Thursday, February 25, 2010

Biblical Art, Culture, & Ethnicity

Many of us today recognize the inaccuracies of biblical art today, particularly representation of Jesus as blonde-haired and blue-eyed. Jokes are made and Christianity is often trivialized and ridiculed due to ethno-centric representations of Jesus.

And these are very fair criticisms. They often do take us out of the reality of recognizing that we are not the center of the world nor of the biblical story.

However, I also think there is something quite beautiful and redeeming about ethno-centric artistic representations. The Mosaic Bible has weekly art pieces. And several have biblical stories from other cultures. It was very interesting to see multiple versions of the nativity scene in vastly different cultures, times, and ethnicities. Last week, there was a piece entitle "The Parable of the Lost Son" from Hong Kong. It looks like a traditional Chinese artwork. Without the biblical title, I would not have thought it was a biblical piece.

My initial reaction was, "That's not at all accurate." That's true. However, I then checked myself, remembering that most art is inaccurate. Then I realized and remembered the beauty in the fact that virtually all cultures and ethnicities have wanted to and been able to accept Jesus and the Bible as their own.

Art is a way to help us engage the stories. It can help us understand and relate to scenes that are frankly unrelatable in many ways today. We do this with modernizing analogies of parables and stories frequently today. Why can we not do this with art? The fact that we can shows the timelessness, applicability, and Truth of the biblical story.

Further, as I discovered while taking a course that included an emphasis on Medieval art, benefactors of art pieces and the artists themselves were often put into the scenes. Sure, it could be a narcissistic move. But it can also be a way of helping oneself feel closer to God.

I personally think that's quite beautiful. So I would like to ask for redemption of ethno-centric art, not as cultural insensitivity, but as cultural engagement and emphasizing that God will meet us exactly where we are.

Psychology research suggests we do relate better to people who look like us. Next time you see a Jesus who looks like you, as yourself if you are better able to relate to Jesus because of that in contrast to the "real" face of Jesus.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Salvation, Gospel, and Evangelism Without Repentance

When people talk about salvation, the Gospel, and evangelism, repentance is almost always central. Along the lines of the morality discussions from the last couple of days, repentance is a good thing. We need to recognize where we've screwed up so we can rectify that and grow.

However, I'm coming to realize that one can evangelize without emphasizing repentance. As I have discussed over the last couple of days, the Christian life is not about repenting of sin and becoming "holy" (i.e. pure). Rather it is about becoming holy by coming close to God through Christ.

That includes repentance and morality, but does not necessarily start nor end with it. It starts and ends with desire and love for Christ. Yet so often salvation, the Gospel, and evangelism begin and end with "Repent!" and give a cursory nod to love of and for God.

The problem is that most people I know already know how and that they have screwed up. They don't need to be reminded of that. Having God shame us and beat us up even more is not helpful. (No, I don't believe God does this, but that is the message I always get from the message people discuss of repentance.)

I thought I was not big on evangelism because I'm not big on shaming people more. And the centrality of repentance has never felt right to me. These were thoughts I had while listening to an audiobook version of Blue Like Jazz (review forthcoming).

Then I read a Celtic prayer book my wife got me for my birthday. And I realized that I actually am quite passionate about evangelism. My passion is for emphasizing the journey of faith. It's about telling people about transformation that is possible in relationship. It's about finding Truth through struggle. If I didn't have that passion, I would not be maintaining this blog or doing many other things I do.

I believe a lot of other people have a passion for evangelism but have been shamed into believing they are not evangelists because they are not telling people they suck but God loves them anyway. How different would the face of Christianity and the world be if we included repentance as a natural step in the path of faith rather than a shaming gate?

I think this is where repentance can be quite helpful: Not in telling people they suck (since most know that already), but that they need to rely on God to help with their suckiness. I think that's where a lot of us falter, even after our initial "repentance." Reliance on God and walking with him is central to the Christian faith journey. And trying to go it alone is where the central sin is, I think...

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Cultural Christianity

Along the lines of yesterday's post about de-emphasizing morality, I've had some realizations recently about the reality of cultural Christianity.

