Monthly Archives: August 2010

When Shit Happens

Jo Hilder has written a piece called Protecting God’s Reputation When Shit Happens. It’s about the Christian preoccupation with finding heavenly meaning in our mundane suffering, and about expecting every Christian to suffer their torments with the otherworldly aplomb of a bible character.

Jack was in the bed opposite me when I was about to have chemotherapy for the first time. One morning, the nurses came to give Jack his medicine, and he said no. He didn’t want to be kept alive any longer. The doctors came and counselled him, but his mind was made up. Jack was ready to die.

I was horrified. Because Jack was going to die? No – I was horrified because I thought God wanted me to get up out of bed, go over there and tell Jack about Jesus, and I’d better hurry up about it – I might never have another chance like this, and clearly Jack was not going to be around much longer. And I couldn’t do it.

I made myself literally sick worrying about this. I went and hid in the shower and tried to think of some other way I could make sense of my having cancer. Was this His purpose for it all? In the end, I simply crawled back into my own hospital bed, curled up into a ball and desperately hoped God would find someone else to save Jack’s mortal soul because I was just too preoccupied with being a very sick person. What kind of a Christian was I? Surely the most selfish Christian ever; the biggest waste-of-time that ever walked the face of the earth.

When we believe that God has a plan for absolutely everything that happens, and especially for our own misfortunes, we might start to see ourselves as simply a chess piece in a larger game that God is playing, rather than primarily as one of His children. Our focus then becomes figuring out what God wants us to do in this situation. Our illness isn’t the problem, but rather a stage on which God wants us to speak our next Salvation Soliloquy.

We think God puts us in these situations merely to have us prove His existence and demonstrate His great power to the world. But at what point do we actually allow ourselves just to be a passive recipient of His wonderful attributes, like His goodness, His kindness and His mercy? Why does cancer have to be like a Bible college exam we have to attain a high distinction in – or else?

I’m not saying every Christian who gets cancer thinks they have something to prove, but I just don’t understand why we put ourselves under this kind of pressure. I mean, what the hell was I thinking about with Jack? Sure, I was right to be concerned with Jack’s eternal soul, but would God really place complete responsibility for his eternal destiny onto me at a time like that – when I was dying of cancer myself? What kind of an insecure, sadistic monster is this God?

The line of reasoning Ms. Hilder is following — ending with the question about God as a sadistic monster — is reasoning that I’m prone to myself. Instead of taking stock of my bad situation and solving it, I try to find God’s hidden meaning in my suffering, and it’s a short walk from there to wondering why one being would willfully cause another being to suffer anyway? Is He a big meanie?

Ms. Hilder ends well though, by dialing the purpose and meaning back a notch. Our sufferings are sometimes just that: our sufferings. They’re not meant to end up as glossy photos in God’s travel brochure. We can lean on God to get us through the hard times and then testify to His goodness later. We don’t have to compose an extemporaneous sermon in real time based on the anecdote we’re living now.

We don’t always get what we want or hope for, but we are always loved as only God can love us. And it’s okay to be simply incapable of putting out good publicity for God sometimes. It’s a blessing to spend time merely languishing in receipt of His qualities, not always slaving away in marketing, particularly when things aren’t so good.

When shit happens, there’s really only two things that count: 1) God. 2) Is Good – and in that order. And when it does happen, and it will regardless of the fact you or I may be a Christian, I just hope God isn’t counting on my ability to keep up His reputation as much as I am counting on Him to live up to it.

I Agree

A tweet by AlmightyGod at Twitter this week. I guess this piqued my interest because I’ve spent the same week reading about Biblical textual criticism.

To most Christians, the Bible is like a software license. Nobody actually reads it. They just scroll to the bottom and click “I agree.”

Doubt Louder

A quote about doubt by Winn Collier:

What I discovered in Scripture, particularly the Psalms, was instruction in how to speak to God, language for Divine conversation. What I found most striking was the Psalms’ brutal honesty. Whatever one felt toward God, they spoke (actually, prayed): anger, joy, ambivalence, fear, delight. And doubt.

