Monthly Archives: September 2009

Creator as last resort



Son Volt: ‘The jury is guilty’

From an interpretive standpoint, it’s risky to isolate lines from a poem or a song, but two lines from “Down to the Wire,” on Son Volt’s album “American Central Dust,” are worth repeating and thinking about, even if my thoughts slip out of the song’s context.

No jury will have a final say
Everyone knows the jury is guilty

It’s not enough to believe in the doctrine of The Fall, the primordial sin of human ancestors by which decay and destructive motives entered into the world.

Eventually, each person must become fallen in his or her own eyes. Each person has to realize what he or she has done to contribute to the ongoing mess of this world.

I’ve known a few people who have yet to cross that bridge, while considering themselves righteous because of their doctrinal stands. If they were on the jury, they would pride themselves in their formulas and principles, never realizing that they are part of the problem, too.

Jesus once defended an adulterer from death by saying, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” In two simple lines, Son Volt has placed the concept of self-incrimination into the context of our contemporary jury system. A jury of my peers consists of people like me.

My waiter named Muhammad

Kristi and I went to dinner at Carrabba’s in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Our waiter introduced himself as Muhammad, and he spoke with a thick, Middle Eastern accent.

He was an excellent server, but I wondered if any of the other customers had given him a hard time due to his name. I also wondered if he secretly disapproved when I ordered wine. These questions, and so many others, seemed inappropriate, even embarrassing, to consider asking. If someone is obligated to wait on me, I don’t feel right taking advantage of his position to ask him personal questions.

But personal, even spiritual, conversations do happen in restaurants.

Earlier today, while Kristi was still finishing her work at church, I took the girls to McDonald’s. We were still in our church clothes. We were seated by the door, and a couple walked by. The woman retrieved a chicken nugget that Sadie, age 4, had dropped on the floor, and she threw it away for us.

The man said, “You have a nice looking family.”

I thanked him.

The woman asked, “Did you all go to church?”

I said we did.

“We’re on vacation, so we didn’t get to go,” the woman said. “But we watched Charles Stanley on TV.”

I told her that sounded good to me.

“Well, bless you guys,” the man said, and they left.

A faith-based slip for the mainstream media

Tobin Harshaw describes how activists recently have done a better job of investigative journalism than the mainstream media. Watch the assumptions made by some of the people he quotes, and ask yourself: does it matter that a well-documented fact comes from someone who has an explicit agenda? Can evidence, even with full-disclosure of its source, be considered in its own terms or on its own grounds?

Scot McKnight on liturgy and low-church evangelicals

From Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed blog at Beliefnet:

Early in September I sat down with Bryan Chapell’s new book, Christ-Centered Worship: Letting the Gospel Shape Our Practice, and studied his chart on the order of services in the Church, what he called the “Liturgy of the Word” which is to be distinguished from a eucharist service (Liturgy of the Upper Room). He compared the ancient Roman order with Luther’s, with Calvin’s, and with Westminster’s (c. 1645). The witness to a common order was clear, and what each included – Catholic and Protestant – was a liturgy that involved the Psalms, an OT reading, a New Testament reading or two, a sermon, and some kind of ordered ending, involving either the Nicene Creed or a Psalm.

McKnight goes on to wonder how the “low church” approach came to dominate evangelicalism. Read the rest here.

Infant baptism and Scripture-reading

The ministry leaders at Trinity (myself included) have made the good and reasonable observation that infant baptism is not a matter of magic. The word “magic” here refers to a belief found in some branches of Christianity; that belief suggests that water, sprinkled over the head during infancy, is all that’s necessary for entry into the Kingdom of God. It’s certainly problematic. After all, in the Old Testament, circumcision (often a point of reference for baptism) was not a guarantee that an infant boy eventually would participate in the heart and intentions of God’s covenant.

However, when I consider American Christians generally, it seems that those who do not consider infant baptism to be magic do seem to consider Bible-reading to be magic. Just keep reading the Scriptures, they say. Know the Word. Of course it’s good advice if you believe yourself to be redeemed by the sacrificial death of Christ.

And yet, I’ve known and observed dozens of people, from near and far, during my (almost) four decades who have invested time in reading Scripture each day.

For many of them, I don’t think it took.

Some have accepted bizarre mutations of Christian practice; others have used the Bible to rationalize a severely moralistic way of viewing others. It has not been clear to me that the joy of their salvation and their reverence for Christ was greater than their excitement about bizarre practices or their pride in an exacting moral standard.

