Archive for the ‘Church’ Category


The graves of Karl Barth, his family, and his assistant

Charlotte von Kirschbaum, in Basel, Switzerland.


My doctoral dissertation at the University of Virginia, from which I graduated with a Ph.D. in 1991, was “The Social Ontology of Karl Barth.” It was subsequently published with the same title by Christian Universities Press (International Scholars Publications) in 1994.  It is out of print, and according to WorldCat.org it is found in 62 libraries.

Here is the description that I wrote for Amazon.com:

“The theme of the “Other” dominates post-Cartesian thinking. Specifically, what is the relation of the knowing subject to the Other (who is neither object nor alter ego), if both self and Other are supposed to be counterparts and partners–a Thou meeting the other’s I–and if each exceeds the other’s experience? Twentieth-century theology, too, has reconsidered the Cartesian basal subject from which the existence of others and God proceeds. Karl Barth (1886-1968) is a major representative of one approach to this theme. Throughout his theological career Barth tries to overcome a subject-centered theology wherein God is not allowed to appear as God and wherein the claim of the human Other goes unheeded. In Barth’s earliest theology, the believer’s subjectivity is the locus for God’s otherness yet the claim of the Other is said to lodge in God’s kingdom as manifested in social democracy. During his “dialectical” period, Barth rejects cultural and social norms, as well as the objectification of God, so that he may affirm the total divine otherness and the divine freedom to speak the Word. In the Church Dogmatics, Barth locates God’s otherness in God’s triune being, the divine self-correspondence and the divine correspondence to human beings. Human otherness is defined in terms of the human being’s being-determined as covenant partner with God and being-for and being-with others in analogous correspondence to the divine self-othering in Christ. During all of Barth’s theological periods, otherness is grounded in the unique otherness of Christ, so that the conditions of subjectivity and intersubjectivity alike are grounded in the Incarnation. Stroble suggests lines of dialogue between Barth’s theology and postmodern thought, showing paths for future theological reflection.”

Wow!  That’s deep. 🙂 But the exploration of Barth’s philosophy of human interrelatedness was formative for my subsequent interests in ministry and service.

Since the work is copyrighted in my name, and since it is out of print, I thought I would scan and then post here the two chapters pertaining to Barth’s mature theology, along with the introduction and bibliography.  This way, anyone doing research on these aspects of Barth’s theology may have an additional chance to find my modest work.

Anyone wishing to read the other chapters, concerning Barth’s pre-Church Dogmatics philosophy, may find the book on interlibrary loan. I should tell you, however, that there are other, excellent books (published before and after 1994) that more thoroughly address topics in Barth’s theology of the 1909-1931 period than my two chapters, which are more like preludes for chapters 3 and 4.

The original doctoral dissertation—which is in manuscript at the University of Virginia—had an additional chapter that discussed Michael Theunissen’s book, The Other: Studies in the Social Ontology of Husserl, Heidegger, Buber, and Sartre, translated by Christopher Macann (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1984), and my own chapters (the fourth, especially) placed Barth in additional dialogue with these four philosophers.






Read Full Post »

Many Christians employ meditation and yoga practices in their lives. The congregation where I worship has a well-attended “Holy Yoga” program. I don’t do yoga or meditate but these have always interested me, so I took some time to read more about the subject.

In an article called “Is Yoga Hindu?” (myhindupage.org/index.php/is-yoga-hindu), Guhanatha Swami hopes to clear up a misconception that yoga is an exercise with nothing to do with spirituality. “Yoga is part of Hindu religious tradition and teachings, however yoga itself is a universal practice that is not the monopoly of Hinduism or any other religion.” Thus, he writes, gurus have never restricted its use.

He provides a helpful distinction: the path of enlightenment via yoga is called Ashtanga Yoga, which involves eight steps. But the yoga exercises themselves are not Ashtanga Yoga, but rather the third of those eight steps—called Hatha Yoga. Thus, Hatha Yoga is indeed a spiritual program (not just a way to exercise) but Hatha Yoga is not the whole of the Hindu path to enlightenment.

As a Hindu, he does believe in the Hindu philosophies within yoga: “For those who are doing hatha yoga ‘just as an exercise,’ they too will get the benefits of stimulation of spiritual awareness and relief from negative karmic burdens though they may not recognize these as such and instead call it ‘wellness’ or ‘being at peace with oneself’ or just feeling stress free. One does not have to believe in the theories behind yoga for it to be effective.”

But “there’s the rub”: what about the philosophies connected with Ashtanga Yoga?

In an article, “The Trouble with Yoga,” Michelle Arnold argues a Roman Catholic perspective. Roman Catholics may practice yoga postures “but with caveats.” (catholic.com/magazine/articles/the-trouble-with-yoga) She worries that Christians who are unclear about Christian spirituality may be attracted to Hindu teachings which are indeed different from Christian doctrine.

For instance, she notes, some Hindu philosophies are monistic, the philosophy “that holds that all that exists is one. Rather than the communion that exists between God and his creation that Christians hold to be true, the monist believes that any distinction between God and the universe is illusory and that the enlightened person will become ‘one’ with the divine without any distinctions between persons.” She quotes a document by Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI), where he writes that the physiological benefits of yoga could possibly be mistaken for the mystical ecstasies of Christian mystics. But Catholic Christians should not thereby jump to the conclusion that the peace they’re achieving in yoga is related to the spiritual experiences of someone like St. Teresa of Avila.

Altogether, Arnold writes, “While Christianity stresses the importance of detachment from all that separates the believer from union with God… the purpose of detachment is relational. It brings us into communion with the Triune God and with the saints in glory. The union is forged by love, which gives and receives—not drowned into an impersonal divine but freely shared between the Persons of God and the persons of his saints.”

Hinduism is by no means a unified and simple religion; it contains and accepts many philosophies, not just the monism of the philosophy called Advaita Vedanta. But apart from her discussion of the saints, which of course is her own Roman Catholic perspective, she does describe a basic difference between Christian trinitarianism and the monism of Vedanta. While Christianity is not a radically dualistic religion, Christianity does posit a distinction between God and creation, as well as a relational aspect in the affirmation of God’s grace that comes to us from God, rather than an identity with God within (Brahman-atman), which we can discover via the removal of illusion (maya) via meditation and other practices. In most Christian theologies, God’s substantial indwelling with our souls is understood as a gracious gift rather than a panentheistic ontological identity.

Some Christian theologians have been monistic—Paul Tillich is a notable example—but anyone writing from an evangelical perspective is likely to dismiss yoga as something unbiblical.

For instance, R. Albert Mohler of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary is more adamant than Arnold: “When Christians practice yoga, they must either deny the reality of what yoga represents or fail to see the contractions between their Christian commitments and their embrace of yoga…. The embrace of yoga is a symptom of our postmodern spiritual confusion, and, to our shame, this confusion reaches into the church.” (albertmohler.com/2010/09/20the-subtle-body-should-christians-practice-yoga) More strongly yet, Mark Driscoll of the Mars Hill Church writes in an article—“Christian Yoga? It’s a Stretch”—-that he considers yoga “demonic” and inappropriate for Christians to practice (http://pastormark.tv/2011/11/02/christian-yoga-its-a-stretch) He believes that yoga (he goes on to discuss several kinds) introduces non-Christian values and theologies into Christian practice.

In my opinion, Jill Fisk answers very well concerns about Christians practicing yoga, on her website about “Holy Yoga”:

“Holy Yoga is a ministry dedicated to facilitating the intentional practice of connecting our entire being: body, mind and spirit with God — the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In complete reliance on God’s Word and prayer, the Holy Yoga experience is a time of worship, praise, and connection to Christ practiced to music that will shift our awareness to our Creator. Breathing and moving and having our being in Christ, we find ourselves lost in the flow of the fullness of joy that has been promised to us…The ‘holy’ comes from inviting the Triune God into the physical practice of prayer that called yoga. ‘Everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.’ (1 Tim 4:4-5) ….

“In Holy Yoga we practice with our minds set on whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent or praiseworthy (Phil 4:8) and not with our minds emptied. We meditate on the wisdom of God’s Word (Psalm 119:9-16, 26-27) and not on the wisdom of man. We seek the transcendence and glory of God and not of ourselves.” (http://jillfisk.com/holyyoga/holy-yoga-faq/)

The point is still valid that Hindu monism is different from Christian trinitarianism—-and it’s very much worth contemplating that difference in a positive way that leads to respectful interfaith understanding, as well as clarifying one’s goals in prayer, meditation, and religious practice.

But although I don’t personally attend Holy Yoga classes, I appreciate Jill Fisk’s explanation of the goals of this kind of yoga. A conservative like Mohler would probably say, This is no longer yoga. (He did indeed say that: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/10/07/albert-mohler-southern-ba_n_753797.html ) But if you keep the Swami’s distinction of Hatha Yoga and Ashtanga Yoga in mind—the former being a spiritual exercise practicable by anyone, and the latter being a whole journey toward enlightenment within Hinduism—-you’ve come a long way toward accepting yoga as potentially a positive thing to introduce into Christian practice.

My pastor also raises an excellent point. In an email to me after I sought her wisdom on this subject, she pointed out that “as Christians, we are incarnational, meaning that the body cannot/should not be ignored. To do so, is to practice the heresy of Gnosticism… My understanding is that yoga was created to allow people to meditate longer….to surrender to the body’s need for stretching so that one might sit and contemplate longer.” To paraphrase Fisk, in yoga you’re stretching and thus calming your physical body and your mind, as you pray to the Triune God and seek God’s free and loving grace into your life and your prayer.

I hate to see anyone limit the power and serendipities of the Holy Spirit. I’ve seen the Spirit work in my life and other people’s lives in so many, surprising ways, that I gave up long ago thinking I could predict how the Spirit can draw us closer to God. And our personalities and experiences as Christian human beings are so diverse, that I never think we should disdain something that’s different from what we’d prefer. Churches try to do that with music—the choir director or pastor prefers one style of music, and so that’s the style of music everyone should enjoy. It’s the same with prayer and other spiritual practices.

Christianity has adopted non-Christian things within Christian life over the centuries. Our two major Christian holidays are an example. You might argue, “Eostre is an Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring, dawn and fertility, and if we name the holiday of Jesus’ resurrection after her, we are confusing non-Christian fertility practices and pagan spirits with the new life of Christ. We don’t want to confuse people who’d mistake Jesus as a fertility god, or who would worship fertility deities alongside Jesus.” But the church did indeed adopt “Easter” as a Christian holiday, as well as the sun-related festival of December 25th observed in ancient Roman, Anglo-Saxon, and Norse religions. So the concern that people will become confused in their spiritual goals is a valid one, but nevertheless we see in Christian history that the church has adapted aspects of non-Christian cultures to good effect.


Two related points. Years ago, when I taught at Northern Arizona University, a student in my world religions class told me he was very interested in Hindu Tantra and the chakras—the locations of energy and power within our bodies, from the end of the spine to the top of the head—and he wanted to demonstrate. He was a small man, and we found a volunteer in the class who was a tall student with muscular arms. The small student asked the tall student to hold his arm outstretched as strongly as he could, and of course the small student could not budge the arm. Then the small student touched the tall student’s chakra near his neck—he said he was interrupting the energy flow—and the small student easily lowered the tall student’s clenched, outstretched arm. The tall student was quite shocked!

Although I’ve not studied the chakras very much in the intervening years, the demonstration was convincing that there is something to the teaching about these loci of energy. Because the chakras are not taught in the Bible, I can’t imagine that this aspect of eastern philosophy will ever be incorporated very wide-spread within traditional Christianity. But as I read the Swami’s point above—that yoga can inculcate benefits even when one disagrees with or does not understand the original philosophy—I thought of this student’s convincing demonstration of this aspect of the body, interpreted by tantic and yogic Hinduism as well as Vajrayana (Tibetan Buddhism).


The last point: This past week, as I was beginning to think about this post, I read an op-ed piece in the New York Times, “The Morality of Meditation” by David DeSteno. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/07/opinion/sunday/the-morality-of-meditation.html?_r=0

David DeSteno criticizes the “mindfulness” training programs that use meditation “to augment individual performance, leadership and productivity,” noting that “[g]aining competitive advantage on exams and increasing creativity in business weren’t of utmost concern to Buddha and other early meditation teachers.” He quotes to Buddha whose express purpose was simply to address and end suffering. “The heightened control of the mind that meditation offers was supposed to help its practitioners see the world in a new and more compassionate way, allowing them to break free from the categorizations (us/them, self/other) that commonly divide people from one another.”

DeSteno continues that an experiment was conducted at his lab, to see if persons who attended a course on meditation (newbies to meditation) indeed showed compassion after meditation—and, indeed, there was significant increase in the compassionate response of the participants. He writes, “Although we don’t yet know why meditation has this effect, one of two explanations seems likely. The first rests on meditation’s documented ability to enhance attention, which might in turn increase the odds of noticing someone in pain (as opposed to being lost in one’s own thoughts). My favored explanation, though, derives from a different aspect of meditation: its ability to foster a view that all beings are interconnected… The increased compassion of meditators, then, might stem directly from meditation’s ability to dissolve the artificial social distinctions — ethnicity, religion, ideology and the like — that divide us.”

