The Bible Fireside Chat

Any man will tell you: when a woman utters these four words in this exact sequence, his stomach drops, his heart skips a beat, and he immediately begins mentally reviewing his sins over the past decade:

“We need to talk.”

Friends and readers of both sexes, I don’t mean to alarm you. I don’t wish to frighten you. All I want to do is have a nice fireside chat with you for a moment. But with that said,

We need to talk.

I want to begin by acknowledging it’s always dangerous to begin a blog with a second set of four words, but I’m also going to say them, too:

It seems to me . . .

It seems to me our churches don’t take the Bible very seriously.

Before you close this tab in righteous indignation, let me explain what I am not saying. I’m not saying we think it’s trivial or insignificant. I’m not saying we try to marginalize it, demythologize it, or otherwise de-value it or empty it of content. And I’m not saying we don’t (on the whole) try to reorient our lives around its message.

What I am saying is we simply don’t know what it says and that its full proclamation is sadly lacking in many churches today. By “many churches,” I mean congregations throughout the entire spectrum: Christian Church churches, United Methodist Church churches, Episcopal Church churches, Baptist Church churches, all of them. All of us. I fully realize the gravity of this charge, so let me state my case.

My first real hint of the level of biblical illiteracy rampant in our pews came during seminary. A required textbook, Barna’s Futurecast (2011), gave me these research statistics:

  • 45% of all adults believe the Bible is accurate in its principles (p. 132)
  • 63% believe David killed Goliath with a sling and stones (p. 134)
  • 60% believe Peter walked on water (p. 134)
  • 44% read their Bibles at least once per week (p. 171)

I know what you’re thinking: “That’s pretty bad, but Chris, these are issues of belief and practice, not knowledge of content.” So let’s have some more stats, this time from the 2015 edition of the American Bible Society’s annual State of the Bible report (pp. 68-70):

  • Only 74% of practicing Protestants could correctly identify Abraham’s son of promise from a list of four names
  • 35% of adults ages 18-30 believe Mary has a book of the Bible named for her (Esther was given as a possible response)
  • Only 61% of those ages 31-49 believe the Bible strongly encourages serving the poor

If you’ve ever played a round of Bible trivia with your friends (or watched the average Jeopardy! contestant fail miserably in Bible-related categories), you can come up with many more (and more personal) examples.

We simply don’t know our Bibles anymore. And it seems the younger you are, the less you know (even relatively speaking; it’s a generational thing).

Why? Perhaps because we think singing vegetables, fantastic though they may be, can teach our children everything they need to know about Scripture. We’ve exchanged worshiping together as a family in earshot of a sermon for children’s church programs requiring far more props than Bibles and featuring more games than reading. (Some programs are good; many are not.) Parents no longer disciple their children at home, the one place they should personally spiritually invest in their children the most.

And we ministers have failed far more people than just children.

How much Scripture is read during worship? Do we include a variety or just the sermon text? When you announce your text from the pulpit, can people find the book under discussion, or would they spend an awkward few minutes trying to locate Hezekiah 4? Do we choose songs which let us sing our Bibles? The psalms are songs, after all, and many hymns offer an abundance of Scripture. How are our Christian education programs doing? Are they well-attended? Do they teach the Bible first and foremost, or are they primarily topical discussions with a few prooftexts thrown in? Will someone learn biblical truths or attend for years and still think Moses built the ark and Deborah was a baker of delicious snack cakes? Bible studies are exactly that: studies of the Bible. Are you spending time studying and discussing the Bible, verse by verse if necessary, or are you having short speeches on The Controversial Topic of the Day Which Doesn’t Appear in This Chapter We Didn’t Really Read Anyway®?

