians, attackers of the truth, rebellious against God. Everyone falls into one category or another. Fundamentalism presents a very black-and-white world. And if all this looks like a caricature of fundamentalism, perhaps that’s because the fundamentalist worldview is a caricature of the world itself?  -from Why Leaving Fundamentalism Hurts, by David L. Rattigan

Right now, a lot of people are reading this and thinking, “Exactly.  What’s wrong with that?”  Let me explain.

The problem with this kind of either/or mentality is that it ignores stark reality and lived experience.  Lumping all people into the binary categories of “saved = good” and “unsaved = bad” turns a blind eye to the fact that a lot of people exist outside those labels.  The assumption seems to be that the rest of the world is going down, but we real, true Christians aren’t going with it.  And if you’re not for us, you’re against us (a faulty paraphrase of Jesus’ actual words).  Which might be true.

Except that it isn’t.

This dichotomy ignores the Christians who spend a good chunk of time posting rude, ignorant things on social media sites.  It pays no attention to the pastors who spew hate from the pulpit.  It allows people to appear to be “good” Christians by attending every Sunday, wearing the correct modest clothing, and avoiding the Big Evil Things that No One Should Ever Do (like swearing, getting drunk, having premarital sex, and being gay) while simultaneously failing to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and imprisoned.  You know why?  Because they can claim the slogan, “I’m not perfect, just forgiven.”

Meanwhile, the Cops and Robbers theme successfully pretends that there are no decent people outside of Christian faith.  It pays no heed to the atheists who have strong moral convictions; the people of other religions who have deep, abiding, personal faith; the thousands of gay people who love Jesus with all their hearts, souls, minds, and wills.  It assumes that “the world” is the way it is because of people who aren’t Real True Christians™.

This, right here, is why I’m not a fundamentalist.  I don’t really think I consider myself a liberal Christian either.  I tend to think that “liberal Christian” is the term for someone who operates on the same basic assumptions as a fundamentalist but has a different set of beliefs regarding what constitutes sinful behaviors.  For example, a liberal Christian may still believe that sin is deserving of punishment or consequences, but would not agree that premarital sex falls in the category of sin.  I often think it’s just a cover for “I can be a Christian and still largely do what I want, as long as it doesn’t appear to be hurting anyone.”  (For the record, I don’t think all liberal Christians act this way, but it describes the majority of what I’ve seen.)

I don’t fit that description.

I don’t know how to categorize myself.  Maybe I don’t need a label at all, outside “Christian.”  I don’t need to define the kind of Christian I am.  Being neither here nor there makes me feel uncomfortable among both conservative and liberal Christians, but perhaps that’s okay.  It might even be exactly what Jesus intended.  When we become comfortable, we stop following Jesus and begin to coast.  We become obedient to humans and ideas rather than God.

Dear Lord, may I never grow complacent.  Amen.

Notable News: Mutuality Edition, Week of June 1-8, 2012

My apologies for posting this so late in the day.  Here are my favorites from the week of synchroblogging inspired by the week of mutuality.

1. First, kudos to Rachel Held Evans for her outstanding work.  She will be continuing to post over the weekend, so be sure to check out what else she has in store (including her own highlights of the best).  Her series has been fantastic.  Here are the posts, in order of appearance:

2. Christian Marriage: Fail?  Pam Hogeweide is one of my favorite bloggers.  In her post My Failed Christian Marriage, she talks about the struggle to fit the ideal for Christian marriage and the joy in finding freedom from those restraints.

3. Fabulosity on Alise Wright’s blog.  Another blogger I just can’t get enough of.  First, Alise catches our attention by reminding us that You Don’t Have to Take Your Clothes Off to Be Egalitarian.  Then, she has the always wonderful Sarah Moon share her thoughts on Too Much in a fantastic guest post.  If you don’t read anything else, read these posts!

4. A couple of men weigh in.  I always like the way Travis Mamone shares his heart.  This post is a good way to introduce some deeper theological constructs without getting bogged down with terminology; it’s nicely put.  Through the trending topic #mutuality2012 on Twitter, I discovered Jonathan Aigner’s post sorry, little girl: a patriarchal response.  Great thoughts on the deficiency of the female gender and faithfully following God’s gifts in our own lives without causing guilt in others.

