Friday, May 28, 2010

Book Review: ReChurch

Greg was as involved in the life of the church as anybody. He faithfully attended services. He served behind the scenes. He was involved in a small group. He even brought his friends and helped lead some to Christ. And then he was gone. Angry. Disappointed. Deeply hurt. And now Greg is the most ardent atheist I know.

It seems that our local churches are responsible for more hurt than healing. Whether that’s true or not, there are an awful lot of Gregs out there. Hurt. Bitter. Even to the point of unbelief. I’m sure we can all think of a Greg or two in our own lives.

Stephen Mansfield’s book ReChurch attempts to address those who have been burned by churches. With humor and common sense, he offers a tough love approach for people who have been victimized by a vindictive pastor, a controlling elder board, or a judgmental congregation. Though it may not be best-suited for folks like my friend Greg, who have taken their pain and turned it into a reason to not believe, ReChurch is an excellent book for those who are in the process of dealing with their church hurt.

Mansfield’s approach is that of a coach rather than a counselor. He is primarily concerned with what you do now that you’ve been hurt. How do you move on from here? He gives practical advice for how to forgive those who have wounded you. He takes a common sense approach to learning the lessons of the experience and finding wholeness after. He’s tough. There is no coddling here. He doesn’t tell you it was all their fault and you’re blameless in the affair. He encourages you to look into your own heart and find your contribution to the mess.

For the victims of church dysfunction, these words may be hard to hear. When we’re licking our wounds we want to be reassured that we’re perfectly innocent. It wasn’t our fault. We were just walking along, whistling a hymn and enjoying God’s creation, when we were blindsided by a pastor’s betrayal, harsh criticism from the elders, or rejection from a key church member.

But Mansfield won’t let you go there. The first question he tells you to ask as you begin your healing process is: “Of the things your critics said, what do you now know to be true?” (67) Sure your critics were mean. But were they right? Even just a little? ReChurch is full of difficult moments like this because Mansfield is convinced that our self-justification is keeping us from redemption and restoration.

This book is not what I thought it was going to be. I expected a book about how to deal with difficult people who happen to be pastors, how to navigate church conflict, or even how to survive the realization that your church (and the people in it) aren’t perfect. Thankfully, ReChurch is about none of those things, because none of that would help you to heal and eventually re-engage in church. What Stephen Mansfield gives us in ReChurch is a long look in the mirror at our own contributions to our church-related pain and a strong exhortation to forgive those who hurt us. This, he says, is the path to redemption and restoration.

Questions: Have you ever left a church because you were hurt, or known someone who has? Where are you with that pain, now? Do you think you were justified in leaving, or do you regret it? How do you counsel others dealing with church-related pain?

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Left Behind, Thank God

As I've had quite a few people ask me about my thoughts on the Rapture, I thought it would be best to take a look at my exegesis of the important passages. For this post, we'll be looking at Matthew 24:36-41.

36"No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. 38For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; 39and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. 40Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. 41Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.

Those who believe in the Rapture see it clearly in verses 40 and 41. One is taken, the other is left. And given what is about to happen--the Great Tribulation--it's far, far better to be taken. The one who is left must suffer the curse of enduring seven horrible years of persecution and torture. It will, quite literally, be hell on earth. So those who are taken are taken up to Heaven for this time; rescued, as it were, from this great period of suffering.

But a careful reading of the text reveals that Jesus is saying quite the opposite. Being taken away is the worse fate, and it is much better for those who are left behind. The key to interpreting this passage is Jesus' retelling of the story of Noah.

"38For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; 39and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away." The flood waters, quite literally, took away, in judgment, all those wicked people. God exercised his judgment against humanity by taking away the overwhelming majority in the great flood, and leaving behind only a handful--Noah and his family. In the flood, it was far better to be left behind.

