Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Can We Be both Passionate and Humble about Our Beliefs?

Michael Polanyi
“So we see that both Kepler and Einstein approached nature with intellectual passions and with beliefs inherent in these passions, which led them to their triumphs and misguided them to their errors. These passions and beliefs were theirs, personally, even though they held them in conviction that they were valid, universally. I believe that they were competent to follow these impulses, even though they risked being misled by them. And again, what I accept of their work as true today, I accept personally, guided by my passions and beliefs similar to theirs, holding in my turn that my impulses are valid, universally, even though I must admit the possibility that I might be mistaken.” (Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, Kindle 3177.) 

Kepler and Einstein had hunches, beliefs, and passions that guided their scientific exploration. Some of these hunches turned out to be true and some didn’t, but what made them good scientists was their ability to come up with good hunches and pursue them even though they couldn’t prove them.

Are we able to do the same with theology? Are we able to have convictions about universal truth and yet maintain the possibility that we could be wrong? Does epistemological humility demand dispassion, or can we balance conviction with a post-critical worldview? 

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Which Comes First: The Solution or the Evidence?

Michael Polanyi forgot more
about math than I'll ever know.
“Gauss is widely quotes as having said: ‘I have had my solutions for a long time but I do not yet know how I am to arrive at them.’ Though the quotation may be doubtful it remains well said.” (Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, Kindle 2679.)

In Personal Knowledge, Polanyi argues that a good scientist (or mathematician in the case of Gauss) always has a gut feeling about why things are the way they are. This gut feeling drives experimentation. Thus, scientific knowledge is never truly objective. 

I love the quote by Gauss and I think that is what I do with theology—I get a gut feeling that something is true and then look for (and often find) evidence in the Scriptures and in life. I think this is part of growing as a student of the Scriptures and as a theologian. You start to suspect that things are true of God and then you look for them and notice things that you never noticed before. 

Ever done that before?

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Subjectivity, Science, and Theology

Michael Polanyi wrote about
physics and used big words.
“It is a travesty of the scientific method to conceive of it as a process which depends on the speed of accumulating evidence presenting itself automatically in respect to hypotheses selected at random.” (Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, Kindle 709.)

Polanyi points out that in the scientific method, hypotheses do not arise objectively, but are created by scientists. Tests of these hypotheses are also not random. A scientist who tested random ideas with random tests would not be a good scientist. Thus, the scientific method does not rest objectively on reason, but also on subjective human judgment. (This is okay to Polanyi because personal knowledge is legitimate.)

First, what do you think of Polanyi’s critique of the scientific method? Is that a worldview-changer?

Second, this makes me think of theology. Our systems don’t come out of a vacuum, but start as ideas of men and women trying to make sense of God’s revelation. Texts and experiences are subjectively elevated over others as “proof” of a system (why is Romans so important?). In the end, can we separate the theology from the theologian? Is that a problem?

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Does Theology Need Predictive Power? Polanyi on Personal Knowledge

Michael Polanyi was smarter than you.
“One may say, indeed, quite generally, that a theory which we acclaim as rational in itself is thereby accredited with prophetic powers. We accept it in the hope of making contact with reality; so that, being really true, our theory may yet show forth its truth through future centuries in ways undreamed of by its authors. Some of the greatest scientific discoveries of our age have been rightly described as the amazing confirmations of accepted scientific theories. In this wholly indeterminate scope of its true implications lies the deepest sense in which objectivity is attributed to a scientific theory.” (Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, Kindle 180)

Scientists value theories based on their power to predict results in a laboratory. Newton’s theory of gravity was valued because it was able to predict the motion of the planets. Einstein’s theories were valued because they could predict results in cases where Newton’s theories were insufficient.

Instead of theories about “how the universe works,” theologians come up with descriptions of “who God is” and “how He works.” Often, these descriptions are based on the Scriptures, though reason, history, and experience play a role in the forming of theology.

But how often do we approach our theology as a theory in need of justification by real-world predictive power, as opposed to dogma alone? In other words, is it enough for a theology to have Bible verses in support of it, or must good theology describe the world as it actually is? Often we value theology solely on how many verses it can account for; predictive power and correspondence with the real world are not part of the equation.

Here’s an example: when I was in college and seminary, I was taught a theology of sanctification that attempted to be wholly grace-based with no room for human effort. (So far, so good.) But, if growth is wholly a result of God’s grace, how do people change? I was taught that James 4:6 (ESV) was the key: “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” The key to growth, therefore, was humility. In humbling ourselves before God and confessing our inability to change, we open ourselves up to God’s grace and the power to change. 

Thus I was taught and thus I believed.

Until I was challenged to put this theology to the test in real life. A counseling professor challenged me to pick something about myself that I wanted to change, and to use my theology to change.

I did. It didn’t work. And it was the beginning of a theological shift for me.  

What do you think about this? Is there a role for predictive power in theology, or is it enough to be a rational system? If predictive power is important, what kinds of things can be used to measure the value of a theology?  

Monday, January 19, 2015

Improving the Bible

Erwin Raphael McManus
In our preaching and teaching the Bible, do we ever feel the need to “clarify” the text to let people know that it doesn’t really say what it appears to be saying? On page 80 of The Artisan Soul, Erwin McManus shares this funny story about an interpreter trying to “clarify” one of his talks. He writes:
“I remember in Germany once stopping the interpreter in the middle of my talk and challenging him in front of the thousands in the audience. I was certain that he not only had not translated what I said but had in fact reinterpreted my words and said quite the opposite. So I stopped, stepped into this uncomfortable moment, and asked him a simple question. It was really more of a statement. ‘You didn’t say what I just said, did you? In fact, you said the opposite of what I said. You just said what you thought I should say, but not what I did say.’ 
After a long pause, he acknowledged that I was exactly right. Afterward, he asked me onstage, ‘How did you know that?’ 
I’m not completely sure how I knew. But I do know that I have a pretty good sense of how an audience will respond when a certain statement is made. The statement I made was somewhat controversial. The response of the audience was immediate and willing adherence. I knew that thousands of Germans would not respond in such a positive way to what I had just said. Interpretation is far more than language; interpretation goes to essence. Interpretation is the translation of the soul.”
How often do we do this with God?

