If you followed either of my two blogs before the-pilgrimage.org, you may remember I was trying to get a second book published. I didn’t succeed–exactly–which doesn’t really surprise me much, as the book is more my own personal devotional writing than an actual novel or history or biography.
Recently, however, some women at a retreat at which I spoke expressed an interest in this book and I on-demand-printed it. If you or someone you know appreciate lectio divina and/or are interested in Miryam the mother of Yeshua, or if you’re wondering what an “autobiography of myself as someone else” might look like, I’ll print more! Christmas is coming… 😉 $18. If you’d like one, pleases message me.
Note: This book may genuinely be helpful for those who wish to take the Pilgrimage’s Stepping into the Story class in the future.
The OSFGroups have started a new study. It’s on the book of Isaiah. I didn’t write a set study for the book this time, but am leaving it open to group members to input their questions, insights, and impressions for discussion of each passage we read each weekday, with the following pointers:
* Reminder: These words were written to particular people groups at a particular time in a particular context AND they are also somehow relevant to us.
* Advice: When you are trying to discern how the words are relevant to us, it may be tempting to read the diatribes as applying directly to the people with whom we disagree–spiritually, morally, philosophically, practically. Without bludgeoning your own self over the head with them, try to notice FIRST where in your own life or self these words are relevant to YOU.
I jump in at the end of the day. Occasionally, I may post some of my own reflections on the passage of the day here in this blog as well as in the private group. Today is one of those days. One participant hypothesized about how shocking it must have seemed to the ancient Judeans to hear that their sacrifices at the Temple weren’t actually what God wanted from them. Then I said:
I’m sure it really was shocking! I love the way this passage is set up: first God (through Isaiah) gets all rant-y about how His kids have totally forgotten about Him, are oblivious to the ways that He cares for them, and have actually turned their backs on Him and are rebelling against Him. And I’m sure they’re thinking, “Hey wait a second. We’re TOTALLY acknowledging Him. We kill animals in His temple all the time!” And then He’s like, “Do you think those sacrifices mean anything to me?” Then God starts enumerating ways that they can work on the relationship.
Here (just because I like to needle–and I guess also because I really think this) is where we as individuals tend to focus on the things we’re better at, that we perceive others as being worse at. This isn’t even intentional most of the time (if ever)—it is a rare person who can see their own blind spots (that’s why they’re called blind spots!). A person who is more social-justice oriented will immediately gravitate to verse 17, might notice that they are feeling judgmental about other people, and commence some introspection about where they themselves are not acting justly (or advocating for justice) in their world. On the other hand, a person who is more morality-centric will immediately gravitate to verse 16, might notice they are thinking about all the sins other people around them should be “washing themselves” of, and then commence some introspection about where they themselves are failing morally. (This is probably idealizing a little bit. The introspection in either case is not always a foregone conclusion. )
Then we all keep moving in our little sphere and we will often interpret the other of the two verses in light of the one that we gravitate to. So the social justice person assumes that helping the oppressed is what cleansing oneself in God’s sight means (that justice is the sum of morality). And the morality person assumes that helping the oppressed is at best an example of giving up evil ways, and at worst is just kind of a metaphor for it.
It seems to me that the conflict in this passage (in the whole book, really) is that God wants an actual relationship with His kids, and part of that is that He wants them to have a family resemblance. God is a loving Parent, who provides for His family, and who is angry and hurt when the people bearing the family name are not reflecting His character and His actions. Even though Hebrew parallelism (poetic stating of an idea twice in a row in slightly different ways) is a real and significant literary style all through the Bible (especially the Old Testament), AND although I confess I don’t know Hebrew, I don’t believe that verses 16 and 17 are an example of parallelism, but of progression: God is urging character transformation leading to transformation of action. Purification from sin, and justice, are not precisely two different things, but they’re not exactly the same thing, either. One flows out of the other. We can’t know what true justice is if we aren’t developing the character and priorities of God.