The Psalms suggest that dishonesty may be the only thing that isn’t prayer. If we are filled with doubt, the Bible suggests we doubt out loud. Doubt to God. Don’t hold back. Don’t try to slash a smiley face across it. Let it loose. Doubt louder. Doubt better.

That Sounds Unnatural

From The Supernatural is Unnatural by Michael Dowd. I don’t track with the apparent pantheism presented elsewhere on his website, but his juxtaposing the supernatural and the unnatural does seem to nail this age’s distaste for that “old time religion.”

As we have learned more and more about the natural, the so-called supernatural has become less and less attractive. After all, supernatural and unnatural are synonyms. Anything supposedly supernatural is, by definition, unnatural. And most people find unnatural relatively uninspiring when they really stop and think about it. I mean, does this sound like “good news” to you?…

An unnatural king who occasionally engages in unnatural acts sends his unnatural son to Earth in an unnatural way. He’s born an unnatural birth, lives an unnatural life, performs unnatural deeds, and is killed and unnaturally rises from the dead in order to redeem humanity from an unnatural curse brought about by an unnaturally talking snake. After 40 days of unnatural appearances he unnaturally zooms off to heaven to return to his unnatural father, sit on an unnatural throne, and unnaturally judge the living and the dead. If you profess to believe in all this unnatural activity, you and your fellow believers get to spend an unnaturally long time in an unnaturally boring paradise while everyone else suffers an unnatural, torturous hell forever.

If this is supposedly “the gospel”, God’s great news for humanity, [is] it any wonder that young people are turning their backs on religion…?

Evolutionary Christianity

Some quotes from the article Biblical Christianity is Bankrupt by Michael Dowd.

In the words of Philip K. Dick, “Reality is that which when you stop believing in it doesn’t go away.”

Believing in a personal God—giving mental assent to the existence of a supernatural being with a personality—may or may not make a difference in the life of the believer. When belief does not richly transform one’s experience, however, such belief becomes a booby prize.

The primary cause of the Church’s decline in size and influence in Europe, Canada, Australia, and now in America is its failure to grasp that science reveals God’s nature, God’s ways, and God’s guidance far more accurately than the biblical writers could have understood or transmitted.

The elephant in the sanctuary is this: Nothing is driving young people away from God and Christianity more quickly and surely than the Bible interpreted literally. (This is why some of the New Atheists are promoting Bible study so vigorously.)

The main way Reality is communicating to humanity today is through evidence. To use religious language: God is still speaking, and facts are God’s native tongue—not Hebrew or Greek or King James English. The Church will continue its slide into irrelevance or extinction so long as it equates “scripture” with old legends rather than accumulated evidence. Historical, scientific, and cross-cultural evidence is the main way God is addressing humanity today. To celebrate evidence is to honor “the authority of scripture.”

Ancient, unchanged scriptural stories and doctrinal declarations are inadequate guidance for meeting modern challenges. To restrict the real-world relevance of our religious traditions to what could be known and communicated millennia ago makes no more sense than to consult a first-century text on dental care when you need a root canal.

There were, after all, no such things as distilled alcohol, cocaine, addictive painkillers, television, or Internet porn back when Moses was leading his people or when Jesus was urging that compassion trump scriptural law. If sin was tempting back then, it is even more tempting now. We live in an era of “supernormal stimuli.” …

Consider, too, that the consequences of routine interpersonal conflict were not inflated in biblical times by hair-trigger weapons stored in a pocket, under a car seat, or in a bedside table. These weapons can maim or kill, moreover, with no preliminary hand-to-hand combat.

The slide into sin dangerous to self and others is far more potent today than when Martin Luther was famously struggling with his own sinful nature nearly five centuries ago. Fortunately, scientific discoveries now help us understand the magnitude of this evolutionary “mismatch” of inherited instincts with the conditions we now have to function in.

