A rather HUGE thanks to my wife this year for definitely choosing the ‘Wright’ gift this Christmas…
(See pics below!)
A rather HUGE thanks to my wife this year for definitely choosing the ‘Wright’ gift this Christmas…
(See pics below!)
Indeed. Love – true love – is a beautiful marriage of objectivity and subjectivity. It is not merely objective. That kind of ‘love’ would be distant, detached, indifferent and irrelevant. Also, it it not merely subjective, either. That kind of ‘love’ would be spine-less, scared, watered-down and weak.
Objectivity can’t handle interactions with things that are not like ‘it’. Objectivity remains detatched and protects its own ‘other-ness’, lest it become ‘corrupted’ from interaction with the alien ‘other’. Because it remains detached, it will never make a difference. It either escapes altogether, or watches from a distance.
Likewise, subjectivity will never make a difference. It is so interactive with the ‘other’ that it takes on the very nature of the ‘other’ and is therefore no longer itself, and therefore no longer able to influence or change. It is either enveloped-into or itself invelops the other.
God is often described in some of these ways. On one hand, God’s holiness and un-changing nature certainly seems in-corruptible and ‘objective.’ But is God so ‘objective’ that He remains detached, dis-interested and removed from reality? Most certainly not! The Scriptures testify to God dwelling among and being active in His creation – supremely so in Jesus Christ.
On the other hand, God’s gentle care and sacrificial love seems to point to a more ‘subjective’ quality of God. But is that to say that God is a push-over or that He compromises His own nature? No way! The Scriptures are clear that God is not mocked, He does not change and there is none like Him!
Not only do we mis-understand the nature of God in these ways, we also can mis-represent Him in these same ways. We can seek to be so pure and undefiled above all else (not ‘of’ the world, but unfortunately also not ‘in’ it!) that we have little or no effect on it. Purity and holiness is vital and important, but that purity and holiness needs to be seen by the impure and un-holy world we live in. This means we cannot retreat into our ‘Christian’ corner of the world.
Also, we can seek to be so ‘relevant’ in the world (‘in’ the world, but also unfortunately ‘of’ it), that we end up being just like it, and therefore have little or no effect on it once again. We must speak in the world’s language and meet them where they are at, but all the while taking care that we are imitating Christ, not the world. How can we expect the world to care about our hope when we dream, plan, spend and consume just like the rest of the world?
I think of two verses that could be seen as contradictory, but aren’t – especially in this light. The first is the ‘objective’ 1 John 2:15; “Do not love the world, nor the things of this world.” The second is the ‘subjective’ John 3:16; “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son…” It’s not either/or. It’s both.
May we love God as God loves the world. In objectivity, may we see the ‘other-ness’ of the ‘world’ not as a threat to escape from, but as a field to work in. In subjectivity, may we seek interaction with the world not in order to imitate it, but in order to influence it.
“Heaven.” What a mis-understood word this is!
For some, ‘heaven’ is simply a warm, fuzzy, good, old-fashioned or positive feeling they get when things happen to be going their way. Many others define ‘heaven’ in ways that are not unlike the Greek/Roman idea of the ‘after-life’ – in which your ghostly ‘soul’ floats away on a cloud.
Not only am I nervous about several overly definitive Christian definitions of ‘heaven’, (as if we could know exactly what it is like!) I’m also nervous that we may often mix one or both of the above ideas with the ideas we get from the Bible.
The promise of eternal life for God’s people is clear, but the Bible was not written to give us a encyclopedic definition of it. Rather than that, we are given pictures, glimpses and/or images of what it is. The biblical ‘heaven’ is more lasting than a fleeting ‘shot in the arm’ of cheerful glee, and infinitely more real than your soul flying around in a dis-embodied realm of clouds.
Heaven is the place where God is. It is not sitting at the far corner of the universe, but rather, a completely different dimension altogether. What seems to separate heaven and earth is not light-years of distance in space (or whatever), but rather the current condition of earth and it’s inhabitants. Even still, God’s dimension ‘breaks out’ onto ours in various ways. Heaven breaking out onto earth, is like God’s space ‘overlapping’ with ours. Dwelling with His people in the tabernacle, behind the veil in the Temple and now in our ‘hearts’ by His Spirit are all examples of this.