The thing that’s true about both of those things, though, is that we can’t achieve either one via rote, prescribed, religious rites, and apart from an actual relationship with our Maker. I love that God invites the people to hash it out with Him, in verse 18. He doesn’t plan to cave on His standards/boundaries/priorities, but He does want a restored relationship with them, and wants them to receive His forgiveness.
What, if anything, do you think God would want you to hash out with Him?
I’m writing this while a torrential rainstorm is raging outside my window, except I don’t feel like I can legitimately describe it that way, because Texas has just been demolished by hurricane Harvey, the Caribbean and quite possibly soon Florida are being more-than-pummeled by Irma, and the Columbia River Gorge is going up in smoke.
I visited the Columbia River Gorge for the first time in June, and one of my fellow Northeasterners said, “It’s like back home, except on steroids.” He was right. Everything looked familiar–only about 50 times bigger, and prehistoric. Northeastern woods aren’t that old, actually, because early European settlers deforested the place, optimistically trying to farm this pile of even more prehistoric rocks. It’s weird to think that the first time I saw that particular West Coast view is now the only time, for me, and that no one else will ever see quite that same view again outside of pictures.
Also, the United States (where I happen to live, which is why I’m not also citing the monsoons in Bangladesh, etc: much as I might want to be entirely un-nationalistic, sometimes I have to admit that I am at least as self-focused as anyone else) is in what might be called a state of everything-turmoil (including but not limited to politics, religion, morals, ethics, the environment, personal and national identity…fill in the blanks). Also, nukes. There are a couple of passages in the Bible where God promises to do more than we could ask or imagine, but see here, God–I don’t personally know anyone who actually asked for any of this, and it is, I’m pretty sure, beyond what anybody could have imagined. And so maybe that promise isn’t what we wanted either?
On Sunday I preached a sermon which was supposed to be about joy, and maybe it actually was by the time the Holy Spirit tweaked what came out of my mouth as it reached the hearers’ ears. (It wasn’t, I felt, that great a sermon on its own merits, but I got a lot of positive feedback.) I was preaching from the story where Simon Peter has an epiphany that Jesus is the Messiah, except he doesn’t quite know what that means himself, because right after Jesus says, “Yeah, so the Messiah has to go to Jerusalem and be tortured and killed and come back to life,” Peter says, “God, no. [That’s not me throwing in the Lord’s name in vain–that’s basically what Peter said.] That can’t happen to You,” and Jesus ends up calling him Satan.
I was thinking about this tendency we have as humans to imagine that a miracle always means the prevention of disaster. Or the halting of it, if the disaster is already underway, like Irma, or cancer. Or the fixing of it like it never happened, if the prevention and the halting don’t work. And if we don’t get the miracle (or can’t quite believe in miracles), we just try to reframe the tragedy, like Not As Bad As Someone Else’s Problem or like It Will Get Better or like At Least You Still Have… (or …Don’t Have… or whatever).
I was thinking how Peter was just trying to give Jesus a little bit of positivity when He was being so dang negative. I was thinking how Jesus called Peter “Satan” after that little bit of positivity and then told him he was thinking from a human and not a divine perspective. I was thinking how human we just all are. I was thinking about how even Jesus asked His Father, some time later, to prevent the suffering–His own suffering–if it were possible to accomplish what would have been accomplished through the suffering. But it wasn’t.
Because apparently God accomplishes things through the suffering.
Now I’m wondering, more than thinking. What I’m wondering is about the nature of “what we ask or imagine.” I’m wondering about the reaches of God’s imagination beyond ours. And I’m starting to wonder if maybe, in God’s imagination, preventing catastrophe altogether is less of a Big Deal Miracle than utterly transforming it. I don’t mean reframing it, rebranding it, “at-least-ing” it, suppressing it, ignoring it, pretending it didn’t happen. I mean remaking and “re-meaning” the whole thing.
