Category Archives: Doctrine & Heresies

Thoughts on doctrine and heresies – and just where such lines are drawn.

Messiness, Messiness, Is All I Long For…

My brain (and my fingers) have been feeling paralyzed, and thus the soil of this blog has gone untilled for too long. So I’ll let someone else do the writing. Like this bit from William Willimon – forwarded by my friend and mentor David whose wife Carolyn came across it. I’m thinking it has application to more than church and ministry settings. Good life application across the board. And, finally! Someone who understands the true benefit of learning biblical languages…

They asked Jesus, “Show us the Father.” And in response, he portrayed a messy, divine recklessness at the very heart of reality: A farmer went out to sow and he carefully prepared the soil, removing all rocks and weeds, marking off neat rows, placing each seed exactly six inches from the other, covering each with three-quarters of an inch of soil?

No. This sower just began slinging seed. Seed everywhere. Some fell on the path, some on rocks, some in weeds, and some, miraculously, fell on good soil, took root, and rendered harvest. That’s what the Word of God is like, said Jesus.

A farmer (as I recall, it was the same farmer) had a field. The servants came running in breathlessly: “Master, there’s weeds coming up in your new wheat.” “An enemy must have done this!” cries the farmer.

Enemy, my eye. You get this sort of agricultural mess when you sow seed with such abandon.

“Do you want us to go out and carefully root up those weeds from your good wheat?” asked the servants.

“No, let ‘em grow. I just love to see stuff grow. We’ll sort it all out in September.”

And Jesus said, “That’s God’s kingdom.”

In his commentary on these parables, Calvin sees clearly that they are meant for clergy, concluding his interpretation by warning that it is vain to seek a church free from every spot.

Aquinas spoke of the “divine economy,” and that’s fine provided we understand that it is exorbitant economics for a woman who would tear her living room apart until she found her stray quarter, a father who plows ten grand into a welcome-home party for a prodigal, a shepherd called “good” for his willingness to lay down his life for a $3.95-plus-postage sheep.

Forsake all thinking that is categorical; let go all theology that presumes to be systematic, but is an affront to the way this God runs a farm ….

“Point us to the kingdom,” they asked Jesus. And he replied, “A man gave a feast, spared no expense, got the best caterers in town, hired a band, sent out invitations to all his friends and cronies, and they began to make excuses.” They are busy, cleaning out the garage, sorting their socks. They refuse.

And the Lord of the banquet gets real mad. So he sends out his servants a second time, telling them to bring in the poor, the maimed, the blind, the lame-in short, those with nothing to do on a Saturday night.

And they came.


And Jesus says the kingdom of God is like that. God’s idea of church is a party with people you wouldn’t be caught dead with on a Saturday night.

So you and I can give thanks that the locus of Christian thinking appears to be shifting from North America and Northern Europe where people write rules and obey them, to places like Africa and Latin America where people still know how to dance.

And I think it’s wonderful that most of you have spent time learning Greek, a marvelously useless language. You can’t use Greek to build a “mega church,” nor will it fold out into a bed. We make you learn Greek (now the truth can be told) not because knowing Greek has anything to do with successful Christian ministry, but in the hope that we will thereby render you so impractical that, having wasted so much time with a dead language, you may not balk at wasting an afternoon with an eighty-year-old nursing-home resident, or spending a Saturday listening to the life of a troubled teenager, or taking hours to write a sermon that no more than twenty will ever hear. You can’t be a pastor and be neat.

“She could have gone to law school. Best undergraduate I ever taught,” he said, as we veered off the main highway and made our way down a narrow country road in West Virginia. We pulled before the little white frame Presbyterian church, with the sign hanging from a rusted chain, peeling paint, with the name of the church and, underneath, painted poorly, “The Rev. Julie Jones-Pastor.” And my friend said, “Damn, what a waste.”

But the reckless farmer who slung the seed and the woman who pulled up her carpet and moved the living room furniture into the yard in pursuit of her lost quarter, the giver of the banquet for the forgotten, and the shepherd who threw away his life for the sheep, laughed with disordered gospel delight.

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Posted by on November 29, 2012 in Doctrine & Heresies, musings


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One of my favorite verbal acquisitions from my forays to Scotland.

What other word so well captures what should be our response to the unfathomable realities of life, the world, the universe, and God revealed “in a thousand forms to be found along every road” than “gobsmacked”? In Hebrew it’s captured by David’s Mah enosh? in Psalm 8. “When I consider your heavens, the work of your hands…what is man that you are mindful of him?” Earth origins is another area of much domino playing by scientists and theologians alike, to be sure, but when all has been said that we can possibly say as we pry into the details of origins and the universe, we are still left as God believers with the simple affirmation of Hebrews 11:4

By faith we understand that the universe (literally the aeons) were created by God’s command so that what is seen wasn’t made from what is visible.