By this, I don't mean the people who call themselves "Christians" and only go to church on Easter and Christmas. I mean the people who attend church on a weekly basis. The ones who are involved with the ministries. Sometimes they work for churches. They devote their lives to church. They talk about new programs they are doing or others are advocating. They love the number of people saved or baptized each week. They live pure, moral lives.

Yet God is rather absent in all of this. In Forgotten God, Francis Chan talked about the fact that a church could be run and draw people without God. I didn't realize the true reality of this until recently.

We often assume good, moral, church-attending Christians are really lovers of God. Some are. Some also don't necessarily know God at all. Again, morality can be and is a good thing. But it's not the end-all, be-all. The thing that differentiates true Christians from cultural Christians is not morality, but intimacy with God. Isaiah 58 seems to echo some of these concerns, too. At least that's some of what I think. What say you?

Monday, February 22, 2010

De-emphasizing Morality

A couple of weeks ago, a friend wrote a guest post on moralism. This weekend, I got the following email devotional from Ransomed Heart, which seems to reinforce what he said.

I think it's really important to remember that the point of Christianity is not purity, but living with and becoming closer to God. That includes morality, but more as a side-effect rather than the end-result.

An analogy that came to me recently about this is marriage. Should I be nice to my wife? Absolutely. But is the goal of marriage being nice to her? I sure hope not. The goal is intimacy. If we have an intimate relationship, I will probably have to be nice, and the more intimate we become, the nicer I will likely become. But if I just act nice all the time and think our marriage is great, I will be sorely disappointed. Yet many marriages are just like that--nice with no intimacy.

Many people's relationships with God are like that, too: They are nice to God and others, but there is no intimacy with God. Purity and morality is good, but I think we over-emphasize it as a sort of goal of Christianity rather than result of faith and relationship with God.

Ransomed  Heart
Ransomed Heart

February 20, 2010

An Invitation to Desire

This may come as a surprise to you: Christianity is not an invitation to become a moral person. It is not a program for getting us in line or for reforming society. It has a powerful effect upon our lives, but when transformation comes, it is always the aftereffect of something else, something at the level of our hearts. And so at its core, Christianity begins with an invitation to desire.

Look again at the way Jesus relates to people. There is the Samaritan woman Jesus meets at the well. She has come alone in the heat of the day to draw water, and they both know why. By coming when the sun is high, she is less likely to run into anyone. You see, her sexual lifestyle has earned her a “reputation.” Back in those days, having one partner after another wasn’t looked so highly upon. She’s on her sixth lover, and so she’d rather bear the scorching rays of the sun than face the searing words of the “decent” women of the town who come at evening to draw water. She succeeds in avoiding the women, but runs into God instead. What does he choose to talk to her about—her immorality? No, he speaks to her about her thirst : “If you knew the generosity of God and who I am, you would be asking me for a drink, and I would give you fresh, living water” (John 4:10 The Message). Remarkable. He doesn’t give a little sermon about purity; he doesn’t even mention it, except to say that he knows what her life has been like: “You’ve had five husbands, and the man you’re living with now isn’t even your husband” (John 4:18 The Message). In other words, now that we both know it, let’s talk about your heart’s real thirst, since the life you’ve chosen obviously isn’t working. “The water I give will be an artesian spring within, gushing fountains of endless life” (John 4:14 The Message).

(Desire , 35–36)

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

"Plain & Simple" Interpretation of Bible and Nature

A lot of my posts recently have been related to biblical interpretation. This first article is focused on the Bible and science, specifically in the context of evolution. I don't want to get into the evolution debate here, but the article discusses some excellent points. In particular, I like the following quotes:
Secondly, regarding Scripture itself, although Augustine and Calvin deeply trusted the Bible as a witness to Christ and the Gospel message, they did not feel any deep need for Scripture to provide dependable insights on everything in human experience.
Their temperament towards Scripture was very different from what prevails nowadays in pop Christian culture, where it is casually assumed that the Bible is a fool-proof guide for everything … not only for leading us to Christ and right living but also for elucidating the scholarly facts of astronomy, biology, chemistry, economics, psychology, and sociology as well as the practical facts of success in marriage, parenting, health, and personal finances.
This second article does an excellent job of exploring the idea of the "plain and simple" message of the Bible and our flawed approaches to a simple understanding. Specifically, I like this quote:
The Bible is written in plain and simple language to the common man – the common man of the ancient Near East, not the common man of the modern Far West. To put it plain and simple, my “plain and simple” is not the Bible’s “plain and simple.”

Friday, February 12, 2010

Fireproof Was Not Fireproof

This week, my wife and I received the movie Fireproof with Netflix. I'd heard a lot about it, so I was excited about seeing it for myself. It was better than I had expected.

There were a few pleasant surprises. This included the story not oversimplifying marital conflict nor the solution. So often, Christians (and secular people) argue for simple formulaic solutions--if you do such-and-such just right, then it will all work out. This film doesn't do that. Things don't work out perfectly right away or even on the "predicted" timeline. The film is rather predictable, but the predictable parts aren't as bad as I had expected.

Also, the "Love Dare" content was really quite good. They are simple suggestions that are solid in building relationships and trust. These can all-too-often be relied upon as perfect solutions, which was my fear in watching the film. However, again, it is not really approached that way.

Now for the negative. Most of the film puts the blame on the man in the relationship. Now there is a cute twist at the end that shows the relationship problems can be caused by the woman, too. The sense I got, though, was there the focus on repairing relationships was too much on only one partner instead of both working together. Sometimes both are not invested enough, and each needs to only take responsibility for themselves, but I wish there was some more reciprocity in responsibility by the end of the film. Even my wife said, "Is she going to apologize?"

The need for conversion put into the film seemed a bit artificial at times. I understand the role of God in the Love Dare, and I can't really disagree, but the way this was presented was frankly cheesy and a turn-off. My wife also said during the film, "I hope they don't imply that becoming a Christian will solve everything. And that only non-Christians have problems." I had the same concern. However, the film did not really imply that. It showed there would be problems. So I have to give the filmmakers credit.

Speaking of the cheese factor, a lot of the acting was that way. Several actors were church volunteers. However, the ones featured as volunteers were some of the better actors...

Back to the conversion point (mild spoiler here), Kirk Cameron's character becomes a Christian at one point with his father at the foot of an outdoor wooden cross. Just before the prayer, his dad asks, "Do you trust your life to God?" (or something like that). It's a fair question, but I found it ironic that it was in the middle of a movie that emphasized that trust is not just a single moment in time decision. Rather, it is a process of displaying trust and building trust, both in others and to others.

Sure, a decision needs to be made, but too often the single moment in time is overemphasized to the detriment of the journey and process. This is true for both faith and marriage, I think. We need to not rely on the moment in time decision to show we are good, but rather remember to continually live out that commitment.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Incarnational Attractionism

This is an excellent article discussing the differences and values of both missional/incarnational church and attractional church. One, I love the emphasis on incarnationalism. This has been something that has been getting more attention the last year or two.

I also particularly loved this paragraph:
Are the communities of faith that we build such homes? Do we represent the Father’s heart in such a way that, even in the face of rejection and exploitation, the prodigal would know that our churches would welcome them? Sadly, most people would characterize the church as a place where just the opposite is likely to occur. And yet, it is this kind of attractional nature that we must desperately seek to embody as His people. This is what we should endeavour to become so that people will be drawn to Christ and His Church. This is attractional ministry at it’s truest.

In continuing the discussion from yesterday's post on mainline and evangelical churches, the mainlines frankly do a better job of this in most cases. And that is what attracts me to them. Yet I have a strong attraction to evangelical churches, too, again in their affective attunement.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Liturgical v. Contemporary Church, Part 2

Three months ago, I wrote a post noting some observations I had about liturgical versus contemporary churches. I recently read this article, entitled The Living Emerging Movement. Many readers of this blog know that I do consider myself best described by the emerging movement. I appreciate it because (from my perspective and my version of it as it seems everyone's definition is different), the conversation is just that: A conversation. There is the ability to discuss life and theology and be critical thinkers in the search for Truth with the hope and belief that there is an ultimate Truth. I think the emerging movement has also reignited discussions and focus on lively worship.

There is a lot of talk of the emerging church being dead or almost dead. I hope it doesn't, in part because of what the above article mentions. McKnight guessed several years ago that emerging Christians each will go one of three ways: into the mainline denominations, back into old evangelicalism, or leading evangelicalism into a missional direction.

I personally can really feel the tension between these options. I'm not sure where I land, which is why I don't want the emerging church to die. It's something with which I can associate that is the best descriptor of me. And I know many people also feel like they are not accurately described by any movement, denomination, or label.

Anyway, one of the reasons I struggle with this is the feeling of worship and what the mainline versus evangelical churches emphasize. I realized this weekend that mainline churches do a very nice job of being critical thinkers. They nail the cognitive elements of Christianity, usually much better than the evangelical churches. I've been a member and a part of evangelicalism for many years, and I can say it often advocates much less than critical thinking.

However, the evangelical churches historically have done an excellent job of having more lively worship. By that I mean more affective, referring to emotion and the full range of emotion. While some people are very moved by the liturgical, traditional services (I went to a service like that for quite a while myself), these models do often have the implication of displaying less affect. Now, as one of my friends has said, evangelical churches have become rather stale recently, focusing more of inauthentic performance rather than real, affective worship. And that's one of the things the emerging movement has challenged.

So in many ways, it seems we have found ourselves in the age-old cognitive-affective, head-heart, thinking-emotion split. It's hard to integrate the two together (believe me--I've worked with many clients on that issue). Yet I long for a church community that can do just that. They exist, but they're hard to find in my experience. What about yours?

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Sola Scriptura History

There was a question about Sola Scriptura from another post of mine, and my response became so long, I decided to make it into another blog post. So here it is:

There are people who would only believe something if it were stated in the Bible. The problem is that is not the original intent of Luther's Sola Scriptura.

Luther's development of this theological point was in reference to the Roman Catholic Church asserting various theological truths based on tradition. This was usually done with a political purpose, including maintaining the power of this institutional church and its leaders. As Luther began investigation Scripture, he argued that not all of these theological points were accurate, but the church once again argued against him based on tradition and threatened his life more than once.

Therefore, in contrast to a tradition-based theology, Luther went to the other spectrum, stating that we should only develop theology based on Scripture. That's why he also advocated for all people having the right to read the Bible (previously, only priests were able to do so). He made the first German language translation in order for the masses to be able to read the Bible and therefore challenge beliefs based on tradition.

This is the origin of why many Protestant churches advocate that everyone own and read the Bible and why many Protestant denominations are less hierarchical than the Catholic Church.

The problem is that many people have taken it to the extreme, arguing that if it is not in the Bible, it is not truth. Further, interpretation of the Bible is done out of context. Again, if we hold literally true to Sola Scriptura, then we need not understand other things like psychology, sociology, history, biology, physics, etc. in order to understand Scripture. This obviously creates many theological and interpretation problems, yet many Christians do not even realize they have faced these problems. This article describes some of these problems, too.

We need to interpret the world around us through the lens of the Bible, while interpreting the Bible with the information gleaned from the world.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Motivated by Fear

As I'm continuing to study for my licensing exam, I came across some information from social psychology on persuasion. While logic- and reason-based arguments can be effective, so can emotional arguments, particularly fear. To make it the most convincing, the message much create a ton of fear, be believable, and include specific ways of avoiding the bad stuff.

Hmmm. Sound like anything that happens in Christianity sometimes? Like hell, fire, and brimstone messages? It makes me look at this message from John Piper even more skeptically.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Accountability Partner or Parole Officer?

I was thinking recently about the ideas of accountability partners. I've never liked the idea of them, and I think I finally know why.

The theology of accountability partners is in many ways rooted in the moralism my friend discussed on here yesterday. It's about being morally holy all the time. Avoiding doing bad rather than encouraging to do right (there can be that, but really the point of these partnerships is avoiding sin).

From this perspective, accountability partners are almost more like parole officers: You were just released from prison (saved from Hell by Christ), but you still need to check in with your PO regularly because if you do something wrong, you'll just go right back. The goal is to keep you out of prison rather than building you up and growing you.

While it can be good to have someone help keep you away from doing wrong, there is so much more to life and our spiritualities than that. Really, moving away from sin is part of moving towards Christ. So spiritual formation partnerships more along the lines of spiritual directors seem a lot more biblical and helpful.

Additionally, accountability partners are often thrown together and expected to be totally honest with one another. Sorry, it doesn't work like that. If anything, it would lead to more denial, which just causes more problems. And further, from what I hear, accountability partners usually give overly simplistic answers to complex problems. Not that they are honestly trying to help to the best of their abilities, but it just doesn't seem to be all that great.

It's not great in part because it's so shame-focused. "How did you screw up this week?" is kind of the theme of accountability. I think a better question is "What did you do right?" And rather than giving an simple answer to screwing up, we should ask, "How can I help you?" Just reminding other people to not do certain things is rarely helpful. And frankly, temptation is not always indicative of spiritual weakness; it can be a sign of something deeper going on.

An example of this is sexuality. And let's be honest, when people talk about accountability partners with regards to men, it's about sex. The list of no-nos for men who are in accountability partnerships are likely to include: lust, noticing another woman, thinking about another woman, dreaming about another woman, and the biggest sin: masturbation.

While these things could be problematic as an addiction, they can also indicate that there are relationship problems going on. Just as I talk about with symptom management in psychology, these "sins" may actually just be the symptom of something else and only focusing on the symptom ignores the problem, making it come out in another way.

Accountability is an important thing, but it should occur within the context of a supportive, encouraging, trustworthy relationship. What do you think?

Thursday, February 4, 2010


This is a guest post by my friend, Calvin Thomsen. He has two doctorates: Doctor of Ministry and PhD in Marriage and Family Therapy, plus he's a great guy!

In addition to being a part of a local congregation I also enjoy visiting other churches and listening to a variety of sermons. I’ve done it for decades. Over the last several years I’ve noticed a trend in evangelical churches towards something I call "moralism." It can take good concepts (like a high view of Scripture or a desire to promote Godly living) and put a twist on them the makes a sermon more like a scolding or lecture than a proclamation of good news. After listening to a recent sermon in a church I was visiting for the first time I developed what I call a “moralism checklist” to help me recognize the eight key components of moralism.

1. Enemies. The crux of this is, "Isn't it horrible about the.....[pick the evil of choice--humanists, socialists, gays, heretics, Buddhists, Paris Hilton, Oprah, naturalistic scientists, etc.]. Lots of energy is focused on the creation of enemies and a lot of the firepower of the sermon is generated by the emotions that "enemy talk" can generate. Three things you do with enemies. a) blame them for all your problems, b) run away from them, and/or c) "fight them."

2. Misguided Attribution. What are the principles of "cause and effect" in this sermon? Are bad things that happen to people inappropriately blamed on things people do or don't do that probably aren't the real cause? Lost your job? Probably because you didn’t tithe. An earthquake in Haiti? Must be because of voodoo. Sometimes the sermon includes false promises of "rewards" that may not be realistic (i.e. if you don't have sex before marriage you will have endless erotic and relational bliss once you say "I do.").

3. Biblicism. Are there references to "The Word" that suggest the instant answers to all questions, the final word on science, a kind of magical power, or recipe book? Is there a wooden, literalistic approach to the bible that always assumes we know what the true "Biblical" answer is and that all other sources of insight or knowledge must be trumped by your particular interpretation of what the Bible says?

4. Gnosticism. This refers to the belief that the crux of Christianity is "being right." Having the correct belief on any particular issue is the key to authentic Christianity. Sometimes this plays out in terms of "my religion is better than your religion" and disputes between different Christian groups or groups within a church. A lot of theological warfare is of this variety.

5. Triumphalism. Is the portrayal of Christianity and the work of Christ such that creates a triumphalistic, "we're right and everybody else is wrong" perspective. This can also apply to aspects of "the American way" as well.

6. Denial. Are there hints that "good Christians don't have these problems" (or they have them only if they are "being wicked")? Are there quick fixes or easy formulas used for complex human problems such as divorce, sexuality, addiction, the dark night of the soul, etc.? Does the sermon set the stage for people to shove certain problems underground or only talk about them with disclaimers (i.e. "I know that Lord is giving me victory over this") instead of an honest exploration of feelings?

7. Privatized Behaviorism. Do "private sins" (i.e. lust, gluttony, etc.) loom so large that they overshadow more collective approaches to systemic evil in the world? Is it worse to look at a racy website than to do an "Enron" or "AIG" that nearly brings down the world economy? Or to ignore policies that increase poverty? Or be indifferent to environment because "when Jesus returns he will clean up our mess"?

8. Imperative-ism. Is more of the gospel about "oughts" and "shoulds" rather than what God has done and the initiative he has taken in Christ? How much scolding and lecturing factors into this message? Sometimes it includes statements such as "God may be a God of grace but if you don't get you act together in the following way you will go to hell."

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Luther's Incarnational Gospel

This weekend, I found a neat plaque with a quote from Martin Luther, saying "God writes the Gospel not in the Bible alone, but also on trees, and in the flowers and clouds and stars."

Anyway, I really like and agree with this quote and find it quite interesting that it comes from Luther. As many people know, Luther advocated Sola Scriptura, stating that we only use Scripture to come to conclusions. I wrote an earlier post challenging this theology, too.

Assuming this quote really did come from Luther and is not a popular misattribution (
Googling it seems to show that it really was attributable to Luther, although I don't know the original source), I think it emphasizes that followers of various leaders and theologians may not understand them correctly. Even before Luther died, many people misinterpreted his work and took it to disturbing levels, which included the deaths of many people. We need to be aware of our potential misinterpretations of various theologies.

Sola Scriptura is one of them. I think it's really important to remember the other ways God writes and shares the Gospel. It's not just in the explicit text of the Bible. And we must remember that the world around us influences our interpretations of the Gospel. How and where have you seen the Gospel?

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Set Apart

Last week, I discussed the love one another verse in Leviticus and a way of looking at Leviticus other than the legalistic way we often approach it.

This past week, Luke 6:27-42 was part of the devotional liturgy in the Mosaic Bible. This is the passage on loving your enemies. As I was reading it, I thought back to the Levitical love passage and blog post. This is another passage that is often approached legalistically, with people sometimes literally saying to have people whack you on both cheeks.

I'm not sure Jesus was advocating a literal adherence to this way of loving our enemies. This time reading through it, the passage hit me more as a way of living out the "love one another" command and setting ourselves apart from the rest of the culture. The culture at the time of Jesus was not very loving. There was a lot of hierarchy and abuse (including quite literal, physical abuse). So engaging people in a different way was as a significant a difference as the ways the Israelites were commanded to act in Leviticus in contrast to the other Canaanites. Frankly, in Jesus' time, living out Leviticus would not have really been that significant as a way of setting believers apart.

We are a much more loving society, at least on the surface. Treating people fairly is expected (again, at least on the surface). Are we really asked to become doormats and walked all over. I don't think so. Rather, we need to love people radically in ways that are holy and biblical and are different from the rest of the world. This is not to say that loving people in the ways of the world are inappropriate. We just need to do something more, too.

I'm honestly not totally sure what this would look like. I have some ideas, but I'd rather hear what some of yours are.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Misunderstanding the Fall and Hell

This video from BioLogos and this one from Out of Ur are provide excellent summaries of the misunderstanding of the Fall that many Christians have. I've discussed this a couple of times previously, but this presents some of it in a clear, concise way.

It really is important to note that much of our understanding of Heaven, Hell, and Satan come from Milton's Paradise Lost, not necessarily Scripture.


Got a question, struggle, or doubt you'd like to see addressed here? Contact me, and I'll try to discuss it (and may even help you get an answer).