5. The Best of the Rest.  I could go on and on, listing everything I like and why.  Instead, I will simply list the several other posts that I found meaningful.  Even though we’re all writing on the same thing, each person has a unique voice, an interesting perspective.  What an amazing week it’s been!

Feel free to leave a comment with any blog posts you like on the subject of mutuality/egalitarianism, whether they’re from this week or not.  Don’t forget to link to your own if you wrote something!

 

You’re Doing It Wrong: Church Edition

Here’s a church practice I’d like to see permanently retired: Denomination-bashing.

There are over 30,000 denominations of Christianity worldwide.  Now, I understand that not everyone is going to practice their faith in the same way.  The problem is, we’re constantly arguing over who has the correct interpretation of Scripture.  We spend a heck of a lot of time explaining not only why our doctrine is right but why another denomination has it all wrong.

I wish I had a dollar for every time someone has said to me, “The Bible is clear about [fill in the blank].”  I would be able to retire in style to a tropical island of my own.  It’s a nice sentiment, but there’s one problem.

It ain’t quite true.

If the Bible were so clear, we would have one type of Christianity.  Everyone would study the text in the same way, resulting in the same answers.  There wouldn’t be any disagreement about doctrine, because we would all understand the Scriptures to mean the same thing.  There would be no reason for our thinking or our interpretation to evolve.  There would be no need to understand cultural context and cues.

But that’s not the real problem with “The Bible is clear…” mentality.  When someone says that, it puts a period on the conversation.  It means, “I don’t agree with you, and I’m done talking to you.”  It shuts down the possibility of further discussion.  A person would be just as effective saying, “I’m right and you’re wrong.  Neener, neener.”

This little phrase reduces our faith to little more than an argument about whose doctrine is the Official Way to Practice Our Religion.  It builds walls instead of bridges.  It allows pastors to preach on the other guy—to give Sunday messages that, instead of leading us to deeper faith in Jesus, simply explain why those people can’t possibly be real Christians.

You know what?  I don’t care who’s right.  There is no situation in which I find it remotely acceptable to spend the better part of an hour lecturing on why someone else’s religion or doctrine or theology is wrong.  Just in case anyone has forgotten, neither did Jesus.  He said he didn’t come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.  He healed Gentiles.  He told the Samaritan woman that one day, theological differences wouldn’t matter.

If a church is spending any time at all trying to convince people that some other church has things all wrong, then that church is putting emphasis on the wrong things.  Lead people to deeper faith; encourage spiritual discipline; help believers to live a more Christ-like life.  But lay off your superiority when it comes to differences in doctrine.  That doesn’t do anything to foster healing and wholeness.

It’s time that churches stopped saying to each other, “You’re doing it wrong.”

The 5 Things I Never Want to Hear at Church Again

5. “The Bible, says it, I believe it, that settles it.”

Well, gee.  That’s very humble of you.

The problem with this one is, which interpretation?  I recently had someone tell me the Bible is “clear” on matters of doctrine.  No, actually, that’s why it’s doctrine.  If it were so clear, there would only be one branch of Christianity and no denominations.  And the whole time we’re congratulating ourselves on having the “correct” interpretation of Scripture, so is someone else…with an entirely different view.

4. “The Bible is God’s little instruction book.”

I don’t know where to start on this one.  I was listening to a sermon online in which the speaker said that the Bible offers guidance for every aspect of our lives.  That reminded me of the old Saturday Night Live sketch with Sally Field playing a woman who consulted God for everything, literally.  The idea that the Bible has something personal for us in every verse is a really self-centered perspective.  (And kind of stupid, too: “Of Zattu, 945.” -Ezra 2:8.)  Not only that, it reduces the Bible from the story of God’s love for humanity to nothing more than something we’d keep in the car in case that funny little light appears on the dashboard.  What a depressing way to interact with Scripture.

3. “Lost people.”

