Category Archives: Doctrine & Heresies

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

dogs and hogs

I have read the Sermon on the Mount more times than I can count.

Shoot, I’ve recited the Sermon on the Mount more times than I can count.Good As New

But reading it today in John Henson’s translation (Good as New: A Radical Retelling of the Scriptures), it popped. Again. This is the benefit of hearing the voice of different translators, especially those coming at the text from a different place – which Henson most certainly is. He’s clearly unorthodox if not outright heretical in the eyes of many – which is undoubtedly a selling point for some. I’m just fascinated by fresh renderings of a Greek text I’ve been playing with for three decades now.

Case in point.

Here’s a passage I’ve read and recited repeatedly this way:

Don’t give what’s holy to the dogs or throw your pearls to pigs; if you do, they’ll trample it under their feet and then turn on you and tear you to pieces. Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you; for everyone that asks receives, and he that seeks finds, and to the one who knocks the door will be opened.

I started off treating these as two separate “pearls” on the thread of this sermon; over time as I recited it, I connected the pearls and heard Jesus talking about people as dogs and pigs, with the follow-up “ask and it will be given to you” as a query for discernment – ask who the dogs and hogs are so you don’t waste your time with them, more or less.

But now try this on for size:

You’re fond of those sayings, ‘Don’t try to have a conversation with a rapid dog’ and ‘You can’t teach pork.’ Make sure you’re not the ones who fail to appreciate the good things offered you! If you have an open and inquisitive mind you’ll get the answers you’re looking for. Those who ask questions learn; those who explore, discover; those who knock on the door get invited in.


Oh my God, have I been getting this wrong all this time?

What if this isn’t Jesus endorsing our already quite natural tendency to categorize each other as teachable and unteachable, as worth the time and effort or not worth the time and effort, and then exhorting us to ask for divine wisdom in making such distinctions…

What if, instead, two ways, two approaches to life are being contrasted here: the way of dogs and hogs who are insensible to divine truth because they are quite content to wallow in the pigpen of their current thought/ value/belief system (be it religious or irreligious) and the way of the inquisitive heart that asks and seeks and knocks?

What if instead of encouraging us in our labeling and categorizing of others as either closed or open minded, Jesus is actually challenging us to step out of our religious kennels and irreligious pigpens and embrace a truly inquisitive path in which we never cease asking, prodding, poking, knocking, nudging, nagging, investigating, searching, roaming, digging, and excavating the Reality of all things?

Oh yes.

Sometimes it does indeed pay to read the works of heretics.


Tags: , , , , ,

God hates you or Meet the Jansens

I came across this clip from a brother’s sermon recently. It stuck between my teeth like a popcorn husk that defies flossing, so be warned if you watch: you could be picking at your teeth for some time.

The bottom line here if you don’t wish to venture in and risk possible flossing challenges of your own: God hates you. Well, some of you. Personally, objectively. He hates you. His sick of you. You weary him.

While watching this I immediately began a rewrite in my mind of some classic hymns, such as…

Come let us all unite to sing
God is hate!
Let heav’n and earth their praises ring,
God is hate!

I started thinking of what my brother’s devotional calendar would look like…

driscoll calendar

this could be a big seller. just saying.

Now, there is truth in what is said – but then there’s truth in at least some of what most of us say. Yes, we can cite plenty of Scriptures that bear witness to the hate/wrath/anger of God, from God putting to death erring Er in Genesis to Jesus (!) threatening to strike “the children” of “Jezebel” dead in Revelation.

Point taken.

We can also cite Scriptures that emphasize the love of God and we commence bombardments and counter-bombardments of love and hate, anger and grace.

I actually don’t think most of us are in denial of this. From over thirty years in this “business” of church life my observation is that people, whether religious or irreligious, live in anxiety and fear of their own imperfections and of not measuring up to God or to whomever. We might wear facades of assurance and bravado, but our default mode is one of fear and insecurity.


replacing “God” with “I” would be more honest

So, thanks, my brother, for reinforcing our already well-established spiritual neurosis.

