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Talking About God

God is a concept. This is not to say that God isn't real, doesn't possess genuine being, isn't sentient, etc. It's just to say that apart from what God chooses to specifically reveal to us about Godself, we are left to invest the concept of God with whatever meanings we choose. Now, I tend to believe that God revealed herself in the person of Jesus. Still, the best record we have of that event is indirect revelation. What we are left with is a Bible full of metaphorical language about God.

Like Barth, I believe the metaphors are part of revelation. I believe that they contain some "truth" about God. But metaphors are limited because our understanding is limited.  The best language we have doesn't quite work. So the Bible has language like born again, father, spirit, soul, etc. Janet informed me that I needed to be born again. Gee, thanks, I think. That's helpful. Now I'll get busy getting born again. How do you do that exactly?

Like Adam, I'm growing less comfortable with God-talk. Until people grasp the idea that God is a concept, I'm not comfortable talking to them about God. They're going to think I'm a heretic. The tsunami post generated some good conversation about this. Is God good? How do we conceive good? How do we think of God? Is God all-powerful? I don't think so anymore. Does God know everything? I don't think so anymore? Is there a trinity? I think I believe in some sort of threeness grammar, but Trinity with a capital "T"? I don't know anymore. Our best attempts to understand the concept of God run into the metaphor problem. We still talk about Trinity as three persons. That language was an attempt to understand God. It's not like there are three persons named John, Joe, and Sam up there playing the role of God. So, how much can we know?

For Janet...

...who said I'm an idiot and I must be born again.

Ye Must Be Born Again

Ye must be born again

Amidst the carnies and fundies

Who inhabit the three-ring, suburban

Exercise in Anglo ascendancy

And Republican politics

Born all right the first time

In a wash of blood and water,

A baptism of light and noise—

A singular transition

From the old world to the new

Ye must be born again

At the end of the aisle

Amidst sweat and tears

Cheap perfume and syllogisms

Brought from death to life

Born again to a living hope—

That all of this will make sense

That up is down and wrong is right.

That politics is liturgy

And conservatism righteousness

What to Do?

Talking to a Calvinist acquaintance today. Mentioned the sixty thousand (and counting) deaths in Sri Lanka, India, Indonesia, etc. For the record, I didn't provoke the conversation; he did.

I asked: "What does a Calvinist do in the face of this situation? I mean, did God ordain this?"

"Yes," he answered. "But I don't believe that because I'm perverse. I believe it because I think that's obscenely Biblical."

"God ordained the death of sixty thousand people?"

"Yes. And He still maintains his infinite goodness."

May I say that this is the kind of religious thinking that is driving me toward atheism? Let's set aside the issue of natural evil as un-synthesizable in a theodic framework for now. Just parse that last statement. From the Calvinist perspective, God ordained this tsunami; He must, as He is absolutely sovereign. (I'm using He because my acquaintance did.) This guy would have me believe that epistemology and ethics are so slippery that God can simultaneously kill sixty thousand people and maintain an ontological standing called good. I find that an impossible reach.

As for natural evil, it's an issue I'm still struggling with. Why do these things happen? Before you post a comment about "the Fall" with capital letters and all, please know that I don't believe in a primordial fall from perfection. A Fall does not explain natural evil any more than original sin explains our guilt before God. Sorry. I believe in the goodness of God, so I try to let God off the hook for situations like the one in Asia, but how? How is God not culpable?

Hell, Hell is for Handbells

I mentioned in passing in a recent comment that I had to sit through a couple handbell solos to hear a message at church. Technically speaking, it was a complaint. Much to my surprise, Eddie, my rock star friend, has confessed that he likes handbells. Here's the indefensible position to many church people: handbells should be disposed of immediately.

I'm all for music in church. I like piano, guitar, organ, drums, bass, you name it. I can even sit through a choral piece or "pomo" worship. Passion songs don't annoy me. I can tolerate HillSongs, Vineyard, and even a little Maranatha. I don't mind husband and wife duets, father and daughter, or even the whole damn family, so long as it isn't John Hagee's crew. I'm attempting to convince you that I have a great deal of equanimity in church where music is concerned. Very little gets me upset. I even appreciate a little Gaither Homecoming music (it reminds me of my Granny).