Yeah, I hate this phrase.  When I think of my family and friends who are not Christians, I don’t think of them as “lost people.”  If I must think of them collectively, they are non-Christians.  Individually, they are atheists, agnostic, Jewish, Buddhists, Unitarians, and so on.  I know how frustrating it is as a Christian to have people assume things about me because of my faith.  I wouldn’t appreciate it if my friends and family privately referred to me as “one of those super-religious idiots.”  I also remember well enough what it was like to be a non-Christian.  If I’d found out back then that people were calling me “lost,” I would never have wanted to set foot in that church again.  Whether or not a Christian believes that someone is “lost” without faith in Jesus is not a reason to call them that.  I think the phrase is intended to communicate the urgency of evangelism.  Instead, it communicates that we like to categorize people and are more concerned with converting them than with actually knowing them.

2. “Radically inclusive.”

This one’s touchy, because in theory, I agree with the concept.  However, I think it’s often misused and misapplied.  Jesus practiced radical inclusion.  He touched the sick, he interacted with Samaritans, he gathered tax collectors and sinners and called them friends.  It doesn’t count in the same category when we exclude people because there is something we don’t like or because we’ve interpreted Scripture to enable us to leave some people out.

1. “It’s all part of God’s plan.”

Oh, dear.  Well, when we think of the Bible as an instruction manual and we claim that it’s clear on doctrine, it’s not hard to understand this one.  It’s very easy to believe that the ordinary annoyances and difficulties of life are part of God’s plan to make us better people.  But this is far to simple an answer to the grief of parents who have lost their infant to birth defects or their child to cancer.  It’s hard to swallow when that drunk driver hits your car.  It doesn’t make sense when you watch your neighbor’s house go up in flames because of faulty wiring.  It certainly doesn’t seem clear when we live in a country where most of us have enough food and clean water, but whole communities in other places have neither.  Putting it down to “God’s plan” is a way to distance ourselves from having to do anything.  After all, if God orchestrated it, who am I to get involved?  Surely God will take care of it?  Please listen to me: Those are not words of comfort.  If you know someone who is going through something, let that be the absolute last thing that comes out of your mouth in response.

What Christianese have you heard at church that you’d like to chuck out the window?

“We heard about your church and decided to check it out…”

The other day, I played a game with myself called “what if.”

What if a married couple came to your church because they’d heard about it via postcard in the mail or through a web search? Imagine they come in, two small children in tow. They worship among the other people in attendance. They bring their kids to the children’s ministry or Sunday school or junior church. Suppose they like what they hear: the Sunday sermon is meaningful, the praise music is uplifting, and the people seem genuinely friendly. Their kids love their class and begin to make new friends. This family decides to settle in, remaining in attendance for six months. They decide the time has come to join as members.

Pretty common experience in many churches, especially those on a steady trend of growth. I know that at most churches, people would be thrilled with a new family becoming a permanent part of the congregation. It would mean more people attending, the possibility that this family might reach out to their friends, family, and neighbors. It would mean the chance to see their kids grow up and hopefully integrate into the life of the church. It would mean more people to pitch in and help out in the ministries of the church. It would mean a chance to make new friends. Everyone wins, right?

Just not if the couple happens to be two women or two men.

I live in a place where marriage equality is the law. So a married same-sex couple might actually be legally joined. For that reason, we need to start asking ourselves what we might do as a church in a situation like the one I described above. It’s possible that a couple might attend a church unaware of that church’s position on homosexuality, even if the church appears conservative in other ways. I attended a church for ten years, and never once heard the pastor give a sermon on the subject.

In a church that holds to a certain reading of Scripture, there are usually prohibitions (written or not) against membership when a person is actively engaged in something the church specifically teaches as sin. That means that an unpartnered gay person would likely be allowed membership, provided he or she remained celibate. A gay couple would probably be allowed to continue to attend church, but would not be offered membership. In some churches, membership might be extended to one or both if they were to end their relationship and commit to celibacy. So that brings up the question of what to do if the couple I described seeks membership.

