Lent Week 4: The Bible is Ambiguous and Diverse

Lent is the forty days before Easter. Start at Easter, back up six Sundays, then back up a few more days to the Wednesday before, and you get to Ash Wednesday. That’s actually forty-six days. Back out the six Sundays, which are treated as “free days” and not counted as part of the Lenten season (they are and they aren’t–it’s complicated), and you get to forty days.

Lent is a season of preparation for Easter. We prepare by focusing on Christ and his journey to the Cross, which lies squarely across our path and looms ever larger the deeper we get into the Lenten season. The 40 days of Lent tie in directly with the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness prior to the start of his public ministry, and indirectly with the 40 years Israel spent in the wilderness prior to entering the Promised Land. Not all of us can go out into the wilderness for 40 days, but we can all place ourselves in a posture of humility and choose practices consistent with a lifestyle of repentance.

What we typically do around here during the Lenten season is pick a related topic and talk about it for five to six weeks. This year we are coming around two questions: What is the Bible? And what is the Bible for?

Currently we are coming around the question:  What is the Bible for?  In order to guide our thinking on this question, we are looking at insights from Pete Enns’ latest book “How the Bible Actually Works“.  Enns is a Bible scholar and writer/blogger/podcaster whose passion is to make the Bible relatable to everyday believers.  His unorthodox views on what the Bible is and what we ought to expect from it have generated no small amount of controversy over the years.

Last week we came around Enns’ big idea that the Bible is designed to lead us into wisdom.  It is not intended to be a rulebook or an owner’s manual or a field guide that gives us hard and fast answers, but is instead intended to guide us in developing wisdom for the unscripted journey of faith.  In other words:

Rather than providing us with information to be downloaded, the Bible holds out for us an invitation to join an ancient, well-traveled, and sacred quest to know God, the world we live in, and our place in it. Not abstractly, but intimately and experientially.

We also mentioned that Enns’ discussion of what the Bible is uses three key words seldom heard in any evangelical discussion of the Bible:  ancient, ambiguous, and diverse.  At this point Enns takes up the ambiguous nature of the Bible.  Even sections of the Bible that we are accustomed to thinking of as clear and unambiguous, like the book of Proverbs or the Law…well, it only takes a moment’s thought to realize that laws and instructions have to be interpreted and applied.  That is the task of wisdom.  Example:  When the Ten Commandments say “Honor your father and your mother”…well, how do we do that?  Turns out that the Bible’s clear and unambiguous instructions…aren’t quite so clear and unambiguous after all.

Next Enns turns to the diverse nature of the Bible.  This is a key to understanding the Bible’s teaching:

The Bible’s diversity is the key to uncovering the Bible’s true purpose for us.

…The diversity we see in the Bible reflects the inevitably changing circumstances of the biblical writers across the centuries as they grappled with their sacred yet ancient and ambiguous tradition.

…The Bible (both Old and New Testaments) exhibits this same characteristic of the sacred past being changed, adapted, rethought, and rewritten by people of faith, not because they disrespected the past, but because they respected it so much they had to tie it to their present.

…The Bible isn’t a book that reflects one point of view. It is a collection of books that records a conversation—even a debate—over time.

When I began to see that for myself, a lot of things fell into place about the Bible’s purpose and what it means to read it with the eyes of faith. When we accept the Bible as the moving, changing, adaptive organism it is, we will more readily accept our own sacred responsibility to engage the ancient biblical story with wisdom, to converse with the past rather than mimic it—which is to follow the very pattern laid out in the Bible itself.

The Bible is “timeless”, not because it contains propositional truths that apply to all people across all ages–what we would call “timeless truths”–but because of what Enns calls its “unwavering commitment to adaptation over time”.  In other words, the Bible was not written to us, it was written for us.  By the grace of God, we get to listen in on a conversation among different peoples across different ages as they struggled to come to grips with what God was doing in their midst and their place in His redemptive story.  Our task in reading, studying, and interpreting the Bible is to listen to what the biblical writers were saying in their own respective times and places and let it guide us in coming to grips with what God is doing in our own day and age, and our place in that story.

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Lent Week 3: The Bible Leads Us to Wisdom

Lent is the forty days before Easter. Start at Easter, back up six Sundays, then back up a few more days to the Wednesday before, and you get to Ash Wednesday. That’s actually forty-six days. Back out the six Sundays, which are treated as “free days” and not counted as part of the Lenten season (they are and they aren’t–it’s complicated), and you get to forty days.