Yeah. That about covers it.

And I’m gobsmacked.

Peter Enns is too. If you aren’t familiar with Peter Enns, you might find it worth your while to check out his blog ( if you can handle one scholarly type’s perspective on the nature of Scripture and faith.

Loved his most recent post: Thinking About God Makes Me Just Want to Keep My Mouth Shut.

Enjoy. Or not. If you go to the post, the comments are fun too.

Smart people tell us that the universe is about 14 billion years old and about 46 billion light years across. Light travels about 5.87 trillion miles a year (you heard me). Multiply that by 46 billion. My calculator broke. I came up with 2.70231100992E23. According to my extensive 10 second Google research, the numbers before the E are to be multiplied by 10 to the 23rd power. I think this is what God laughing at us looks like.

It also seems that the universe is expanding at an increasing rate. And if that weren’t enough, now we are told there may be more than one of them.

Add to this the fact that there are billions upon billions of galaxies in our universe, each containing billions upon billions of stars. We cannot remotely comprehend these numbers. I also hear from reliable sources that stars within galaxies are millions, billions, trillions (what does it matter, really) of light years away from each other, and similar distances exist between the galaxies themselves.

If there is a God….a higher power, a supreme being, who is behind all this, I feel we should just stop talking for a minute and…well…just stop talking for a minute.

What kind of a God is this, who is capable of these sorts of things? What claim can we have to speak for him, to think his thoughts are our thoughts? Who do we think we are, anyway?

Here’s another thing that unsettles me into silence. According to the Christian tradition, this God who does literally incomprehensible things, is also willing to get very small – to line up next to us, to know us, even love us (as the Bible says again and again).

If there really is a God like this–a God who understands and controls things so big my calculator has to use a letter to get it across, who is also a God who walked among a tiny tribe of ancient people called Israelites, who allowed them to write about him in their tiny ancient ways, and who subjected himself to suffering and death (what we work so hard to avoid), well…

I think we’re talking mystery here, people.

A God who does both. There are no words for this sort of thing. Yeah, King David in the Psalms talked about praising God because of the wonders of the heavens (Ps 19), and wondered out loud how a God who put the moon and stars in their place could be bothered by puny people (Psalm 8). But David had a limited, quaint, view of “up there.” He did not, and could not, think of “heavens” as we now have to, what with our telescopes and such.

One God responsible for the unfathomably large, who is also near us. If there is such a God….

To take this all in, as far as I am concerned, is above our mortal pay grade. Those of us who believe this kind of God exists should feel put in our place, pretty much walking around with that “I can’t believe what I just saw” look in our eye.

The Bible calls this humility and awe, which, as hard as it is to pull off, is at least something we can understand.


Posted by on September 5, 2012 in Bible Questions, Doctrine & Heresies, musings


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doctrinal dominoes

Reading through Did Jesus Exist? by Bart Ehrman this past week (see my BookCellar review I came across this quote from Ehrman dealing with the Catholic doctrine of Mary the mother of Jesus (in the context of discussion about the existence of Jesus’ brothers as being one of the proofs that Jesus himself existed).

Made me think of dominoes…

As a side note I should point out that the Roman Catholic Church has insisted for many centuries that Jesus did not actually have brothers. That does not mean that the church denied that James and the other brothers of Jesus existed or that they were unusually closely related to Jesus. But in the Roman Catholic view, Jesus’ brothers were not related to Jesus by blood because they were not the children of his mother, Mary. The reasons the Catholic Church claimed this, however, were not historical or based on a close examination of the New Testament texts. Instead, the reasoning involved a peculiar doctrine that had developed in the Catholic Church dating all the way back to the fourth Christian century. In traditional Catholic dogma Mary, the mother of Jesus, was a virgin not simply when Jesus was born but throughout the rest of her life as well. This is the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary.

In no small measure this doctrine is rooted in the view that sexual relations necessarily involve sinful activities. Mary, however, according to Catholic doctrine, did not have a sinful nature. She could not have had; otherwise whe would have passed it along to Jesus when he was born. She herself was conceived without the stain of original sin: the doctrine of the immaculate conception. And since she did not have a sinful nature, she was not involved in any sinful activities, including sex. That is why, at the end of her life, rather than dying, Mary was taken up into heaven. This is the docrtine of the assumption of Mary.

These are theological views driven by theological concerns that have nothing to do with the earliest traditions about Jesus and his family.

