Are you getting in the way?

If Jesus said, “Get behind me, Satan!” to you, how would you respond?

I don’t know how Peter responded — it isn’t in the Book — but I can say I’d be mighty unhappy. A little hurt. Wounded pride, that sort of thing.

Pride aside, it goes to show what happens when you’ve got your own ideas about what the Messiah’s supposed to be. What happens is your ideas get out of the way.

Peter was, I imagine, pretty caught up in the messianic vision of the day: A conquering king come to kill Romans and wrest the holy land away from the pagan empire. It’s actually a pretty cool idea, come to think of it. On an earthly scale it weighs a lot.

Of course, that’s not what the Messiah was, or what he had come to do.

Doesn’t that raise a question for me and you, though? What funny ideas do we have about Jesus that are getting in the way of what he’s really supposed to be doing?

I know some people who look at Jesus like a national hero. Others who look at Jesus as a focal point for a precise doctrinal framework. Others who see him as a good man, a teacher of morality. Others yet who say the right words but in reality see Jesus only when things go wrong, if even then.

Lots of people have lots of funny ideas about Jesus. What about you? What about me?

Who is he really, and what did he really come to do?

Are you getting in the way?

Reading between the lines.

Interpreting the Bible is hard thing. If you do it wrong, you can literally make the Bible support almost anything.

I find it difficult to extract myself from the reading. There’s a cultural context to everything I do — if I’m honest with myself — and that cultural context is often in conflict with what the Bible says.

Is it just popular culture, though? Every group of people has a particular slant, a way of looking at things. Could it be possible that Christians read certain sub-cultural things into the scriptures?

This seems to be a real problem. In the hands of the Greeks, the Bible became a philosophy textbook. In the clutches of the Enlightenment, the Bible turned into something rational, something factual. In slippery fingers of the modern western world, it’s been transformed into a manual for a better, more fulfilling life.

I don’t pretend to know what God was thinking when he inspired the scriptures. I don’t even know — neither do you, admit it — what that process looks like or what it means. I don’t know what the original authors thought of truth, whether they were what we think of as modernist or post-modernist, what their approach to facts was.

All this highlight how difficult it becomes to understand some things. Certainly most things are clear, but modern life brings up issues people in Biblical times couldn’t have dreamed about. Obviously you can’t write a blank cheque and say, “Well, if the Bible doesn’t mention it, it’s okay!” There are principles for almost everything.

Which is, of course, when things become tricky. When things start creeping into the interpretation that just might not really be there.

The question becomes how much you let your viewpoint inform the scriptures and vice versa. What does the Bible have to say about that? For example, the idea of verbal plenary inspiration is a very rationalist doctrine: is it actually in the Bible, or is it something a bunch of rationalistic theologians came up with because they were so fixated to a certain mindset that the Bible must obviously have been inspired that way?

I’m not saying this is what happened: I’m just asking the question.

Still, at the end of the day, how far can imperfect humans with biases and an imperfect perception of reality really read between the lines?

Bullet points for a Thursday morning.