Of first importance to me is the sermon. First, let’s talk content, and then we’ll discuss styles. I begin with a caveat: if you never preach about Christ and his atoning death on the cross in your sermon, all you’ve done is deliver a well-crafted lecture or inspirational speech. It is not a gospel sermon. But you can and should build everything around that core of the gospel — and that means drawing on the entire canon. Preach Titus. Do a series in Deuteronomy or Lamentations. Preach the Bible, the whole Bible, and nothing but the Bible. Yes, you should, as a pastor, constantly be reading other books and sharing those theological insights with your congregations. But the church is not a book club: if you’d rather preach Calvin supplemented by Paul instead of Paul with commentary from the Genevan on Sunday mornings, get out of the pulpit and get yourself booked on Oprah. (Although I’ve never seen her add an orthodox theology text to her book club reading list.) Preach the text — the text illuminated by other texts. Bring in John’s gospel to help teach his epistles. Use the Aaronic and levitical priesthoods in Leviticus to shed light on Christ’s role as high priest in Hebrews. Use the Bible to preach the Bible.

There are a variety of preaching styles, and any one of them can do this effectively. I’m an expository preacher, meaning my sermons delve into the passage and stay there; I try to explain — to exposit — those verses to the congregation. I do this because I believe it is the best way to preach the text of the Bible. But narrative and topical preaching have their roles, too — just keep them anchored to the text. Without wanting to disrespect the preachers who have gone before me, I admit I’m currently discovering an entire generation of preachers whose sermons are nothing more than a series of illustrations held loosely together by a select thematic verse or two. Don’t do that. If you preach only extra-biblical stories and anecdotes, then your congregation will learn only extra-biblical stories and anecdotes. But if you systematically preach Scripture, then your congregation will learn the Bible. There is a place for sermon illustrations, yes, but they complement the text, not the other way ’round.

My seminary’s motto is “The Whole Bible for the Whole World.” Christians, that’s our mission: taking all of the Bible to all of the earth. But to do that, we have to know it. We have to preach it. We have to teach it. We have to read it on our own in our homes. The only way to fix the biblical illiteracy of our churches and our larger culture is to once more become a people of the Book. Of one Book: the Holy Bible. Write its words in your hearts that you may help others to do likewise.

We cannot be obedient to God if we don’t know what He said.

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God in the Zombocalypse

It was inevitable, really, that I would eventually have to blog about zombies. A working theology of the undead isn’t something that was really given much attention for the last couple of thousand years. The Summa has no “First Article: Whether the Undead Are Still Bearers of the Imago Dei?” nor can you find a section titled “Are Zombie Shows Totally Depraved?” in Calvin’s Institutes. But in the 2000s, the crawling, shambling, biting hordes are everywhere — comic books, novels, movies, television shows, music . . . just everywhere. Factor in all the merchandise associated with the proliferation of zombies in media and you discover a world filled with them — just not in the apocalyptic, end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it sort of way. What, then, shall we say to these things?

I want to begin by saying I think the origin of the zombie matters, how precisely it gained its unlife. The standard these days seems to be a virus of some sort, either one which arises naturally or one which is genetically engineered. The virus reanimates basic functions (such as those in the medulla and cerebellum) while leaving alone the higher cerebral functions. It creates a body bent on sating a hunger for flesh (ostensibly so the virus can reproduce and spread) but which is ultimately devoid of a mind or soul. (I’m not sure how a monist views zombies, come to think of it.) Of course, a virus is only one method of creating undead. Fans of fantasy fiction have known for years that certain dark magics can also produce a reanimated corpse of varying degrees of awareness. Yes, the fabled necromancer may create a horde of soulless shamblers, but a sorcerer afraid of death may become a lich or find another way for soul and body to co-exist in a form of undeath. Then there’s the whole issue of vampirism, regardless of degree of sparkle. (Options abound.) Theologically, then, I propose we separately consider viral and magical zombies, in that order.

A body reanimated by a virus is precisely that and no more: a walking corpse, devoid of any semblance of personhood or the image of God. The walker is host to another entity pulling its strings; it is merely a mockery of a human, more puppet than person. It’s not a sick person needing to be made well; it’s a morbid marionette. Like any other dead, it should be treated with respect and dignity — after, of course, it’s “killed” again (but, really, returning it to the earth is affording it respect). A relative or colleague’s body may be difficult to put down, but remember: the soul is gone, and you would in fact be doing them a service in preparing their body for the true resurrection.