Let me be clear. This post isn’t about bashing Mary or even attempting to debunk ancient Catholic doctrine about  her. Personally, the last thing I want would want to do is go on an anti-Mary rant and bash the mother of the Lord of all creation. Unwise.

What struck me was the line of dominoes. The long line of doctrinal dominoes stretching back to the 4th century. Although I still can’t help but wonder if the dominoes don’t need to line up further back – if Mary had to be immaculately conceived to avoid passing a sin nature to Jesus, what about Mary’s mom? And her mom? And her mom? And her mom? Etc.

But I digress.

What struck me is what a wonderful example this is of the line of dominoes we build as assumption is added to assumption, conclusion to conclusion, inference to inference, thought to thought until the line of dominoes has backed up so far that we have lost the point and obscured the simple story, in this case, of a terrified young girl in Nazareth who utters those profound words “Let it be to me according to your word.” Pretty soon we are hovering over our elaborate line of dominoes and protecting that line of dominoes becomes the all in all of our existence and the ultimate test of our faithfulness, our soundness, our orthodoxy. Words acquire new handles and definitions as we protect the line (e.g. “brother” must mean “cousin” for a Catholic; “whole world” must mean “select group in the world” for a Calvinist, etc. etc.).

Personally, I think the Lord of all loves to tip over our dominoes and watch them fall – and in fact, isn’t that the point with dominoes? Don’t we set them up to watch them fall? Perhaps such a realization would cause all us religious types to relax just a bit – and to enjoy ourselves and this business of theology a bit more. Might even make others want to play too – when it’s not the fires of hell awaiting you if you set up a defective line, but rather a “Nice try” followed by a simple reset.

To really enter in healthily to this game of theological dominoes, perhaps we need to paint in large letters on the wall what for me is a classic, foundational statement from the wise teacher of Ecclesiastes (7:13 from the Message, of course!):

Take a good look at God’s work. Who could simplify and reduce Creation’s curves and angles to a plain straight line?

Or, I might add, to a carefully worded syllogism.

Or to an immaculately conceived line of dominoes…

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Posted by on September 2, 2012 in Doctrine & Heresies, musings


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Breach-maker or breaker.

That’s what the Hebrew word “poretz” (poor-ates) means.

Came across it in my reading of that Old Testament prophet Micah’s relatively brief, Isaiah-like tome. Here’s the passage:

House of Jacob, I will gather you together;
I will gather up the remnant of Israel
I will guard them like a flock of sheep in their fold,
like sheep safe in their pasture,
a noisy multitude.
One will make a breach and lead the way;
the rest will break it open further
and leave as through a gate.
Their ruler will pass before them
with YHWH at the head.

One scholar notes:

Most Middle Eastern sheepfolds were a stone fence. After the sheep were led into the fold for the night, the shepherd would seal the entrance with rocks or debris, often sleeping across the threshold. In the morning, the shepherd went to the fence and shoved the rocks out of the way, making a breach in the wall that the sheep pushed through, widening the opening. Then the shepherd – the breachmaker or “breaker” (Hebrew poretz) – would lead the sheep back out into green pastures. The “breaking forth” was not a singular event, but an everyday occurrence for a flock that has already been gathered into the sheepfold.

This picture got me to thinking.

Thinking about how our systems of thought – whether theological, scientific, political, philosophical, or whatever – resemble such a sheepfold that keeps our thoughts carefully corralled and safe and under control. We have shepherds, of course – theologians or pulpit pundits, journalists, political commentators, columnists, societal thinkers, etc. that we turn to regularly to keep thieving contrary thoughts from stealing into the sheepfold and making havoc of our nicely kept and guarded mindset.

How crucial it is for there to be room to breathe in our thinking!

Or on the sheepfold analogy, to have an open space that can be breached regularly so our minds are free to break out, to roam a bit over green fields and find fresh pasture. Good shepherds start the breach and invite the sheep to widen it. Bad shepherds turn sheepfolds into prisons designed to keep intruders out and the sheep forever locked in.

How desperately we need mind breakers who will knock holes in our lovely secure space and lead us out. How often we get stuck in the same stinking sheepfold day in and day out. Whether it’s political discourse, religious debates, or verbal cultural jousting, it seems too many have been locked up in the same walls for far too long and are endlessly baaaaaahing the same old bleating answers into the stale air of their mental enclosures and its noisy multitudes.

What a wonderful time for a poretz.