Traditional Christian teaching says that when we throw our lot in with Jesus and let Him take over, we ourselves become something new. I think this is a process as well as an event, but what I’m wondering now is if, when it says that we ourselves become new, it also opens up the possibility of God transforming not just our character, and not so much our circumstances, but our experience of things, and of God Himself. I wonder if that sounds like a consolation prize to us simply because the only experience we have that seems remotely like that is reframing, and we all secretly know that’s a hollow exercise even if we engage in it regularly. I wonder if it sounds thin simply because it’s fathoms beyond what we could ask or imagine.
I pray, “Lord, have mercy,” an awful lot these days. Usually when I pray it, I mean things like, “Please bring an end to the violence and fear,” or “Please don’t let hurricane Irma come any further.” I don’t think it’s always so bad to make those requests to God. Even those miracles take me pretty much to the edge of my imagination, and certainly to the edge of my faith. Also, right this second, all I’m experiencing is a rainstorm and a cloudy day. I have absolutely no desire for disaster to hit any closer to home. I’m a wimp, really. I’m certainly not asking God to bring it on. But my mind is being nudged open a little these days, to consider that God–in His very mercy that I am invoking–might on occasion only be able to do a Real Miracle when catastrophe unleashes itself so that God can transform it.
My friend Eileen wrote a well-stated response tomy last post, about why it can be so hard to look back on our lives and create a Life Map: Revisiting the sometimes damaging choices others have inflicted on us, and even the poor choices we have made ourselves, can be genuinely painful. I suspect this is true no matter who we are or what subculture we find ourselves a part of, but I sort of wonder if there is another dynamic in certain pockets of the Christian church.
I’ve wondered this before, but I’m doing so even more now because, while I sensed deep panic from some of my Christian friends when they heard about life-mapping, my friends who do not yet describe themselves as Christians seemed almost eager to try it–and these are not people who have rose-colored pasts to look back on, either. “After reading the description,” said one. “I figured it would ask some tough questions, which intrigued me more about it.”
“I’ve accepted that trauma and that damage is part of me now and isn’t going away…” she went on. “That shit is going to affect me for the rest of my life. I know that and have accepted it. Triggers come out of nowhere.”
What I hear from many Christians sounds something like, “The past is past. It’s finished and done with. I’m a new creation and none of that is a part of me anymore.”
Isn’t there something better than either approach? Isn’t there some way that the hope we Christians have–that Jesus really can and does “forgive all our sins and heal all our diseases” (where “diseases” is more than simply medical)–can actually come true? Where we can face our darkness without fear, accept these parts of our past as part of our formation, and no longer be defined by them because Jesus gives us a new identity?
I’m quite sure that the first step into the Way, which is Jesus, instantly reconciles us to God. But the Way is still a Way–we still have to walk. Everything about creation and our ongoing existence is about process. God made us that way. Why would He overthrow His own idea and not include process in our spiritual formation? If God is so great, and can take something horrific like the Crucifixion and use it to save the world, why would He transform us and not do so through the events that formed us?
Even birth (even being born again) is a process. Gestation/formation was happening even before the birth. Not every womb is safe–sometimes because of conditions outside of the mother’s control, and sometimes because of conditions fully within it. Some of our spiritual wombs may have been, metaphorically speaking, the equivalent of a crack addict’s.
Rebirth by God’s Spirit is mysterious and seems to happen in an instant. It sets in motion a miraculous process which, if we allow it the time, will grow us up into increasingly restored reflections of God in the world. But the Spirit was also at work before that decisive moment, and I believe part of the miracle that God sets in motion after it is only able to occur when we face where we’ve been and discover the places that God was already there, too.
(Fellow blogger, The Wannabe Saint, recently blogged quite powerfully about something similar. Or maybe it’s the same thing. I invite you to check out his post, too.)
