“If God has made us in his image, we have returned him the favor.” -Voltaire
This is part 2 of 3 in a series of posts called Evangelical Lessons for Liberal Christians. Evangelicals, much maligned among liberals, nonetheless possess an impressive array of gifts and skills that can benefit the larger Christian community, including those who do not share their beliefs and biases. Liberal Christians are so quick to self-identify as “not evangelical” or “not that kind of Christian” that we have developed a nasty habit of tossing babies out with the bathwater. I’m suggesting that we all go outside and recover these babies from the muddy ground outside (although we may have to give them another bath before we bring them back into our house).
Wow… I’m really stretching that metaphor.
In my first post, entitled God Has No Grandchildren, we talked about how evangelicals have done an amazing job of taking personal ownership of their spiritual lives. For them, Christianity is not a set of dogmas, morals, and rituals to which one defaults by accident of birth. For them, it is a whole-hearted commitment of one’s self to an ongoing relationship with the divine.
In today’s post, I want to talk about the Bible.
As far as religious communities go, none have had a more passionate love affair with the Bible than have evangelicals. They tend to take it with them wherever they go: church, work, school, and vacation. They sometimes refer to it as their sword (a source of strength) and other times as their love letter from God. Most of the time, they simply call it the Word of God. They have confidence that the voice of the Holy Spirit is able to reach, comfort, and guide them through these words on a page. Like newlyweds in the bedroom, evangelical encounters with the Bible are intense and frequent (if a bit messy and awkward). They tend to devour it, even though they don’t understand much of what they’re reading.
Liberal Christians, on the other hand, tend to relate to the Bible like an older couple in a long-term relationship. In place of the young lovers’ passion, they have developed a deep respect for its mystery and complexity. They let those old, familiar words wash over them and anchor them to all time and eternity. There are still some things they don’t like about the Bible, but they’ve learned how to accept those things and still appreciate the Bible for what it is.
Liberal Christians, while they tacitly accept the appellation “Word of God” as applied to the Bible, tend to cringe at notions of inerrancy and infallibility. For us, the Bible is not a magical book that was somehow “beamed down” from heaven without flaw or error. Why then do we still refer to them as the Word of God? I love the answer given in the Catechism found in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer (1979):
We call them (the Holy Scriptures) the Word of God because God inspired their human authors and because God still speaks to us through the Bible.
I love this answer’s dual emphasis on inspiration and continual speaking. Liberal Christians believe that the divine Word is speaks to us “in, with, and under” (a phrase I’m borrowing from Luther’s sacramental theology) the human words on the page. For those of us in the Reformed (and always reforming) tradition of Protestant Christianity, we identify Christ as the true and Living Word of God. The scriptures, as we have them, constitute a witness to that Living Word. In other words, the early disciples experienced something extraordinary in the person of Christ and spend the rest of their lives wrestling with what it meant. The Christian churches have continued to wrestle with that mystery for almost two millennia. These days, we are less certain than ever about our particular answers, but more convinced than ever about the overall importance of what we’ve found.
In our less glorious moments, liberal Christians have tended to abandon this treasure of the faith to those who would abuse it and co-opt it for their own selfish ends. Our respect for the complexity and mystery of the Bible has sometimes led us to throw our hands up in despair that anyone could ever know what this crazy book is talking about. We despise trite and easy answers taken from text on a page, which leads us to sometimes give up hope of finding any guidance at all. In our very worst moments, we tend to cut and paste the parts we like and throw out or ignore the parts we don’t. My favorite example of this kind of project is the famous Bible produced by my American forbear, Thomas Jefferson. He didn’t like the idea of supernatural miracles, so he just cut those parts out. These days, many liberal Christians have a tendency to cut out the parts about judgment and sex, as if the Bible had nothing valuable to say about these topics. To be fair, many evangelicals do the same thing. They underline their favorite verses about individual salvation and “the pelvic issues” while they ignore the passages that emphasize the importance of social justice or suggest the possibility of universal salvation.
The tendency toward idolatry is a human universal, not unique to evangelicals or liberals. We all have an instinctual urge to recast Jesus as an advocate for our own personal ideology. We all tend to hear our own voices, rather than God’s speaking to us in the text of the Bible. Anne Lamott once wrote, “You can safely assume that you’ve made God in your own image when she hates all the same people you do.”
I was speaking with a colleague once at a pastor’s retreat on Christian spirituality. I was talking about the central role that the Bible plays in shaping our spirituality. He asked, “Does it have to be through the Bible?” I responded that it doesn’t have to be through the Bible, but it gets to be. As Christians, we have the privilege of conducting our collective faith-journey in dialogue with this cacophonous chorus of voices from the past. I see the Bible as a library, rather than a book. It’s a messy collection of stories, poems, and letters that chronicle our ancestors’ relationship with God. They stretched to describe the indescribable. They failed to capture the essence of the divine in their writings, but they did leave a number of helpful signposts. I love the scriptures for their messiness. It gives me hope for myself. God never gave up on Abraham, Israel, or Peter, so I have every reason to trust that God will not give up on me.