In my experience, Jesus has been and continues to be the ultimate poretz. We, of course, try our best to domesticate and make him serve our ends, just as we will to any genuine poretz, but he relentlessly refuses to be enclosed in our theological, ecclesiastical, political or thought systems. Always the poretz is knocking a hole in our enclosures and leading us out to new places – if we will only follow.

This week I’ve been reading John Ortberg’s latest, Who Is This Man? Wonderful read. Ortberg points out that in reciting the “great commandment” to love God with all our heart and soul and strength that he added (poretz!) a fourth crucial element to the Hebrew equation: with all our mind. God is glorified in a mind that thinks. Two pertinent quotes from the book:

Loving God with all your mind means answering the works of people you disagree with, rather than burning the works. Loving God with all your mind means you don’t have to be nervous about where a book might lead if its reader is sincerely seeking truth.

Just this past week I was asked by someone with a disapproving shake of the head, “So why do you carry Rob Bell books in this bookstore?” In a word – because the filtering needs to happen on the user end rather than on the supply side. We need an unwalled door to the sheepfold. Bell has some things worth saying and hearing and processing. We are called to glorify God by thinking, not by bleating out the same, safe, repeated lines. Bell can be a wonderul poretz for both mind and soul. It’s what good writers do for their readers – and those are the writers I’m drawn to. I can sense in the first few pages whether I am sitting with a thinker stirring me to fresh thought or a mindless regurgitator keeping me confined in the fold.

Second quote:

To love God with all my mind means following truth ruthlessly wherever it leads. It means cherishing truth whether it comes from the Bible or from science or from an atheist. It means anti-intellectualism is anti-Christian.

It’s also anti-human.

Once more into the breach, dear friends…


Posted by on September 1, 2012 in Doctrine & Heresies, Education, musings


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Beauty Will Save the World

Okay, in teaching this morning (if you must see it: I ended up breathing out words from my latest read, Beauty Will Save the World by Brian Zahnd. Seven chapters that I pretty much took in one a day. Just marvelous. I thought about citing his book, but I had already cited three and was afraid it would start sounding like a commercial or worse an infomercial.

But if I had the time to take, this is the full quote I would have read. Definitely a worthwhile read. I luxuriated in it, which is why I only read a chapter a day. Soul-filling. Beautiful. Well done, Brian.

Here goes the excerpt:

“Explanation separates us from astonishment, which is the only gateway to the incomprehensible.”~ Eugene Ionesco (French playwright)

What’s wrong is that we have precious little astonishment in our gospel. We’re familiar with it. It’s become old hat. It’s in danger of degenerating into cliché. It’s anything but astonishing. It has only the faux astonishment of a late night infomercial. For only $19.95! But wait, there’s more! Call now! Operators are standing by! We yawn and change the channel. I’m afraid that’s how our gospel is too often heard. But consider how the gospel sounded upon its first hearing in the first century. As the climax, the capstone of the story of Israel told in their ancient scriptures, a Galilean Jew named Jesus was executed by crucifixion by the Roman government for alleged crimes against the state; three days later God raised him from the dead, he ascended to the right hand of the throne of God where he now holds all things together by the word of his power as the new emporer of the world. That’s the gospel! It’s not an explanation, it’s an astonishing announcement…

We have replaced astonishment with something a bit tamer. We have made the gospel reasonable, senisble and practical. We explain the gospel in cogent terms like ‘the plan of salvation’ and ‘spiritual laws’ – as if it is simply the most rational thing in the world. The gospel is no longer astonishing; it is now commonsense, logical, and most of all, ‘useful.’ We have no use for astonishment. Astonishment is not something we can use – it’s not something pragmatic that we can utilize to further our self-concocted and self-oriented agendas. So instead of announcing an astonishing gospel, we find ourselves trying to sell a useful gospel…

The gospel properly proclaimed and properly heard is a mystery evoking awe – not a prospectus eliciting calculation.

Christianity is not God-Mart. It is a cathedral of astonishment.

Trinity, Incarnation, Resurrection, Ascension – these are our soaring arches, flying buttresses, ribbed vaults, and stained-glass windows. They are not practical; they are mysterious and beautiful.



Posted by on April 23, 2012 in Church, Doctrine & Heresies


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The Inquisitor Within

Permit me one more excerpt from Beal in The Rise and Fall of the Bible. I am just going to have to break down and read The Brothers Karamazov. I am tempted when encountering the Grand Inquisitor in this story to think of churches and persons out there that fit his profile. But reading this again I am taken first and foremost to the Inquisitor within that seeks to control, that fears to know, and who is always ready to launch a personal inquisition against those deemed suspect for whatever reason. Not to recognize the Inquisitor within – the one who always drapes himself in flags and causes and wears such a lovely mask of righteous zeal and indignation – is to guarantee his appearance in a world that hardly needs another one of those walking, stalking about.