"That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man." As it was in the flood, so will it be at the return of Jesus. Those who are taken away are taken away in judgment. They are not transported to Heaven, rescued from the coming seven years of tribulation. No, they are taken away in the judgment of God. These are the goats that Jesus talks about just a chapter later, in Matthew 25:31-46.

The sheep, however, are left behind. Just like Noah and his family, those who are left are the ones who survived the judgment. They were not swept away by the flood waters. They remained. Better to be like Noah than like the mocking, arrogant heathen that died in the 'whelming flood.

Rather than giving an early teaching of the Rapture, Jesus is teaching that God's judgment at his return will come upon us unawares. We don't know when it's going to happen. But it will happen. And just like in the days of Noah, you will want to be left behind. Being taken away means that you are taken away in judgment. Those who are taken away are the goats, and those who are left behind are the sheep. Live in such a way that you will be left behind.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Finding LOST

C. S. Lewis had a bus. Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof had a plane. The Great Divorce and LOST are essentially about the same thing: Learning to let go, to forgive, and to be forgiven. If Lewis were alive today, I'm sure he would have been the first to spot the story arc of LOST and the last to get bogged down by the details. The weird, scientific wonders of the Island were ultimately nothing but context. Only the characters mattered. It was always the characters.

Jack, Kate, Sawyer, Locke--all of them had to learn to let go before they could move on. They had to learn to forgive and to receive forgiveness before they could enter Heaven. (If you watched the finale, don't get caught up in the multi-religious stained glass windows. The risen Christ is by far the dominant religious imagery.) The "alternate dimension", or "sideways-flashes" were a sort of purgatory (much like the setting of Lewis' The Great Divorce), probably constructed by Hurley and Desmond to bring them together so that they could move on as a community. The reunion in the church was joyous because they had learned to let go, to forgive and to be forgiven. The sins and scars of the past were forgotten and healed in the church, all overseen by the risen Christ.

Unlike the Great Divorce, LOST is a happy ending. Through their travails on the Island, the characters learned that they needed to let go of the pain of their past. They needed to forgive those who had sinned against them. And they needed forgiveness for their own sins. The "sideways-flashes" were simply the consummation of what they experienced on the Island.

The funny thing about LOST is that it never needed an Island or a Smoke Monster or electro-magnetism or time travel to tell its story. It's a universal story. We live the story of LOST not on an Island full of unexplained phenomena but in the mundane reality of our work and home. And then God comes along and brings something impossible, something incomprehensible and unimaginable into our lives to teach us to let go of the past, to forgive, and to be forgiven.

LOST is a brilliant sermon, an epic exposition of Jesus' words in Matthew 6:14-15. "For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins." Forgiveness is the door to eternal life. The rest (the Numbers, Dharma, the Mythology) is just details.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Book Review: In the Land of Believers

[NOTE: This review will be posted on Scot McKnight's blog, Jesus Creed, Saturday afternoon.]

People love fish out of water stories. In her first book, In the Land of Believers, Gina Welch straps on the scuba suit and tries to live with the fish. While growing up in Berkeley and attending college at Yale, Gina had heard all about “evil evangelicals” and their agenda to conquer American society, force their religious views on everyone, and mandate public prayer to Jesus only. When she moved to Virginia to attend graduate school, she knew she was entering the heart of Red State evangelical fervor and hoped to educate herself by reading a “fleet of books by liberals out to dissect the evangelical body politic” and New York Times reports on the weird practices of these fundamentalist Christians.

But after living in Virginia for a short time, where a third of the population is “born-again”, she felt a disconnect between the liberal reportage on evangelicals and the people themselves. The caricatures didn’t fit the characters, and she needed to find out which side was right about these Christians. She “wanted to know what [her] evangelical neighbors were like as people, unfiltered and off the record, not as the subjects of interviews conducted by the ‘liberal media.’” (5) The best method, she surmised, was to pretend to become one of them—so she got “saved”, was baptized, and even went on a missions trip with the right-wing fundamentalist evangelicals of Jerry Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church.