  • I have a cold right now, one of those three-alarm colds that crawls up into your sinuses with a hot poker and goes to town. Upon waking up this morning, I blew my nose, and though I’ll spare you the gory details, there must have been about 20mm3 there. And, according to the scale this morning, all that weight is coming directly off my waist. Colds are such strange things.
  • Note to self: do not blog after taking two Sudafeds.
  • Speaking of which, my sister is about to give birth to a baby whose sex as of yet is indeterminate. [Editor’s note: Chris Hubbs has reminded me that the sex of the baby is indeed already determined. This should read “unobserved”.] I have taken it upon myself to remind her in every way possible that the pain of giving birth is just the beginning of a wonderful journey in snot and poop and vomit.
  • Babies, they’re everywhere. This Sunday past, I attended the baptism of Marlene and Mark’s baby. Cutest little thing ever, by the way. It was actually awesome to see all her friends and family come together to celebrate the sign of the covenant, actually (and pardon me if my wording sounds too, well, grandmotherish). Even though I don’t really know Marlene or Mark that well, it was good to be there, and inspired this little poem. That is, in fact, the first baptism I’ve consciously attended (rather than just happening to be there by default) since Kevin’s baptism back in the day.
  • Note to self: “Drink lots of water” does not refer to coffee.
  • Either I have discovered in myself an ability to make even the most clear issues unclear, or the world isn’t as simple as we sometimes make it out to be. I have a hard time, for instance, with the idea that everything is either black or white; or perhaps I have a hard time with the idea that we can know all the time, that we can differentiate. Sure, a lot of things are perfectly and obviously black and white; but a raft of others seem to be grey, whether they are or aren’t. Maybe I’m just arguing that humans can never actually know everything.
  • I have a friend who holds himself above scripture: he discards whatever he likes if it sounds stupid or old-fashioned to him. Since I figured this out, we’ve stopped arguing about a lot of things — except politics, of course — since we just don’t share any common theological ground to begin on. We don’t really agree on the basics, so of course our end points are dissimilar. A wise man, a preacher, once told me that the only thing you can do for such a person is pray that they will one day accept scripture as authority. I find more truth in that idea these days than I used to.
  • If you leave your job and don’t leave them with adequate resources and information to replace you, you are irresponsible. If you don’t at least make the effort, I mean. Two weeks notice is sometimes enough, sometimes not.
  • If there’s one album you must buy this year, it’s Sean Hayes’ Flowering Spade. It’s, simply put, freaking amazing.
  • If you’re considering picking up Interpol’s Our Love to Admire, don’t. They’ve managed to make an expanded musical palette more boring than the original four-piece.

Addendum:

  • When you specify a tolerance to the fourth decimal place and then find it undersize to to the fifth decimal place by three hundred-thousandths of an inch, I’m going to explain to you the concept of rounding up, and how, if you want to specify five decimal tolerances, you can twenty thousand dollars per tool. Then you can either take the tool and use it, or throw it in the garbage and see if anyone else will kowtow. I tell you, I should not be in customer service.
  • Language is important. It’s the language of deity, the great divider between humans and animals. This is why, when I hear people talking in hillbilly/hiphop slang, I think they’re stupid. They may not be, but they’re acting like it. Intelligence and language go hand in hand.

Mind above scripture, or scripture above mind. But it’s not that simple, is it?

It’s easy enough to say that scripture is the rule for life, that there are things in it that are hard to understand and that sometimes don’t come close to making sense.

It’s easy to say that, and I suppose it’s true enough. You submit to it, you put your mind underneath it, you humble yourself. I’m not good at it, but I try to find my intellect keeling, as it were.

I’ve recognised in myself — ever since I was young, even — a talent if not for obfuscation and dissimulation then for at least finding the smallest point of chaos in the most dreadfully ordered patterns. For making even those blisteringly clear things seem a bit clouded. For saying, “Well, it’s not quite that simple…”

So here you go.

Is it really that simple? Is it really this act of will where I take my intellect like a burnt offering and hold it up on a silver platter? Or is there some kind of interplay between the mind and the scripture? There must be; we interpret and equivocate, don’t we? It’s not at all obvious what it all means, not without some clarification, much like archaeology, or some other arcane art. Compare, contrast, dust, tug, push, dig, all these things.

There’s a dialogue there. The mind creates structure — isn’t that what we do with everything? — when reading the scriptures. It’s part of what makes people people, that they find all sorts of patterns and structures and coherence; not to say that scripture doesn’t have any, not at all.

Worse yet, the brain needs to understand the way the brain works. I can recognise that there’s some interplay there between what I read, what I understand, and how I can humble myself before the one who made me to read and understand. But which one is under and which one is above? It’s a good question. Am I humbling myself in front of something I have constructed? Or am I humbling myself in front of the real thing?

This cognitive dissonance is not easily resolved, and probably wouldn’t be, if there was this giant vacuum in which to read the scriptures. Of course there isn’t, though. There isn’t some magical island where you can open up the book and just read free of prejudice and all those other things that come with being a part of the world.

Lots of different things intrude, but maybe the most important is that holy Ghost. Can I say he is the resolution? I believe so. He is not a construct, that much is clear. He is the person above personhood that, when you ask, shoves the right building blocks in the right hole.

That so many of us come to different conclusions when asking for his help is a mystery, isn’t it? You’d think he’d just blind his followers with light and lead them by the hand. He exists, though, and he is near. That much is clear.

You may say, I will listen and you will speak, and you may find the jumbled bits of your thinking falling into place. He is at work, not only there but in other places at well.