I’m reminded of the famous parable of the Grand Inquisitor in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. The story is told by Ivan, a cynical atheist, to his younger, mystically minded Christian brother, Alyosha. In it, Jesus appears in the city of Seville during the Spanish Inquisition, just as a huge crowd gathers to witness a mass execution. He never says a mumbling word, and yet everyone immediately recognizes him. Throngs gather around him, and he blesses and heals them. A tiny white coffin passes by, and the child within it is revived.

Standing in the cathedral doorway, the Cardinal Grand Inquisitor also sees Jesus, and immediately has him arrested. “Such is his power over the well-disciplined, submissive and now trembling people,” explains Ivan, “that the thick crowds immediately give way, and scattering before the guard, amid dead silence and without one breath of protest, allow them to lay their sacrilegious hands upon the stranger and lead Him away.” In the evening, the Grand Inquisitor visits Jesus alone in his prison cell, and explains to him that in the morning he will be burned at the stake “as the most wicked of all the heretics; and that same people, who today were kissing Thy feet, tomorrow at one bend of my finger, will rush to add fuel to Thy funeral pile.”

The reason, explains the Inquisitor, is that Jesus came to give people freedom, but that’s not what they want. What they really want, he says, is to be told what to do and believe, and to be fed. “For fifteen centuries, we have been wrestling with Thy freedom, but now it is ended and over for good.”

Are Ivan and the Grand Inquisitor right? Would we rather not be free, to think and question for ourselves? “Sapere auda!” Proclaimed Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant. “Dare to know” or “be wise,” to release yourself from your self-incurred tutelage under the authority of others and think for yourself, to trust your own reason and imagination. To be sure, such a calling is both empowering and intimidating. Would we rather be told what to do and think? Do the questions make us nervous? Do we thirst for the answers that will put our restless spirits to rest? Is that what we really want religion to be, or rather do, for us? Is that what we want from the Bible?

What an excellent place for the use of that grand Hebrew word from the Psalms…


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Posted by on December 4, 2011 in Doctrine & Heresies, musings, Religion


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Is the Bible a Failure?

Okay, another excerpt from Timothy Beal in The Rise and Fall of the Bible. I have suspected for some time that we have followed the evolutionist, the modern scientific theorist, the Enlightenment thinker up the wrong tree with the Bible, as it were; that we’ve been trying to make the Bible do something it was never intended to do. I’ve spent years feeling it was my duty to harmonize and smooth out all the evident seams and tensions within the Book (better, the Books) or even to deny that those tensions are there. In the past few years, I’ve been doing that less (I hope) and have more often sat back with various questers and inquisitors and said, “Yeah, look at those rival messages, those conflicting details…isn’t it marvelous?” Now for Mr. Beal:

In many ways, those dedicated to removing all potential biblical contradictions, to making the Bible entirely consistent with itself, are no different from irreligious debunkers of the Bible, Christianity, and religion in general. Many from both camps seem to believe that simply demonstrating that the Bible is full of inconsistencies and contradictions, as I have just done, is enough to discredit any religious tradition that embraces it as Scripture. Bible debunkers and Bible defenders are kindred spirits. They agree that the Bible is on trial. They agree on the terms of the debate, and what’s at stake, namely its credibility as God’s infallible book. They agree that Christianity stands or falls, triumphs or fails, depending on whether the Bible is found to be inconsistent, to contradict itself. The question for both sides is whether it fails to answer questions, from the trivial to the ultimate, consistently and reliably.

But you can’t fail at something you’re not trying to do. To ask whether the Bible fails to give consistent answers or be of one voice with itself presumes that it was built to do so. That’s a false presumption, rooted no doubt in thinking of it as the book that God wrote. As we have seen, biblical literature is constantly interpreting, interrogating, and disagreeing with itself. Virtually nothing is asserted someplace that is not called into question or undermined elsewhere. Ultimately it resists conclusion and explodes any desire we might have for univocality.

We don’t know, and will never know, many details about the history of the development of biblical literature. No doubt there have been countless hands, scribal and editorial, involved in writing, editing, copying, and circulating the various versions of various texts that eventually were brought together into a canonical collection. Nor do we know very much for certain about the ancient life situations – ritual practices, oral traditions, legal systems – in which those texts had their beginnings. Nor do we know everything about the complex process by which the canons of Jewish and Christian Scriptures took form. What we do know for certain is that the literature now in our Bibles was thousands of years in the making.

