Real Freedom?

Just one more from Tim Keller’s comment section, and then I’m going to stick to my guns and stop looking at those ugly things.  This is one I found today:

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Keller is saying there that the freedom God intended us to have can only be held through the observing of certain restrictions (including, of course, moral ones), restrictions which are not abnormal but absolutely normal, fitting our very beings.  That is a standard Christian understanding of “restrictions” (or “commands” or “teachings” or whatever else you want to call them).  I believe it is an understanding of reality.  I believe it is an inescapable truth, and that life becomes happier or easier or better or more glorious when we live in harmony with that truth, aligning ourselves with those restrictions.

The person who commented, though, (and whose identity I have obscured) apparently believes the opposite.  He believes in “throwing off” those restrictions rather than aligning with them.  He believes in ignoring or denying or violating our design rather than accepting it.  He believes this will give him real freedom, and he expresses that with the indignant disdain that has become unfortunately too common in such discussions.

It is not a new idea.  I heard this idea from atheist Christopher Hitchens several years ago.  He stated it during a debate with apologeticist William Lane Craig.

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The statement to notice there is close to the end.  Hitchens refers to “the poisonous role played by fellow primates of mine who think they can tell me what to do in the name of God.”  You can find that statement somewhere in the debate below:

So Keller’s commentator says real freedom is throwing off the restrictions of religious leaders, implying that such restrictions are wrong (if freedom is right, anything which restricts it must be wrong/evil/unjust, right?), and Hitchens says that “fellow primates” telling each other what to do is the name of God is poisonous.  And there is a lot of indignation in those assertions.  There isn’t a lot of logic, though.  Here’s a couple logical problems I see with these complaints about restrictions/being told what to do.

People tell other people what to do all the time.  My self-proclaimed secular society tells me what to do all the time.  They tell me not to be racist, not to be sexist, and not to be a dozen other similar things.  They will punish me harshly if I do those things.  What they don’t tell me is why I can’t do those things or by what authority they are telling me not to do those things.  They tell me they are wrong (even as they tell me there is no such thing as wrong), but they don’t tell me why they are wrong or why they are the ones to tell me they are wrong.  Does Hitchens regard this as equally poisonous?  Is this one of the restrictions Keller’s commentator would like to throw off?  I doubt it.  They more than likely accept those restrictions (even as they proclaim a wrong-less worldview).  Why, then, do they get so bent out of shape about these other restrictions?  Why do they act like religious leaders are the only ones who proclaim such restrictions?  If you’re going to live in the presence of other people, you are going to be told to do or not to do hundreds of things from the moral to the civic.  Getting upset at that is not wise.  Getting upset at only half of that is even less wise.

Other leaders promote the same restrictions religious leaders do.  Religious leaders often promote sexual restrictions.  In our sexual society, that is probably what generates the most resistance.  They are not the only ones to promote such restrictions, though.  I saw a news story on TV last year about a high school counselor who forces her female students to be abstinent.  She does so not because she thinks sex is wrong but because she knows pregnancies and STDs will keep these young women from completing college.  Is she wrong in having those restrictions?  Is it right for her to point out the physical consequences of sexual activity but wrong for religious leaders to point out the (very real) spiritual consequences of sexual activity?

Religious leaders don’t force anyone to do anything or stop anybody from doing anything.  I certainly don’t.  I haven’t been given that authority.  I wouldn’t take that authority if it were offered to me.  Such authority would offend my faith, in fact; my faith is based on reasonably persuading people to come to God of their own free will, to respond to them with their hearts.  That can’t be forced or coerced, and I don’t try to do that.  What I do try to do is tell people what the right choices are and (like the high school counselor above) what the consequences of wrong choices will be.  I tell them that and then allow them to make their own choices.  Without fail, those who have chosen what I (and God) have said is right turn out much happier than those who chose the other way

Let me give you a short story here: a guy came into my office years ago to ask me for permission to commit adultery.  Yep.  He had the chance to commit adultery and wanted my okay on it.  He was not getting the intimacy from his wife which he needed, he found another woman in an open marriage who would give him that intimacy (at least for awhile), and he wanted me to tell him it was okay.  I couldn’t tell him that.  It was hard not to; it was very hard to tell a guy starved for intimacy that he couldn’t go get some.  However, I also told him that not only was adultery wrong, but it had consequences.  I told him any intimacy he found with the other woman would be short-lived.  I told him I doubted she was really in an open marriage; I suggested that her husband had just found a way to talk her into allowing him to have sex with other women and would be angry if she had sex with other men.  I told him he would have a secret to keep, and doing so would be unpleasant.  I gave him lots of good reasons not to commit adultery.  But I didn’t stop him from doing it.  He went and did it.  Then he came back a month later and told me I was “right” (which is not my goal; I’m not trying to be right; I’m trying to help people live what God calls “fruitful lives”).  He said that the husband was angry and threatened him.  He said he wished he had never done it.