There are a number of possibilities, all of them fairly grim and not particularly loving:

  • Refuse to allow the couple membership, but let them know they are welcome to continue attending. That might be an option, but it would severely restrict the ways in which that family could serve in the church. Many churches have policies prohibiting people from participating in certain ministries unless they are members. Besides, would you want to keep going to a church that wouldn’t let you join officially? You might as well just…
  • Ask them to leave. Pretty rude, considering they’ve been with you several months. Still, at least it’s honest. But unless you are giving them the name and address of a local affirming community, you have no assurance that these people will ever set foot in a church again. And if you choose not to do so (because you’re kind of self-righteous?), are you saying God has given up on them? If you’re in the business of helping people find Jesus, that misses the mark. Besides, we’re talking about people who have a six-month history at the church. Kicking them out would really hurt. So maybe you…
  • Tell them they can be members if they break up. I suppose there are people who might have considered that to be some bizarre sort of solution before same-sex couples could legally marry. Nowadays, that couple can’t just split up. They would literally have to divorce, which introduces issues such as alimony, child support, and custody. And seriously, what kind of heartless jerk does that to a family with children anyway? Plus there’s the problem that we don’t do that with other couples who are not married under “Biblical” circumstances. I’ve never heard of anyone being asked to divorce a spouse because they had had an affair and then married each other. Well, as a last resort I suppose you could…
  • Shun the family or refuse to serve them in any way unless they “renounce” their sin. What part of “love” wasn’t clear? I’ve never seen ignoring anyone work as a means to salvation. This ends up in the same place as bullet point number two.

So what are we going to do in that situation?

See, the problem here is that whole “live the sinner, hate the sin” thing. It allows us to separate people from their behavior, but it denies the fact that there is more to people than their behavior. It allows us to imagine being gay as something people do as opposed to someone they are. It lets us think “those gay people” are doing yucky things with each other that we don’t like, and keeps us from seeing two people who have built a relationship, a marriage, a family, and a life together. It prevents us from understanding that there are children who could be hurt, not by their parents’ “sinful lifestyle” but by our condemnation.

It could happen. A church web site proclaiming the congregation to be “Bible-believing” or “conservative” or “traditional” might say something about whether or not a married same-sex couple would be welcome (probably not). On the other hand, many mainline churches could be described with those words, yet are in fact affirming. A warm welcome on their first visit might indicate the future of the relationship with that church. But a lot of people would be reluctant to openly reject anyone right away, even if they felt uncomfortable. Would it work if someone were to simply pull the family aside, explain things to them, and turn them loose? I don’t know. I suppose it might ease the conscience of the people at that church, knowing they were honest right away.

Real life, real people, are complicated. We can’t just wait for a situation to occur before we know what we’re going to do about it. That leads to panic and ends up with too many people being hurt. I think it’s time to face the facts that even though an awful lot of churches might like it to, marriage equality is not going away. Any church that isn’t affirming needs to decide what will happen when the inevitable occurs and a family walks through the doors looking for a church to call home.

Someone Cooler than I

Promises, promises.  I said in this morning’s post that I would lead you to someone cooler than I am in tonight’s post.  I’m late with that, but it’s for a good reason.  I spent the evening in the company of my sisters and their families.  It was worth it.

Anyway, here is a person I think you should track: Brian McLaren.

Back in 2009, I was struggling to make sense of the fundamentalist fog I’d lived in.  I felt as though I had very little spiritual direction, but I could no longer subscribe to much of the theology that had informed my faith for twenty years.  The problem was, I didn’t have anyone at the time who had been through it and came out on the other side.  Nearly everyone I knew still held to all (or almost all) of the things I was ready to leave behind.

And then I read a little book called The Great Emergence by Phyllis Tickle.  She makes reference to Brian McLaren, among others.  I decided to check out some of the people mentioned in the book.  I quickly discovered that McLaren was the one who interested me most.  He appeared to have gone on a spiritual journey that mirrored mine, and he made reference to C. S. Lewis.  Those two things made him already a kind of kindred spirit in my mind, so I went in search of his books.

Our local library didn’t have a copy of A Generous Orthodoxy, unfortunately, and the one copy in the system was already checked out.  Fortunately, another branch carried some of his titles.  I brought home copies of Everything Must Change and A New Kind of Christian.