Given how many hands have been involved in so many contexts over such a long time in the history of this literature, can we honestly imagine that no one noticed such glaring discrepancies? Can we believe, for example, that the seam between the first and second creation stories in Genesis, as well as the many other seams found throughout the Torah, were not obvious? That if agreement and univocality were the goal, such discrepancies would not have been fixed and such rough seams mended long ago? That creation stories would have been made to conform or be removed? That Job would’ve been allowed to stand against Moses? That Gospel mix-ups concerning who saw what after Jesus’ resurrection would have been left to stand? That Judas would have died twice, once by suicide and once by divine disgorge? And so on? Could all those many, many people involved in the development of biblical literature and the canon of Scriptures have been so blind, so stupid? It’s modern arrogance to imagine so.

The Bible canonizes contradiction. It holds together a tense diversity of perspectives and voices, difference and argument – even and especially, as we have seen, when it comes to the profoundest questions of faith, questions that inevitably outlive all the answers. The Bible interprets itself, argues with itself, and perpetually frustrates any desire to reduce it to univocality.

Yep, there’s just a wee bit to chew on…


Posted by on November 29, 2011 in Bible Questions, Doctrine & Heresies


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Of Blustering Religious Blowhards

And the teachers of the law who came down from Jerusalem said, “He’s possessed by Satan! He’s in the grip of Beelzebub himself! By the prince of demons he casts out demons!”

And Jesus called them on it – confronted them directly right then and there. He did it through word pictures. “How can Satan drive out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.”  Mark 3:22-24 (NIV with a wee bit of help from me)

It’s an ominous development. The almighty Scribes have come.

Mark has already narrated plenty of run-ins with the local religious frat boys, the local law and religion experts sitting there with their internal objections that Jesus has no problem drawing out into the open; the local Pharisees peering through windows at him eating with gays and lesbians – I mean, with tax collectors and sinners – and then accosting some of his disciples as they were either coming or going, “Why does he eat with sinners!”; with local religious purists who fancied themselves the only ones really serious about matters of God who watched his disciples pluck those heads of grain and thereby trample their Sabbath conventions – which, of course, everyone understood were but the to-be-revered-and-unquestioned parsing of divine Sinai oracles.

And now here is the first Jerusalem delegation. This is serious. Can’t you imagine how solemn they looked? I’m not sure how scribes from Jerusalem would have dressed, but it doesn’t take much to imagine pitiable and despised Galilean peasants parting like the Red Sea to let this royal religious assemblage pass.

Oh how intimidated we can be by blustering religious blowhards from whichever corner they creep. I do believe I would have joined the peasants in parting this way and that – just because all too often that’s what I still do.

I recall Shelby Foote telling the story of Grant’s first encounter with rebel forces early in the Civil War in the West. As he led his men up over the last rising hill before the enemy encampment anxiety swelled up in his heart right up to the back of his throat. And then he crests the hill…and sees the backsides of the rebs beating a hasty retreat over the next hill. It suddenly dawned on him that his enemy was just as a feared of him as he had been of them. It was a lesson he never forgot.

Jesus didn’t bow or kowtow or kiss up or make nice with these religious emissaries. Their speech had been sideways, playing to the crowd (some things truly never do change). Clearly they had not come to hear, to consider, to learn, to take in. They were on a mission to discredit, a mission of threat-management, of defusing the latest challenge to their religious security by one who not only didn’t offer his own acceptable credentials but who refused to recognize theirs.

“He is possessed by Satan! He’s in the grips of Beelzebub himself!”

It could have been worse. They could have accused him of introducing Eastern mysticism among the faithful.

They sneer sideways playing to peasants.

Jesus calls them out. He stares them down. No “How do you do, I’m Jesus.” No bowed head with muttered apologies at having offended their royal religious highnesses. He calls them out. Proskaleo is the word Mark uses – it’s an in-your-face summons. Sideways sneers (can’t you just see their blog!) are met with a face-to-face calling them out. And he proceeds to utter what many consider his hardest line in the entire gospel. They would never have forgiveness, they had committed an eternal sin.

Yeah, there’s something here to learn.

Perhaps we can think of it as “Dealing with Religious Blowhards No Matter How Pompous Their Robes or Airs 101.”

Face them.

Call them on it.

Dismantle and mute them with word-pictures that leave them guessing.

Keep it to the point.

Let them feel the point.

And then move on. Just keep swimming.

Keep right on casting out demons and doing the Kingdom business that He has sent you on.

Yeah, I’ll take a little bit more of that, Lord.