Suddenly there was a lot of alarm. I did mention “Life Mapping” in my original description of the class, but it could have been very easy to miss in all the other verbiage. Now, with an entire questionnaire dedicated to the topic, Life Mapping is front and center. Here’s the thing about Life Mapping. It’s a little intense. I’m not going to lie.
I’ve written about my own experience elsewhere, and (except for the fact that, like a friend of mine with whom I was speaking about this, this week, said, “I always liked picking scabs”) if I hadn’t had to life map for seminary credit, maybe I wouldn’t have put myself through it either. But…since I did, I’ve become a “believer,” and I actually genuinely think (like my seminary professor who taught it to me and then went on to get his doctorate for work on it) that Life Mapping can promote almost exponential spiritual growth. So then I posted a video. This is how big a deal Life Mapping is to me. I hate being videoed, but I videoed myself to get my point across.
The whole enterprise has got me wondering about a lot of things, but mostly two:
Why is it so hard for us humans to go back and work on our stuff–even if it’s painful–when we can be healed through the process?
Especially why is it so hard to share within the Church, which I guess probably anymore most people don’t think of as a place of healing, but surely it’s supposed to be?
Feel free to share your hypotheses in the comments, but also, let’s talk about these things some more next time.
And furthermore–if you also like to rip off scabs and want to join the upcoming class, we have space for four or five more people. Fill in the linked document and send it in by Friday, and we’ll see what we can arrange.
For almost a year now (with maybe a few weeks off interspersing, so I could write new studies) the Online Spiritual Formation Group has been reading the Bible together in a private Facebook group, sometimes “discussing” (in the comments) what we read. We’ve talked about the Pilgrim Psalms (the Songs of Ascent), the Gospel of John, the nature of God, and we just wrapped up a long focus series on the “Cast of Characters” with whom we may or may not be in the middle of a Grand Narrative. (I’m going with “are,” rather than may or may not, but I don’t assume everyone in the OSFGroup is always on the same page.)
Having more or less set up the theme of story or metanarrative or monomyth or what have you, and having received some feedback that at least a few people would like something more bonding and interactive than reading and writing comments on static posts, and having finally completed both spiritual director training and CPE, I sense it’s time to open up another way of “pilgriming” together, during which we explore our own stories in light of the larger one.
That’s why, for a few months, in place of a specific Bible study focus, the Pilgrimage will be hosting a spiritual formation class online. Once a week (probably Tuesday evenings, 7-9pm Boston time–but we may run a second group at a different day and time, depending on interest), participants will meet for two hours via video. For half of the classtime, we will learn about and practice lectio divina, while looking at the life of a specific biblical character. During the second half, we will invite each other into our own life journeys as we review our own lives which we’ve each been exploring on our own through spiritual journaling and autobiography. Through these practices, we will notice where God has been present in our lives up to this point, and share with each other weekly, and through a final life map at the end.
The start date for this class is August 8th, from which the class will run for twelve weeks (with one week off in between because I’m going on vacation to see the BroFam), concluding the week of October 31st. That should be interesting.
Anyway–you’re invited. As the first Pilgrimage class ever, the cost is $120–a mere $10 per week of class. If you are already a member of the OSFGroup, please accept a one-time discount of 50% off for this class only. Registration for the class is open now. Payment may be made by PayPal.
I’m pretty excited about this new step. I hope you can come along. Please post any questions in the comments, or via the contact page.
I’m fairly certain the least consistently redeemed aspect of my personality is the part of me that feels a compulsion to correct things–primarily people’s grammar, spelling, pronunciation, punctuation, and general word usage.
Example: recently a professional peer of mine sent me some glowing feedback, at the end of which she said, “you have literally gifted us your pearl of great price.” As soon as I read it, I had an internal clash of emotions. The better part of me felt awed at her kind and affirming words, grateful if even a part of them were actually true, and humbled that she felt the way she described. But then the other part of me said to the rest of me, “Augh! Literally? I haven’t literally given anyone a pearl–greatly priced or otherwise!” I do have this really pretty black pearl which I pulled out of an oyster tank at the Norwalk Oyster Festival in 1996, but that was only $15, and I don’t think there’s enough of it to go around.