I don’t make other people’s choices for them; I can’t and wouldn’t.  Nor do any other religious leaders I know (and I know a lot).  I simply tell people what I think is the right choice.  Hitchens is doing the very same thing.  So is Keller’s commentator.  I don’t see why it is wrong for me to do so when it is (apparently) right for them to do so.

Hitchens and Keller’s commentator are telling me what to do.  Hitchens’ big problem is people telling him “what do do” (he uses that phrase a couple times in the debate).  That’s apparently the commentator’s problem as well.  And yet they are doing the same thing.  They are telling me what to do even as they say I should not tell them what to do.  Telling people what not to do is telling them what to do.  Should I, then, through off their restrictions on me?  It seems like a big paradox or audio feedback loop, but it is true.  One man’s liberator is another man’s dictator.  I’m sure Hitchens would be surprised to be called a dictator, and I’m sure he was not trying to be one.  But he does seem like one to me.

What religion tells us to do is by and large accepted as correct.  That might sound strange, particularly with the problems the non-believing sector has with the believing sectors teaching on sex.  Nonetheless, it is true on the larger scale.  The primary teaching of my faith is love.  Love God is the first commandment, and loving others is the second.  Everything beyond that, including the sexual restrictions, is about how to love God and others in specific situations.  And that is something most people (probably even Hitchens and the Keller commentator) agree with.

Again, a little story helps here:  I was in the gym locker room with a fellow pastor a couple years ago.  We were talking about the faith, not realizing that anyone else was in there with us.  All the sudden, a guy came around the corner and started yelling at us, telling us that we don’t need things like the Bible and Hell.  “Why can’t we just do unto others?” he asked me.  Because I am gracious, I didn’t embarrass him by telling him that “do unto others” comes from the Bible he just said we don’t need.  Whether or not I told him that, though, the point remains that most people agree with love and kindness and compassion.  And those are the things my faith teaches.  Those are the things the restrictions are meant to produce.

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The end of the matter, then, is that I’m not poisoning anybody, nor are the many other religious leaders I know.  I’m not restricting anybody, either; Keller used that word because it fit that context, but I’m sure he would agree that what he is calling restrictions are really not restrictions at all.  No, I am freeing as many as I can.  I have found from my own experience that nothing is as freeing as the way of Christ, as way that (like all ways) has boundaries but which leads to a much better place in a much better manner than any other way I know.  People can get indignant about that; they have (as we see here) and they always will.  But their indignation doesn’t make any sense.  What they are pursuing, whether they know it or not, is not real freedom.  A life without boundaries is not a life of freedom; it is, as Peter says, a life of mastering, of being mastered, of being a slave.  No, it is the life of boundaries that is free.  It is the restriction-giving God who gives real freedom.

Listening For Agreement

Tim Keller is one of the contemporary pastors/writers I really respect.  I don’t think I elevate him to any lofty position he shouldn’t have (I strongly believe that only Christ should be elevated and everyone else ought to be kept on the ground), I do appreciate and look to the wisdom he shares.  I think he has a lot of it.

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And that, in turn, cause me a great deal of surprise when I saw how many people were fighting with him on Twitter.  Keller posts a lot on Twitter.  I don’t know if the things he posts are quotes from his writings or new ideas.  I don’t know if there is a unifying theme he is trying to achieve with his tweets or if he is just tossing out random notions.  But I know that almost every time I have checked, someone is disagreeing with him about something.   I try not to read comments; I learned pretty quickly that the comment section of any article, post, or tweet is likely to be a cesspool that will bring unhappiness into my life.  But I can’t help myself sometimes.  There are many times when I want to see how others are responding to Keller’s words, and there are just as many times when I see that they are responding badly, that they are disagreeing with what he said, fighting with what he said, even castigating him for what he said.