When we teach the Bible, how often do we reinterpret it to say what we think it should say, not what it actually says? Like when a passage doesn't fit into our theological system? Or when our heroes of the faith do things that are neither heroic or faithful? Do we need to "correct" these passages?

The Bible is the word of God. But it's also unsettling in places. It's offensive in places. It creates tension. This is God teaching us to wrestle. Instead of shoehorning the text into our sensibilities, let’s form fuzzier sensibilities about revelation.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Wounds, Scars, and Stories

Erwin Raphael McManus
I have scars on my abdomen from some major surgeries I had when I was a teenager. Sometimes people ask me about them, and I wish I had a cool story to explain them—maybe a motorcycle accident or a knife fight. But, no. I have a genetic blood disorder that required the removal of my spleen. That’s it. That’s my story.

On page 77 of The Artisan Soul, Erwin McManus relates scars to stories. He writes:
“But there is another kind of uninteresting person. It is the person who has suffered, and that suffering is all they know. They are trapped in their pain; they wallow in their despair; they are all wounds and no scars. All they can talk about is their pain. Life is suffering, and the suffering does not make them empathetic. They have no room for the pain of others. Their pain fills their entire universe. They are not interested in your story; they are not interested in your wounds; they are not interested in your pain. They are interested in you only if you are interested in them. They become emotional transients, nomadic wanderers moving from one person to another as each person unwittingly feeds their self-absorption, at first not realizing they do not want to find a way through their pain but only to trap others in their own endless suffering. As uninteresting as the person who has never suffered may be, this person wins the prize. It’s hard to tell a great story if we remain in chapter one. 
Beyond despair their must always be hope; beyond betrayal there must be a story of forgiveness; beyond failure there must be a story of resilience. If the story ended at the cross, it might be a story worth telling, but that story could never give life. Only the Resurrection makes the Crucifixion what it is for all of us who are marked by the cross.”
I love the phrase, “they are all wounds and no scars.” I have never thought of a scar like that. A scar is a good thing because it tells the story of a wound that has healed.

But what about McManus’s words about people who refuse to let their wounds become scars: “It’s hard to tell a great story if we remain in chapter one”? Is that the essence of a good story—the process of wounds becoming scars?

It makes me think of the famous scene in John when the resurrected Jesus appears to the eleven and he shows them the wounds in his hands and in his sides. “The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord” (John 20:20 Jewish Annotated New Testament). His resurrected body still has the wounds. He will always evidence the cross.

This implies that we will carry our wounds around in glory. What that looks like I don’t know. The blind will see and the lame will leap for joy, but they will still have their wounds. And what does that look like for other kinds of wounds—the wounds of betrayal, abuse, loss, and shame? What will those wounds look like?

Maybe the wounds will become scars.

Scars tell a story. We wonder about pain and evil and why they are a part of God’s plan. Maybe this is the reason. Maybe we will carry our wounds in glory, but we will carry them as scars. When we see each other’s scars, we will be reminded of the world fallen from God and we will be reminded of redemption. Maybe the scars will be the way that the gospel continues to be proclaimed forever.

The scars on my abdomen are super lame. But they are part of my story and I embrace them. I have other “scars” that tell better stories. But maybe I don’t have to think of these scars of evidence of hurt, but of evidence of healing. Scars aren’t wounds. Scars are former wounds that have been healed. 

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Love and Failure

I was at a budget meeting the other night, and the elders were debating whether or not to fund one of my ideas. They were intrigued by its potential, but there was significant expense and a lot of unanswered questions. The discussion moved toward cutting the idea until more research was done.

When it was clear that my idea was headed for the round file, one of the elders spoke up and suggested we set aside the money for the idea, so that if the research found it to be unfeasible we could spend it on something else “creative and risky.” Without thinking, I agreed and said out loud “Yes. I am all about doing things that are creative and risky.” Every eye turned to me. Maybe it wasn’t the best thing to say at a budget meeting.

But I stand behind what I said. Most good things in life involve risk. And risk often results in failure. But failure and pain are part of the well-lived life. On page 77 of The Artisan Soul, Erwin McManus writes:
“In life I have found two kinds of people to be the most uninteresting. (Is it okay to admit that there are people who are uninteresting?) The first is the person who has never suffered. It is still surprising to me, but I have met people who have told me that they have never suffered, they have never failed; they have lived a life absolutely devoid of pain and disappointment. Living as long as I have, I have discovered that people who live these Teflon lives have only managed that outcome by living a life without risk, courage, passion, or love. We cannot love deeply or risk greatly and never know failure or disappointment. Not even God was able to pull that one off. Love never comes without wounds; faith never comes without failure.”
(Because I know that you are curious, the other most uninteresting person to McManus is the person who is so consumed with their own suffering that they cannot consider the pain of others.)

I love the thought that God’s love came with risk. My seven-year-old asked me the other day if God was going to kill Satan some day. When I said yes, he asked why, if God was strong enough to kill Satan, didn’t He just kill him in the garden.

Good question. He could have.

I have to think that in some way the story of fall-redemption-glory is in some way better than glory alone. In some way, the pain and the scars and the suffering are making a better world. (This doesn’t make them “good”; we still call evil what it is.) I confess, I don’t know how that will be, but I believe it will be.

What do you think? Is it possible to love deeply and never know failure?