Handbells, however, are where I draw the line. I think people who can preach ought to preach. I think people who can sing ought to sing. I think people who can play an instrument ought to play. Everyone contributes according to their gifting. Seems like a good idea. Handbells? You'll never convince me it takes more than a crash course in hand-eye coordination and rudimentary music reading to participate. I was even in a service one day where the music pastor invited the congregation to join the "Ding-a-lings" (I'm not making this up.) even if they have no experience. Hmm.

If you have no musical ability, sing in your pew. That's not a lot to ask, is it? I understand the sentiment of getting everyone involved. Really. But we don't give someone a sermon outline we found online and invite them to preach. (Some pastors may do it themselves, but they wouldn't invite joe pewsitter to do it.) We don't ask a novice to join our quartet and ask them to sing their part. Why do we allow people who just want to get in on the act to play handbells in church? Seriously. It's the musical equivalent of a Chipmunks CD. I am convinced that there will be handbells in hell.

Talking About Jesus

I finally received approval to do a story I've been planning for some time. The editor at the Oklahoma Gazette has given me the go-ahead for a story about conservative talk radio in OKC. Specifically, I'll be looking at the way these men (and they're all men) talk about politics, culture, and religion. The ones I'm interviewing and profiling all claim to be Christians, and most attend large evangelical churches. For a while I thought they were helping to shape the way conservatives view faith. But a few years of listening to talk radio has convinced me that they are only reflecting the faith as they've heard it in church and small groups. They don't know enough about the Bible or theology to have developed complex views on the way Christianity and cultures intersect. They are repeating simple formulas and conservative assumptions that are more grounded in politics and the pursuit of happiness than in a commitment to the cruciform life. The people who listen to them are essentially looking for someone to affirm the worldview they already embrace. The trick will be telling this story without my prejudices showing vividly.

Merry Christmas

Thanks to all of you who read. It's been a painful year in many ways, and a wonderful year in others. Have a wonderful Christmas.

We went to church tonight. It was beautiful. I'll leave you with the pastor's main point. He was talking about Christian fears of encroaching secularism. "I'm not worried about a secular organization taking a creche off public property. I'm worried about folk like us--Christians--who fail to show the nativity of Christ in our lives. As long as people act like Christians, there will be plenty of nativities walking around in towns all over America." Good thoughts. Blessings. Grace and peace to all of you.

Don't Make Baby Jesus Cry!

We're going to Christmas Eve service tomorrow night. I still can't figure out what compels me to show up in those so-called churches, but I'm drawn like a hooker to the john (it seemed less cliched than the old moth/flame metaphor). I love singing Christmas songs. I love candles. I love the feeling of togetherness around this time of year--this despite the fact that everyone will promptly begin ignoring poverty and injustice again on December 26.

Anyway, we're going. The story is compelling. Not the whole baby born to die story. The story of the mother who gives birth in hope. Of the growing child who listens for the voice of God in hope. Of the nation that wonders in hope and doubt. Of the disciples that follow in hope. And the shattering of those hopes, and their resurrection a few days later. So much emotion hidden in such a sparse story, and it all begins on a warm spring night.

I keep going back in hope. Hope is a virtue, I'm convinced. These days, as I grasp for it to keep from going under for the third time, I'm more aware of the tenacity required to maintain hope. In the face of more reasons than I can count to stop going, we continue to attend. We're hopeful. Christmas is a good time for that. And we get to sing cool songs. My favorite this year, strangely enough, is "Hark the Herald Angels Sing." Maybe it's the Wesley thing. Maybe it's how creedal the song is. I don't know. It gives me hope.

Al Mohler: Theologian (hee, hee)

I haven't picked on Baptist Press or Big Al Mohler in a while so...

Lee Strobel who wrote the silly book Why Jesus Can't Case for Christ...yeah, that's it. Anyway, he hosted a debate between two of my favorite nincompoops (is that spelled right?): John Shelby Spong and Al Mohler. The debate was on the PAX network, so it probably drew a whopping 1/4 share in the ratings, which means Spong's wife and Mohler's mom watched the thing.

The two titans of new millenium theology faced off on the difficult questions of inerrancy, miracles, and atonement. Here are some of my favorite excerpts:

“The whole question of why Jesus died and the meaning of Christ’s cross and of His resurrection … is the very core of the faith,” Mohler said. “…Christ died in our place as the Savior who died a substitutionary death, paying the price for our sins. That’s not something that has been held by some Christians in some places. That is the heart of Christianity as held by all.”

