Four for Friday… is back

It has been several weeks since I’ve done one of these. There was music overload (as if that’s possible) there at the end of December, so I’m guessing you’ve appreciated the break. But now, back to business.

Teen Daze – Let’s Groove // This is a re-working of a classic from Earth, Wind & Fire.

Sleigh Bells – Comeback Kid // Sleigh Bells is back and I believe they have an album coming out sometime soon.

Boy & Bear – Part-Time Believer // “I hope you know how lucky you are.”

Taylor Swift & The Civil Wars – Safe and Sound // Love me some Civil Wars. Taylor Swift I can tolerate. This song is somehow connected to The Hunger Games movie coming out soon.


The Barr Brothers – Beggar in the Morning // That these folks got left off my end of year wrap-up is inexcusable. There is such a flurry of activity in putting those collections together that I’m often not in my right mind. This is better than most of the stuff that managed to find its way on there. Here they are bringing it on Letterman.

not alone

Both of you who regularly read my blog know that the church I attend is actively engaged in working towards a Gospel-centered vision of racial reconciliation and unity. This has been a long, challenging, but deeply rewarding process for us. We are far from having it “right,” but slowly we are seeing good things happen.

One of the difficulties in this journey comes when we look around and see so few like-minded travelers. So it can be refreshing to come across a story that reminds me that we are not alone.

It was the Fall of ‘93, deep in the buckle of the Bible Belt. I was a high school student in Junction City, Arkansas. An evangelist had come to our church and encouraged us to invite as many students as possible to come hear the gospel. Although I suspected that it might cause trouble, I invited the entire football team. We arrived at the church only to be met by a couple of deacons banning the African American students from entering the sanctuary. Soon the pastor came to our aid and insisted that my friends were indeed (ahem) “welcome.” In response, one deacon ran to his truck but yelled that he was coming right back—with a shotgun.

This is the first paragraph of a longer reflection entitled “Grace Over Race.” The blog belongs to Eternity Bible College, but the story belongs to Joey Dodson (an Arkansan, no less).

all of God’s children?

In the South, the conversation around race is almost exclusively framed in terms of Blacks and Whites. Given the history here, it is understandable why that might be the case. In no way would I ever want to minimize the discrimination that African-Americans have endured (and continue to endure) here in the Deep South. Little Rock in particular has an ugly history of which most of the country is probably aware.

Yet there is another ugly episode in United States (and Arkansas) history that often gets overlooked in conversations centered on racism. From 1942 to 1946, Japanese Relocation Centers (Internment Camps) were used to “house” over 100,000 Japanese-Americans, most of whom were American citizens. These internment camps were located in various states west of the Mississippi.

Two such Relocation Centers, Jerome and Rohwer, were located in southeast Arkansas.

The war-time status is sometimes cited as justification for the necessity of the internment. However, as always seems to be the case with racism, the underlying issues of power and money were just below the surface. An investigation as recent as 2011, uncovered suppressed evidence that would have helped repudiate the idea that Japanese-Americans were a threat to national security. Something most everyone already knew to be untrue.

It wasn’t until 1988, during the Reagan administration, that a formal apology was issued by the United States government.

I’m sort of a novice when it comes to understanding the reasons why Asian-American discrimination isn’t as widely recognized in our country. My guess is it has something to do with the perceived “success” of Asian-Americans living here. More likely it has something to do with Asians being viewed as a lesser threat to the majority way of life. If and when the majority group does feel threatened, then predictable racist responses can be expected.

Regardless of how well-intentioned our efforts are, as long as the conversation about racial inequality centers exclusively on the white-black divide, then other races are marginalized. It is sad to think that even in our attempts to address racial inequality, we can unknowingly perpetuate it.

Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.

audible sacraments

Quick one here. Finishing up with a final helpful thought from Scripture and the Authority of God by N.T. Wright. In his discussion of preaching the Word, he describes sermons as “audible sacraments.” And as an Anglican bishop, he is someone who doesn’t throw the “s” word around lightly. So here we go…

[Sermons] are not simply for the conveying of information, though that is important in a world increasingly ignorant of some of the most basic biblical and theological information. They are not simply for exhortation, still less for entertainment. They are suppose to be one of the moments in regular Christian living when heaven and earth meet.

Not sure anyone would ever describe my preaching as the meeting place of heaven and earth, but holding out that hope for my teaching ministry (or anyone’s) seems like a worthwhile goal.

Father, Son, and the Holy… Bible?