The same principle applies to soulless magical undead, I should think. Throw a human soul into the mix, however, and you’ve got a different problem entirely. The very nature of the zombie shifts from reanimated husk to outright abomination against the Lord God Almighty. To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord, after all (2 Cor. 5:8), and so to place the soul back into its earthen vessel is, in some sense, to remove it from eternity. Death has separated the two, and ne’er the twain shall meet this side of the eschaton. To bring them together again is to commit a blasphemy. It violates the divinely-established natural order to recall souls after bodily death, one reason mediums and spiritists are sharply condemned in Scripture (Lev. 19:31,20:6; Deut. 18:9-13; Isa. 8:19). This is not to say, however, the ensouled zombie constitutes a person made in the image of God. It is instead a perversion, a person trapped in the prison of death. Thus these, too, are to be dispatched and returned to the dust from whence they came. End the undead abominations and free the souls.

. . . OK, I really just wanted a chance to talk about zombies.

On a serious (and more applicable) note, even in these apocalyptic wastelands, we can find the presence of God. Some shows, like AMC’s The Walking Dead, feature(d) characters of faith. They remind us of God’s goodness and faithfulness even when each day is a violent struggle for survival. (And one character in particular is careful to further remind us the resurrection of the dead at the end of the age will most assuredly not look like the zombocalypse.) It is possible to find love and grace, joy and contentment even in such dire situations as these. We learn about the importance of trust and community. We receive tutoring in thankfulness. We’re made all-too-aware of the sinful, broken nature of human beings (live ones) and our universal need for repentance and the salvation made possible through Jesus Christ. Every so often, we feel a call to service and sacrifice vicariously through the lives of the survivors. And occasionally one setting may even give us a glimpse of God’s grace and provision directly.

Should a Christian, then, watch/read/listen to zombies just as the rest of our culture does? Before I answer, let me make a confession: The Walking Dead was a seminary requirement for me. OK, not literally, but I did watch several seasons of the show with a group of many other pastors-in-training. I’m not free from bias here. But I do want to say a few things about the suitability of such things for the average church member (clergy are exempt from such considerations, obviously . . . yeah, no, these are for us, too). The first is simple: “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things” (Philippians 4:8). While there are theologically redemptive elements in zombie stories, I’m not 100% convinced they meet the Phili. 4:8 standard. Second, the level of violence and gore is a concern, particularly when its highly visible as in movies and TV shows. It’s not something I would recommend ingesting on a regular basis — what we take in affects what comes out, after all, and I can assure you that casually discussing the latest rounds of decaptitations will get you uncomfortable looks in the grocery store. It can impact you in other ways beyond conversation, too: you could become more angry, more violent; some have developed seemingly interminable zombie-themed nightmares; a few begin to long for an actual zombie apocalypse, perhaps to finally openly be the person of violence they are inside.

Of course, those arguments can be used against a great many things, and perhaps they should — or shouldn’t. I do, however, want to balance them against a duty of cultural awareness (not participation, but awareness). We as Christians should know what’s going on in the world around us. If we have any desire to show people a faith which can address and interact with all areas of their lives, then we need to stay abreast of current trends and topics. Especially if you work primarily with the younger crowd, it may be vital for you to talk about a few undead-related topics. That should certainly be a consideration in deciding if zombies are right for you. I eventually decided they weren’t right for me (well, some of them weren’t). And that’s OK, too.

In the end, though, I encourage us all to be ready for the true resurrection of the dead, to have our souls washed in the blood of the Lamb and the waters of baptism. Remember: some zombies flee from the power of God.

Made for Others

The American Dream: the life independent, a world in which a strong individual needs no one, always pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps. It’s a dream wherein we are all masters of our fates, dependent on no external entity to get things done — indeed, often doing things despite (and in spite of) others. The Man got you down? Don’t need the government. Marriage fall apart? Don’t need committed relationships.

In fact, it rather sounds like the ideal individual under this schema is one who needs no relationships whatsoever. I’m not limiting “relationship” to the romantic domain; we all have other relationships of different natures, after all (or at least we should). But this archetypical “do it on my own” person feels no need for them; they would only be burdensome.

