Richard Beck: Heresy as Therapy?

Today I direct your attention to a piece on Richard Beck’s Experimental Theology blog entitled “Heresy as Therapy“.

Most people do not suddenly wake up one morning and decide to become heretics.  In the vast majority of cases, people are driven by one issue or another, for which the accepted orthodox answers simply do not provide resolution, until they are left with no choice but to adopt a position considered heretical, just to get to some semblance of peace so they can let it go and carry on with the business of following Jesus.  There is a price to be paid, in that they wind up espousing some controversial stuff, but it keeps them within the Christian fold, marginally at least.

Rob Bell serves as a case study.  He wrote a book a few years back which espoused some controversial views on heaven and hell, and there was hell to pay (see what I did there?).  But I find it impossible to believe that he up and decided to write that book just as a publicity stunt.  The book, and the response to it in the evangelical universe, exposed some real problems on the issue of heaven and hell–namely that widely held evangelical belief on the subject goes well beyond what the Bible has to say, plus it comes from an apparent need to say that we’re right and the vast majority of humanity is wrong and going to hell, which is not a good place to be.

Derek Webb: A Post-Evangelical Poster Child

Today I wish to introduce you to Derek Webb.

I believe that the Spice Girls are everything Point Of Grace ever wished they could be in life, and then some.  In all honesty, the vast majority of Christian music (and I used to love Christian music back in happier times when I was still a young hot-blooded evangelical) is something that I would not listen to unless I wanted to punish myself for some terrible sin, to punish myself disgustingly.  Derek Webb is one of a few–a very few–Christian musicians whom I can legitimately listen to when I do not wish to punish myself.

Some of you may recognize Derek Webb.  Once upon a time he was the frontman for Caedmon’s Call, then a popular Christian band.  He has since gone solo and has been performing solo for several years now.

Webb has long been on the outs with the CCM establishment, which is no small part of his appeal (from my perspective, at least).  Back in the early days, evangelicals of a Neo-Reformed Calvinistic bent fawned over Webb because he was a good-looking, masterful crooner who could sing the TULIP like a boss, though he did ruffle some feathers by calling the Church a whore on his solo debut album.  (TULIP is an acronym in which each of the five letters represents one of the major theological emphases of Neo-Reformed Calvinism, the new black in evangelicalism.)  But when he started dropping lyrics like “Don’t teach me about politics and government, just tell me who to vote for / Don’t teach me about truth and beauty, just label my music / …Don’t teach me moderation and liberty, I prefer a shot of grape juice” (from his 2006 album Mockingbird), that hit the powers-that-be in CCM and much of his fan base (back then) uncomfortably close to home.  His 2009 album Stockholm Syndrome was even edgier and more provocative as he took up issues and positions long considered out of bounds within the evangelical universe.

These days, Webb is squarely in the post-evangelical camp, and likely the post-Christian camp as well.  In recent years he has undergone an excruciating spiritual journey involving a thorough housecleaning of much that he had previously accepted; his 2017 album Fingers Crossed chronicles the journey and the associated grieving process.  He hosts a podcast called The Airing of Grief in which listeners can share their post-evangelical stories by calling or writing in.  The album and the podcast cover many themes of post-evangelical life, such as grieving the loss of certainties you had held for much of your prior life, finding yourself a stranger to you because of all the changes that have happened inside of you, living in that strange space between who you once were and who you are becoming, and finding community and belonging and even worship in unexpected places, including places which we as evangelicals have long been taught to regard with deep-seated fear, suspicion and distrust.

As I have said before in this space, the “post-evangelical wilderness” is not some fanciful construct created by young punk bloggers living in their parents’ basements with nothing better to do with their lives than sit around in front of a computer screen all day and write whatever strikes their fancy.  It is a real place, inhabited by real people with real stories.  It is a space where we are, to borrow a quote from Rachel Held Evans which I have used before, “caught between who we once were and who we will be, the ghosts of past certainties gripping at our ankles”.