I could see people wilting under the condemnation of this “diagnosis.” I thought of the story I just read of the latest victim of cyber-bullying – the twelve-year-old girl who had been hounded with messages like, “You are a loser,” “You’re so fat,” “Nobody likes you,” “Why don’t you kill yourself.”

And so she did.

I thought of how close saying “God hates you” is to “I hate you” and how much more dangerous it is – for if God hates you, am not I (are not we?) fully justified or even commanded to do the same? Can I even do otherwise? And just what would such hate look like when translated into action?


I like my daughter’s sign better

And then I met the Jansens. (Thank you Richard Rohr for this wee trip down memory lane):

Jansenism was named after a Dutch theologian and bishop, Cornelius Jansen (d. 1638), who emphasized moral austerity and a fear of God’s justice more than any trust in God’s mercy. God was wrathful, vindictive, and punitive, and all the appropriate Scriptures were found to make these very points. It is hard to find a Western Christian—Catholic or Protestant—who has not been formed by this Christian form of Pharisaism, which is really pagan Stoicism. It strongly influenced most seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Catholicism in France, Belgium, Holland, Italy, and Germany, and still lingers on in much pre– Vatican II Catholicism all over the world. Although it was officially condemned as a heresy by Rome in 1715, it is still quite common, especially, it seems to me, among people who have had punitive and angry parenting patterns. This is the way they comfortably shape their universe and their God. They actually prefer such a God—things are very clear, and you know where you stand with such a deity—even though this perspective leaves almost all people condemned and is a very pessimistic and fearful worldview.

The heresy of Jansenism was new to me. But actually only in name. I’ve met the Jansens. Shoot, I’ve been a Jansenite more than I would care to remember. Rohr is right. There are far too many Jansenites running around masquerading as Calvinists, Reformed, Evangelical, Catholic, Christian, whatever. If we must have handles, Jansenite sounds fitting. Though it does sound like a line of luggage. Actually, that’s a plus.

Much religious baggage here…

Grumpy Pharisee bumper sticker

the bumpersticker I would gift to every Jansenite, starting with myself


Tags: , , , ,



It’s my word find of the week.


From Middle English mameren (“to hesitate, be undecided, waver, mutter”), from Old English māmrianmāmorian (“to think through, deliberate, plan out, design”), from Proto-Germanic *maimrōną (“to take care, worry”), from Proto-Indo-European *mer*smer (“to fall into thought, remember, take care”). Related to Old English māmor (“deep thought, deep sleep, unconsciousness”), Old English mimorian (“to remember”), Dutch mijmeren (“to ponder, muse”). More at remember. (Unless you forget.)

mammer (third-person singular simple present mammers, present participle mammering, simple past and past participle mammered)

1. (rare) To hesitate.

Tell me, Othello: I wonder in my soul, What you would ask me, that I should deny, Or stand so mammering on — Shakespeare, Othello.

2. (rare) To mumble or stammer from doubt or hesitation.


blahI often sit back and wonder, “What do I do with this wordhavering blog thingy?” I mean, sometimes I wax poetic (or fake wax it), sometimes I try to go theological – but half of what I write when I try to write something theologically significant or current eventish impactful or insightful, sounds, well, stooooopid when I finish.

And then I found this word.


It has brought me back to my havering roots in starting this blogging adventure. To haver, at least in UK lingo, or so I understand, is to hem and haw, to stammer, to utter with slurred speech. In other words to mammer.

Yes, this I can do! This I do do. In fact, do do is an excellent way of putting it.

It also really helps that a related word to mammer is mammery: prone to mumble or stammer; mumbly. Just one letter away from mammary is mammery. Boob speech.

I want to see mammery used in a sentence.

“Hey, don’t go all mammery on me, now.” Yeah, that works.

My realization?

I mammer my prayers. Particularly during hospital visits.

favorite pic of the week...thanks Gina

favorite pic of the week…thanks Gina

I mammerize Scripture in my sermons.