Her journey begins like the life of a newborn calf—clumsy and awkward as she stumbles about, searching for the strength in her legs. Unsure of what to wear, how to speak, or even where to go, she trips her way through the “front door” experiences of the church until she hits her stride with EPIC, a ministry for singles. At EPIC she made friends with other young single women, fended off awkward advances from single men, and even went on a weeklong missions trip to Alaska.

Her prose is engaging and honest. I couldn’t put the book down, finally finishing it in one sitting at 2am on my birthday. Gina treats the people she met and came to be friends with honorably, exercising no vendetta, neither caricaturing nor whitewashing. We see them as they are—evangelistic, hopeful, Christ-centered, prayerful, homophobic and staunchly conservative. I came away with a great deal of respect for my fundamentalist brothers and sisters. They seem to be far more faithful and committed Christians than myself.

Gina’s journey from suspicious unbelief to sympathetic unbelief is fascinating to watch as it unfolds. In the midst of her deception she seems to have authentic encounters with God and discovers a genuine love for the friends she has made. She even found herself grieving over the death of Jerry Falwell!

The most rewarding development of her journey was her newfound understanding of evangelism. She had always thought of evangelism as an exercise of religious imperialism designed to subdue every soul in the world and force them to believe precisely the way the evangelist believes. For her, and for many liberals, it is solely about power. But she came to understand that evangelism is rooted in empathy. Because evangelicals sincerely believe people are lost and doomed to hell without Jesus, evangelism is an exercise of love and hopeful rescue from the worst fate that could befall a person. After watching her friend Alice led a couple to the Lord in Alaska, Gina writes, “Giddy tears were filling my eyes. …I was wired with delight, and I wasn’t even a believer. But one didn’t have to believe to see that this was indeed the birthing room, and if it wasn’t the birthing room of God in that moment, it seemed to be the birthing room of fresh possibility.” (244)

In many ways this is one of the saddest books I’ve ever read. It’s sad because Gina had authentic experiences with God while living a lie, and because of her deception she couldn’t see him in those moments. It’s sad because her deep friendships were a sham, but her friends didn’t know it until much later. It’s sad because her words make me long for the warm, safe cocoon of fundamentalism, where the world makes sense and there’s an answer for everything. The people she deceived were flawed but good, limited in their understanding and yet full of grace and forgiveness. They truly cared for nonChristians, and though they’ve been hurt by her, I suspect they still truly care for Gina.

On one level I’m deeply grateful that Gina wrote this book, as it helps to destraw the evangelical strawman, and replaces him with flesh and blood people. I wish she could have gone about this project without such sustained and profound deception, but as Alice says after discovering the lies, “You wouldn’t have known if we were being real with you.” (326) Do the ends justify the means? I don’t think so. But the ends are still important. Though Gina Welch swam with the fish for two years, she never managed to remove the oxygen tank. But I still hold out hope that someday she’ll learn to breathe underwater.

Questions: What do you think of the ethics of living undercover with a group of people in order to understand them? Do the empathetic ends justify the deceptive means? What does Gina’s book contribute to the cultural conversation at large? Can atheists and Christians, conservatives and liberals, learn to get along through empathy and mutual understanding?

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Consumption of People

This is another excerpt from my sermon on Consumerism that I'll be giving at dia•spora this coming Sunday. I cut this bit from the message, but am looking forward to exploring these themes more fully in the future.


You know one of the greatest temptations of power is to treat people like functions and not like people. Have you ever worked somewhere that you knew management, or the person at the top, couldn’t care less about you as a person? All that matters is your productivity and you are only as valuable as the function you serve. Have you ever gotten that message?

This is, I think, the greatest evil of consumerism. In our hot pursuit of productivity and profitability, people become positions. You are not an image-bearer of the living, Creator God. You are simply a part of the machine. It doesn’t matter who you are, just get the job done.

This is satanic. Anything that dehumanizes people is straight from the pit of hell. And the worst part of all is that this kind of crap goes on in our churches all the time.

