The Bible Made Impossible (?), Conclusion

So I’ve run headlong into the hazards of reviewing books on a “let’s go through it together” basis. Stuff happens; reading interrupted. For those with the patience, here is the delayed conclusion to my review of Christian Smith’s book, The Bible Made Impossible.

In Part 1 Smith outlined the problems with biblicism as an accounting of biblical authority (Parts 1 and 2 of this review series). He began Part 2 by pointing to the necessity of seeing Christ as the hermeneutical key to the interpretation of scripture (Part 3 of the review). To reiterate, there is nothing particularly new in this suggestion, nor does the author want it to be understood as new, pointing to those who have articulated the same theme. In the final two chapters, “Accepting Complexity and Ambiguity” and “Rethinking Human Knowledge, Authority, and Understanding,” Smith lays out what he hopes will be building blocks or sketches of themes he believes to be important in the constructing of a better theory of biblical authority.

These chapter titles do indeed summarize the ideas that are offered. Chapter 6 invites the reader to accept the Bible as it is, with its often confusing nature. What he does not want is for us to deny the very plain fact that such confusion is there just to uphold a theory that does not itself do justice to what the Bible is and what purpose it is given to serve. He charges biblicists with wanting a different Bible from the one we have been given—they want a Bible that answers every question on every possible subject that will make them feel “certain and secure, even though that is not actually the kind of text that God gave.” Quoting Peter Enns, we are to place our trust in God who gave us Scripture, not in our conceptions of how Scripture ought to be.” Part of this reimagining of biblical authority will be assisted by taking more seriously a long-established idea regarding the inspiration of Scripture—divine accommodation. This means, among other things, that God did not correct every incomplete or mistaken viewpoint the authors of the Bible held in order to communicate with their readers. Just imagining the extent to which the text would have needed to be expanded is a virtual impossibility.

Even the ambiguities in the Bible should be seen as an encouragement to us to continue the hard work of seeking the Christological significance of problem texts and refusing to settle at a point of supposedly knowing the Scriptures throughly, right down to the point of knowing how to harmonize every inconsistent detail within the gospel accounts. He then pleads for a renewed commitment to learning how to distinguish among dogma, doctrine, and opinion for the sake of Christian unity and the for integrity of the Bible itself as given. Further, it is both impossible and undesirable to expect to repeat everything done by the first century church of which we get so limited a glimpse; they were working things out, as they needed to do, establishing something more like trajectories than timeless practices for all subsequent believers to follow. Attempting to dissect each passage for details no one else has properly understood leads all too many biblicists ignoring the obvious commands while straining over the supposedly hidden ones.

The final chapter offers some insights regarding what it means to know something, what it is to communicate in words, and what we mean by the term authority in the first place. In some ways this is an odd placement of such concerns, though I suspect it might owe at least partially to the fact that these topics are not those on which his field of study concentrate. It has been frequently noted that evangelical biblicism is more a product of the Enlightenment than those who practice it recognize. And smith finds it especially curious that this segment of Christians has fallen prey to a flawed theory of knowledge which has often attacked the credibility of Christian belief. The issue is foundationalism, which he (adequately, I believe) describes as “a conviction that rational humans can and must identify a common foundation of knowledge directly up from and upon which every reasonable thinker can and ought to build a body of completely reliable knowledge and understanding.” The results must be indubitable and universally accessible. Rationalists sought such ground in deductive reasoning; empiricists sought it in inductive study of the phenomena of nature; and biblicists sought it in the statements of the Bible. Notice that the theory of knowledge is accepted, even though Christians were at odds with its accompanying materialism, liberalism, relativism, and secularism.

To avoid this pitfall on one side and postmodern skepticism on the other, Smith encourages a critical realist approach, which he sees as one especially compatible with the nature of cooperative relationships fostered by the biblical narrative itself. It humbly recognizes perspective, but is confident in truth—for the Christian, because all has been grounded in God’s own being and communicating nature, even though our grasp is indeed quite limited. But this allows for Christ, through the Holy spirit to continue speaking to the church as we grasp for us and for our own day and challenges how wide and deep is the love of Christ—not as a proposition, but as a lived experience to be shared.

I would encourage the reading of Smith’s book. While the early chapters seem like overkill in driving the point concerning the ubiquity of biblicism, and while more attention might be desired to the suggestions for a better theory, he is giving a critique of our way of doing business that we need to take seriously.

The Bible Made Impossible (?), Part 3

In this serial review of Christian Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible, we have looked at Part 1, which is an extended description of and complaint over biblicism, a phenomenon of conservative evangelical Christianity which expects things from the Bible that cannot be delivered. In Smith’s judgment, the ever-present debunker of the theory itself (not just its flawed application) is pervasive interpretive pluralism. In my personal judgment, Smith’s analysis is difficult to refute, though he may be somewhat justly charged with painting with a very broad brush when applying the biblicist label.

But smith is not interested in liberal solutions to the difficulties he has listed, not least of which is the inability of practioners to consistently operate under the implied procedures. He wants to offer an evangelical alternative, one which centers on the very heart of Christian faith. The Christian gospel is good news, specifically, that God in Christ is reconciling the world to Himself. Chapter 5 begins the process of spelling out not a new theory, but of lines along which a better description of biblical authority might be more fully proposed by scholars whose field this is. And the central line must be Jesus Christ himself, not propositions.

In proposing “The Christocentric Hermeneutical Key” as the to the understanding and the very purpose of the Bible, Smith is not claiming to make any sort of new and profound suggestion. He cites such well accredited persons as Charles Spurgeon, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, John Webster, Peter Enns, John Stott, G.C. Berkouwer, Vern Pythress, Kevin Vanhoozer, and Donald Bloesch as among those who have clearly articulated the ides that Jesus is the central point of the whole Bible, and is the One in light of whom all else is to be interpreted. He believes this has the advantage of overcoming the (Kantian) divide between spiritual and physical reality, for in Jesus alone all things hold together (Col. 1:1-15). Further more, Jesus himself seems to have said as much when talking to the two unsuspecting disciples on the road to Emaus and to the Pharisees in John 5, to whom he announced that all the scriptures they were searching were about him.

Essentially, then, “what holds scripture together is not simply accurate information or inerrant propositions about God, life, and the world. What holds it together is the reality of Christ himself, the living, eternal Son through whom God reconciles the world to himself in love.” This, then guides the right interpretation of scripture; no interpretation which does not ask how the proposed meaning of a text relates to Christ is of any value. Again, Smith points approvingly to the “2000 Baptist Faith and Message” statement from the Southern Baptist Convention and the “Essentials of Our Faith” from the Evangelical Presbyterian Church as recognizing the centrality of Christ in biblical interpretation.

The problem, however, is that such statements are all too often accompanied by other statements which return to the biblicist mindset. The difficulty is that they do not take seriously the disconnect between the two sets of statements. The remainder of the chapter is then given to digging more deeply into the meaning of Christ as the hermeneutical key. He insists (rightly) that it is Christ in trinitarian context who is in view. Here, in an important portion of the chapter, Smith pleads for the reader to begin with God, not independent statements about God that are not at the same time flowing from the trinity. What he seems to be advocating is what James Sire insists on with equal force: ontology must precede epistemology. Simply stated, we must begin with the God who is and out of His nature reveals Himself to humanity–and not with statements about Him, as though they exist independently of Him and point to Him on their own status. His complaint against limited focus on Christ within the Trinity extends to, or perhaps is illustrated by, a test of evangelical preaching: could what is said from the pulpit be equally said by a Unitarian or Jew? If so, it is not preaching that centers all interpretation in Christ.

This is the sort of Christocentrism that does not seek specific instruction for adiaphora–things incidental to the faith, things about which inquiring minds may wish to know. Smith leaves generous room for disagreement on a range of items for which biblicists continue to seek the biblical answer (eschatology, the nature of sacraments, worship, etc.). It’s a range wider than the comfort zone of many evangelicals, but he claims that the more centered we truly are on Christ, the more he will matter to us and our lives lived in his imitation and the less the other questions will divide us.

He closes with a discussion of Karl Barth which I will not entertain here; for Barth readers, that conversation can be engaged outside this forum if you are interested. Tomorrow, the continuation of the lines Smith wants to follow in constructing or reconstructing a doctrine of scripture.

The Bible Made Impossible (?), Part 2

The previous post began consideration of Christian Smith’s recent book, The Bible Made Impossible. Its thesis is that biblicism—a very popular way of accounting for the Bible’s authority described in some detail in that prior post—cannot fulfill its promise and should be abandoned for a better way of grounding that authority. Very simply, the premises of biblicism as Smith describes them cannot stand when confronted with the undeniable fact of pervasive interpretive pluralism.

This post will give an overview of the remainder of Part 1 of the book, which delineates the problem; Part 2 then offers a better way, according to the author, to view the authority of scripture from an evangelical perspective. Chapter 3 is Smith’s attempt at tracing the lines of development of biblicism. It should be noted that some of those whom he associates closely with biblicism attempt to demonstrate that there is a longer-standing heritage of biblicist tenets than what this book delineates. Smith locates the origins of biblicism in the early 19th century movement known as Scottish commonsense realism, which he describes as the notion that all people have the capacity to grasp the essential nature of the objects they perceive. Out of this knowledge, science classifies these perceptions; when coupled with a corresponding “picture theory” of language (words are directly connected to what the mind perceives). These ideas were assumed by individuals such as Charles Hodge and Benjamin Warfield, who applied them to the Bible. The result is a view of the Bible which sees the text (especially as verses) as the raw data out of which doctrines and other truths about the world are drawn.

This theory, however, does not accommodate the pervasive interpretive pluralism that is the undeniable experience of those who follow the biblicist model. And at least one of the possible answers is ruled out; specifically, we cannot appeal to the noetic effects of sin if we are appealing to a commonsense philosophy, which requires that we can indeed perceive what is there directly. But that is not the only difficulty by any means. This philosophy and its theory of language have not survived philosophical scrutiny; indeed, they appear rather as blips on the screen when placed alongside other theories in the history of knowledge. Are biblicists insisting on being tied to what is almost universally regarded as a failed philosophy, one no one else holds to? It might work for the truly committed; but when taken on the road, it would seem to require that a person must first accept an anachronistic philosophy in order to make sense out of the book that has all the truths we need for life and godliness.

Smith also points to difficulties of a sociological and psychological nature. While these are admittedly speculative in nature, they are also quite plausibly true; and we need to keep in mind that it is a professional sociologist who is doing the speculating. On one hand, people do tend to stay within homogenous groups, where shared beliefs maintain a “plausibility structure” that works only inside the group; on the other hand, that group needs to have an “other” against which to identify themselves–and having different interpretations marks off different groups, and possibly reinforcing the rightness of one’s own.

Chapter 4 (“Subsidiary Problems with Biblicism”) offers the thought that, “most evangelical biblicists today somehow manage to continue to pretend that pervasive interpretive pluralism does them no harm, but that denial extracts heavy costs in undercutting intellectual honesty and theological credibility.” Now that raises the stakes considerably. If it can be demonstrated, as Smith is committed to doing, that any of these charges is true, it does indeed place a burden upon those evangelicals who care about the integrity of both mind and witness. While it may not be too far off that many evangelical believers do not care about the first of these, the second is at the heart of evangelicalism.

What sounds good in theory and what has been proclaimed through many a pulpit and classroom as foundational to the faith—biblicist principles of the authority of scripture—is not actually what is practiced by virtually any of its proponents. There are blatantly ignores teachings in the Bible; there is what can only be described as arbitrary usage of “cultural relativism” when applying scripture; and it is clear that something other than the text is determining the approach to the text in practice. Smith marshalls significant instances and passages in which these factors are demonstrated, using specific applications of “biblical principles” which have no direct textual grounding—including the well-known matter of the Trinity and of the homo-ousia formula which played such a pivotal role in understanding who Christians believe Jesus is.

Perhaps the two most important points come at the close of Part 1. The first is the author’s emphatic affirmation of divine inspiration of Scripture; challenging biblicism is not tacitly denying this doctrine. He notes that the five classic texts that are used to support biblicism do tell us important things about scripture; but they do not give us biblicism or its cousin, inerrancy. The second point is one on which the chapter closes, and to my mind is one evangelicals have ignored to their own great and painful loss. While the biblicist paradigm is easily upheld in the circles in which it is promoted, it fares poorly outside; and that exposes the youth of theses churches to a whole new set of intellectual challenges for which they are ill-prepared, and against which they usually fall. The rate at which teens of evangelical churches reject the faith is alarming; and while there are undoubtedly multiple causes, the undermining of their assumptions about the Bible is principle among them. Can we do better? We must. And that’s where Part 2 will turn.

The Bible Made Impossible (?), Part 1

In a series of posts this week we will be looking at Christian Smith’s book The Bible Made Impossible. My intent is to think through the issues as they are raised by the author without jumping ahead to anticipate what will come later in the book, and without attributing to him arguments he is not making. We’ll begin by noting that Smith claims to be an evangelical believer who has recently joined the Roman Catholic Church; I take the first part at face value and find the second quite understandable, given what he has to say in the first two chapters, which will be the focus of Part 1 of this review.

Part 1 of Smith’s argument is given to the premise implied by the book’s title. He argues that the major problem of most evangelical approaches to the Bible is that of biblicism (Part 2 will attempt to sketch out a better way of conceiving the Bible nature and status). Chapter 1 is given to a definition of what biblicism is and of how extensively it pervades evangelical thinking. His description of biblicism is extensive, encompassing much of what many Christians take for granted about the Bible. I include his “nine points” and the “viewpoint” which he believes they generate at length here:

1. Divine Writing: The Bible, down to the details of its words, consists of and is identical with God’s very own words written inerrantly in human language.
2. Total Representation: The Bible represents the totality of God’s communication to and will for humanity, both in containing all that God has to say to humans and in being the exclusive mode of God’s true communication.
3. Complete Coverage: The divine will about all of the issues relevant to Christian belief and life are contained in the Bible.
4. Democratic Perspicuity: Any reasonably intelligent person can read the Bible in his or her own language and correctly understand the plain meaning of the text.
5. Commonsense Hermeneutics: The best way to understand biblical texts is by reading them in their explicit, plain, most obvious, literal sense, as the author intended them at face value, which may or may not involve taking into account their literary, cultural, and historical contexts.
6. Solo Scriptura: The significance of any given biblical text can be understood without reliance on creeds, confessions, historical church traditions, or other forms of larger theological hermeneutical frameworks, such that theological formulations can be built up directly out of the Bible from scratch.
7. Internal Harmony: All related passages of the Bible on any given subject fit together almost like puzzle pieces into single, unified, internally consistent bodies of instruction about right and wrong beliefs and behaviors.
8. Universal Applicability: What the biblical authors taught God’s people at any point in history remains universally valid for all Christians at every other time, unless explicitly revoked by subsequent scriptural teaching.
9. Inductive Method: All matters of Christian belief and practice can be learned by sitting down with the Bible and piecing together through careful study the clear “biblical truths that it teaches.

These principles generate the following:
10. Handbook Model: The Bible teaches doctrine and morals with every affirmation that it makes, so that together those affirmations comprise something like a handbook or textbook for Christian belief and living, a compendium of divine and therefore inerrant teachings on a full array of subjects—including science, economics, health, politics, and romance.

The issue, after all of this stated, however, is not that such biblicism is expressly articulated, but that different elements of it permeate the landscape of so much evangelicalism. This presents one of the difficulties with Smith’s description. As stated, I don’t think I would consider myself a biblicist—not that I do not accept some, or most of the basic ideas, but I accept none of them as stated. But he then proceeds by interpreting them very broadly, so that they encompass virtually every statement about the Bible pronounced by virtually any evangelical denomination, seminary, college, author, parachurch organization, etc. What he does in the process, however, is overlook the fact that statements very similar to the ones he cites in the remainder of the first chapter can be found in decidedly non-evangelical bodies as well. In fact, they do not differ as much as he might like from statements within Catholic documents.

But that is secondary to his point (perhaps: let’s withhold critique on that aspect until he has given his own proposal). The major problem with biblicsm is “perpetual interpretive plurality.” The very premise of biblicism is that the Bible is clear, easily understood, and interpreted; the reality is that so many understandings and interpretations have been offered, many of which are incompatible with one another. The point is driven home at great length, citing so many documents and writers as to be quite repetitive. But that seems to be a deliberate strategy—he seems to believe that evangelicals will need to have the idea very prominently displayed before they catch how it undermines the very ideas of biblicism.

Chapter two offers more of the same, but this time moves from a focus on statements to a focus on actual issues in which the plurality of interpretations is most obvious, and ought to cause a reconsideration of the concept. And his list is impressive; it does, indeed, need to be taken to heart by those who have insisted on an easy move from text to fixed doctrine. Nor will it do to dismiss the differences in interpretation as belonging to the category of minor matters. To illustrate the inadequacy of such a defense, he offers areas such as church polity, predestination and free will, Sabbath observance, sacraments, gender difference and equality, and a host of others which cannot rightly be dismissed as trivialities within a grand unity. Even atonement and justification cannot escape as central, agreed upon matters that we can discern from the clear sense of scripture. Sobering list, indeed.

Smith then turns to options available to those who are willing to face the truth of persistent interpretive plurality, yet still find it needful to defend biblicism. One is to say that truly informed students of the Bible can indeed come to understand the single, harmonious sense of the Bible, but that most Christians who study the Bible actually do so with problematic motives, interests, or agendas. We’re right; the rest are wrong, even if sincerely so. A second option is to appeal to the original autographs (the ones biblical writers actually penned) as the location of the true meaning and sense; but, of course, this does us no good since they are unlikely ever to be found. Third, we can appeal to the effects of sin on our understanding, so that we will always struggle to find the meaning that is there. His rejoinder to this approach is to question just how the scripture with the characteristics biblicism assumes has failed to overcome this “noetic” deficiency. These first three options have names and identifiable adherents. The other offers of a way out come from his own speculation (actually, some have espoused forms of these positions). The first is to say that God only wants some Christians to actually understand the truth of the Bible, but not all. The second says that the single meaning is very complex and multi-dimensional, and when seen perfectly, will be shown to encompass all of the interpretations now seeming contradictory to one another–there’s a higher synthesis than what we can now see. Or, one might conceivably argue that God has been purposefully ambiguous in the scripture so that we will exercise humility, openness, and grace with one another in different interpretive camps.

Chapter two closes with a discussion of the differences between interpretive camps, which develop by viewing the whole of scripture through a particular lens (covenantal, dispensational, non-violent, holiness, etc.). The chosen lens always leaves out or grossly distorts those portions which do not fit the chosen paradigm; and the parts left out by one camp seem to be central to another. Is this the picture that biblicism paints with its premises? Smith says this plurality—undeniable, persistent, doggedly stubborn as it is, should cause evangelicals to abandon biblicism and seek a better understanding of what God’s Word really is.

A much more extensive post than usual for this site. But Smith does give a lot of things for us to think about, or to think about the way we think about the Bible.

Does the Bible Make Sense?

The most obvious answer to the title question is a resounding “yes” if we consider the number of people through a very long period of time and across an ever-increasing number of cultures who have been positively influenced by The Holy Bible. Apparently, it has made a lot of sense to a lot of people, though certainly not without its smattering of critics.

But when the question digs a little more deeply into the reasons for which and the manner in which the Bible makes sense, things change a bit. There has been no shortage of attempts at defining the nature of the Bible and the role of its statements about all sorts of things, from how to be “saved” to how to be successful in business, marriage, friendships, etc. The Bible has been used as a scientific book of origins, a manual for building an economic utopia, and a handbook for spirituality. But why should it be expected to hold any of these positions? What does it mean to say that it is inspired, or infallible, or inerrant, or authoritative? How would we go about defending any of those choices of descriptors—should the Bible itself be the court of appeal, or should there be externally grounded corroboration before we accept a biblical “final word” on any subject? Is the status of Scripture something equally discernible by the believer and unbeliever alike, or must there be a leap of faith before the truth of the biblical message(s) make sense?

These sorts of questions, and what be believes to be an inadequate answer most often given by conservative Christians, form the basis of Christian Smith’s book, The Bible Made Impossible. The author’s contention is that what most evangelical Christians say about the Bible—or perhaps more accurately, what they have been taught they must say about the Bible—does not make sense. Specifically, we should expect a perfect, inspired, inerrant word from God to be clearly consistent in its statements, pronouncements, and even its interpretation. Since this is very clearly not the case, it is time for those who care about the Bible to take more seriously the problems that have been present yet overlooked in the descriptions we have been given. The advantage Smith has is that of not being a theologian and not working (teaching) at an evangelical college or seminary (he’s a sociologist at Notre Dame); this, he acknowledges, gives him the freedom to speak without fear of repercussion that might ensue if someone else would write such things.

I’m going to take a couple of days on this blog to examine Smith’s ideas. But to begin (and to allow anyone interested to get the Kindle edition and follow along), I’d simply like to ask what anyone thinks the Bible is/is not, and why you think it is that way; and how satisfied you are with what you have received as an apologetic for the status of the Bible. So let’s hear from you, and we’ll begin with Smith tomorrow, and see if the Bible really has been made impossible.

What’s a Teacher?

Odd question from someone who has been earning a living by filling the role the title is all about. It was partially prompted by today’s post on the “Jesus Creed” blog page, and partially stirred by a class I led last evening. The blog post cites Harvard physics professor Eric Mazur’s discovery that lectures are largely ineffective in raising the level of understanding of students. That’s old news for anyone familiar with education research–or for anyone doing the lecturing and daring enough to truly assess its impact. Oh, a good lecturer may entertain or otherwise impress his or her students; but is it effective teaching? That might just be a different question.

Yet virtually all of us of a certain age (if you fit it, you’ll know it) have expectations that are well ingrained when it comes to the “delivery” of information, which we assume to be the equivalent of teaching. Mazur started with the same assumption, and it guided his work for years. If I am a teacher, maybe I had better refresh my thoughts on what I’m supposed to do. So I looked at the definition of teaching (on the Merriam-Webster app on my iPhone, of course–at least it wasn’t Wikipedia), where I encountered a few options, beginning with, “to cause to know something.” Goodness, I gave up the pretension of being the first cause of anything other than my occasional stupidity a long time ago. Let’s keep trying. “To cause to know how.” Not much better; same problem in thinking we can cause this sort of result, much as we’d like to. Similarly, “to cause to know the disagreeable consequences of some action.” Well, we do have grade books.

But then there are more agreeable options:”to accustom to some action or attitude;” or, “to guide the studies of,” “to instruct by precept, example, or experience.” By extension, a teacher would then be someone who does these things—accustoms, guides, and instructs. That seems far more to be the case with all of those most of us recall as teachers. We remember these verbs and think of instances of their display when we think of our teachers; we do not think of their lectures. We may recall that they were particularly engaging when they did lecture, but probably not what they said. They may even have been perfectly awful at the podium, but provided guidance nonetheless.

I mention this because of a class in which we were discussing the nature and purpose of mankind as implied in the second chapter of Genesis. What we noted (and I do mean the plural here) was that humans, as the image-bearing creature of God (icons) were set in the world to go about the task of creating, exploring, developing, growing, healing, naming, describing, etc. The eureka moment came in recognizing that each of these activities is a godly activity, and that to know how to do each and every creative task well, we need to know the one in whose image we are made, and who created us for this purpose. In other words, everybody needs good theology.

I can’t tell him many lectures I’ve given in attempts to impress upon students this very simple truth of our common need for theology; and I always had high hopes for the results (teachers are an optimistic lot). It occurred to me later, however, that God is the pattern of the teacher as well as of any other endeavor. And He gave few lectures, but was always there to accustom, guide, and instruct. After all these years, I think I’m getting the idea.

Sending Our Minds to Pasture

At first, it seemed an odd request. But it came again. And again.

“It” in this case was an invitation to speak to a group of residents and guests at a retirement facility. While there may be nothing so unusual about that in itself, the topic requested was postmodernism and truth in contemporary theology. Postmodernism for seniors. Hmmm. Truth and philosophy in generous portion. I’m interested.

After the most recent such event I received an email expressing appreciation. That’s all well and good, and nice to have, even if it can be pro forma. But it was the specifics of some comments that made me think. They referred to the fact that the people who participated, including asking good and relevant questions, had not had opportunity to engage in those philosophical ideas and implications for many years, perhaps not since college. The greater portion of these folks have been in church all of their lives. Thinking about that simply brought home to me the reality and the impact of our divorcing of faith from reason in so much of the church.

The enthusiasm with which the subject was engaged made me think in retrospect that to the extent that we have bought into the separation of mind and heart, we have stunted the development of both individual Christians the church itself. And to that same extent we have failed to present to the world the full riches and possibilities of a God-centered view of the life in this world. For the believer, it is like having a missing or atrophied part of the body–we’re just not able to fully function as designed. For the church, it is as though the message of Jesus is addressed to a world we have not yet seen or experienced, even while people live, grow, and suffer in this world—and we wonder why we’re not heard. For the world, it is nothing less than hiding the key to truth as applied to many areas of life, specifically in philosophy, psychology, sociology, politics, and economics.

One movement in contemporary theology claims to take this seriously. Radical Orthodoxy seeks to view every discipline and dimension of life from a worldview shaped by the biblical narrative. Alas, it hasn’t gotten off the ground, in spite of great minds being involved. For one thing, the major spokesmen say much about the about the Bible, but very little from the Bible. But on the other hand, there has been very little preparatory work done in the churches to receive what they are attempting to do; that is, it is so far from our way of thinking about faith that it has no way of gaining traction.

Have we accepted a mindless faith? Is that the kind the Bible offers? If so, what are we supposed to think about? And what do we think about what we think about, to repeat a phrase from a few days ago? What do we say to my new acquaintances who are surprised and delighted to talk about the life of the mind?

Perspectives on Life and Suffering

As mentioned in Saturday’s Stray Thoughts last week, I am currently teaching a course on the topic of God and Suffering. It’s always a “fun” course for me in the sense of getting to learn as much as I may give in the span of a semester. That learning invariably happens because of the stories and perspectives of the participants in the class.

An excellent book on the subject is Brian Morley’s God in the Shadows (Christian Focus Publications). His second chapter reminds us that one of the critical factors in how people respond to bad things happening in their lives is what their expectations are–expectations of life in general and of God in particular. This prompted a discussion of just what it is that American people seem to expect out of life. The list was fairly predictable; it included such things as health, security, sufficient finances, comforts, meaningful work, etc. We consider ourselves to be undergoing suffering in some measure when these expectations are not met. Some people will relate the “suffering” so described to the existence or non-existence of a good God; if God is good and sufficiently powerful, why would He not provide the things we “need” for a good life? Or so the discussion begins for many folks.

Following the class I had a conversation with an African student. This particular class member did not speak during the compiling of the list of things Americans consider as components of a good life. Afterward, however, the matter of perspective came up prominently in conversation. What was revealed was that the so-called “problem of evil” is not a topic in Africa. This may initially surprise many westerners, who look at the horrendous suffering of many people on that continent and expect that the “why” question would be prominent in churches and villages across the land. But whether one is referring to political suppression, starvation, disease, poverty, or whatever other form of hardship, it is not commonly raised as evidence against either God’s existence or nature. These things are life. Or to say it otherwise, these realities are well within the expectations of life. So when this student viewed a Peter Singer diatribe against the existence and/or goodness of God, he wanted to jump out of his seat to offer a rebuttal. I’m quite sure that Singer would expect that his clear and devastating argument would have shown the futility of faith; in fact, the opposite ensued.

Expectations do much to shape what we expect from the world; and as Christians, we attach God’s promises, real and imagined, to the mix. Curiously, we conveniently seem to have forgotten anything having to do with expectations of us. How different in this from the (wrong) impressions Job and his acquaintances had; If one is good, God rewards and if one is evil, God punishes. Therefore, if suffering, then sin has occurred. What is easily missed in this formula is its implication that we end up controlling what God does. He can be manipulated.

Perspective. Does it come from our culture, from our fleshly desires, from our families, from our churches? So much of our success in life comes from the matching of expectations and reality—and the ability to meaningfully and truthfully learn from the difference between the two. Or is that just one man’s perspective?

Reality Check: What’s on Your Mind?

A couple of week’s ago the senior pastor of our congregation asked a poignant question in his sermon: what do you think about what you think about? It’s provocative, isn’t it? Are we pleased about the things that occupy our minds most of the time, or at least when we do have time that is not necessarily given to jobs or the people we are responsible to and for?

I was reminded of the question as I perused a book mention last week, David Platt’s Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream, and by a post on my facebook page this morning regarding the death of singer Whitney Houston. Perhaps you’ve seen it, too. It consists of two pictures side by side: on the left is a picture of Whitney in her performing prime, with the caption reading, “One person dies and 100 million cry;” on the right is a picture of starving children, presumably in Africa, with the caption reading, “One million die, and no one cries.” What are we thinking about? The fact that we as a culture think very much about fame and fortune and little about hopelessness and want is betrayed by the wild popularity of shows like “American Idol” and “The Voice.” We like to be entertained; and we like to find someone who is basically much like us and vicariously live into the great American ideal with them. If our chosen competitor makes it, we feel however faintly that we made it, too. It’s the same phenomenon that drives people from the love of sports to an intense attachment to a team or individual athlete. The fact that we think very little about those in great want is betrayed by their ubiquity.

Platt reminds readers of the inconvenient words of the New Testament regarding wealth and the approval of people. They are words we have managed quite creatively to blunt. We “spiritualize” them and turn them on their heads, somehow succeeding in doing the impossible—making the gospel sound like the American dream itself. From the man who needed to build bigger barns to hold all his accumulating goods, to the man at whose table Lazarus begged, to the one who turned away when his possessions were said to be the price of following Jesus, to the one who is offered the favored seat in the assembly of the post-resurrection church—it’s just not a ringing endorsement of gaining success at the bank.

Our misreadings and desperate interpretations of the Bible might begin with a skewed idea of what the gospel is all about in the first place. Platt suggests this early in his book by taking our favorite verse (John 3:16) and pointing out the obvious: God’s love is for the whole world. Our individualistic way of thinking turns this in to an individually directed message, to the point where it is commonplace to encourage people to substitute their own name for “the world.” When we do so we change the focus entirely. We have so individualized the gospel that we think it’s about individual people, rather than a reaching out to the whole world. The individual gospel plays very well with the American dream–it’s all about me, my salvation, my success, my claim on heaven when I die, and, by the way, about a whole lot of goodies I can name and claim before I get there. And it’s the “goodies” that occupy our minds, our thoughts entirely too much of the time, and not on the world God loved so much.

It is a convicting question, is it not: what do you think about the things you think about?

Muslim Violence Toward Christians: Why the Long Silence?

It really is a cause for wonder that this news has taken so long to reach a mainstream publication. But kudos to Newsweek for finally breaking the silence last week with a feature story about what has been happening outside the west, where Islam is the majority religion. For those who have not heard about it, I encourage you to paste the link into your browser and read the report.

What Ayaan Hirsi Ali writes is not new information to many Christians living in the United States; several organizations have been vigilant about the persecution of believers in various parts of the world, including but not limited to those with predominant Muslim populations. Prayer groups have formed specifically to join with the voices of the oppressed in a united cry to God for an end to the suffering, as well as for the softeneing of the hearts toward the gospel on the part of the persecutors. For whatever reasons in addition to the two suggested by Newsweek writer, however, neither the mainstream press nor the State Department has shown much interest in the plight of those who have suffered under these officially and unofficialy sanctioned acts of violence. Considering how the plights of other suffering people groups (and animal groups) have been highlighted at various times, this is a troubling omission.

One possible reason Hirsi Ali does not specifically mention is that such reporting of Muslim-on-Christian violence does not fit the narrative of the mainstream. In some segments thereof the reigning paradigm is that all religions are essentially equal (and equally bothersome when they interrupt that narrative with what they actually believe). It wants to believe that religious people are basically all alike, that religious belief is essentially a private matter with no bearing on the public square, and certainly not on official policy; all religions may have their radical elements, but they are always on the fringe and basically cancel each other out when assessing their total impact. To report on those incidents which call this narrative into serious question would not be beneficial to that mainstream way of thinking and directing public opinion. It might even get people to think about the importance of what people believe and why it matters.

The truth about Islam is that the truth about Islam is difficult to state. The Quran has two decidely different ways of being interpreted regarding the approach to non-Muslims, both attributable to the prohet himself. One strand encourages respect toward other people of the Book, meaning specifically Jews and Christians; the other highlights the infidels, also including Christians and Jews, and encourages their destruction. Contemporary Islam is a battle for the interpretation that will guide today’s and tomorrow’s Muslims. The fact that few Muslims know their holy writings, even far less than Christians know theirs, subjects them to what they are told by thir leaders. One does not find home Quran Study Groups.

I applaud Newsweek for stepping out of the silence. And I encourage Christians to continue praying for their brothers and sisters, and perhaps even asking their congressional representatives to ask some tough questions in ploicy discussions.