While Arnold (above) noted that Christian trinitarian theology is relational, DeSteno argues here that meditation is, too—not from specifically trinitarian reasons, but in terms of psychological growth. But I can see how the resulting psychological growth toward empathy and compassion would certainly be commensurate with the Christian affirmation that the Spirit inculcates “fruit” within us: love, kindness, gentleness, self-control.

Needless to say, Christian faith does not always increase the compassion of many churchgoers. I hate to sound so jaded, but if you’re like me, you’ve probably met a certain number of unloving, gossipy and otherwise negative Christians who seem to have little sense of interconnectedness with others. Perhaps, like me, you’ve struggled to deepen your own loving attitudes and your compassion, when you catch yourself feeling unkind in your judgments of others.

Thus, I wonder if yoga and meditation might not be extremely Christian things to incorporate into our religious lives (at least as an option, within a variety of other spiritual practices, the regular participation in corporate worship, and so on). Perhaps these practices could help some of us become more receptive to the Holy Spirit’s fruit of love, kindness, gentleness, and the others.

Read Full Post »


I purchased this picture of Jerusalem in that city in 1983 and have displayed it in our homes over the years.

A post from my “Bible Connections” site….. I’ve a Zondervan Pictorial Bible Dictionary (hereafter ZPBD) that my grandma Crawford gave to me when I was 14 (1971). I was appreciative but mostly uninterested, but the book became a keepsake after Grandma died just a few months later. Then, when I was 18, I began to take faith more seriously. I kept the book and still use it, over forty years later, along with some of my other reference books. I took it down the other day to take a few personal notes about the subject of Jerusalem in the Bible—references I can continue to study over time.

The subject of Jerusalem is much longer and more involved than my few modest notes. A good Bible dictionary can give you the many references to the city in the two testaments. The biblical citations alone are numerous, and also one can take into account the extra-biblical historical materials about the ancient city, along with its importance for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—not to mention the long history of the city into our contemporary time. Not only was it the capital of David’s kingdom but was also the site of Christ’s crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, and the Pentecost gift of the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ visits to and ministry in Jerusalem are interesting to study, as is the early church in Jerusalem as recorded in Acts, and the concern of the Apostle Paul (in some of his letters) that the poor of Jerusalem be supported by Gentile Christians around the empire.

Later, Jerusalem becomes central to Muslim faith. It was the destination of the Prophet Muhammad on his Night Journey, recorded in the Qur’an. Today, the beautiful Dome of the Rock stands upon the site of the Jewish temple (destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE) in Jerusalem.  Jerusalem also is important in the Baha’i faith.

For now, I mostly want to write down a few biblical references about its founding and also its symbolic significance. It is a pre-Hebrew place, called U-Ru-Sa-lim in ancient times (later in Hebrew Yerushalayim), that is, “city of peace.” The earliest biblical reference to the place is the story of Melchizedek, the king of Salem (Gen. 14:18). So although Jerusalem does not became an Israelite city until the time of David, it begins to figure in the Bible a thousand years earlier in Abraham’s time. That connection of Jerusalem to “peace” (Salem or Sa-lim, in Hebrew shalom) is found in Haggai 2:9, Psalm 122:6, Isaiah 66:12, and other scriptures (ZPBD, p. 417).

The city’s name Yerushalayim appears for the first time in Joshua 10:5, and then later in the book (15:8, 18:28), where the text tells of Joshua’s failure to drive out the Jebusites, although the Israelites may have inhabited part of that area (Judges 1:21).

It is worth consulting a Bible dictionary about the parallel history of another city, Shechem, which eclipses Jerusalem in importance to the Israelites prior to the time of David. It is the city deeply associated with Abraham (Gen. 12:6-7, Jacob (Gen. 33:18-19, Gen. 34), Joseph (Gen. 37:12-14, Joshua 24:32), and Joshua (17:7, 24:1), and Shechem continued in importance for the northern kingdom (1 Kings 12:1, 12:25, 2 Chron. 10:1, Jer. 44:5ff, Psalm 60:6, 108:7). Shechem falls from the biblical record, although the Samaritan woman of John 4 met Jesus in that area (ZPBD, 780-781).

The city of Shiloh is another important early city, the place where the Israelites under Joshua set up the Tabernacle, thus making Shiloh the center of the Israelite theocracy until the Philistines took the Ark of the Covenant 400 years later (1 Samuel 4:3). Psalm 78:60 says that the Lord forsook the tabernacle at Shiloh. It was one of the worship centers during the time of the northern kingdom, but Jeremiah refers to it as a desolate place by his time (Jer. 7:12, 14) (ZPBD, 785-786).(1)

As for Jerusalem, David captured the city from the Jebusites during his reign (2 Sam. 5:6-10, about 998 BC). That is the first reference to the word Zion (ziyon), of uncertain meaning but perhaps citadel. David brought the Ark to Jerusalem, thus sanctifying Zion Hill (2 Sam. 6:10-12). Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem on the proximate Mount Moriah, which meant that the name Zion was applied not only to the particular hill named Zion but also the temple mount (Isa. 8:18, 18:7, 24:23, Joel 3:17, Micah 4:7), and eventually all of Jerusalem (2 Kings 19:21, Ps. 48, 69:35, 133:3, Isaiah 1:8, and others). The name Zion came to also apply to God’s people (Ps. 126:1, 129:5, Isa. 33:14, 34:8, 49:14, 52:8), and in the New Testament, for heaven (Heb. 12:22) (ZPBD, 914).

A very different biblical theme is the prophetic image of Jerusalem as God’s unfaithful wife! On this theme I recommend an excellent book by a former classmate, Dr. Julie Galambush:Jerusalem in the Book of Ezekiel: The City as Yahweh’s Wife (Society of Biblical Literature, 1992).

Jerusalem as God’s city, sometimes unfaithful but overall a symbol and reality of God’s peace, is found many times in the scriptures. The glory of Jerusalem itself is also found in the references to the place as the city of the Lord (Isa. 45:13, 60:14, Ps. 46:4, 48:1, 87:3), the mountain of the Lord (Isa. 2:3, 11:9, 56:7, 66:20), and many other lofty and praising references. It is called Hephzibah, “my delight is in her” in Isa 62:4) (ZPBD, 418).

The image of the New Jerusalem is also a powerful image in the concluding chapters of the Book of Revelation, one that connects to earlier texts like Ezekiel 40-48 and Zechariah. (The image also appears in noncanonical books like 4 Ezra, 2 Baruch, and some of the Qumran writings.) As depicted in Rev. 21-22, the New Jerusalem becomes an aspect of Heaven, or is Heaven itself, and is the reconciliation of God with all things. The peace of Jerusalem is the peace of God.

Altogether, you begin with that first, pre-Hebrew reference to Salem in Genesis 14, and then reconnect to the city in the histories following Deuteronomy, and then trace the references to the city (historical, prophetic, and symbolic) through the rest of the Bible, you do see how the city of peace is another pervasive theme, bringing the many biblical texts together.

I’m a member of a local Jewish-Christian dialogue group on Middle Eastern issues, which meets at Eden Theological Seminary. I enjoy learning from my colleagues about challenges faced by Israelis and Palestinians, including the complicated social, citizenship, and political issues of East Jerusalem (pre- and post-1967) within the overall municipal area. Discussion-friendship groups like this are one important way for us all to “pray for the peace of Jerusalem,” as taught in Psalm 122:

 I was glad when they said to me,
   ”Let us go to the house of the Lord!”
Our feet are standing
   within your gates, O Jerusalem. 

Jerusalem—built as a city
   that is bound firmly together. 
To it the tribes go up,
   the tribes of the Lord,
as was decreed for Israel,
   to give thanks to the name of the Lord. 
For there the thrones for judgement were set up,
   the thrones of the house of David. 

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
    “May they prosper who love you. 
Peace be within your walls,
   and security within your towers.” 
For the sake of my relatives and friends
   I will say, “Peace be within you.” 
For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
   I will seek your good.

As I’ve taken these notes, a song has been stuck in my head. Grandma’s Bible dictionary gives the names of other Christian hymns, like “Jerusalem the Golden.” I learned another old hymn in Sunday school as a child (words by Isaac Watts, refrain and music by Robert Lowry). The city thus became nostalgically lodged in my childhood faith, years before I ever went there.

Come, we that love the Lord,
And let our joys be known;
Join in a song with sweet accord,
Join in a song with sweet accord
And thus surround the throne,
And thus surround the throne.

We’re marching to Zion,
Beautiful, beautiful Zion;
We’re marching upward to Zion,
The beautiful city of God.

To conclude these thoughts, I want to recommend a lovely 2-CD set of music called “Jerusalem: City of Two Peaces,” which I discuss here: http://paulstroble.blogspot.com/2012/11/jerusalem-city-of-two-peaces.html


1. The fact that Jerusalem became more significant than Shechem and Shiloh—and only in the eras of David and Solomon—reminds me of my page about the biblical monarchy, where I discussed the ambivalence in the biblical sources about an Israelite king. Some passages (that I discovered and discussed there) affirm that Yahweh is Israel’s true king and thus was not according to God’s original plan—as, one might argue, these other two cities were God’s original places of importance and worship. But God incorporated the monarchy—and specifically King David—as a “type of God’s kingdom.” And so the career of David—and now, we can add, the Jebusite city that he conquered for the Israelites—became significant for Israel’s messianic hope. It is interesting to reflect theologically about the way God seems to adapt and be reflexible in these aspects of Israel’s experience.

Read Full Post »

The theme of “keeping life in balance” is of interest to me. Finding a good balance in my life is essential on practical basis. I’ve a tendency toward mild depression, but I feel better when I maintain a right proportion of work, family, exercise, diet, and recreation. Balancing life’s aspects can be challenging for all of us, especially those times when we must focus more attention on family issues or work or whatever.

A good book that I purchased a few years ago is Ronald Rolheister’s The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality (New York: Doubleday, 1999). Rolheister, of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, notes that the quantity of spirituality-related books available, with different approaches and themes, is staggering (pp. 51-52). But given this abundance, he asks: what are the essentials of a Christian spirituality? Interpreting the example and teachings of Jesus, he gives four “nonnegotiable pillars of the spiritual life”: “a) Private prayer and private morality; b) social justice; c) mellowness of heart and spirit; and d) community as a constitutive element of true worship” (p. 53).

Rolheister goes on to discuss characteristics of each, especially what happens when a person deemphasizes one or more (pp. 54-69). Thinking along with him, I speculated that many of us are pretty faithful on A and D but tend to neglect B and C. That is, we go to church, participate in its life; we pray, and we follow a moral code in our lives.

What about B, social justice? This can be tricky. I read somewhere about a lady who, whenever her church study group or her pastor began to discuss social issues, responded, “What does this have to do with John 3:16?” For her, personal belief in Christ that gains one the gift of eternal life, as expressed in this verse, was the most important thing. After all, that is a precious message of the Gospel!

But there are many social teachings in the Bible: justice for the poor, feeding the hungry, supporting the imprisoned, taking the side of the disadvantaged, gaining justice and advocating for groups of people who are marginalized. Even if we worry about the church becoming involved in “politics,” we know that the church is called to minister to the world in Christ’s name as the Spirit gives guidance. So if we are faithful about A and D, we can prayerfully seek ways to support the church’s work in bringing healing and justice to the world.

Some of us have a different challenge: we’re so passionate about certain social issues, we emphasize “B” and neglect other aspects of spirituality. Why should God care about one’s personal prayer life or everyday behavior as long as one is feeding the hungry, etc.? But this is a temptation to have an imbalanced spirituality.

Another side to that: Sometimes I hear people complain that the church is too fixated on buildings, building projects, and facility upkeep; therefore, the argument goes, we should be using that money on the poor. This, too, is a way that social justice issues neglect other aspects of spirituality: in this case, the nurturing of people’s prayers and lives (A) and the cruciality of community and worship (D). I serve on our church’s board of trustees and can see first hand the many needs and costs in maintaining a building for the congregation—-but this is the way things are supposed to be! After all, your home, which protects and nurtures you and your family, require regular maintenance, and so does a church home that protects and nurtures a worshiping body.

On to “C,” mellowness of heart and spirit. This area interests me a lot because I’m a terrible worrier, and I feel that my anxieties betray an immature faith—or at least a faith where I’m calm in my “head faith” but emotionally fussy. Also, I’m inspired by Buddhist teachings that explicitly aim at serenity of heart, kindness, mental discipline that aims at inner peace, and so on.

These teachings are not at all different from Christian teachings, but some of us fall short on them. The other three aspects of spirituality can certainly help nurture inner tranquility and gratitude.

Interestingly, an overemphasis on both A (private prayer and personal morality) and B (social justice) can lead to a lack of inner peacefulness. On one hand, a person is so focused on the personal quality of faith and life, that pride has slipped in to his/her spirituality. (Alternately, a person has so emphasized the personal salvation of John 3:16 that she never quite pursues a transformed life.) On the other hand, a person who is very focused on some justice issue can become angry and strident—accusing people of inadequate faith if they disagree on that issue—rather than mellow, loving, and peaceful.

(Our very partisan politics enters into this, too. We become angry in our political views, we become frustrated with friends who disagree with us, and soon, instead of a honest and friendly exchange of opinions, a spirit of division has been created.)

And finally D, community and true worship. Many people are personally devout and moral, concerned about social issues, and peaceful of heart—-but they don’t go to church. Perhaps they’ve been hurt by a congregation, or they’re annoyed when the bureaucratic and otherwise “human” qualities of churches seem to get in the way of the true message. Perhaps they simply prefer solitary time, such as walking in nature and listening inwardly for God’s guidance. The individualism of our contemporary society—-this is what works for me, and you can find what works for you—can make us neglect the benefits of belonging to a religious community, and thus part of a religious heritage.