Imagining that our (and our loved ones’) temptations and struggles owe to our great, great, great…grandmother eating an apple isn’t particularly helpful or believable today. Moreover, such thinking perpetuates dysfunctional patterns—no matter how much we may pray for relief.

A traditional view of heaven is far from appealing to most Westerners under forty. I have never met a Christian of any age who can look me in the eye and honestly say that an eternity with no challenges or difficulties yet with conscious awareness of the everlasting torment of others, including some they knew and loved, would be heavenly. We all know that would be hell.

No Sifting and Searching for Truth

RJS at Jesus Creed reminds us that studying the Bible as literature is an attempt to fully understand what it says, not an attempt to prove that some parts of it are false.

When we look at Genesis 1-11 there is no sifting and searching for bits and pieces of truth amidst “error,” interpretation, or myth – we take the whole as given. But reading the text literally with literary intelligence sees forms of truth-telling that are different in genre, form, and purpose. We misunderstand scripture when we look for correspondence between modern science and the cosmology of the Ancient Near East. We misunderstand the nature of scripture when we equate ANE cosmology with error. We also misread Genesis if we don’t recognize that the form of historical truth-telling in Genesis 1-11 is different from the historical truth-telling in Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles. The historical truth-telling in Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles is, in turn, different from the form of historical truth-telling we expect in historical monograph today.

The Experience of Certainty

A quote from Kenton Sparks’ book God’s Word in Human Words

One implication of practical realism’s account of human knowledge is that the experience of certainty (“I am certain”) does not translate into incorrigible, epistemic certainty (“therefore, I cannot be wrong”). We can be quite certain and quite wrong at the same time.

A Hedge of a Hedge

Alex McManus discusses foundationalism and biblical inerrancy.

To a large extent, their [fundamentalists’s] faith had been shaped by the conversation with Descartes and the Enlightenment project. I understood that for them the scriptures were the foundation and basis for faith. Their entire belief system, if not founded on an indubitable foundation, could potentially be brought down. …

The doctrine of biblical inerrancy was a “hedge” of protection they had raised to protect this foundation. Because the critical approach to the study of scripture had made this already dubious claim difficult to justify, even the hedge had a hedge: it is the original manuscripts of the scriptures that were absolutely flawless. Yes, the Bibles we held in our hands may have a glitch here and there but the original documents themselves were a pristine work of beauty from the hand of God on which men and women could risk their lives.

In what museum were these originals contained? Oh that. There are no original documents.

Let’s recap. How did we know the gospel was true and how could we prove the truth of the gospel to others? The answer: Inerrant, original manuscripts that don’t exist. That’s how. These flawless original manuscripts give an unspoken pass to the Bibles we held in our hands, a kind of imputed inerrancy.

Washing The Ideal Dishes

Jenell Williams Paris writes about awareness and joy

The breakfast dishes (the ones that have to be done by hand) gave me opportunity to practice awareness – when you’re doing the dishes, just do the dishes. But, many of us say, it’s impossible with young children (“it” being growth, progress, enlightenment, meditation, awareness, focus, and so on)! I spent nine minutes washing the dishes and was interrupted at least six times to settle a conflict, wipe a bum, admire what someone did in the potty, find a battery, comfort an owie, and help get a shirt on. I saw anger arise – “Hey kids – get the hell out of my way so I can practice serenity!!”

But it wasn’t the kids that were interrupting – it was my mental formations. …

I was trying to do the ideal dishes – the ones that need to be done in a sunny kitchen in a quiet house. It’s true, I can’t do those dishes, but I can do the dishes I have – the ones in this messy, loud house where there’s always a child’s needs squeezed between the bowl I’m washing now and the knife I reach for next. … When I live in the real world with my real dishes and my real children, I can be responsive. Their needs come fast and furious, but they aren’t interruptions (interruptions to what, after all? the life I’m not even living? the fantasy world in my mind?). Awareness means just living; just doing the dishes, wiping the bums, settling the conflicts, and putting on the shirts. Just that is enough. Just that is joy.