Wayne Grudem on Biblical Inspiration

Frequently around these parts I have opined that the standard evangelical view of inspiration/inerrancy is much more at home in Islam or Mormonism than in anything remotely resembling biblical Christianity.  Now I am a blogger and as such it is part and parcel of my unique calling to pull things out of thin air and make things up on the fly.  But I am not making this up.  I wish I was, but I am not.  Today I give you none other than American evangelicalism’s Dean of Systematic Theology (and lately turned political hack) himself:  Dr. Wayne Grudem.  Take a listen and judge for yourselves.

This is an expression of the standard evangelical view of biblical inspiration, par excellence.  Grudem’s take can best be described as a “binder theory“:  God gave us an open 3-ring binder.  As the writings which make up our Bible came down the pipe, we received them, accepted them unquestioningly, and dutifully placed them in the waiting binder.  When the last of these writings was received, the binder was closed, snapped shut, sealed, in perpetuity, for ever and ever, world without end, amen.

According to Grudem’s take, God gave Moses the binder up on Mount Sinai.  It contained the Decalogue (the 10 Commandments) and other writings that God directed Moses to produce.  Moses then later added other writings at God’s direction.  Joshua added some, then Samuel, then other Old Testament authors.  When the last of the historical writings (Esther) and the last of the prophetic writings (Haggai/Zechariah/Malachi) were received, the binder was temporarily closed.  Jesus reopened the binder and commissioned the apostles to add to it.  This they did, dutifully producing the Gospels, the Epistles, and other writings.  When the last of these was received, the binder was closed, snapped shut, sealed, in perpetuity, etc.  And such is the Bible we have today.

This theory completely and totally omits the human element in the story of how we got our Bible.  In real life, there was a bewildering variety of gospels, epistles, etc. floating around out there.  Some were recognized as more authoritative than others, and there was a sifting process by which the cream rose to the top.  But this took centuries and it wasn’t until the fourth century AD that a definitive scriptural canon was settled upon.

When Paul wrote letters to the churches to which he wrote, he was not sitting down to write books of the New Testament.  He was writing letters to real people in real churches who were dealing with real issues.  From his perspective, he had no reason whatsoever to believe that any of these would make it out of first century Rome, let alone make it into anything that could be called the New Testament.

As to the Old Testament…well, you can believe what you want to believe about the Mosaic authorship of the first five Old Testament books.  I see no reason to doubt it, but I find it well nigh impossible to believe that Moses’ finished work product was anything even remotely close to what we have in our Bibles today.

But there is a larger issue in play here, and it is this:  We in evangelicalism basically conceive of the Christian faith as something akin to a house of cards.  We hold this view of the Bible as basically having been brought down to us from heaven on golden tablets like the Book of Mormon (it is a very short–and very direct–line from what Grudem advocates to that), and we desperately–desperately–need for that view to be true.  Start tugging just a little too hard on one of the assumptions that hold it up and the whole thing comes crashing down, taking all of Christianity with it, and suddenly Jesus is no longer raised from the dead and we are all still in our sins.

I’m so over that, people.

Think back to the earliest Christians.  Think back to Paul and the apostles, to the believers who made up the early churches in which they ministered.  These people either saw Jesus rise from the dead themselves, or they knew people who had.  They went on to start a movement that would reshape history.  Because that’s what you do when you see your leader violently executed in the most horrific way imaginable, and then have breakfast with him a few days later.

You can rest assured that these people were not thinking about the (potentially) eternally catastrophic consequences of believing something as divinely inspired and part of Scripture that wasn’t supposed to be there, or of missing out on something that was.  They were not worried about some perfect and inerrant book given to us by God as if brought down from heaven on golden tablets by angels and if any part of that isn’t true then Jesus Christ is suddenly not raised from the dead and we are all still in our sins.  They had seen too much and knew too much to be taken in by the issues and concerns of us moderns.  Would that we could take a similar view of things.

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Scot McKnight on Reading Romans Backwards

Paul’s letter to the Romans can be a daunting challenge for many readers.  Reading the first twelve chapters especially, one gets the feeling that one is prepping for a masters-level systematic theology exam.  No doubt many of you have wondered:  For a beleaguered Christian community in the heart of the Roman empire, in the height of Nero’s persecutions, where in the world did they find the time and energy to sit around studying and debating the latest theories of atonement, salvation history, soteriology, etc.?  If that is you, then Scot McKnight’s new book Reading Romans Backwards may be for you.