Posted by on November 23, 2011 in Doctrine & Heresies, Gospel of Mark, musings


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Of heretics and heresy…

Being labelled a heretic recently by a few well-meaning but rather hasty self-appointed judges has had me mulling over this whole business of heresy. Again. Really, I’m not upset at being summarily labelled with the h-word – I just think it shouldn’t be handed out so quickly. It should be more like a lifetime achievement award. I mean, what is there to aspire to now? Once you have the h-word applied to your forehead by someone’s middle finger, what else is there?

I guess I can at least hold out for apostate. Or maybe infidel. Perhaps pagan.

And it used to be that to be in the running for the heretic award you had to do something really big like denying Jesus, denying the deity of Jesus, denying the humanity of Christ, denying the virgin birth, or even, with some die-hard religious types, insisting on immersion of believing adults as legitimate baptism. That’s been enough historically to be tossed in the river wearing a cement choir robe.

I got it (this time) for using the f-word (“friend” “friendship”) which is a totally biblical word to describe both our relationship with God (“Abraham believed God and it was accounted to him for righteousness, and he was called the friend of God”) and our relationship with each other in the very non-perky but pivotal fellowship of believers we often call “church” (“The friends greet you; greet the friends by name”). Friendship. You know, that relational space created by the Gospel where we actually practice the 42 very non-optional “one anothers” of the New Testament. And I got it for insisting that Christianity is not about the correct grasping of theological explanations and abstractions about how salvation has taken place in Christ (theories of atonement, free-will, predestination, hell, et al), but the practical impact of the reality of Jesus’ work on humanity, which impact is, in a word, love (in both Hebrew and Greek “friend” = lover). The Hebrew word mishpat (“justice”) works equally well. Or as Paul puts it, “If I understand all mysteries and all knowledge and have not love, it profits me nothing.”

Heresy indeed. It’s no doubt why they stoned him. And all I got was a lousy video. On second thought, thank you that all I got was a lousy video.

As often as we throw the h-word around in religious circles, you would think that the word “heretic” is liberally peppered throughout the Bible. How disappointing to realize it only occurs once:

But avoid foolish questions, and genealogies, and contentions, and strivings about the law; for they are unprofitable and vain. A man that is an heretick after the first and second admonition reject; knowing that he that is such is subverted, and sinneth, being condemned of himself.

That’s Titus 3:9-11. It’s actually helpful to read all the “pastoral epistles” (1 & 2 Timothy and Titus) to form the complete picture of the heretick (I actually like it spelled with a “k”), along with Jude’s short letter and Peter’s second very similar but somewhat longer letter.

From these sources we can gather the following about the one who truly deserves the h-word label:

He uses scripture. A LOT.

He can sound quite calm and smooth in his speech and reasoning.

He is always in the center of controversy and debate by choice. It’s not that he’s hounded and dragged into the spotlight before the eyes of an eager audience. He seeks it out. Think Adolfo Pirelli in Sweeney Todd.

When it comes right down to it, he’s a grumper. That’s got to be my favorite biblical term for a heretick (from Jude, verse 16). The Greek word is γογγυστής (gong-goose-tace). Grumbler, complainer. You know the type – the one who lives to give you an earful of how lost and wrong and messed up everyone else is, every other church is, every other religion is, every other _____________ is. He lives to slam the popular books that everyone else writes, the big churches that everyone else attends, the shows that everyone else watches. He’s not surprised that everyone else is going to hell in a handbasket. If only they all had the sense to listen to him and his inner circle of oh so theologically enlightened ones.

“Grumpers” usually make it big in talk radio, too.

He is a fault-finder. He doesn’t listen to learn but to find an angle, to either find or make a crack that can be used as personal leverage for the positioning and status and advancement of himself and his party. A pulpit built by pious nit-picking. Parochial. Partisan. Petty.

What’s interesting about the bona-fide heretick is that for the most part we know precious little, biblically, of the specific content of his spiel. Mostly it’s his manner and movement – or as Jesus calls it, his fruit. It’s not so much what he’s saying – his elixir may indeed be a concoction of piss and ink – pay attention to his style, to the way he polarizes his audience as he pushes his party (the basic meaning of “heretick” is one who is divisive, who starts arguments thereby advancing his own unique or correct group or party or faction, condemning all others who “don’t hold to the Word” like they do; you could say he’s very anti-catholic [the small “c” is important here]). What the heretick is saying could be dead right, but it’s how and why he’s saying it that reveals his colors.

Truth be told, I was closest to this before I woke up to the kingdom and grace and mercy and justice of God back in the mid-nineties. I longed then to be the Bible answer man, to be esteemed as the exposer of falsehood, the clubber of wolves in sheep’s clothing, the upender of every religious rock so as to point out the vermin crawling in the slime.