I do not offer pastoral counseling. Pastoral mammering, only. Please and thank you. With frequent movie references and obscure Greek and Hebrew phrases I’m totally just making up on the spot.

And to remember (remammer!) this is to remember that all I need to do here is mammer; to mammer in all of it’s mammeried glory.

Where is the wise guy? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?

And so the Word of the Lord to them will be, Zav le-zav, zav le-zav, kav le-kav, kav le-kav, zehr-shom, zehr-shom…

At it’s best, the Gospel is a message that can only be mammered.

Our best theology but finger-painting.

I am the Wordhaver.

And I mammer.


Tags: ,

church plant

church history

This just became my all time favorite church history cartoon. (Thanks, Tom)

Okay, so perhaps “church history cartoon” doesn’t exactly name a field burgeoning with competition.

But this one got me. This one gets me.

I used to teach church history this way, perched on my Protestant branch, critiquing, hacking at the rest of the branches around me (“Hi, my name is Mike. I am a recovering hacker. Now I haver.”) hacking at the very roots bearing me as I imagined myself standing aloof, in midair, disconnected from the holy mess of all the lower branches – or better, sitting in my own pious balcony like Statler and Waldorf, panning and praising at will, and thanking God that at last someone sees all things right and true.

“Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up,” became the watchword from my critic’s balcony, and all others plants separate and suspect. In fact there can be only one true plant (and I’m pretty sure it’s mine).

Or perhaps, forsaking any supposedly detached perch we take a seat a few branches lower with someone else we imagine had/has it right. Or perhaps, better still, with imagined Tarzan agility we swing down to the trunk of the tree and bellow from below our hubristic yawp against all those wild, hubristic branches growing overhead through the centuries.

Ah, but what if we turn the image on its side.Church history_sideways glance

What if in doing so we were to see one plant, one glorious burning bush, even?

Many leaves. Diverse expressions. But one plant sharing a common Root.

What if we heard and moved to a fresh watchword as we contemplate Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant and every shade in between and beyond: “If the root is holy, so are the branches.”

In fact, what if we were so bold as to see, even just for a moment, all of humanity as one interconnected burning bush aflame with God, our task merely being, as fellow branches, to enjoy our common root and to point to our common connection, to the common DNA embedded in us all? What if every true theologian is simply Treebeard, charged with awakening the forest to the Life stirring within?

What if faith is simply seeing this connection, awaking out of long Entish sleep to the Christ root that bears us all, that would enfold, engraft and empower all?

What if, waking up to such vivid and vibrant connection we then got about the business of bearing fruit where we are in this big, holy mess of a bush, rather than hacking at the other branches?

What rich, holy, truly catholic fruit might that yield?

Ah, but how much more easily shears and ax are fitted to our hands and hearts…


Tags: , ,

the nerve!


Mike’s Authorized Version. Or perhaps Mike’s Amplified Version.

Whichever. Whatever. My own Mike’s Hard Lemonade on a page.
mike's hard lemonade

Sounds a bit presumptuous. The nerve!

I suppose it may sound arrogant to do your own translation of the Bible. But I’m just playing around with the Love of my Life. I have memorized, recited, regurgitated, and read, read, read, and reread again Galatians and the rest of the New Testament letters for the past thirty years. I’m no scholar. I only have BS — a bachelor of science in business administration from Cal State Northridge dating back to 1981. Three years before that I had started reading the New Testament in Greek. My holy playground. My dance partner. My desert. My En Gedi. My island paradise. My theme park. My high mountain.

Writing about Galatians this year, I’m doing my own translation as I go, as I dance with my old friend, in wondrous Greek, sucking on each verb, savoring each conjunction, each noun, each subtle verbal turn on the page, striving to hear Paul, longing to hear the Voice in the Dance of it all.

