Wednesday, October 31, 2007


...that spells Bible, backwards.

Here's a quick thought about being backwards with the Bible: It seems to me that often we want the Bible to tell us about the stuff we think is important, so we mine it for word studies and instances in which that topic comes up. Instead, if we started with the Bible, we might discover (slowly, with much patience) those things the Bible thinks are important. We can go into greater and greater depth with that when we then go into word studies and the like. But it’s time to let the Bible speak for itself and respond charismatically, rather than speaking charismatically and responding biblically.

So how do we start to correct this? By ingesting the Bible in large doses. We should do it alone (individually), and in groups (corporately). Two of the recent authors I've read (Dietrich Bonhoeffer and NT Wright) both suggest that a key to a healthy church gathering is having the Bible read aloud in large portions. Wright suggests that at least three whole chapters get read, one Old Testament, one New Testament, and one Psalm.

As a pastor, I find the suggestion, well, convicting. How many churches do this? Perhaps in more liturgical settings it is much more common. But in the non-liturgical settings, it is time, with all the other voices we listen to, to let God speak through the one place we can always be sure it's HIM speaking, and allow our agenda to be shaped accordingly.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

A Diversion for Prothero

I need to diverge from the Israel blog series for a couple reasons. One, it is taking me so long to get back to writing about each day that I am suppressing other important thoughts and messages, and two, I am in the midst of an important thought and message, which is the content of this blog. I have every intention of returning to the Israel blog in at least two more insertions, both having to do with my experience in Jerusalem and having been very formative for me ever since, but those will have to wait.

This evening, I attended a lecture by a newly-renowned professor named Stephen Prothero. He is the chair of the Religious Studies department at Boston University, and has written several books that look very intriguing to me, the most intriguing being American Jesus. That book explores the various persona Americans have fit Jesus into. Nonetheless, it was not the topic of his lecture, nor is it the topic of this blog.

The topic of his lecture was his newest book, which I purchased about an hour before the lecture and thumbed through in hopes of getting a feel for his thought before I attended (at this time I feel I did so rather successfully, but I will read the book in full soon), entitled Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—and Doesn’t. In it, he makes a rather astute observation: Americans are at once very religious (a vast majority claim to believe in God), and yet at the same time very religiously illiterate, both about the religions we claim to be connected to and the other major religions of the world. This, he argues, is a big problem, especially when the most important issues of our day (abortion, stem-cell research, poverty, gay-marriage, etc.) are being discussed by the decision makers in ways peppered with religious—particularly Christian—language. To be fair, he never said this is a problem in and of itself, just that it is commonplace.

Of course, the problem with the two realities (that is, thoroughgoing religious illiteracy and regular usage of "religious rhetoric") is that if they are both true, then hardly anyone has any idea how to engage the arguments that are being made—including the politicians making them. Beyond that, Prothero pointed out that the vast majority of the world operates in religiously charged manners, and religious motivations are far more prevalent than we realize (such as the underlying conflict between Sunnis and Shiites that seemed to "appear" after we established a strong military presence in Iraq).

His premise thus far is a healthy one, in my estimation: religious illiteracy is a problem. That goes for me and my fellow evangelicals as much as it does for the religiously post-modernist in your nearest coffee bar. But his methodology—that is, his way of approaching the problem—is fundamentally flawed. You see, Dr. Prothero claims a very distinct difference between theologians and religious scholars. One, he claims, practices and espouses a certain religion, while trying to understand it—it is more of a direct connection to God. The other simply studies the people of various religions, examining what they believe.

This seems basically okay, until we begin to draw the implications of it out. What Prothero has done is follow the humanistic line that has been unconsciously drawn across all of Western culture: we have decided that we are able, somehow, to categorize the sacred and the secular apart from one another. In other words, we have drawn a line between "religion" and "public life." Regularly throughout the lecture, he differentiated between what might be "religious" concerns and his own, seemingly more noble and even-minded "civic" concerns. From his standpoint, those Politicians who spout biblical analogies to support their agenda are simply using religious rhetoric to court the masses. While this certainly happens on a large scale on both the "left" and the "right" of the political spectrum, it is going too far to assume that religion is only being used as a tool.

In short, Prothero does not have a category for dealing with a reality behind every religious discussion: the category of truth. In fact, every major world religion is a description of reality—the whole scope of reality (this is called a "worldview"). So anyone who faithfully understands his or her religion is committing a crime against it when attempting to separate out some ethical or political issue from that realm of belief. Morals, virtues, ethics, our sense of Justice and character—these all come from somewhere (or, more accurately, from someOne). The line cannot exist if one of these worldviews is true.

It seems, however, that Prothero is willing to eat his own dogfood. In his introduction to both the lecture and his book, he tells the story of a colleague from Europe who noticed a stark difference between American and European students. American students are very religious—many of them faithfully attend church, and yet are radically religiously illiterate. European students are just the opposite—they are very religiously literate, but the vast majority would never consider stepping foot in a religious institution, especially a Christian church. That sparked the book Prothero wrote, and in it he presents a plan to help raise religious literacy.

I couldn’t resist, during question-and-answer time, to ask him if he thought his proposed solution, if applied on a broad scale, would lead to an irreligious people who are knowledgeable about religions, just like European students. He first spoke about how he usually avoids this question, but since he had consumed a few glasses of wine before the lecture, he was willing to answer it tonight: the short answer is… yes. His primary reason for that is the widespread reality, which I regrettably admit, of anti-intellectualism amongst the Evangelical majority. The way the faith is presented in many circles discourages thinking, never once stopping to recognize that Jesus called us to love the Lord our God with all our mind, too.

His answer is both a critique of his premise (the supposed divide between the religious realm and the secular realm) and a critique of the church. If God did create this world, then the most fundamental realities within it will ultimately reflect his glory. Why are we not willing to sharpen our minds, engage our culture, and show them the God who creates and redeems, who is Lord of the universe? To quote the professor whose passions helped sow the thoughts behind this blog, Douglas Groothuis (see "The Constructive Curmudgeon," a link on the right): "Anti-intellectualism is a cruel pox on the face of evangelicalism. It must be removed through teaching, preaching, writing, and living in a way that the truth is rationally and passionately presented." Amen. It’s time to attend more lectures like these with courage, humility, and confidence in the truth. If the Holy Spirit promises to give us the words we need before the world (see Matthew 10:19-20), why are we afraid to go before the judges?

[If you've read through this and find yourself totally lost, wondering what on earth I'm trying to say, I heartily recommend two books that say it much more clearly than I do. The first is called The God Who is There by Francis Schaeffer. This is a must read, in my opinion. The second is by a student of Schaeffer's and is an excellent read, as well. It is called Total Truth by Nancy Pearcey. These works show thoroughly how the "line" between "religious" and "secular" has been drawn, and how it colors the world we are taught to see. Read them thoughtfully: no matter what you do, they will impact your life for the better.]

The Israel Experience, Part 4: A baptist and a scholar?

After two nights on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, which sits at nearly 600 feet below Sea-Level, our tour turned southward. We would follow the flow of the Jordan River, which travels from north to south, out of the very low Sea of Galilee and into the lowest land on the planet: the Dead Sea. The day’s journey is slated to end in another Israeli resort on that southern sea’s shores.

It is the Jordan River that the Israelites crossed to enter the Promised Land I now tour. It was in the Jordan River that John the Baptist stood as he called Israelites to repent and turn back to God’s ways of justice, love, mercy, and peace. It was John to whom Jesus came to officially start his ministry.

Baptism, I learned, is a Jewish ritual at heart. To purify themselves, the Jews would walk into a pool of water (they constructed these regularly, if you see one you can act smart: it’s called a mikvah), fully submerge themselves in it, and arise with the sin symbolically washed from their bodies. John (and others like him) took this ritual into the slow moving waters of the Jordan. Because Jesus did it to start his ministry, many Christians now count baptism in the Jordan as a key part of the pilgrimage back to this holy land.

I, on the other hand, was baptized in the exotic Cherry Knolls swimming pool in 2002. That water had the exact same effect as the water flowing through the Jordan, and God made that clear to me before I arrived. The work of Christ had been accomplished in me. With that in one hand and my "profession" as a Pastor in the other, I found myself in a very honored position at the Jordan: I baptized three people! For me, this felt a key part of my own pilgrimage. In some of the holiest moments of my life, God has called me to serve as a mediator, a priest, so others can enter his presence. The role is a priceless gift.

So there I stood with two other pastors and a willing traveler, and we took turns submerging people in the authority of the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. It was a holy moment indeed. All the while, little fish swam around my feet, periodically nibbling on my skin. It didn’t hurt, and no one there knew it. But I am now aware of a new capability I have to submerge (hmmm, that’s what the word "baptism" means) my own panic… I think I prefer swimming pools, for next time.

We journeyed on. The land outside the bus went from green to brown to the yellow-brown of desert sand. The rolling hills of Galilee became sharp mountains. The air grew hotter. Our bus took a turn up a steep hill, and we pulled into a parking lot at the base of a site called Qumran. From the edge of the hills, we could see the bright blue, green, and white of the Dead Sea. With our backs to it, the well preserved ruins of the Essenes, a Jewish sect full of devoted scribes who—out of devotion to God—separated from society to await the messiah. When their caves were discovered in 1947, scholars came upon what we now can recognize as the miraculous provision of God: the manuscripts of the Old Testament match those found all over the Middle East and North Africa to the 99th percentile. In other words, they presented the best proof we have that the scriptures are genuine, not made up for political gain.

Mickey lamented that most people dislike the visit to Qumran. It is hot. It isn’t in the Bible. But it shows the devotion of the Jewish people and the hand of God to preserve his scriptures: it must not be poo-pooed! If I was ever glad to be something of a "scholar" on this trip, it was here. I found myself thanking God for the many excellent OT professors I’ve had: Drs. Nelson, Longman, and Hess especially. In the picture, I'm standing across a canyon from "Cave 4," where hundreds of fragments were found, especially a huge scroll with most of Isaiah written on it.

Late that night, hot and sticky from the many desert sites we walked around, we pulled into a luxury resort that overlooked the Dead Sea. This body of water has in it 10 times the salt concentration of the major oceans. Therefore, nothing can live in it. Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Revelation (to name a few) speak of the days of culmination, when the Messiah will return (that is when Jesus will return) and a spring will burst forth from the Temple in Jerusalem and flow into the Dead Sea, turning it to fresh water. What is now dead will begin to teem with life.

Until then, swimming in the Dead Sea is one of the strangest physical experiences imaginable: the salt is so concentrated that the water is more condensed than human flesh. In other words, when I leaned back in the hot water (at 11pm), I floated. So did everyone else. For the first time since 4am on the first day, I felt like I really was on another planet.

Fantasy becomes reality: while I floated, a tiny drop lept happily from the calm surface of the water into my eye, and I was back to earth. Just try it: pour an entire salt-shaker into a glass of warm water, mix it up, and drop a tiny bit in your eye. OR, don’t, and just take my word for it: O MY DEAR MERCY, DOES THAT EVER HURT. So much for submerging my panic. And thank God for people with foresight, who installed fresh-water showers right there on the beach, so visitors don’t go blind. Cue another realization that I’m traveling alone: no one to laugh at me, no one to help. Just a wet, salty American stumbling quickly with one eye tightly shut across a rocky beach in the dark. How nice.