My husband quickly devoured Everything Must Change, but I wasn’t quite ready for it.  I started with A New Kind of Christian (ANKoC).  My world was turned upside down from page one.  Before, I had been unable to put words to what I’d been feeling, muddling through and hoping that I would just recapture the faith I thought I’d lost.  Instead, I found someone else who did have the right words.  He named it and embraced it.  I felt as though McLaren himself had stepped into my living room for a chat, reassuring me that I wasn’t crazy and that I wasn’t on the verge of turning into an angry former Christian.

Again and again, McLaren writes with this same conversational style.  I finished the rest of the series that begins with ANKoC (The Story We Find Ourselves In, The Last Word and the Word After That), then went on to read many of his other books.  Two years ago, I read A New Kind of Christianity and learned about the flawed narrative that overlays much of our theology and doctrine.  I listened to his series of podcasts walking through the Bible, while simultaneously listening to the entire Bible on MP3.  Last year, I learned how to pray again by reading Naked Spirituality.  In short, McLaren is my go-to guy when I need to read or hear something spiritually uplifting.

And that sums up what I like about his style—it’s a pick-me-up, gentle and humble in tone.  Although he does make some good points, theologically speaking, it’s never a matter of having to wade through theology-ese.  One doesn’t need to have a PhD in religious studies to make sense of what he says.  Heck, one doesn’t even need to be a Christian.

If you can, check out some of McLaren’s books from the library.  Read his blog.  E-mail him a question (as far as I can tell, he answers all of them).  Even if you end up disagreeing, he is worth checking out.  If you live near me, I will loan you my copies of his ANKoC series, because I believe it’s that important.

I’m looking forward to reading his next book.

It’s Like, Literally…

If there was any question before, let me put it to rest: I despise the word literally.  In most cases, it’s either used incorrectly or it’s unnecessary.  But that’s not what I’m going to talk about here.  Um, literally.

Nope, today it’s all about Biblical literalism.  Now, I’m sure this is going to land me in hot water with more than a few people.  But I’m laying it on the line.  I suppose it’s on my mind because I had to teach a bunch of 5- and 6-year-olds a literal interpretation of Job.

While I take Job very seriously, I don’t take it as strictly factual information.  It’s a great story, but there are a lot of problems with it.  Allow me to list some of them:

-God makes a bet with Satan
-God gives Satan free rein in this guy’s life for the sole purpose of finding out whether he will stay faithful
-Job gets better than a fairytale ending

I don’t know about you, but I’m not fully at ease with the idea that the Creator of the Universe likes to play games with our souls.  If indeed God loves us, that’s not much of a way to show it.  Speaking only for myself here, I don’t do that to my kids.  I have no reason to think that God treats us worse than we treat our own children, especially since Jesus says just the opposite.  I’m inclined to trust Jesus on this one.

My next problem is the idea that bad things are just the work of the Devil.  That’s quite a stretch.  And again, that sounds like Cosmic Forces playing games with tiny little humans as pawns.  That really doesn’t sound much like the God featured in the rest of the Bible, nor the one we encourage people to trust.  We arrest humans who do that to their kids.  Just sayin’.

Finally, that better-than-it-was ending is just kind of…crap.  It reads like a tack-on, something someone threw in there so that we wouldn’t get all depressed reading about poor Job.  It’s also pretty misleading.  God lets Satan screw with us to prove a point, then makes it all better by replacing everything?  Yeah.  Right.

Now, that’s all based on a literal, historical reading of the text.  It’s what one gets with the idea that Job was a real person and every event laid out in the book is factual exactly as it is written.  In other words, it’s the belief that God did indeed make a bet with Satan over the soul of a human being.  I think there are much better readings, which leave it as poetry, allegory, and a sort of morality play.  When taken as a whole, rather than individual fact bites, it’s clear that there is a larger purpose to the story.

I always leave discussions on Biblical literalism feeling at least a small amount of rage under the surface.  I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard the words, “It’s literal unless it’s obvious it’s not or the text says it’s not.”  Well, that sure clears things up.  What one person believes to be “obvious” may not be to someone else.  A good deal of that is left to interpretation.  This is, of course, why some people take the Bible’s account of creation strictly at face value, and others see it as more poetic and nuanced.

This problem occurs in several well-known Bible stories: Adam and Eve, Noah, and Jonah, to name a few.  I think that one reason people feel so attached to literalism is that there is this fear that if we can’t believe in the Ark, we won’t believe in Jesus.  This is not at all true.  But what happens is that there are incredible stretches of the imagination in order to plug the holes left by literal interpretation.

For example, Noah takes two of every animal (and seven pairs of some) on the Ark.  Does that include polar bears, raccoons, and kangaroos, none of which are native to the Ancient Near East?  If Noah included those exotic animals, how did they get there?  How did they migrate their entire populations to the regions in which they now dwell?  Did those species arise later?  If so, then why is evolution false, or did God just magic them out of thin air?  The phrase “doesn’t bear close inspection” does not apply here.  Inquiring minds want to know: How does this all fit together?  To say it isn’t important brushes aside very real problems that must be addressed if one insists on taking everything as historical fact.

If, on the other hand, we take those stories not as absolute truth that must be defended but as insights into the nature of our relationship with God, we can have a much more generous approach to the text.  Instead of asking, “Well, what about…?” we can ask, “What does this mean?”  We can lay aside petty concerns about fact versus fiction in favor of developing understanding of God’s character and ours.  It doesn’t matter if the story happened just as the text suggests, because we’re concentrating on the key points—God wants us to trust and follow, even when it’s scary or strange, and that marvelous things happen when we do.

So getting back to Job, it seems as though a more responsible way to read the text is not to insist on literal interpretation, but to concentrate on meaning.  Some good things to come out of the text:

-Just because we experience bad things, it doesn’t mean we displeased God
-We don’t understand everything God does, but we can trust that God cares for us
-Eventually, all things will be made right (even if not in this lifetime)

Now, those are lessons I can get behind.

Misplaced Trust

Can we really trust the Bible today?  That’s a question a lot of people ask.  Depending on who’s posing the question, it has different meanings.

Some people ask it because they view the Bible as an outdated book with no meaning in the contemporary world.  It’s less of a question and more of a mockery of those who still read the Good Book.

Sometimes, it’s asked out of a genuine desire to know.  Underneath is a plea: “I desperately want something I can count on, something reliable in this unpredictable world.”

For still others, they see the way things actually work as being radically different from the way they’ve been taught to believe.  They see a disconnect between the real world and the insulated bubble of the church, and want to know what to keep and what to reject.

I’m sure there are other motives behind the question.  I don’t want to try to psychoanalyze the emotional and spiritual baggage adhering to such a query, because I think that it’s the wrong question.

The answer to, “Is the Bible the inerrant Word of God?” only matters if you think there is a right answer.  It only matters if you read the Bible as a legal document, a list of Life Rules to be trotted out like a reference book or an owner’s manual.  It only matters if you believe there is one ultimate translation and interpretation for every word of the sacred text.  It only matters if your goal is achieving doctrinal purity and perfection.  It only matters if you view the Bible as your personal tool for living your own life.

Imagine that we didn’t even need to ask such a question.  What would that kind of faith look like?  What would a faith look like if we stopped idolizing our denominational interpretations of Scripture and instead began really reading what it says in there?

Would we develop more compassion?  Would we seek justice in all things?  Would we stop politicizing faith?  Would different denominations be able to come together without tearing one another apart?

I don’t think it matters whether the Bible is “inerrant.”  That’s a man-made term, and meaningless.  That one word has led to countless debates over the discrepancies in the Bible, differences in the text that can’t be ignored.  If we waste time arguing over accuracy, it leads us down the rabbit hole of either denying or excusing the clear contradictions (yes, there are some), or throwing everything out because if you can’t believe one thing, you can’t believe anything it says in the Bible.  None of those are healthy approaches to reading the Bible.

But if we instead see the Bible as exactly what I called it at the beginning—the Good Book—it becomes something different.

A living document.

A covenant between ourselves and G-d.

A call to action.

A whisper of comfort in time of need.

A storybook of wonder to read to wide-eyed children.

A history of G-d’s love for people.

We can only see Scripture through our (limited) human perspective.  Different interpretations of the Bible have brought little but denominational strife.  Instead of worrying about whether the Bible is trustworthy, let’s trust that G-d is trustworthy.  All else will fall into place.