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Hope, Dreams, Poverty, and The Gospel

Is the gospel just about justification and the future, or does it offer us hope for real life? Does it offer us freedom? One pages 52-53 of The Artisan Soul, Erwin McManus notes the relationship between dreams and freedom. He writes:
“One of the unexpected discoveries during my ten years of working with the urban poor was how poverty changes a person. Not always but far too often, physical poverty drives us to a poverty of the soul. I knew when I walked into a world of impoverishment that I would meet people who lacked food and shelter and education. I knew that I would spend my days with individuals and families who had been deprived of their basic human needs. I knew that centuries of oppression and injustice had robbed them of much of their dignity, opportunity, and freedom. What I didn’t know was that the weight of poverty had stolen from them most of their capacity to imagine a life better than the one they had always known. 
I quickly realized that it was essential for me to do the basic work of helping people solve the real problems of their daily struggle. I needed to help them find a place to live, a job that would pay their bills, and the skills necessary for a better life. But most important, it was critical that I somehow find a way to help these individuals, whom I had come to care so much about, learn to dream again. People only become slaves when they have lost their dreams. I am certain that every master knows this. You may have people in chains, but you don’t own them until you have stolen their souls. If they dream of freedom, your power over them is an illusion. Even Paul makes this nuanced distinction in his letter to the Galatians, when he says that even if the son is an heir, as long as he is a child, he still lives like a slave. Until the voice that guides us declares our freedom, nothing and no one in the world can make us free. As long as the voice that defines who we are declares our freedom, no one and nothing can hold us captive. Which leads to the critical question: What is the narrative that guides us?”
I love the line: “People only become slaves when they have lost their dreams.” That is so true. I have been poor and I have worked among the poor. One of the things I noticed working among the poor is that the main difference between the temporarily poor and the chronically poor is hope.

It is not difficult to endure poverty for a season. I lived for two years on $2.13/hour + tips when I was in graduate school. My life was hard, but I made it because I knew that it was just for a season. Eventually I got married and then graduated and was able to break out of poverty.

But life for the poor can be a vicious, hope-killing cycle. When there is no clear way out of poverty, it is tougher to endure the hardships. It’s natural to turn to drugs, alcohol, or other compulsive behaviors to escape the pain, shame, and anxiety of poverty. These decisions make it harder to escape poverty and the cycle escalates.

One of the most beautiful parts of the gospel to me is the hope that life can be different. Yes, because of the cross, Jesus offers us forgiveness of sins and the hope of resurrection and life with God in the future. But I think we evangelicals can be preoccupied with guilt and forgiveness. The gospel is bigger than that.

My wife and I once visited a woman from my church who was in the hospital for a failed suicide attempt. Because of her situation, she was at risk to lose her kids. Brooke and I sat with her and offered her support, but she turned the conversation to God: “Why did God make me like this?” She asked with tears in her eyes. “I have tried everything and I cannot change. Why would He make me like this?”

At that moment, guilt and shame and forgiveness and heaven and hell were nowhere on her radar. Her kids were all that mattered. All she wanted was to be able to change and live a life that would allow her access to her kids.

Does the gospel have any hope to offer her?

I think it does. Yes, the gospel is about forgiveness, but it’s also about life. Life now. Through the Spirit, God offers us our future life with God in a real but not complete way now. It’s a foretaste of what is to come. We don’t have to be slaves. There is hope for change.

What do you think? How important is hope? What kind of hope do we have through the gospel?  

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Erwin McManus on Creativity and Feedback Loops

On pages 45-46 of The Artisan Soul, Erwin McManus tells the story of playing basketball with a friend who was 6'6. Despite the guy's height advantage, he refused to get open under the basket. He would set a pick but then wouldn't look up for the inside pass. Frustrated with the missed opportunities, McManus confronted him on his play. The guy defended himself, saying that he was just setting a pick, not trying to get open underneath. McManus writes:
"I responded, 'I know you are setting a pick. I also know you can make eye contact with me when you are setting a pick. You don't want the ball underneath. You don't think you're open. You're 6'6. With your reach, it makes you 7'6. On this court you are always open. I need you to make eye contact. I know that you're a guard and you're used to playing outside, but somewhere in your life someone told you that you were small and you believed you were small, and now you are playing smaller than you are. Here you are big. What do I need to do to convince you that you aren't small?' 
His response caught me off guard. He said, 'That's what happens to you when your younger brother is 6'10. You are small, so you learn how to play outside.'"
McManus's friend was caught in a feedback loop. He was told he was small, so he learned to play outside. By doing so, he developed outside skills. When people praised him for his outside skills, he continued to develop them while his inside skills atrophied. Eventually, he couldn't play inside. The feedback loop was a self-fulfilling prophesy: he became small. 

This guy's story is not unique. I saw these same kinds of feedback loops in my childhood. I excelled in math and was discouraged in the arts. I remember two specific instances of teachers telling me I couldn't write (3rd grade and 9th grade). As a result I withdrew from all of the arts and emphasized math and science. I was further affirmed and I further developed. It wasn't until I was a senior in high school that I realized my love for the liberal arts (and my hatred for physics!) and I walked away from STEM subjects forever.

What are some ways we create these feedback loops in church? Who are we discouraging? How do we break the cycle?

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Real Marriage by Mark and Grace Driscoll 2

I will never forget the first Christmas that Brooke and I had as a married couple. I was in seminary and we were dirt poor. When our apartment complex announced a balcony-decorating contest with one month’s free rent for the grand prize, we knew we had to win. We were going to be “that couple” that went nuts with the Christmas lights and hopefully start the next year with a few hundred dollars extra in our bank account.

Brooke had a great idea—a 3D multimedia shadowbox of Santa flying over Dallas. We found a cartoon picture of the Dallas skyline and a picture of Santa and the reindeer online and took them to a printer to be put on an overhead. I was leading an Adult Bible Fellowship at First Baptist Dallas at the time, so we snuck into the church on a week day to use some of the teaching aids in my classroom. We projected the pictures we had found on the wall and traced them on to butcher paper. Then we cut them out, mounted Santa on cardboard, and painted them. We blacked out our balcony with butcher paper (with the Dallas skyline painted on it), and then poked white Christmas lights through the paper in strategic places to look like stars. We suspended Santa in the air flying over the city for the 3D effect.

Sure enough, we won.

I mention this story because we had so much fun together. One of the things that has kept us happy together over the years is that Brooke and I are friends. Brooke is a lot of things to me—a wife, a lover, the mother of my children. But before she was any of these things she was my best friend, and she still is.