The exercise that has most helped me recover the Bible as a tool for my spiritual growth is a practice developed by monks over a thousand years ago. It’s called Lectio Divina, which is Latin for “Divine Reading.” Here’s how it works:
- Sit down with a short passage of scripture (e.g. Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15). Read it slowly. Out loud, if you can. Maybe even stopping at every verse or sentence.
- Pay attention to any words or phrases that “jump out at you” or seem to touch your life in some significant way.
- Take a moment to process what that word or phrase means to you right now, in this moment. You’re not looking for once-and-for-all absolutely authoritative interpretations. You’re listening for what God is saying to you today through this passage. God might be saying something completely different to someone else through those same words. God might say something completely different to you tomorrow through those same words. The Spirit blows where it wills…
- Craft a prayer of response to what you think you’ve heard. This can be a prayer of thanksgiving, a request for help, or a dedication of oneself to service.
- Sit still for a period of extended silence while you contemplate God’s presence within and around you. It might help to focus your attention on the normally unconscious act of your breathing or perhaps pick a special word to guide and focus your meditation.
- Close by reading the passage slowly once more. Be thankful for what you have encountered in this process.
I think that liberal Christians have an opportunity to re-engage with the Bible in a passionate way. We can begin our “second honeymoon” with this old partner and rekindle in ourselves the romance we admire in our evangelical brothers and sisters.
This week’s sermon from First Presbyterian, Boonville.
The text is John 14:1-14.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled.”
These are good words to hear from Jesus on the morning after the end of the world. According to Harold Camping, president of Family Radio, the Final Judgment of humanity was scheduled to begin last night (May 21, 2011) at 6pm. Mr. Camping came up with this conclusion using a combination of literal and symbolic interpretations of certain biblical texts and then combining those interpretations with some fancy mathematics. Judging from the fact that so many of us are still here today, I think we can safely say that Mr. Camping’s calculations were (at least) slightly off.
This is not the first time someone has made such precise predictions about the Apocalypse. In fact, Mr. Camping himself previously insisted that the end of days would arrive promptly on September 6, 1994. Before him, there was the very famous case of the Millerites. This sect of believers followed the teachings of one William Miller, who predicted that Christ would return and the world would end before March 21, 1844. After this day came and went without incident, the deadline was extended to April 18 and then October 22. After his third failed prediction, Miller’s followers gave up on him. However, several of them went on to found the Seventh Day Adventist and Jehovah’s Witness churches in subsequent years.
So yes, apocalyptic enthusiasts are nothing new to Christian history. In fact, Jesus even warned us to watch out for folks like this. When the disciples asked Jesus about the end of the world, he told them in Matthew 24,
…if anyone says to you, ‘Look! Here is the Messiah!’ or ‘There he is!’ —do not believe it. 24For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce great signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. 25Take note, I have told you beforehand. 26So, if they say to you, ‘Look! He is in the wilderness,’ do not go out. If they say, ‘Look! He is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. 27For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.
Instead, Jesus comforts his followers with these words from today’s gospel reading:
Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.
When it comes to this “end of the world” business, Jesus is essentially saying, “Don’t worry about it” and “Trust me.” Nevertheless, there always seems to be someone out there who claims to have the inside scoop on when and how the world is going to end. They claim to know “the way” to secure one’s eternal destiny in light of the coming devastation. Well, Jesus had a thing or two to say about that as well. He reminded his followers they already knew “the way” to God.
“Wait a minute,” one of them said, “what ‘way’ are you talking about, Jesus? I don’t remember you saying anything about a ‘way’!”
“Sure you do,” Jesus said, “It’s me. I am the way.”
Now, if you’re still feeling confused as you read this, don’t worry. It’s supposed to be confusing. This is another classic example of Jesus talking right over the heads of his disciples. He uses these cryptic images in order to shake people out of their normal way of thinking. Jesus wants to expand their (and our) minds to operate on a spiritual level, far above that of ordinary reasoning.
With this famous phrase, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life”, we are venturing into territory that makes Christianity unique among the religions of the world. In many world religions, there is usually founder or other figurehead who acts a messenger for the Divine. That person is given a message that will guide the world toward salvation or enlightenment. Moses received the Torah, Muhammad received the Qur’an, and the Buddha received the Eightfold Path. In each of these cases, it’s the message, not the messenger, that’s most important. The unique thing about Christianity is that the messenger is the message. God is not revealed through a book or a teaching, but through a person, namely, Jesus of Nazareth. To know Jesus is to know God. If you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus.
This makes people uncomfortable. A personal God is too unpredictable and too intimate for most people. The only way to be in a relationship with a personal God is to come to know, love, and trust that person. Most people (including Christians) feel much more at ease with a God who can be contained within a body of teaching (like the Bible) or an institution (like the Church). Protestants do it just as much as Catholics. So-called “liberal” Christians do it just as much as so-called “conservatives”.