At that point it became pretty clear to me that no matter how sincere she was, the objective truth of her glowing accolades for me might only be skin deep and I am a horrible person.
Be that as it may, one of the biggest word usage peeves I have is the non-literal use of the word literally. I therefore have a really conflicted relationship with using it to refer to how I (or anyone) reads, understands, and interprets the Bible. I have lived, worshiped, and worked with people who call themselves Christians who say with pride that they take the Bible literally. I have also lived, worshiped, and worked with people who call themselves Christians who say with pride that they don’t take the Bible literally. I suspect both sorts of self-identifying Christians (including myself, at one time or another–maybe recently) have also, more or less consciously or overtly, assumed that those people at the other end of the Scriptural literalness spectrum may not really be Christians, or at least not very good ones.
This leaves me and I suppose others like me in something of a predicament if we are trying to talk about the way we read and understand the Bible. I mean…I don’t have a word for it. I believe the Bible is inspired by God unlike any other book is or isn’t inspired. I even believe the specific words used in the original writing of the original books of the Bible are inspired (though I don’t believe God put people into a trance or in any kind of automatic writing as part of the process). Intervening millennia, manuscript fragments and/or variants, and countless translations notwithstanding, I believe that we can still know true things about the real God and about the state of humanity from the Bible that we can’t learn as truly and as thoroughly anywhere else. Tell me I have blind faith, and you may be right, but that faith has been tested in many areas–including in taking the Bible seriously as an authority over my life–and still holds up, even when some of the times I didn’t want it to.
But I can’t literally say I take the Bible literally. Do I believe Jesus’ miracles literally happened? Yes, I do. Do I believe Moses and the Israelites crossed the Red Sea and that said Sea was something more than a puddle? Yep. Do I believe Noah’s flood covered the entire globe? I’m agnostic about that one. I think it could have. I don’t think it has to have, in order for the story to have meaning in both human history and my own life, or for it to tell us something about the progression of God’s relationship with humanity. Do I believe the world and the universe were made in seven 24-Earth-hour literal days? I mean, God could have done it that way, but no, I do not believe He did.
So how do I (or how does anyone with a similar perspective to mine) decide which parts to take truly literally, and which parts not to? How do we decide which rules and laws recorded in the 66 books of this sometimes daunting tome are still applicable to life now, and which ones no longer are? Isn’t it intellectually inconsistent (and maybe reflects inconsistent principles) to pick and choose?
Here’s the thing, though. We all pick and choose. No one is fully consistent–not the most literal reader of the Bible, and not the least. It would take too much time to give examples, but please trust me on this one. I’ve seen it. Those of us in the middle may be in the most danger of all of inconsistency–but maybe (not necessarily, but one would hope) we have some other ways of “getting at” what we’re meant to “get out of” Scripture that might be more accessible to us than if we were bound by the literal versus non-literal dichotomy. I won’t claim that I have “the right” understanding or interpretation of anything in the Bible(although I certainly try to), but I will tell you that there are two main approaches that help it make sense to me, and actually help me to love that Book, even when I am seriously not loving a particular segment I’m reading at any given moment.
The first approach is to try not to think of it as a Book that fits into any one genre of writing that we as humans generally have. I have another entire post (maybe rant) about that, but for the moment let’s just say that although I believe the Bible is a very unique unity in itself, it is full of numerous genres, some of which we don’t even have anything like, anymore. The biblical genres that match ones we do still have 2000 years after the last bit of it was written, aren’t quite like the way we write those genres now. If I can come to the Bible with an open mind, instead of demanding that it fill my expectations as A History Book, or A Rule Book, or A Science Book, or A Storybook–if I can let it be itself–let it self-identify, as it were–I think I am able to get a better sense of what any given part of it is about or for. At the same time, if I can recognize that it has elements of all those genres, and let those genres be their genres, I come closer to understanding the words and why they’re being used the way they are in any given section. Because (big surprise!), I believe the genres were inspired by God, too.