In chapter 2 of Real Marriage, “Friend with Benefits,” Mark and Grace Driscoll talk about the importance of friendship. When researching the book, they were surprised to find such infrequent mention of friendship in Christian marriage books. But a solid friendship has been a bedrock of their marriage. They write:

[M]arriage is about friendship. All the talk about spending time and doing life together, making memories, being a good listener, growing old and taking care of each other, being honest, having the long view of things, repenting and forgiving can be summed up in one word—friendship. (23)
Not only have the Driscolls found friendship to be key to their marriage, but studies show that quality friendship is a major determiner of a quality sex life. They note one study:

The determining factor in whether wives feel satisfied with the sex, romance, and passion in their marriage is, by 70 percent, the quality of the couple’s friendship. For men, the determining factor is, by 70 percent, the quality of the couple’s friendship. So men and women come from the same planet after all. (John Gottman and Nan Silver, The Seven Principles of Making Marriage Work [New York: Three Rivers Press, 1999], 17. Quoted in Driscoll and Driscoll, 24.)
When the Driscolls were struggling in their marriage, one of the things that they had lost was their friendship. Mark’s work struggles and Grace’s emotional scars shut them off from each other and they forgot that they were on the same team. Then one way, God showed them what was wrong and set them on the path to recovery. Grace recounts the story:

In those days when our marriage struggled, and our growing church was sapping Mark’s energy, he used to say that he felt alone and always would because of the nature of ministry. It felt hopeless that we could ever return to that trusting, fun, free friendship. I tried to fight it, but I also partially believed he was right and found myself giving up hope too. It felt as if no matter how much I tried to become a good friend, he was determined to be alone, and yet was upset because of it. I was very confused. It wasn’t until God had me tell Mark I wasn’t his enemy that the light went on for him and he saw I truly wanted to learn how to be his friend and not make him feel isolated. I clearly remember the fight we were having in the bathroom when I pleaded silently with God to give me words to explain and give Mark a heart to believe those words. God told me what to say, and I saw a physical change in Mark in that moment. He started to soften and want to trust me again. As I later walked through my abuse history, he became a friend again. I a good way I was forced to trust him, and he worked hard to respond lovingly. (25)
The Driscolls rightly insist that a strong friendship is key to a healthy marriage, and they list seven attributes of a Christian friendship as it relates to marriage:

Fruitful—Marriage and family exist to help you better glorify God; not to serve as a replacement idol.
Reciprocal—It takes two to be friends.
Intimate—Friendships should be intimate. Men tend to build intimacy through shared activity, while women tend to build intimacy through shared feelings.
Enjoyable—Friends have fun together.
Needed—People were created to be in relationships. You need a friend.
Devoted—Friends are dependable over time.
Sanctifying—Husbands and wives expose each other’s areas for growth.
I think that this is a solid summary of friendship. A friend is someone whom you enjoy and who has proven their dependability over time. A good friend has seen you through the hard times. A good friend sticks with you when you’re at your worst, and rejoices with you when you are at your best. A good friend makes you laugh.

One thing that sticks out to me about the Driscolls’ description of friendship is the last bullet—“Sanctifying.” I agree that a good friendship is sanctifying, but I want to clarify what this looks like. They list two ways of “sanctifying” your spouse (and I am glad that they clarify that you can’t sanctify your spouse, only God can do that)—being there for them when they sin and speaking the truth (in love) to them. These are both great ideas.

Where do we see in Scripture that we are called to “sanctify” our spouse? How are we instructed to do this?

One of the things that I have noticed about speaking the truth is that often a “love for truth” is actually a mask for a “love for being right” or a “love for putting people in their place.” I like to be right. It feels good to be right. It feels good to point out where my spouse is failing and I am winning because it validates me as right.

But being right can be an idol.

We need the courage to speak truth to our spouses, but we need to do serious soul searching before we do. Are we speaking truth out of love, or because we want to be right? Only one of those motivations is godly. The other is idolatry.

In Ephesians 5:25–26, Paul instructs husbands how to love their wives and also explains how Christ sanctifies the church. Christ sanctified the church by giving himself. If we want to help our wives grow in Christ, our best response is to sacrifice for them. It’s plain, simple, and in the Scriptures. If you sacrifice for your wife, you are on the right track.

Nine years after winning the balcony-decorating contest, my wife is still my best friend. She makes me laugh. She takes care of me when I am sick. She listens to me. She lets me beat her at Bananagrams. And she rejoices at my success. She reminds me of the verses Ted Cuningham shared with us last week:

Go eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do. Let your garments always be white. Let not oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that he has given you under the sun . . . .” (Ecclesiastes 9:7–9 ESV)

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Real Marriage by Mark and Grace Driscoll 1

Over the next few weeks, I will be blogging through Mark and Grace Driscoll’s book, Real Marriage: The Truth about Sex, Friendship, and Life Together. The elders of my church are going through the book together, so my chapter reviews will follow the elder meetings in which they were discussed. I don’t want to pass judgment on Mark and Grace, nor do I want to be a fan boy. They wrote this book to help marriages, hoping that it would be “biblically faithful, emotionally hopeful, practically helpful, sociologically viable and personally vulnerable.” (xi)

When I was in college, I had a professor named Dr. Drullinger who often talked about his marriage in class. He was in his sixties and had been married a long time. The guy loved his wife, and every time he talked about her his face brightened up and his smile beamed. Sometimes he seemed like a middle-schooler talking about his first crush, but in an endearing way. Even as a nineteen-year-old punk, I knew that this was how marriage should be. I remember nothing from the class he taught, but I will never forget how he treated his wife.

In the first chapter of Real Marriage, “New Marriage, Same Spouse,” Mark and Grace talk about each other and the early years of their marriage. Mark came from a rough neighborhood, but successfully avoided drugs and alcohol to become class president and be voted “Most Likely to Succeed.” Grace was the daughter of a pastor, but learned to act like everything was okay on the outside when things were wrong on the inside. They were sexually involved while dating, but stopped as soon as Mark learned that this was “fornication.” When they got married, their married sex life was mediocre and frustrating. Mark became a workaholic before breaking down in his mid-thirties and putting his home in order. Since then, marriage has been great in the Driscoll home, and the book describes what they learned through the whole ordeal.
There isn’t much to evaluate in the first chapter, other than to praise the Driscolls for their honesty. So far, I think they have succeeded in putting a book together that is “personally vulnerable.”