Some money quotes:

Reading Romans forwards, beginning at 1:1 and closing the letter at 16:27, is both the best way to read Romans and its biggest problem. Reading Romans forwards often enough leads to fatigue by the time one gets to 9:1, and even more so by the time one arrives at 12:1. The impact of the fatigue is that the specific elements of the faith community in Rome as detailed in chapters 12 through 16 are ignored for how one reads chapters 1 through 8 or chapters 1 through 11. I am not proposing, then, that the right way to read Romans begins with chapter 12, but I do propose that a correction is in order and that fresh light can be thrown on chapters 1 through 11 by first taking a deep look at chapters 12-16, then 9-11, then 1-8 (since they work together in a special way).

…For decades I have read and listened to scholars and heard preachers on Romans 1-8, and one would think, after listening or reading, that those meaty chapters were written for a theological lectureship rather than to a local church or set of house churches in Rome in the first century when Nero was emperor and Paul was planning his future mission to Spain. One would think the listeners were theological savants geared up for the latest theory of atonement or soteriology or salvation-history.

…Romans is about theology, but it isn’t mere theology — it isn’t abstract theology. Romans advocates for a via vitae, both for the individual and for the community of faith in Rome.

…I have chosen to read Romans backwards in order to demonstrate that this letter is a pastoral theology…

Snapshots of My Post-Evangelical Life: Enough

Every once in a while we do this around here at Everyone’s Entitled to Joe’s Opinion:  Pick a topic and keep on talking about it until there is nothing left to say.

If you have been tracking with me on this blog for any length of time, or any of the other blogs where I hang out regularly, you may have heard the term “post-evangelical wilderness”. Despite what you may think, this “post-evangelical wilderness” is not simply some fanciful construct created by young punk bloggers living in their parents’ basements with nothing better to do with their lives than sit around all day in front of their computer screens and write whatever strikes their fancy. This post-evangelical wilderness is a real place inhabited by real people with real stories. These are people who have grown up in evangelicalism or invested a significant season of life in evangelicalism, but who now, for whatever reason, feel seriously out of place in evangelicalism in its current state–people who are, to borrow an oft-used (around here, at least) quote from Rachel Held Evans, “caught between who we once were and who we will be, the ghosts of past certainties gripping at our ankles”.

It occurs to me that some of you may not have any idea what I am talking about when I speak of the “post-evangelical wilderness”, so I am going to offer some snapshots over the coming days/weeks of what this looks like on the ground in my world.

To lead off today’s post, we are going to jump into the way-back machine and take it for a joyride.

Those of you who were in and/or around the Passion movement back in the early 00’s probably remember this song.  There are a shit ton of other worship songs which express basically the same idea:  Christ is enough for me, Jesus you are more than enough, …stuff to that effect.

Back in happier times, when I was still a young hot-blooded evangelical, I ate those songs up eagerly.  But these days I’ve turned it around:  Lord, am I enough for you?

Herein lies one of my frustrations with evangelicalism and its emphasis on “getting saved” as the defining moment of one’s spiritual life:  Once you’ve prayed the prayer, signed the card, thrown the stick into the fire at youth camp, or whatever you did, supposedly you’re all good with God and that question becomes a non-starter.  Real life dictates otherwise.

For as often as we say Christ is enough for me, Jesus you are more than enough, etc.,  …when do I get to hear God speak that over me?  When do I get to hear the Lord say to me “You are worthy.  You are enough”?

Fr. Stephen Freeman on Praying for the Dead

Today I give you a post from Fr. Stephen Freeman.  Freeman is one of the most influential Orthodox bloggers, and he blogs at Glory to God for All Things.  The post is entitled “You Have One Job – Pray – On Behalf of All and for All“.  It raises some important points on how Catholics and Protestants view the afterlife, and specifically the subject of praying for the dead.

The topics of heaven, hell, purgatory, hades, life-after-death, the judgment, etc., are not among my favorites. There is a particular reason for this: everybody thinks they know more about this than they do and most people assume the Church says more about this than it does. Much of the problem, I think, lies in the fact that we torture the faith into geographical shapes, when it belongs in relational dynamics. That is to say, we think that describing heaven and hell (and other such terms) along with the rules for how they work (as places) somehow states something important and explains life-after-death. This is not only not true, but terribly misleading. It has also been a problem within Christianity for a very long time.