Now, God’s space wasn’t intended to merely overlap with ours. God’s intention was to ‘share’ His ‘space’ with His image-bearing creatures – us (think Garden of Eden). Human rebellion and degradation has distorted the image of God, and has left us (along with the entire universe) in dire need of restoration of that image.
This is where it get’s exciting…
Christ came (Himself a perfect expression of heaven and earth – God and man) and fulfilled what it meant to be the Image of God. His death defeated the power of evil, and His resurrected body is the ‘first-fruits’ of God’s restored order of being! God’s New Creation has begun! The reality of heaven has burst onto the scene, and it looks, feels and sounds like Jesus!
Indeed, the Christian hope of Heaven is not having spots of ecstatic bliss, and not soul-soaring in the sky. It is sharing God’s life in a New Heaven and New Earth that has been resurrected, re-made, re-built and restored to God’s intention.
That day is sure to come, but we don’t have to sit on our bums and wait for it to come. Jesus begs us to pray that Day (even just a grain of it!) into Today. “Your Kingdom come. Your will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven.“ Every good deed we do in Jesus name and in the power of the Spirit (and only by His Spirit, thank you very much) is a fresh work of New Creation that is not in vain (1 Cor. 15 – end of chapter).
The idea of ‘good news’ was certainly not just a Roman thing, however. The Jewish prophet Isaiah had spoken centuries ago about ‘good tidings’ for the poor, etc. (ch. 52 & 61 and other places). In fact, when Isaiah was translated into Greek (in the Septuagint), they used the same word (‘euangelion‘) in these places! Indeed, the word ‘gospel’ had a very different usage when the New Testament was written!
Believing the ‘Gospel’ in the first century came complete with side-effects, and it wasn’t simply that you belonged to a club that you didn’t before. If it was the Gospel of Caesar, the side-effect was that you would swear allegiance to him as Lord – lived out by paying taxes and obedience to the Roman system. Whether you were an orator, civic benefactor, patron, client, land-owner, peasant or slave, obedience meant knowing your place and not rocking the boat.
With the coming of Jesus, the word Gospel took on new meaning – as did the side-effects that went with believing it. For Jews, believing the Gospel of Jesus meant that the ‘good news’ of Isaiah had never been announced like it had been with Jesus. In the Roman world, however, believing the Gospel of Jesus was hazardous for your health! Believing that Jesus was Lord meant believing that Caesar was not! It meant believing that the ‘good news’ of Jesus made the ‘good news’ of Rome look like a cheap scam. It meant no longer living according to a system which really only served an elite few at the top, but rather living according to the character of a Lord, who is nothing at all like Caesar.
What in the world does this mean for us today? Possibly more than we care to know. I think it means that the Gospel of Jesus has little to do with an invitation that I accept (as if it were about ‘me’), and everything to do with an announcement that is true. Jesus really IS Lord. My life needs to give voice to that, and simply saying so won’t do. Simply associating with others that say so (or not associating with those that don’t) won’t do either. Our spending habits, dreams (‘American’ or otherwise), time, money, standard of living, and much more – they all must bow the knee to the fact that Jesus is Lord. Announcing this is our calling. It will definitely require our words, but equally (or more) so, it will require our lives.
The language of the New Testament is vibrantly coloured by the tension of Gentile-Jew relations, but the language of our world isn’t. Perhaps this can keep us from noticing how often we can take up the same attitude towards people who do not share our faith in Jesus. Our self-righteousness is often disgusting. In the same way that Paul talks about Gentiles ‘doing the things contained in the law’ (Romans 2:14), many people today are doing great things for the world with no faith in Jesus at all. God’s people are identifiedÂ by faith, and this doesn’t give us the right to make it harder for people that don’t look like us to come to this faith. Not only will we have to be more willing to allow them join us in our work, but we may have to humble ourselves and join them in their work.