But the Lord had a more excellent way that mercifully engulfed me like the surge waters of a hurricane.

The great irony is to have that Way now labelled by some as heresy. And actually, in this overall context and connection, I’ll happily wear the label. It all depends on who is slapping it on you, doesn’t it?

But it still shouldn’t have been so easy…or perhaps I should be asking, why did it take so long?


Posted by on August 29, 2011 in Doctrine & Heresies, musings


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Scaring the hell out of people_2

Is fear of “eternal conscious torment” (for ourselves or others) really the only thing that will motivate us logically or spiritually to give, to live, to love, to share the heart and life and message of Jesus? Is it the only thing that will convince unbelievers to believe – to really take Jesus seriously?

In evangelical circles it seems we have quite the “stick and carrot” afterlife one-two punch.

First the stick. Scare the hell out of people. Make them afraid, very afraid. Then, after we have their attention, we can carefully move on to the carrot of heaven.

I guess when considering this essential approach I’m having a hard time moving past Mt. Sinai. Mt. Sinai was a tangible demonstration of firey wrath that did quite literally scare the hell out of the people – and taught them the “fear of the Lord to keep them from sinning.” Yes it did. For forty days. Then with the mountain still smoldering in flames of holy judgment these same people “sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play” – and reverted to what they thought was true, bullish religion in clear violation of what the Voice had just said, even while they could still see and hear the crackling of the flames. All through the law it’s stick and carrot, carrot and stick. And the people went to “hell” anyway, with only a remnant returning after smoldering in Babylonian “purgatory” for seventy years.

But now the carrot and stick will work because they are fortified with vitamin E for “eternal”? Really? The “good news of God” that Jesus proclaimed as he went into Galilee was just the same old news? Just now enhanced with the word “eternal” – with the fortified stick and carrot still appealing, when all is said and done, to our basic self-interest in avoiding pain (especially eternal pain!) and securing pleasure (especially eternal pleasure!)? A rewritten insurance policy. Eternal security with at least an understood temporal security clause we generally want to claim (I keep religiously making the payments, and things will work out well for me down here too!). Now all that remains is to debate what it takes to get that insurance policy issued to us.

Is this all the “new covenant” is – this “new covenant” that would not be like the “old one”?

Or is there something far deeper, far more transforming at work here? Perhaps it’s fair to say we all need the elementary kick in the collective consciousness that we are not in charge, that there will be a resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment, that we answer to Someone greater than us. But it’s equally fair to say that those realities are, ultimately elementary. There is a maturity to move on to beyond them, like the platform that an orbiter leaves when it launches. In fact, running with that analogy, what is it that has drawn people to the space program these past five decades or so? The launching pad or the vision of orbit? Is it not the dream of exploration, of touching the stars?

Is this not where the genuine, ultimate motivation is for believer and unbeliever alike? Yes, we need the launching pad – we’ll never get off the ground without it, so beware anyone who would tamper with the “elementary teachings of Christ” who thus would dismantle the platform from which the journey begins. But equally beware those who only seem to know how to camp on the launching pad, offering repeated diatribes on why the launching pad is so important. People need to see us flying. They need to see us defying gravity and touching the face of God.

Is this not what John is getting at when he describes the perfect love that drives out fear, because fear involves torment/punishment?

Is this not what Jesus pictures when he says, “And I, when I am lifted up will draw all men to myself”?

Is this not the shift Paul makes as he moves from the judgment seat of Christ where he knows the “fear of the Lord” and thus persuades men – to the love of Christ that compels him and that entrusts him with a ministry of reconciliation to all creation? (In fact, a careful reading of 2 Corinthians 5 is quite a case study of Pauline motivation for life and ministry – and “hell” never even puts in an appearance).

It’s certainly easier for us to scare the hell out of people rather than to fly. Looking at Jesus’ example, he certainly took the time to scare the hell out of earthbound religious people who were domineering and controlling and dismissiveof or downright abusive towards the outsiders he came to fly with. Isn’t it instructive that most, if not all, of Jesus’ hellfire and brimstone talk was reserved for the insider earthbound religious crowd? But then, the stick and carrot was their native tongue.  Sweets to the sweet.

Among the rest he did a kingdom walk that seemed to defy gravity, turning water into wine, directing the weather, multiplying food for the hungry, restoring sight to the blind, giving hope to outsider sinners, and inspiring would-be disciples consigned to hell by the religious crowd to dream that, yes, they too could fly.

I think I’ll fly.

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Posted by on August 4, 2011 in Doctrine & Heresies, musings


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