One thing that has stuck out to me, though, is the way Mark talks (writes) about his wife. I think you can tell a lot about a person by the way they talk about their spouse. Do they honor their spouse? Do they complain about him or her? Do they seem to respect their spouse, or do they put them down? When they tell a story about their marriage, who looks good?

In recounting the couple’s dating years, Mark tells the following story about himself:

Upon graduation from high school, I was given a free senior trip to Mexico. The company representative said I would receive ‘VIP treatment’ that included lots of alcohol and young women to sleep with. A few weeks before the trip, I declined the offer because I loved grace and did not want to ruin my relationship with her. (7)
There is a similar story about Grace. A few years into their marriage, Mark had a dream about what Grace did on her senior trip. He recounts the dream:

One night, as we approached the birth of our first child, Ashley, and the launch of our church, I had a dream in which I saw some things that shook me to my core. I saw in painful detail Grace sinning sexually during a senior trip she took after high school when we had just started dating. It was so clear it was like watching a film—something I cannot really explain but the kind of revelation I sometimes receive. I awoke, threw up, and spent the rest of the night sitting on our couch, praying, hoping it was untrue, and waiting for her to wake up so I could ask her. (11-12)
The vision was true—Grace had in fact sinned sexually during her senior trip.

Do you notice the contrast in these two stories? How does Mark look in his story? How does Grace look?

If you have read the book, what do you think about the way Mark talks about his wife? Does he honor her?

A pastor friend of mine once told me, “I can tell within the first five minutes in my office whether or not a couple seeking counseling is going to ‘make it.’ I can tell by the way they talk to each other. If they respect each other, I know they can work through whatever differences they have. If they don’t respect each other, they have a tough road ahead.” I completely agree.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The King Jesus Gospel by Scot McKnight

When I was in Bible college, I took a class on evangelism. One of our assignments was to find the “bare minimum” of the gospel. Our professor took us to 1 Cor 15:1-5, and showed us that the gospel was the message that Jesus died for sins and rose from the dead, that there is no way for a person to save himself or herself, and that Christ alone can save through faith. When I claimed that I didn’t see the theology of justification by faith in 1 Corinthians 15:1-5, I was told that it was implicit in the confession “Jesus died for sins.”

I didn’t believe that then and I don’t believe that now.

Even as a student, I saw a troubling implication of the gospel my professor was advocating. If the theology of justification by faith is part of the gospel, then denominations with different theology (i.e. the Roman Catholic Church) don’t believe the gospel. That bothered me, considering the number of Roman Catholic relatives I have, including my mother. But again, what bothered me the most is that it’s not in the text!

Don’t get me wrong, I believe in justification by grace through faith. There is nothing we can do to save ourselves. We are saved only by the grace of God through faith in Jesus. That is good theology. But it’s not the gospel. The gospel is a story about Jesus.

This is also the idea in Scot McKnight’s new book, The King Jesus Gospel (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011). McKnight argues that too many of us have inappropriately collapsed “the gospel” into soteriology (the theology of how people are saved). As important as doctrines like justification by faith, substitutionary atonement, and divine grace are, they are not the gospel. The biblical gospel, according to McKnight, is a story about Jesus—who he is and what he did. Our misunderstanding of the gospel has caused us to devalue discipleship, over-emphasize “making a decision,” and limit the effects of the cross to “me and my personal salvation.” McKnight suggests that by recapturing the biblical gospel, we can eliminate the disconnect between faith and following, make disciples that are in it for the long haul, and apply the lordship of Jesus to all of life and creation.

McKnight begins his book with some familiar stories, sobering statistics, and provocative questions. In 1971, McKnight became a Christian and had his first experience with evangelism gone bad. He and a deacon from his church invaded the home of a Sunday-morning visitor, whom the deacon badgered with the gospel until he said uncle and accepted Christ. The evangelism team rejoiced at the salvation, but the new “convert” never darkened the door of the church again. Research by the Barna group suggests that McKnight’s experience isn’t unique. At least 50 percent of Americans who “make a decision for Christ” don’t show any measure of discipleship. (20. He cites personal correspondence with Bill Kinnaman from the Barna group and statistics dated December 17, 2010.) Why do so many “conversions” not lead to discipleship? McKnight argues that it is because we have preached a “gospel” that is inaccurately boiled down to justification by faith and a personal decision for Christ. While McKnight affirms justification by faith and the importance of a personal decision, he says that the gospel is bigger than these things.

Having made the charge that church attrition is due in part to a misunderstanding of the gospel, McKnight transitions to walking through a number of biblical passages that recount the original gospel. He begins with the earliest account of the gospel—Paul’s summary in 1 Cor 15:1–5 (ESV):

Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.
McKnight sees in this neither a detailed explanation of substitutionary atonement, nor a defense of justification by faith, nor a passionate plea for a decision. Instead, he sees a story about how Jesus fulfilled the hope of Israel. He writes:

The Gospel for the apostle Paul is the salvation-unleashing Story of Jesus, Messiah-Lord-Son, that brings to completion the Story of Israel as found in the Scriptures of the Old Testament. To “gospel” is to declare this story, and it is a story that saves people from their sins. That story is the only framing story if we want to be apostolic in how we present the gospel. We can the frame the “gospel” with other stories or categories, but there is one holy and apostolic story, and it is the Story of Israel. That is the apostolic framing story for the gospel. (61)

He contrasts this apostolic gospel with what we are tempted to do:

We are tempted to turn the story of what God is doing in this world through Israel and Jesus Christ into a story about me and my own personal salvation. In other words, the plan has a way of cutting the story from a story about God and God’s Messiah and God’s people into a story about God and one person—me—and in this the story shifts from Christ and community to individualism. We need the latter without cutting out the former. (62)

Having established that the apostolic gospel was a story about Jesus fulfilling the hope of Israel, McKnight walks through the Gospels, the preaching of Jesus, The Book of Acts, and the ancient creeds to show a consistent pattern: for the first Christians, the gospel was a story about Jesus. (Why else would we call the first four books of the New Testament “The Gospel”?)