It would not surprise me to see some evangelicals who have followed Derek Webb’s trajectory over the years count him as no longer one of us and no longer Christian.  John Piper did essentially the same thing to Rob Bell when Bell published that book back in 2011.  But for those of you out there who, like me, survey the evangelical landscape and find yourself a homeless stranger in a tradition that has formed you spiritually for much (if not all) of your life to this point, know that in Derek Webb you can/will find a faithful companion for your journey.

Lent Week 5: The Bible is Human

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 have been 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 have been 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 the idea that the Bible is a diverse book, like a conversation happening across the ages as the Hebrew people interact with their past and reinterpret it to speak into their struggles to come to grips with what God is up to in their present circumstances.  God was guiding this process behind the scenes, and this is what Christians mean when they talk about the Bible as “inspired”.

But it is important to understand that God did not simply speak His words from heaven.  Many evangelicals have a view of the inspiration of Scripture that would honestly be much more at home in Islam or Mormonism than in anything remotely resembling biblical Christianity.  The Bible is a human book, the product of centuries of people wrestling with what God was doing in their midst.  It evolved over the ages and did not reach its final form until after the Babylonian exile as priests and scribes edited it into something that would give hope to those returning from captivity as they struggled to put the pieces of their nation back together.

Enns zeroes in on Chronicles as an example of how this worked.  In our English bibles, 1-2 Chronicles comes right after 1-2 Samuel and 1-2 Kings and represents another look at the same period of history with a slightly different emphasis.  But in the Hebrew bible, 1-2 Chronicles comes at the very end.

Chronicles is not a repeat of 1 Samuel through 2 Kings. It is a retelling of those books from a much later point in Jewish history. In fact, it is nothing less than an act of reimaging God.

To make a long story short, 1 Samuel through 2 Kings were probably written before and during the Babylonian exile, and the main question these books address is, “How did we get into this mess? What did we do to deserve exile?” The short answer is, “You committed apostasy by worshiping foreign gods, with your kings leading the way.” In other words, these books interpret events of history and pronounce a guilty verdict on Judah.

But 1 and 2 Chronicles were written centuries later, probably no earlier than about 400 BCE and more likely closer to 300 or even a bit later—so somewhere in the middle of the Persian period (which began in 538) and perhaps as late as the Greek period (which began with the conquest by the Greeks under Alexander the Great in 332). And these books answer a different question altogether, not “What did we do to deserve this?” but “After all this time, is God still with us?”

Once again, we revisit our theme: as times changed, the ancient Jews had to reprocess what it meant to be the chosen people—if indeed that label even meant anything anymore.

Enns points to the example of Manasseh.  Manasseh was one of the worst kings Judah ever had, and from the account in 1-2 Kings it was his sins and excesses that led to the Babylonian exile.  The damage done to the kingdom during his reign was so great that even the revival and reforms that occurred under Josiah a couple of generations later could not undo it.

But in Chronicles the story of Manasseh is reimagined.  Manasseh is led into exile and returns humbled, chastened, ending his days as a repentant, restored, and righteous ruler. These details were left out of the Kings account–because it was written earlier and to answer a different set of questions.

Why is this important?  Because the story of Manasseh is, in microcosm, the story of Israel being led into exile, crying out to God in repentance, and then returning home to pick up the pieces.

The author of Chronicles wished for the exiles to learn the wisdom of repentance and seeking God in the midst of their hard circumstances.  To this end he showed that even the most wicked sinner–Manasseh–was not incapable of repentance or beyond redemption and restoration.

That is to say, the retelling of the reign of Manasseh (and 1 and 2 Chronicles as a whole) is an act of wisdom—of reading the moment and reimagining what God is doing and, more important, what God will do in the (hopefully not too distant) future.

Michael Spencer: A Conversation in God’s Kitchen

This past week we looked at Pete Enns’ view of the diversity of Scripture, that it is a conversation happening across the ages.  Today I direct your attention to a classic post from Michael Spencer which expresses basically the same perspective.

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.

Read:  A Conversation in God’s Kitchen by Michael Spencer