Gee, Al, I don't know how to tell you this, but substitutionary atonement is not the heart of Christianity. I'm pretty sure it's the resurrection. And it hasn't been held by all. It was barely a squeak in the theological conversation for the the first millenium of the church. Christus Victor and Ransom theory dominated. The ascendancy of substitutionary thought in the church has been in the past few hundred years. And that ascendancy is only in evangelical and fundamentalist circles. Were you trying to be hyperbolic, Al?

Showing Southern Baptists' general confusion when the word postmodern is introduced into a discussion, Al and Shelby said:

“I believe God is real,” Spong said. “I believe that God was manifested in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. … I don’t believe that God is a being who lives above the sky who decides to invade the earth through the miracle of the virgin birth and then escape the earth through the miracle of the cosmic ascension. I think those are very weak first-century attempts to try to make sense out of a God-experience that was profound.” Mohler said Spong’s position represents the “wholesale replacement of orthodox Christianity” and contrasted historic Christianity with the version of Christianity advocated by some postmodern thinkers.

Gee, Al. Spong's position is hyper-modernism. It's the logical trajectory of the sort of thought you embrace with all that talk of inerrancy, verifiability, absolute truth, etc. Please refer to my previous post "Stupid People May Not Use the Word Postmodern."

Ah, here's my favoritest:

“We really have a choice to make,” Mohler said. “It’s between a Christianity grounded in Scripture as confessed by the saints and the Apostles throughout the centuries [or] something new that we’re going to call Christianity. I’m going to pitch my tent with the Apostles. That’s where I’m going to find my confidence.”

Al, if you're going to pitch your tent with the apostles, you'll need to appoint some female deacons. Liar, liar, pants on fire.

Buy an H2 So Your Sissy Kid Doesn't Get His Ass Kicked! least I think that's the message of that annoying H2 commercial where the kid walks between menacing junior high kids for his first day of school. Don't worry, mom, I'll be fine. You own an H2. The kids will love me and respect me. I won't be tossing any salad the first day of school or giving my lunch money to bullies. All I have to say is, "Did you see the H2?" That should rattle 'em. That should cause the world to line up in my favor. My grades will improve. My teachers will love me. I may even bang one of my English teachers if all goes well. What's that? Male or female? I haven't decided yet, but the H2 is a good indication that I'll be a manly man. Although...hummer...hmm...I'll have to think about the implications of manly men driving vehicles called hummers. Anyway, no guarantees about the sex, but I won't be getting my ass kicked today, so don't worry about it. Go to work and earn enough money to pay for this ridiculous vehicle that says to the rest of the world: "Renewable resources, my ass! Give me fossil fuels! We've got big vehicles and a big army!" Seriously, don't worry; you've done your part for my developing psyche. You bought an H2.

I read an evaluation produced by a major SUV manufacturer about the type of people who bought their vehicles. The words that stood out: vain, insecure, driven. This commercial kind of taps in to two of those. Any other gross offenders out there? Let's play adbusters for a day or two. I'm taking a day off religion.

Some Thoughts on Faith

I've been discussing inerrancy on a couple Xanga sites. Don't ask me why anyone would subscribe to Xanga, but they do. Anyway, inerrancy is a non-issue to me, as it's so demonstrably not true. When faced with a series of questions about how one could believe in inerrancy, one of the commenters replied, "Faith." Here are my observations on faith in no particular order:

  • Faith is always God-ward, not church-ward or Bible-ward (with one caveat) or person-ward.
  • I may believe in the inspiration of Scripture (the caveat), and that's probably necessary to practice the faith, but faith in inerrancy is not part of faith in inspiration.
  • Certainty removes the necessity of faith.
  • If we can be certain of something, we don't need faith.
  • Based on an honest read of Scripture, we can say with certainty that it is not inerrant.
  • Faith does not operate in opposition to certainty; it operates in the absence of certainty, but only where faith is called for.
  • I can never be certain about the Resurrection, Trinity, deity of Christ, or the eschatological hope of the kingdom, so faith is required in those instances.
  • Faith and hope work together. Hope animates my faith in the items listed above. The world is a better place if those things are true. That is my hope, so I have faith in the testimony of Scripture, tradition, Church, and Holy Spirit.
  • Having expressed faith in the eschatological reality of the kingdom and the hope of its fulfillment, I can haver certainty about how I am living in relation to the politics of the kingdom.

Those seem to be the issues that matter right now. Did I miss anything?