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Again, I don’t elevate Keller.  He is a man, and as Galatians 2 shows us, even good men make mistakes and/or fall into errors.  He is not infallible (I doubt he would claim he is) and he not above disagreement.  So it is not the disagreement that bothers me so much.  It is the fact that so many Christians (not the atheists, whom we would expect to cross swords with him, but the Christians, the disciples, the genuine followers of Christ) disagree with him.  And it is not just that the Christians disagree with him but that they disagree with him (and fight with him, and castigate him, etc.) in an illegitimate way.  It is often the case that they disagree not with what he says but with their own concocted bizarre twisting of what he meant, with some far-flung application of his words which was never what he intended to communicate.

What these Christians are not doing is what I call “listening for agreement”, by which I mean listening for what you agree with/is good not for what you disagree with/is bad.  I’m not sure where I got that phrase “listening for agreement”, but I’m fairly confident I got the idea from Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

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I may have read this book in my latter years of Bible college, or I may have read it when a teacher at the high school close to my first church gave it to me.  In either case, I read it.  In it, I learned that one of the seven habits is “Seek first to understand, then to be understood”.

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This, I believe, is what the Christians who are fighting with Keller (or any similar Christian teacher in any similar situation) are not doing.  They are not trying to understand what Keller is saying and how he expects it to be applied.  They are allowing themselves to misunderstand or, worse, concocting some possible misunderstanding.  That is ineffective, a Covey suggests.  That is counterproductive.  That is a missing of truths and a ruining of fellowship and a muddying of the waters and a dozen other undesirable things.

And it is also unbiblical.  I can imagine many of the same people who will fight with what Keller says on any given subject will fight me here, and a particular avenue for such a fight is to point out that Covey is not God and The 7 Habits is not Scripture.  True enough.  Seek first to understand is not a biblical phrase, nor is listening for agreement.  But here are a few that are biblical:

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There are several others as well.  The Bible repeatedly tells us to listen and to not argue.  When we refuse to do that even in the cyber realm, when we ignore (unintentionally or otherwise) the good thing a fellow believer is trying to share and twist it into a bad thing and then argue ad nauseum about it, we are doing exactly what the Bible tells us not to do.

I’m not trying to defend Tim Keller, my friends.  I don’t think he really needs my help on this one or any other.  I’m not trying to defend any Christian teacher.  I’m trying to defend Christian unity and effectiveness.  I’m trying to find the way for God’s Kingdom to come and His will to be done.  I know that way does not involve psuedo or ego conflicts (which is what a lot of these online arguments are; they are not genuine or “simple” conflicts; they are misunderstandings at best and personality or jealousy at worst).

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Even Jesus couldn’t stop people from distorting His words and His applications into something He never intended.  No contemporary Christian teacher is going to be able to stop people from doing so, either.  The only thing which can stop this is the people themselves.  And we Christian people should be willing and able to do just that.  We should be able to be quick to listen and slow to anger (or maybe “righteous indignation”).  We should seek first to understand (even giving the benefit of the doubt when it is necessary to interpretation).  We should listen for agreement, not for disagreement.

From Why To What

“All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching…”  So says Paul in 2 Timothy 3:16.  And this has certainly proved itself to be true in my life.  I have been taught (as well as rebuked, corrected, and trained, as Paul says in the rest of the verse) by all Scripture.  I have even been taught, etc. by Scripture I didn’t think was possible of teaching anyone anything, Scripture which on the surface seems to have little to teach.

A recent case in point is Genesis 42:36-37:

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This passage came up in my daily reading a few days ago.  It is part of the Joseph narrative of Genesis, the story of how Joseph, who has become the second most powerful ruler in Egypt, is testing his brothers to see how they have changed after selling him into slavery years ago.  In this part, the brothers report to Jacob after their first trip to Egypt to get grain.  They tell Jacob that Simeon has been imprisoned and will not be released unless they return with Benjamin.  In reply to this, Jacob says, “Everything is against me!”

At first glance, it doesn’t look like there is much in this passage for the follower of Christ.  That’s what I thought at first.  I even remembered discussing it in Bible college; I remembered my Old Testament professor saying that Reuben’s response to Jacob here is “boneheaded” (I believe that is the word he used).  That gave me a little laugh.  It didn’t give me much direction.

