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”).

Franklin Graham Does Not Understand Holiness

Franklin Graham and his holiness fail.
Image of Franklin Graham from The Christian Post.

In a recent speech, Franklin Graham demanded that pastors in his audience speak out boldly on several moral issues, lest they fall under God’s wrath for being cowards. He said:

“The definition of a coward: a coward will not confront an issue that needs to be confronted due to fear. That is a coward,” said Graham.

“God hates cowards. And the cowards that the Lord is referring to are the men and women who know the truth but refuse to speak it.”

Graham essentially used the fear of God to prompt his audience to overcome their fears of speaking out.

There are many different aspects of Graham’s talk we could challenge, but I’d like to call into question the role of a wrathful God who hates people in prompting people to change their behavior, such as speaking out on specific moral issues. Graham’s right wing agenda aside, is God really in heaven with his finger on the “hell” button, waiting for us to screw up? I know that I’ve lived this way, fearing that one day’s failure had finally cut me off from God.

Most importantly, how does this approach to God’s wrath and holiness compare to the message of Jesus and the New Testament writers about holiness?

A misconception of holiness is at the heart of Graham’s statement. According to Graham, God demands a particular lifestyle, one of moral crusading in American culture, and those unwilling to conform to God’s program receive God’s hatred and an eternity of suffering.

I’ve stated that crassly, but I believe it’s accurate because I also thought that way for most of my life. It’s pretty much what you’ll hear today if you listen to most Christian radio shows.

The only way to avoid God’s wrath in Graham’s system is to change your actions out of fear for self-preservation.

Did Jesus relate to people through fear and the threat of his hatred?

 

How Did Jesus Interact with Sinners?

Jesus said he didn’t come to judge the world. Isn’t that nice to know? Perhaps he knew that his followers would do enough of that in the future.

In fact, Jesus adopted the role of doctor, comparing the “notorious sinners” of his day with the sick. They were still told to leave their lives of sin, but he didn’t walk around telling people to clean up their acts or God would hate them.

In fact, Jesus sat down to share meals with tax collectors and women with unsavory reputations. When Jesus saw someone living in sin, whether that was cowardice, sexual immorality, cheating, or violence, he had… wait for it… compassion.

Rather than Jesus pounding his fist on the table and shouting that his followers needed to shape up, he slapped his palm to his head when they failed to understand the gift of the Spirit that would empower them to serve others rather than rule as kings.

Far from sitting with his finger on the hell button, Jesus rolled up his sleeves and entered into real life with people. He humbled himself, even taking the form of a servant to help us find the way of redemption.

He called his disciples “friends” rather than threatening them with an eternity of suffering.

Before facing the cross, he promised that the Spirit would come to empower us, fill us wisdom, and guide us into all truth. Yes, there are consequences for rejecting the message of Christ. But he related to others through mercy and grace, imparting his Spirit to imperfect people who desperately needed God’s presence in order to pursue holiness.

 

How Do We Live Holy Lives?

Whatever you’re trying to do for the sake of Christ, the most important lesson from the Gospels and epistles is the centrality of the Holy Spirit. You won’t last long by simply trying harder.

Living in fear of an angry God will grow old.

When fear of God gives way to loving God as a father, holiness becomes a natural response.

Graham wants the pastors in his audience to fear God, and he’s hoping that this fear of God will trickle down into their congregations. He wants them to try harder as culture warriors in order to win God’s favor.

Sadly, Graham has adopted a kind of works-based righteousness for the sake of a political agenda.

Graham doesn’t realize that God’s favor already belongs to us. All who are thirsty are called to come and drink. God so loved the world after all…

Before the cross, God had an intense, undying love for us.

In the epistle to the Romans, Paul had God’s mercy rather than his wrath in mind. He also called his readers to be renewed in their minds rather than trying harder:

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”  (Romans 12:1-2, NIV via BibleGateway)

I rarely call out specific Christians in my writing, but Franklin Graham’s approach to holiness is contrary to the message of Jesus. It grieves me to think that pastors who look up to him are receiving a message that fails to consider the mercy of God, the healing Jesus brings, and the power we receive from the Spirit to live in holiness.

Paul wrote that the Spirit of God does not give us a spirit of fear (2 Timothy 1:7, BibleGateway). We have been adopted as God’s sons and daughters. God demands holiness. It’s not a free for all, but God’s ways under the Spirit are not rooted in fear and wrath.

God relates to us as a caring and compassionate parent who desires to restore us—end of story.

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.