Lent is a season of preparation for Easter. We prepare by focusing on Christ and his journey to the Cross, which lies squarely across our path and looms ever larger the deeper we get into the Lenten season. The 40 days of Lent tie in directly with the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness prior to the start of his public ministry, and indirectly with the 40 years Israel spent in the wilderness prior to entering the Promised Land. Not all of us can go out into the wilderness for 40 days, but we can all place ourselves in a posture of humility and choose practices consistent with a lifestyle of repentance.

What we typically do around here during the Lenten season is pick a related topic and talk about it for the next five to six weeks. This year we will be coming around two questions: What is the Bible? And what is the Bible for?

Our big ideas to this point:  The Bible is not the basis of our faith; it is a collection of writings pointing to an event and a person who is the basis of our faith.  No one just picks up the Bible and reads it; instead we all come to it with our own ideas–formed by culture and tradition and prior interpretation–as to what the Bible is and what we ought to expect from it.

At this point, let us turn to the question:  What is the Bible for?

In order to guide our thinking on this question, we will utilize insights from Pete Enns’ latest book “How the Bible Actually Works“.  Enns is a Bible scholar and writer/blogger/podcaster whose passion is to make the Bible relatable to everyday believers.  His unorthodox views on what the Bible is and what we ought to expect from it have generated no small amount of controversy over the years.

Enns’ description of what the Bible is uses three key words seldom used in any evangelical discussion of the Bible:  ancient, ambiguous, and diverse.  His big idea in this book, which is also the big idea for much of his other writings as well, is that the Bible is not designed to give us hard and fast answers on all subjects it addresses, but instead to lead us into wisdom.  Here are some money quotes from early in the book:

I believe that God knows best what sort of sacred writing we need. And these three characteristic ways the Bible behaves, rather than posing problems to be overcome, are telling us something about how the Bible actually works and therefore what the Bible’s true purpose is—and the need to align our expectations with it.

…Rather than providing us with information to be downloaded, the Bible holds out for us an invitation to join an ancient, well-traveled, and sacred quest to know God, the world we live in, and our place in it. Not abstractly, but intimately and experientially.

So what does Enns mean by wisdom and what does he mean when he says the Bible is intended to lead us into wisdom?  Another money quote:

Wisdom is about the lifelong process of being formed into mature disciples, who wander well along the unscripted pilgrimage of faith, in tune to the all-surrounding thick presence of the Spirit of God in us and in the creation around us.

…the Bible is a book of wisdom rather than prescripted answers, and inviting us to accept the sacred responsibility of pursuing wisdom and thereby learning to live well in God’s creation.

In other words, God is not what we would call a “helicopter parent”, giving us the Bible as a clear and exhaustive guide to every possible situation we could conceivably encounter, hovering over us at every moment to make sure that we are following its clearly and explicitly stated directions/expectations, and then rushing in to fix things so that we always stay on the right path.  If God were that kind of parent, the Bible would look and feel much different than it does.

When we are too committed to harboring and sheltering our familiar false expectations, the Bible itself has a wonderful knack of disrupting those expectations, challenging our categories, and, if need be, agitating our complacency. And the Bible does this simply by—I will say it again—being its ancient, ambiguous, and diverse self, oblivious to our expectations, so ill-suited as a field guide for faith, so reluctant to be co-opted by our questions and the agendas that drive them.

Lent Week 2: Higher Criticism and the Bible

Lent is the forty days before Easter. Start at Easter, back up six Sundays, then back up a few more days to the Wednesday before, and you get to Ash Wednesday. That’s actually forty-six days. Back out the six Sundays, which are treated as “free days” and not counted as part of the Lenten season (they are and they aren’t–it’s complicated), and you get to forty days.

Lent is a season of preparation for Easter. We prepare by focusing on Christ and his journey to the Cross, which lies squarely across our path and looms ever larger the deeper we get into the Lenten season. The 40 days of Lent tie in directly with the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness prior to the start of his public ministry, and indirectly with the 40 years Israel spent in the wilderness prior to entering the Promised Land. Not all of us can go out into the wilderness for 40 days, but we can all place ourselves in a posture of humility and choose practices consistent with a lifestyle of repentance.

What we typically do around here during the Lenten season is pick a related topic and talk about it for the next five to six weeks. This year we will be coming around two questions: What is the Bible? And what is the Bible for?