Most of us do indeed know what we need spiritually, and churches do indeed fail and disillusion people. My advice is always to keep looking for and praying for a community, and to keep a healthy perspective about the humanity of churches. There are bad people in churches, people who let you down, people who don’t get things right, but also people who are struggling like you and me and are humble in their struggles. They’re people who can be friends and cohorts in the spiritual journey. Not only that, but God works powerfully in the midst of congregations, and discovering God’s presence in a congregation is a vital part of the spiritual life.

Another side to D: some pastors love to see “worker bees” around the church, volunteers who are constantly doing things. Volunteer church ministries can consume one’s time, getting people’s lives out of balance, if the pastor is not sensitive to the needs of people to use their time sensibly. It’s important that a pastor with high expectations of service teaches people the importance of the other three aspects of spirituality.

Rolheiser rightly points out that “balance is not the ultimate goal of spirituality” (p. 69), but rather, our spirituality is an aspect of fulfilling our vocation as members of the body of Christ in the world, to help bring God’s redemption to the world (which includes the planet) (pp. 69-70). Thinking and praying about our spirituality, though, helps us draw closer to God and become clearer about the ways God calls us to live and serve.


Read Full Post »

I hate judgmental people

from kevinmartineau.ca

A while back, a friend asked me why I thought some Christians are so judgmental. I promised to think about it!

Maybe it’s better to say “some judgmental people are also Christians.” None of us can separate our psychological makeup from our faith. People who are naturally introverted, or controlling, or easily hurt, often express their personalities in similar ways in church settings, too; similarly, people who are quick to pigeon-hole and judge others, and people who want to others to change. (The character Angela in the NBC show The Office is a good pop-culture example of someone who, you assume, would be strict and stiff even if she wasn’t religious. You shutter to picture the character Dwight Schrute as a Christian, without an accompanying personality overhaul!)

Having the Word of God at hand can be a powerful source for “judgmentalness”: God said it, you don’t measure up, that settles it. Some of us read scripture that way. Conservative and evangelical people tend to be accused of judgmental attitudes, but I think liberal and progressive people can also be quick to generalize, stigmatize and condemn. It’s a tricky balance to be passionate about an issue or topic, and yet not dismiss or characterize those who disagree.

Of course, “being judgmental” doesn’t have to be the same as having strong opinions and convictions. One might be perceived as being judgmental when s/he communicates personal convictions (again, whether they’re stereotypical conservative or liberal issues); but she might be labeled as judgmental by someone who disagrees.

I wonder, too, whether judgmentalness (I know that’s not a word: don’t be judgmental toward me, LOL) is connected to certain stages of one’s spiritual growth. This isn’t always the case, but it can be. When I was a new Christian I was quick to pass judgment on certain things, but in retrospect, my attitude stemmed from my insecurities in faith and life, and my uncertainties how to be a Christian. I certainly lacked the inner peace that helps a person be strong, consistently kind and sensitive toward others.

Sometimes people are judgmental because they can’t quite process the fact that other people’s lives and experiences are not their own. They meet a single woman and make assumptions why she’s not married. They meet a childless couple and wonder why they don’t have children. Years ago, a few fellow pastors learned that I was interested in both parish work and getting a PhD, and they judged that I must be snooty and “ivory tower.” Much worse, you can see how this kind of assumption-making isn’t too far from racist, homophobic, and sexist attitudes. Any of these attitudes are painful when they’re directed at you from fellow Christians; you hope they’d be more loving and considerate.

Unfortunately, generalizing harshly about other people is an easy habit for all of us, in part because it makes us feel better about ourselves.

Scripture does teach the potential need to warn others about their behavior or circumstances. Ezekiel 3:17-21 is a well-known example. This would be an easy scripture to use wrongly: throw tact to the wind, point out a person’s sin, and say to yourself, “Whew, I did what God wanted!” Nevertheless, according to this scripture, one might have the responsibility to warn someone about his or her actions. Similarly Paul voiced concern about immoral behavior tolerated by a congregation (1 Cor. 5:1-5) and also showed concern about another congregation (2 Thess. 3:6, 3:14-15; also Titus 3:10-11).

Jesus pointed out people’s sins. He was very harsh to the teachers who considered themselves superior to others (Matthew 23:25-28), and he told the woman caught in adultery to sin no more (John 8:1-11) although he was kind to her and, indeed, saved her life. But Jesus also loved people and involved himself with people whose lives were wrong, broken, judged harshly, and confused. To them, he shared himself.

Scripture teaches a responsible kind of judgment-making, but it is also very clear about the kindness and encouragement that go along with judgments! One should mind one’s own affairs (1 Thess 4:11), one should be gentle and self-aware in one’s judgments (Heb. 5:2, Gal. 5:1, 2 Tim. 2:24-25), one should be encouraging, helpful, and patient (1 Thess. 5:14), one should be concerned for peace rather than “wrangling” (1 Tim. 6:4-5, 2 Tim. 2:24-25). Why can’t we embrace these kinds of verses as eagerly as we embrace the ones about rebuking and fault-finding?

In Matthew 7:1-5 Jesus famously tells people not to worry about the speck in someone else’s eye until you take the log out of your own eye. It’s actually a very humorous passage, which definitely gets the lesson across: I’m walking around with a big ol’ tree stuck to my face and yet I point out that your face doesn’t look right and you need to fix it!

Just because you see something that you consider condemnable in another person, you need to ask, What is condemnable in myself, if “the whole truth” were known about me? When Jesus’ opponents said, “He eats and drinks with sinners,” the irony is that they who disapproved of the sin of others, were themselves sinners! But they (in their own eyes) seemed more righteous because their sins were more subtle and prideful.

Jesus also said, “Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment” (John 7:24). Here is another biblical warrant to be cautious how you judge someone: the person may seem to be doing something of which you don’t approve, but do you really know what’s going on with the person? Have you “walked a mile in his or her shoes”? Have you inquired into the person’s circumstance? (Remember that “judgment” in the legal sense means a decision based on all the known facts about a case.)

“Being judgmental” implies an haughty assessment according to appearances, or to a one-sided appeal to scripture, without a person knowing the content of that person’s heart and experience (or your own). And… how would you know what’s going on with the person, if you didn’t have some kind of friendship with him other? Those scriptures I cited earlier (four paragraphs up) place judgments within the context of fellowship, friendship, love, and empathy. It’s easy to show scripture to someone to condemn or criticize them, but in a way that’s distancing yourself from them, putting yourself above them.

That’s why “being judgmental” is so easy to be and simultaneously is so disagreeable when we see it in others. To cite the often-quoted 1 Corinthians 13: you can be right about everything, including your moral and theological judgments, but if you don’t have love, you’re just noisy.

Read Full Post »

From my “Journeys Home” blog…. In July 2010, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) adopted “Amendment 10-A” which would change ordination standards to include openly gay persons. But the measure had to be approved by over 50% of the PCUSA’s presbyteries (regional bodies). This past Tuesday (May 10, 2011) the Presbytery of the Twin Cities voted 205-56 to support 10-A, providing the necessary majority (87 of the denomination’s 173 presbyteries). The change in ordination standards go into effect next July 10, giving presbyteries the ability (if they choose) to ordain gay persons. (See the article at http://www.religionlink.com/tip_110509.php, which reports the process and also provides numerous responses and articles on the subject. This would be a helpful source for anyone studying different sides of this contemporary issue.)

The PCUSA action has been exciting news to those of us who hope to see progress on this issue among our denominations. The religionlink article notes that “The PCUSA now joins the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the United Church of Christ as major denominations that allow the ordination of homosexuals in committed relationships, and the development reflects a growing acceptance of homosexuals among the wider public.”

My own denomination, The United Methodist Church, still excludes gays from ordination. Any change has to be accomplished by the denomination’s law making body, the quadrennial General Conference. So far GC delegates have kept the restriction in place, but earlier this year, 33 retired UM bishops issued a statement urging a lift of the ban, as reported at the UMC site (http://www.umc.org/site/apps/nlnet/content3.aspx?c=lwL4KnN1LtH&b=5723451&ct=9103189¬oc=1, as well as http://www.actup.org/forum/content/retired-united-methodist-bishops-urge-end-gay-clergy-ban-3173/ and other sites). The bishop’s statement, although lacking legal force, has been applauded and in some quarters regretted; similar reactions greeted the first openly gay candidate to seek election to the United Methodist episcopacy three years ago (http://www.umc.org/site/apps/nlnet/content3.aspx?c=lwL4KnN1LtH&b=2789393&ct=5690357).

Needless to say, homosexuality is a hotly-debated topic in many denominations, not only ordination but also marriage. And needless to say, biblical prohibitions (especially the texts Lev. 18:22, Lev. 20:13, Rom. 1:27, 1 Cor. 6:9-11, and 1 Timothy 1:9-10) lie at the heart of the debate. For many people, the church should be faithful to these texts and not ordain gay persons—and the church is being untrue to God’s word when it circumvents these texts and argues differently from them. However, I’ve appreciated this article by Walter Wink that puts these verses in a larger context: http://www.soulforce.org/article/homosexuality-bible-walter-wink

The sad irony is: while church leaders and church members continue to debate these texts, God is already and richly blessing LGBT persons in callings to ministry and thus in gifts of preaching, counseling, teaching, administration, and other areas of service! Of course, the church has been ordaining gay persons for many years but only recently have gay persons felt a greater freedom to accept and open up about their orientation and identity. Many of us straight people have formed theological positions on this issue without having spent time with LGBT persons. But among the retired bishops I mentioned above, Sharon Z. Rader and Donald A. Ott “both stressed that the statement is based on their experience as church leaders. For more than five years after her retirement, Rader was the bishop in residence at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill. In that capacity, she said, she met with many seminary students who had the gifts and calling for ministry but were gay or lesbian.” (http://www.umc.org/site/apps/nlnet/content3.aspx?c=lwL4KnN1LtH&b=5723451&ct=9103189¬oc=1)

If you open your heart and mind to the fact that God is already calling and blessing gay persons (and has been for many years), and if you need additional guidance from the scriptures, I find Acts 15:12-18 relevant:

The whole assembly kept silence, and listened to Barnabas and Paul as they told of all the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the Gentiles. After they finished speaking, James replied, ‘My brothers, listen to me. Simeon has related how God first looked favorably on the Gentiles, to take from among them a people for his name. This agrees with the words of the prophets, as it is written,
“After this I will return,
and I will rebuild the dwelling of David, which has fallen;
from its ruins I will rebuild it,
and I will set it up,
so that all other peoples may seek the Lord—
even all the Gentiles over whom my name has been called.
Thus says the Lord, who has been making these things known from long ago.

In this passage, God is doing amazing things among Gentiles, but the question has been raised, Should they be circumcised (or, to say it another way, should they be excluded as Christian witnesses because they are not Jews)? You can see a parallel in this situation.  Circumcision was a nonnegotiable according to God’s word. But the fact that God was working among these people–the uncircumcised—causes the Jerusalem council members to seek the scriptures for assurance that God can indeed do amazing works in unexpected ways. As one of my seminary professors put it, scripture conforms to experience! If you argue that the biblical prohibitions forbid ordination of gay person, perhaps this can help you see a different but also scriptural way of looking at the issue—God provides gifts and graces to gay and straight people alike, just as God called and blessed both Jews and Gentiles alike in biblical times.

Here is another helpful text of an analogous situation. Galatians 3:2 reads: “The only thing I want to learn from you is this: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard?” The predominantly Gentile church of Galatia had received God’s Spirit apart from fulfilling any traditional religious requirements. In our own time, have gay persons received calls and gifts to ministry by ceasing to be gay, in compliance with those above-cited biblical strictures, or by believing in the Lord?

Because many of us straight people think about this issue around the biblical texts, I’ve tried to show a few ways we can argue positively for ordination of gay persons. I’m conscious of the fact that this whole subject is hurtful and frustrating to gay persons, who wish that we straight people would catch up to what they already know, and who wish we’d meet them before we make judgments that affect them.

The Bible is God’s Word, but we should not interpret it (or assert that we should never interpret it, only obey it) as if there have been no new understandings of human nature, no historical developments, and no science since biblical times.

For instance, questions of biblical authority are often raised in the context of conflicts concerning the theories and discoveries of modern science. We can recognize the historical development and time-bound character of the Bible writers, so that when we encounter in the Bible ancient and “outdated” views of the cosmos, we need not think that we’re selling-out the Bible to science when we recognize the former’s cultural origins, nor do we have to declare the Bible any less God’s word if modern scientific theories and discoveries do not comfort to biblical details.

Similarly, we can affirm contemporary understandings of homosexuality as an identity, a possibility of a commitment relationship with another person, and as a gift from God—while acknowledging that the Bible defines homosexuality differently (e.g., as a male behavioral sin or an exploitive relationship), both within the Levitical holiness code (which otherwise does not, generally speaking, apply to modern Christian practice) and Paul’s lists of sins (and some of us may be guilty of a few of the others on those lists).