I confess I once fell for that particular lie. I felt I needed nothing and no one outside of myself. It took a significant amount of crashing-and-burning — or, if you prefer, humbling — to make me see the error of my ways. Even now, however, that misguided principle tries to rear its ugly head on occasion. My inner misanthrope rouses from his slumber, declares people are, on the whole, horrible, and attempts to coerce me into abandoning this whole social-relational enterprise. That voice never wins, though. I am a person who needs people, who isn’t a fan of going home each day to an empty apartment or being alone at the church office for hours on end. I have a social/emotional/spiritual/mental need for the company of other human beings, no matter what Teenage Chris thought.

And so do you. Why?

Let me tell you about a garden.

When God created the first humans, He made them in His own image (Gen. 1:26-27). These humans were settled in a garden and told to tend the earth, having authority over all other living creatures (v. 26). Of course, our first parents fell, and Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve would never regain the perfection of Eden. (But that’s a different story.)

There’s a plethora of ways to interpret what exactly it is to be made in the image of God. And no, one of them is not our own form of upright, fairly-hairless mammal-ness. Our intelligence and ability to reason, however, are called the “rational image” of God. Our position of authority above the rest of the created order and our task as stewards of same reflect God’s sovereignty and care for His creation; this is the political image of the imago Dei. We, like God, exercise free will and thus bear the volitional image. Our sense of right and wrong derives from God as well, so we talk about the moral image. Others speak of other images: the creative, the spiritual, the communicative, etc. But the facet of the imago Dei I want to focus on is the relational image.

Like the others, the relational image is rooted in the nature of God. As Christian (at least orthodox Christians), we believe God exists as the Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The idea of the Trinity isn’t the most understandable thing in the world, I admit, and I don’t have space in this post to give it a proper treatment, but suffice it to say (for the moment) God exists as three Persons yet one God; to expand my earlier statement, God is God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. How can this be without saying we believe in three separate gods? Because the Trinitarian God exists as a relationship between the three Persons. Each is in a direct relationship with the other two, making a single entity we call God.

Now that we’re all confused, let me say this: because God is a relationship, we are created for relationships. Gregariousness and community are coded into our DNA. We’re designed to relate both to God and to other people; it’s just who we are. That’s why being alone is a punishment for our worst criminals; that’s why we get lonely; that’s why we seek friendships, have families, join community organizations and clubs. All so we can cease being solitary and unite with other human beings. It’s how God made us to be. Yes, this causes us to seek a relationship with God (and it most definitely should), but it also keeps us functioning as a society — and as individual human beings. To deny ourselves relationships is to deny part of what makes us human — part of what it means to bear the image of God.

That’s one beef I have with our current (and emerging) society: we don’t pursue real relationships. We believe social media friends are as good as the real thing. When we do have real friendships, they tend to be shallow and self-serving. “I’ll hang out with you,” we say, “when it’s convenient for me and only if I’ll get something out of it.” We don’t know how to be selfless, present, or selflessly present in our relationships. Then there’s the problem of society’s warped views of men and women which cause some to be suspicious of any close relationships between members of the same sex as well as between members of the opposite sex. Intimacy in relationships somehow became equated with sex and sexuality, and we are the poorer for it.

And don’t get me started on what passes for dating these days.

In exchanging real relationships for pseudo-relationality, we widen an Other-shaped hole into a yawning chasm which will admit any one of a number of substitutes. Technology seems to be the substitute of choice at the moment, followed closely by “no strings attached” sex. But others of us compensate (or self-medicate) in different ways: Netflix binges, alcohol, anything involves an adrenaline rush, travel, books, cars, food, etc. We throw ourselves into these because no one else is around and we’re not putting forth the effort to find someone. Don’t mishear me, though: hobbies are critical, and so is time by ourselves (doubly so for my fellow introverts). But we can’t fully replace our relationships with other people with relationships to stuff. Stuff will never feel anything towards us.

At the end of the day, the way we’re wired relationally underscores a very important truth grounded in creation itself: “it is not good for man [sic] to be alone” (Gen. 2:18). Adam’s solitude was, in fact, the first thing in the Bible God declares “not good” after the goodness of the rest of creation. So we must love other people, pursue them, be in genuine, authentic relationships with them. Anything less is not good.