Grappling with what each agonizingly abstract English word we’ve used and read for years really mean, how they would really read for us — which is the ultimate goal of all good translation. I won’t claim that status for the MAV. But you get what you get.rod serling

Might be fun to post the results here, week by week…with a Rod Serlingesque “consider if you will…” (If you want the translation with my personal textual notes you can check here.)

Welcome to my holy playground…


Paul – personal rep with authority not derived from any man or by any human agency, but received directly (a) from Jesus Christ himself and thus (b) from God the Father who totally backed his act by raising him from the dead – and the rest of the family of faith here joins with me writing to you, the ecclesia, the thriving communities of Jesus across the region of Galatia:

Overflowing divine favor! Deep, healing wholeness!

– all of which flows to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself to fully deal with the sins of our past so he might open up the bright prospects of our future, plucking us right out of the clutches of this present, dead end evil age – a rescue in full accord with what our God and Father has planned all along. Pile on the praises to him, forever and ever and ever! Bank on it!

I. Am.GOBSMACKED! I can’t believe it! How quickly you’ve thrown everything away, turning your back on the One who invited you in, the one who lavished his amazing grace all over you – you’ve traded all of that, traded Him – for a cheap, knock-up wannabe “gospel” which, make no mistake about it, isn’t good news at all – it’s down and dirty bad news from troublemakers who have turned the good news, turned this message Christ gave us to preach – which is Christ himself, on its head.

But listen up: even if one of our own number, no, even if an angel right out of God’s sweet heaven!, presumed to share any other message of “good news” other than the “good news” of Christ – ‘anathema esto!’ a curse on him! I’ve said it once and now I’ll say it again: if anyone tries to “evangelize” you with a message other than what you’ve already received, a curse on him!

So tell me, does this sound like I’m trying to “win friends and influence people” now? – or am I playing to an audience of one – namely, God? Does this sound like I’m in the business of kissing up to mere men?

If pleasing mere men were still my game,
Christ’s devoted slave is the last thing I’d be.

Galatians 1:1-10 MAV



Posted by on January 15, 2013 in Doctrine & Heresies, Galatians, MAV, Religion


Tags: , , , ,

Hey Jude: How to read so as not to miss the Story_1

Okay. Following up with Jude.

The guidelines.

Number one:


A constitution implies neatness and internal consistency. It demands strict interpretation and conformity. Each president in our history has stepped into office with the oath to “preserve, protect, and defend” it. Good constitutions also provide an amendment process that makes it possible, though difficult, to change it.

Of course, we can exchange “Bible” for “constitution” in the above paragraph and it works just fine for many folks – until you get to the last sentence. Witness the bristling that takes place at the very suggestion that the Bible be “amended” in light of current cultural debates.

When we hold a Bible it looks like we are holding one, neat, internally consistent volume written by one Author. The reality is it is a library (this is readily seen in the fact that “Bible” is from biblia = books; yes, to hold the Bible is to hold the Library). Not a huge library, by any means, but a library nonetheless. Sixty-six volumes of varying sizes by our count, volumes written by scores of mostly anonymous ancient authors and collected over a millenium or so, and then edited and assembled by other hands, many of them also anonymous.

No neat shiny heavenly plates these.

Raw, gritty, human scribblings on parchment, scrolls, skins and stone. The first incarnate Word.

You expect diversity in a library – multiple volumes of a variety of genres. So it is. Narrative. Poetry. Song. Records. Allegories. Dirges. Letters. Fantasy*. Legislation. It’s all there. All kinds of literature requiring all kinds of reading and hearing. To compact them all into one narrow bandwidth is to violate the distinctive nature of each. If God wanted one bandwidth called legislation, he would and could have done so. But the fact is only a small portion of the library consists of actual legislation: the ancient “constitution” of Israel (which constitution, btw, did not get them home). The majority of entries in this library is narrative.

To try to turn song into law or narrative into rules requires a certain level of madness, doesn’t it? Though the human authors of this library do manage to turn its laws into song.