A friend of mine was a pastor at a big church that had multiple services, and part of his job was to preach about once a month. And, without fail, every time he spoke the senior pastor would come to him between services and just criticize every little thing he did, from the way he prayed to the way he read the Bible to how he phrased some random sentence from the sermon. And then my friend would have to get right back up and preach again in a half hour, and if he didn’t make every change the senior pastor demanded you better believe he got an earful Monday morning. After years of this he just couldn’t take it anymore and quit.

This was a gifted person who was driven away by a man who could only see him as a function. He got chewed up and spit out because the senior pastor could only see him as a function and not as an image-bearer of the living, Creator God. And this kind of thing happens all of the time at churches all over the country.

Big churches. Little churches. It doesn’t seem to matter. Churches consume people. Sometimes the senior pastor is a megalomaniac. Sometimes the congregation is incessantly demanding of their pastor’s time. Sometimes we place too heavy a burden on our volunteers. Churches are notorious for burning out sound guys. We chew people up and we spit them out, and all too often people leave a church so hurt that they even give up on God.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Consumption of Things

This is an excerpt from a sermon I'm writing on Consumerism. I've decided to cut it out of the sermon, but I didn't want to just erase it forever, so here it is on the blog.


Consumerism isn’t altogether evil. We are consumers by nature. We have to consume food and water in order to survive. We have to have clothes and shelter. And I think that having the freedom to make economic choices has spurred innovation, which has led to safer transportation, improved medical treatment, and the longer lasting light bulb. And without consumer choice we’d all be stuck with MySpace accounts. Gross!

But as with most things, there is a shadow side of consumerism—a side with which we are all too familiar. Greed. Debt. Theft. Oppression. Waste. Pollution. Reality Television. The list could go on and on.

We buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have, and for what? To have an iPad that will be out of date in less than a year? To drive a car that you’ll still be paying for long after it dies? Why? To impress your friends? Or your enemies? Or your frenemies?

We buy stuff. We use it up. And then we throw it away when it’s no longer useful to us. I have 3 iPods! I have one of the original white ones, then I got a black video iPod, and now I have an iPod touch. All three work just fine. The music sounds the same coming out of each one. But I just had to have that iPod Touch because it has…Apps! That I spend money on and stop using in less than a week.

I am a consumer. I buy. I use up. I throw away. Why? Because I need. I need. I need to know that I’m not white trash. I need to know that, despite working in fulltime ministry, I’m still a success. And I think my iPod or my new computer will tell the world I’m a success, or more importantly, they will tell me that I’m a success.

I need, therefore I consume. Why do you consume? What is your need? I used to buy DVDs until I had, quite possibly, the best collection of films on the face of the earth. But buying the DVDs was nothing more than an attempt to medicate myself in the darkest time of my life. And watching those movies, incredible though they were, was just a way to escape the pain of my circumstances.

What about you? What is your need? Do you over eat or starve yourself because eating is the only thing in your life you can control? Do you disappear into video games because you’re afraid of growing up? Do you spend money you don’t have because you’re trying to be someone you’re not? Behind our consumerism lie two simple words: I need. But consuming things is no way to address those needs.

Food should be about nourishment, not about control. Video games should be enjoyed with friends, not used as a way to stave off adulthood. iPods are meant as a way to enjoy music anywhere, not as symbols of success.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Book Review: The Rapture Exposed

Full disclosure: I’ve never believed in the rapture. It’s nowhere to be found in the Scriptures, and the very idea of all true believers being snatched away doesn’t make any sense. How does that gel with the rest of the Bible? When the going gets tough, God just pulls you out of the world. Huh?

Barbara Rossing’s book “The Rapture Exposed” is a passionate and well-informed refutation of the dispensational, rapture-oriented theology of popular American fundamentalism as seen in the Left Behind fictional adventure series. Dr. Rossing begins her book by artfully laying out the case for the destructive nature of rapture/escapist theology. The unbiblical axiom “It doesn’t matter since it will all burn someday” is the grounds for committing deep sin against the world, and Dr. Rossing rails against the escapist worldview that fosters this thinking.