The debates between Protestant and Catholic, beginning in the 16th century, often centered on the rules for life-after-death (generally subsumed under the notion of how we are “saved”). That debate tended to press Christians into saying more and more about what they did not know, and forced institutions into hardened positions of dogma where no dogma belonged. Orthodoxy is neither Protestant nor Catholic, nor did it take part in the debates of those centuries. As a result, many things that are treated as hard and fast matters of assurance and dogma by Western Christians are simply not found in a definitive manner within the Orthodox faith.

One surefire way to give most evangelicals a good hard case of the heebie-jeebies is to mention anything about praying for the dead.  Why?  Because much of the 16th-century debates that drove the Protestant Reformation centered around how to “get saved”–which of course has very strong implications concerning life after death and what that looks like.  This led the Church–both Catholic and Protestant–to make hard and fast definitions concerning heaven and hell and how those places work.  Much of this goes well beyond what the Bible actually says on the afterlife, and leads us to a conception of heaven and hell as geographical places that operate mechanistically:  it’s either one or the other when you die, and there is no possibility whatsoever of changing places.  As the tree falls, so it lies, for all eternity.  Consequently, there is no point whatsoever in praying for anyone who is in hell.  Catholics of course hedge this with purgatory, an in-between place that is neither heaven nor hell.

As a consequence, much in the way of evangelical preaching and/or personal evangelism (what many of us would call “witnessing”), is designed and intended to lead people to the question “Where will you spend eternity?”.  If you’ve ever wondered why that is, this is the reason.

But what if we’ve got it all wrong?  What if the primary driver for how the afterlife works is not geographical, but relational?  Nowhere does the Bible present a clear, systematic theology on the afterlife.  What we get instead is a variety of images, all of which point to a relational dynamic:  You are either with God, or you are apart from him.  You don’t want to be apart from him.  So the Orthodox pray for those in hell–because hell is a relational state and not a geographical place.  “The point isn’t the place or its name, but loss of communion with God and the torments associated with it.”  Freeman notes the messiness of how the Scriptures and early Church Fathers handle the subject of the afterlife, and says:

What the Church preaches is not a doctrine about places, but a doctrine of our relation and communion with God. If place-names are used, they are a matter of convenient imagery rather than a description of the topography of the larger world.

So we pray.  We pray to the God who is Lord of all and over all, over time and over eternity, this life and the next.  We believe that God wills good for all, including those who have passed beyond our sight and now dwell in realms beyond our experience, whose workings are unclear to us and–we must admit–we do not have access to the systematic theology on how said realms operate.

There is nothing beyond the reach of the Church’s prayers. This is true both in this life and the next. God is the God of all things, everywhere and at all times, and we can ask for anything of Him and make intercessions with boldness, trusting that He is good and that He wills good for us and for all.

Freeman goes on to illustrate some of the prayers used by the Orthodox for the departed.  Faithful or not, the Church intercedes for them that their sins might be forgiven and they might know eternal rest.  Even a prayer such as this is offered:  “Visit the bitter destitution of souls far removed from You; O Lord, have mercy on those who hated the truth out of ignorance, let Your love be to them not a burning fire, but the cool delight of Paradise.”

This prayer speaks to the heart of the relational dynamic of how the Orthodox understand heaven and hell.  There is no doubt that everyone is met with the love of God.  At issue is how that love is perceived–either as a burning fire or as a cool delight.  Thus the age-old Catholic/Protestant debates on heaven and hell and how to “get saved” are all a massive exercise in missing the point.

Instead, we pray. Prayer is the consistent and unending response of the Orthodox believer to the death of anyone. We trust in God who is our salvation. Jesus has revealed to us the love of God and done everything that is necessary for the salvation of the whole world. There is nothing lacking. Our prayers do not add to what Christ has done. Rather, they unite our hearts to what He has done and offer to God, with groaning, the prayer of Christ for all: “Forgive them.” If this is not the prayer of our heart, then our heart has become estranged from God, at least in that matter.

But our hope is not in places, nor in mechanical operations of salvation. Our hope is in Christ who has done all that we could possibly ask or think. When we pray, our thoughts should be towards Him, and the infinite goodness of His mercy.

Snapshots of My Post-Evangelical Life: The Fame Monster

Every once in a while we do this around here at Everyone’s Entitled to Joe’s Opinion:  Pick a topic and keep on talking about it until there is nothing left to say.