To read the Bible as a constitution will alternately produce religious conformity or irreligious rebellion, depending on our disposition – and either way we will miss the Story. A library invites investigation, exploration, wonder, and debate between authors with various points of view. The more time I spend around this Library, the more I appreciate the diversities within it and the less inclined I am to smooth them out into forced harmonies.

And wherever I happen to be browsing in it, I always look for traces of the Story…


* Don’t freak out; “fantasy” is simply a more culturally relevant label (I think) for what we usually call “apocalyptic” literature.


Tags: , ,

Hey Jude

So I literally stumbled my way into teaching the wee New Testament letter of Jude this past preaching

I mean, I literally stumbled on the steps as I made my way up to the podium. At least I know how to make an entrance. (And they wanted me to try dancing on the dance floor last night.) How ironic that this very letter says God is able to keep us on our feet and that I lost mine getting up to recite it. Guess it does actually just say he is able to, not that he will.

Anyway, I stumbled, got up, re-entered, and then had a fun little dance with Jude for the first time in over three decades of teaching.

The only trouble was, I didn’t get to any of my points.

I guess I really only had one point, which I got to, but that point has layers. And I really only got to hint at some of the layers and half my PowerPoint went unused.

Click on the link if you would like to experience my forty-five minute or so verbal dance (that’s putting it gracefully — stumbling remains the most apt description of what happens whenever I speak, which is one of the reasons this blog is called “wordhavering”; just look up the UK definition of “haver”). For those of you who only read my musings on this blog, this will give you the opportunity to experience my musings audibly and visually. Like Mike in 3D. Almost. Which isn’t to say that this will necessarily be a good thing for you. Otherwise, just read on.

You see, I told my audience that perhaps I would delve into the unexplored layers of the one point of this sermon/teaching/lesson/musing/thing on my blog. So I suppose I should.

So to recap the sermon/teaching/lesson/musing/thing – which, oddly enough, after explaining that my mind is rather non-linear looking somewhat like this:what is that

I was asked after the “Jude talk” by a more linearly minded person if I could do such a recap first whenever I get up to speak so linear people at least have a clue where I’m going. But where would the fun be in that. Besides, to quote Prometheus, one of my movie favs from 2012, “God does not create in straight lines.”

Where was I?

Oh yes, the recap.

car_ditch_1546747cJude, early Christ follower and leader of some note writes a missive to an early messianic Jewish community encouraging them to keep a firm grasp on God’s love, live lives of mercy (which is how we fight for the faith), and not to be thrown off track by the distraction of those who think they have a better idea. Thus the question: how do we stay on the road and avoid the ditch?

Refusing to quantify a formulaic answer consisting of three steps, five actions, or seven principles, I tried to break it down to one simple, foundational word. Or maybe three. Something rooted in the text of Jude itself. I thought about the question: how do we stay out of the ditch? By staying focused on the road (and slowing down – especially on mountain roads during Idaho winters). How do we stay focused on the Road (which is Jesus) and avoid the ditches of legalism on the one side and libertinism on the other? (Read Frank Viola’s excellent summary of these two “ditches.”) Three words: Know the Story. My initial thought, Biblephile that I am, was Student-Studying“Read the Bible.” But “reading the Bible,” to be honest, for most conjures up images like this:


Something more than reading and study is called for here. A deeper absorption, a more sublime imbibing.

Story. Imagination. Soul. Heart, as well as mind.

storytellerIt’s what Jude does with his readers – or more accurately, with his hearers. He takes them back into the Story. His Story which was their unfolding Story.

And so the question, how do we read the Bible (or read, period) so as not to miss the Story – so as to engage, heart, soul, mind, and imagination?

That’s about as far as I got in the verbal musing of my Jude talk. This is where the missing layers enter in the form of five guidelines for reading so as not to miss the Story (yes, they really are more like guidelines).

We’ll start in on my next post.

In the meantime with all this talk about Jude you know you want to. Go ahead. Listen to the song and sing along as you do. And happy new year!




Tags: , , , , ,

Dug Down Deeper Still

The academic part of me cannot help but wonder…is there anything upon which EVERY Christian “branch” agrees? If so, what? Is it possible to list things that are actually so basic that they really do meet his definition of “Orthodoxy”?

I love this question from my friend Stephen in response to these recent musings prompted by Joshua Harris’ book Dug Down Deep.dug down deep

It is the question, isn’t it?

When we look at all the branches of this immense Christian tree – Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, Coptic, etc. etc. etc. – “is it possible to list things that are actually so basic” that we will find agreement, that we will discern a common DNA amidst an all too often rancorous diversity?

My mind goes to several places.

Ephesians 4:1-6 and Paul’s seven “ones” of Christian experience.

Hebrews 6:1-3 with its listing six foundational truths.

1 Corinthians 15:1-28 with one of the earliest creedal formulations we have on hand – with apostolic commentary, no less!

All of these would seem to provide solid ground to dig down to, experientially, and then to build a life.

Then, of course, there is the Apostle’s Creed. The day before the question came, I had been blessed by a communal recital of the Apostle’s Creed followed by a singing of the Doxology. Some seven hundred voices raised in unison. Deep chords there. Chords initially struck over the first decade of my life growing up in the Presbyterian Church. Week after week I learned to recite the words. Today I begin to hear the song.

And the song took me not to the above options, nor to any textbook fatter than a phone book  It took me to one of the earliest creedal songs. It took me to the poem. The Poem.

Six stanzas.

Eighteen words.

Forty-five syllables.

We have tagged it with the address 1 Timothy 3:16. The title placed over it is “Mystery” – or more fully: “Confessedly (or without debate, with full consensus) great is the mystery of godliness.” Ho-moh-loh-goo-MEN-ace meh-GAH es-teen toe tace you-seh-BAY-yas moo-STARE-rhi-own is something like how that title would read in the Greek. Ironically, the manuscripts of the New Testament aren’t agreed on what the next word is – on what the first word of the creedal poem is. And the difference is a dash. Literally. In the early uncial manuscripts it could be OC or it could be ƟC. OC is “he who” and ƟC is shorthand for “God.” Older English translations go with ƟC and say “God” (Theos), more recent ones opt for OC (hoes) and say “he who” or “the one who” reasoning that it’s easier to explain “he who” being changed to “God” than vice versa. I go with ƟC and read “God” though I totally get and even appreciate OC “he who” for the simple reason it enhances the mystery at the center of the poem. Just who is this? Who is this man?

Whoever this God/man is, the defining DNA in all of our branches is set forth in the following six stanzas – nine syllables followed by eight, then five, then eight, then seven and seven.

Here is an approximate pronunciation guide for the Greek. Take each stanza into your mouth before reading a translation – and you might try softly repeating moo-STARE-rhi-own after reading each line (go ahead, try it; it won’t bite you…but then it actually may). Say each word slowly, syllable by syllable, then combine the syllables and say it fast (what, a post that makes you work!? Preposterous! But try it anyway. Taste some ancient culture).

eh-pha-neh-ROE-thay in sar-KEE
eh-dee-kai-OH-thay in PNEW-mah-tee
OAF-thay ang-GEH-loys
eh-kay-ROOK-thay in ETH-neh-seen
eh-pea-STEW-thay in KOS-moh
on-eh-LAME-thay in DOK-say

Here’s what the actual Greek text looks like (with a Coptic cross background thrown in for free):


Why did I just torture you with this? Simple. This DNA is ancient. It is foreign. It is not a product of western culture. It is story. It is poem. It is song.

An English translation:

(The God/man)…
was manifested in flesh;
was vindicated in spirit;
was seen by messengers;
was preached among the peoples;
was believed on in the world;
was taken up in glory.