Ok, so enough of semi-controversial YouTube videos. Time to get that flame inducing garbage off the top of the stack and get back to my bread-and-butter, boring reflections on biblical interpretation. So let’s turn to the non-controversial subject of inerrancy.

There are numerous ways of viewing the Scriptures that seem to get things a little out of whack. Some views are too high and make claims about the book that it doesn’t claim for itself. Others are of the opinion that it is a book no more inspired than any other great great literary work. And still others who wouldn’t even give it that much credit.

As you might guess, true to my father’s Buddhist roots, I hold something of a Middle Way. I trust the Scriptures and hold what I think many would call a high view of Scripture. I read it, study it, memorize it, attempt to live it, teach it, and so for some it might appear that I border on bibliolatry.

I do consider myself to be an inerrantist, but I’m pretty sure my definition of inerrancy would be so unrecognizable to those who are proper biblical inerrantists that I would be excluded from the club. So as with most things religious (I’m going to start using this word to describe myself more, heh), I guess it all depends on who is doing the defining. My belief in God’s inspiration of the Word is going to be too high for some, but it is probably deemed too low for others.

Almost time to cue N.T.

Over the years, I’ve grown less concerned with the actual mechanics of inspiration, and more concerned with the role the Scriptures are meant to have in the life of the church and world. Wright’s book on the Bible, Scripture and the Authority of God, helps to clarify a host of issues surrounding our understanding of the text. And in typical Wright-ian fashion, he puts forth something that is somehow ontologically lower, but effectually higher than your typical Bible believer. You get a little of that here…

The apostolic writings, like the ‘word’ which they now wrote down, were not simply about the coming of God’s Kingdom into all the world; they were, and were designed to be, part of the means whereby that happened, and whereby those through whom it happened could themselves be transformed into Christ’s likeness.

This way of understanding Scripture gives full weight to the importance of proclaiming the Word. Without getting mired in sticky debates about whether it is “true” or not, one can still hold to the legitimate belief that Scripture is one of the primary means by which God reveals himself to the world in a powerful way.

As the following quote suggests, recognizing that the proclamation of  the Bible (or even simply reading it aloud) as a powerful means of calling God’s purposes into being is about as high a view of Scripture as one can hold…

The creator God, though utterly transcendent over and different from the world he has made, remains present and active within that world, and one of the many ways in which this is so is through his living and active word. This reflects God’s own nature on the one hand; it is a natural and normal thing for this God to speak, not some anthropomorphic projection onto a blank deistic screen! On the other hand, it reflects the fact that, within God’s world, one of the most powerful things human beings, God’s image-bearers can do is to speak. Words change things – through promises, commands, apologies, warnings, declarations of love or of implacable opposition to evil. The notion of ‘speech-acts,’ which we referred to already, is fairly new in philosophy. It would not have surprised the ancient Israelite prophets.

Words change things. How much more so when they are the very words of God?

Should Have Kept My Mouth Shut (aka Thoughts on “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus”)

This is a “lightly” edited version of a post I did when this video first came out. I’m kind of a jerk, but usually I try to hide it a little better. If you are feeling cheated because I’ve toned down the rhetoric, then that probably says as much about you as it does me. If you think I haven’t toned it down enough, then get a life… Like I said, I’m a jerk.

At the end of the day, I wouldn’t want anyone fine-tooth combing my teaching. But when I get things wrong, I really would love for someone to care enough to engage me over it. 

So maybe you’ve seen this video that has gone viral on YouTube in the past couple days…

Not really sure what to say. Probably saying nothing would have been the best thing. I really don’t like to criticize people. Especially a person so obviously sincere in their efforts to promote Christ. Honestly, there are dozens of things that I find more interesting that I could spend a few minutes commenting on. However, due to the wildly popular response to this video, my “religion” compels me to make a couple observations.

Before I wade into the mess, let me go ahead and get my proverbial cards on the table.

1) I’m obviously part of the “religion” problem of which he speaks. I am a pastor. I work at a church. And while I consider my church to be as counter-cultural a church as one might find, others who are more-so will obviously beg to differ. Therefore, my role as a “religion” peddler will make my response predictable and easy to dismiss.

2) I am also a cynic-realist-devil’s-advocate. I’ve fought the label for years, but to no avail. It is in my DNA. If this guy had come preaching the virtues of organized religion then I would have poked holes in it too. It doesn’t make my cynicism a good thing, but Jesus loves me anyway… right? But who are we kidding? The chances of someone promoting organized religion these days is as likely as someone advocating a diet rich in saturated fats. Oh wait.