Still another issue related to biblical interpretation is Christian anti-Semitism. Although written primarily by Jews who still considered themselves Jews, the New Testament is filled with negative references to Jews (e.g., Matt. 27:25, 1 Thess. 2:3-16, Rev. 2:9, and the Gospel of John’s consistent use of “the Jews” in a pejorative sense). Does this give us permission to dislike Jews?

Of course not, but the anti-Jewish “atmosphere” of the New Testament has caused untold sorrow for Jews. I’ve known Christians who, while discussing the scriptures, refer disparagingly to “the Jews” in a clear echo of New Testament texts—the same Christians who would never make a generalizing, disparaging comment about an ethnic group in other contexts. I’ve also sensed that certain Christians assume that, because the New Testament portrays Judaism in a certain way, then contemporary Judaism must be the same; they’ve never taken the time to know a Jew or learn about modern Judaism. Important work has been done in recent years to show how the anti-Jewish material in the New Testament has contributed over the centuries to Christian disdain for Jews, the persecution of Jews, and the anti-Semitism that led historically to the Holocaust. Greater sensitivity to the sins of anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism require us to read the Bible in a different way than the literal sense.

Again, here is an example of a historically-conditioned quality to the Bible and the necessity to interpret it in light of new insights. In this case, we must acknowledge that the New Testament expresses an apparently hostile and generalizing attitude toward Jews, but history has shown that we (Gentiles) must not derive prejudice and racism from a thoughtless, literal reading of the New Testament text.

This example of Christian anti-Semitism is also pertinent to the discussion of homosexuality and LGBT person’s service to the church, because active persecution of homosexuals is of course quite real and some of it does make use of biblical texts. Rev. Mel White’s article, “What the Bible Says – And Doesn’t Say – About Homosexuality” by Rev. Mel White, provides several examples of gay bullying and killings. (http://www.soulforce.org/article/homosexuality-bible-gay-christian). We straight Christians must be aware that we might be upholding Bible passages that are, by other people, used to excuse and justify hatred and murder.

I do not know if Bible texts are used against gays in Uganda, but to cite an example of persecution against gays, this week the parliament in Uganda was “set to pass a number of laws against gays and lesbians so draconian that the entire population of that country will feel the effects,” according to a news source. “The so-called ‘Kill the Gays’ bill, proposed by legislator David Bahati,” includes death sentences to persons “who are ‘repeat offenders’ of having sexual intimacy with a person of the same sex” and “anyone with HIV who engages in sexual activity with a member of the same sex. Those who harbor or assist gays and lesbians will be subject to imprisonment. Even those who know someone to be gay or lesbian who don’t report them to the authorities will face a prison sentence.” (Here is the source: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bishop-gene-robinson/ugandas-kill-the-gays-bil_b_861150.html) Fortunately, in news which broke as I was writing a draft of this post, the Ugandan parliament tabled the measure in the wake of international outcries.

I’ve obviously moved from the subject of ordination of American gays to the ministry! But knowing about situations like this are necessary as we straight people learn the joys and sorrows of LGBT persons.  With greater understanding, we can learn to appreciate one another’s struggles, to enjoy God’s peace together amid our differences, and to affirm our respective callings, gifts, and graces.

Read Full Post »

A piece from August 2009…. Recently I purchased an Avanti-brand greeting card and sent it to a friend. The front of the card depicts a very grouchy cat on a yoga mat, doing stretches. The inside of the card reads, “I meditate, I do yoga, I chant … and I still want to smack someone!”

The other day I was driving a morning’s distance and listening to the XM classical station. In honor of Leonard Bernstein’s birthday, the station played the new recording, conducted by Marin Alsop, of Bernstein’s “Mass.”

I still have my LP set, conducted by Bernstein. I purchased it around 1975, when I was eighteen. I don’t remember how I discovered the piece; perhaps I’d first watched a production on our area PBS station. I loved the piece, which I played a lot during college. But the vinyl became worse for wear and I never replaced it. So I’d not heard the piece since perhaps the early 1980s.

I suppose listening to an hour-and-a-half piece while driving in one’s car is not exactly an “experience,” but I was quite moved all over again by the “Mass.” I’ve not heard the other two versions (besides Bernstein’s) but Alsop’s is very fresh, and Jubilant Sykes is an emotional, affecting Celebrant. Hearing the entire piece uninterrupted was valuable. Mile after mile, I enjoyed the favorite passages: “A Simple Song,” which a friend used at her ordination …the jazzy “In Domine Patris”… the skeptical, honest “I Don’t Know”… the pretty “Gloria Tibi” … the fearful “World Without End”… the hopeful “Our Father”/”I Go On” … the most beautiful and uplifting song (in my opinion), “Sanctus” …the stomping, sarcastic (!) “Agnus Dei” … the “mad scene” “Things Get Broken”… and finally the hushed conclusion.

The XM host called attention to the mass’s early 70s, Vietnam-era origins, but I don’t think “Mass” betrays its Zeitgeist, any more than “West Side Story” sounds like a specifically 50s piece. In fact, allowing for a few “groovy” lyrics, the music and Stephen Schwartz’s words sound quite contemporary. When I enjoyed my Bernstein LPs years ago, I didn’t realize I was listening to “music of the future” (the way I didn’t realize the significance of “Sgt. Pepper” and “Dark Side of the Moon” when I heard those records). In other words, Bernstein’s intermingling of musical high- and pop-styles seemed distracting and inappropriate to critics at the time but seems entirely appropriate today.

What struck me especially was the role of the Celebrant. “Mass” follows the Tridentine Latin rite, but “street singers” persist in interrupting the service with complaints, faith-struggles, questions about God’s concern for the world, blasphemies, and ultimately threats of violence. I thought of Job and his friends, but in this case, the “friends” complain about God’s supposed goodness rather than upholding it. Amid a protest march (the cacophonous, 6/8 “Dona Nobis Pacem”), the Celebrant has his own crisis of faith and breakdown, smashing the consecrated host. Following a long solo (reminiscent of the last act of Britten’s “Peter Grimes”), the street people return to quiet praise. They bring the Celebrant back into their group (whispering “pax tecum”), and with a benediction, the mass ends.

Before, I thought the Celebrant had been discouraged and broken by the protests of the street people. Lord knows enough pastors, unintentionally isolated within their calling, become disillusioned and wearied by the endless needs of congregations. I think this happens to the Celebrant, but now I wonder (considering the way peace is restored to the people following his breakdown) whether his suffering is intended to be vicarious. He takes the people’s struggles and doubts into himself. When he drops the cup, shocking though his “accident” is, Christ’s blood is shed. At the end, we may not have the world peace demanded in the “Dona Nobis Pacem,” but we have a “secret song,” the peace of fellowship and reconciliation.

I was not raised Roman Catholic, and when I purchased the album, it became the way I learned the classic, beautiful language of the Latin rite. What a way to learn sacred words, you might think! But in the intervening years, I’ve heard those words so many times: baroque pieces, the Vivaldi’s Gloria, the requiems of Brahms and Faure, John Rutter’s music, and numerous others. Hearing the words again, as I’d first learned them, was a jolt.

They are wonderful words. The church, being both divine and human, may sometimes contain politics, empty gestures, and false-seeming pieties. But the liturgical words are not empty. They speak truth. Set to music, they bring you all the more close to God.

But … faith is a struggle, and although the words are true, we may have no idea how to understand and “live” those truths. A few years ago the media reported that Mother Theresa had severe doubts and concerns in her faith and ministry. I thought … well, duh. The deeper you go into real faith (as opposed to a kind of shallow respectability) you may encounter dark places and questions you can’t answer. In the words of my greeting card, you do all the correct religious things … but sometimes you still feel badly. Sometimes you still just want to smack someone. Sometimes God seems far away. Sometimes you’d smack God if you could. 

Read Psalm 22, 42, 90, 143, and others, and you know that such difficult feelings are not alien to Holy Scripture, or to worship. Bernstein and Schwartz and their extravagant, Talmudic commentary on the Latin mass invite us to think, doubt, and feel–within the context of worship.

Read Full Post »

Here are several thoughts about the Bible’s truth and the ways we interpret the text. My goal is really to help people love and enjoy the book, look forward to delving into it, and use it appropriately so that God’s Spirit works in our lives. A portion of this material was rewritten and incorporated into my short article, “Keeping Peace When Scripture Conflicts,” The Circuit Rider, May-June-July 2011.

To state the obvious, Bible interpretation—like politics, childrearing advice, and sports teams–are topics about which people have strong opinions. (I’ve known some people whose eyes turned hard and cold when they felt that their views on a biblical topic, however deeply or superficially formed or just plain wrong, were challenged.) But a few “sayings” about the Bible are not helpful as they float around in popular culture.

You sometimes hear people say, is “Every word of the Bible is true.” As I browsed a Christian website of a local media personality, I noticed that statement and I frowned, because in this case, biblical authority was used to deny scientific method. (Though I disagree with “scientism,” the philosophy that all truth is scientific truth, I find evolutionary theory and contemporary uniformitarianism exciting to study and learn.) But I’ve heard that statement, “Every word of the Bible is true,” used in other contexts.

Every word of the Bible is part of the sacred book, inspired by the Spirit in its authorship, editing, and canonization–and our ongoing reading and study of the text. Every word of the Bible is true in that differences among texts, anomalies, and historically-limited statements do not at all undercut the Bible’s authority.

When you affirm the truth of the Bible, you must be sensitive to the fact that numerous passages are culturally-specific, unsuitable to be taken out of context, and improperly used as “slogans.” We also can–and will–disagree about how to apply the Bible to certain circumstances, even when we affirm the Bible’s truth. Here are a few overlapping examples.

1. As we study the Bible, we encounter untoward and difficult passages (like the scatological Malachi 2:3 and the crudely sexual Ezekiel 23:20) which seem to have nothing to do with the Bible’s messages of salvation and justice.(1) We also encounter laws that seem absurd or outdated, for instance, these passages that I found at a website recently(2):

* Eating fat is prohibited (Lev. 3:17)
* A woman who grabs a man’s genitals during a fight should have her hand cut off (Deut. 25:11, 12)
* Children born out of wedlock could not enter God’s assembly, even to the tenth generation (Deut. 23:2). Handicapped people (Lev. 21:16-23), men whose testicles were removed (Deut. 23:1), and menstruating women also could not enter the assembly.
* Homosexual men (Lev. 20:13), stubborn children (Deut. 21:18-21), witches (Ex. 22:18), and false prophets (Zech. 13:3) should be killed.
* Playing football on Sunday is punishable by death (conflating Ex. 35:2 and Lev. 11:7-8)
* And yet (as this website continues) slavery (Ex. 21), genocide (Deut. 7), incest (Gen. 20:12) and polygamy (several biblical characters) are allowed.

One could add others: for instance, the biblical obligation to marry your brother in law if your husband has died (Deut. 25:5-10, a complex set of procedures and the basis of the story of Ruth and Boaz), and so on.

In other words, we find passages within the Bible itself that, to a person wondering about the Bible’s authority, seem to shed poor light upon the Bible as a source for God’s will. Rather than making a simple declaration about the uniform truth of the Bible’s words, we affirm that the Bible does give us truth about God but that passages like these must be examined in terms of the original context, circumstance, and so on.

2. The Bible also has many verses that lend themselves to “proof-texting.” When we proof-text, we choose Bible verses, in a hasty or sloppy way that overlooks issues of context, either to prove a point or to proceed straight to an application:

* You have tattoos? You’re violating God’s word: Leviticus 19:28.
* You baptize by sprinking? Then you’re violating God’s word: the Bible says that Jesus was down in a lot of water (Mark 1:9), not sprinkled.
* You see children read stories about witches? God hates witches, though—Ex. 22:18, Lev. 19:31 and 20:6—so God is against these fantasy stories.
* You want a good reason to spank your children? Proverbs 13:24, taken out of context, seems to provide warrant for a few slaps to the kid’s butt.

Many issues can be argued using biblical material, as I discuss below, but a careful, thoughtful and prayerful reading of the Bible is needed, rather than a simple grasping of slogans, condemnations, or permissions.

3. Similarly, we can “claim” biblical promises in a hurtful way. For instance, Matthew 17:20 has been quoted to people who are ill: [Jesus] said to them, “… For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, “Move from here to there”, and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.” Yes, it’s a saying of Jesus, but can you imagine being sick and someone uses Jesus’ words to imply that if you had more faith, you wouldn’t be sick? My mother had to deal with some of this kind of insensitivity.

Similarly, Phil. 4:6 can be (cruelly) quoted a person who has a legitimate psychological disorder or the effects of a traumatic experience: Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. Offering that scripture might be motivated as encouragement but it comes across as disapproval of the person who is struggling with anxiety. It shows an unwillingness of the Bible quoter to empathize with the person’s pain.

It’s a great thing to ask for and receive miracles and help from the Lord, and it’s a great thing to be led to seek the Lord’s help via scriptural truth. I can attest to these things! But you can also see how the Bible can be used in a painful way, not only toward others but toward ourselves. I read a blog post recently (and unfortunately didn’t keep the reference) about an unemployed person who had relied upon the truth of Jeremiah 29:11 for his future. After many months of continued hardship and unemployment, he still relied in the Lord but (if I recall the piece correctly) he realized that divine help doesn’t come as fast or predictably as we’d often like.

4. The Bible also “teaches” general things that we can no longer accept. We have to affirm our inability to follow the Bible on certain issues.