If you have been tracking with me on this blog for any length of time, or any of the other blogs where I hang out regularly, you may have heard the term “post-evangelical wilderness”. Despite what you may think, this “post-evangelical wilderness” is not simply some fanciful construct created by young punk bloggers living in their parents’ basements with nothing better to do with their lives than sit around all day in front of their computer screens and write whatever strikes their fancy. This post-evangelical wilderness is a real place inhabited by real people with real stories. These are people who have grown up in evangelicalism or invested a significant season of life in evangelicalism, but who now, for whatever reason, feel seriously out of place in evangelicalism in its current state–people who are, to borrow an oft-used (around here, at least) quote from Rachel Held Evans, “caught between who we once were and who we will be, the ghosts of past certainties gripping at our ankles”.

It occurs to me that some of you may not have any idea what I am talking about when I speak of the “post-evangelical wilderness”, so I am going to offer some snapshots over the coming days/weeks of what this looks like on the ground in my world.

Today we are going to talk about one of contemporary evangelicalism’s worst tendencies: namely, its addiction to chasing extraordinary, or as I would call it, chasing the fame monster.

Over the past several years I have volunteered at the Passion gatherings that typically happen in January.  It has frequently been emphasized to us as volunteers that somewhere in the room was the next John Piper or Louie Giglio Beth Moore or Chris Tomlin, and we get the opportunity to be on the front lines of serving them during these days and facilitating their encounter with God.  There is the story of Matt Chandler, who attended one of the very first Passion gatherings ever, had his world wrecked by God during those days, and went on to found a large megachurch in the Dallas area.  He is now widely considered to be the next John Piper.

Of course that is true.  Given the laws of mathematics and the size of a typical Passion gathering these days, it is entirely likely that the next John Piper or Beth Moore or Chris Tomlin is somewhere in the room.  But what they don’t say is that the vast majority of students passing through these gatherings will go on to what we would consider an ordinary existence.  The vast majority of these students will go on to be doctors, lawyers, accountants, engineers, nurses, paralegals, teachers, IT professionals, plumbers, carpenters, electricians–you name it. The vast majority of these students will live in the city as young professionals, or get married and move out to the suburbs and start families. There they will live as husbands, mothers, fathers, wives, and strive to raise children in the fear and admonition of the Lord.

But in much of evangelicalism these days, that is not good enough.

In so many parts of evangelicalism, Paul is held up as the standard to emulate and strive for. Look at his zealous, singlehearted, radical devotion to Christ! Look at what all he went through in order to spread the Gospel throughout the known world of that time! Look at the passion he felt, that drove him forward in all he did to advance the Gospel! Shouldn’t you be ashamed if your life is anything less than this?  That stuff will preach at conferences for zealous young evangelical college students these days.

But who received Paul’s letters? Not other apostles. Not even other pastors. Paul’s letters were written to ordinary, rank-and-file believers. Bet you didn’t notice this, did you?

These people, the recipients of Paul’s letters, were carpenters, farmers, traders, sailors, fishermen, shepherds, mothers, fathers, and children. Compared to the apostles, these people were nothing. Their lives were quite mundane. They were ordinary people who gathered together in someone’s home to drink their wine and eat their bread and hear the Holy Spirit speaking to them through the words of an apostle.

And then they went home.

And then they got up the next day and lived a perfectly normal life.

And they came back the next week and went through the exact same drill.

And on and on it went, all the way to the very end of their days.

Then they died, and now they are all forgotten.

For most of these people, the most extraordinary thing that happened in their lives was the day they trusted Christ and joined the Christian community. After that, their lives went completely back to normal. They listened to the words of Paul, learned from him, then in faith stayed exactly where they were, doing exactly what they were doing before, after he left.

Never in any of Paul’s writings do we get the sense that he was asking his readers to stop being who or what they were. He never challenged them to pack it all up and go overseas to preach the Gospel. We never get hints that he is making them feel guilty for living in relative comfort and ease, compared to his lack of it.

For some of you, this idea of identifying with the ordinary rank-and-file believers who received Paul’s letters may seem like a sort of death. Death to the dream of being extraordinary, of being someone special.

I get that. I once dreamed that I could one day be the next Chris Tomlin. I once dreamed that I could stand on a stage and preach or sing in front of thousands.

Matt Chandler, as noted above, attended the first ever Passion gathering in Austin as a college student back in 1997. During those days God turned his world upside down and sent him out as a flaming arrow across the sky for His glory. Stories like that are routinely celebrated in the world of Passion. You too can be just like Matt Chandler. You too can be just like Chris Tomlin, who is now living the dream, married to a former Miss Auburn who is now the woman whom every young Christian woman on the face of the earth would give her very life to be. Just pray harder. Surrender more. Dedicate more fervently. Live with even greater zeal than before.

I wanted it. God, how I wanted it. I have been going to Passion gatherings for over a decade now, just hoping and praying that God would rock my world as he did Matt Chandler’s, and send me out as a flaming arrow across the sky for His glory.

Hasn’t happened yet.

So if this seems like a death to you, death to the dream of being extraordinary, death to the dream of being someone special, I get it. Really I do.

But for countless others of you, this idea of identifying with the rank-and-file believer instead of the Apostle Paul is the greatest news you have ever heard in your life, next to the Gospel itself.

As noted earlier, we in evangelicalism are addicted to chasing extraordinary. Meaning that we have GOT to make a good name for ourselves. We have GOT to do big things for Christ that will be remembered by God and by others for all of eternity. It is not enough to run your business ethically or raise small children to the glory of God unless you are doing it on another continent, with bullets flying overhead and malaria crouching at your door. Why? Because we approach life needing desperately to succeed. To fail is to die. Success equals life.

But because of God’s grace, we are free to be ordinary. We don’t have to go out and turn the world upside down. Jesus Christ already did that when he won the victory over sin and death at the cross. We don’t need other people to love, respect, or approve of us in order for us to matter.  Because Jesus was extraordinary, it is perfectly OK for us to be ordinary.

Don’t you just love how I was able to wrap that up and put a nice little bow on it at the end there?

At this point some of you who have been tracking with me for a while have probably noticed that this sounds a lot like something I wrote a few years back at Life in Mordor (I am nothing if not all about shameless self-promotion.  But you knew that already), where I was a guest contributor at the time.  (That blog has long since gone dormant, but I still like to throw them a bone every once in a while just to let them know I’m still out there.)

I wish that were the end of the story.  It isn’t.  That is the way of things out here in the post-evangelical wilderness.

One of the things I alluded to in the prior post is the awareness of hopes, dreams, wishes, desires, and aspirations that I had back when I was still a young hot-blooded evangelical, which remain unfulfilled to this day.  One of these is the aspiration that I would serve God via full-time ministry and/or missions.  Since that time my perspective has broadened on what it means to serve God faithfully via ministry/missions.  And I have this blog, which is making a difference here in this little neck of the Christian blogosphere at least.  Yet that differs significantly from what I was hoping for, and from my perspective it feels as if I have offered myself to the Lord to be used in His service, and He has said “Sorry, but no thanks.  You are not what I am looking for.”  That is something I have had to carry with me out here into the post-evangelical wilderness.  It has defined me going forward (“Well, if the Lord doesn’t want me then I’ll just go on about my business, living a normal life and having normal relationships with normal people, and moving forward in the best way I know how, according to such light as I can find for myself.”)  I have made a fairly nice life for myself here in the city, yet I cannot help feeling that this is significantly different from what my life would look like if the Lord had turned my world upside down and sent me out as a flaming arrow across the sky for His glory a la Matt Chandler, as I had earnestly desired so long ago.  The better wisdom and counsel that I have received along the way tells me I shouldn’t feel this way, yet still I cannot help it.

Here is the other piece of this:  I said above that we don’t need other people to love, respect, or approve of us in order for us to matter, that because Jesus was extraordinary it is perfectly OK for us to be ordinary.  I wish I could believe that for myself.  Yet we as humans were made to live in community and in relationship with others.  I yearn to feel as if I belong and I matter, and I certainly don’t expect to get that all by myself in an experience of what some would call the presence of God but in all likelihood is just a good feeling.  Evangelicals talk a lot about the “fear of man” which prevents us from speaking truth when it needs to be spoken, yet I find it difficult if not impossible to believe that ultimate significance can be found apart from human community, that I can matter if I do not matter to others.  Call it “fear of man” if you will.  Say that I am addicted to pleasing others and this makes me unfit for ministry so no wonder the Lord has never called me.  That may be true, yet it is part of who I am, a part of me that I cannot let go of and don’t want to let go of even if I could.