The other approach that helps me is approaching God. If the Bible really is God’s book, then God must want me to meet Him through it–otherwise, why go to the trouble of inspiring it? If I come at the Bible as a way to grow closer to God, open not just to what the book itself says, but to what God wants to say to me through it–if I ask Him, well, I may still not always get it right, but based on my experience, it seems like I’m more likely to “hear” from God Himself, in what I read, and from there in many other moments of my day.
After all that, I’m still not sure there’s one word to sum up my approach to, or understanding and experience of, the Bible. Maybe you could say I understand the Bible “literarily.” That’s probably not quite right, either, but it seems like it would be easier to have a conversation around what I mean. Or maybe you could say I understand it as an important message from Someone who loves me, and who–partly because of the message in this book–I am growing to love, too.
This post is a continuation of a train of thought that left the station (and has been chugging along subconsciously for quite some time) over here.
The thing I keep wondering is…what if Jesus did write something? Something more, I mean, than whatever He famously mysteriously wrote in the dirt before and after He offered a pack of self-righteous men a chance to chuck rocks at an adulterous woman–if they could honestly claim sinlessness? What if maybe He didn’t literally write something else, but actually wrote something, all the same?
Last year I went to this six-day leadership training retreat for college students–not as one of the college students but as one of the staff. On the first morning we were all sent off to engage in some “personal quiet time,” and I found a dandelion-studded hill, sat down under a tree, and began to ponder. We were supposed to focus on John 1.1-18, where John the Evangelist tells us that Jesus is the “Word of God” and that Jesus was not only with God but was God. It’s one of my favorite passages, so I was assuredly contemplating it, but I was also contemplating the elective I would be teaching later on, which was called “Hide and Seek with Jesus: Finding Jesus in Every Part of the Bible.”
I contemplated the dandelions. I thought about creation. I thought about how John 1 intentionally riffs off of Genesis 1, which describes God creating all there is with a word (a Word?)–“Be.”
I thought about a quote I once read in a book by Donald Miller. I think (but don’t have the book with me to verify) the quote was from a biblical scholar named Tremper Longman III. (If I’m wrong about this, I’ll fix the reference once I have access to the book again. I’ll probably also have to fix the quotation.) He said something to the effect that the most loving thing a perfectly loving Being could do, would be to create other beings on which to lavish that love.
I thought about how much love that must have been, since, as a Trinitarian Christian I believe God doesn’t and can’t get lonely, because God is, God’s self, a community of perfect love which we know as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I thought, “God must have really been overflowing with love to create a race of beings in His own image, and then try so hard to communicate with them.”
So first, He created a world–which He also loves, and was an expression of His love–and through which to communicate Himself to us. Us? Seriously. But…well, we might’ve missed the point a little bit–gotten confused about who was God in the equation (ourselves? the rest of creation?) and done quite a number on creation itself.
So next, God got a little more specific, communicating with and working in and through specific people, inspiring specific people, over centuries and even millennia, so that the end result was not only His Word infused through the now-marred creation, but His Word written down in a book. Now we had something a little more clearly delineated, helping us get a glimpse more specifically of Who God is, what God is like, what God’s hopes are for His beloved image-bearers and the rest of creation. Most of us continued to miss the point (same confusion–or we might more honestly say rebellion), but through His written Word, God began to communicate with more and more people. And then…
4 But when the right time came, God sent his Son, born of a woman, subject to the law.5 God sent him to buy freedom for us who were slaves to the law, so that he could adopt us as his very own children.