McKnight finishes the book by turning his attention to modern day “gospeling.” In the penultimate chapter, he makes six comparisons between our methods of gospeling with those of the apostles. First, while our gospeling “seeks to persuade sinners to admit their sin and find Jesus as the Savior,” the apostles’ “summon[ed] listeners to confess Jesus as Messiah and Lord” (133). Second, the framing story of the apostles’ gospel was not the atonement or personal salvation, but the Story of Israel. Third, both ancient and modern gospeling have an element of avoiding the wrath or judgment of God. Fourth, the problem that modern gospeling seeks to solve is that individuals are sinners and destined to hell. The apostles’ gospel emphasized Israel’s story that humanity was created as co-rulers over the earth and mediators of God’s presence to creation. Both Adam and Israel failed at this task, but Jesus succeeded and is now working out his rule through the church. Fifth, McKnight acknowledges that there may be a slight anti-imperial message in the gospel (though he doesn’t see this emphasized by the apostles) that is largely ignored today. Finally, the apostles’ gospel was about Jesus, not the sinner or personal salvation.

In the final chapter of the book, McKnight challenges the church to become “people of the story”—to find our story in God’s story, to tell a radical counter-narrative to the stories of our day, and to create a Gospel culture.

There is a lot to like in McKnight’s book. First, it is biblical. McKnight is an expert in New Testament theology, and he investigates what the Bible has to say about the gospel. He doesn’t defend a theological system and he doesn’t attack any denomination or tradition; he simply looks at the texts and asks, “What did the first Christians believe about the gospel?” One may disagree with McKnight’s conclusions, but at least he roots the discussion in the ancient texts.

The second strength of McKnight’s book is that it exposes (and solves) the shortcomings of the way in which the gospel is popularly understood. If the gospel is synonymous with justification by faith, how did Jesus preach the gospel? Why are the first four books of the New Testament called “The Gospel”? Why don’t we see a clear explanation of justification by faith in the apostles’ preaching in Acts? Why does Paul talk about Jesus when he describes the gospel instead of defending justification by faith? (Again, McKnight believes that justification only comes through faith in Jesus; he just doesn’t think that this is the gospel.) These questions are all answerable when the gospel is understood as a story about Jesus and his fulfillment of the Story of Israel.

The final strength of McKnight’s book (and the one he is probably most proud of) is that it provides a robust gospel for a generation of “gospelers” engaging a post-everything culture. Methods of evangelism emphasizing theological systems and propositional truth-claims are becoming less and less effective. People in the Google era think and communicate in narrative. Many have tried to create a narrative gospel for the postmodern culture, but the results largely have been too existential. Postmoderns aren’t just looking for their own story, they want to be a part of a cosmic story. McKnight has successfully communicated the gospel in a narrative, but in a narrative that is consistent with the ancient narrative. The king Jesus gospel allows us to find our story in God’s story.

One area that deserves more exploration is the role of contextualization in “gospeling.” McKnight’s account of the gospel on pages 148–52 marches through the whole Bible, touching on Adam and Eve, the Tower of Babel, David and Solomon, the Babylonian exile, the life-story of Jesus, and the politics behind Jesus’ crucifixion. As I read it, I imagined trying to preach it to a bunch of 20-somethings who knew nothing about the Bible. I can’t imagine them tracking with me through all of that (apart from divine illumination!). My mind immediately went to the Story of Israel, and how much of it is important to understanding the Gospel. How Jewish do we have to be to be Christian?

The major accomplishment of the Third Quest for the Historical Jesus and the New Perspective on Paul is that they have recovered the “Jewishness” of both Jesus and Paul. The New Testament was written primarily by Jews, and the language, symbols, and stories they told make the most sense as a continuation of that of the Jews. However, there is also a sense in which the church is something new. There is a sense in which the Gentiles are accepted as they are—with their own histories, languages, and symbols, and without the need to adopt those of the Jews.

McKnight makes the point that all of the “gospeling” sermons in the Bible make use of the Story of Israel. This is not entirely true, and I wonder what would happen when we take into account audience when evaluating these early sermons. The vast majority of the sermons in Acts were preached either to Jews or to Gentile “god-fearers” who had already adopted the Jewish story as their own (for instance, Peter’s sermon to Cornelius and Paul’s sermon in the synagogue at Antioch).

The only instances we have in Acts of sermons given to Gentile pagans are Paul’s sermons in Lystra and Athens. In both of these instances, the only element of the Story of Israel that Paul includes is that God is the Creator (and Judge in Athens). While McKnight rightly points out that the apostles’ gospeling involved showing the overlap between God’s story and that of the listeners, he overemphasizes the role of Israel’s story because that is the story that most of the apostles’ audiences had previously adopted. In instances in which the apostles gospeled pagans, Israel’s story played a lesser (and almost nonexistent) role.

As they did when they spoke to Jews and god-fearers, the apostles demonstrated to pagans how God’s story intersected with their listeners’ stories. But in these instances, humanity’s story (not just Israel’s) provided the frame for God’s story. In each of Paul’s sermons to pagans, he condemns idolatry (Acts 14:15, 17:29), contrasts the Creator God with idols (14:15, 17:24), ties God’s story to theirs by saying that God overlooked their idolatry in the past (14:16, 17:30), calls them to repent (14:15, 17:30), and cites historical evidence for his message (14:17, 17:31). In Lystra, Paul cites God’s giving of rain as evidence and in Athens he cites the resurrection of Jesus. (It is important to note, though, that in Lystra, Paul also demonstrated the power of the Spirit by healing a crippled man.)