Two millenia of elaborations, formulations, councils, creeds, analysis, dissection, exposition, supposition, explication and pontification have failed to improve on its simplicity, power and passion. It may be the question that drives us, but it is story that forms us. Harris says it well: “Doctrine is the meaning of the story God is writing in the world.” I would just simplify it to “doctrine is the story God is writing in the world” – for it is in the many nuances, levels and layers of our deduced and adduced meaning in which we can and do so easily lose the story or, worse, hijack it. Mutate it. Mute it.

There is no list of basics. Only story. And the story is the doctrine. It is the creed. It is the DNA not only of all of Christendom’s branches, but of the whole cosmic forest in which we live. The forest where Immanuel lives, where his voice echoes, where His Spirit dances.

And if the academic part of us can still wonder, perhaps we can yet hear and enter into its rhythms…or to put it as Josh Harris does: perhaps we can dig down deep — dig down deep and build a new life, a new church, a new world, on it.


Posted by on December 10, 2012 in Doctrine & Heresies, musings


Tags: , , , ,

Dug Down Yet Deeper

Another second take that Joshua Harris made me take while reading Dug Down Deep – I am enjoying this read! Harris observes:

Digging down and building on the rock isn’t a picture of being nominally religious or knowing Jesus from a dug down deepdistance. Being a Christian means being a person who labors to establish his beliefs, his dreams, his dreams, his choices, his very view of the world on the truth of who Jesus is and what he has accomplished – a Christian who cares about truth, who cares about sound doctrine.

Good statement. No real second take there, except on the questions raised in the previous post about where such sound doctrine and the irreducible formulation of it is found, which actually leads to my second double take.

What does it really mean to “dig down deep” and “build on the rock” as Jesus describes in his classic story of the wise and foolish builders?

As Harris’ story unfolds, it becomes clear that for him digging down deep was a matter of being handed numerous books of theology, including Grudem’s Systematic Theology which he says is “fatter than a phone book.” He later delights in the fact that when he meets up with the pastor of his former youth group that the current youth group was digging deep into the same book of Systematic Theology, a book usually reserved for seminarians.

I am all for books. I like books. Many of my best friends are books.

In fact, I own far too many books. I manage a church bookstore. I want people to buy books – especially thick books of theology that are fatter than a phone book.

But as I see Jesus sitting on that hillside telling his tale of the wise and foolish builders, I can’t help but scan his audience – an audience filled with peasants, fishermen, and other common laborers. What would “digging down deep” mean to them?

One study discussing literacy rates in the first century draws this conclusion:

“A town in which there is only one who reads; he stands up, reads (the Torah), and sits down, he stands up, reads and sits down, even seven times.” Soferim 11:2

In other words, in some towns there was only one person who could read the Torah, which is a highly (Hebrew) religious reading. This rule appears also in t. Megila though with a slight difference: instead of ‘town’ it says there: ‘a synagogue of which there is only’, etc… Of course, it does not mean that in all rural places there was such literacy, but, on the other hand, if there were towns with 1% literacy, then the literacy of all the towns was not higher than 5% (at most). Therefore, taking into consideration the above rule, together with the fact that there are rules that reflect a zero literacy rate in the rural areas lead to the assumption of a low rate of literacy in the whole population. Even if we assume that in cities (as happens all over the world in urban areas in comparison to rural areas), such as Tiberias, for example, the literacy rate was double and even triple in comparison with the towns, still the figures of literacy are around 2-15%. With the assumption that the rural population was around 70% (with 0% literacy), 20% of urban population (with 1-5% literacy), and 10% of highly urban population (with 2-15% literacy), the total population literacy is still very low. Thus, it is no exaggeration to say that the total literacy rate in the Land of Israel at that time (of Jews only, of course), was probably less than 3%. (Read the study at

So, what does “dig down deep” and “build your foundation on the rock” mean to a predominantly illiterate audience? What would Jesus intend for them to see and hear in this story?

peter and groupWas he handing out textbooks to the crowd – ones even fatter than a phone book? (Now there’s a creative retelling of the feeding of the five thousand just waiting to happen: the reading of the five thousand. That will have to wait for another post.)

