Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Faith of a Child

Yesterday, Cal graciously share a post he wrote about churches matching people with Jesus and then doing very little after that.

One of the things I have noticed is that many sermons really are not very deep nor challenging. Granted, the speaker has to cater to a very wide audience, but there is a thing as being too basic.

Changing the subject (but coming back), I've recently been able to start running a spirituality group with some of the kids in our partial hospitalization program. The age range I get is 7-13, and it's amazing what these kids say and understand when we give them the chance to talk.

At first, I was saying that they understand theology and faith as well as adults. Truly, the conversations we have in that group are as sophisticated as that of most adult spirituality conversations. However, I think the more appropriate way of looking at it is that most adults are functioning at the theological level of a child.

Adults should have a greater (meaning deeper and more complex) understanding of theology. However, they don't. They're still operating with what they learned in Sunday school. After they grow out of Sunday school, they just sit with the Sunday morning sermon, which doesn't teach anything meaningful. And even Bible studies are not particularly complex usually.

Interestingly, the kids are much more flexible in their thinking. They are willing to engage in conservations about doubt and religious diversity. And their willingness to do so is much less so than adults. They are also much less judgmental of others' struggles and beliefs than their adult counterparts.

I think this may happen because as we get older, we often get more arrogant. As adults, we supposedly know more than the kids, so what we know is definitely right. However, we, in truth, know no more about theology, God, and the Bible than most of the kids in my group.

There are, of course, exceptions. However, I do find it interesting that the kids are able to understand complicated concepts like God image, doubt, and religious diversity better than most adults and are definitely more willing to engage those topics.

How does affect the idea of "faith like a child?"

Monday, August 23, 2010


It seems like lots of evangelical churches are good at matching people with Jesus. They’ve got the meeting, dating, engagement, and vows down to a science. In a sense, they function as JesusMatch.com. Nothing wrong with that, finding a relationship is important. And getting matched with Jesus is the most important connection a person can make.

But once you're hitched, then what? It seems like a lot of churches aren’t quite sure what the marriage afterward should look like. After the rice has been thrown and the “Just Married” signs have been scrubbed off the car they start floundering when they try to address the spiritual equivalent of diapers, crabgrass, and bills. Or even “date nights.” So the sermons return again and again to the matching stuff. Even when most of the people in attendance have been members for years.

So what should it look like afterward? "Progressives" move the scene of the action to social activism and justice, often with a political flavor. More conservative churches sometimes focus on personal holiness and “overcoming sin.” Or else they go on a crusade to root out heresy. And they have their own version of politics, only taken out of the playbook of a different party.

While I’m interested in helping the poor, doing my part for the environment, and strengthening families I’m not always sure that I want a church (on either side of the spectrum) to deliver prepackaged formulas on those topics. And heresy hunting seems to do far more divide the body of Christ than build it. I also get concerned because some traditional church talk about personal holiness and “overcoming sin” has a way of driving things underground, creating a whole range of “things we don’t talk about.”

Deeper Bible study and discipleship seem like worthy focal points for mature faith. It also seems to me that one aspect of the LTR with Jesus has to involve dealing with complexity and even disappointment. People who are dating put their best foot forward. In like manner, churches that focus heavily on matching people with Jesus put his best foot forward. The message seems to be that coming to Jesus will fill all emotional longings and solve all of life’s problems. Life will be an ongoing experience of incandescent bliss in the new life Jesus gives. And real life after the “I do” of conversion is never that simple. Difficult problems don't vanish overnight. And sometimes, instead of the perfect relational partner, Jesus feels more like a spouse who just won’t talk. We want a clear response and we face what seems like divine silence instead. And that’s much harder for us to talk about, and that may be one reason why evangelical churches in particular seem to keep coming back to the JesusMatch.com message.

So what should the marriage afterward look like? What should churches do to create a place where Christians can grow and mature and live with Jesus for the long haul? It's worth a second look.


Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Interview with Discovering the God Imagination Author, @jonathanbrink

A couple of weeks ago, I reviewed Discovering the God Imagination by Jonathan Brink. He was kind enough to answer some questions about his text.

What is the book about?

Discovering The God Imagination: Reconstructing A Whole New Christianity is a brand new approach to the Gospel. I break down the story in the Garden to suggest that Genesis 3 is not a test of obedience to the command, but a test of reality to God’s created order. Can we change God’s judgment of good, or what is true from God’s perspective, by participating in something evil? I make the argument that if humanity can change God’s judgment of good, it was never true to begin with.

When we listen to the details of the “scene of the crime” we can begin to reorient our understanding of what is happening. The root problem is our capacity to construct a false judgment of the self, to get question in the tree of knowledge wrong. The rest of the story is God solving a unique problem. How do you convince someone they are inherently good, when they have convinced themselves they are not?

The story suggest the root problem actually keeps us from seeing the problem, a perceptual blindness. And because of this we construct alternative ideas about what God is doing. I suggest that our historical theories of the Gospel are a direct result of the root problem. Once we see what God is actually doing it reframes our entire understanding of the story. It redeems the Gospel. It gives us a new way of seeing what God is doing.

What inspired you to write this book?

I was inspired from a very early age to continuously seek out what I call the root problem. My parents instilled in me the drive to seek out what was underneath the surface of the problem and to look for the root. So when I began to see cracks in the surface of the theology that I had been taught, I applied the same principle. As I began to really explore the historical understanding of what we mean by the “Gospel” I could not ignore the problems and paradoxes it created. Something didn’t feel right. The assumption I made was that we had somehow gotten our basic assumptions of the story wrong, as opposed to the there being a problem in the story God was telling.

The second aspect that significantly influenced me was my own research into neuroscience and how the brain processes judgment. The story strongly suggests that the problem is one of judgment. Much like God we can create an understanding of the world and then we judge it. As human beings created in the image of God we can create a false reality. We judge that reality as good or bad. And when we get it wrong its devastating.

What was your goal in publishing this text?

My primary goal is to create a new conversation for people who are seeking out what it means to be human. What blew me away was the simplicity of God’s design. God begins the story with a way of seeing reality that is very simple. It addresses our most basic framework for humanity, including dignity, identity, and purpose. I called this way of seeing life the God imagination. In other words, what does life look like from God’s perspective.

My second goal was to reframe our understanding of the Gospel. We needed a new way of seeing what problem God is solving in the story. We need to know what God is doing in a way that invites us into participating with God. The problem with our old stories is that they disempower people from participating. The problem is something that happens in the cosmos, and we’re left wondering why we’re supposed to care. When we see that the problem is located in us, it gives us a very real reason to participate with God. And God solution is so magnificent, so ferociously loving that it’s honestly ridiculous.

How would you respond to people who might call your book heretical?

The only people who have called the book heretical are those who haven’t read it. And those who have read it have been surprised at how simple it is. In fact, its so simple it seems to good to be true. A large part of the book is directly addressing Scripture and applying a paradigm shift to it. I’m giving people a lens in which to see the story.

The early responses have been really, really good. Better than I ever expected. Most of the people who really resonate with the book are people who work with people on a daily basis: counselors, pastors, coaches. They can see the root problem immediately. They see it show up constantly. So when they read the book, it’s like an “Aha” moment of clarity.

What kind of response have you received from your book? Is it what you expected?

A lot of people have told me they have to read the book very slowly because it is so much of a paradigm shift. They have to read it twice because it’s completely changing the way they see God, Scripture, themselves, and the world.

You make very detailed and well-researched arguments in your book. How long did it take you to write this text?
It’s hard to define how long I’ve been writing this book. In many ways I’ve been researching the basic idea all of my life. I’ve always felt a tension with our historical understanding of the Gospel, but I’ve never questioned that something amazing was happening on the cross. I detail some of the events that led me to write this book in the first chapter. I had several encounters with people that continually pushed me to look deeper.

I spent essentially five years asking what is the Gospel, researching our historical understanding of it, in order to communicate the Gospel in my work with Thrive. But I reached a point where I could no longer intellectually agree with the old conclusions. So I simply went back to the story and asked a simple question. What is the root problem God is solving in the story? How does God reconcile humanity? I spent close to three years in Genesis 1-3 breaking it down over and over again. And what I found was a very simple but profoundly destructive problem. What I also found was a solution that made my head shake. It reoriented my understanding of the cross in a way that empowered me. It liberated me from the very thing that was creating the problem.

Anything you wish you had done differently?

Not really. But I do wish things had happened differently. I would have liked to have skipped the countless hours of doubt and tension that went into questioning the assumptions of my forefathers. To seek out a new story means leaving the old story behind. At certain points I knew there was no going back. I knew that the longer I continued down the rabbit hole, the more I couldn’t return to the old way. The new story was literally ruining my old one.

I make a bold statement with the book that makes it very easy to dismiss. To say that we’ve gotten our understanding of the Gospel wrong puts me in tension with a LOT of people. But I believe the cost was worth it to see what God sees.

What audience is this book aimed at? Who are you hoping will read it?

My target audience is the person wrestling with what it means to be human. So much of the story resolves around God solving a very simple but entirely destructive problem. And the problem is designed to hide itself. We literally can’t see it because of the way we construct judgment. But when we can see the problem, we can being to liberate the self from our own prisons. We can begin to participate with God in solving the problem of pain and suffering in our lives.

The people I hope read my book are pastors, people who communicate the Gospel to larger audiences. These are the gatekeepers of the Gospel. If they could see the problem God is solving, it would change the face of Christianity in a radical way.

Who are some of your biggest theological influences?

I would say the person who influenced me the most during the writing of the book was Rob Bell. Listening to Rob on podcast gave me a few key pieces of the puzzle that led me to seeing the entire picture in a very different way. It wasn’t one big thing but a lot of little things that just fit.

As funny as it may seem, it was a podcast of Rick McKinley, pastor of Imago Dei, while speaking at Mars Hill that energized me to begin the initial process. He spoke on repentance and for some reason it just resonated at such a deep level.

I don’t know if scientists could be traditionally considered theological but I can’t ignore how a few key people like Daniel Goleman, Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, and Paulo Freire deeply shaped my understanding of my own humanity. Science is simply the evaluation and discovery of what God already created. And the scientists are the ones listening to the physical systems that we live in.

What group of people (i.e. denomination) stereotypically will have the easiest time accepting your challenges? The most difficult time?

The earliest readers of my book are those who have already been wrestling with the historical problems. They already see the tension and have gobbled up my book. It’s been really fun to watch their eyes open up to something so simple and say, “I get it.”

I’m making an assumption here but the people who will have the hardest time with my book are those who are captivated by fear. People who are afraid of questions are typically afraid of their own answers. I get that. I lived there for a long time. But in the introduction I give my readers the permission to see it as a possibility, not a conclusion. People need time to wrestle with new paradigms.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Big Tent Christianity

Next month, there is a conference called Big Tent Christianity occurring in North Carolina (no, I don't have enough money to go :) ). I'm participating in part of a synchroblog as a part of that conference. The theme for the synchroblog is:

What does “big tent Christianity” mean to you? What does it look like in your context? What are your hopes and dreams for the Church?

When I hear "big tent Christianity," I think back to Archbishop of Split (Spalato) Marco Antonio de Dominis' phrase, "in essentials unity, in nonessentials liberty, in all things charity." There's a few ways that is translated, but this is the essence of the quote.

I think this should be a motto for all Christians in dealing with others. There are essential ideas in which we should be unified. However, I think there are really only a few absolute essentials (i.e. God exists and Jesus is our Savior) that truly define Christianity. Much else truly are nonessentials. Not that there are not absolutes, but we also cannot know them all because of the fallibility of humanity. And even when we do, they are not salvific issues (in my opinion). We need to be able to accept differences in opinion about these issues. We may need separate communities because differences of opinion can definitely impact the way a community operates. However, as a friend of mine recently said, we need to remember that we're all on the same team.

The most important part of that quote to me is the last part: "in all things charity." Even the essentials should be questioned in order to make sure they are valid and in order for people to truly understand them. Further, we are all in different places in the journey of understanding and faith. We need to have grace for each other (and ourselves) in that process.

However, I think a big part of charity is not having arrogance. We need to not instantly question the validity of each other's faith because of disagreements (even over essentials). One of the things I've discovered is that a lot of disagreeing parties are not as different as they think. They problems occur because they use different language, so they are not communicating clearly.

Christianity should be a place where people can explore themselves, God, and Truth in a safe place. That  necessitates charity. It's a hard thing to do, and no one will do it perfectly, but I'd like to see that happen more and more.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Interview with @GodMadeMeDoIt Author, Marc Hartzman

A couple of weeks ago, I reviewed the humor book, God Made Me Do It. The author, Marc Hartzman, was kind enough to answer a few questions about the book:

Q: What inspired you to write this book?

A: God told me to write this book. People ask me this a lot, and i don't have a particularly profound answer. But I will say i get tired of hearing God get blamed and credited for everything (blamed for murders, credited for winning football games). People need to take a little more responsibility for their actions. And ultimately, as i looked into the material, there was a lot of entertaining stuff.
Q: What was your goal in publishing this text?

A: Two things really -- to make people laugh and to make people think a bit about the good and bad religion can bring.
Q: Can you talk about your spirituality and how you see God communicating in the world (if at all)?
A: I don't consider myself religious, but I am fascinated by the thought of a supreme being and the fact that it's one of those things we'll never really be able to prove or disprove. Human beings are such a small blip on this planet's history -- what might God have in store over the next few million years?

Can God communicate with us? Seems like that should be within his set of powers -- which means, maybe He did talk to some of those people. He's got 6 billion people to look after, so if He slips up now and then, maybe we should cut Him a little slack.

Q: How would you respond to people who might call your book heretical?
A: The book is not heretical, the people in the book, however, might be. The book simply presents real stories from the past 100 years and gives real quotes and the context they were made in. 

Q: What kind of response have you received from your book? Is it what you expected?
A: The response has actually been great. I wasn't quite sure what to expect, because as soon as God is in the title you're open to controversy. But so far people have taken it the right way -- those who are religious recognize that the majority of the people in the book are the ones giving religion a bad name. And of course, it's ultimately a humor book, so that's come through as well.

Q: What role does humor play in this world?
A: Where would this world be without humor? It's one of our great gifts from God, it's a means to laugh in good times and cope in bad. It keeps us healthy -- it's actually scientifically proven that laughter is good you. The phrase "laughter is the best medicine" has a lot of truth to it. There's even a movement called Laughter Yoga that's based on that fact.

Q: How long did it take you to compile all of these stories? What resources did you use to find them?

A: About 6 months. I used internet archives and spent a lot of time at the NY Public library going through old newspaper archives. I was truly amazed at how much i found.

Monday, August 2, 2010

200 Posts!

This marks 200 posts on this blog. Time to brag! :)

Also, for those who were curious, the reason there are these weird "@____" after the blog titles is because the posts automatically cross-post on my Twitter account. Putting the @TwitterUserName allows them to be marked in Twitter for particular people to see. (If you have a better way of doing, please let me know!)

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Are We Good Or Evil? @jonathanbrink

Jonathan Brink recently released his book, Discovering the God Imagination, and he provided me a complimentary copy to review.

In this book, he tackles the assumptions most Christians have over the salvation story. He nicely argues that most theories and interpretations place the problem outside of us: On God, on Satan, on the law. And the solution is that a ransom has to be paid to one of those things. Each way of approaching this problem has major problems of its own (which Brink details).

Rather, he argues that the problem is actually our perception of ourselves, specifically how we answer the question, "Are we good or evil?"

Beginning with the creation story, Brink argues that God has judged humanity as good. What happened with the Fall is that we have given into a lie that we are evil and only redeemable through violence and bloodshed.

Brink continues through major stories within the Bible, exploring how God is not judging humanity as evil, but rather engaging in redemptive acts. What Brink says is that God's actions are not for him or for Satan, but rather for us. WE are the ones who need the violence, judgment, etc. Without that, we are unable to see the lie we have given into.

The best analogy I can think of is the standard interpretation of the establishment of kings in Israel. God didn't want or need kings. Israel wanted them. And God gave them a king to show them that this would not solve the problem. As Brink ays, "The long, slow progression of God interacting with a chosen group of people reveals an astonishing idea. God establishes and uses the human constructs in Israel to exhaust their possibility. God allows Israel to explore pride, social comparison, relationships, the law, and religion to see that they don't work" (p. 195).

All our ways of trying to save ourselves don't work. We need Jesus. However, it is not God, Satan, or the law who requires this sacrifice. It is humanity:
The religious contract is our final demand for satisfaction. We need the atonement. We need a way to appease our own sense of guilt. We demand something so perfect that it will fill our sense of violence with a nauseating stench. The brutality of this act is seen the moment we place our own children in the hands of the crowd. What we would never do, God does for us. The final act of atonement is the father giving up his son at the demands of humanity. (p. 239)
This is a rather radical idea and one I haven't heard before. I'm still processing it and its theological consequences (many of which Brink skillfully tackles). I can see many more conservative Christians getting up in arms with this "new" perspective. But that's the problem: Our perspective. We need to change it anyway. And the theological implications of this interpretation are actually quite in line with traditional, orthodox Christianity. It just approaches it all differently. And that can be quite good.

Everything he says fits with what I know about the Bible, God, and humanity. It all fits. I've had a lot of problems with many of the traditional salvation interpretations. There's hole that just don't fit with what we know about God.

As a result, I highly recommend this book. Not only does Brink present a very good, well written theological treatise, he does so while approaching the Bible as completely true (unlike even some of the traditional theologians). He knows the Bible well. And truly the arguments come from the Bible.

Additionally, Brink is part of the emerging conversation, which has contributed to a lot of deconstruction of our preconceived notions of church, theology, God, ourselves, etc. One of the things I particularly appreciate about this book and Brink is summarized in the book's subtitle: "Reconstructing a Whole New Christianity." Deconstruction is important, but so is reconstructions, which is the purpose of this blog.

My one complaint about the book is actually the cover. It looks a cheesy, bad theology book or some lame New Age, self-help book. But we have to remember not to judge a book by its cover, right? :)


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).