Perhaps the most useful chapter of the book is the second, in which Dr. Rossing recounts the development of the Rapture from the vision of Margaret MacDonald in 1830, to its popularization by John Darby, and its cementation in the American theological landscape by Cyrus Scofield in the Scofield Reference Bible. She goes on to simultaneously delinieate and debunk the foundations of rapture theology through the proof-texting of various passages in Daniel, Revelation, and other New Testament books.

After the first two chapters, Dr. Rossing presents her own interpretation of the book of Revelation, the cornerstone of which is Lamb Power—that is, the victory of the nonviolence of the Lamb Who Stands But Was Slain over the conquesting and Nike-worshipping violence of the power of Rome. The book of Revelation, she says, is not about the violence of a vengeful Lion Messiah coating the world in the blood of the heathens, but rather about the hope found in the resurrection of the Lamb from the dead. “Lamb theology is the whole message of Revelation. Evil is defeated not by overwhelming force or violence but by the Lamb’s suffering love on the cross. The victim becomes the victor.” (111)

Dr. Rossing goes on to issue a stern warning against the Christianist Zionism she sees embedded with rapture and dispensational theology. She warns against the blind support by many fundamentalist Christians of the secular nation of Israel, especially in regards to the occupation and settlement of traditionally Palestinian lands. Because dispensationalists see the re-establishment of the nation of Israel in 1948 as a “super-sign” that the end is nigh, these fundamentalist Christians will (and have) sought to shape American foreign policy in a way that fully supports Israel and, in their minds, speeds the timeline of events that must occur before Jesus returns. But, Rossing warns, there are real people who are real casualties of the pursuit of this policy, namely Palestinians, and Palestinian Christians in particular. “Whenever people invoke biblical prophets to support a program of violence or injustice,” she writes, “this is a misuse of the Bible. This is extremism.” (73)

This extremism is manifested through a strange, violent obsession with and pursuit of Armagaddon, which dispensationalists see as absolutely central to the prophecies of Revelation. But instead of Armageddon, Rossing posits that Christians should see the Tree of Life and the healing it offers as the central image of the Apocalypse.

Rossing’s book does more than just challenge the unbiblical and heretical rapture theology, it offers an alternative vision and interpretation of the book of Revelation. She debunks the myth of the Rapture, and provides a sound exegesis for those “rapture-passages” that form the backbone of the escapist theology. She goes on to offer an alternative story, not one dripping in the blood and vengeful violence of the Left Behind series, but rooted in the healing and hopeful reality of the Tree of Life which flows from the throne of the Lamb. There is hope for the nations because the Lamb Who Stands But Was Slain, not the Wrathful Lion, wields the power of the throne of heaven. Lamb Power, not Tribulation Force, will have the final say, and all true believers will be right here, with feet firmly planted on the ground, to see it happen.

What do you think of this alternative vision of the Apocalypse? Will there be a Rapture? Will things be as peaceful and healing as Rossing hopes and writes that they will be? Perhaps more importantly, what role should eschatology play in the formation of public policy?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010


I've been invited by a group of students at Otterbein College to participate in their series Mythbusters, which, like the show of the same name, is an exploration of urban legends and old wives' tales. The myths that I'll be busting, however, are Christian ones, and my myth is the Rapture. As I've never believed in the Rapture, I'm quite excited to bust this pervasive and insidious false teaching. Below is an excerpt from my sermon where I deal with the "Rapture" passage from 1 Thessalonians.

Those who believe in the Rapture see here a clear reference to that event. “We who are still alive and remain on the earth will be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.” What else could this possibly mean? Rapture!

But maybe it’s not so clear cut as that. This passage is first and foremost about resurrection, not rapture. Look at the very beginning of this section: “We want you to know what will happen to the believers who have died….” Paul is addressing the concerns that Christians in Thessalonica had about their fellow believers who have died. If you interpret the teachings of Jesus ultra-literally, you would think that no one who trusts in him will ever die. And yet, Christians were dying (and have been dying ever since). How could this be?

Paul’s answer is resurrection. “…When Jesus returns, God will bring back with him the believers who have died.” The resurrection of the dead goes hand in hand with the return of Christ. Resurrection, not Rapture, is the first and most important thing that happens when Jesus comes back.

But what about those believers who are still alive when Jesus comes back? Well they will meet Jesus in the air! So what does that mean?

If you’ve ever read the first chapter of the book of Acts, you know about the Ascension of Jesus. That’s when Jesus was lifted off the earth and enveloped in the clouds right in front of his disciples. And then they just stood there staring at the sky like idiots. I mean, I would too. Jesus just freaking flew into the sky!

But then some angels come along and say, “Dudes, why are you staring at the sky? Don’t worry about it. Jesus will come back, and when he does he’ll come the same way he left.” So that’s where Paul, and we today, get the idea that Jesus is going to come back from the heavens. And when he does we’re going to meet him in the air.

Sounds like the Rapture, right? But it doesn’t say that Jesus is going to come halfway then turn around. It doesn’t say that he’s going to come down and say, “Attention world, I’m back! Okay you, you, you, you and you come up here. Peace out! See you in seven years, suckers!” That’s just not here. That’s not Jesus.

But what’s even more damning for the case for the Rapture is what you discover when you learn a little bit of history. If the President of the United States were coming to your house, would you make him ring your doorbell? You probably wouldn’t say, “C’mon on in, it’s open” to the President. No, you and all your neighbors would line the street and wait for him. You would go out to meet him.

In ancient Roman culture this same sort of thing happened, but on a grander scale. When the emperor or an important dignitary came to your town, all the people of the town would go out to meet him while he was still a long way off. They would go out to meet him and then walk with him, usher him, back into their town.

Now that you’re armed with that bit of knowledge, what do you think is happening in this passage? A Rapture, or a royal welcome? This is a royal welcome for the one who comes to our home not from some distant land but from Heaven itself, the one who comes to take his rightful place as the King of kings. This passage is not about being snatched away to heaven. It’s about resurrection and showing Jesus proper respect when he returns.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Fifth Way

The Kingdom of God has long been a matter of primary importance for the people of God. God’s rule come on earth was what the Hebrew prophets longed to see. Jesus taught his disciples to pray with this request superseding all others: Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. True believers want God to rule the world—for him to take his rightful place as the King of kings—and they pursue his kingdom rule with their lives. But how? How do the people of God pursue the kingdom of God? In order to answer this question, let’s look back at first-century Palestine and see how Jesus’ contemporaries pursued God’s kingdom.

There are four general ways that first-century Jews sought to bring about God’s kingdom. (For a full treatment of this, read N.T. Wright’s The Challenge of Jesus, or if you’re feeling adventurous, his large volume The New Testament and the People of God.) Those four ways are: Separatist, Zealot, Compromise, and Purification.


The Essenes were a community of believers who had finally had enough of the corrupt society in which they lived and decided to move out into the desert to form their own community. They were fed up with the Jewish leaders, the Roman occupation, and the corrupt temple worship, so they just disappeared and waited for God to do whatever he was going to do. The separated themselves from the corruption of the culture and pursued God’s kingdom by being faithful within their own community and waiting for God to act in judgment against the larger world. If you’ve ever seen the movie The Village, you may be able to understand the separatist community.


You may have heard of a group of Jewish revolutionaries called The Sicarii. They were zealots who pursued the kingdom of God through violent uprising against the Roman overlords. They believed that God would bring about his rule on earth through a freed Israel, and that the Messiah would achieve a military victory over Rome that would be the symbol of God’s theological victory over the forces of evil. God’s kingdom comes about, therefore, through the violent uprising of his people and the military defeat of the pagan Roman Gentiles who ruled the land. The mantle of oppression must be thrown off through military might, and only then will God’s promises come true.