* One, as I just mentioned, is slavery. The Bible contains many passages concerning slavery (Ex. 20:17, 21:20-21, Lev. 23:44-45, Deut. 5:21, Matt. 18:25, Eph. 6:5-9, 1 Tim. 6:1-3, and others). Such passages recognize slavery as a social given, although Torah laws do give means by which slaves can be freed and by which justice can be ensured for servants and slaves. The Bible did not “cause” American slavery but the Bible’s recognition of the reality of slavery was used to justify the institution and to perpetuate racial divisions in this country that are clear violations of Christ’s redemptive work (Eph. 2:13-16).

Unfortunately, here is an example of a biblical acceptance of an institution that we’ve since recognized as evil.

* Another, also just mentioned, is genocide. The Hebrew word herem, or kherem, refers to the practice of devoting something to the Lord, but notably in Deuteronomy 7, 1-6, God devotes several nations (Canaanite kingdoms) to utter destruction. The subsequent book of Joshua (6:17, 8:26, etc.) uses the word in describing the slaughter and destruction of Jericho and Ai. The purpose of this devotion was to keep the Israelites separate from the influence of the Canaanites (the idea of “holiness” in Deut. 7:1 implies separateness from things that are unholy). But, of course, the notion of “holy war” is unacceptable and terrifying in our modern era. The herem passages result from specific commands of God or Joshua,(3) and are a distinctive part of the Deuteronomistic Historian’s theological interpretation of Israel’s history.(4) Thus, these Bible passages are not intended to be authorizations for similar actions beyond the biblical period–and to us, they’re pretty awful within the biblical period!(5)

* Still another issue related to biblical interpretation is Christian anti-Semitism. Although written primarily by Jews who still considered themselves Jews, the New Testament is filled with negative references to Jews (e.g., Matt. 27:25, 1 Thess. 2:3-16, Rev. 2:9, and the Gospel of John’s consistent use of “the Jews” in a pejorative sense). Does this give us permission to dislike Jews?

Of course not, but the anti-Jewish “atmosphere” of the New Testament has caused untold sorrow for Jews. I’ve known Christians who, while discussing the scriptures, refer disparagingly to “the Jews” in a clear echo of New Testament texts—the same Christians who would never make a generalizing, disparaging comment about an ethnic group in other contexts. Important work has been done in recent years to show how the anti-Jewish material in the New Testament has contributed over the centuries to Christian disdain for Jews, the persecution of Jews, and the anti-Semitism that led historically to the Holocaust.(6)

Here, greater sensitivity to the sins of anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism require us to read the Bible in a different way than the literal sense.

5. Scripture can be consulted concerning a variety of important topics, without consensus.

* Homosexuality is a hotly-debated topic within many denominations. I’m relieved at the recent call of several retired United Methodist bishops for a removal of the ban upon the ordination of homosexuals in our own denomination, and I hope someday that ban, and the ban upon same-sex marriages by the denomination (and others), will be lifted http://www.umc.org/site/apps/nlnet/content3.aspx?c=lwL4KnN1LtH&b=2789393&ct=9103189 The arguments concerning homosexuality are well known but I direct people to an excellent article by Walter Wink that discusses those texts and the ways we interpret scripture. http://www.soulforce.org/article/homosexuality-bible-walter-wink

* Women’s ordination seems like a “done deal” (my own denomination has ordained women since 1956), but some denominations do not practice it–and some forbid women to serve in other capacities. You can find biblical passages that imply or teach the subordination of women to men, or at least wives to husbands: Gen. 2:18, 1 Cor. 11:3, 7-9, 14:34b-35, 1 Tim. 2:11-15, 1 Peter 4:10-11. But the New Testament mentions several women disciples and leaders (Acts 9:36, 18:24-26, Romans 16:1, 3, 7, Phil. 4:2, Philemon 2, not to mention Old Testament leaders like Deborah). As is increasingly happening with LGBT persons, denominations recognize the gifts and graces of the Spirit provided to women, in spite of limiting biblical passages.

* Should a Christian own a weapon? David praised God who prepared him for battle (Psalm 144:1), and Jesus’ disciples carried swords (Luke 22:38, 49-50). Armed soldiers came to faith, and no one told them to lay down their arms (Luke 7:1-10, Acts 10:1-33, Romans 13:4). And yet Jesus taught peace, reconciliation, and active help and concern for one’s enemies (Matt. 5:9-12, 38-47), as did Paul (Rom. 12:14-21). Is there one Bible-based answer to this question?

* Use of alcoholic beverages is condemned in scripture (Prov. 20:1, 1 Cor. 6:10, Eph. 5:18-20), and is also a potential stumbling block to other Christians (with 1 Cor. 8:1-13 providing an analogous situation). But the Bible also allows moderate use of alcohol (Prov. 31:6-7, Ps. 104:14-15, 1 Tim. 5:23), and Jesus himself was criticized for drinking and eating with the wrong kinds of people (Luke 7:33-34). Again: is there one Bible-based answer to this issue?

* One could mention many other issues of contemporary importance: environmental issues, criminal justice, the death penalty, medical research, and so on, which can be–and are—addressed with passionate (and sometimes, unfortunately, ugly) disagreements about biblical teachings.


I’m belaboring my initial point concerning the phrase “Every word of the Bible is true.” But I want us to think about why and how the words of the Bible are true. We can affirm the Bible’s truth while also being cognizant of its difficulties and interpretive challenges. We can avoid using bible verses as “clobber passages.” As the conservative Calvinist theologian G.C. Berkouwer notes in his book, The Holy Scriptures (pp. 181-183), we need a “naturalness” in reading and interpreting the Bible; we recognize the book’s roots in ancient cultures while also recognizing it as a God-breathed book for our contemporary time.

Relying upon God’s grace, we all continue to grow as Christians, and we all grow in insight as to the nature of the Bible’s authority, the ways we can use the Bible to encourage and build each other up (Eph. 4:11-16), the disagreements that can occur between people interpreting the same book, and the ways we interpret and follow God’s Word.


Here is another saying that you hear concerning Bible interpretation. Members of a particular small group studied the letters of Paul. They came to Paul’s advice in 1 Timothy, I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. A female classmate spoke critically of Paul’s outlook toward women. Her husband teased her, “You can’t pick and choose, you know!”

Although the man was joking with his spouse, this view isn’t uncommon: If the Bible is God’s Word, then we should not pick passages of scripture we like and discard others.

But we all pick and choose Bible passages! We all make decisions (not necessarily articulating the reasons) about which scriptures to follow literally, which to follow less literally, and which not to follow. We interpret some passages as more culturally-conditioned than others. We cherish Jesus and seek to do his will … but we do not liquidate our possessions, give to the poor, and live as indigents (Luke 18:22). We do not traipse in pairs from town to town, lodging at people’s houses as we spread the Gospel (Luke 10:1-12); we “adapt” the literal command to fit contemporary realities. People pick laws from the Torah to prove their dislike of gays and Harry Potter but ignore most of the other laws. It’s human nature, but we’re more likely to take a stand against “picking and choosing” when we judge the actions and attitudes of others, rather than our own!

We also pick and chose because, honestly, we’re not inclined to follow certain portions of the Bible. How many people do you admire because of their bluntness and candor, in spite of the Proverbs which teach restraint from angry words and the wisdom of quiet thoughtfulness (e.g., Prov. 10:12, 14:29)? Have you ever taken the time to reconcile with someone prior to your worship (Matt. 5:23-24)? Have you lately helped a poor person, or visited someone in jail (Matt. 25:31-46)? Faithfulness to scriptures that we could follow more conscientiously is a struggle for all of us, most certainly including myself! But we are prone to honor Jesus with pious and respectful feelings about his authority, and then we proceed to live neglectful of many of his teachings (or we adapt them for present realities).

Bible study is the key way to clarity about God and God’s will, but as long as we live we’re always seeking deeper knowledge of God, new insights, new understanding of biblical content and fresh connections of the Bible to our circumstances. A positive way of “picking and choosing” is to recognize our limitations, and thus to seek God’s will in scripture with humble heart by finding scriptures that address our current situation. Rather than thinking about the process as “customizing” scripture for selfish purposes, we compare verses and allow them to teach and guide us, according to the Spirit’s guidance.

Here are just a couple examples. This is a verse well known to anyone struggling with a sense of Christian calling.

Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple (Luke 14:26).

But here is also a passage that is equally scripture:

He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? (1 Tim. 3:4-5).

Jesus calls us to put him first in all things. But if a person serves Jesus in, for instance, a role of church leadership, he or she should not thereby become lax in household responsibilities. Here’s another scripture:

Then he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban’ (that is, an offering to God)— then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this” (Mark 7:9-13).

Here Jesus criticizes those who would renege on one’s obligation to parents through the custom of devoting an offering to God.

These passages taught me during a time when I struggled to balance the needs of a young child at home, my marriage, the increasingly dire needs of elderly parents (of whom I’m the only child), my call to serve God, and the unholy pride some pastors feel in working 80+ hours a week at the expense of their families. It would’ve been easy to linger on Luke 14:26 and feel guilty—as if I were a horrible servant by having family needs, a common-enough anxiety in clergy—but by broadening my reading I gained a better perspective.

Here’s another scripture that I love.

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us (1 John 1:8-10).

But here is a passage from the same book.

Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that he was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. Everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil; for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The Son of God was revealed for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil. Those who have been born of God do not sin, because God’s seed abides in them; they cannot sin, because they have been born of God. The children of God and the children of the devil are revealed in this way: all who do not do what is right are not from God, nor are those who do not love their brothers and sisters (1 John 3:4-10).

All of us do sin. Sometimes we fall into sin in spite of our best intentions, if not in the “big” sins then in our attitudes, weaknesses (gossip and the like), and poor decisions. Some of us fall into the big sins, too. Furthermore, we are a part of social structures where we participate in or tacitly condone sins like injustice, poverty, economic policies that exploit domestic and overseas workers, and so on.

The first passage rings true and is quite reassuring. Does the second passage contradict the first? This is important to sort out as we seek God’s gifts of holiness and sanctification. We must look at other scriptural viewpoints in order to elucidate John. How much power do we allow Jesus to have in our lives? He does save us for Heaven while we were sinners (Rom. 5:8), but should we allow him to cleanse us more thoroughly of sin? Do we really want him to?

Not only that, but while Jesus can and does cleanse us from specific sins, we must ask: Is there also a point where we deceive ourselves as to the depth of our sin? Sin has a way of rearing its ugly head just at the point when we think we’ve conquered it. In addition to moral and psychological sins, we fail to recognize kinds of sin that don’t necessarily set off “alarms” (our gossip, our acquiescence of injustices, our subtly racist habits of thinking and acting, and others).

Recognizing the tenacity of sin, we can go beyond a definition of sin as the violation of law (John’s understanding here in this letter) and compare John’s theology to, for instance, that of Romans 7:7-25; there, sin is not just the violation of the law but also a fault within human will and nature. Christ’s salvation is something that reaches deeply into our circumstances. In this case, another scripture by another author help us understand a point that was less completely discussed in a passage. (Another such scripture is the beloved Ps. 37:4, which might imply God gives us everything we want if we just love God enough!)

“Comparing scripture with scripture” is a venerable way of studying the Bible, but it’s a way that requires sensitivity for word meaning, context, and the author’s intended meaning. We should never neglect understanding each biblical writing in its integrity, in addition to its place within the canon. We also need more rather than less of the Holy Spirit’s help for clarity of guidance and understanding. But “picking and choosing” Scripture can be either a negative kind of “customizing” or a very positive choice as we deepen our faith, understanding, and service.

Our confidence in the Bible rests not only upon the truth of the words but upon the person and grace of Jesus, as I explain next.


As I’ve discussed the sayings “Every word of the Bible is true” and “you can’t pick and choose,” I implied aspects of a third statement one sometimes hears about the Bible: “The Bible shouldn’t be interpreted, only obeyed.” Instead, I argue that following the Lord necessitates interpretation, gives us clarity about the Gospel of Jesus, and, in turn, shows us how to obey.

Back in my younger days, I had a friend who appreciated Mark 7:6-8:

He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’
You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

Doctrines contrary to my friend’s church were “words of men,” but my friend’s church didn’t teach human doctrines, only the Word of God.

I’m not criticizing the basic idea there—searching for God’s clear Word, and finding guidance within a community—only the fundamentalistic spirit that makes a too-easy identification: I believe the Word of God, you (who differ with me on a point of interpretation) believe the doctrines of men, and therefore my soul is safe, but you seek God in vain….

Yet (this was my brief experience when I was a naïve and insecure young person) if you’re afraid for your salvation because someone told you that you’ve misinterpreted the Bible, then what becomes of the Good News of God’s free grace? Grace you have to earn is not good news!

We don’t always think through the way Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ongoing presence in our lives guides the way we read and interpret the Bible. This point came home to me strongly as I was reading Graeme Goldsworthy’s Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture.(7) Goldsworthy says that, “while there is much in the Bible that is strictly speaking not the gospel, there is nothing in the Bible that can be truly understood apart from the gospel.”(8) While not addressing all aspects of biblical interpretation, I find his argument thought-provoking with regard to preaching, devotional Bible reading, and Christian practice.(9) How has the Good News—the wholly free gift of salvation of sinners through the blood of Christ and the accompanying power of the Holy Spirit—clarified, modified, fulfilled, or even negated the meaning of a particular Bible passage?