Now, it’s true, Jesus does quote at least six times from the Torah in his famous Sermon on the Mount, each time prefacing the quote with something like “you have heard that it was said.” Emphasis on heard. These people didn’t own books (scrolls) and couldn’t have read them if they did. They lived in a worldview which said obedience to God did not hinge on learning to read, or to write, for that matter.

And so how could digging down deep involve acquiring and reading thick books?

Add to this the fact that those who owned and read all the books are the ones who killed the Teller of the Story. Bad diggers indeed.

Add to this further  that in this same sermon the Teller of the Tale pointed his illiterate audience to the one book they could all personally read: “Look at the birds of the air, they don’t sow or reap or gather into barns…” “Consider the lillies of the field, how they grow…”

If Jesus didn’t hand them theology textbooks at the conclusion of his story, then why would he assume this is what he would have us do now? Why would we make the connection between digging deep and becoming a scribal culture with shelves lined with theological tomes? Is this what Jesus was after?

Do we perhaps need to “dug down yet deeper”?



Tags: , , , , ,

Dug Down Deeper

I’ve been reading Dug Down Deep by Joshua Harris. dug down deep

I fondly remember attending seminars by his father, Gregg Harris back in the 80’s – and I remember him frequently telling stories about Josh and showing slides of a mop-haired young boy. So it’s a bit weird to be reading this book – something like running into the adult versions of little kids you knew decades ago. Has so much time really passed?


If the definition of a good book is one that makes you think and process, then Dug Down Deep is a very good book for me right now. Love Josh’s heart, his stories, his humor. And some of his points that I would have given the simple nod to years ago I now find myself doing a double take on.

For instance:

The word orthodoxy literally means “right opinion.” In the context of Christian faith, orthodoxy is shorthand for getting your opinion or thoughts about God right. It is teaching and beliefs based on established, proven, cherished truths of the faith. These are the truths that don’t budge. They’re clearly taught in Scripture and affirmed in the historic creeds of the Christian faith. Orthodox beliefs are ones that genuine followers of Jesus have acknowledged from the beginning and then handed down through the ages. Take one of them away, and you’re left with something less than historic Christian belief.

Orthodoxy is the irreducible truths about God and his work in the world.


So here’s my double take. Which historic Christianity? Catholic? Greek Orthodox? Syriac? Coptic? Protestant? Which historic form? Which branch of the tree?

It depends on which Christian you’re talking to, doesn’t it?

Proponents of each historic form of Christianity would adamantly argue that theirs is a (or the) legitimate, authentic, and yes, orthodox, form of Christianity – each containing what for them are the “irreducible truths” of Christianity.

When I saw those words, “irreducible truths,” the thought that immediately came to mind – in fact I wrote them in the margin, and I don’t usually write in the margin of most books – “irreducible by whom”?

It takes a certain brand of nearsighted hubris (available on just about all religious shelves; I know – I’ve bought and sold it for years) to define as “irreducible” truths the set of creedal propositions coming out of, for instance, Alexander Campbell and company in 19th century America and the consequently dubbed the “Restoration Movement.” Or the set of propositions coming out of Calvin’s Institutes and subsequently dubbed “Reformed Theology” (which is essentially where Harris is coming from, I’m gathering). Or even the Vineyard Statement of Faith coming out of John Wimber’s movement, for that matter. Catholics can, at least, claim the primacy of being on the scene sooner – though they would have to take that up with their Eastern Orthodox neighbors, along with historic Syriac and Coptic forms of Christianity.

Who has the right irreducible set of truths?

And is finding that correct irreducible set of truths that Harris defines as “sound doctrine” really what it is all about? Is this the final litmus test through which we must pass to achieve heaven and eternal salvation? Is this the shibboleth we must correctly pronounce to pass over the bridge of death safely to the other side?

Harris has indeed “dug down deep,” but do we in fact need to “dug down deeper”?


Posted by on December 6, 2012 in Church, Doctrine & Heresies, musings, Religion


Tags: , , , , , ,