At this point it is important to note that no one just picks up the Bible and reads it.  Instead we come to the Bible with a certain set of assumptions and expectations conditioned by our culture and our faith communities.  Indeed, our very conception of what the Bible is and what it is supposed to do for us is shaped by centuries of interpretive tradition, including several centuries of what might be called a “critical” approach to the Bible.  Inevitably we come to higher criticism, which came about in the Enlightenment yet was rooted in Luther and Calvin and their “sola scriptura” emphasis on the Scriptures.  The mere mention of “higher criticism” gives most evangelicals a good hard case of the heebie-jeebies because it originated from a place of skepticism toward the authority and claims of Scripture.  Yet the critical methods which arose from higher criticism are quite useful when seeking to engage and understand Scripture.  These are:

  • Textual criticism – Gathering the ancient manuscripts in Hebrew, Greek and the other ancient languages, and comparing them side-by-side to determine the most accurate form of the text we can reconstruct.
  • Form criticism – Seeking to understand the literary form or genre of a given text and how understanding that form/genre can guide our understanding of the text in question.
  • Source criticism – Seeking to understand how/if the biblical authors used source materials and integrated those materials into the text.
  • Redaction criticism – Seeking to understand why a biblical author/editor arranged the material the way they did, and what point they wished to make by doing so.
  • Rhetorical criticism – Seeking to understand how the biblical authors used rhetorical devices to get their audience’s attention and/or persuade them.
  • Narrative/literary criticism – Analyzes stories and their elements in order to understand the impact the biblical authors wished for them to have with their readers.

Again, no one just picks up the Bible and reads it.  Engaging with Scripture is a matter of interpretation.  The religious traditions that appeal to the Bible all understand this, to some extent or another.

To put all of this another way, the biblical authors had other priorities than to give us 21st century moderns the actual factuals on how things went down.  They were people who lived in ancient communities that struggled to come to grips with what God was doing in their midst.  By the grace of God, we have the fruits of their struggles and we get to listen in on the conversations they had in the course of their struggles and let it guide us in our own struggles to understand what God is doing today in our own midst.

Lent Week 1: How We Got Our Bible

Lent is the forty days before Easter. Start at Easter, back up six Sundays, then back up a few more days to the Wednesday before, and you get to Ash Wednesday. That’s actually forty-six days. Back out the six Sundays, which are treated as “free days” and not counted as part of the Lenten season (they are and they aren’t–it’s complicated), and you get to forty days.

Lent is a season of preparation for Easter. We prepare by focusing on Christ and his journey to the Cross, which lies squarely across our path and looms ever larger the deeper we get into the Lenten season. The 40 days of Lent tie in directly with the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness prior to the start of his public ministry, and indirectly with the 40 years Israel spent in the wilderness prior to entering the Promised Land. Not all of us can go out into the wilderness for 40 days, but we can all place ourselves in a posture of humility and choose practices consistent with a lifestyle of repentance.

What we typically do around here during the Lenten season is pick a related topic and talk about it for the next five to six weeks. This year we will be coming around two questions: What is the Bible? And what is the Bible for?

In any discussion of these questions, it is best to start by considering how we got our Bible.

When one hears evangelicals talk about the Bible, one gets the impression that it basically just dropped from heaven in its present form, much like the Koran or the Book of Mormon.  The truth is, as they say, a bit more complicated.  The key point to keep in mind is that the Bible in itself is not the basis of our faith, but instead it points to a person and an event which are the basis of our faith.

It all started when Jesus rose from the dead.  People who knew Jesus and saw the Resurrection circulated their stories within the early church.  Eventually they came to the realization that the people who saw these things firsthand were starting to die off, and that Jesus (they believed he was coming back any day) was probably going to be a couple minutes.  So they sat these people down and had them write out their stories.  These stories were collected, along with letters written by key church leaders to different church communities, and after a process of winnowing that took a couple of centuries, became what we know today as the New Testament.

At the same time, Christians began to take a keen interest in the Jewish Scriptures (what we know today as the Old Testament).  They were searching for Jesus, and they found him everywhere.  Thus the Jewish Scriptures were taken and incorporated lock, stock, and barrel into our Christian Bible, becoming what we know as the Old Testament.

There was a significant amount of evolution over the first couple of centuries of church history as it went from the Jewish Scriptures plus other writings to the Bible we currently have today.  There were animated discussions and debates about which belonged and which did not.  It was not until the Council of Nicea in 325 AD that the present New Testament canon was codified.

When we see the origins of the Bible in this light, it leads us away from seeing it as a holy book which magically dropped from heaven in its present form, to something more akin to the book we actually have.  We recognize the Bible as divinely inspired, yet at the same time it is a very human book and its humanness shows through all over the place.  We will take a more in-depth look at this in weeks to come.

Ash Wednesday: What Is the Bible?

Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of the Lenten season.