But then something happened.  I read over those words a second (something I often do as I read the Scripture for devotion), and that phrase “Everything is against me” caught my attention.  That is how I believe hearing from God works: I believe we hear from God when something in Scripture catches our attention (or maybe when the Holy Spirit who is in us and who is operating as we read Scripture brings something to our attention).  And this phrase caught my attention as I read that day.  It caught my attention as I read because I realize I often say the same thing.  I often look at the obstacles that are in my path and conclude that everything is against me.  I often get frustrated when difficulties come my way and I ask, “Why is this happening to me?”  (That, by the way, is how I would paraphrase Jacob’s words here: “Why is this happening to me?”)

That is obvious not a mature response to difficulties.  I think we all see that in Jacob here.  I think we are supposed to see it in Jacob here.  I think we are supposed to understand that while this reaction was somewhat understandable (as indeed a lot of unfair and unhappy stuff had happened to him), it was not at all mature or noble or helpful.  It was whining, in other words.

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What is less easy to see is how often we whine in that same way.  Immaturity in others, after all, is always far more visible than immaturity in ourselves.  Immaturity in ourselves is always far more understandable in ourselves than in others (we give ourselves a pass on such whining more readily and easily than we give such a pass to others).

As I read this text that morning, though, I could see it me.  I could see that I am often so immature and unhelpful, that I often whine.  And I could also see what to do about that.  I could see that God was calling me not to simply stop whining; I suppose that was part of what God was calling me to, but it was not the totality (stop is rarely the totality of what God tells us about anything).  I could also see that God was not calling me to try to escape the situations which result in whining; that’s not possible; many of these situations are out of my control and thus inescapable.

Rather, I could see that God was calling me to change my question.  He was calling me to turn from asking why to asking what.  He was calling me to move from asking, “Why is this happening to me?” to “What is Kingdom in this situation?”

I take that phrase Kingdom from our Lord Jesus Christ Himself.  Kingdom was His primary message, being the subject of what I call His “inaugural message”, the sermon He preached when He began His public ministry (Matthew 4:17 and Mark 1:15).  It was also in a prominent place in His “model” or “Lord’s Prayer” (Matthew 6:9-13).

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I sometimes call this “the goal of God”.  I think that is what it is.  I think God’s ultimate goal and thus Jesus’ ultimate goal is the Kingdom coming, God’s will being done as perfectly on earth as it is in the heavenly realms.  Every other goal God has (making disciples of all nations, transforming us into the likeness of His son) is a subset or expression of that one, great, overriding goal.

And since that is His goal, it should be my goal as well.  That being the case, “Why is this happening to me?” is always the wrong question.  A much better question is, “What is Kingdom here?  What does the Kingdom want to result from this my encounter with this obstacle?  How can God’s will be done in this difficulty?”  There is a positive answer to that question/those questions.  Every obstacle and difficulty, every setback and attack and insult and hardship, is a Kingdom opportunity, a chance for God’s will to not only be done but be done through me.  And thus that is the question to ask.  That is the avenue to take.

And I’m not very good at taking it.  I’ll be honest about that.  I’d love to see myself as Joseph (who it seems had some immaturity in the early part of his story but who was fully living into the Kingdom by this point), but I know I’m far more like Jacob.  It is not easy to switch questions like this.  It isn’t for me, anyway.  I will keep that switch in mind, though, or I’ll try to.  It is what will indeed bring the Kingdom, so it is what I will try to do.  I’ll try to go from “Why?” to “What?”

But Seeing As You Asked…

As I wrote about yesterday, some guy called me in my office yesterday to argue the Trinity.  I eventually hung up on him, choosing to simply lose since I wasn’t allowed to talk.  I was fine with that.  I mean, it was an unpleasant and an unjust thing, but I was still fine with it.  I didn’t get as upset about it as I would have years ago, in large part because I see that it is just a natural consequence of doing the work of Christ (something I spoke about just this past Sunday).

The fact remains, though, that the guy made certain objective statements in both word and deed.  And I think objective statements can be (and at times should be) be answered.  As I said in the posts about The Simpsons and GQ, if someone says, “I don’t like you,” there isn’t much response I can give or need to give; that is a subjective statement that can’t be measured or countered in any logical way (I can try to show that I should be liked or am likable, maybe, but that’s about it).  If you say, again in either word or deed, that, “X is Y” or some other thing that can be measured, countered, fact-checked, etc., there is a response I can give.  I think I need to give it most of the time.  I need to give it in a calm, even-handed way (I don’t need to be red-faced and screaming), but I do need to give that response.

