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?

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.

under every spreading tree

There’s some good in this world, and it’s worth fighting for.

Samwise Gamgee

Not all night skies are equally dark. At least once this summer, I had the privilege of seeing the night illuminated by a full moon that had less atmosphere and light pollution with which to contend. We were in the high mountains of Colorado and the moon looked as if we could simply reach out and take it for our own. Of course, those same skies can be so inky black that the saying “I can’t see my own hand in front of my face” is not just hyperbole but a reality.

The days can be dark as well. But the darkness of which I speak isn’t one dictated by the movements of celestial bodies. No, it is the much more oppressive darkness that has to do with the ebb and flow of evil in the world.

And some days are darker than others.

Am I alone in sometimes feeling that evil is getting the upper-hand in the world? Set aside (which is sadly all to easy to do) all the atrocities that happen on a global scale… genocide, world hunger, human trafficking, and so on. My guess is none of us has to search very far to find people whose lives are falling apart or being ripped apart by sin, brokenness, and evil. String enough of these stories together and it leaves one with the impression that that the Kingdom of God isn’t making much headway. There are times when the darkness so overwhelms that it can be difficult to join Samwise in seeing the “some good in the world.”

One of the reasons I’m a “not-so-closet” Calvinist is that I am pretty well sold on the doctrine of Total Depravity. Sadly, this theological tenet (as well as Calvinism in general) is woefully misunderstood. It doesn’t suggest that there is no good in the world… or in human beings. Rather, it only affirms that which we already intuitively know. That even our best attempts at “good” are tainted with self-interest, self-righteousness, and self-promotion.

All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away.

Isaiah 64:6

Yes, the days are evil. So is the world all around us. And as our old friend N.T. Wright reminded me recently…

The line between good and evil is never simply between “us” and “them.” The line between good and evil runs through each of us. (citing Alexandr Solzhenitsyn)

Never a truer word.

Speaking of Wright, he has written a brilliant book (he is apparently incapable of writing anything that isn’t) on the nature of evil and the way in which the Scriptures invite us to see God’s answer to the darkness around (and in) us.

One of the thing I appreciate about him is that he is both a realist and idealist at the same time, as the following two quotes should illustrate.

To be sure, it is humiliating to accept both the diagnosis and the cure. But, as our world demonstrates more and more obviously, when you pretend evil isn’t there you merely give it more space to operate; so perhaps it is time to look again at both the diagnosis and the cure which the evangelists offer.

Evil and the Justice of God, 90-91.

The New Testament invites us, then, to imagine a new world as a beautiful, healing community; to envisage it as a world vibrant with life and energy, incorruptible, beyond the reach of death and decay; to hold it in our mind’s eye as a world reborn, set free from the slavery of corruption, free to be truly what it was made to be.

Evil and the Justice of God, 118.

These great words (from an even better book) couldn’t have found their way into my life at a more opportune time.

Scripture and the Authority of God by N.T. Wright

I’m thinking of renaming the blog “Four for Friday,” because that’s about all I’m able to make time for these days. So I’m sneaking a quick one in just before Friday to try to maintain some blog-cred.

Another alternate name could be “N.T. Wright Fan-Boy,” since that’s about the only other thing I talk about around here. A friend of mine was reading Wright’s Scripture and the Authority of God and asked if I had read it. Much to both our surprise, I hadn’t. He said he was finding it challenging and would love hear my thoughts on it. Never needing much of any encouragement to read more Wright, I promptly ordered it and dove right in. As chance would have it, I finished it up this past weekend, a day or so before this same friend tied the knot.

As you might suspect, the book is good. Really good. Wright successfully (IMHO) navigates between the warring conservative and liberal advocates in the “Battle for the Bible.” One group of Christians argues for a kind of inerrancy that the Bible doesn’t really seem to affirm about itself. While the other group writes off the Bible simply a man-produced piece of literature and therefore no more authoritative than “Chicken Soup for the Soul” or “Harry Potter” or Oprah or whatever.

Or as Wright says it himself…

Much of what has been written about the Bible in the last two hundred years has either been following through the Enlightenment’s program, or reacting to it, or negotiating some kind of halfway house in between.

So many good thoughts and not really anytime to unpack them, so I’ll just fire away a few more memorable quotes and let the chips fall where they may.

On how the Word is authoritative…

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.

On role that “religious experience” should play in constructing truth…

We could put it like this. ‘Experience’ is what grows by itself in the garden. ‘Authority’ is what happens when the gardener wants to affirm the goodness of the genuine flowers and vegetables by uprooting the weeds in order to let beauty and fruitfulness triumph over chaos, thorns, and thistles. An over-authoritarian church, paying no attention to experience, solves the  problem by paving the garden with concrete. An over-experiential church solves the (real or imagined) problem of concrete (rigid and ‘judgmental’ forms of faith) by letting anything and everything grow unchecked, sometimes labeling concrete as ‘law’ and so celebrating any and every weed as ‘grace.’

Ok, there’s more – always more – but that’s enough to try and wrap one’s brain around for one day. Oh, one other thing. Scot McKnight also recently wrote a bit about the book. Lot’s more interaction over there.

See you tomorrow with some insanely great music in hand.

Always Wright

Don’t get flustered. I realize it is Friday (our very last according to some). I will be getting around to our beloved Four for Friday a little later today.

But first, I wanted to drop some wisdom on the reading masses. It is no secret that I have a man-crush on N.T. Wright. I don’t think he knows everything… but pretty close to it. Anyway as chance would have it, I came across two articles written by him. Both well worth reading.

The first is a piece he wrote on “The Rapture” nearly ten years ago that someone thought fitting to resurrect in light of our pending doom.

The second is a lengthier more recent article written on Bible translation. It seems that 2011 is going to be an interesting year in the world of Bible translations. The venerable King James Version is celebrating it’s 400th year anniversary. The NIV is getting a fresh update. And Wright himself is offering up his own translation of the New Testament. This article is well worth reading every word. I can’t begin to unpack every issue he touches on, but there are many. Here’s a taste…

Translations must be concerned with accuracy, but there are at least two sorts of accuracy. The first sort, which a good Lexicon will assist, is the technical accuracy of making sure that every possible nuance of every word, phrase, sentence and paragraph has been rendered into the new language.

But there is a second sort of accuracy, perhaps deeper than this: the accuracy of flavour and feel. It is possible, in translation as in life, to gain the whole world and lose your own soul – to render everything with a wooden, clunky, lifeless “accuracy” from which the one thing that really matters has somehow escaped, producing a gilded cage from which the precious bird has flown.

You really should read the whole article.

If any of this sparks an interest in getting more into the mind of one of the world’s foremost New Testament scholars, as always I recommend starting here

Readable and Insightful

So good. Really.

Alright folks, now time to crank out some Four for Friday. I will resist the urge to theme it around the end of the world.

Observing Lent in 2011?

A year ago, I was all geared up for Lent. I’m not entirely sure why, but for whatever reason, I was “feeling” it. The idea of celebrating Lent was sort of novel, and I was gung-ho to help people plumb the depths of falling into the rhythms of the Christian calendar.

Today was a much different story. I was sitting in a meeting and one of my beloved co-workers kindly reminded all of us that Lent was a few short weeks away. The indifference in the room was palpable. The enthusiasm of last year was a distant memory. No one said it, but it was like we were all thinking, “Yeah, we did that last year. What’s new?”

And the response of the Christian calendar is in many respects, “nothing.” We live in a culture that is obsessed with novelty and newness. I am already salivating over an iPhone that I haven’t even seen yet that is rumored to be released sometime this summer. And so something about entering into a Lenten observance this year feels like last year’s iPhone… obsolete.

But I’m coming to realize that this is precisely the beauty of Lent. It enters into one’s life this year (and every year) as an intrusion. My mind is on other things and Lent inconveniently shows up to remind me that I am in need again this year of creating space in my life to reflect on Jesus’ abundant life, sacrificial death, and life-giving resurrection.

So for these reasons – and more – I’ll be entering into the Lenten season in much the same way as I did last year. In fact, I’m going to read the very same resource that I did a year ago. It was good. It was thought-provoking. And I’ve forgotten almost all of it. Which is I guess is the point of Lent. That things forgotten are brought to the forefront again.

Here’s what I’ll be reading, as well as some other options.

So, three weeks from tomorrow, Lent will begin. And I will begin again to come to terms with all the truths that are so easily forgotten. How about you?

Best Theology Smackdown

Back with more of 2010’s best reading.  If you thought the last recommendation was sort of Bible-nerdy, then you may just want to wait until my next post…  Best Emotional PoMo Emergent Touchy Feely True to Self Read.  In the world of theology (which, admittedly, is a pretty small world), there has been a storm brewing over the topic of Justification.  This isn’t really the time or place to wade into the details, but if you want a very quick primer on what the debate is all about, you can try this.

Anyway, two high profile Christian leader/theologians have entered the fray.  In one corner, we have the energetic Christian hedonist from Minneapolis, Minnesota… Johnnnn Pipperr.

Squaring off with him is the agreeable and prolific bishop from across the pond…  the Right Reverend Tommm Wriiiight.

And here’s how the match went down.  Piper was taking Wright to task for going soft on justification.  His feeling was that Wright was wrong (I could keep ’em coming all day long) to depart from the understanding of justification as defined by the Reformers and much of Protestant Christianity since then.  Piper’s book, The Future of Justification, was well thought through, clearly articulated, and classically Piper.  Wright’s (sort-of) response was the creatively titled, Justification, in which he re-articulated his view that many have and probably still do find more than a little confusing.

I’ve read both and here’s how I understand what’s being said.  Wright isn’t denying the historically held doctrine of “justification by faith.”  He’s saying that Paul had a larger understanding of what that means than simply “we are forgiven sinners” (as glorious as that truth is).  He wants to push against the widely held notion, particularly within the church in the West, that Christianity is basically about how an individual gets right with God.

Ok, well it goes on and on.  Watching this debate unfold is a bit like watching ships firing past each other.  Neither right on target and neither really quite sure where the other is coming from.

Which is why I think possibly the best book I’ve read recently on the subject of justification comes from a third player…  the witty academic from down under…  Michaellll Biirrd.

His book, The Saving Righteousness of God, looks to chart a third way that takes the best of both and marry them together in the idea of “incorporated righteousness.”

I don’t pretend to think that anyone reading this blog is going to be even a little bit tempted to read any of the three books mentioned here, but they are the things with which current and future Christian leaders are wrestling.  Most theological debates come and go, but this one centers on a aspect of Christian belief that lies at the core of the way “faith” works.

I think that’s important.

reading in 2010

I know most of you are losing sleep wondering what is going to be on the infamous end-o-year mix tape.  So to pass the time, I’m going to share something approximating a “Top 5 Reads in 2010.”  However, as I’m prone to do, I’m going to spread this out over a few days.  Enjoy!

Best of the Best:

I’m sure it comes as no surprise that my favorite book of the year comes from my boy N.T.  In After You Believe, he talks biblically and sensibly (yes, you can do both) about what Christian character looks like and how it is formed in a person.  In his own words, this book is an attempt to answer the question, “What are we here for in the first place?”

The fundamental answer we shall explore in this book is that what we’re “here for” is to become genuine human beings, reflecting the God in whose image we’re made, and doing so in worship on the one hand and in mission, in its full and large sense, on the other.

As I’ve said before, Wright is one of the most influential biblical scholars around today.  Much of what filters down in various other writers and movements bears the stamp of his thinking, teaching, and writing.  You would be well served to spend some of your precious reading money and time becoming familiar with what he is saying.  I’ve read several books this year attempting to answer the “what are we here for” question, and they end up looking provincial in comparison.

One of the things that is particularly refreshing about Wright is that he doesn’t seem to get bogged down in culture wars.  I get the sense that this frustrates his would be critics who would just like to figure out if he is with or against them.  Conservatives tend to think he is too liberal, and liberals harbor suspicions that he is a closet-conservative.  Wright would rightly (no one ever tires of the play on words begging to be had with his name) affirm that both of these labels have outlived their usefulness and would be reluctant to use either to describe himself.

While After You Believe is as fine a place as any to start, I often point people towards The Challenge of Jesus as an intro to Wright.  It is profound, relatively short, and highly readable.  Starting with this book has the added benefit of beginning where I think all theological reflection should start…  Jesus as revealed in the Scriptures.

Up next…  theology meets the UFC.

Four (Random Things) for Friday

The music situation hasn’t been all that great lately.  So I’m going to share a few (more like four) things that I’m liking some right now…

1)  Kyte – Dead Waves

I realize that I just said that the music situation hasn’t been all that incredible the last few weeks, but there is one stand out for me.  Kyte, a band from some other country, put out a new album recently.  I like it.

2) My Chaco’s

Alison bought these for me around Christmas time, and since it has warmed up a bit, I’ve been in them pretty much non-stop.  I don’t see that changing anytime in the next six months.

3) Huevos Rancheros

Lunch for me is typically leftovers from the night before, but lately the eating capacity of my crew has taken a turn for the unbelievable.  This is my lunch in a pinch, and it is always good.

4) After You Believe by N. T. Wright

I realize how this looks…  that I have a man-crush on N. T.  Whether that is true or not is beside the point.  This is a good book.  It is the third (and I think final) in series of books written on a more popular/pastoral level.  The other two are Simply Christian and Surprised by Hope, and any of the three are worth your while.  They don’t really build on each other, so you could pick any of them up.

Looking back on this foursome, I’ll understand if you don’t find my likings very remarkable.  I guess sometimes it is finding enjoyment in the little things.