This Is Not Prayer

ICYMI:  Franklin Graham called upon Christians to set aside last Sunday, June 2, as a special day of prayer for our president Donald Trump.  Some of you may have heard about this.

As Christians, we are called and even admonished to pray for our leaders.  I get that.  But this is not prayer.  It is something else altogether.  It is using the institution of prayer to advance a partisan political agenda, and not just any partisan political agenda, but one that is inextricably linked to a president whose life and message are the exact opposite of anything even remotely connected to Jesus Christ.  It’s…no.  Just no.  That’s all there is to it.

Snapshots of My Post-Evangelical Life: An Old Favorite CCM Album

Every once in a while we do this around here at Everyone’s Entitled to Joe’s Opinion:  Pick a topic and keep on talking about it until there is nothing left to say.

If you have been tracking with me on this blog for any length of time, or any of the other blogs where I hang out regularly, you may have heard the term “post-evangelical wilderness”. Despite what you may think, this “post-evangelical wilderness” is not simply some fanciful construct created by young punk bloggers living in their parents’ basements with nothing better to do with their lives than sit around all day in front of their computer screens and write whatever strikes their fancy. This post-evangelical wilderness is a real place inhabited by real people with real stories. These are people who have grown up in evangelicalism or invested a significant season of life in evangelicalism, but who now, for whatever reason, feel seriously out of place in evangelicalism in its current state–people who are, to borrow an oft-used (around here, at least) quote from Rachel Held Evans, “caught between who we once were and who we will be, the ghosts of past certainties gripping at our ankles”.

It occurs to me that some of you may not have any idea what I am talking about when I speak of the “post-evangelical wilderness”, so I am going to offer some snapshots over the coming days/weeks of what this looks like on the ground in my world.

As you may have guessed, today’s snapshot is an old favorite CCM album.

There are some of you out there, I am sure, who don’t have even a clue what CCM is.  CCM stands for “Contemporary Christian Music”, which is pretty much almost exactly what it sounds like.  This is a GINORMOUS industry within the evangelical universe.  It is a self-contained world encompassing everything from the worship music that is played on Sunday mornings in evangelical churches to music that is played on the radio, on stations devoted exclusively to this musical genre.  Every once in a while a song breaks out of this world and crosses over to the world of mainstream pop, such as Amy Grant’s “Find A Way” (1985), Michael W. Smith’s “Place In This World” (1990), or MercyMe’s “I Can Only Imagine” (2003).  When this happens, there is no shortage of joy and glee within the evangelical world.  There are artists who make their entire careers writing and/or performing this music, and when one of them steps outside this genre, or gets divorced, or expresses doubts about some key evangelical distinctive, or (God forbid) comes out as gay, it throws the entire evangelical universe into fits and convulsions.  In short, it is an alternate universe of pop music that exists alongside the universe of mainstream pop music but is almost completely contained to the evangelical world.

I used to love this music–so long ago, back when I was still a young hot-blooded evangelical.  There were numerous artists whom I counted among my favorites.  Now, much of it is something I would not listen to unless I wanted to punish myself for some terrible sin, to punish myself disgustingly.

Part of the self-punishment aspect of things is knowing how much this music meant to me back then, knowing who I was back then when it meant so much to me, and feeling the full force of the disconnect between who I was back then and who I am today.  Also, the awareness of many hopes, dreams, wishes, desires, etc. that I had for myself back then, which to this day remain unfulfilled.

The album I choose for this exercise is by Steven Curtis Chapman, and it is called Declaration.

The year was 2001 back when this album dropped.  It was a heady time to be an evangelical.  George W. Bush, a president whom many evangelicals would count as a close friend and ally, had just outlasted Al Gore in a very close and contentious election marred by voting irregularities that took weeks to sort out (remember the phrase “hanging chad”, anyone?).  With all that over with and Bush safely in office, we could all exhale and begin to chase the bad taste of the Clinton years out of our collective mouth.  We were winning in the broader culture on abortion, gay marriage, and other such issues of concern to us (or so it seemed at the time), and damn it felt good.  The purity culture movement spawned by Josh Harris’s I Kissed Dating Goodbye, about which I have written in prior posts, was in full flower.  We threw purity balls for the evangelical youth, and rejoiced mightily to see mainstream pop stars and other A-list celebrities rocking their purity rings.  (Don’t know what any of that stuff is?  Be glad you don’t.)  John Piper’s Desiring God was flying off the shelves and setting the world on fire, enlivening a whole generation of young Neo-Calvinists to go out and live all for the glory of God.