Plenty of times, this has been enough for me to doubt my own joy and reverence. Maybe I’m too easily swayed, but the mind tends to seek evidence, or at least clues, that a practice that is claimed to be beneficial is actually beneficial.

A few months ago, I read a blog post by a man who was one of my pastors during my teenage years. Evidently, he has yet to discover grace, or at least any applicable view of it. In his blog post, he presented dozens of Bible verses in a way that was sure to make you feel like your source for righteousness was in your own behavior and in your own exertion of will power to become righteous. That’s from a man who has spent decades in Christian ministry with his Bible opened. That’s only one example on my mind. A lot of Bible-reading does not seem to prevent people from making conceptual, theological, and doctrinal errors. Moral errors are much clearer, but it’s not enough to know that we’re all sinners. The debate comes in how sin is answered. The diversity of views comes from a single point of reference, the Bible.

So, what does “Scripture alone” mean to you?

From the standpoint of my personal experiences, maybe some folks would accuse me of believing in magic.

I enjoy receiving Holy Communion and reading Scripture. These experiences seem nurturing and sustaining in the core of my being. While the reading and receiving do not feel eerie or otherworldly, I can only describe those experiences as mystical, because a reductively rationalistic look at either the Bible or the bread and wine (or many other arenas of human experience) would not provide much to go on. G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “The mad man is not the man who has lost his reason. The mad man is the man who has lost everything except his reason.” Like I tell my literature students, “Let’s say you fall in love. A scientist comes up to you and describes all the chemical processes going on in your brain as you feel this new infatuation. Now, is that meaningful to you?” They all shake their heads: no, it is not meaningful to hear about chemical processes in the brain while you are falling in love. While those chemical processes are real, and while they could very well hold the reasons behind attraction, they don’t hold the meaning of self-sacrificial love. (Often, we read literature to help us understand our experiences in existential terms, so we can have understanding hearts. When we’re faced with a lump of emotions, we need information from our ancestors to help us navigate and sort-out the feelings. That information comes to us in the form of literature and tradition. As the old saying goes, “We read to know we’re not alone.”)

I second-guess my good experiences with old texts and bread and wine. I have seen misplaced confidence in experience. After all, my experiences are something like magic. Then again, an individual’s personal experience with something should not be dismissed solely on the basis of its desirability or undesirability, or dismissed solely due to the desirability or undesirability of its probable source. No one can number all the various internal and external factors that leave someone feeling as if he or she has experienced something significant.

Only recently have I begun to read Scripture again in a close and more or less consistent way. Having grown up in churches and Christian schools, I felt like I had plenty of Bible verses stored in my head. So many times, a single verse was trotted out to exercise an all-consuming moralistic or conceptual control over the lives and minds of congregations. When bad interpretations become permanent mental furniture, the result is brainwashing. What I needed to do was to contextualize all those verses. For several years, I quit reading the Bible (in any consistent sense) while I read Christian authors, or I should say, good Christian authors, which usually meant dead Christian authors. In many cases, I had to unlearn old interpretations and learn new interpretations that are more in line with basic, historical doctrines.

The authority of Scripture does not have much value if it is approached on a merely individual level. Its authority has to dwell in a community, not in the individual zone of personal interpretation. Otherwise, the word “biblical” has become completely meaningless. Well, in the strictly practical sense, it is only a meaningful word in those communities, formal or informal, in which a common point of view is shared so that interpretation can be consistent — and even then, it might be meaningful but not necessarily accurate. Numerous independent church communities have an internal coherency to their interpretive approach even as the leadership stands outside that which the Church has believed, taught, and confessed on the basis of Scriptures throughout history. As someone has said before, we usually look at the world through some kind of lenses. Sometimes we take a minute to examine the lenses, to make sure its warp isn’t misleading us. Even then, our analysis of the lenses will be subjective. Somewhere within that metaphor lies the relationship between Scripture, reason, and tradition.

A final thought on the problem with Bible-reading-as-magic: A community has to have some baseline respect for the traditional interpretations of Scripture as well as traditional understandings of Christian life. Words like “Trinity” and “sacrament,” along with a generally orthodox view of them, are not explicit in the Bible, but what would the Christian faith be without them?

The ‘fruits of the Spirit’ are only for Arminians

Why would anyone else need them?