Identity Crisis

I love books; this is no secret. And I especially love books with immersive worlds, wonderful places where I can drop in, lose myself, and become part of characters’ lives. A lot of teen and young adult books are great at this, as many of them establish classification systems for their characters. One of my favorite things to do is to take some quiz or test to find out “my” group. For example, my Divergent faction is Abnegation (although Erudite was a contender). In the Harry Potter world, well, I’m a “hat stall.” I’ve been Sorted into all four Hogwarts Houses at various points in life. My first was Gryffindor, much to the protestation of my friends (who said Ravenclaw) and the surprise of my family (who said Slytherin). I’ve never felt particularly brave enough or cool enough for Gryffindor, though, which may be why I keep retaking the test. Today I thought I would take it one final time, one last tie-breaker between Gryffindor and Ravenclaw, my two most common results. So, where did it put me?

Hufflepuff. Not a bad place for a pastor.

The ubiquitous nature of this theme of (group) identity in literature geared toward young people makes me think, though. And when you add that to an astonishing number of personality tests currently available (ranging from the scientific to the Facebook app), it begins to look like our culture has developed an obsession with identity. Our own identities, to be exact. We can’t follow the mantra of “To thine own self be true” if we don’t know who our selves really are — and if our society places a value on anything, it’s individualism. And so we subject ourselves willingly to batteries of aptitude tests, personality quizzes, and a host of other assessments. We create new “identity labels” for things like sexuality and gender and then place most of our self-perception/-conception in those categories. It’s not enough, for example, for me to just call myself Chris; no, I am Chris of the Abnegation and House . . . Hufflepuff? Gryffindor?, a biological male with a corresponding gender identity, heterosexual, Caucasian (or, if you prefer, European American), political moderate conservative who is registered as a Republican.

We also place a great deal of our identities in other, external labels. We define ourselves by our jobs, so much so that the unemployed and the retired can often lose a sense of who they really are. Think, too, of those whose primary identity comes from being a mom, a dad, a boyfriend, a girlfriend, a wife, a husband. If the other part of that relationship disappears, how will they then define themselves? Who will they become? Who are they at their core? Do they still know? Can they set aside those past roles, both vocational and relational, and recover the fundamentals of who they are?

The one place every Christian should find his or her identity is, of course, in God. Before we can relate to anyone else, we must remember we are human beings made in the image of God, the imago Dei. This means, in part, we are rational beings crafted for relationship. The primary relationship we have is with God, so our first identity is simply “one made in the image of God to have a relationship with God.” And out of that relationship comes our next level of identity (for the Christian): a born-again, forgiven child of the Living God. No other aspect of our identity should clash with that or call it into question. When “Who are you?” is answered with “I’m a Christian,” the asker should never have a follow-up of “Yeah, but this part of who you are isn’t.” Every facet of our lives is wholly given to God. Nothing is withheld.

From those twin cores of identity comes the foundation upon which we may build all other dimensions of who we are. I can be in a relationship of any sort with a fellow human being because of my identity as one in a relationship with God and created to do so. I don’t lose who I am when those human relationships fail because I still have that primary relationship with God. A loss of job doesn’t destroy my identity because I can work for the kingdom of God no matter what my career is. My sexuality and other desires are rightly ordered by God; my political affiliation should reflect how I believe God wants me to view that aspect of culture. This is the identity, the true self discovered when I abide in Him and He in me (John 15:5).

Can it go awry? Of course. Sin can impact every way I have of thinking about myself. My sexuality can be distorted, perverted, broken. I can become very passionate about things which are absolutely evil, and I can truly believe those evils are who I am deep inside myself. But I can always take a step back, remember I was born into a fallen world and sin affects even what I want most in life, even how I label myself. If I can take it back to God, surrender that to Him, He can overcome my sinful predispositions and restore me to my true self, remind me of my real identity.

So whether we’re Dauntless or Ravenclaw, remember who you are by remembering whose you are.