3) While it might appear that I’m leveling a critique of this fella, I’m really far more concerned with what the uncritical imbibing of this sort of thing says about the state of Evangelical Christianity in our country. We have a problem, but it ain’t religion. It is our obsessive need to define insiders and outsiders – people who get it, and people who don’t – and as will become clear soon enough, I think the kind of thing going on in this video is as much the problem as it is the solution.

So where to start? Maybe it would be helpful to point out some of the really admirable things about what’s going on here.

To all my friends that I really do value and care about, I know why you like this video. There is lots to like. I like the heart of what he’s trying to do here. I dislike religiosity as much as the next guy and gal. He’s dead on in his Jesus-like critique of white-washed tombs. I would simply like to encourage pushing back just a little.

This guy seems to be a sincere Jesus-lover. He obviously “feels” strongly about the gospel he’s promoting, so what’s not to like about that? To say anything against a person’s “authentic religious experience” these days is tantamount to aligning oneself with the Spanish Inquisition. At any rate, his passion is admirable.

Great production quality. Really beautiful location. Solid filming and editing. Creative and compelling material. I’m not trying to be in the least bit sarcastic. Really great job on all that.

Again, as far as content is concerned, so much with which to agree! Who wouldn’t love to see the church taking a greater interest in the plight of the poor and oppressed. “Why does it build huge churches? But fail to feed the poor? Tell single moms God doesn’t love them if they have ever had a divorce?” Let’s make no mistake about it, all that is truly crappy stuff. When any church is more concerned with self-preservation than the world that Jesus came to redeem, it upsets me too. But probably not upset enough to make a really cool video.

“The problem with religion is that it never gets to the core?” Once again, agreed. Certain forms of Christian faith and practice are far more concerned with externals than what is happening in the heart. Yet, my experience has been that these sorts of groups tend to be more on the fringe and don’t represent the “average” Jesus-loving church-goer.

Ok, now let’s break it down a little more.

“But if grace is water, the church should be an ocean.” Isn’t there some catchy Christian worship song that used those lyrics already? “If grace is an ocean, we’re all sinking.” Borderline plagiarism aside, it is the strange juxtaposition of strong statements about “grace” immediately after some equally strong condemnations of people’s behavior on Facebook and what they do on the weekends.

“Not a museum for good people, but a hospital for the broken.” I may be mistaken, but I’m of the opinion that the vast majority of people who go to church recognize they are broken. Even at really “religious” churches, I would want to extend people the benefit of the doubt and assume the best about them. I know I’m a cynic, but I sort of think people are people, and I don’t want make the mistake of too quickly jumping to the conclusion that they are self-righteous. And if I did, wouldn’t that make me the arrogant one?

“He looked down at me and said I want that man.” / “While he was dangling on that Cross, he was thinking of you.” He’s saying things that get thrown around pretty routinely in American evangelical churches, and while I think they are true I think it too strongly promotes a way of framing Christianity that is more about “me” and less about Him.

“Jesus and religion are on opposite spectrums.” In line with the rest of the poem, this is another either-or, false dichotomy. I guess that is to be expected, the entire format is “not this, but that.” However, in lambasting the provincialism of conservative American evangelical Christianity, he sets up his own tribunal of “right” belief/practice… which is, of course, a religion.

Alrighty, I’ve sort of positioned myself as the ultimate religious gatekeeper here. I can take a punch. I could have and should have kept my big mouth shut, but I didn’t.

Have at me.

approaching the word

In a couple weeks, our church is starting a new series of messages in which we are planning to preach through the whole Bible. Ambitious, I know.

How much time would you guess we have given ourselves to complete this little project?

Ten years? Three years? One year?

How about a little over three months? Ok, so what sounded “ambitious” now sounds plain dumb. Obviously, we aren’t planning to cover every single verse. We’ll be skipping whole chapters. Most of our favorite Bible stories will remain untold. No Joseph and his colorful coat. No Samson. No David and Goliath or Bathsheba (why do we love that story so much). In fact, whole books are going to be left untouched. Leviticus, Ruth, Esther, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, most of the prophets, to name a few.

So where do we get the nerve to think that we are preaching through the Bible in any meaningful way? Well, if preaching through the Bible means detailed analysis of every single verse, then we are going to fail… epically so. No, our aim is something paradoxically less and more.

Our intent and hope is that we would know the story of the Bible. The overall flow. The narrative of God.

Not just our favorite stories. Not the Ten Commandments. Nor Psalm 23, the Lord’s prayer, and John 3:16.