Many of Israel’s most powerful leaders came to and held their positions of power through compromise with the Roman authorities. The mindset of these politicians was that you had to go along to get along, and if Israel wanted any semblance of nationhood, any hope for the future, then she would have to work with Rome rather than seek a violent revolution. Israel’s path to sovereignty and greatness (and, therefore, the future of the kingdom of God and the hope in the fulfillment of his promises) was compromise with the powers-that-be. You get what you can get while you can get it and hope that God will bless it in the end.


Unable to do anything about the impurity of the pagans who occupied the land, the Pharisees sought to achieve purity through careful obedience to Torah and the traditions of the elders. They wanted to change Israel from within, and in so doing, hope that God will recognize the faithfulness of his people and send his Messiah to rescue them. There was some thought that if all Israel could keep Torah perfectly for one day, then Messiah would come. The Pharisees hoped that, by remaining pure, God would mark them out as the True Israel, and whenever he decided to act, he would do so for the sake of those who had kept themselves pure.

When faced with corruption and sin within the church and debauchery and idolatry from the culture, we can all be tempted to respond in one of these four ways. Some of us separate into our own tiny group and watch everyone else go to hell. Others get angry to the point of violence, whether through word or deed. Still others reach a point of compromise, convinced that there’s no other way forward but to lay down certain principles. And others try the path of purity, hoping to compel God to act by their own faithfulness. But there is a fifth way—the way of incarnation.


Jesus didn’t pursue the kingdom through either of the previous four methods. He came and said, “The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the good news.” Jesus’ claim was that the kingdom was coming about in and through his work and preaching. You might say that Jesus incarnated the kingdom—he made the rule of God come about on earth through everything he said and did, which ultimately led him to the cross and, through that, the empty tomb.

This fifth way is now our way—we are the body of Christ on earth. Jesus’ commission to us is to continue his work (that’s what it means to make disciples), and to see the rule of God come about on earth even as we wait for this to be ultimately accomplished when Jesus himself returns. We are not to be idle while he is away. We are to be about our Master’s business. And maybe the best place to start is to read, again, our Lord’s word to his disciples from the Sermon on the Mount.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Book Review: The Unfolding Drama of the Bible

In the olden days (when I was an intolerant fundamentalist) I would never have read Bernhard Anderson’s book, The Unfolding Drama of the Bible. I would have dropped the book against a wall (funny how certain books are capable of defying gravity that way) at the first mention of Second Isaiah. But I’ve mellowed…a bit.

What I appreciated about Anderson’s book is the brief, yet thorough, sketch of the Bible. I did this a while ago with my post on Metanarrative, so I appreciate Anderson’s approach of using biblical highlights as case studies to unfold the plot of the Bible. Each chapter has discussion questions at the end which are excellent conversation starters. It is a short read and would be profitable for small groups.

Reading this book has opened my eyes to the way that I can fundamentally agree with someone who comes from a more liberal perspective. Everything he writes about the Bible I agree with, but I don’t share his views on issues of authorship and dating. I’m learning to be more charitable with these issues, and reading this book was an exercise in growth as much as in learning about the Bible.

There is one little bit, however, that I can’t not mention. On several occasions, Anderson makes a comment along the lines of, “Don’t let the literal details of the passage trip you up.” I think what he means by this is, “Don’t let the silly or offensive parts of the story cause you to disregard the passage.” While I understand why he would write this, there seems to be a subtle undercurrent of condescension toward the text, as though we stand over it and judge it against our modern knowledge and sensibilities. What worries me is that this subtle condescension feeds our pride in our own particular historical moment, and that great beast of pride, when fully grown, will seek to conquer the text rather than be conquered by it. In my opinion, it’s far better to approach Scripture with a humble heart and a submissive spirit. The Bible is, after all, our authority, and not the other way around.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Idolatry Is Easy

Idolatry is easy. Humans turn created things (or those things which are not God) into objects of worship quite naturally. We devote our lives to success, wealth, power, or even our own kids rather than to the God who created us and sent his son to die for us. We place pastors, politicians, athletes and celebrities on pedestals of undo height and glory. We make gods of mere mortals.