Such is the case here.  I don’t want to further an argument with this guy; I think that is ungodly.  And I don’t want to wail, moan, get revenge, twist the knife, or any other related thing here on the blog; that’s just lowly.  I do, though, want to counter the objective things the man said in this calm, fair way.  Actually, I want to catalog the wrong things the guy did here and encourage us all not to do them ourselves.  I think that’s a fair way to profit off this exchange.  So here we go:

  • If you want to argue, say you want to argue.  If you want to attack, assault, assail, then attack, assault, or assail.  Don’t hide what you are trying to do under the guise of “asking a question”.  That’s dishonest, and Kingdom workers should not be dishonest.Picture1       This guy was dishonest; he was resorting to deception.  If he had said, “I want to argue the Trinity,” I would have said, “Thanks, but no thanks,” and went my way without investing my time.  I’m not interested in argumentation.  I don’t think Kingdom workers should be interested in argumentation.  This guy should have been open and honest about what he wanted/wanted to do.  So should we all.  I can remember countless times in Bible college when we were taught to be similar dishonest in our approach.  We were told, “Here’s how you get Jehovah’s Witnesses” or given little tricks to trip people up.  That’s not what Christ did; He set forth the truth plainly, as Paul says here.  We should do likewise and do nothing but.
  • Don’t take single statements  of Scripture as absolutes.  That’s what this guy was doing with the pronouns of Genesis 1:27.  He was taking that one pronoun he and, as I called it yesterday, pushing it beyond its legitimate boundary.  The fact of the matter is that language is problematic, and pronouns are doubly so (weren’t we taught in school to use plural pronouns when referring to single subjects so as to remove gender?).  The truth of God (and all related truths) are more than what you find in just one Scripture or statement of Scripture.  I discovered this during my Bible college years when a man questioned me about Hebrews 9:27.  He asked why that verse says “it is appointed for a man once to die” when there were a couple guys who didn’t die (Enoch and Elijah).  I told him he shouldn’t make that (nearly universal) general statement into an infallible absolute.  That was correct in that case and it is correct in all similar cases.  One single statement of Scripture should not be allowed to overrule the entire teaching of Scripture.
  • Don’t make me believe more than I need to believe or answer questions I can’t answer.  Part of my problem with this guy was he was trying to force me to make some theological statement about the nature of God.  The fact of the matter is that I’m not sure what the nature of God is.  I don’t think anybody is, whether they know it or not.Image result for a god you can understandBased on a holistic reading of Scripture (which include the many Scriptures which directly call Jesus God in some way or describe Him as having the qualities of God), I think something like the Trinity must be true.  But I can’t explain that.  I’m not sure I can defend it.  I’m not sure I fully understand it.  And it is very uncomfortable and unfair for someone to try to force me to take some side on it, particularly as they are getting increasingly irate.  Besides that, it ultimately doesn’t matter.  Salvation/the walk with God/the life of faith is not based on what you are able to understand about God (thankfully!).  It is based on whether you accept that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.  I can do the one without doing the other.  I have and am doing the one without doing the other (or while doing the other to the best of my ability).  Based on what we see in Scripture, that seems to be enough for God.  It should be enough for you, too.
  • Don’t get irate.  People often ask me where “righteous indignation” is in the Bible.  The answer: it isn’t.  Indignation is rarely righteous.  If I’m wrong, show me gently where and how I’m wrong.  Understand that I’m innocently wrong, that I am far more Apollos than Alexander.  Understand that I will repent once I’m convinced of my wrong.  I will do that, you know.  I do want to genuinely walk with God and will genuinely change if I am shown I am not walking with God.  But to hit me with rapid-fire charges as you get louder and redder-faced isn’t going to do anything for me.  I doubt it does anything for anyone.

That’s the short list of thoughts I had after my encounter with this guy.  And I don’t think my sharing them here is just sour grapes.  It can’t be, as that guy will no doubt never read this post and has already walked away with his Hananiah-like victory.  But I think my sharing them here can be of benefit to us.  As I think I said or at least implied above, I have done some of if not all of these things in my interactions with other people.  Experiencing them from the other side, I see how fruitless and wrong they are, and I am determined not to resort to such things.  I’m hoping more people will make that same resolution.  I think the world and the church would be a much better place if we all did.

Letting Yourself Lose

True story that happened just five minutes ago:

My office phone rings.  I answer it.  The guy on the other end (whom I don’t know and whose number was listed simply as “Private Caller”) asked me if I could “answer a Bible question”.