For instance, consider the Torah. Jews revere the Torah as God’s direct word, while the prophets are God’s message communicated through the prophets’ words, and the books of the Writings (the Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Ruth, Esther, and others) are divinely inspired but are more definitely of human authorship.(10) If a person’s sole scripture is the Old Testament, then this hermeneutical approach makes sense and is consistent. But the New Testament changes these levels of authority. As I discuss in the next series of posts, the prophets and also the psalms take on greater authority in the New Testament; the “lesser” prophets and writings became keys for interpreting Jesus as messiah and, therefore, for interpreting the Torah. Consequently, Christians interpreted the Torah as a preliminary, yet not abrogated way by which God expresses his will (Matt. 5:17-20, Rom. 3:31, Heb. 3:1-6). Because of Christ, we must think about the ways that the Torah is scripture for Christians. We must interpret the laws in the context of the Bible’s whole witness, so that “You shall not murder” is always true but “You shall not round off the hair on your temples” (Lev. 19:28a) is more time- and culture-bound.

Similarly, consider the prophets. Read through those books and you’ll see the harshness of God’s judgment against the people’s faithlessness and the direness of his warnings. A person could easily neglect the context of the prophets in ancient Israel and use prophetic judgments to address contemporary examples of unrighteousness and social injustice. (For instance, we use the term “prophetic preaching” to mean sermons and writings that confront, challenge and criticize.) The prophets’ themes are timeless: the formal practice of religion is no substitute for true righteousness, and true righteousness always includes justice (e.g. Amos 5:23-24). But when we look at the prophets with a broader view, we also see that the prophets focus not only upon then-current societal situations but also God’s plans for the future. God achieves his will for the people of the divided kingdom of the prophets’ times, but God also, through the prophets, announces his will for the more distant future: the person and work of Christ. To use the prophets primarily to address specific social problems risks neglecting the “canonical shape” that puts the prophets in context with Christ’s salvation.(11)

As Goldsworthy also discusses in his book, we must also consider how the death and resurrection of Christ also informs how we understand the teachings of Jesus himself! The Good News of Jesus’ resurrection frees us from the law (Gal. 3:10, 3:23) but also makes us take the demands of discipleship all the more seriously, because we’re freed from the notion that God saves us when we’ve checked off the “shalts” and avoided all the “shalt nots.” Christ in his roles as teacher, healer, and risen Lord help us do his will—and his Spirit breathes live and vitality to Bible verses that we might otherwise read as slogans, shalt-nots, and “clobber passages.”

As I reflected on this point, I thought of several ways this is true.

* When I was young, I worried that God was keeping track of every time I became angry and called someone a “fool” (or “jerk” or “idiot” or my dad’s favorites, “ignert sumbitch” and “damned ignert fool”): Matt. 5:21-22. Yes, we’re held accountable for “every careless word” (Matt. 12:36), but we’re not saved by anything we do or don’t do (Rom. 3:28). We’re saved from our sins, without reservation, and we have ongoing forgiveness and power for salvation (Heb. 4:14-16). But when we look at this “fool” passage in light of Jesus’ death and resurrection, we see afresh at how Jesus has saved us from all our sins (past, present and future), and so, thus freed from the fear of earning God’s wrath (Rom. 5:9), we can respond with a new sense of joy and love, both for God and for one another (Rom. 8:1-8). As Christ healed his contemporaries, his love and power heals our souls of angry words (although anger is a normal human emotion when appropriately addressed: Eph. 4:26, 31).

Thus, instead of interpreting that “fool” saying as a law, we see it as an even deeper challenge: how are we modeling Christ’s love? How are we growing in love through the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-24, so that dismissive and contemptuous comments cross our minds less frequently? How is the Spirit of Christ changing the content of our hearts?

* Similarly forgiveness. “We’re supposed to forgive each other,” we might say. But we forgive each other in the context of a lively, growing relationship with Christ. When we are freed by Christ’s death and resurrection, forgiveness is not a law or a hard obligation. Forgiveness is a response to Christ’s unearned love. Even more, we don’t have to force ourselves to forgive through our own will power, but we find power to learn to forgive (and even empowered forgiveness isn’t always easy) as we deepen our relationship to Christ.

* And prayer. Another verse that worried me when I was young was “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17, KJV). I couldn’t do that! Nobody can: our brains are not neurologically set to focus continually. But that verse isn’t a law that requires every single thought to be prayerful. That verse is a call to deepen our love and concern for one another as we receive the resurrected Jesus’ love and power. Instead of interpreting the verse primarily as a rule, we focus upon Christ as our Savior and helper when we fail. Through Christ, our minds and hearts acquire the habit and impulse of prayer.

* And speaking of prayer: do we pray the Psalms as Christian prayers? Obviously the psalms are Hebrew and Jewish prayers–of ancient origin and then collected during the Second Temple period–and they’re now part of the Christian canon. But we could very easily neglect to connect the psalms to Christ’s death and resurrection. For instance, if you’re in (what I call) a “Psalm 51 state of mind,” are you praying the prayer as a plea to God for forgiveness and restoration? Do you also and simultaneously keep firmly in mind that we have forgiveness and restoration already through the crucified and risen Lord? Psalm 51, classic though it is, has to be connected to verses like Romans 7:24-25, where the assurance of Christ’s salvation of sinners is affirmed.

* What about using a Bible verse as God’s holy word in condemnation of another person? We should always remember that Jesus himself stood condemned by God’s word; he was considered a sinner (John 9), and he was placed under a curse because of God’s word (Deut. 21:23). In his ministry, Jesus gave grace and a new opportunity to the woman of John 7:53-8:11) when people used God’s word against her.

Certainly the Bible warns us and can be used to warn. But one particular warning, Matthew 7:1-5, is all the more keen when we’re tempted to employ the Bible in a condemnatory way.

* Is our evangelism always supposed to achieve great results? The contemporary decline of membership among mainline denominations has added urgency to evangelistic efforts. Acts 2:41 and 47 imply that, if we’re doing evangelism right, God will bless our efforts with great numbers. This outlook dovetails well with American concepts of success; yet “getting great numbers” was not a concern of Jesus in Matthew 25:31-46, and Paul’s ministry among the Athenians was ineffective in practical terms. Yet no one would say that Paul shouldn’t have taken his ministry among the Greek intellectuals. Our command to make disciples (Matt. 28:19) is relevant whether we make a few disciples or many: the real work is done by God’s Spirit promised to us by the risen Lord.

* Here’s a slightly different issue: how about using Bible characters as models? Let me use David as an example, for the Bible calls him a “man after God’s heart” (1 Samuel 13:13-14, Acts 13:22), in spite of his very flawed life. If you’re like me, you want to be a person after God’s heart, too. We ask, “How can God use me? Does God see me as somebody he can use?” Neither is necessarily an easy question to answer. As we develop a good spiritual life that includes regular worship, fellowship, Bible reading, prayer, and a certain amount of spiritual discipline, we try to keep focusing back to God. We try to stay open to God’s guidance and purpose. We take comfort that a flawed person like David could be so well used by God.

But we can’t raise these questions only in the context of David’s stories, as Goldsworthy discusses. First, we need to be careful not to place ourselves on a similar stature as David, to make ourselves equal somehow to him, or to make God’s plans with Israel similar to the patterns of our lives. (Besides, David was an Iron Age warrior and killer of many, many people; to focus upon and identify with only his spiritual humility is to ignore significant things about him.) David and his people were special in God’s salvation history, while we’re beneficiaries of the groundwork God accomplished through them. Second, although we can certainly learn with aspects of Bible characters’ experiences, we need to seek God’s will about these stories in the context of our salvation in Christ. For instance, we all actually have a better chance to become close to God than David because, now, God’s Spirit is poured out to all of us. God’s Spirit gives gifts of power and ministry unimaginable in ancient times, taking God’s will for us to new levels (John 14:12).

So often we take Bible passages and Bible commandments and separate them from the key things: our living Lord, our covenant relationship with God, our relationship (as freely forgiven sinners) to God through Christ, and Christ’s commandment that we love and uphold one another.


During a summer when I worked on these Bible reflections, my family and I visited Europe as my daughter’s choir toured several cities: Heidelberg, Speyer, Erfurt, Eisenach, Dresden, Prague, and Vienna. Emily had wonderful experiences in this choir as she used her musical talents with other teenagers. On one of the tour’s last days, we took our seats for a noon Mass at the St. Stephen’s Cathedral (Stefansdom) in Vienna. As we all absorbed the beauty of the sanctuary, I noticed on the lectern a banner, containing the words:

Seid aber Täter des Worts und nicht Hörer allein

My German is rusty so I had to think about the meaning of the phrase….Be ye doers of the word and not hearers only  (James 1:22, KJV). The combination of several things—the stunning sanctuary, the music of the choir, and the fact that in translating I had to mentally engage the verse—gave me a sense of peace and assurance.

The whole verse in the NRSV is, But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. What an interesting connection: hearing (or reading) God’s Word, and self-deception! In these posts, I’ve been thinking about God’s Word… But how can we deceive ourselves as we hear the Word?

Several ways. We hear the Word and believe, but because we believe we feel pleased with ourselves, and continue feeling hatred toward particular individuals or particular groups. We hear the Word but never “bridle” the tongue; consequently our religion is “worthless” (James 1:26). We hear but never take the time to actively love and care for the needy (James 1:27). We hear the Word in the sense that we respect and defend the Bible, but we compartmentalize your faith as one aspect of life among many. A very subtle way to deceive ourselves is to hear the Word, to love the Bible and Christ, but to have a very shallow kind of faith: we think merely have to be good, churchgoing persons who volunteer, serve on committees and have a conventional, upstanding morality. These are not bad things in themselves but we must be on guard that these things aren’t substitutes rather than expressions of a deep faith.

Even a life-changing profession of faith, so cherished in evangelistic experience, can be a “hear but not do” kind of thing if we don’t “follow up.” I don’t want to get into debates about whether or not one can lose one’s salvation (although as one whose theology is more Arminian than Calvinist, I’ve some ideas); I do want to say that both Jesus and Paul cautions us to be attentive to and humble in our faith (Matt. 7:1-5, 21-23, Rom. 11:21-22, 25). In Christ we have an accomplished salvation, but Christ in turn also calls us to ongoing discipleship and transformation (with which, wonderfully, Christ helps us).

“Doing the Word” means embracing the Gospel message in its wholeness. You’ve fewer illusions about yourself and your position in life because you understand, cognitively and spiritually, that you are no better than the worst sinner you can think of. Every aspect of your life is in need of God’s forgiveness and grace. You accept the grace of God through Christ as a free, unearned gift, which in turn links you to the power God provides for your living. You understand that God’s love liberates you to show loving-kindness to others; God’s love doesn’t give you license to be a meaner person than before; God’s love changes your perception so you can see other people as those for whom Christ died. (An analogy might be: when the person you love loves you back, you feel free, joyous, and changed.)

As we’re transformed by God’s love, we imperfectly grow in certain characteristics taught so frequently in the Bible:

· Humility: a willingness (hypothetically, at least) to wash the feet of someone who has not “earned” your love but whom you love, nevertheless, as Christ loved his very imperfect disciples.

· Peacefulness: a kind of understanding of God that surpasses a purely cognitive agreement of doctrines about God

· Suffering: a condition we’d prefer to avoid, but which is biblically attested to be potentially a sharing in Christ’s own life.

· Loving-kindness and compassion: a desire to ease the suffering of others (certainly not to inflict it) because—to use a cliché—you feel the other’s pain. (Etymologically, compassion means “to suffer with.”)

· Knowledge of God: you can see God in the needs of the other person

· Love for enemies: you feel no hatred or anger for someone who has mistreated you (or, at least, you regularly turn to God for healing of your hatred).

· Contentment: a tranquility independent of your circumstances

· Joy: not just happiness and mirth (wonderful as those are) but a confidence that you understand the meaning and direction of life.

· Avoidance of certain circumstances: those wherein you might succumb to a temptation to which you’re prone, and you know yourself well enough to know your weaknesses.

And yet … Christian love is not anything specific that you do, in the sense that Christ provides you a checklist or (as I have here) a list of bullet-pointed characteristics. Christian love is a gift of God’s empowering Spirit. [T]he fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things (Gal. 5:22-23). That last statement means that these qualities cannot be defined by the law and—Paul is being wry and ironic—they are not illegal. As one commentator, Richard B. Hays writes that this section of Galatians “is the most impassioned defense anywhere in Scripture of the sufficiency of the Spirit to guide the community of faith.” But Paul’s opponents at Galatia wanted to impose various structures and laws to that community. Obviously laws and structure can be good things, but Paul retorts that the Spirit is a sufficient guide, as Hays writes, “A church guided by Paul’s hopeful word would cultivate a community of flexibility and freedom, living with openness toward the unpredictable liberating movement of God’s Spirit.” Hays notes two examples: Wesley’s preaching outdoors to coal miners, and African American churches that addressed civil rights issues in the 1950s and 1960s.(12) Could our contemporary congregations learn to love, spontaneously, in a deep and powerful way, wholly trusting God to provide all we need?

An emphasis on Bible study—and the self-diagnosis and wisdom that comes from Bible study—is a powerful tool for churches, in addition to (or instead of) the more programmatic means that congregations sometimes adopt. Bible study has its risks. Here again, we can get off-track when we don’t balance hearing and doing: you could become discouraged in your faith because you can never measure up to the Bible’s standards; or you don’t know what to do with your doubts and questions because you think—because the Bible is God’s word—you’re not supposed to have any. But that is why we read the Bible best when, in addition to private reading and devotional time, we’re also part of a congregation of diverse, worshiping people where prayer, preaching, the Eucharist, group study, and service are part of a whole spiritual journey.