As for me personally, I was in full flower as a lovesick young evangelical punk.  There was a beautiful young woman on the horizon of my world, and any day could have been the day she said to me “YES!!!!!!!!!  I’M YOURS, TAKE ME AWAY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” (This has been a recurring theme in my life.  And we all know how this story ends, without fail.  But we won’t talk about that today.)  As I listened to this album (usually on road trips) I had fantasies of riding the open highway in a red convertible with the top down, and her in the passenger seat, and this music blaring from the speakers.  I now have the red convertible (I am on red convertible #2 at this point), yet still the passenger seat remains vacant.  But I digress.

We won’t go track-by-track through this deal, as this post is already long enough as it is.  But we will go through a representative sampling.

We start with the lead track, a song called “Live Out Loud”.  The song asks us to imagine the folly of winning the big prize on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire”, a reality-based game show that was all the rage back then and the precursor to much of today’s reality TV–and then just keeping quiet about it.  (Actually that kinda makes sense to me.  If you come out and publicly announce that you just won the big prize, you set yourself up as a target because there are lots of people running around out there who would resort to any means to get that money from you.)  We as Christians have been given a much bigger prize–eternal life in Jesus Christ–and it is time to bust out and let the whole world know.

Back then, I would have totally been on board with this.  Now, not so much.  This sort of tell-the-world-with-reckless-abandon goes against every fiber of my being, and I am much more convinced of the value of living quiet lives of humble service to those around us.  If you’re the sort of person who can tell the world with reckless abandon, great.  You do you.  But don’t make that the standard for the rest of us.

About midway through the album we come to “God Is God”, a song which dances with the themes of God’s sovereignty that are all over the place in John Piper’s writing and the Neo-Calvinist movement that his work spawned:  that the proper response to suffering and mystery in life is to bow down and worship and confess that only God is God.  (A song called “Much Of You” that would appear on a subsequent album is pure John Piper through and through.  Incidentally, John Piper was one of my favorite authors back then, and Desiring God was very formative to me in that season of life.  But he completely and totally lost me with “Farewell Rob Bell” a few years back, and has been on my shit list ever since.)  That may be so, but it completely misses the point of the book of Job–namely that for some things, all explanations are inadequate.  Even the explanation that God is God.  I have seen much out here in the post-evangelical wilderness for which the answers that God is God and our place is to bow in humble submission and worship are hopelessly inadequate.

Shortly after this we get to “Bring It On”.  An easy thing to say in the face of trouble when you are young, as I still was back when this album came out.  Be very careful what you wish for, because you just might get to the other side of it and find yourself in the same place as me.  I am sure Steven Curtis Chapman knows that at this point.  He later devoted an entire album to processing the tragic loss of a young daughter through the standard evangelical framework, a framework which I find hopelessly inadequate.

The emotional climax of the album–and by far the greatest point of disconnect between who I was back in happier times when I was still a young hot-blooded evangelical and who I am today–is a song called “Magnificent Obsession”, a soaring and glorious anthem of single-hearted, all-consuming devotion to God alone.  How easy it seemed back then, to believe myself capable of such a thing.  I know better now.  And even if I were capable of living up to that level of devotion, I am not sure I would want to.  The song is representative of the sort of evangelical devotion that refuses to allow any space for our humanness–that our human struggles, wishes, dreams, desires, aspirations, etc. are all things we must abandon in order to rise to the level of devotion that God requires.

In this stage of life I find it very hard to trust that level of devotion to God alone, knowing that God is committed to people–the Scriptures bear this out–and any sort of devotion to God alone that does not translate to the people God loves and is for–especially those on the margins of society–is worthless.  After seeing 81 percent of American evangelicals enthusiastically and unabashedly support a president whose message is the exact opposite of God’s heart for people and especially marginalized people, I’m calling bullshit on this.

But more to the point, I am so over attempting to abandon my humanity in order to rise to the level of devotion that God requires, in the evangelical milieu, at least.  If I come to God I am bringing all of me.  Including all of my very this-world-centered joys, sorrows, hopes, dreams, troubles, wishes, desires, and aspirations.  If He will not accept those parts of me then He is not a God that I wish to follow.