When Debating the Bible Isn’t Fair for Anyone

Bible debate fight

I’m no longer in the reformed theology camp. That isn’t a shock to anyone who knows me. I left it after being immersed in reformed theology in seminary.

Nevertheless, I would lose every debate to a reformed theologian.

But then every reformed theologian would lose a debate with me.

Here’s the thing: We’re both playing by different rules, and until we can admit that, we’re going to keep talking past each other.

We most certainly begin with different experiences. There’s no escaping the stories that send us speeding off in different directions. Sometimes we crash into each other, able to only see the present, and fighting tooth and nail against what is before us instead of all that has preceded it.

However, the main difference is that I play by different rules when I read and interpret the Bible compared to five or ten years ago. I could handle ambiguity and mystery, but now I’ve realized that comfort with uncertainty isn’t enough.

I needed to understand the role of creatively listening to the ways God speaks through scripture without necessarily looking for scripture to spell everything out.

That is not a very evangelical sentence. It most certainly doesn’t fit with many of the conservative reformed traditions I know.

I use the metaphors of blueprints and paintings in A Christian Survival Guide to describe these two ways of reading the Bible.  Here’s the full explanation:

“Sometimes I’ve used the Bible as if it was a blueprint that spelled out the precise way to live as a Christian. I expected everyone to believe and practice everything just like me. I’m sure you’ve attended churches where you feel tremendous pressure to conform in all areas. I once met a pastor whose church was considering firing him because he didn’t believe in the rapture. Other churches put pressure on families to conform to their specific biblical guidelines. I’ve had my own narrow theological guidelines that I’ve used to neatly divide my friends into insiders and outsiders.

Is the Bible supposed to do that? Does it give us specific guidelines to follow in any and every situation?

I have since found that the Bible functions more like a work of art.

We all know that paintings, poems, or stories have a range of meaning and can be interpreted in several ways within that range. As new generations view a painting or read a book, they can appreciate what it meant to the original author, what it meant to previous generations, and what it means to them in the present.

A painting can accurately portray an actual event. A poem can communicate a truth. Then again, there is a significant difference between a portrait that aims to capture a precise image of a person and an impressionist painting of a wheat field on a warm summer day where the wind gently courses through the heads of grain. In art and poetry, truths aren’t always dropped on us in plain, bold letters. We have to talk about them with others and think about them, returning to them over time to ponder the meaning further.”

There’s no doubt that sometimes a plain, word for word, literal reading of the Bible leads to a direct, unavoidable conclusion. I think we all try to read the Bible like this sometimes.

A conservative may argue that Jesus is fully divine and human because he stated, “I and the father are one,” adding that he was born of a virgin by the power of the Holy Spirit.

A liberal/progressive may say, “Christians should not support war because Jesus commanded us to love our enemies.”

Both adopt simple, literal reading of passages. Neither strikes me as a stretch, and both represent New Testament teachings that are worth affirming.

However, there are ways some conservatives explain away Christian opposition to war. There are ways some liberals explain away the divinity of Christ.

You would think that a clear, easily applied blueprint would lead all honest inquirers to the truth. It’s no surprise that followers of Jesus are fragmented and divided over how to read and interpret the Bible, but if we want understand why we are fragmented so much, we need to look at our starting assumptions about the Bible.

We all believe that the Bible is telling us how to do something, but we aren’t agreed on what that something is. If we view the Bible as more of a painting than a blueprint, then we have a place to begin:

The first and really only “how to” the Bible offers is this: “How to meet with God.” Scripture is a series of paintings that show how people have met with God and points us toward ways we can interact with God—through the mediation of the risen Christ and the Holy Spirit. However, we aren’t necessarily supposed to duplicate the details of these paintings precisely.

Just as a Picasso would feel out of place with medieval iconography, so too would a series of realist landscapes raise eyebrows in a museum filled with Jackson Pollock paintings and other modern works that defy a predetermined form.

The interpretive work of the Bible is a creative process where the Holy Spirit meets us in the pages of scripture and guides us closer to the presence and, consequently, will of God.

My more reformed friends begin at a different place, arguing that the Bible is God’s revelation for us that tells us how to live—that’s at least what I was told while immersed in conservative reformed theology. If you want to know how to conduct yourself, structure your church, or set up your family, look no further than the words of scripture for your inspired guide.

We’re both starting with different questions and assumptions about what the Bible is and how it guides us. When we discuss these differences, we could sell each other short if we make the mistake of assuming we’re both starting with the same assumptions and expectations about the Bible.

There are pejorative statements like, “Progressives have a ‘low’ view of scripture.” But then it’s really just a different view of scripture.

As my view of scripture has shifted from a blueprint to a painting, I’ve found that I take the Bible far more seriously now than ever before.  I believe that the Bible is a tool of the Spirit for ushering God’s people into his presence. I believe that the Bible is a guide for living, but it’s not necessarily a word for word blueprint for all people at all times.

There are times when we may interpret the Bible in a more straightforward, blueprint sort of way, but that doesn’t negate the fact that oftentimes we can’t simply drop the stories of another people at another time in history directly into today’s context.

If anything, the Bible shows us a God who is always reaching out to all kinds of people, using actions, symbols, and customs that are familiar to them.

Need a temple with sacrifices?  You got it.

Need to switch things up for the exile? No worries.

Want to obey the Law perfectly? Stop worrying about obeying the Law perfectly and just love people, showing mercy and compassion—even if that requires breaking the Law.

Ready for me to welcome all nations? Let’s drop mandatory circumcision and those rules about animals sacrificed to idols.

The Bible does not reveal a God of blueprints.

If there’s any blueprint for how God acts, it’s that God rips up blueprints, sets a table before us, and says, “Hey, let’s talk.”

Pick up A Christian Survival Guide to read more about how and why we read the Bible (see the chapter “The Bible: A Source of Crisis and Hope”) as well as how we interpret the Bible today (see the chapter “The Bible and Culture: Less Lobster, More Bonnets”).

Is Doing What You Love Just a Trap to Work More?

The job you love is a trap?If working long hours for the rest of your life is inevitable, why not work long hours doing what you love?

I’m curious if that statement is behind much of our thinking about work and “doing what you love” today.

In American society, it’s expected that we’ll work long hours, take few vacations, and fill our limited leisure time with a good dose of television and family activities. There really isn’t too much free time left if you’re playing to win.

So those who “play to win” have developed a strategy in order to avoid going insane like those guys in Office Space. The play to win experts have herded us hard-working Americans to the promised land of “doing what you love.” It’s become a cottage industry of sorts with learning communities, conferences, books, blogs, and podcasts.

The key to doing what you love is actually working MORE at first to develop that side business. You have to work two jobs and then, as the job “you love” gets more profitable, you can ditch the job you hate and just do what you love.

It’s hard, but it has to be more fulfilling, right?

But here’s the thing, this solution doesn’t necessarily solve our problems. We have this huge carrot in front of us promising that we’ll be happy if we could just spend our many, many working hours doing the thing we love. What if happiness is found in working less or finding fulfillment outside our jobs?

What if “doing what you love” just confirms work and business success have become an idol?

And even if you end up doing what you love, you may end up hating it if you have to do it all day, every day. In fact, you may discover that you really hate certain parts of it, and that could make you even more miserable because you thought you loved this thing. Now the thing you love has become tainted and you just feel trapped.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t do the things that we love. Heck, if you can find a job that jives with you, dive in.

I’m more concerned that we are “treating” our discontent with the wrong medicine. What if we’re miserable at work because we’re investing too much of our time and energy into it?

What if most of us just need to let our jobs be our jobs and find a way to make them sustainable? And even if we do strive to create a job we love, that doesn’t give us carte blanche to revolve our lives around it.

I’m wondering this week if it’s better to ask, “What can I do?” and “How can I best honor God and my family by making that a piece of who I am?”

I’ve never really bought into the “do what you love” mantra because I’ve honestly spent most of my time searching for the areas where I’m at least competent. Never mind whether or not I “love” my work. I’ve just been trying to find work that I can do. Being an aimless failure has its advantages… maybe?

I started writing because I loved it, but the writing work I do to bring in money is based far more on necessity than love. And I’m perfectly OK with that. I wouldn’t complain if my books suddenly took off and I could write them full time. However, even in book publishing, my career of choice, there are some really unsavory parts.

Even the jobs we love have things we hate.

Sometimes we can’t be picky. I’ve had really bad jobs and really great jobs. The freelance writing I do now is the kind of job that A. I can do and B. Fits our vision for our family. I do writing that I love, and I do writing that I don’t love. The former does very little to pay the bills, and the latter does just enough to make ends meet.

I struggle to balance the call to seek God’s Kingdom first and the necessity of making money. While it’s possible that I could serve God “better” by writing inspiring and instructive books all day, it’s not impossible to serve God while writing clear website copy.

My goal isn’t necessarily to find the job I want because I can serve myself or serve God whether or not I love my work.

Loving a job can be a great thing, but it can also be the quickest path to despair and misery when our job fails to deliver what we need the most.

If You Like to Get Hammered, Maybe Parenting Won’t Be Fun

IBeer Glass had a cross-cultural experience of sorts a few weeks ago during a theology conference. We had about 45 minutes to kill, so I suggested we walk over to my favorite brew pub that happened to be right across the street from the convention center hosting our conference.

The brewpub was wall to wall people, so we slipped a few doors down to a legit, gritty bar.

I think I’ve been to a legit, gritty bar once before. Maybe. Unlike the brew pub where folks order a flavorful, fresh beer on tap and enjoy it over a rich appetizer, many of the gritty bar folks hauled fists full of Bud Lights in wave after wave. I have no idea how many people walked past our table with 3 Bud Lights in each hand.

I’m sure people drank other things at the gritty bar. I’m sure some of the Bud Light drinkers even branched out. Perhaps they tossed in a Coors Light too.

Whatever they added to their epic beer consumption, I soon caught on to the goal. This was not about “enjoying” the beer. The beer was a mood enhancer, a mechanism for partying. You didn’t need the beer to taste good. You just needed to get drunk enough to lose your inhibitions without vomiting or passing out.

I presume bar fights sometimes enter into the picture as well.

This was a fun night out for many folks.

Needless to say, I couldn’t relate. Call me a killjoy if you must, but I’d rather think of my own jokes rather than relying on the booze to do the heavy lifting.

Later that evening I walked out of our final plenary session for the conference, longing for the quiet of my bedroom, snuggled up next to my wife. However, many people in downtown Columbus were just starting their evening. Some may have still been at the bar.

If I pulled over and told the people waiting in line at the night club about my ideal evening that involves reading a book on the couch next to my wife, many of them would probably give me a thumbs down or sneer, shouting, “Boring!”

I didn’t think for one moment that I was missing out. Booze and booming music? No thanks!

That brings me to parenting and “fun.” There’s a book out about parenting called All Joy and No Fun that addresses the demands and limitations of parenting.

I haven’t read it yet, but I’ve read articles about it and have heard some lengthy interviews about it. I have participated in conversations about how parenting changes your life and the limitations it places on you.

I’m not an expert by any means. We only have one kid with another on the way this July. So perhaps take what I’m about to say with a grain of salt.

However, I think the all joy to “no fun” ratio for parenting will be REALLY different for everyone. It’s really tough to come up with a hard and fast rule about what kinds of joy and fun you’ll have as a parent because we all have different needs and expectations about what is “fun.” In addition, our conceptions of fun may change when kids are in the picture.

On the one hand, my wife and I relish a quiet evening at home. Having a kid asleep upstairs isn’t a major burden. We’re not fans of the times that he wakes up screaming, but for the most part, we’re not missing bars, clubbing late at night, or cruising the city after midnight because that wasn’t our lifestyle to begin with.

It would be nice to go out more often for artisan NY style pizza, but for the most part, having a kid hasn’t been the kill joy that it may be for those who want to party all night—Whether that’s clubbing, lengthy bar outings filled with cheap beer, or leisurely sipping a Saison at a brew pub.

There’s no doubt that one must reign in the bar hopping and beer guzzling in order to be a responsible parent. You need to be present. And if you hire a baby sitter, you can’t ask the baby sitter to come scrape you off the pavement outside the bar after last call.

Look, parenting is tough. You will be super sleep deprived for the first 6 months, if not longer.

You will have your patience tested by toddlers who would rather die than put on shoes.

You will be pooped on, peed on, and spat up upon over, and over, and over.

You will repeatedly ask, “What’s THAT smell?”

It’s not convenient. It’s almost always messy. We all have to make sacrifices. We all face limitations because of kids. Life changes.

And yes, there are many joyful, wonderful moments.

I watched my son take his first steps. We play together with his stuffed animals each day, and he’s kicking his imagination into high gear. Peter Rabbit has attempted to eat just about every object in our living room at this point.

My son loves digging in the dirt of our garden, and he can haul his wagon down the sidewalk on his own. He can wiggle to music, and there’s nothing better than sweeping the floor with his very own broom.

There are daily interruptions and tests of my patience. There are incredible joys and accomplishments. Every parent knows that. Every expectant parent can at least imagine that as well.

However, when it comes to the all joy/no fun balance, remember that every person has different needs.

The extroverted mother will hate being stuck inside all winter with her kids. The introverted dad will wince at the thought of going to story time with ALL THOSE PEOPLE.

The beer-guzzling champion who wants to settle down will have to give up on a particular version of “fun,” while the quiet bookworms will eventually figure out time to read and drink tea as is their habit, but they’ll never have enough time to read all of the books.

All parents need to make sacrifices for the sakes of their children, but those sacrifices will be different for each of us.

Some will sacrifice more fun than others. Some will find more joy in the daily ins and outs of parenting than others.

In my own case, I’ve found different fun and different joy in being a parent compared to when we were childless. It’s not like the fun stopped with kids or the joy only reached epic levels when we brought our son home from the hospital.

Yes, we don’t hang out with friends as often as we used to. Yes, our lives look quite different than before parenthood. There are times when the all joy/no fun mantra feels accurate.

At the same time, our son has redefined joy and fun for us. However, I can say without judgment that other parents have found that transition to be far more difficult.

I spent most of my adult life fearing parenthood. Seriously. Straight up anxiety attacks and all. Now, I can’t imagine a greater joy than parenting alongside my wife. Our family is evolving and changing, and for the most part, it’s changing for the better, even if we had something pretty awesome to begin with.

My wife is my favorite person in the world, and having a child together has added more than it has subtracted.

It would be presumptuous to suggest that every family’s transition to children will be the epic win we’ve experienced. It’s going to be different for everyone, even if I can guarantee that effectively parenting will most certainly require passing on the gritty bars where people walk around with three Coors Lights in each hand.

Then again, I can’t imagine getting much joy or fun from slamming back six Coors Lights in a gritty bar to begin with, so what do I know?