I read a lovely story from the author and activist Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

“Once I noticed,” writes a Christian scholar, who visited the city of Warsaw during the First World War, “a great many coaches on a parking-place but no drivers in sight. In my own country I would have known where to look for them. A young Jewish boy showed me the way: in a courtyard, on the second floor, was the shtibl (Hasidic synagogue) of the Jewish drivers…. All the drivers were engaged in fervent study and religious discussion…. It was then that I found out and became convinced that all professions, the bakers, the butchers, the shoemakers, etc., have their own shtibl in the Jewish district; and every free moment which can be taken off from their work is given to the study of Torah. And when they get together in intimate groups, one urges the other: Sog mir a shtickl Torah—Tell me a little Torah.”(13)

I don’t study the Bible that way and I’m unfamiliar with Christians who do. But I love the image and the challenge: How wonderful if we, who don’t want to be fundamentalists but do want to live as faithful Christians, lived our lives in such a way that Bible study was intimate—and an intimate part of our everyday lives, and a natural part of conversation, the way we talk about the irritating people at our places of work, about our favorite books and movies? We might get angry at least other, but we’d deal with it; we wouldn’t be aloof from each other, or “take our toys and go home”; we’d accept our disagreements. We’d grow together, perhaps reexamine our cherished opinions and positions, perhaps growing in convictions in other ways. But we’d grow in the Biblical gifts of wisdom and kindness.


1. http://dwindlinginunbelief.blogspot.com/2007/04/everything-in-old-testament-points-to.html

2. “Bible Justice” by Ken Adams, http://www.liberator.net/articles/AdamsKen/BibleJustice.html

3. The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, D-H, volume 2 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007), page 118.

4. See, for instance, Robert B. Coote’s introduction to the book of Joshua in The New Interpreter’s Bible, volume 2 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998), pages 555-580, which discusses several of the themes and emphases of the Deuteronomistic history and of Josiah’s reforms.

5. See “Excursus: Holy War,” in The New Interpreter’s Study Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003), page 314.

6. The Reluctant Parting: How the New Testament’s Jewish Writers Created a Christian Book by Julie Galambush (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005); The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus by Amy-Jill Levine (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006); and also “Good News” after Auschwitz? Christian Faith within a Post-Holocaust World, edited by Carol Rittner and John K. Roth (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2001). See also Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews by James Carroll (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001).

7. Preaching the Whole Bible As Christian Scripture: The Application of Biblical Theology to Expository Preaching by Graeme Goldsworthy (Grand Rapids: Eerdmanns, 2000).

8. Goldworthy, page 95.

9. In its variety of witnesses, the Bible allows for a variety of readings. For instance, Walter Brueggemann warns: “[T]he task of Old Testament theology, as a Christian enterprise, is to articulate, explicate, mobilize, and make accessible and available the testimony of the Old Testament in all of its polyphonic, elusive, imaginative power and to offer it to the church for its continuing work of construal toward Jesus. That is, Old Testament theology, in my judgment, must prepare the material and full respect the interpretive connections made in the New Testament and the subsequent church; but it must not make those connections, precisely because the connections are not to be found in the testimony of ancient Israel, but in the subsequent work of imaginative construal that lies beyond the text of the Old Testament.” See his Theology of the Old Testament, p 732. Brueggemann differs in his approach from the canonical readings of Brevard Childs, whose class I was very privileged to take in 1979.

10. The Seventy Faces of Torah: The Jewish Way of Reading the Sacred Scriptures by Stephen M. Wylan, (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2005), pages 22-23.

This is not to say Jews cannot interpret the Torah laws. Jews recognize that not every law is applicable today and therefore they must be discussed and considered. Torah: A Modern Commentary, edited by W. Gunther Plaut (New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1981), is a publication from the Reform tradition that interprets and discusses the Torah material.

11. Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context by Brevard S. Childs (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986,), pages 128-132.

12. Richard B. Hays, in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume XI (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), page 329.

13. Wylan, The Seventy Faces of Torah, pages 73-74.

Read Full Post »

Yesterday, as I drove home from an errand, Finlandia came on the satellite radio station. I think I was in junior high when I first heard the hymn “This is My Song” (also the hymn “Be Still, My Soul”). I loved that hymn, and so I looked for an LP of Sibelius’ tone poem. But the piece had more turbulent, rat-a-tat-tat-tat music than I liked. I was expecting a peaceful meditation on that melody, similar to Borodin’s In the Steppes of Central Asia (or pieces which I’ve since discovered, like Vaughan Williams’  Five Variants on “Dives and Lazarus”  and Finzi’s Eclogue). To this day, I wish Finlandia had been written as an adagio. I’m also amused at myself for thinking this warhorse should’ve been written in a way personally pleasing to me.

As I thought about ways to turn this silly little observation into a blog post, I happened to read the essay “Cultural Betrayal” in Chuck Klosterman IV: A Decade of Curious People and Dangerous Ideas (New York: Scribner, 2007), pp. 283-287. I love Klosterman’s writing and used to follow his columns in the Akron Beacon-Journal. He discussed how prevalent and yet how foolish and even scary is the idea that you can feel “betrayed” by culture. His examples: one of his friends who felt betrayed by the marriage of Sarah Jessica Parker’s character in the last episode of Sex and the City. The friend was adamant. Klosterman also found scary the notion of values “winning,” like the words of another writer who was happy “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was on the radio because the writer’s values were now “winning.” “[W]hat I have slowly come to realize,” writes Klosterman, “is that most people think this way all the time. They don’t merely want to hold their values; they want their values to win. And I suspect this is why people so often feel “betrayed” by art and consumerism, and by the way the world works” (p. 285; emphasis in text).

I found Klosterman’s idea of “cultural betrayal” intriguing–and it definitely explains a lot about human nature! It’s one reason why people debate so vigorously over issues like the suitability of the conclusions of  The Sopranos and Lost, or whether certain artists like Liz Phair and Amy Grant let their fans down when their styles change or when they don’t “top” a superior album.

We church people definitely fall into this kind of thinking. Sometimes we prefer a certain kind of style of music and, because we like it and find it spiritually helpful, we think everyone should. But lots of hurt feelings and divisions have happened in churches because of that. Similarly, some folks attend certain popular spiritual retreats, and when they return to church they perceive that other people aren’t as pumped up spiritually as they feel. So they start to dismiss other Christians as “not spiritual,” and sometimes they leave the church or demand that their values “win” in that congregation. I wanted to throw my hymnal at a fellow who had attended an Emmaus walk and declared Christians should only listen to contemporary Christian music.

It’s too bad we’re this way. When my former pastor took another church position, I bought him a farewell gift, a 10-CD set of 1970s popular hits.  I knew he loved the music of that decade.  I never enjoyed a lot of 70s music, which reminds me of lonely times. I love 80s music. But I’m happy that he’s happy listening to Average White Band, Donna Summer, Jim Croce, Abba, Pure Prairie League, and Firefall, while in my own car I’m cranking up Mr. Mister, Spandau Ballet, Kate Bush, the Bangles, Bananarama, and the Thompson Twins. It would be sad if either of our tastes “prevailed.”

And yet… I was so excited when Sophie B. Hawkins began to get significant airplay in the mid 1990s; finally the public appreciated music that I liked!…. Human nature strikes again.

“Cultural betrayal” explains a lot about how some people perceive certain social, political and economic questions, too. That’s a whole ‘nother topic to explore!

Read Full Post »

This past year I was hired to write lessons for the project Faithful Citizen: Living Responsibly in a Global Society, which is part of a forthcoming DVD-based curriculum from the Center for the Congregation in Public Life, Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School. The Center created the lesson formats, outline, and basic approach, and I built upon that foundation, with resources and input from the Center.

I hope anyone who may read this blog post and find these ideas interesting will look for the curriculum once it’s available later this year. Continue to check at the website http://www.congregationinpubliclife.org/DVDCurriculum.htm.

The Faithful Citizen designers and writers hope to offer a corrective to the individualism that often characterizes both our religious faith and political opinions. At the heart of the curriculum are two works, Robert Bellah and his fellow authors’ Habits of the Heart and especially Eric Mount’s Covenant, Community, and the Common Good: An Interpretation of Christian Ethics. Bellah and his fellow authors note that Americans tend to think of religion, not only in terms of institutional religion but also as a private, individual concern. A personal approach to God and faith reveals the “freedom, openness, and pluralism of American religious life” but neglects the fact that our relationship with God “is mediated by a whole pattern of community life.”(1)

Eric Mount, who is influenced by Bellah, stresses aspects of American religious life reflected in his book’s title. Americans have always had a twofold drive: individual well-being and success, and a desire for the common good (2). While Americans are indebted to the individualistic tradition of John Locke that affirms the rights of people to life, liberty, and economic and personal well-being, we are also indebted to a more covenantal and community-oriented concern for the common good.(3) Mount quotes H. Richard Niebuhr, “Covenant [in early American thinking] was the binding together in one body politic of persons who assumed through unlimited promise responsibility to and for each other and for the common laws, under God.” Becoming a member of that society was not granted at birth, but (Niebuhr continues) was “always the moral act of taking upon oneself, through promise, the responsibilities of citizenship that bound itself in the very exercise of its freedom.”(4) Such a framework of mutual obligation in turns provides the underpinnings of public discourse and mutual responsibilities within the communities in which we live, as well as a focus upon the common good.

Throughout his book, Mount provides much discussion and material for thinking about how the church can help society regain a sense of community, and to help shape “the common life” of our society and the social “common good.” The nature of the common good will always be debated—for instance, how much should the government ensure people’s well-being and when should the government stay out of people’s lives.(5) But the church can season these debates with its example of service and its own debates about crucial issues. Mount emphasizes the theme of “better stories” (Robert Reich’s term) that narrative our commonality–and our sense of being “in this together”–rather than our individualism and our “us v. them” attitudes. (6)

Mount believes the church can be faithful to its own Gospel message while also being respectful of pluralism and diversity. “My own contention,” argues Mount, “is that those of us in religious communities should endeavor to interpret and shape the common life on the basis of our theological convictions, but that we should do so confessionally, not apologetically, as [Max] Stackhouse does [in his writings].” Mount writes, “[T]here is too much damage done when a particular theology is implemented as the reigning ideology of societies,” since after all, “[t]here is enough religious pluralism in our own land and in the global community to make one hope that we can discover some commonly affirmed civic virtues from a variety of stories sources, including our American political tradition, and even some reiterative universal norms through dialogue, without promulgating one’s theology’s norms as universal directives.”(7)

The following thoughts are partly “outtakes” from that projects, and partly my own, informal studies concerning the issues Mount has raised.

Mount’s emphasis upon the church’s confessional faithfulness, as well as the power of the church’s “telling its story,” reminded me of two books: Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon’s Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony and its sequel, Where Resident Aliens Live. I thought of these books, which garnered discussion several years ago, because they also take a confessional and narrative approach to the work of the church, but in a different way than Mount.

Hauerwas and Willimon criticize Enlightenment individualism for, among other things, giving us “not self-freedom but self-centeredness, loneliness, superficiality, and harried consumerism”(8) Their alternative is to think of the church as a “colony,” not in the sense of a centered place but as a people together on a journey with God, whose identity is shaped by Christian practices.(9) Being true to God means being a “community of the cross”(10) which speaks the truth to the world about hard realities; the church has the courage to do so because, as such a community, it is “a visible body of people who know the cost of discipleship and are willing to pay.”(11)

This, the authors, believe, is a faithful alternative to the liberal-conservative distinction. “The church is the visible, political enactment of our language of God by a people who can name their sin and accept God’s forgiveness and are thereby enabled to speak the truth in love.”(12) Thus “the political task of Christians is to be the church rather than to transform the world, because the way we understand concepts like peace and justice at all is through the Gospel of Christ.(13) To say it another way, the church’s proper role in society is truth-telling: to preach to the world (and to witness through Christian practices, including service) that the world is without God.

I appreciate many of the authors’ ideas about the identity of the church as a group of people called, shaped, and gathered as God’s people under the Cross, and many of their criticisms of contemporary society and Enlightenment individualism are apropos. The Vietnam War haunts the authors’ works as one example among several where citizens were lied to, and horrors committed, in the name of national interests. Though not in the text, that hippy-era term, “The Machine,” kept coming to mind as I read the authors’ many criticisms of modernity and American nationalism. For the authors, the church is certainly a political voice, in that era and our own. But rather than being liberal or conservative, the church’s political voice points to the hope of God. The authors also take a stand against a kind of country-clubbishness that most certainly characterize both liberal and conservative congregations. Likewise, they raise strong issues of ministerial identity that we pastors must consider if we are being appropriately (and bravely) countercultural in our work, rather than simply people-helpers.

I also appreciate Hauerwas’ and Willimon’s concerns about the subtlety by which cultural values and Enlightenment individualism can become dangerously mixed up with, and undermine some biblical models of discipleship, and how Christian, family, and American values become undifferentiated in people’s minds.