You may find that it is, after all, quite simple. Not this mumbo-jumbo about dialogue and over/under. And I may wink and say, We all get there in the end.

But I won’t tell you where. Not here. Not now.

Was Nicodumus some sort of bumbling idiot?

Sometimes I wonder if we sometime attribute too little intelligence to the people described in scripture. Consider, for instance, Nicodemus. He comes to Christ under the cover of night, for whatever reason, and asks Christ a question. Christ’s answer is–typical of him, and I might add, typical of most Jewish teachers of the time–obtuse and indirect. Perhaps Christ wanted Nicodemus to understand something more important than simple facts, something that takes a relational metaphor to even partially grasp.

Nicodemus isn’t stupid. As a Pharisee, he’s probably been exposed to this sort of teaching his entire life, where the teacher doesn’t answer the question with a answer, because the teacher isn’t interested in simply imparting information. The teacher wants to know if the student is actually interested in what he has to say, wants to know if the student is engaged with what he saying.

And what does Nicodemus do? He replies to Jesus with a question of his own, one that I think is a rehtorical question. How can a grown man be born again? But again, he’s not stupid: history would suggest that Nicodemus is a man well known for his wisdom. He’s actually employing Christ’s own methods, asking a question that seems simple enough on the surface while on a deeper level engages Jesus’ trope on its own terms.

This is why the conversation seems to jump around so much. Jesus and Nicodemus both understand that they’re among the most educated people in Israel at that time. Jesus is a rabbi, Nicodemus is a Pharisee. They jump from concept to concept without explaining any of it, really. Yet Nicodemus seems to understand, and from all reports, seems to have believed.

I think we do a disservice to Nicodemus and Jesus’ conversation by reading it as if Jesus is instructing Nicodemus, the toddling idiot, in all these blinding truths. Perhaps a better reading would be that two theological giants of the day are having a conversation, and one of them is suggesting a view the other has either not considered or considered unlikely.

A thousand Popes Exiguus and their respective Ex Cathedra makes for Babel.

I remember the last year I went to Camp Tamarack (and thanks for the memory, Facebook) there was this speaker there, a very good one in fact, who shall go unnamed for the sake of, well, not having Google searches for it end up here.

I don’t think I’ve ever written that many notes before, disagreeing with a single public speaking on any issue, including politics. While almost all of my then-friends were lapping everything he said up (though that phrase is a bit loaded, forgive me), I was wondering if they had all lost their critical thinking skills and were simply basking in the glow of his admittedly excellent oratory. Doesn’t the very scripture this gentleman was expounding require the weighing and balancing of everything? Doesn’t it say that there’s no room for private interpretation, that adding things in is a bad idea, and you know, don’t mess around trying to make personal convictions into doctrine?

Maybe I never really recovered from that week of seminars; it left me sort of jaded, as if no-one really cares to evaluate what they hear. Or worse, no-one’s capable. Or worse yet, there’s something completely wrong with me and I’m looking at thing ass-backwards. Sometimes I think it might be that last one.

I have not the exousia nor any expectation of it, but it seems to me that if a man proclaims himself pope exiguus and begins to pass down ex cathedra (even if he’s never said or even never thought either of these things), you have a more dangerous situation that the actual Catholic church, where at least things are oh so very clear.

Once, a man in a particularly exclusive club told me that “we don’t have a dress code here.” Yet everyone dressed the same, and the room exuded this pressure that says, “you must dress this way.” I’ve often wondered what the difference was, and if that man was being intentionally disingenuous or not. I image he wasn’t, although in retrospect this is all rather academic.

I say this to ask a question. What’s the difference between a group of people with an ossified power structure and extra-scriptural doctrine and other accoutrements of that nature, and a group of people who have a non-obvious ossified power structure with a bunch of extra-scriptural doctrines that aren’t actually called doctrines but are followed dogmatically nonetheless? As far as I can tell, the difference is that one group of people is simply more honest than the other; over-simplified, but true, I think.

The difference between a real pope and a bunch of minipopes is just in the robes, I think. The minipopes are part of this more democratic papal state, one that’s a little more free-wheeling, one that’s not particularly organized, but they get to say whatever they want to say as long as it’s crouched in the vernacular of holiness, as long as it’s in this or that particular dialect of Christianese.

Makes you wonder why God didn’t just drop down some bullet points instead, right? I mean, if he’d done that, we’d be able to actually say a lot of things with a lot of certainty, instead a few things with certainty and a lot of things with none at all. But as one of those minipopes said, unfortunately we’re still on this side of the pearly gates; and as a minipope of an entirely different stripe said, perhaps clarity is over-rated.

My pastor is responsible for kick-starting this post.

We had a good sermon Sunday morning. One of those sermons that have been a long time coming and seem somehow overdue, you know? It began with talk about how Christians are supposed to become more like God over time, which seems entirely right and correct to me. I mean, if you’ve ever hung out with a bunch of people that think a certain way, it’s hard to keep from buying into that. It’s sort of like osmosis, if you think about it; it makes sense that if you’re in community with God you’d become more like him.

I’m not going to say anything ground-breaking here. I know loads of people have said it, and a good percentage of them have said it much better. I just have to get it off my chest.

Here’s the thing, though: if you’re supposed to start looking more like God as time goes by, what does the way you look say about your God? Or what does the way your community looks say about its God? You have to figure that a bunch of people in community growing together to look like something, well, eventually they’re going to come to resemble (as a group) that thing that they’re growing towards.

That is to say, if your religious community resembles elaborate kabuki, what does that say about your god? If it looks like an exclusive monastery for masochists, what does that say about your god?

It’s a good question, I think. Ask yourself. Are you growing up to look like your father, God, or are you growing God up to look like you? Or to put it in the language of scripture, are you being conformed to the image of God, or is God being conformed into the image of you?

I imagine that we often think of this in terms of it being someone else’s problem. For instance, it’s the problem of modernist, consumer-oriented mega-churches held rapt by the glittering American materialist dream. Or it’s the problem of a bunch of German post-Enlightenment scholars who decided one day that their empirical measurement of scripture was more important that scripture’s measurement of itself. Or it’s the problem of a few woo-woo postmodern shaman types who dance in the aisles and light candles and stuff during what one could loosely describe as “services”.

But of course it’s not just their problem. It’s your problem, too. Because it’s not just as easy as picking up the Bible and seeing what God looks like. I guess we have this history of “interpreting” scripture for exactly this reason: Jesus doesn’t just leap up out of the book and give you a list of bullet points. It’s quite complicated, really.

I just realised this post could go on forever, if I wanted it to. I could talk about the Holy Ghost moving in people, and how people chose these books to be scripture while rejecting others, or how people split up into camps about what God looks like, or how everybody thinks everybody else is wrong.

At the end of the day (and at the end of this paragraph), though, there’s nothing left to do but take a good long look at yourself. Maybe stop glancing around to see what other folks look like, and just get out a mirror or something. What does what you see say about your God?

Perhaps we haven’t been missing the point as much as just not getting to the end of the stick.

Here I was, all set to watch Mad About You, and settle down for a nice evening of not really thinking about anything. And of course the internet has to come along and spoil it for me.

Having read several books that place the focus of Jesus’ message on redemption not only of souls, but also of creation, I found a review of one of these books that called the author’s formulation of scripture’s message as a “sad substitute for the gospel”.

But is it?

It keeps prompting the question in me that if Jesus came to save souls, great: but what comes after that? What does that look like?

Or, why does salvation have to be this either/or thing between a liberal social gospel (which, I agree, standing alone doesn’t make much sense at all) and the liberation of souls from the devil’s grasp?

Why does it always seem to come down to that?

Scripture says that Jesus came to reconcile all things to himself. All things. Not just human souls, but his creation as well, unless I’m reading that verse completely wrong. Putting it another way, the creator of the world, the Word, comes back in the flesh to re-create things and make them good again, the way they were before the fall.

But what does that look like? I admit, if you’re looking for the end of the world in a decade, if you’re thinking that Jesus is going to–excuse the hyperbole–come down from on high in his spaceship and beam up all the saved people, if you’re expecting everything to just end, if you’re expecting that heaven is the final destination, yeah that makes sense. It makes sense in an individualist sort of framework, where you have a personal relationship with Jesus, who has come to save your soul, so you can eventually end up in heaven, where you will be happy and you and you and you and on and on and on.

If scripture talks that way, I must have missed it, and I’ve been doing my fair share of reading lately. I’ve poked these ideas with a sharp stick, and they bleed true, I think.

For instance, the kingdom has come. It has. Jesus said the end of the world would be in his generation, and the children of Israel saw it come, but they also saw the replacement for their small corner of the earth. They saw the children of Jesus strewn across Asia, and then across the world.

Yet the kingdom hasn’t come, not really, not the full thing, has it? Jesus isn’t reigning on earth yet. Things aren’t good here. We don’t have our new heaven and new earth. We still have entropy, and microevolution, and death, and suffering, and war.

So what do we do in the meantime? Is the kingdom this sort of inward-focused blessing machine for the people behind the walls, or is it maybe a blessing to all nations? Do we have a responsibility just to ourselves, or to the whole world?

Does this include helping the poor? Yes. Does this include saving the environment? I think so. Does this involve saving souls? Absolutely.

See, I can’t separate the two things in my head. Saved people do good things. It’s true. Sometimes they do bad things–I do bad things, for crying out loud, all the time–but in general Christians, real Christians, are a blessing to those around them. If you’re saved, doesn’t that mean the default position is feeding hungry people? If you’ve been redeemed, doesn’t that lead to a life of compassion?

Maybe the whole point is not just getting to some place where we all have a personal transformation and that’s it. Maybe the point is God’s glory, Jesus’ glory. And maybe, just maybe, he’s more glorified when we seek to redeem not only the souls of people, but everything, or anything at all.

What does it look like?

When I was about 22 or so, a friend asked me, “How do you believe? How do you become a Christian?” When I was done answering, I think it was apparent to both of us that I just didn’t have a clue. Sure, we covered getting answers and finding facts and accepting propositions and stuff like that, but at the end of the day there was always this huge chasm between knowing what’s this and that and believing this and that.

I imagine it’s much like finding your perfect mate and not falling in love with him or her. Your friends might tell you that you two were made for eachother, and on some level you might see that this piece of your puzzle matches his, or this aspect of your personality is complimentary to hers, but on another level (if you don’t feel that way) your instincts tell you that knowing all that isn’t exactly the same as wanting to spend the rest of your life together.

Of course, some people don’t experience relationships like that. Some of you will inhabit love like part of an equation, and that’s fine. We all have different ways of experiencing reality.

Faith is the same, I think. Faith isn’t an exercise you perform or an equation that you balance or really anything like that. It seems to me that faith is like making a friend, in a way. You read scripture, you find Jesus and meet him, and you decide something; either you decide that you’d like to spend the rest of your life getting to know him, or you don’t.

Some things follow after that, says holy scripture. Your life is changed. You act differently. You experience reality in a new way. Or to put it more tangibly, you love God, and you love your neighbor, neither of which are terribly difficult concepts to wrap your head around.

Maybe that’s the problem with the whole faith thing. It’s just too simple. I sometimes think, “If a ten year old can do this, doesn’t that make it simplistic and unrealistic?” I’m a fan of not demonising complexity. I usually say, “Complexity is not a vice.” Yet, some things are simple, gut-level things while at the same time becoming mind-bendingly difficult to wrap your head around when you think about them. Maybe it’s because the heart is better at grasping some things and the head better at others: I don’t know.

I like systematic theology and thought experiments and balancing equations. I really do. They are all useful in their own way, in their own sphere. But you don’t have to balance an equation (2 + 2 = 4) to understand reality, any more than you have to understand five areas of doctrine to have reality refreshed for you. Or to put another way, the theology of meeting Jesus is simply a matter of reading a book and deciding whether or not to follow the guy you read about from cover to cover.

Or to put it yet another way, understanding that Jesus is alive, that he’s still around, and that he’ll take you if you want it. Think of all the people Jesus said, “Your sins are forgiven!” to who were like, “Wait, what?” You don’t even have to go that far, I don’t think. You can find out all those things afterwards. Jesus comes first, always. You don’t really have to know you’re forgiven, that you’re changed, that you’re new. It happens, and you can figure out the wherefores and whatnots later.

It makes me wonder about how I’m going to teach my children about Jesus. I’ve thought about it for a few days now; if I ever pump out (or, hopefully, if my wife ever pumps out) some of the little ones, I think I’d like to tell them early on that Jesus is essentially like me. He’s like dad, except he doesn’t suck at being a dad. Having a dad is — I’ve found out — one of those gut-level things and sometimes a very painful kicked-in-the-gut-level thing.

My kids don’t have to understand my salary and worldview to get that I’m their dad. Yeah, they’re going to grow up and want to know about how to compile a program from source and how to change the oil in the car and what exactly why I don’t want them listening to pop music, but before all that, I’m their dad. If they can understand that, they can understand enough about Jesus and God and all that stuff to relate to him in a way that makes sense.

Sure, I’d like to raise a brood of little Calvinists, but to be honest that follows after raising a brood of little Christians who don’t start learning ass-backwards. I don’t know much, but I know that.

I’d like to go back and tell my friend what I’m saying now, that becoming a Christian is sort of like getting married or having a dad, and not much at all like playing chess or deciding between quantum mechanics and string theory. I’d like to tell him that Jesus changes your life, and all you need to do is read the book and meet the man and meet the God.

Here. Read this book.

It’s just a book. Really. Look at it sometime without all the funny numbers and footnotes we’ve added, and it’s just a book, or a bunch of books collected into one big book. It’s chock full of stories, poems, historical documents, and other things, some arcane, some obvious. There are things in there that make a lot of sense, and other things you can mull over for days and still not understand, for a variety of reasons. But then, it’s not really just a book, is it?

I remember going to the Art Gallery of Ontario and looking at paintings in various styles by various artists who painted across various time periods. There was one, though, that captured my imagination. It was a Cubist depiction of Christ being taken down from the cross, dead as a doornail. I sat in front of it on a stool with no back, hunched over, just staring at it, taking it all in. It felt like I sat there for an age, though it was probably only fifteen minutes or so, and though I’m no great lover of painting as an art, the painting still affected me. It was a combination of the subject matter and the style and the colours, though none of that really matters. To me, it was much more than just a painting. It was a look into something completely other, something so different from my view of reality that it almost entranced me.

I can’t really deconstruct it. Or I could, I suppose, talk about the thickness of the brush strokes, the colour composition, the contrasting viewpoints, the fresh take on an ancient theme, the name of the artist, his or her body of work, the chosen themes, and on and on. I imagine I could write a very thick book about those things, all because I very much enjoyed the painting, and because it seems somehow important to me.

You could read my book (although I very much doubt you would unless you’re a close friend and I gave you a free copy to read in your copious spare time) and in the end gather a great number of facts about both the painting and about me. You could probably construct a pretty accurate profile of me as a person and author. You could, if you wanted to, make an index of all the things I wrote, so you could cross-reference them at will.

But in the end, you would have merely read a book about a painting, which is hardly a substitute for actually going to the gallery and sitting in front of it for fifteen minutes. You might find that those fifteen minutes, looking at a canvas, just taking it in, would be more informative, more gut-level than poring through my textbook about it for hours. (I picture myself writing a very long book.)

Or maybe not. That’s the thing about experiences. You might take a glance at the work, maybe even sit there for fifteen minutes, and wonder what I’d been smoking. You might not see what I saw in the work at all. You might instead find great enjoyment in a Pollock.

There’s still a chance you might agree with me. And though this isn’t a particularly profound experience, certainly not worth all that I’ve written about it, you might see what I saw. Maybe even more than I saw; who knows? But we could grab a beer afterwards and talk about it. You could explain to me this and that, and I could explain to you another thing, because we both saw the painting and we both had thus and such a reaction. We could write long books about the painting and compare indexes later, to the amusement and consternation of our friends, who would probably be looking up numbers for psychologists.

I feel it’s the same way with that book I was talking about. You might read it and see just a book. Or you might break it down and see some words. But if you read it and it did nothing for you, what’s the point of us discussing it? What would be the point of you reading my much bigger book about the book?

There’s a point here. Imagine going through a book about a painting. What’s the point, if you’ve never seen the painting? It wouldn’t make sense. It would be a lot of writing about something you don’t think is a big deal.

For a painting, that’s okay. I mean, we’ve all got our own taste, and that’s fine and good. But this book, you should read it. You should probably skip all those other books about the book and just read the book. You might not see the big deal, though I’ll politely disagree with you, but you should still read it.

Maybe afterward we can go out for a beer and talk about it, even if our friends start looking up the numbers for psychologists.