“I’ll give it a try!” I said in my normal goofy way.

This guy then proceeded to read Genesis 1:27, stressing that the pronoun used for the Creator is he (that is, singular).  The guy then quickly fell into an angry diatribe about The Trinity.  His question became an assault as he demanded to know if I believed in The Trinity  and why and how I could consider myself a Christian if I did believe in The Trinity.

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In the few instances I actually got to talk, I tried to explain that The Trinity (a word admittedly not found in the Bible) is our best attempt to convey the whole teaching of the Bible and that he was pushing pronouns far beyond the degree to which they were supposed to be pushed.  He did not agree.  In fact, he didn’t give me much chance to explain.  Instead, every statement I made brought several rapid accusations from him.  I then tried to tell him that I had been asked to answer a question, not have an argument.  Finally, I hung up.

And I hated to do that.  I tried to avoid doing that, in fact, because I knew if I did that he would claim some sort of victory.  “That guy couldn’t answer any of my questions,” I can imagine him saying (after, of course, reframing the story to remove his aggressive interruptions and unwillingness to listen).  “He just ran away from me.”

That bothers me.  I’ve got a strong sense of justice.  I hate what is wrong being called right (even if that wrong is mine).  I didn’t want to give this person the chance to do that, and couldn’t stand the fact that I had given him  the chance to do that.

Yet that’s what my faith often calls me to do.  It may sound strange (especially if, like me, you come from a church/bible college background which presents debate as a spiritual practice), but it is true.  The fact of the matter is that God doesn’t want us to argue and sometimes calls us to lose arguments.  He tells us to throw in the towel when further fighting is ineffective and counterproductive and becoming ungodly.

My favorite example of this is in Jeremiah 28:

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Jeremiah did not continue to trade blows with Hananiah.  Rather, when he saw that Hananiah was just diatribing rather than dialoguing, he just walked away.  He came back a little later to drop a personal word from the Lord on Hananiah, but he walked away from that first encounter.  He did not continue to debate the false prophet in front of the crowds.

Jesus famously teaches something similar:

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He did not instruct us to trade blows with those who reject us (and reject Him through rejecting us).  He instructed us instead to “shake the dust off our feet” and move on.

On top of that, Paul tells Timothy:

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Despite what I was taught in my home church and in Bible college, an argumentative spirit is not a Christ-like spirit.  Debate is not a righteous spiritual discipline.  It is the opposite, in fact.  It is clearly not what God wants.  It produces the opposite of what God wants.  Arguments lead to several ungodly behaviors: anger, insinuation, insult, etc.  It is so easy to fall into those things.  I worry, in fact, that what I wrote above about my encounter with this guy skirts the border of those things.  That’s why God doesn’t want us to argue.  That’s why when it comes to arguments, even “spiritual” or theological or doctrinal arguments:

What does a “Lord’s servant” like me do in this strange game?  Well, he has to lose.  That’s what Jeremiah did.  That’s what Jesus did on many occasions as well (such as in Luke 9 when He simply walked away from the village that rejected Him).  That’s what Paul often did, too.  And I guess that’s what I did.  I couldn’t walk away from this guy literally, but I did hang up on him.  I hung up on him as nicely as I could.  I didn’t want to hang up on him since even that can be seen as aggressive, but that was about the best I could do in the situation, and I did it the best I could do it.  I let myself lose, in other words.  And that was the right thing to do.  I might not like it, but that was the right thing to do.

 

Some Questions For GQ

A couple weeks ago, The Simpsons took a shot at my faith.  Since this shot contained logical statements and inferences, I asked the Simpsons writers a few questions about it.  I couldn’t have asked them anything if they had merely said, “I don’t like”; that’s subjective and incontestable.  But that’s not what they said.  They said, in essence, “You are wrong/contradictory/etc.”  That’s not subjective, and that’s not incontestable.  So I contested it.  I asked them some questions about it.  Since the writers of The Squidbillies had taken almost the exact same shot at my faith, I asked them those same questions as well.  Seeing that neither group answered, I guess I asked those questions rhetorically.  But I asked them.  They were legitimate questions, questions of whether or not these writers understood what they were attacking and with what they were replacing what they were attacking, and I asked them.