Think more forest and less trees.

The truth is that people are better equipped to explain what the Harry Potter series is about than what the Bible is about. There are reasons for that being the case, and I’m not going to take the time to delve into all that. But needless to say, we think that becoming familiar with the grand narrative of God’s activity in human history is a worthwhile use of our time on Sunday mornings. Not just for pastors, but for everyone who would seek to faithfully live out that story.

I’m all for sustained rigorous systematic study of the Scriptures. I’ve given a good chunk of my life to it, and I think probably more people should than do. But we are talking about knowing and living the story of God faithfully in our age. It would be possible to commit ourselves to knowing the details of God’s word and miss the point of what Scripture is about and for in the first place.

So with a series of messages looming large on the horizon, I’ve been thinking (again) about how we engage the Scriptures and how they are meant to function in our lives. Really, this whole post has been just a lengthy introduction to some insights from a certain familiar British New Testament scholar. A few months ago, I read his book entitled Scripture and the Authority of God, and I was reminded of a couple things he had to say.

We read scripture in order to be refreshed in our memory and understanding of the story within which we ourselves are actors, to be reminded where it has come from and where it is going to, and hence what our own part within it ought to be.

I had a few more quotes from the book, but as is my custom I’m going to string this out over the next few days.

a diseased picture of God

A while back, I came across a review Ben Myers did of Rob Bell’s Love Wins. The review is perhaps more generous than I might have been, but it is worth reading.

What really stood out was his clear and succinct rationale for doing good theology as opposed to “bad.” As one who believes that theology is of first order importance, I share with you part of what Myers had to say…

There’s nothing trivial about bad theology. A diseased picture of God will inevitably produce symptoms in our thoughts and feelings, in the way we live and relate to each other, in our whole way of looking at the world. Family life, sexual life, friendship, work, leisure, creativity: all these parts of our experience are deeply shaped by the way we think about God. I often meet people who are still nursing wounds from the theology they imbibed as young children, people who are recovering from the worship of a bad god.

Best Christian Books?

Happy new year!

Apparently, it is our last. Bummer.

End of the world or not, I’ll be reading some books in the coming year. I imagine you will as well.

In an effort to ease my way back into the occasional book post around here, I wanted to kick around a couple of thoughts.

A friend recently asked me what books I would put in the “must read” category for every serious Christian. This is a difficult endeavor for me because there is a ton that goes into recommending a book (much less a list of books) to someone. But I’m going to give it a go.

In no particular order…

Augustine – Confessions // Can’t overstate how important this 4th/5th century guy was for the shaping of our understanding of Christianity.

C.S. Lewis – Mere Christianity // This book was pivotal for helping me (and countless others) come to terms with faith in Christ.

John Stott – Basic Christianity // Ditto above.

Richard Foster – The Celebration of Discipline // Want to grow? This one rings as true as when it was written.

John Piper – Desiring God // If you want to understand the thinking of one of most influential Christian leaders in America today, this is the book to dive into.

Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart – How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth // This book stands unrivaled in the way it combines clarity, insight and usefulness. The things you’ll learn about biblical interpretation from this book will stick with you years after you’ve set it down.

Jonathan Edwards – Religious Affections // Most important American theologian… ever.

Karl Barth – Evangelical Theology // I don’t know if this is a bigger indictment on the irrelevance of theology or the anti-intellectualism of the church, but it is certainly a sign of our times that the most influential theologian of the 20th century is virtually unknown in the church.

John Bunyan – Pilgrim’s Progress // True confession… I’ve never read this.

Dallas Willard – The Divine Conspiracy // Despite its cryptic title, this book is extraordinarily helpful in understanding what it means to be a Christ follower.

N.T. Wright – The Challenge of Jesus // While we are talking about Jesus, let’s make sure we aren’t just following a Jesus of our own making. This book helps to dere-construct a picture of Jesus against the backdrop of first-century Jewish expectation. By the way, just in case we’ve forgotten, Jesus was a first-century Jew.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer – The Cost of Discipleship // Must read. Period.

Ok, so this is the list tonight. Ask me tomorrow and it would undoubtedly look different.

One glaring issue… all the books are written by men, and with the the possible exception of Augustine, white men. I don’t want to probe the depths of what that means right now. So let’s just chalk it up to my own myopic reading patterns and call it a day.

Not sure who has stuck around after the half-year hiatus I found myself on, but I would love to hear any feedback.

Question on the table… What’s the most helpful Christian book you’ve ever read?