Lent is the forty days before Easter. Start at Easter, back up six Sundays, then back up a few more days to the Wednesday before, and you get to Ash Wednesday. That’s actually forty-six days. Back out the six Sundays, which are treated as “free days” and not counted as part of the Lenten season (they are and they aren’t–it’s complicated), and you get to forty days.

Lent is a season of preparation for Easter. We prepare by focusing on Christ and his journey to the Cross, which lies squarely across our path and looms ever larger the deeper we get into the Lenten season. The 40 days of Lent tie in directly with the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness prior to the start of his public ministry, and indirectly with the 40 years Israel spent in the wilderness prior to entering the Promised Land. Not all of us can go out into the wilderness for 40 days, but we can all place ourselves in a posture of humility and choose practices consistent with a lifestyle of repentance.

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of this journey. Many churches have Ash Wednesday services where you receive ashes on your forehead. Ashes symbolize repentance from sin; to go around in sackcloth and ashes was a classic Old Testament expression of grief and repentance. Ashes also symbolize mortality; we are but dust and unto dust we shall return. We die to ourselves and all that we are in this world in order that we may rise to life in Christ.

What we typically do around here during the Lenten season is pick a related topic and talk about it for the next five to six weeks.  This year we will be coming around two questions:  What is the Bible?  And what is the Bible for?  The big idea that we will be fleshing out over the coming weeks is that the Bible is not the book we want or expect, but it is the book we need.  It does not spoonfeed us easy answers to every question we could think to ask, but instead gives us the tools to develop wisdom as we engage it and wrestle with it.

Nadia Bolz-Weber and Christian Sexuality

ICYMI:  Nadia Bolz-Weber, an iconoclastic Lutheran pastor out in Denver, Colorado, of whom some of you may have heard, made a vagina sculpture (had it made, actually; she’s not a sculptor) and gifted it to feminist icon Gloria Steinem.  She did this partly to promote her new book Shameless, and partly as a protest against the damage caused by evangelical purity culture, one of the themes in her book.  She invited women who had come out of evangelical purity culture to send in their “purity rings” (these were a thing back in the late 90s and 00s when young people would wear them as a public display of their commitment to not have sex until marriage), for which they would receive a certificate of destruction.  She had them melted down and used to make the sculpture.

Ironically, the Church has been doing vagina sculptures long before Bolz-Weber ever came on the scene–as in, like, all the way back to the 4th century–but for different purposes.  More on this later.

I like Nadia Bolz-Weber.  I read one of her earlier books and found it to be a compelling tale of unvarnished Gospel grace in her own life and the lives of her congregation, a motley band of misfits drawn together by a common dependence upon Jesus Christ.

But the current project falls squarely, and disappointingly, in line with the progressive sexual ideology of the age in which it’s all about consent baby and consent is all you need!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Consent as a sexual ethic is woefully inadequate.  For example, how to tell if you know someone well enough to gauge whether or not you feel or should feel uncomfortable about consenting to his/her requests for sexual intimacy?

But there is a more fundamental issue with consent and it is this:  Sex is an act of intimacy and self-exposure so intense and profound that it requires the protective fencing of marriage.  Imagine exposing yourself on that level to another person, knowing full well that he or she could ghost you the next day.  Lasting damage has occurred in the lives of people to whom that very thing has happened.  The ideology of consent does not account for this.

As noted above, the Church has been doing vagina sculptures since long before Bolz-Weber.  There are examples going back all the way to the 4th century of baptistries designed to look like a human vagina.  The reason for this choice of imagery is found in the gospel of John:  In John 3 there is an exchange between Jesus and a Pharisee named Nicodemus in which Jesus tells him that “no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit” (John 3:5).  Drawing upon this, Christian artists, architects, pastors and theologians wanted baptism to look like an actual birth–like you were literally emerging from a human birth canal.

As a consequence of this birth, you have died to your old life and been raised to a new life.  When you enter Christian community via baptism, you submit to a whole new way of doing things and are integrated into realities much bigger than yourself.  You are no longer your own, no longer an autonomous, disembodied unit.  You are now part of the Body of Christ, and you should conduct yourself accordingly.

Sexually, this means you are called to an ethic much greater than mere consent.  Your sexual ethic should be based on love–doing for others what love requires of you.  The New Testament authors, especially Paul, are excruciatingly clear on what this looks like.

But while the inadequacy of consent-based progressive sexual ideology is so glaring as to make for easy pickings, the much harder, and necessary, task for us as evangelicals is to take a good long look at our own failings and see how they have given a book like this such a powerful appeal.  Towards the beginning, Bolz-Weber recounts how two of her parishioners grew up in evangelical purity culture, believing all the promises that if you follow God’s blueprint for sexual purity you would have more exciting and fulfilling sex than those who have sex outside of marriage.  When they found that not to be the case, they experienced disappointment, frustration, and self-doubt.

I have argued before in this space that while the Bible is clear in its sexual demands, evangelical purity culture is a distortion which goes way beyond anything in Scripture.  It places impossible burdens upon people, the weight of which fall disproportionately upon women, while making empty and unrealistic promises.  Stories just like the one Bolz-Weber relates are all over the place among those who have left evangelicalism, and even among some who remain.

Jesus is universally recognized, even by those who do not believe in him, as one of the holiest people ever to walk the face of the earth.  Yet his appeal and his following were the exact opposite of what you would expect:  The holiest people (as they defined it) in all of Jewish society wanted nothing to do with Jesus and indeed he reserved almost all of his harshest words precisely for them, while those who were the exact opposite of holy, as the Jewish society of the time defined it, were attracted to Jesus and he seemed to relish their company.

Luke records an occasion (Luke 15) in which Jesus was teaching before just such a crowd.  Some Pharisees, representatives of the religious elite of the day, were at the back of the crowd, murmuring in discontent.  Picking up on their discontent, Jesus tells three unsettling parables, which I am sure at least some of you have heard.  The underlying theme of all three is that, as Jesus says, there is “more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent” (Luke 15:7).  The third and most over-the-top is about a son who squanders his father’s fortune in dissolute living, is reduced to utter destitution, and eventually returns home to beg for a position as a servant in the household.  Astoundingly, the father welcomes him back and throws a huge feast for him:  “This son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found” (Luke 15:24).

In Jesus’ parables, one lost sheep/coin/son is cause for immense anguish, searching, and effort to find.  But in our day it is not just one; it is an exploding number of young people who want nothing to do with evangelicalism, or even with Christianity at large.

Many of these have been impacted by evangelical purity culture.  As noted above, stories like the one Bolz-Weber relates near the beginning of her book are all over the place.  These are the lost sheep/coin/son in Jesus’ parables, and Jesus has made it abundantly clear that God’s #1 priority is to bring them back.

That needs to be our #1 priority as well.

I am not talking about returning to evangelicalism.  For many who have left, returning to evangelicalism is simply not an option.  That ship has sailed.

What I am talking about is doing the hard work of honest, contrite self-reflection.  Why do we promise mind-blowing sex to those who do the right thing sexually (as we define it) while ignoring, scolding, or even blaming those who do not?  We need to grapple head-on with questions like this and come to terms with our own part in the sexual brokenness we prefer to offload to others.

The son in Jesus’ parable had gotten about as low as it was possible to go.  As soon as the money was gone, a famine hit the land where he had relocated.  He had to beg for work and finally found work with a farm where he was allowed to feed the pigs.  And he wasn’t just feeding the pigs, he was living with the pigs.  Eating their food.  Or wanting to eat their food, at least.  Pork is unclean according to Mosaic law so this touch was an excruciating insult to Jewish sensibilities.

It was easy for those in the crowd to see the son in that position and believe that he had brought it all upon himself.  After all, the manner in which he asked for his portion of the estate was astounding, as was the manner in which he squandered it.  But that is not the attitude that the father had.  The father was watching for him and saw him from a long way off, and was astoundingly enthusiastic in his welcome.

At least Bolz-Weber is out there trying.  She has created a community that is immensely attractive to the very people who are leaving evangelicalism in droves, a safe space where they can hold on to faith in Christ, living in community with each other and dependence upon Christ.  Even though the progressive sexual ethic to which they subscribe is woefully inadequate.

You see, the parable does not end with the father throwing a scandalously huge feast when his profligate son returns home.  There is another brother in the story.  This brother had stayed home and remained faithful to the father.  He was still out in the fields that day when he heard the noise of partying inside.  He asked one of the servants what was going on inside, and when he found out, he became more than a little upset and refused to go inside.  So the father went outside.  “Look!” said the brother.  “All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders.  Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.  But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!” (Luke 15:29-30)

The father responded thusly:  “My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.  But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found” (Luke 15:31).

We can talk all day long about the inadequacies of the consent-based sexual ideology of progressive Christianity.  And we would be right.  But in this cultural moment, we would sound a lot like the other brother in Jesus’ story.  In this cultural moment we need to recognize that God’s sympathies are with the lost sheep/coin/son in the parables and whoever would fall in that place.  Finding them is His #1 priority, and it needs to be ours as well.  We need to do the hard work of repentance for our complicity in the damage caused by purity culture, and then prayerfully discerning a way forward in reconciling these people to Christ.