Let me give an example:
Many people in our society are quite familiar with the traditional evangelical presentation of the Christian message: Jesus Christ was born, so they say, in order to die on the cross as a sacrifice for the sins of humankind so that people can go to heaven when they die. The way to God is through the cross of Christ.
On the other hand, many people are also quite familiar with the progressive and “liberal” presentation of Christianity: Jesus Christ was an inspirational activist and philosopher whose teachings offer humankind a system of ethics that will lead us toward a more spiritually enlightened society. The way to God is through the teachings of Jesus.
I think both of these perspectives fall short of Jesus’ intention. Both the cross and the teachings of Christ are of paramount importance in the larger scheme of things, but they are only parts of the whole. It’s the person of Jesus Christ who is the final revelation of God to humankind. Jesus is the way. If we want to get to know God, we must get to know Jesus.
How do we do that? I don’t have an answer to that question. Sure, I could hand you a list of activities (like reading the Bible or going to church) that are supposed to help you get to know Jesus, but that would be just another way of putting God into a manageable box that can be unlocked with the right formula. The fact is that there are as many ways of getting to know Jesus as there are ways of getting to know any other person.
Think about the last time you were really in love or had a crush on someone. What did you do? You spent a lot of time thinking about that person. You hung on his or her every word. You gazed longingly over your shoulder whenever that person walked by. You studied every feature on his or her face. You spent as much time as possible with that person. Your friends probably got sick and tired of hearing you talk about it.
In the same way, getting to know Jesus is more like falling in love than signing a contract. The only difference between us and his earliest followers is that we don’t get the luxury of his physical presence with us. We have to get to know Jesus in other ways. I can’t tell you how it’s going to happen for you, because it’s different for everybody. However, I can offer you some ideas about how it might happen.
For some people, getting to know Jesus happens dramatically and suddenly, like falling head-over-heels in love. For others, it happens gradually over a long period of time, like sharing a cup of coffee with an old friend. For some people, it happens through conventional channels, like going to church or reading the Bible. For others, it happens in very surprising and unconventional ways.
My favorite story of an unconventional encounter with Jesus comes from the autobiographical work Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott. (I should warn you that this vignette will be edited for content, as Anne is known for being a somewhat foul-mouthed saint.) This scene opens with Anne living on a houseboat at the end of a dock, deep in the throes of her addiction to alcohol and drugs. One week prior, she’d had an abortion and was still bleeding profusely. During this time, she would occasionally visit a Presbyterian church near her house, but would always sneak out before the sermon. Anne continues:
Several hours later, the blood stopped flowing, and I got in bed, shaky and sad and too wild to have another drink or take a sleeping pill. I had a cigarette and turned out the light. After a while, as I lay there, I became aware of someone with me, hunkered down in the corner, and I just assumed it was my [late] father, whose presence I had felt over the years when I was frightened and alone. The feeling was so strong that I actually turned on the light for a moment to make sure no one was there—of course, there wasn’t. But after a while, in the dark again, I knew beyond any doubt that it was Jesus. I felt him as surely as I feel my dog lying nearby as I write this.
And I was appalled. I thought about my life and my brilliant hilarious progressive friends, I thought about what everyone would think of me if I became a Christian, and it seemed an utterly impossible thing that simply could not be allowed to happen. I turned to the wall and said out loud, “I would rather die.”
I felt him just sitting there on his haunches in the corner of my sleeping loft, watching me with patience and love, and I squinched my eyes shut, but that didn’t help because that’s not what I was seeing him with.
Finally I fell asleep, and in the morning, he was gone.
This experience spooked me badly, but I thought it was just an apparition, born of fear and self-loathing and booze and loss of blood. But then everywhere I went, I had the feeling that a little cat was following me, wanting me to reach down and pick it up, wanting me to open the door and let it in. But I knew what would happen: you let a cat in one time, give it a little milk, and then it stays forever. So I tried to keep one step ahead of it, slamming my houseboat door when I entered or left.
And one week later, when I went back to church, I was so hungover that I couldn’t stand up for the songs, and this time I stayed for the sermon, which I just thought was so ridiculous, like someone trying to convince me of the existence of extraterrestrials, but the last song was so deep and raw and pure that I could not escape. It was as if the people were singing in between the notes, weeping and joyful at the same time, and I felt like their voices or something was rocking me in its bosom, holding me like a scared kid, and I opened up to that feeling—and it washed over me.
I began to cry and left before the benediction, and I raced home and felt the little cat running along my heels, and I walked down the dock past dozens of potted flowers, under a sky as blue as one of God’s own dreams, and I opened the door to my houseboat, and I stood there a minute, and then I hung my head and said, “F**k it: I quit.” I took a long deep breath and said out loud, “All right. You can come in.”
So this was the beautiful moment of my conversion.
I heard this on NPR yesterday and thought it was blog-worthy. If you haven’t experienced Anne Lamott before, I highly recommend all of her books, especially Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith.
If you have five minutes, I recommend listening to the interview, rather than reading it.
Click the image below to see Traveling Mercies on Amazon.com: