Category Archives: Theology
I am insanely jealous of Rob Bell
Last week, I started reading the new pseudo-biography of Rob Bell, Rob Bell and the New American Christianity. Also, there is a multi-page profile on Rob in the New Yorker. Even almost a year after he left Mars Hill and published Love Wins, he’s still getting press just for being him.
I have long been an admirer and fan of Rob, and a student of his work. I have listened to countless sermons, digested every Nooma film and longer tour films, and have been to see him live. I borrowed the videos from his preaching conference, and have read his books. I have worked his exegetical insights into my own sermons and have led classes on his teachings.
And now, lo, these many years later, I feel comfortable admitting that I am insanely jealous of Rob Bell.
I’m not going to sugarcoat it: When I read or hear anything that Rob has to say, my first reactions are always “Why didn’t I think of that?” or “I’ve been saying that for years!” According to whatever personality profile you choose, I’m the kind of person who fears being “normal” (insert jokes here) and unoriginal. I want to offer the world a new way of seeing, a new way of thinking, which will result in new ways of being.
This jealousy has troubled me recently, so I’ve decided to employ Calvin’s “Three Uses of the Law” to see if I can get a handle on it.
The First Use of the Law is that the Law teaches us. My jealousy is tantamount to (if not outright) the Tenth commandment regarding coveting. So the First Use actually teaches me about coveting. If this Commandment was not in place, I would not know anything about it.
So, I get a little education about jealousy and coveting, and what it means, and how and why it is different than other strong emotions I have. This is different than a healthy competition. This is beyond debate. This borders on anger that someone else is having success in life. Simple enough.
The Second Use is the one we normally think of: Don’t do it.
The Commandment is pretty clear that this is not behavior to be encouraged. All sorts of extrapolations can be teased out as to why: It’s bad for my health, my self-image, the resultant way that I will treat others, etc.
Regardless of the way I feel, this Use is about behavioral modification. Essentially, Divine Approved program to “Fake it until you make it.”
The Third Use is where the real genius lies in Calvin’s scheme. The Third Use is designed not to teach us the parameters and require adherence to the parameters, but to point us in the direction of the Christ-like response; the way in which we can allow ourselves to be more and more conformed to the image of Christ.
I’ve known what coveting and jealousy are for a long time. I get the psychology and emotional content surrounding them. I know not to do it and why. But when I get to the Third Use, I am always amazed at what it teaches me.
And what my insane jealousy of Rob Bell has taught me is that I admire the work he has done and want to do similar work, because I find that kind of creativity to be life giving for myself and others.
I know that I have had a good deal of success in my life. I know that I have no reason to complain or be petty in my jealousy. And so I am thankful for the Third Use because it has, once again, reminded me of the kind of work that I believe God is calling me to be a part of. My soul resonates with the work of Rob Bell because it is work that I see as valuable. I see my jealousy, interestingly, as a confirmation that seeking the answers to big, life giving questions is where I need to focus my time and energy. That’s a relief to me because I have been blessed to be in situations where I get to do that on a regular basis.
And this, friends, is the beauty of our God. We are not left to wallow, but (as the Psalmist says) to be lifted up out of the muck and mire to a better place to stand.
What Theocademy is really about
Today, at a conference I was preaching and teaching at, I met a couple of folks who mentioned the ideas I was floating this past week about rethinking seminary. One of them said they were mulling over the first call for submissions over at Theocademy. I said that I hoped they would be submitting a video lesson, and the response was interesting:
“Absolutely, but when I think about answering the question ‘What is Theology?’ all I can think about is what I read in Shirley Guthrie’s Christian Doctrine. So…”
Whether I’m right or not, what I heard in that response was, “I’m happy and excited to participate, but I’m not sure I have anything earth shatteringly new to say.”
Let’s be clear: That’s perfectly fine.
Most of the work I’ve done in the last several years (as many of you know) has been on the integration of open source theory and the Church. One of the ways I explored this in Open Source Church was to take a look at the foundational principles of Wikipedia. One aspect of those principles has some encouragement for us, I think.
As they construct their articles, the Editors of Wikipedia often remind one another that they are after “verifiability, not truth.” The idea is that they do not pretend to be establishing the “best” or “correct” view, but trying to create a record of verifiable information. Wikipedia explicitly states that they are not a place to post opinions or cutting edge research, but a place to amass the “sum of all human knowledge.” Likewise, the point of Theocademy is not to see if we can develop a new theology from scratch, but to see if we can build a online video archive of theological lessons. That’s a totally different thing.
Don’t get me wrong, if theology is art (as I think it is) then we never know what will happen and someone may show up with something AMAZING. But when we remember that the point is to make what theological expression we already have freely available to those that need it, that seems to take the pressure off.
Theocademy is first and foremost a distribution idea. It is only a content idea, second.
So, if you’re a little nervous about coming up with something brilliant, please stop. Just say the truest thing you know to say, and say it as interestingly as you can. Provide us with resources, and tell us who first said that amazing things you’re saying and then say them to us.
But let’s not get worked up about this. Let’s just do our best to help our friends who want and need the education we’ve been fortunate to already receive.
A Priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan walk into a bar…
A few years ago, I was fortunate to hear a lecture by New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine. Aside from being brilliant, the unique gift that Levine brings to the world of biblical scholarship is that she is (in her words), a “Yankee Jewish feminist who teaches in a predominantly Protestant divinity school in the buckle of the Bible Belt.” Plus, she’s hilarious.
During the lecture I was able to attend, she offered an understanding of the Parable of the Good Samaritan that I had never heard. Her take was that Jesus was playing on a common motif for stories of the day by using the particular characters of ” a priest… levite… Samaritan…”
Levine offers that this motif functioned as a hook in the same way that we often hear modern jokes begin. We’re all familiar with the class of jokes that begins with some variation of “A man, a woman, and a dog walk into a bar…” right? My favorites are the religious ones, ie – “A Roman Catholic Priest, a Presbyterian pastor, and a Rabbi…”
The purpose of setting up a joke in this way is to play on stereotypes. Each kind of person named in whatever joke you’re telling carries an assumption. For instance:
What is the difference between a Baptist and a Presbyterian? The Presbyterian will say “Hi” in the liquor store.
The reason this is funny is because every Baptist I know drinks, even though legend holds that they do not. So when Jesus says (in essence) “A priest, a levite, and a Samaritan are walking down a road…” he is trading in cultural assumptions and stereotypes, but I’m not sure anyone is going to find his story funny. Because Jesus changed the characters.
This was a typical kind of story for Jesus’ Jewish listeners. They had heard this story numerous times, but when other rabbis told it, they started off with “A priest, a levite and a Jew were…” This was the trio that the stories were always about. Samaritans were nowhere to be found. There were certain assumptions about each kind of person listed. Priests can only do/are obligated to do these things. The same for Levites, and then we have a discussion about what a “good Jew” would do. But Jesus does not talk about the “good Jew.” He talks about the “Good Samaritan.”
This throws a wrench in their thinking. Samaritans were “less than.” They were racial and ethnic “half breeds” (there was nothing “pure” about them) and they were religious deviants who practiced a form of Judaism that the Jews of the day despised. No one would use a Samaritan as an example of goodness and love. But Jesus did.
In my opinion, the use of the Samaritan was a stroke of genius by Jesus. In one fell swoop he address two of the failings of the Fundamentalist worldview and allows us to answer for ourselves the question posed by “The Postmodern Problem of the Fundamentalist“: Why is my theological worldview better than that of a Fundamentalist?
As I ended the discussion of what constitutes “good theology” and “bad theology” I acknowledged that it would be “silly” for me to assume that someone like Fred Phelps doesn’t love his family as much as I love mine.
I think the real question is not one of “how” but of “who.” It’s not a matter of knowing how to love, it’s a matter of knowing who to love.
I would like to assume that we all know that
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Corinthians 13:4-7)
Whether each one of us actually lives this way is beside the point. This is what love is, and none of us disagree that this is anything other than the way Jesus would have us live. What is at issue is who we believe we are called to love. Recall: This story was told because someone tried to test Jesus about inheriting Eternal Life. A back and forth occurs which affirms Love God and Love Neighbor as the Correct Answer, which prompted a further question intended to trip Jesus up: “Who is my neighbor?”
“Who is my Neighbor?” indeed.
Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan is provocative in the first place because of the visceral reaction his listeners would have had towards the Samaritan in racial and ethnic terms. At this time, Jews derided Samaritans and called them “dogs.” That doesn’t seem much different than the ways many white USAmericans used to (and some still do) think, feel, and speak about the descendants of African slaves. It is the way that many immigrant groups think, feel, and speak about other immigrant groups in our country. It is also the way that many USAmericans are increasingly speaking of the Middle Eastern persons that live in this country.
When we do not love our sisters and brothers who are racially and ethnically different than we are, we are using the “shorthand” of how someone looks and behaves to make categorical judgments about whether or not they have any inherent value as human beings. There is a larger discussion to be had about this topic, but for this space it suffices to say that (more often than we’d like to admit) we do not love others because we have discomfort over their behavioral norms. To be blunt: we think they are weird and because they do not engage life in the same way we do, we decide they are inferior and not worthy of our love (see definition above).
Part of the reason I think my worldview is better is because it does not allow me to love only those persons who look and act like me.
But, Jesus’ parable is not just about racial or ethnic difference, it is also about religious, theological, and ideological convictions. This is the place where the majority of Fundamentalists live. As evidenced by the story of Jesus and the Samaritan Woman at the Well, the Jews also held the Samaritan people in disregard because of their religious practices and beliefs. Put another way: If you didn’t believe like a Jew then you were held to be “less than” and not worthy of my patience, kindness… (see definition above).
I struggle to see how this is any different than the war our Christo-American society is currently waging on the Muslim community.
I also think that my worldview is better is because it does not allow me to love only those persons who think like me.
Christ named that the commandments on which all else hang are Love God and Love your neighbor. The mission of Jesus of Nazareth was one of setting people free (Luke 4) and making available Abundant Life (John 10). He consistently ministered to those who were shunned by the religious establishment of his day, and we know that that is how his disciples understood his mission for they continued it by offering his Grace and Peace to those outside of the faith (the Gentiles) and outcasts (ie – women and the Ethiopian Eunuch) (cf. Acts).
But, more pointedly, Christ gave us the New Commandment to Love one another as “I have loved you.” And love, as we have seen, does not mean one must be in agreement with another, but that we are called to patience, kindness, a lack of envy, bosting, arrogance, or rudeness. Love means not insisting that I get my way, or being irritable or resentful. It means not rejoicing in wrongdoing, but in the truth. It means bearing, believing, rejoicing and enduring all things.
So, ultimately, this is my answer to the Postmodern Problem of the Fundamentalist. I believe that the worldview I hold is better than that of a Fundamentalist, not because of an ability to do any of these things in extra measure (it is not I who loves, but Christ through me), but because of the words “all things.” As a Christian, I am called to love not just those who behave or think in a certain way that I am comfortable with, but all persons. Everyone is my neighbor, and so (with God’s help) I will love them.
The Threat of Literalism
A colleague of mine, Ken Kovacs, reminds us of the dangers of “literalism”:
Literalism is the belief, the philosophy, the attitude that truth can only be found in exactness and certainty. Literalism is an obsession (and it is an obsession) with what is actual, literal, with the “letter of the law,” with the need to nail down (sometimes, literally) what is true and not true and then defending that “truth” at all costs. It’s a way of being and believing that seeks to maintain a tight “hold” on reality. It’s a way of being that is suspicious (maybe paranoid) of anything that smacks of analogy or metaphor, of anything that leaves open the possibility of multiple meanings, of plurality, because for the literalist, for example, there can only be one interpretation of a text – whether it’s a religious text (such as the Koran or the Bible) or a secular text (like the U. S. Constitution) – only onemeaning, only one way to be and one way to believe in this world.
So, why is literalism such a threat? Because, quite simply, the literalist bent undergirds and stands behind the many expressions of fundamentalism (religious and otherwise) unleashing its toxic effluence throughout the contemporary public square. The unmitigated fact is that reality is infinitely more complicated and complex than fundamentalists will acknowledge, actually more than they are free to admit. Fundamentalism, especially the religious variety, is the very opposite of freedom. It’s a form of bondage. It’s a defense reaction against the ever-increasing intricacies and challenges of the contemporary world. Fundamentalism might be viewed, as one commentator has said, as a refusal to see beyond the vested and small certainties that do more to hold off the unknown, than give answers. As a result, fundamentalism and its bedfellow literalism have inflicted untold most damage against the very world they say they care most about and try to defend and preserve, the world of religious faith.