It makes sense that Paul’s preaching to pagans would differ from his preaching to Jews. After all, Paul believed that Jesus was the telos, the goal or the fulfillment, of the law (Romans 10:4). When the Galatians tried to make the story of Israel their own by adopting circumcision, Paul accused them of turning to a different Gospel (Galatians 1:6-7). To Paul, Jesus’ death and resurrection ushered in a new age where there was neither Jew nor Gentile, but one new people of God (Gal 3:28, Eph 2:14-15, Col 3:11). There was some continuity, but there was also something new.

McKnight is right in emphasizing that the message of Jesus, Paul, and the apostles has to be understood in Jewish terms. After all, they were all Jewish. But when Paul preached the gospel to Gentile pagans, he contextualized it to their own stories. We can assume that the story of Israel was part of the catechizing of new converts, as all of the New Testament churches (including the Galatians) seem to be familiar with the story. Teaching the story of Israel is important, it just isn’t the gospel.

So what does that mean for modern-day gospelers preaching in a non-Jewish context? First, start with the biblical gospel that McKnight has so clearly communicated in his book—that Jesus is Lord, that his death on the cross for our sins and resurrection from the dead has vindicated him as Son of God and Lord of the universe. Understanding Israel’s story is crucial to understanding God’s story. God created mankind to co-reign with him over the earth and reflect his glory as his eikons. Both Adam and Israel failed at that calling, but Jesus succeeded. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection and the work of the Holy Spirit, God is redeeming for himself a new humanity to fulfill his purposes for Creation.

Second, go to the problems that the gospel resolves, contextualized for the audience. The dominant framing story of my city (Gig Harbor, WA) is that happiness, love, and security can be found in money and a prestigious career. People live according to that story, but find it relatively unsatisfying (as evidenced by the prevalence of substance abuse, divorce, and addictions). God is absent, loneliness is rampant, and many (especially youth) lament life’s lack of purpose and meaning. Despite the fact that the idols of money, career, and sex directly contribute to the people’s unhappiness, they continue to worship them in the hope of achieving a different result.
The challenge of gospeling the people of Gig Harbor is contextualizing God’s story in light of their story. The King Jesus Gospel intersects the story of Gig Harbor in a number of areas. It resolves the problem of God’s absence though the indwelling of the Spirit. It resolves the problem of broken human relationships through God’s new humanity. Finally, it resolves the problem of life’s lack of meaning through working for the kingdom of God.

Third, tell God’s story in light of Gig Harbor’s story. While McKnight insists upon tying Gig Harbor’s story to the Story of Israel, this doesn’t seem to be the practice of the apostles when gospeling pagans. Instead, they located the pagans’ story within God’s broader story (of which Israel’s Story is a part). For Gig Harbor, this means showing that the dominant framing story fails, and explaining how God’s story resolves the problems created by that story (connecting to God through the Spirit, living in community as part of the new humanity, and finding purpose by engaging the world in the missio dei). At the center of God’s story is the simple message that Jesus Christ died for sins and rose from the dead as Lord and God, and a call to repent and follow Jesus.

McKnight’s book is needed in churches today. At a time when churches are forming coalitions around the gospel it is important to clarify that gospel. What gospel are we together for? The gospel Jesus preached, or another gospel? While many are collapsing the gospel into a message of personal salvation, McKnight has recaptured the King Jesus Gospel for a new generation. He dives into the Scriptures, sorts truth from assumptions, and comes up with a simple message about Jesus. McKnight overplays the role that Israel’s story plays in gospeling pagans, but his emphasis on story is refreshing for those gospeling the post-everything generation.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Story and History--The Role of Historical Investigation for Faith

In his essay, “Knowing Jesus: Story, History and the Question of Truth,” Richard Hays critiques N.T. Wright’s method of knowing Jesus as described in his book Jesus and the Victory of God (JVG). Hays (a Barthian) argues that Wright’s method is doomed to fail from the start and that the “historical” Jesus is unknowable apart from the confessional Jesus.

What role does historical investigation play in the life of the church?

In JVG, Wright paints a portrait of Jesus based on critical realism and scientific investigation of history. While his method and conclusions differ from other historical Jesus scholars, his aim is basically the same—to discover the “Jesus of history” apart from the “Christ of faith” (Wright wouldn’t state his aim in those words, but his book does the same thing as others written by people who do use those words). The genius of JVG is that by using the scientific method for historical investigation, Wright is able to unveil a “Jesus of history” who looks remarkably similar to the “Christ of faith.” Wright demonstrates that the church’s confessions about Jesus stand up to the rigors of historical investigation.

Hays has two significant critiques of Wright’s method:

1. Wright is not as objective of an observer as he claims. Hays points out that Wright does not approach Jesus as an unbiased observer, but as an Anglican bishop and a lifelong follower of Jesus. Wright may be testing a hypothesis in JVG, but it is a hypothesis derived from his life in the church.

2. The “truth” of the story affects the method by which we investigate history. In order to remain “scientific” and “unbiased,” Wright has to table the church’s confessional claim that Jesus is the second member of the trinity. At the end of his investigation, Wright concludes that there is good reason for the church to confess what it does, but Hays notes that this changes the way we evaluate the data. If Jesus is God, then history cannot be evaluated in the same way that it can if he is merely a man.

Hays writes:

In a significant essay in Seeking the Identity of Jesus, the theologian Robert Jenson confronts exactly this issue and asks a provocative question: ‘But what if the church’s dogma were a necessary hermeneutical principal of historical reading, because it describes the true ontology of historical being?’ Let me paraphrase that: if it is true that Jesus was the incarnation of the Word, the fleshly embodiment of the one through whom all things were made—and if it is true that he was raised from the dead by the power of God and now reigns over the whole world (whether the world acknowledges it or not)—then it follows that the historical figure of Jesus cannot be rightly known or understood apart from the epistemological insight articulated precisely in the confession that Jesus is Lord—Jesus is the kyrios. This is where we ought to begin in we want to know the truth about Jesus.