Remembering The Poor Today
The leading apostles gave the ‘Gentile side’ of the ministry to Paul and the one thing that was of utmost importance to both of them was care for the poor. One does not have to read the Bible for very long to see how God is angered when His people don’t care for the poor. Multiple prophecy-warnings by prophets in the Old Testament, Jesus in the Gospel narratives, and the New Testament all confirm this concern of God that is to be our concern as well.
What keeps us from ‘remembering’ the poor? Allow me to suggest that our minds are on other things. If you live in a Western nation in the 21st century, that means that you are bombarded with advertising images and slogans that are determined to keep your mind on whatever it is they are trying to sell you. We need to re-capture the eager-ness of Paul and his fellow Apostles (or more importantly, the eager-ness of Jesus our Lord) to care for the poor. Comfort, convenience, home-improvement, investment (let alone drowning in debt), fashion and the like should all take a back seat to our eager-ness to remember the poor. There are countless ways to serve the needs of less privileged people around the world. We must make it our priority.
Well. Of course, I cannot possibly address every idea about spirituality. I haven’t even heard every idea out there – and I seriously doubt anyone has. I can’t even address every idea about spirituality that supposedly comes from the Christian community! The topic is so vast and it contains so many contradictory ideas, it can be quite exhausting even thinking about it for long!
What a tough deal. Huh? I firmly believe that ALL humans are spiritual beings, and I think most people would agree (but again, it depends on your definition of ‘spiritual’). We all seem to have this deep sense of this thing we call ‘sprirituality’, but there are so many views out there (even within Christendom), that trying to find the best (true, correct, right?) one can wear us out quickly.
I want to encourage health in this area. For those seeking a better ‘spiritual health’ that are growing (or have grown) tired of the search, I want to encourage them to not give up. Our lives matter just that much.
Instead of delving into this bottom-less pit of ideas, I thought I would share a ‘set of glasses’ with you. I discovered them from reading a book by N.T. Wright called “Simply Christian”. These ‘glasses’ provide a framework with which to evaluate various ideas about spirituality and the world. My hope is that they will fuel your search with enthusiasm.
Right about now, some readers might be thinking, “But we have the Bible. No search is necessary. Just read what it says,” to which I would respond, “OK. Then how can there be so many different – even contradictory – ideas about spirituality which all claim to be ‘biblical’? While I believe that the Bible does have the answers, I’m nervous about such a simplistic pat-answer to this very important question.
The spheres of ‘spirituality’ and ‘religion’ are overlapping to say the least. Ask just about anyone what spirituality is, and they will eventually say something about tapping into a ‘greater’ reality, God, god, being, existence, mindset, Mindset or whatever. Using 3 ‘options’, these ‘glasses’ provide a way of viewing the universe we live in and how ‘god’ fits into the picture.
The first option is to see the entire universe as being – in it’s very nature or essence – god. This is known as the pantheist view (pan = everything, theos = god). As N.T. Wright points out, the unavoidable difficulty with this view is that it is hard to account for the obvious evil that we see so clearly around us. If everything in itself is divine, and evil is so apparent, then the divine must contain evil, right? This tension is seen in such symbols as the yin-yang, used in Confucianism and Taoism. Unfortunately, we are left with a corrupt deity in this view.
This option views god’s realm as being detached and/or dis-interested with our realm. The idea is that because the divine must be pure, and our world is so obviously corrupted, stained and flawed, the divine simply cannot have anything to do with this existence. This god may have created the world, but now must have more important things to do, because our world certainly is being ignored. Perhaps this god may come down and do something scary every once and a while, but for the most part, is distracted by ‘heavenly’ business. Many versions of this view have been articulated, but perhaps the most well known person to do so was Plato. His view has become known as dualism, in which this world is merely a flawed copy of the ideal world. (Though we may not realise it, many so-called Christian ideas and Bible verse interpretations are tainted with this understanding of the universe.) The problem with this view is that while we admit that our world is most certainly flawed, we still behold it’s beauty and majesty. We find mountains, hills, fields, flowers, lakes, rivers, waterfalls, sunsets, full-moons, and ocean waves to be deeply moving. Indeed, the Bible gives repeated testimony to the greatness of God’s good creation.
Option 1 cannot solve the question of evil, and leaves us with a deity that is in some way – at least in part – corrupt. Option 2 cannot explain the richness and glory of the universe, and leaves us confused about how to get the attention and favour of it’s distant god. Continuing with N.T. Wrights ‘glasses’, our third option is to see two dimensions – Heaven and Earth – which ‘overlap’ and ‘interlock’ in various ways. The divine interacts with and relates to this world. This highlights the personal nature of this God. This God is somehow able to act in our very own space and time while at the same time remaining sovereign over it. This God is able to promise His people that He will ‘dwell among them’.
Perhaps this is already sparking some thinking and re-thinking about some things. Perhaps you’re wondering about some versions of spirituality. Which option do they fit most comfortably in?
Option 1 spirituality can seem to not have any real substance or meaning. If everything is god, then I don’t need to ‘tap into’ anything, but instead I must try to make the idea work in my brain that the ground, the air, the water, my computer, my car and myself are all god. How does that help me live? I have no idea.
Option 2 spirituality can leave us confused about how to relate to the god. If this god is so distant, I probably have to use the right techniques, prayers, rituals or words to get its attention. If this existence is just a flawed copy of the idea existence, then it certainly can’t matter very much, and what real difference do my actions make? If they matter at all, it must be so I can secure for myself a better after-life, right? Again, many ‘Christian’ ideas are polluted with such thinking.
Option 3 provides us with an existence that is dripping with spirituality. Not a spirituality of self-realisation that seeks to understand our god-ness (option 1), and not a confused grasp in the dark at a face-less ‘something out there’ which I can try to manipulate into working for me (option 2), but rather, an existence that: calls me into relationship with a Creator God who wants me to be His image, reveals the character of the Creator to guide me to a lifestyle of this image, and gives me a role to play in the Creator’s unfolding story of redemption.
We don’t have to live in a mediocre, bland fake-ness that suggests everything is fine and divine (option 1). We don’t have to ‘hold our breath’ between ‘spiritual moments’ as if they only come every once in a while – perhaps miraculously (option 2). We instead are given the task of passing on the gift of Grace which we have received freely from the Creator, using not just the right collection of ‘spiritual experiences’ to do this, but rather, we realise that our whole life is a spiritual experience and journey in which we grow in relationship to the Spirit of the Creator, who ‘dwells with us’ and orients us to new life. A life rich with meaning, direction and purpose. A life that is part of the Creator’s story. A life of strength in weakness. A life of weeping with those who weep. A life modeled after the life of Jesus.
Ever since the Bible was completed (roughly speaking) in the turn of the 2nd century, people have employed many, many techniques and methods for engaging the text. Much of this is wonderful, I think. Unfortunately, we we humans seem to be quite prone to misusing, distorting and destroying anything good (sex, food/drink, authority, relationships, money, etc.). I wish this didn’t apply to Bible study as well, but I’m afraid that it can happen and does. Whether it’s chanting or reading portions of Scripture while ‘listening’ for special messages from God, breathing slowly, finding the right posture, or whatever, these concerns don’t have much (or anything at all) to do with rightly engaging the Scripture.
Now, I don’t have time – nor would I think it my responsibility or within my ability – to systematically identify and de-bunk every technique that you or I might think needs identifying and de-bunking. I will, however, pass on a few helpful (and I believe essential) principles I’ve picked up from others that we must keep in mind if we wish to read our Scriptures for all they’re worth – which I believe to be infinitely more than we may realise.
First Things First?
The first thing is of first importance. More and more, I hear the same question being asked over and over again. The problem isn’t this questions itself, but the importance and immediate priority it is given. It is the question of ‘what does it mean to ME?’ Given our increasingly individualised culture in western nations, I’m not surprised by this. Now, let me be clear. I believe that ‘it’ has quite a lot to say to ‘me’ and you. The problem comes when this is our first and primary question we ask of the text.
Our initial task in reading the Scriptures is to attempt to perceive what the author is saying to the audience, and how they might have received it. By this, I mean (taking the New Testament epistle of Paul to Philemon as an example) what is the Apostle Paul saying to Philemon. Sure, ‘I’ can learn a great deal from what Paul is saying to Philemon, but Paul is not writing to Dale in New Zealand in the 21st century. Our question is what did (in this case) Paul mean? Tom Wright has called this seeking to ‘think Paul’s thoughts after him.’ Paul was not thinking about me.
Our Place in The Story
With this in mind, we dig deeper. But not too deep too quickly. The Bible is full of potentially confusing commands, exhortations and instructions. This is why, secondly, we need to familiarise – and re-familiarise – ourselves with the entire unfolding narrative of Scripture. Tom Wright again has been very helpful for me in this regard. He has popularised a 5-act analogy regarding the story of God’s interaction with the world. Within this analogy, we live between the Apostles and chapters 21 & 22 of Revelation, and find ourselves with roles to play in God’s fourth act. Our task is not to repeat the first three acts, but to discover how are roles are to be ‘acted out’ so as to ‘fit’ with what has come before and to point toward what is coming – namely God’s ultimate renewal of Heaven and Earth.
If we don’t know how the story begins, develops, expands and ultimately ends, we are all the more likely to ‘act’ in a way that is inconsistent with it. Mark Strom has described this as the need to be ‘patient’ with the Scriptures, lest we distort them in our application (i.e. by taking something in the Scriptures and doing it when we ought not to, not doing it when we ought to or doing it in the wrong way than was intended). The old-new covenant distinction is perhaps one of the most common points of confusion that I know of regarding application for us today – again, another topic altogether.
Mark has articulated his ‘big-small-big’ method for reading which I find very helpful. First, we read the passage with the ‘big story’ in mind. Second, we observe details in the passage, looking for the flow and looking outward to the expanded context. Finally, we summarise the small picture and locate it’s place in the big picture, clarifying the impact of the gospel and living what we find. I think the key difference is that in this model, the personal application for ‘me’ is found only in the ‘big story’ and only after we consider the implications of the Gospel.
…’For We Know In Part’…
This ‘patience’ means that we may have to go through periods of time where we don’t have every text nailed down – as if any of us do anyway! We shouldn’t be surprised when we read a passage looking for answers and instead get more questions! This happens to me all the time. I find myself flicking all over the Scriptures and looking up various things that pertain (at least that I think pertain!) to where I’ve begun. Naturally, I’ve both learned and un-learned a few things this way!
However, if this is the only way we learn or un-learn from the Scriptures, then we are in great danger. Thirdly, and lastly, I want to share the principle of community. The Bible is a community book. Originally written in community. Originally read in community. Originally worked out in community. Studying the Bible privately is a privilege that we enjoy like few other of the many generations that have come before us (hand copies only until the printing press!). We should enjoy this privilege, but not gorge ourselves on it. We need others around us (and around the world, both living and deceased) to sharpen whatever clever ideas we think we might get from our private study. Of course, with the internet, you can always find someone to agree with you (on that note, you can also quite easily find someone who disagrees, but it’s much more comforting to only read people who agree with us!) but don’t let that stop you from benefiting from the study of others.
Original writer, original audience – knowing the Story and our place in it – and engaging the Scriptures while being guided by communitiy. I think these principles will serve us well as we attempt to read Scripture for all it’s worth – at its worth is great! It will take patience, but like a slow-cooked meal is much more satisfying than fast food – in more ways than one – so is reading the Scriptures as they were intended.
Unfortunately, the Bible is also incredibly misunderstood. All one has to do is briefly explore the massive number of Bible-related internet websites (which all claim to be ‘biblical’ in their own unique, special ways) to see just how radically different people take various passages and themes from the same book. They can’t all be right can they? I mean, at least not when they say contradicting things about the exact same topic, right?
Before I say any more, let me say that I am becoming increasingly more aware of the fact that I’m on a journey in my understanding of the Bible. Realise it or not, we all are. This makes some people uncomfortable. Some grow nervous with such talk, because they feel it is leaning towards uncertainty and instability concerning the the Bible. I understand why they might feel this way, but it seems to me that while the Bible will no doubt remain intact itself, our understanding of it’s content and message is quite another thing and will always (I might even say must always) be flexible. Do we really believe that the message is living? I do, and while I don’t think for a minute that God changes, I still insist that the idea that we simply don’t understand Him or His ways is a thoroughly ‘biblical’ one (1 Corinthians 1 & 13 and Isaiah 40 & 64 are good chapters to read if you ever think you’ve got God cornered.)
Now that I’ve said that, I want to pass along some advice that I’ve taken on board regarding reading the Bible.
First, let me introduce you to a term. It’s a term called pre-texting (of course, some of you will be quite familiar with both the term and examples of it’s use). In a basic sense, pre-texting happens when someone quotes a verse (or part of a verse) to support a point or belief they are trying to explain. The problem isn’t quoting the verses themselves, it’s when the verses are used in a way other than they were intended to be. Here’s a common example of a mis-use of a verse (text). I once talked to a street ‘preacher’ who was telling anyone who would listen that true Christians don’t sin. He was quoting from 1 John 3:6, which says, “Whoever abides in Him does not sin. Whoever sins has neither seen Him nor known Him.” Seems pretty open and shut, doesn’t it? Well, a verse that comes before that one (1 John 1:8) seems to cloud the issue – “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” So if I admit that I sin, I don’t know Him, and if I say I have no sin, then I’m a liar? Well, it’s a good thing there are more verses in 1 John than these two.
1 John is widely believed to be written in response to an early (late 1st or early 2nd century) group of false teachers (in this case, Gnostics) that believed that Jesus didn’t have a real flesh and blood body, and that He wasn’t eternal or ‘from the beginning.’ They basically ignored physical sin, because to them all that really ‘mattered’ was not the realm of matter, but the realm of ideas, or the spiritual realm (look up ‘dualism‘ and then thank Plato for many such misunderstandings of our universe – many of which still cloud our thinking, and yes can distort our interpretations of Scripture). It seems that 1 John seems to be strongly warning against taking seriously the idea that sin wasn’t serious. See how the text comes alive when you read chapter 1 (especially the first 3 verses) with this understanding!
As you can see, the problem is not quoting the Bible, but quoting it out of it’s proper context. First, we must know the immediate context (surrounding verses), then the context of the section of the book (If you didn’t notice, I intentionally referred to entire chapters above – not just to verses. In a sense, that is still pre-texting, but in a safer way.), then the book itself, etc. Even this is not enough. We need to be mindful of both the textual context and the historical context. That means sometimes we have to study history to better understand the Bible. That also means that we don’t always have the right interpretation of the Bible even when it may feel like we do. This is not bad news, or an attempt to scare or discourage you from studying the Bible, but rather quite the opposite. Join with us on the journey! It’s exciting! Grow! Think! Learn! Ask questions! Dig for the answers! Own your beliefs! Don’t just recite what you learn from others!
At last, here’s the simple advice I’ll pass on. Read the Bible in large chunks. As respected biblical scholar and Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright has said, â€œGet a sense of the sweep of the narrative. God gave us this book not as bite-sized little chunks, but as a large thing to open and broaden and develop our minds.â€ I couldn’t agree more. Perhaps embracing this ethic of reading larger portions can help us to quote the Bible more faithfully, and not with cheap pre-texting games, where ‘my verse is better than your verse’. I also think we possibly underestimate the value of reading the Bible in community, where our interpretations don’t go recklessly unchecked, but are able to be sharpened and strengthened by those around us. This, in essence, was what happened (and still happens) when Jews gathered in Synogogues to study. May we in the Church develop and embrace a similar ethic?
We have the opportunity of a lifetime, and it will take a lifetime. We have the thrilling task and calling to join God in His story. We need to know our place in it. As we familiarise ourselves with history and His-story within it, we link arms with each other as we grow in understanding and we also link arms with the long line of Saints before us who thought, prayed, studied, served, taught, sacrificed and struggled to live their part in the Story. It’s our turn.