–Galatians 4:4-5, NLT
Or, as it says in that John 1 chapter,
14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
–John 1:14, NIV
God couldn’t get more personal–enfleshing Himself, His Word. As Jesus, God showed us exactly how deep His love is, how far His love will go, and what love really looks like. He showed us in real life what His intention for us is, and how humans were supposed to be.
Just as we humans have ravaged creation, just as we misinterpreted and misapplied both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, so we denied His Word–Jesus the Messiah–and slaughtered Him. God knew we would. But He showed up in person anyway, because He loves us.
You may have noticed I quoted two different Bible passages using two different translations, above. There is a lot more to say about the Bible, regarding translations and versions and original copies (there aren’t any), regarding how we read it, how we understand different sections and the different literary genres within it, and how we take it into our lives. All of that aside for now, I think the Bible as a whole is pretty consistent in describing itself as the Word of God, and the New Testament at least (the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, too, depending on how you look at it) is also pretty consistent as describing Jesus as the Word of God, and as God.
And so I guess, even though I couldn’t tell you how God inspired the original writers of that book, I believe He did, in such a way that you could more or less say He wrote it Himself. This is why, though I believe we get it wrong often enough and that different passages in the Bible have (sometimes vastly) different purposes and implications for our reading and incorporation of them–and it’s necessary to discern these different purposes and implications through the “lens” of Jesus (with the help of the Holy Spirit in all of it)–I can’t quite bring myself specifically to weight the words of Jesus as recorded in the Bible as more valid than the other words in the Bible. Because in some way or other, I believe the whole Bible reflects Him. I believe it’s all His words–His Word. I guess I believe in some way or other, Jesus is the Word, who wrote a Book.
*I know. “Word Down” isn’t–and never has been–a thing, but it’s part b of the other post, and…I think you know what I mean.
One time, when I was doing kind of a test run of the OSFGroups separate from the church where I “invented” them and before the Pilgrimage was a thing, a friend of mine who was also one of the participants asked a question that I have been mulling over ever since. (That’s about two years, by the way.) Here, more or less, was the question:
If Jesus is God the Son of God, doesn’t it make sense to give more weight to the words that the Bible tells us He actually spoke, than to other parts of the Bible?
Yes and no. Maybe.
When my friend first asked the question, it quite appealed to me, as did the concept of Red Letter Christians–the movement that promotes a similar perspective–when I first heard of it. You may or may not know that in various ways and various times, and maybe now more than ever, Jesus has been kind of an obsession of mine. Naturally I would be drawn to a movement that takes His words extra seriously. I agree with much of what the Red Letter Christian movement presents, in particular this second item from their statement of values:
Jesus is the lens through which we understand the Bible… and through which we understand the world in which we live.
As I’ve mulled this over for the last two years, however, I realize I believe Jesus is a bigger lens–on the Bible and the world–than simply the words He spoke (sometimes printed in red) as recorded in the Bible. The reason I think this is because of something that has been impressing itself on my mind and heart for even longer than my questions about Red Letter Christianity, and that is the mystery we encounter when we contemplate that both Jesus and the Bible are described as the Word of God.
In the pre-my-Paul era when I was regularly discussing (arguing?) theology with agnostics (usually single men; I didn’t really date, I theologized), I was once or twice presented with the argument that maybe I should calm down about this Jesus guy, because let’s be honest–He may be a major character in the Bible, but He didn’t even write one page of it. I don’t know that that’s a particularly weighty argument for or against Him, but if you want to get technical about it, it is admittedly clear that Jesus didn’t ever sit down with a stylus and a piece of parchment and start writing His ideas down–He simply lived them.
I think this attempt at an anti-Jesus argument, while not so effective at its intended goal, ends up working pretty well instead as an argument against giving Jesus’ words, per se, more weight than any others in the Bible. Because, if there’s even a hint of some of the parts of the Bible being somewhat more or less “errant” than others…well, how do we really know which is which? We can talk about Jesus’ words being the most important, but if He Himself didn’t even write them down–well, I mean, then we have to have faith that the Gospel writers recorded them correctly. We have have to have faith specifically that the Gospel writers were therefore more inspired than, say, the apostles Paul, Peter, or than Jude or James.
I guess some of us truly might like to say that, but how do we really know? I’ve a hunch (even though, if we looked at some of those “red letter” words we might find some, no matter what side of what aisle we’re on, that make us squirm, if not outright run out the door) such an assertion really comes down to the fact that we like the Gospel writers’ presentation of Jesus as a character better than the apostle Paul’s interpretation of the implication of Jesus’ life–in which case, it’s probably better just to be honest about where we’re coming from. And while we’re being honest, we might also add that in that case, we may well be putting our personal preferences at a slightly higher level of authority than Scripture itself.
There is, of course, another side to this coin, and more to the idea of Jesus as a lens to the Word and the World, and more to unpack about the written word/living Word mystery, and more to say even about the “Jesus never wrote anything” argument. But we’ll flip the coin, and “clean” the lens, and unpack the mystery, and say some more on another day. For now I’ll leave open the uncomfortable suggestion of honesty, above. I’d hate to prevent any of us from “wrestling with the angel” if we have the chance.
*Apologies for the title. Clearly I am a middle-aged American white woman, from that segment of the middle-aged American white demographic which continues to appropriate outdated slang from the African American community, and will not let it rest in peace. I would have tried to restrain myself, but it seemed like the right title for this content–and it will lead in well to the title and further content of the next post.
I’ve gotten in trouble for my views on the Bible before.
It turns out that it’s no longer very popular to think of the Bible as a book fully and perfectly inspired by God, unlike any other book, no matter how awesome any other book may be. It’s not very popular to use words like inerrant or authoritative when you’re talking about the Bible. (Maybe it’s not so popular to use those words ever, because we don’t believe in the concepts themselves anymore–especially the first one.)
I guess I can see why, too. First of all, there are plenty of people who describe the Bible using those words who are scary jerks. I would like to think I’m not one of those people, but maybe I have been, or maybe I still am some of the time and don’t know it. If scary jerkitude is the automatic and inevitable result of believing the Bible is inerrant, authoritative, and uniquely divinely inspired, then those beliefs themselves must be wrong, right?
But also, while the Bible contains many passages of strength and comfort, it’s a pretty good bet that every person on the planet (including the person writing this) is into something that the Bible says we shouldn’t be into. I don’t know too many of us who like to be told what to do–or what not to do. The Bible communicates some pretty uncomfortable standards and “preferences” no matter what perspective you’re coming from. It would be much more convenient and easier if I could say that the Bible is a book like any other, maybe a notable example of world literature, maybe with some interesting characters and some glimmers of great wisdom, but also largely outdated and humanly flawed as all books are.
It would be, but here’s the thing. I just don’t believe it. It might seem like more of a stretch to assert what I do assert–that the Bible is a book God intentionally inspired a whole bunch of people a long time ago to write, over the course of centuries and even millennia, and that it still has a bearing on my life, and all life, now. But I do believe that. As time goes on, I believe it more strongly than I ever did, in fact.
I think and I hope, though, that the more deeply I am coming to see this as truth, the more gentle and gracious I am becoming as God’s Holy Spirit uses His Word to transform who I am from the inside out. I know others who hold this belief in the unique truth of the Bible, whose lives are also being transformed into a beautiful expression of who they were really meant to be all along. So maybe scary jerkitude is not necessarily the automatic and inevitable result of believing the Bible is inerrant, authoritative, and uniquely divinely inspired. To be sure, we might still not prefer everything that is communicated in that book’s pages. But maybe the true implication of those ideas (inerrancy, authority, and inspiration) is something entirely different–love- and life-giving. Maybe we’ve been using the words wrong. Or the Word wrong.