It seems I can now ask the editors of GQ magazine similar questions as they have taken a similar shot at my faith.  They did so in a recent article called “21 Books You Don’t Have To Read”.  I imagine they offended a lot of English teachers with this article, which suggested that people don’t have to read The Catcher in the Rye and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which have been staples in literature class for as long as I remember.  But I know for a fact they offended a lot of Christians when they suggested people don’t have to read the Bible.

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There is more going on here than mere offensiveness, though.  There are assertions, both logical and otherwise.  And while offensiveness may or may not be able to be questioned, assertions can and should be.  So I will put any indignation aside and ask just a few questions of the GQ editors (or it is Jesse Ball, who I think wrote this segment of the article, or both?), questions about the assertions they are making here.

  1. Are you sure the people you say haven’t read this book actually haven’t read it?  This is the first assertion this segment makes.  The author says the people who supposedly live by the Bible haven’t actually read it.  This is something I’ve heard several other faith-averse or faith-antagonistic folks say.  It is intended to undermine their credibility, I suppose, as well as to insult them (which is what it seems to be doing here).  And while I admit that it is true of many people in The Faith, it is not true of all of them, and it is certainly isn’t true of the most authoritative of them (by which I mean the ones who should be listened to, the ones who know what they are talking about and thus have the right to talk).  I know some sixty pastors in my area.  All of them have read the Bible multiple times.  All of them are well-versed in the Bible.  All of them know the Bible.  Not to be an own-horn-tooter, but the same can be said of me.  I knew the Bible before I could read, having learned it from my parents and my church, both of whom quoted it to me often.  I finally read it cover to cover when I was 19.  I have read it cover to cover many times since; I actually don’t know how many times I have read the Bible in its entirety because I have lost count.  I have studied at least have the books at a collegiate, verse-by-verse level.  I have memorized the epistles and recite one every day.  I read both lengthy and short passages every day as well.  In short, I and my pastor friends have not only read the Bible, but we’ve actually walked with the Bible.  We have consumed and lived with and assimilated the Bible.  It is part of our very fabric.  This not only means that the this underhanded opening comment is measurably wrong, but it also means that we have far greater ability to speak about what the Bible is or isn’t than anyone else.  I would not presume to tell a scientist what The Origin of the Species is or is not, what it says or doesn’t say, what quality it has or doesn’t have.  To be honest, I don’t know any of these things.  I’ve never read it.  A scientist who has spent time with that book is clearly going to know it better than me.  By the same token, very few people have spent the time with the Bible that I and my pastor friends have.  Logic states that we know far better what it is and what it says than GQ.
  2. Can you give me any specifics here?  The segment goes on to say that the Bible is “repetitive, self-contradictory, sententious, foolish, and even at times ill-intentioned”.  Those are serious charges, and if they were true, the Bible ought not to just be unread but actively banned.  We have no way of knowing if they are true.  Not from this segment, anyway.  The author does not give any evidence for their truth.  He asserts them but he does not support them.  I personally wish he had, because I have no idea what he is talking about here.  Again, I’ve read the Bible quite a few more times than he has.  I have found repetition, but that repetition makes sense; the Bible only has one real message which it keeps restating in various ways in hopes that we will finally get it.  I have not found anything self-contradictory, even though that charges is again often made.  I’ve found things that people who don’t understand the Bible and the way it is intended to be used think are self-contradictory, but I’ve never found any clear contradiction.  I didn’t know what sententious meant, but when I looked it up, I didn’t see anything in it that resembled what we have in the Bible.3Rather, what we have in the Bible is far more a loving father desperately pleading with his children, begging them not to destroy themselves and their relationship with him.  Doesn’t sound sententious to me.  Foolish?  The core message of the Bible is love God and love others.  That’s foolish to you?  Ill-intentioned?  How does the author know what the intentions of God (which is who I believe actually wrote the Bible) or the human authors (whom God used to write the Bible) were?  I don’t know because he didn’t tell me.  He just made the accusation; he didn’t support it.  If anything seems ill-intentioned, it is these unsubstantiated Simpsons-esque statements about the Bible.

3. What are you offering as an alternative?  This is the same question I asked of The Simpsons and The Squidbillies, and it is the question I will ask of everyone who attempts to take away my faith.  If I let go of my faith (as you seem to think I should), what do you offer to replace it?  My faith (which is based on the Bible) is what gives me hope and purpose and meaning, what directs my thoughts and actions, and what sets my values.  My faith does just about every important thing in my life.  When you attempt to take away my faith, you are not taking away some minor diversion; you are taking away my heart and soul, taking away the one thing I want and need more than any other.  You can’t create a vacuum like that without filling it with something.  So what are the author/the GQ editors offering to do that?  I don’t know.  They do suggest some book I’ve never heard of (The Notebook, which is apparently not the one by Nicholas Sparks), but they don’t tell me what authority that book has or what it is going to contribute to my life.  Seeing as it is a book written by a man relatively recently in human history, the hope that it can replace the Bible and my faith is quite low.  Sorry, but you can’t expect me to sacrifice everything I love and value and live by because you make a couple snarky remarks.

Those are the questions I would ask GQ about this segment.  Will I get an answer?  Probably not.  I’m still asking the questions, though.  And I think you should as well.

The Foundational Question Part 3

Okay, one last run around this idea.

I was jumping around the Internet this weekend, looking at The New Yorker’s Chick-fil-A story and its fallout.  As I did, I came across this:

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As I just now looked for this quote, I found this site claiming that Gandhi never said these words.  I don’t know if he did or not.  I do know, though, that many people, from the famous to the infamous and many points in-between, have said this or something similar to this.  Many people have (rightly or wrongly) found fault with Christians or The Church.  And some of those people have used that fault as a reason to not believe in God, as reason not to work through the God equation.

And that, again, is a mistake.  I’m not sure what kind of mistake it is.  I’m not sure if it is getting lost in the middle, as I first wrote about, or refusing to work the equation because of the anticipated answer, as I wrote about second (if I had to guess, I’d say it is the latter).  But I am sure it is a mistake.

It is a mistake because the question of the existence of God is a question of reality, a question of what is real.  And reality is not subjective.  Reality is not altered because you don’t like it.  Adam Savage famously said:

and yet, as he clearly knew, as is clearly implied behind his words and is indeed the basis of the humor of that statement, such a thing is impossible.  Reality can’t be substituted.  Reality is.

The question to ask, then, isn’t whether or not Christians are like Christ (not at this stage of the equation, anyway; I think all Christians should ask themselves that question, and I do everyday; but I don’t think those working the God equation should be asking it at this point).  The question to ask is one of reality.  The questions to ask, actually, are two of reality: “Does God exist?” and “Is God good?”

Oddly enough, “the Gandhi quote” (which is what I’ll call it whether or not Gandhi actually said it) implies that the answer to both those questions is, “Yes.”  He speaks about Christ as if Christ is real.  To be honest, he may be doing that for the sake of argument, the way I might talk about Luke Skywalker as if he is real even though I know he is not.  But he is still talking that way; he is still describing something which could be called reality.  Beyond that, though, he speaks about Christ as if Christ is good.  He says he likes Christ, which I can only imagine a guy like Gandhi would do if he perceived Christ as being good.  The very statement itself, then, implies a reality (or at least some reality) to God and a goodness to God.

And those implications require some sort of response.  They require some sort of personal response all by themselves, regardless of what may or may not be true of the behavior of other Christians.  That is what is at the heart of the issue here: personal response.  To be sure, the Christian faith is a group endeavor; Jesus Himself talked about a church and the necessity of a church (Matthew 16:18), so a church is going to be part of it.  But the Christian faith is simultaneously an individual endeavor; it is something the individual picks up regardless of whether or not anyone else picks it up and/or how well anyone else picks it up.

Jesus, again, stressed this at at critical point after His resurrection.  When He  reinstated Peter in John 21, He told Peter that what would be required of John was not Peter’s concern.  Peter’s concern was solely what was required of him.

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Not only so, but Paul, in teaching us how to handle “disputable matters”, made this insightful statement:

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Both Jesus and Paul agree, then, that what other people do or don’t do, how they respond to God or don’t respond to God, has no bearing on you.  Your response to God shouldn’t be dictated by how others respond to God, whether that be good, bad, or indifferent.  Your response to God can’t be dictated by how others respond to God.  It can only be dictated by the reality of God and His goodness.

Is Gandhi right?  I don’t know.  Seeing as how I know more Christians than he ever did and know them better than he ever did, I don’t think so.  As one who has spent his entire life among Christians, I agree that they can use some work but I also know they are better than most people give them credit for.  Whether or not he is right or wrong, though, doesn’t matter to the God equation, and allowing it into the God equation is a terrible mistake.