This is the insight that Tom’s whole historical Jesus project doesn’t ever quite take on board. The ‘hypothesis’ that Tom seeks to verify by pulling together the evidence of the Synoptics is not a naked inference from uninterpreted data. Rather, the hypothesis that Tom is testing is already encoded in the New Testament texts themselves as proclamatory stories, and already imbedded in Tom’s own worldview by virtue of his lifelong participation in a community that continues to retell the story. So the hypothesis-verification model can’t escape the hermeneutical circle. Nor should it. Precisely because the church’s dogma names a truth the world does not nor cannot know, it rightly describes the truth about history in a way that secularist history is bound to miss. (Richard Hays, “Knowing Jesus: Story, History and the Question of Truth,” Jesus, Paul and the People of God: A theological Dialogue with N.T. Wright, ed. by Nicholas Perrin and Richard B. Hays [Downers Grove: IVP, 2011], 60-61.)

Note what Hays is saying (like Barth): the true Jesus cannot be known by natural means, so using natural means to know him is destined to fail. What do you think? Does historical investigation (think also of apologetic works like Josh McDowell’s Evidence that Demands a Verdict) have a role in the life of the church, or does Jesus identity as the incarnation of the Word render that kind of investigation moot?

Monday, March 21, 2011

What Were We Thinking? Radical Together by David Platt

When I was a kid, hair metal ruled. Van Halen, Poison, Twisted Sister—the bigger the hair, the better. If you wanted to be a rocker in the 1980s, tight denim, a shred guitar and a can of Aqua Net were keys to your success. But, like every fad, hair rock gave way to grunge rock, which in turn gave way to something else. Looking back at the androgynous arena superstars of my childhood, I can’t help but ask, “What were we thinking?”

If David Platt is right, another child of the 1980s, the highly-programmed-seeker-sensitive-attractional-mega-church, is also destined for the “What were we thinking?” bin. In his book, Radical Together, Platt argues that current axioms for reaching the lost are actually counter-productive for building the kingdom of God. Shockingly, pouring money into rock-show-quality worship, holographic preachers, and multi-million-dollar campuses isn’t the best way to spread a message of self-sacrifice, service, and love for our neighbor.

What were we thinking?

In Radical Together, Platt expands on the message of his earlier book and applies it to the church. What Radical was to the individual, Radical Together is to the body. Conventional wisdom says that the keys to a healthy growing church are: superstar preachers, state-of-the-art worship technology, professionals at key leadership positions, targeting specific demographics, and keeping the message as simple as possible. Instead, Platt argues that church programs can distract us from the mission, preaching the Word is key to life-change, ministry should be done by everyone, and the mission is to take the Gospel to all nations.

The gold in Platt’s book is his ability to inspire through stories. From his own church’s ability to trim their budget and give $1.5 million to missions in India, to another church’s decision to meet outside and pass $60,000 in annual savings to God’s kingdom, Platt encourages and motivates churches to be radical for the Gospel. You can’t walk away from this book without being challenged to do something big.

The one weakness I see with Radical Together is Platt’s elevation of the Word as the only means of life-change (to the exclusion of the Spirit). Certainly, the Spirit works through the Word to change lives, but the Spirit also gifts the body to minister to one another in ways other than preaching. After all, “If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing?” (1 Corinthians 12:17 ESV) Although he doesn’t say it outright, one gets the feeling that Platt is encouraging churches to cut programs emphasizing incarnational, life-on-life ministry in favor of those that emphasize the preached Word. While not discounting the value of the preached Word, there is also a value to ministries that “merely” involve Christians doing life together.

Hair metal seemed like a good idea at the time. Seriously, it did. So also the seeker-sensitive church seemed like a good idea for a time. But if Radical Together is any indication, church leaders are starting to wake up and return to Jesus’ call to make disciples from all of the nations.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Next Christians by Gabe Lyons

As I met a friend for lunch the other day, I walked past an Apple store and saw an ad announcing their new partnership with Verizon: “This changes everything. Again.” A handset manufacturer expands to a new carrier, and the world is changed forever. Really?

Now, iPhone 4 is very cool, and Verizon customers have long bemoaned Apple’s exclusive contract with AT&T. The announcement certainly evokes celebration from them, but, “This changes everything”?

Good marketing doesn’t just inform us, it tells us a story. Advertisers convince us that bliss can be ours with a click of the mouse or a trip to the store. Marketing has become its own genre, complete with stock heroes (early adopters), villains (purists), tragedies (classicists who are left behind), and comedies (the geeks redeemed through innovation). Sadly, as I read The Next Christians by Gabe Lyons, I felt like I was reading an advertisement for the next Christians rather than a description of them.

The book is not terrible. There are a lot of cool stories of entrepreneurs using their gifts to help people and promote the Gospel. Jaime Tworkowski’s founding of To Write Love on Her Arms is the high point. Lyons also notices patterns that others have identified in younger Christians—their disdain for culture wars, their longing for community, and their desire to be countercultural—but he supports his claims with anecdotes rather than research.

The Next Christians is not what it claims to be. Promising to combine “current-day models and relevant research with stories of a new generation of Christian leaders,” it delivers a series of anecdotes without indication of their widespread relevance. Like judging an entire generation after a few viewings of Jersey Shore, we can’t stereotype the emerging followers of Jesus by relating how Nick and Josh started a magazine or how Jeremy gave up Facebook for Lent. The next Christians are more complex than that.

Lyons’ ad for the next Christians claims they “engage the dirtiness of our world without fear of tarnishing their reputations” (83), “[create] good culture” (95), “are already positioned to affect the cultural landscape in a big way” (120), “enjoy reading the Bible as much as curling up with a great novel” (136), “live in proximity to one another and often combine their resources to serve others” (163), and “try to create the most good for all people, regardless of race, class, or religion” (184). The movement “has all the signs of being a manifestation as crucial as the Reformation was” (120).

This changes everything. Again.

The Next Christians is filled with inspiring stories of creative people doing “neat” things for the kingdom of God, but we can only speculate on the significance of these stories.

I was not compensated for this review, but I was provided a free copy of the book in return for writing it.