The authors’ rejections of modernity and Enlightenment individualism give the books a negative tone that makes one think, What are the benefits and blessings of both Enlightenment individualism and our representative democracy? What are the reasons we should be sensitive to pluralism, the culture, and the common good? Aren’t we all heirs to and inescapable participants in modernity and Enlightenment individualism, including the authors (a topic they address in chapter 1 of the sequel book)?

The rejection of modernity is combined with comparatively fewer specific ideas about how we can achieve, in the midst of modernity, the faithful church they envision, especially as thoroughly “accommodationist” as they find the contemporary church. To be fair to the authors, this is a very difficult challenge: to develop a practical “road map” of specific changes to the church.  How can the church even find sufficient unanimity on issues in order to “tell the truth” to culture?  (It seems self-evident to Hauerwas that the church should be pacifist, for instance.)  Until the day dawns that the church can actually be a disciplined alternative culture, we must struggle to be faithful as a church, including faithfulness in truth-telling.

The authors are also given to bold statement, presumably to provoke thought. Is public theology only a way to “underwrite American democracy”?(14) Similarly “the first enemy of the family is the church.”(15) I know what they mean by that statement, but a scripture like 1 Timothy 3:4-5, interpreted from its first or second century context, reminds us that family health and church health are not mutually exclusive.

In another example, the authors write that “Christians must be very suspicious of talk about community,” citing the fact that people find a way out of loneliness through “togetherness based on common tastes, racial or ethnic traits, or mutual self-interest… Christian community … is not primarily about togetherness. It is about the way of Jesus Christ with those whom he calls to himself. It is about discipline our wants and needs in congruence with a true story, which gives us the resources to lead truthful lives.” (16)

Again, I understand their point while regretting the one-sidedness. I miss the compassionate and nuanced ideas about church, society, and community that I find in Eric Mount’s book, where one can find both sharp criticisms of the church and society, and positive ideas about how the church can support families, community, and the common good.(17)

The term “resident alien” itself is a vivid and scriptural expression but not the only possibility, as I learned from another book, one to which the Center alerted me: Dennis McCann’s and Patrick Miller’s In Search of the Common Good. Victor Paul Furnish’s article therein addresses New Testament texts about community and the common good.(18) He notes that Paul does not use an alternate word like paroikoi (“resident aliens”) or parepidê moi (“transients”) to refer to Christians, and in fact does not use those terms elsewhere in his letters, although we do find them in 1 Peter 2:11 and Heb. 11:13(19). Instead, Furnish provides several Pauline texts that support a concern for the common good. Passages like 2 Cor. 5:19, 1 Cor. 15:22, and Rom. 5:18 point to an inclusiveness of God’s saving purpose. Furthermore, he argues, Paul does not call Christians “to withdraw from society but to live out their faith within it,” as in for instance 1 Cor. 5:10 and 7:24). In Philippians 1:27-28, Paul uses the word politeuesthai, meaning “to be, or to live as a citizen.” Since Paul does not elsewhere use this word, Furnish maintains that Paul is advising his people to be “upstanding citizens” as they live as Christians in a Roman society. Furnish finds other scriptures, including Philippians 4:5a (“Let your gentleness be known to all people”), Philippians 4:8-9 (a list of virtues that imply public conduct), Galatians 6:9-10 (an admonition to do good for all at every possible opportunity), Romans 12:14-21 (ways to live peacefully with all people), and Romans 13:1-78 (being good citizens).

Furnish clarifies that his study “does not allow us to conclude that Paul every specifically encouraged his congregations to participate in public conversation about the common good, or even that the ’common good’ was, as such, a Pauline topic. This is the dilemma faced by Hauerwas and Willimon: what are the practical solutions and activities that can arise from these ideas? Furnish does suggest, however, that what the apostle declared about the uncommon love of God redemptively enacted in Jesus Christ nourishes a concern for the common good and opens the way for Christian participation in the public conversation about it.”(20)

Regarding churches and families, I looked through my library for another book, by my friend Joyce Ann Mercer, Welcoming Children. I appreciated a complementary but (to me) more constructive and nuanced discussion of families and faith. She is also concerned with identity formation in, as well as the countercultural function of the contemporary church. Instead of declaring that “the first enemy of the family is the church,” Mercer shows ways of mutual contribution between families and religious communities. For instance, she notes that children learn faith “by being formed as an identity through which she construes and negotiates meaning religiously.” Parenting is a religious practice because children are gifts of God, and training children religiously is a “practice of stewardship.” She argues that families and churches don’t always have suitable educational tools for identity-formation: e.g., programs of Christian education can be simply the accumulation and integration of information, applied at developmentally appropriate times.(21) Instead, Mercer argues that learning is “the process of meaning-making” which is also “central in situating a person’s identity.”(22) When children learn in a community of faith (i.e., a community of Christian practice), the learning process “means being formed in a counterculture, gaining an anti-imperial identity in which practices of love, justice, hospitality, and compassion replace practices of oppression, excessive accumulation at the expense of others, and abuses of power”(23)

Mercer notes that identity, formation, and community do have problems, such as the reduced freedom in determining community membership and the imposition of identities. Congregations are not always the kinds of settings that are able to help create identities, having qualities more like typical service organizations than what she could call counter-cultural and anti-imperial processes of discipleship- and identity-formation. She also identifies the homophobia, sexism, and racisms that exist in congregations might become part of identity formation and therefore become “negative formation.” Consequently, identity formation is always a “ ‘compromise maneuver’ between ideals and actualities.”(24)

Mercer also stresses that parenting programs associated with conservative Christianity’s stress upon “family values” do not always address the breakdown of interpersonal connections in the wake of consumerism and globalization, and also do not address today’s variety of family configurations.(25) Altogether, we must always take care to call upon the Spirit to guide his fallible church.(26)

I’m not implying that Mercer presents her ideas in contrast to Hauerwas and Willimon, who are not referenced in her work. I’m simply saying that I personally find her book very helpful and encouraging after I read Resident Aliens and its sequel.

And…. after reading through these other texts, I was lead to another book on my shelves (a recent purchase that I’d not yet read). The popular author Brian D. McLaren combines the confessional stance with a missional, socially-active model of the church in his recent book, Brian McLaren’s Everything Must Change, which has a broad vision of the possibilities of Christian compassion to address world issues.

Using themes of social criticism and ecology, he writes, “If we disbelieve the dominant societal system, and if we transfer our trust from its covert curriculum and framing story to the good news of Jesus, a radical and transforming hope begins to happen to us. Just as a fearful vision reshapes the world according to that which it fears the hopeful vision of the kingdom of God will surely begin to reshape our world in its hopeful image. We could say that a hopeful change in our ‘inner ecology’ will inevitably manifest itself in a hopeful change in our global ecology.”(27)

One of the several calls to action resulting from Jesus’ call is community action. He describes different calls to action that result from Jesus’ invitation to live by his teachings. Churches won’t be “domesticated by the dominant system” but will center worship and activities upon “Jesus’ revolutionary message of the kingdom.” One is public action, evidenced by people like Dr. King and Desmond Tutu. Still another call is global action,” where “personal, community, and public actions are integrated in synergizing ways.” Global action has a powerful scripture in Matthew 17:14-20, where Jesus promises that amazing things can happen as a result of very simple faith.(28)

Once again, the challenge is to find concrete responses, in this cause, where to place one’s simple faith to work in God’s world. The temptation of theological reflection on social issues is to confuse your actions with God’s: as if you can’t be saved unless you try to “save the world.”

While I was working through these several books and issues, I attended a religious conference and saw, among the numerous books for sale, Walter Brueggemann’s new book Journey to the Common Good, I snatched it right up. (Yes, I also paid for it….)

Brueggemann’s arguments are fascinating. Here are just a few, which I’ll share in case others are as interested in these ideas. Brueggemann notes that we find two kinds of “social ethic” in the Exodus-Sinai tradition. One is certainly a very radical kind of social ethic that includes the cancellation of the debts of the poor after seven years, thus eliminating a “permanent underclass” (Deut. 15:1-18), no interest on loans to members of the community (Deut. 23:19-20), no collateral on loans to the poor (Deut. 24:10-13), no withholding of wages to the poor (Deut. 24:14-15), hospitality to runaway slaves (Deut. 23:15-16), ongoing provision for the poor and needy (Deut. 24:19-22), and justice for orphans and resident aliens (Deut. 24:17-18).(29)

Brueggemann says, “The tradition of Deuteronomy intends to resituate the economy of Israel into the fabric of the neighborhood…the economy is [not] a freestanding autonomous system; it is, rather, checked and measured at every turn by the reality of the neighborhood.” Furthermore (as he echoes philosopher Michael Walzer), God is providing a permanent way out of “Egypt” via these justice-oriented, common good-oriented commandments.(30)

But he notes that the other “social ethic” (or rather, counter narrative) in this tradition is that of holiness, which offered “degrees of eligibility” based on purification rites, access to the most sacred places of the Temple, and eventually of the monarchy at Jerusalem and the lack of national justice criticized by the prophets.(31) Brueggemann says that the triad “wisdom, might, and wealth,” which characterized the reign of Solomon and eventually spelled the downfall of the nation, is characteristic of “the U.S. national security state.” But that triad, he argues, is expressed “as consumer entitlement in which liberals and conservatives together take for granted our privileged status as the world as God’s most recently chosen people.”(32) “It remains to be seen how the church can fashion an intentional alternative to the national security state, which is itself a path to death. The critical edge of faith requires us to ask if a national security state can be impinged upon and transformed by strands of neighborly commitment that lie deep in our national history,” he says, citing The Broken Covenant by Robert Bellah et al. (33).

What shape will that neighborly commitment take? For Hauerwas and Willimon, neighborly commitment would entail Christian truth-telling to the world as well as growth as a people of God through discipleship practices. Their vision seems to be close to the holiness-as-separation traditions of the Bible, where the common good is serviced by the people’s faithfulness to the truth. On the other hand, Brueggemann’s notion of the church as “an intentional alternative to the national security state” makes one think of Hauerwas’ and Willimon’s discussions of the church as an alternative culture, as well as Mercer’s vision of the church as an “anti-imperial” community of faith for “identity formation.” The church can be both an alternative to culture, and a force for the social common good.

As I quoted earlier from Habits of the Hearts, our relationship with God “is mediated by a whole pattern of community life.” I think this is an exciting insight, because it affirms our everyday responsibilities of neighborliness and citizenship within our communities and also calls us to bring God’s truth to the world through our words and actions.  


1. Robert N. Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, Steven M. Tipton, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 227.

2. Eric Mount, Jr. Covenant, Community, and the Common Good: An Interpretation of Christian Ethics (Cleveland, OH: The Pilgrim Press, 1999), 3.

3. Eric Mount, “Covenant, Community, and The Common Good: A Tale of Two Americas,” Church & Society, May/June 2005, 47-48.

4. H. Richard Niebuhr’s 1953 address, “The Idea of Covenant and American Democracy,” quoted in Mount, Covenant, Community, and the Common Good, 10-11.

5. Eric Mount, “The Common Good: It Takes a Community,” Public lecture at Davidson College, fall 2003; Mount, “A Tale of Two Americas,” 47-48.

6. Robert Reich’s four “morality tales” are the Mob at the Gates, the Triumphant Individual, the Benevolent Community, and the Rot at the Top. All are essentially us vs. them “tales.” In the first tale, the mob are welfare recipients, illegal immigrants or any other group that threaten the common good and therefore must be dealt with. In the second tail, people are ultimately responsible for their own success and so the common good is best achieved when people are left alone to make their own lives. In the third tale, society and specifically the government has a responsibility to step in and help groups that are struggling, such as the poor who could benefit from relief programs. In the fourth tale, the common good is threatened by the powerful, whether they are the rich or the government, and therefore we need smaller government or a redistribution or wealth, or other solutions. See Mount, Covenant, Community, and the Common Good, 98-102, and Mount, “A Tale of Two Americas,” 43-45.

7. Mount, Covenant, Community, and the Common Good, 155, 156.

8. Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989), 50.

9. Ibid., 50-53.

10. Ibid., 47.

11. Ibid., 157.

12. Ibid., 171.

13. Ibid., 38.

14. Ibid., 32

15. Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Where Resident Aliens Live: Exercises for Christian Practice (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 90.

16. Hauerwas and Willimon, Resident Aliens, 78.

17. Mount, 2.

18. Victor Paul Furnish, “Uncommon Love and the Common Good: Christians as Citizens in the Letters of Paul,” in Dennis P. McCann and Patrick D. Miller, eds., In Search of the Common Good (New York: T & T Clark , 2005), 58-87. Also very helpful for a biblical understanding of the common good is (in that same volume, the article by Jacqueline Lapsley, “‘When Mercy Seasons Justice’: Jonah and the Common Good,” 41-57.

19. Furnish, “Uncommon Love,” 67-68.

20. Furnish, “Uncommon Love,” 83.

21. Joyce Ann Mercer, Welcoming Children: A Practice Theology of Childhood (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2005), 245, 163.

22. Ibid., 167.

23. Ibid., 168.

24. Ibid., 172, 173.

25. Ibid, 245-250.

26. Ibid., 180.

 27. Brian D. McLaren, Everything Must Change: When the World’s Biggest Problems and Jesus’ Good News Collide (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007), 294.

28. Ibid., 294, 300.

 29. Walter Brueggeman, Journey to the Common Good (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010), 39-40.

30. Ibid., 41, 43

31. Ibid., 44

32. Ibid., 68

33. Ibid., 68

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »