...dispatches from the post-evangelical wilderness Tue, 23 Sep 2014 04:05:33 +0000 en-US hourly 1 ...dispatches from the post-evangelical wilderness The Internet Monk, Michael Spencer no The Internet Monk, Michael Spencer (The Internet Monk, Michael Spencer) 2006-2009 ...dispatches from the post-evangelical wilderness Rob Grayson: The Bible Clearly Says Tue, 23 Sep 2014 04:05:33 +0000 cat bible

Over the past year or so, Facebook has become a place of wide-ranging theological discussion for me. Of course, as a medium for serious, in-depth discussion, it has its disadvantages and limitations; but thanks to others of like mind, I’ve found it to be predominantly a source of life and stimulation.

Being active in theological debate on Facebook has taught me a lot, especially about things like taking time to think before speaking, giving others the benefit of the doubt and working hard to communicate clearly and unambiguously. It’s also brought to my attention certain recurring arguments that many Christians regularly trot out in defence of whatever position they’re pushing, one of which I’d like to briefly highlight today. And hopefully demolish.

If I had a pound for every time in the last year that I’ve heard or seen someone say “But the Bible clearly says…”, I’d be well on the way to funding a more generous pension for my later years.

I have a number of issues with arguments beginning “The Bible clearly says…”.

Franzie-reading-BibleFirst, it is not borne out by two thousand years of history. If the Bible clearly said anything much at all, surely the world would not now have something like forty thousand Christian denominations, many of which claim to have the correct interpretation of scripture. Similarly, if the Bible was anything like as clear as this statement claims, there would have been no need for the academic study of theology and the accompanying theological debate that has persisted through twenty centuries and shows little sign of abating even today. This alone ought to be enough to kick “The Bible clearly says…” into touch as a credible argument for anything.

Second, as Brian Zahnd quipped in the recent much-discussed “Monster God” debate, you can make the Bible stand up and dance a jig if you want to. In other words, the Bible contains enough seemingly contradictory statements that you can pluck out a verse here and there and use it to support pretty much any position you want to. For example, there’s no shortage of passages in the Old Testament that could be used to support the argument, “The Bible clearly says that ethnic cleansing is perfectly acceptable”. Need I say more?

Third, and perhaps most important, no text says anything without some degree of ambiguity. Whether we’re aware of it or not, we all interpret every single thing we read. Let me try to explain.

Suppose you open up a learn-to-read book for children, and read the first sentence: “The cat sat on the mat”. Simple enough at first reading, right? Not too much ambiguity here, is there?


What we can say with certainty after reading this sentence is that a cat sat on a mat. To conclude anything more than that requires interpretation. For example, we are told nothing about the colour, gender, age or size of the cat. Similarly, the size, type, material and placement of the mat are left to our imagination. And did the cat just sit on the mat once, and if so, for how long? Or was it in the habit of doing so? Why did it sit there? And when did all of this feline mat occupation occur?

To answer any of these questions requires us to interpret the text. I’m sure most people would be able to grasp this without much difficulty. What’s harder to see is that we interpret all the time without even being aware that we’re doing it.

When you read the sentence “The cat sat on the mat”, chances are that you immediately form a mental image of a cat sat on a mat. The cat you imagine will be of a certain size, age, gender, colour and disposition, and the mat will be in a certain more or less specific location. A number of factors determine how you imagine the scene, including but not limited to your personal experience with and attitude toward cats; other books, pictures or TV shows in which you have seen cats sitting on mats; your favourite or least favourite types of cats and mats…; and even the mood you happen to be in at the time.

You may feel that a cat on a mat is rather a facile example to use, but hopefully you can see the point I’m trying to make.

When we read any text, be it a novel, a newspaper, a blog post or the Bible, there’s a very small amount of information that is known and understood with absolute certainty. On the other hand, there’s a very large amount of information that is open to interpretation. It follows that our understanding of a text is based largely on our personal interpretation of that text.

cat bible 2As I’ve hinted already with my admittedly rather silly feline example, our interpretation of any given biblical text is shaped by many factors. These include, but are not limited to, age, socio-economic background, race, educational level, church background, personality type, personal experience, peer group influences and current life circumstances. All of these forces and more work together to form and guide our personal interpretation in ways that we are largely unaware of.

So when, in defence of your favourite theological hobby horse, you exclaim “But the Bible clearly says…!”, what you’re really saying is “But my interpretation of the Bible clearly says…!”. To put it another way, it would be better to say, “For someone with my specific and exact personal, socio-economic, political, emotional and religious history, and with the exact same personality type, memories and value system as me, the Bible clearly says…”

By now you hopefully realise that the only person who ticks all those boxes is you. Your interpretation of the Bible is unique to you. It may coincide with the interpretation of lesser or greater numbers of other people, but ultimately it’s yours, shaped by your own unique set of formative influences.

It follows from all this – and my experience tends to bear this out – that people who routinely base their arguments on what the Bible “clearly” says often feel that they have a direct line to the Holy Spirit and have been given the one and only valid interpretation of Holy Scripture. To which my answer is, what about all the other good and holy men and women down the centuries – many of whom have studied, meditated and sacrificed much more than you or I in their quest to know God and understand the Bible – who have “received” an inspired interpretation that differs from yours?

In closing, then, let me issue a plea: if, in defending your particular theological understanding, you wish to draw on the Bible, please don’t preface your argument with “The Bible clearly says”. If you do, what you’re really saying is “I’m right and you’re wrong”. Instead, do me the courtesy of saying what you think the Bible means by what it says, and why you think what it says should be interpreted in that particular fashion. Perhaps then we can have a healthy conversation from which we might both learn something.

* * *

Rob blogs at Faith Meets World.

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iMonk Classic: A Conversation in God’s Kitchen (1) Mon, 22 Sep 2014 04:05:30 +0000 Medieval_baker

Note from CM: Over these next two weeks, we will be focusing on the Bible, what it is, its nature and purpose. We begin today with part one of Michael Spencer’s most comprehensive overview of Scripture: A Conversation in God’s Kitchen. This is a long essay, so I am breaking it up into portions that I hope will prove more manageable for discussion.

If you would like to do some reading to go along with these posts, here are book suggestions. We will be reviewing Enns’s book during this series. We have reviewed or commented on some of the others here on IM. Click on the links to see those posts.

• • •

Baker 2bread iconFirst, What is the Bible?

When I was a senior in high school, I made it into an Advanced English Class taught by Mrs. Vista Morris. Mrs. Morris taught us to research, to write and to speak. Oddly, we never left her room, because all of our research and work was done in a little room adjacent to her classroom, full of several sets of books called “The Great Books of the Western World.” Britannica publishes this set, and I own the books today.

At the time, I had no idea who these 73 authors were or why they were significant. I recognized a few names- Shakespeare, Aristotle- but most were alien to me. They were, of course, what Harold Bloom calls, “The Western Canon” of intellectual life. These Great Books- which by the way included the Bible- were a “Scripture” of sorts for a true Western education.

There were three books in the set that were different. Two were monstrous index volumes, where the Great books were broken up into explorations of over a hundred topics vital to the Western intellectual tradition. These books allowed you to delve into the Great Books by themes, and to hear what all the authors had to say on God, government, angels, war or close to a hundred other topics. I treasure these two volumes today, and count minor water damage done to one of them while caring for a plant to be among the great criminal acts ever committed.

The other volume was the slim first volume in the set, a collection of short essays on the purpose and use of the Great Books. It was called “The Great Conversation.” The authors suggested we approach these books not as a single narrative, or as an education by installment, but as a great, roaring, unruly conversation across the ages. Greek dramatists debating with English scientists. Russian novelists sparring with German psychologists. Gibbon debating Homer. Augustine versus Tolstoy. It was a conversation that never occurred, but was allowed to occur by bringing all these writings together, and then studying them to hear what each writer had to say.

This idea, of a great conversation taking place over time and culture, and then selected and presented for my benefit, has become my dominant idea of what is the Bible. It has proven increasingly helpful in a number of ways. The great conversation model has allowed me to jettison any defense of the Bible as single book whose human origins and methodologies present significant difficulties that must be explained. For instance, I view the Bible as a selection of purely human literary creations. I may lay aside my faith, as many critics do, and study the Biblical material purely in their historical and cultural settings. This eliminates the need to force the Bible to be divine in origin, and gives me the freedom to hear each Biblical writer saying what he/she had to say in the way he/she chose to say it.

Or I may read the Bible with my eyes, mind and heart alive to the faith that is at the center of the Biblical conversation. The humanity of the conversation is not an obstacle, but an invitation to understand the Bible even as we understand ourselves and our histories, experiences and cultures.

The rich diversity of the Bible is frequently lost in our fear that seeing a book as exactly what it appears to be will ruin the inspiration and divine authority of the book. Is God so small that the humanity of a text matters to His use of it? Further, the particular “voice” or style the text uses to talk about God may come to us in ways that are strange and uncomfortable to modern ideas of reality and truth. But if we are listening to a conversation and not predetermining what it must be, these factors are almost meaningless.

smoo6b bakerIn the Great Books, the conversation took place in those common categories that were universal, even if greek dramatists and nineteenth century historians actually looked at the world in very different ways. The Great Conversation method says that the editor hears this conversation in his selection of the texts, and the reader experiences it for himself as he reads and listens.

Genesis isn’t twentieth century science. Leviticus is primitive, brutal and middle eastern. The Old Testament histories are not scholarly documentaries, but religious and tribal understandings of God and events. Proverbs comes from a mongrel wisdom tradition throughout the middle east. Song of Solomon is erotic poetry, and not much else. The prophets spoke to their own times, and not to our own. The scholars who help me understand these books as they are, are not enemies of truth, but friends. Call it criticism, paint it as hostile, but I want to know what the texts in front of me are saying!

The Old Testament and New Testament Canon are the selection of those parts of our spiritual literary heritage that make up the Great Conversation about the Judeo-Christian God. The Bible itself is a human book, created and complied by human choices. There may be other writings that contribute to the conversation, but those who know and experience the God of Jesus Christ hear the conversation most plainly in these writings. Canon is that human choice of what to listen to. Inspiration- the next section- is the validation and expounding of that choice.

The conversational model allows for a number of helpful ways of approaching scripture. For instance, it allows a variety of viewpoints on a single subject, such as the problem of evil. Job argues with Proverbs. It encourages us to hear all sides of the conversation as contributing something, and doesn’t say only one voice can be heard as right. Leviticus has something important to say that Psalms may not say. This approach sees the development of understanding as a natural part of the conversation, and isn’t disturbed when a subject appears to evolve and change over time. This model allows some parts of the conversation to be wrong, so that others can be right, and the Bible isn’t diminished as a result.

Most importantly, this model says the Bible presents a conversation that continues until God himself speaks a final Word. In other words, I do not expect this conversation to go on endlessly. It has a point. A conclusion. And in that belief, the great Biblical conversation differs from the Great Books conversation. There is not an endless spiral of philosophical and experiential speculation. There is, as Hebrews 1 says, a final Word: Jesus.

Hebrews 1:1-3 Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high . . .

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Wilderness Update — “It’s Not You, It’s Me” Sun, 21 Sep 2014 04:05:27 +0000 14982624968_8a6149f568_z

I can tell you’re not sure if you wanna go 
and really that’s most understandable 
there’s whole a lot involved in where you place your bet 
and all these reports? They’re a little suspect 

• Bill Mallonee, “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah”

• • •

We interrupt our regularly scheduled Formation Talk for a personal wilderness update.

Another Sunday here in the wilderness wondering what to do.

I’m not feeling at home in church these days.

If it didn’t sound like a bad break-up line, I would march right in to the congregations I’ve been involved with over the past few years and tell everyone, “I’m sorry. It’s not you, it’s me.”

But that’s the truth. I keep trying to identify the specifics of why “it’s me,” but that has proven rather elusive.

I don’t really have a problem with “church,” per se. Because I know God’s love in Jesus, I love the church.

I love church people.

I love using my gifts of preaching and teaching in the church.

But, from the very beginning of my adult experience with the church, my involvement has been tied to vocation. From the start, I was a pastor or engaged in some form of public ministry.

For 30 years, this was my life.

Then it stopped.

Vocationally, I became a minister at large, a hospice chaplain, one whose “congregation” is outside church structures. I have fallen in love with the work of visiting patients and families, collaborating with other professionals on a care team, and sharing God’s kindness with those who are hurting out in the world rather than within the confines of the institutional church. It has been a transformative “divine assignment” for me.

The unexpected gift of writing and leading this blog has provided me with another vocation. It has begun to fulfill a lifelong desire to write. The daily discussions we have here stimulate my faith and thinking in ways I never thought possible. It is a time-consuming responsibility too, but I am loathe to think of giving it up. As a result, the time I am able to give to a local congregation as an active member is limited.

Personally, I am growing older and have moved into a new season of life. We are now keepers of an empty nest, grandparents, on our way to being recognized among the “elders” of our clan. We are no longer driven in quite the same way to provide as actively as we once did for our children’s spiritual well being. They are finding their own paths as adults now.

Old BarnYou might say (and I know it sounds crass) that in many ways I don’t “need” the church as much or in as many ways as I used to. I am fed by Word and Sacrament. In my life right now, as far as what I “need” in a church, that’s it. Period.

Stop there. Before you say it, let me.

I know that’s not the only way or even the best way of looking at being a part of a local congregation. It is also about being a part of God’s family, part of God’s mission in the world. And I have always bought in to an “all hands on deck” philosophy of the church’s mission. “Ask not what your [church] can do for you; ask what you can do for your [church],” to paraphrase an inspiring leader. Along with each and every Christian, I have gifts that God can use to build up the church. I would be happy to use them in a congregational environment were I not expending time and energy to use them in other settings.

Is this a problem?

There are other concerns, some of which I don’t feel comfortable sharing in detail. Let me just say that I have also lost a measure of faith on the ground when it comes to churches in our immediate vicinity. I have no major beefs, just a lack of clarity and confidence. It seems whenever I receive something resembling an “answer” to a query I have, it ends up leading to more and more questions rather than to a clearer sense of direction.

I’m not sure what I’ll do on Sunday morning.

When my wife asks me, “Are you going to church today?” I’m not sure what I’ll say. I know for sure I probably won’t feel good in the moment about whichever answer I give.

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Saturday Ramblings — September 20, 2014 Sat, 20 Sep 2014 04:01:15 +0000 15169201635_c542e20de4_z

Happy Saturday, fellow iMonks! We’ve had simply gorgeous early fall weather here in central Indiana this past week. It’s enough to make a person want to start rambling. So here we go . . .

• • •

urlnLsoybeanset’s start with Paul Penley, who’s certainly got guts. Who makes a statement like this on an evangelical blog? — Personal Bible Reading Destroys the Church. Here’s his point:

Jesus had a dream. He envisioned a community of followers who embraced his way and each other. He prayed, “may they be one” (John 17:21). 34,000 church denominations later, his prayer goes unanswered.

Why? What fueled one man after another to split up the church? What made each group think they had the corner on truth and all others had erred? The answer is simple: The Bible.

The history of church division runs parallel to the proliferation of Bible translation. When leaders can individually interpret what the Bible really says, unity doesn’t stand a chance.

. . . A Bible in every language can lead just as much to the chaos of “create your own religion” as it does to the truth. Interpreting the Bible on your own does not only demonstrate trust in the Bible’s authority; it betrays radical trust in one’s self. We must interpret and act on the Bible’s message with care.

There’s a discussion starter if ever I read one.

soybeansNFL_LogoA lot of people have been talking about the NFL this week, and it wasn’t about the game played on the field. The league suffered seven days that may very well have been the worst period in its history. Many have been calling for NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to resign. The abuse scandals have proven a PR nightmare. Yet despite all the bad news, here is the judgment of some experts in the business of sports, as reported by Bloomberg Businessweek:

The NFL . . . “is economically bulletproof from political scandal and misconduct, from players to owners. NFL owners remain untouched and almost untouchable.” As long as fans keep attending the games every Sunday, watching the sport religiously on TV, and snapping up merchandise, the owners have little to worry about—and, presumably, little reason to consider switching commissioners.

soybeanstiber-creek-community-church-2-700x437Best silly satire I read this week, from

ROME, Italy — Pope Francis has changed the name of St. Peter’s Basilica to “Tiber Creek Community Church,” Vatican spokesperson Fr. Federico Lombardi announced this morning.

“The greatest church of Christendom, built on the holy grave of the martyr-prince of the Apostles, has been known as ‘St. Peter’s Basilica’ for 1700 years,” Fr. Lombardi explained. “It was long overdue for a rebranding.”

. . . Fr. Lombardi also announced that projectors and screens would be installed throughout the basilica in the coming week, that a “totally rocking” worship band was being formed, and that Pope Francis planned on making his sermons “relevant to every day life.”

“The Trinity, the Incarnation, the Virgin Birth, these are all interesting — to dead theologians,” Fr. Lombardi said dismissively. “But how does that apply to my everyday life? How will that help me advance in my career? That’s what Pope Francis is going to be focusing on.”

gilligans-island-tv-showsoybeansThis is a legit opportunity that made me laugh and cringe. From Ligonier Ministries:

I want to make sure that you know about an upcoming study opportunity that you won’t want to miss. This winter, Ligonier Ministries is sponsoring a Caribbean study cruise of the Eastern Caribbean. Our theme will be Christ’s call to endure persecution and suffering faithfully, and I am excited that Steve Nichols and R.C. Sproul Jr. will be joining me as we look at what God’s Word and church history have to tell us about this subject. Our itinerary includes St. Thomas, St. Maarten, and the Bahamas, and we will have many opportunities for fellowship and learning together as we travel.

Let me get this straight: a study cruise about suffering? Maybe they are going to re-enact Gilligan’s Island to give people an opportunity to practice “suffering faithfully”?

Which begs the question, fiercely debated by the Ante-Nicene Fathers and discussed extensively in the works of St. Augustine — “Ginger or Mary Ann?”

soybeansHere’s news about some of the big votes last week:

Paisleysoybeans Ian Paisley died this past week.

Paisley’s incendiary 40-year political career in Ireland ended up being a study in dramatic contrasts. He went from being the Democratic Union Party leader, a fiercely anti-Catholic Protestant extremist whose most reported words were “no”, “never” and “not an inch” and who identified the Pope and Catholic Church with “the whore of Babylon,” to one who made peace with Irish Republicans and became first minister of N. Ireland. He got along so famously with his Catholic deputy minister that they became known as “the Chuckle Brothers.”

What I didn’t know is that this turnaround caused Paisley to be thrust into the wilderness by the church and denomination he founded in 1951.

Martha, any thoughts?

soybeansPeyton_Papa-JohnsPeyton Manning not only likes playing for the Denver Broncos, he is also diggin’ living in the land of legal marijuana. “There’s some different laws out here in Colorado,” Manning told Sports Illustrated. “Pizza business is pretty good out here, believe it or not, due to some recent law changes.” The Denver Broncos’ quarterback serendipitously bought a whole bunch of Papa John’s franchises just before Colorado residents voted to legalize recreational marijuana.

Another score for Peyton.

soybeansHere’s proof that making the front page is not always a good thing (from the Seattle Times, Sept. 14, 2014).


soybeansThe 2014 regular Major League Baseball season is almost over, and it’s time to say goodbye to an all-time great, a personal favorite, and one of the classiest players ever: Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees.

No matter what anyone does to bid him congratulations and farewell, they will be hard-pressed to top this remarkable commercial tribute by Gatorade. Thanks for all the great memories, Captain.

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How I Became a … Theistic-Evolutionist Fri, 19 Sep 2014 12:12:59 +0000 dna_helixOver the next few Fridays I will be bringing you a series entitled “How I Became a…” They will give an insight into some of the views that I hold, and how I arrived at those views. We will begin the series with “How I Became a… Theistic-Evolutionist.”

Despite my Evangelical upbringing I have always believed in an Old Earth. I can credit/blame my Father for much of that. He has been the biggest theological influence in my life. Not necessarily in regards to specific topics, but because he was always willing to go against the flow and challenge the status quo. He taught me to question what I was taught to see if it fit what scripture had to say and to see if it fit what I observed with my own logic and reasoning.

When it came to matters of creation, my father believed in an Old Earth. He felt that Youth Earth theories didn’t mesh with the biblical record and didn’t mesh with what he observed in nature. He supported was is known as the “Gap Theory”, that is, that there was a large expanse of time between Genesis 1:1 and Genesis 1:2. That is, there is much room between “In the beginning God created the Heavens and the Earth” and “God said, ‘Let there be light.’” In between that time “Earth was without form and void.” He pointed out to me that Genesis doesn’t talk about the fall of Satan, we have to go to the book of Job for that, and that Satan (in the form of a serpent) shows up in the Garden of Eden very early in the story. He conjectured that perhaps the battle with Satan and Satan’s subsequent fall destroyed an original or previous creation of God and caused the Earth to become without form and void, and that what we read about in Genesis 1 is in fact a recreation.

The Gap theory had largely arisen as Christian geologists in the late 1800s and early 1900s sought to harmonize a literal understanding of the creation of Genesis with the geological world around them. By the 1950s it had become the predominant view among Christendom. My father was the first one in his family to become a Christian, and it coincided with the heyday of the Gap theory. My father would answer those who claimed that God had created the world to look old, by asking, “Are you saying that God is a deceiver, making something look old that is in fact new?”

Young Earth Creationism began to over take the Gap theory, and the Gap theory fell out of favour for other reasons as well. However, my belief in an old earth remained.

One of the reasons was the idea of starlight. If a star is one million light years away, then it takes one million years for the light to reach our eyes. If we see a stellar event, and if the universe is only 6000 years old, we are seeing an event that didn’t actually happen. Again it makes God out to be a deceiver.

I have always been someone who has been willing to change his mind on a topic when presented with enough evidence. I have changed my views on a lot of different theological topics (more on this in the weeks to come), but the old earth ideas have always stuck with me. Much of this has to do with the fact the evidence considers to stack up in a one sided manner (and yes I have read material from both sides of the issue.)

In my earlier years one of the books that influenced me the most in this area was in fact a series of essays written by members of the Evangelical Theological Society. “The Genesis Debates: Persistent Questions about Creation and the Flood” assured me that there was more than one way to understand Genesis and still be an Evangelical Christian. This book was originally published in 1990, and while much has happened in the fields of science and theology since then, it demonstrated that there were valid theological options 25 years ago. (There has since been a similarly named book published since then, don’t confuse the two.)

When it comes to evolution, the field of genetics has revolutionized the discussion. It has been used to discover how humans came to populate the earth. It showed the European based populations interbred with Neanderthals. While evolutionists once speculated at the relationship between humans and other great apes, genetics showed how similar we are. By looking at the rate of genetic change that still occurs, we can extrapolate backwards and find a date for a common ancestor. In the case of of our closest genetic cousin, the Chimpanzee, we can determine that a common ancestor of both humans and chimpanzees lived about 6-8 million years ago.

One of the most influential people for me to arrive at my position on this topic is Francis Collins, an evangelical Christian who was also head of the Human Genome Project. I would highly recommend his book “The Language of God.” His book helped reassure me that acceptance of evolution was compatible with belief in a Creator God, just with a change in understanding of how he creates.

There were of course theological issues that arise out of this. How are we to understand Adam? Is there a historical Adam? Was Adam the first man, the first human with a God consciousness, the one designated to be the start of God’s working with Israel, or a literary device in a creation story? What about the fall and Paul’s comments in Romans 5 that through Adam sin and death entered the world? While I have not firmly landed on a position on much of this discussion, Peter Enns book, “The Evolution of Adam“, has convinced me that I do have theological wiggle room to be faithful to scripture where ever I might end up on the topic. Despite the topic, this is not a book about evolution, but rather a discussion about “what the bible does and doesn’t say about human origins.”

I have had had many other influences along the way, but these have been some of my key ones. I would encourage you to read the latter two books as they are both both very current in terms of scientific or theological understandings on the topic. My own thinking continues to “evolve” as advances in both the theological and scientific worlds continue.

So that has been my journey in a nutshell. What have your experiences been in this area? What has influenced you? Where have you landed, or are you still looking for a place to find your feet?

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Open Forum — September 18, 2014 Thu, 18 Sep 2014 04:01:26 +0000 three_stooges_golf

I will be participating in our annual charity golf tournament for the Daniel Mercer Family Fund today, so I thought it would provide a perfect opportunity to hand the keys to the shop over to you and give you the chance to talk about subjects you’d like to discuss.

It would be especially nice to hear from some new readers or infrequent commenters today.

In the nearly five years since I started writing for IM, I have noticed that the community of those who comment tends to wax and wane. Also, most of the time the published conversations end up representing relatively few voices among the thousands of readers that visit Internet Monk each day. That’s just how things work, but on days like today, we have a nice chance to invite those who may not normally weigh in to say “hello” and let us know their thoughts.

So, please participate as you wish, and welcome.

The rules of an Open Forum are mostly common sense and governed by the law of love:

  • All are welcome here. You don’t have to sign a doctrinal statement or know the secret handshake.
  • Be respectful of others. Disagree if you must, but don’t be disagreeable.
  • Try to be as concise and clear in your comments as possible.
  • Don’t dominate the discussion.
  • Remember: we don’t question others’ salvation around here or try to convert others to our tribe. Don’t be the one to start.
  • Please listen.
  • We recommend not using links because the filters will get’cha and I won’t be around to let you out of moderation jail. If you want to point someone to an article, etc., try to do it without using the actual URL.
  • Dead horses should not be beaten, but buried. Know when it’s time to stop sluggin’ and start diggin’.

Enjoy the day and the conversation.

And while you’re thinking up something to discuss, here’s your Chaplain, getting ready for the links today:


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My Outlook, My Faith, and My Hope Wed, 17 Sep 2014 04:05:35 +0000 IMG_0023.JPG

Abraham and Three Angels, Chagall

When people ask, “What do you believe?” I recite the Apostles’ Creed. In my opinion, there is no better summary of the gospel than that simple, narrative-oriented statement. This is my story.

But I was thinking today that I might like to have a more personal statement, one that not only outlines the objective story I believe, but also reflects the specific promises in Christ which I have found hold me fast and give me strength.

So, I came up with the following.

The first four lines are a direct quote from Frederick Buechner that I have cited many times before. The rest is designed to give it a fuller eschatological perspective.

My goal is to craft a statement that is simple yet comprehensive, realistic about life and death, and focused on God’s gracious promises in Christ. I will use it in prayer and contemplation to assist me in keeping my focus on what is truly important.

This is my outlook, my faith, and my hope.

Abraham and Isaac, Chagall

Abraham and Isaac, Chagall

Here is the world.
Beautiful and terrible things will happen.
Don’t be afraid.
I am with you.
Trust me,
And I will free you to love and be loved.
This is the life I have for all my children.

One day, you will be gathered to your people.
But even there I will not forsake you.
For Christ has died,
Christ has risen,
Christ will come again.
Because he lives, so too shall you.
And all will be well.

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Creation Is a Many-Splendored Thing (4): The Whirlwind Creation Museum Tue, 16 Sep 2014 04:01:11 +0000 Lions Panel, Chauvet Cave

Lions Panel, Chauvet Cave in southern France

The Whirlwind Creation Museum: an imaginary tour, inspired by ch. 5, “Behemoth and the Beagle,” from The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder, by William P. Brown, and ch. 12, “God of the Whirlwind,” from Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering, by Ronald E. Osborn.

God’s answer to Job provides the most panoramic view of creation in all of the Hebrew Bible (Job 38:1-42:6). On its surface, the text serves to chasten Job and expose the limitations of his knowledge and ability (38:2; 40:2, 8-14). But never has a rebuke been so colorful and richly textured, even from God. God reproves Job by taking him on a scenic detour through creation’s rugged, far-flung lands, a mind-bending tour of the vast domains of cosmology, meteorology, and zoology. God’s answer features such a variety of particularities, from hail to hawks, that some scholars have compared these chapters to the ancient Near Eastern genre of a catalogue or list. . . . (pp. 116-117)

. . . we must credit God with the making of biting and stinging insects, poisonous serpents, weeds, poisonous weeds, dangerous beasts, and disease-causing organisms. That we may disapprove of these things does not mean that God is in error or that He ceded some of the work of Creation to Satan; it means that we are deficient in wholeness, harmony, and understanding — that is, we are “fallen.” (Wendell Berry, quoted in Osborn, p. 151)

• • •

Hand Print, Chauvet Cave

Hand Print, Chauvet Cave

Welcome to the Whirlwind Creation Museum. Other so-called creation museums place their emphasis on a narrow, literalistic, modernist reading of the early chapters of Genesis. They imagine that these chapters simply “tell it like it is” — this is how God did it. Period. We, however, focus on a more panoramic and comprehensive text about how God created and rules over the universe, our world and its inhabitants: Job, chapters 38-42. This passage reminds us that we weren’t there, and none of us actually has any idea what God has wrought or how it all fits together. Job teaches us that herein lies wisdom.

It is my pleasure to give you an overview of the museum today, so that I might then set you free to explore the vast wonders of creation on your own — wonders that go beyond our human ability to describe and explain.

You see, we think the most basic truth about creation is its ultimate incomprehensibility.

Though we humans have the privilege to use our minds and imaginations to explore and discover and theorize and understand God’s creation, we will never come to the end of it. Its sheer scope and its innumerable mysteries resist our attempts to grasp it all. Its contradictions and conundrums stretch the limits of our logic. Before this great universe, we are very small. We do not think this should discourage us, however. Instead, we devote ourselves to learning, appreciating, contemplating, and proclaiming the splendor of God’s handiwork. In the end we yield our quest for all knowledge to the spirit of trust and worship.

Our Whirlwind Tour begins “with the farthest reaches of the cosmos and [concludes] with the tightly knit scales of the sea-dragon, from the farthest to the smallest scale of perception, from cosmos to chaos” (Brown, p. 125).

That sound of heavy construction you hear would be overwhelming if we were to play it at full volume. It’s God, laying the foundations of the earth, his holy Temple. He measured the entire space — the whole world! — and sank everlasting pillars to support it. He laid his temple’s cornerstone at a glorious dedication ceremony, an event celebrated by the innumerable hosts of heaven as they raised their voices in celestial song — choirs and orchestras filling the skies! Were you there? Can you imagine what it must have been like? The cacophonous sound! The overwhelming power displayed in sinking mountainous foundation stones through the ocean depths! The painstaking craftsmanship involved in forming each plain and forest, each hill and vale, each mountain and desert region!

And then, slam! the entire universe echoes with a thunderous bang of doors being forced shut upon the raging waters of all the oceans and seas, rivers and lakes, setting bounds and firmly holding them in place like a mother swaddles her newborn and cradles him securely in her arms. Were you there? Can you imagine? The tsunami is turned back! With bare hands, God turns the course of the raging river!

Please board this tramcar with me and hang on. As we round the corner, suddenly there is light! Brilliant, blinding light! And just as suddenly, as though by a switch, we descend into a depth beyond darkness. From the blazing surface of the sun to the gates of Hades and its deathly dark we ride, through vast Himalayan-sized storehouses of rain, snow, and hail waiting to be let loose upon the earth. Then out through heaven’s windows into the night, we fly among the constellations and the immeasurable emptiness of space. Have you ever been there? Can you even possibly imagine? Light streaking from billions and billions of incandescent sources! Darkness so deep you feel it on your skin! Weather, and storms, and thunders and lightnings so impetuous, so terrifying, so dazzling!

Rhinos, Chauvet Cave

Rhinos, Chauvet Cave

As we come back to this world, let us move next into our zoology section, one of the Whirlwind Museum’s most impressive and, some say, maddening exhibits. I’ve heard it tends to disturb some folks’ theology.

Why? you may ask. Well, let’s begin with our first animal, the lion, a fierce carnivore. Who provides food for the lion? Or how about the scavenging, predatory raven? Who delivers its prey? Tough questions, if the intended answer is “God” (which it is).

Who made these wild animals, such as the wild donkey and wild ox, to resist dominion in a world where humans are to exercise it? This is the truly wild kingdom which humans fear and avoid. And yet it is God’s world, and it is good.

Who made the ostrich so that she forgets her young and treats them cruelly? Again, this is an animal God made to have “no wisdom . . . no share in understanding.” How puzzling!

Look at the majestic horse, made perfectly for war and violence, mighty in strength and agility, smelling in its very nostrils the aroma of battle, ever waiting for the trumpet to sound. Who made that?

And what about the hawks, the eagles, the vultures, who soar above and gaze down with one thought in mind — dinner! Wait. God provides carrion for the birds of prey?

God describes each one with such evocative detail that Job is afforded a point of view that lies utterly beyond himself, a perspective that is God’s, but one that the animals also share. Job is invited to see the looming battle through the eyes of the warhorse, to spy out corpses through the eyes of the vulture, to roar for prey as the lion, to cry for food like the raven’s brood, to roam free on the vast plains, to laugh at fear, and to play in the mountains. Job’s Earth trek is no descent but an ascent to Nature. (Brown, p. 128)

The high point of our zoological exhibit features two of God’s most fearsome creatures: Behemoth and Leviathan. “Whatever they are, these larger-than-life beasts are the quintessential embodiments of the wild, highly esteemed by God . . .” (Brown, p. 128). These creatures were known in Ancient Near Eastern myths as the purveyors of chaos, which must be overcome in order for the gods to create the world. But God speaks to Job of them differently. For all their awe-inspiring terror, God says of Behemoth: “It is the first of the great acts of God,” (Job 40:19) and of Leviathan: “On earth it has no equal, a creature without fear” (Job 41:33).

Were you there when God made these wild, dangerous, and wonderful creatures? Have you been to their dens? Have you stood face to face with them? Can you exercise any control over them? Can you imagine such wonder, such intricacy, such terrifying mystery as you see in creatures like these?

• • •

This is the end of our tour, for now. I now release you to ponder, to imagine, to contemplate how wondrous and immense and incomprehensible God’s creation must be.

If this tour has taught me anything, it is that God’s creation is not simple, nor is it grasped by human minds. From the side of those who practice the Christian religion, this tour can at first be a faith-shaker. You will notice that nowhere in Job does God assign blame for the messiness of creation to a “fall” or the presence of sin as we do in our theodicies. So, when we put the simple, neat descriptions of Genesis 1-2, with their orderly seven-day pronouncements of a good world and a garden paradise next to this wild and frightful vision of a messy, untamed, complex and bewildering world, which includes competition, circumstances of endless variety (both “good” and “bad” from our perspective), seemingly uncontrollable freedom on the part of God’s creatures, discomfort, difficulties, violence, death, and unexplained suffering, it can be disorienting.

As it was to Job.

Yet it is in bowing before God in the midst of all this mess, this turbulent whirlwind of creation, rather than insisting we be able to explain it, categorize it, and systematically theologize it, that we find Job’s wisdom.

And ultimately, it is when we come to Jesus Christ, whose own mother suffered the pangs of birth to bring forth a new creation, and who himself “descended into the lower parts of the earth” (Eph. 4:9), that we find One who walks with us every day through the whirlwind.

• • •

CaveHorsesNote from CM:

For those who wish to see the awe-inspiring story of the discovery of Chauvet Cave (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) with its wondrous Paleolithic cave paintings, the oldest human art known on earth (30-33,000 years old), I recommend Werner Herzog’s documentary film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams. It is available for free on Netflix for subscribers, and for rental or purchase from Amazon.

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iMonk Classic: Thoughts At 8 a.m. Mass Mon, 15 Sep 2014 04:01:06 +0000 masschanges-flash2

Note from CM: Michael wrote this post in September, 2009. Let me ask our evangelical friends — have things changed in evangelical churches since he wrote these words?

• • •

The wedge contemporary evangelicals are driving between young and old is incredibly short sighted and deadly. Doesn’t the Bible itself say that the older should teach the younger? We’ve turned things around so that anything new (even if unproven) and appealing to the not yet mature, still developing young is trotted out as appropriate worship. More experienced, mature Christians who should be teaching the young about and sharing with them their great Christian heritage are instead asked to “get with it” or “get out.” The evangelical church will die if all it can do is try to keep up with secular culture and make its focus offering whatever the latest fads or glitz it can to “attract” the young as if the church were somehow dependent on a Christian advertising machine rather than God to draw people to Him.

I took Denise to morning mass at Stella Maris (“Star of the Sea”) Roman Catholic Church in Moultrieville, SC. Almost 50 in attendance, of every age. Two priests. Two acolytes and two altar boys. Traditionalist. Ad orientem. Eucharist offered in one kind and most didn’t receive it in the hand. Lots of other traditionalist stuff happening. Several Latin masses during the month. All the little things.

I’m watching a father bring his 5 year old (?) to mass, take his hand and dip it in the water, make the cross for him, then take him to his seat and show him how to genuflect. Teenagers around me- apparently on retreat- are immersed in the various actions of Catholic worship, as are all the worshipers of every age this morning. Of course, adults of every age. Plenty of men. At least half or more of the congregation was male.

The traditionalist flavor of mass is more interesting to me, even in this low mass on a weekday, and I’ve read Ratzinger’s Spirit of the Liturgy and know where these priests are coming from. There’s a sign at the entrance to the church saying the parish can’t register any more members from outside their boundaries. Translation: traditionalism is popular down here in Charleston.

The whole idea of the daily mass, and the level of devotion one sees among so many Catholics such as those surrounding me, has to be of real interest to any post-evangelical. Evangelicalism is diverse, but as a movement it is simply engaging less and less with worship, spiritual formation, spiritual disciplines and any form of tradition. The multi-site, internet driven model combined with evangelicalism’s inherent pragmatism and entrepreneurialism makes one wonder if clicking at the computer terminal or taking in the 20 minute drive up/drop in service can be far away as significant models of evangelical Christianity’s virtues.

pe0081863.jpgI am especially impressed with how a small child and an 80 year old man are functioning within the same world of thought, ritual and understanding. Within evangelicalism, we have communities with strong elements of tradition that bind generations together, but overall, we have compromised this to the core, allowing the quest to make the faith acceptable to teenagers to define the style and substance of everything. Where has evangelicalism gone in the last 60 years? Toward maturity and the core of the faith, or toward the latest efforts to be relevant to the young? The old among us are often those who manage to hang on amidst a hurricane of changes.

I see evangelicals doing less and less that will hold anyone in the faith into their 80s. If I were 80, I wouldn’t go near 99% of evangelical churches. The traditionalists somewhere would have me as a customer.

One oddity. No crucifix up front. One on the altar (well, slightly above it), but no large crucifix at the front anywhere. Central figures: Madonna and Child. Is this unusual? I thought the crucified Jesus visually up front was the usual.

In one publication, the priest said that young people are hyper-connected to one another via technology, but unconnected to God. The church must offer that connection in its mass. Quite a provocative take on the purpose of all of this. No surprise how I feel about it, but he is saying that the church’s great role is to be that which connects us to God. You have to deal with that, because he is right about young people, but can the Protestant Gospel offer the connection to God without the church in the role of mediator? If not, then Catholicism makes a lot of sense.

I could never be a Roman Catholic for theological reasons that won’t change, but if I were, this traditionalist-flavored variety would be quite appealing.

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Sunday Formation Talk: Work Sun, 14 Sep 2014 04:01:56 +0000 Laborare est Orare, Herbert

Laborare est Orare, Herbert

Work joins prayer and sacred reading in an integrated and well balanced monastic life.

• Fr. Charles Cummings

For you know that you ought to imitate us. We were not idle when we were with you. We never accepted food from anyone without paying for it. We worked hard day and night so we would not be a burden to any of you.

• 2Thessalonians 3:7-8, NLT

• • •

In this chapter of Monastic Practices, Fr. Charles Cummings encourages us to learn from the long tradition of monks and nuns that manual labor offers “a distinct value to the spiritual life.” From the earliest days of monastic communities, they sought to learn from the example of biblical saints like Paul, who worked at a trade while serving God in his apostolic vocation.

Cummings notes that monastic work has taken different forms and has been pursued for various reasons. The early Desert saints found that keeping their hands occupied gave them greater capacity for concentration on God. Therefore, they took up relatively small tasks, such as basket-weaving or tending small gardens to assist them in their spiritual exercises.

Later, Benedict had to look at work differently. His Rule was for a larger community, one which needed to sustain itself. Yet he also fixed specific limits on the time to be spent daily in manual work in order that they might devote themselves primarily to liturgical prayer.

If keeping a balanced schedule of work, prayer, and sacred reading is a constant challenge for those in religious orders, how much more for those of us who are called to fulfill the daily demands of more ordinary lives? Yet perhaps we can learn lessons from watching the monks and nuns at work.

Monasteries might demonstrate how persons can use modern mechanization and automation without being dominated and dehumanized by it. The fascinating world of science and technology dominates human beings and becomes their idol when they forget that human hands and minds have fashioned these machines and can remain in control of them. Another role which monks and nuns might fulfill is to take responsibility for the short term and long term effects of human intervention with the processes of nature and the fertility of the land. Perhaps monks and nuns can be examples of the restrained and prudent use of energy and alternative forms of energy. In an age when people can scarcely think except in terms of the largest possible scale, the fastest, most powerful, most up-to-date, most expensive possibilities, monasteries might give witness to the value of what is more manageable, poorer, more compatible with the deeper needs of the human spirit. In a society where some consider work merely a necessary evil and would prefer to live on welfare or stock dividends, monks and nuns can be example of motivated workers finding a genuine fulfillment as human beings. (p. 47-48)

Cummings also reminds us that, “Monastic work is often hidden, humble, anonymous, even monotonous” (p. 51). Perhaps we who are required to toil at unsatisfying jobs can take heart from remembering those who are also laboring at assigned menial tasks without notice or applause, yet learning ways to offer their work to God. The author calls this, “the life of everyday routine and quiet, steady accomplishments, like a tree silently growing to maturity” (p. 52). Even seemingly meaningless and impossible tasks can remind us that our human weakness is part of God’s plan and an acceptable sacrifice to heaven.
imageThe balance of work with prayer and sacred reading also relativizes work and reminds us that being precedes doing in God’s eyes. My worth as a person does not come from what I do or accomplish, though it is a strong temptation to see things that way, especially in a capitalistic society.

Indeed, work can be a form of prayer. And the point at which work and prayer converge is when I labor from a heart of love. When I do my work as an act of love toward God and others, I need not be consciously aware of God for it to “count” as prayer. Of course, if my tasks allow me space and freedom to lift my spirit in prayer while I’m at them, so much the better. However, when we are at work, we must be at work. I have seen too many Christians (including myself) who have not been dependable workers, yet they somehow find a way to excuse themselves, imagining that their Christian faith exempts them from the common duty of hard work and paying diligent attention to the task at hand.

Nor is mere activism the answer. There is an addiction that carries a lust for being “in the game” of work, where the action is, always being “on,” constantly engaged in doing things that make one feel important — we call it “workaholism.” Who I am and what I do become indistinguishable. We might think this impossible in a place like a monastery, but Cummings disabuses us of that notion. There are activist monks too, people in religious orders who see themselves as professionals who find their identity more in running the business affairs of the community than in the life of religious devotion. This is a human temptation.

It can also enslave us. An overemphasis on work can shield me from silence, from dealing with other people, from facing God himself. It can steal life from us. “The things that make life worth living can be appreciated only when we slow down and work in a more leisurely, balanced and human way” (p. 65). As a beginning, Fr. Cummings recommends that we revisit God’s gifts of Sabbath and Lord’s Day.

Ultimately, we are called to remember the purpose and meaning of work, which was instituted by God, according to the Bible, in the very beginning. God himself is a Worker. In our labor we join him and ask his blessing in all we do.

Let your work be manifest to your servants,
and your glorious power to their children.
Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us,
and prosper for us the work of our hands—
O prosper the work of our hands!  

• Psalm 90:16-17, NRSV

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