In the Bible, idolatry is the sin that infuriates God the most, and is the one by which he is most confounded. Isaiah expresses God’s consternation over idolatry this way:

[Wood] is man's fuel for burning;

       some of it he takes and warms himself,

       he kindles a fire and bakes bread.

       But he also fashions a god and worships it;

       he makes an idol and bows down to it.
Half of the wood he burns in the fire;

       over it he prepares his meal,

       he roasts his meat and eats his fill.

       He also warms himself and says,

       "Ah! I am warm; I see the fire."
From the rest he makes a god, his idol;

       he bows down to it and worships.

       He prays to it and says,

       "Save me; you are my god."
They know nothing, they understand nothing;

       their eyes are plastered over so they cannot see,

       and their minds closed so they cannot understand.
No one stops to think, 

       no one has the knowledge or understanding to say,

       "Half of it I used for fuel;

       I even baked bread over its coals,

       I roasted meat and I ate.

       Shall I make a detestable thing from what is left?

       Shall I bow down to a block of wood?"

Nothing makes less sense to God than idolatry, and yet this is the sin his people committed again and again. As early on as the Exodus, the Israelites fashioned a golden calf (perhaps to resemble a god they had worshipped while in Egypt) and bowed down to it. When they entered the promised land they added the idols of the Canaanites—Baal, Asherah, Molech—to their own worship. Idolatry (which God understood as adultery against himself) was the reason for the demise of Israel. It was because of their idolatry that the Northern Kingdom was destroyed and the Southern Kingdom sent into exile.

In the New Testament, Paul laments the idolatry he finds rampant among all the peoples of the earth. He writes in Romans:

For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.
For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.
Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.

Idolatry is a problem for all mankind. It’s in our fallen nature to worship that which is not God. Even today there is unfettered idolatry running loose among churchgoers. We worship the gods of success and power just like the ancients, though perhaps more insidiously because we wrap it up in our Christianity. We turn our pastors and politicians into gods and place upon them all the expectations and demands of deity. Our idolatry grieves God no less today than it did when the stories of the Bible were being lived in the dust and grass of Palestine. The saddest irony, of course, is that when God did become a man—the one man worthy of worship—we rejected and killed him.

I urge you to examine your own heart to discern who and what has your central devotion rather than God. Who sits upon the throne of your soul? There is only one who is worthy to sit on that great seat—he who created you and knows you from first to last. Idolatry is easy. True worship of the true God is hard. Do the hard stuff.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Ernie Harwell

I just saw the headline over at the Detroit Tigers official site. Ernie Harwell has passed away. For those of you who don't know who Ernie was...I'm not sure that I can explain it to you. I wish I could take you back to my childhood, to the sweaty summers in inner city Toledo where a day of side-lot baseball melted into an evening of riding bikes around the block, and when the street lights came on it was time to jump in bed and turn on the radio--turn on the Tigers and the voice of Ernie Harwell. He was the radio play-by-play announcer for the Tigers for over 40 years, and millions of people in the Midwest have welcomed him into their hearts and homes through that now archaic audio box. He's a legend where I come from, and a bronze statue of the diminutive man welcomes all comers to Comerica Park in Detroit these days.

Ernie was a great man who loved Jesus. He was one of those people who just seemed too good to be true, but everyone that met him said he was even better than they had heard. Though I never had the chance to meet him, I feel as though I've lost a close friend. Good bless you Ernie. A young man from Toledo will be seeing you someday.