Bibliology

I took a couple of vacation days last week. One thing which helped me relax more than anything else was pulling the plug on Facebook for a couple of days. For just those precious few hours, I could afford to have zero online presence. I could remain blissfully unaware of the public outpouring of life’s most intimate details — and better: no belligerent political posts the entire time. My soul was refreshed. In place of it all, I got even more reading done than usual.

Of course, if we are what we eat, then we also think how we read. The ideas we willingly ingest, the ones in which we marinate our minds for hours, eventually become our own. Oh sure, we give proper credit to the originator of those ides, but we still speak them and believe them just the same. Who among us can truthfully say a book, any book, has never made an impact on our lives? Who can rightly claim the printed word, ink on paper in a binding, has never influenced their thinking one jot? Even if we ourselves never pick up a book (the horror!), the people we interact with each day do, and their choice of reading material thus affects us, too, albeit indirectly. Yes, books have nigh infinite capabilities to alter even our paradigmatic beliefs.And that’s what makes them so very dangerous.

For that reason, I, bibliovore than I am, have frequently purged my own library. There have been books I have read and owned which made me a worse human being. Oddly enough, they have always been fiction. I’ve read things as morally repulsive as The Communist Manifesto and Mein Kampf, for example, without becoming a socialist or a fascist. Such bold claims are easily rejected for their very boldness, just as a woman may smack a particularly lascivious suitor for his brazenness. The ideas which get to me are more insidious, fundamental assumptions made for the sake of the narrative. And once convinced of their truth and necessity (for the book’s sake) to make the world go ’round, it’s difficult to shake the notion those ideas are foundational for the real world, too.

Such is the power and the danger of books.

We’ve all bought into false narratives before. We’ve all had to dispel the errant notions undergirding our thinking; we’ve all experienced paradigm shifts. Sometimes it’s even been because of good things.

As Christians, our lives are Theocentric — God-centered. We organize everything we do around God, around the gospel of Jesus Christ. To do so, however, requires a book. We come to know God first and foremost through the written (and subsequently preached) word of God, the Holy Bible. That word — that book — provides central guiding principles for our lives. It offers a complete worldview, teaching us how to think, how to scrutinize the countervalues spoken to us by the world. It provides something holy and good, and that is what should fill our minds: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellent, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8).

That’s our guideline for all entertainments (and other things), too, to be sure. But let us apply it especially to our books, to those things which so directly affect our worldview — and which may lead us into the path of salvation.

Regeneration

As the Eleventh Doctor regenerates and becomes the Twelfth, he utters one of the most profound thoughts on personal development in television history: “We all change. When you think about it, we’re all different people all through our lives. And that’s okay, that’s good; you’ve gotta keep moving, so long as you remember all the people that you used to be.” (If you don’t watch Doctor Who, you should.) Becoming a different person means something a bit more literal for a Time Lord than for us humans, but the principle holds: each of us are different people over time.

You may initially reject that assertion. “Wait,” you say aloud to your computer screen, even though it can’t hear you, “that’s just not so. I’m the same person I’ve always been. I mean, I’m taller than I once was, and my face has changed a bit, the body is a little worse for wear, and don’t get me started on the amount of grey in my hair, but it’s still me.” And that’s all quite true. You are still you, regardless of those physical, superficial changes to your exterior form. But I’m not talking exteriors. I’m talking interiors, interiors you’ve redecorated time and time again over the course of a lifetime.

Who among us can, with any semblance of veracity, aver your desires, wants, feelings, thoughts, interests, &c. remain wholly unchanged since your earliest recollections of them? When you were four, for example, you wanted to be an astronaut and run about in your underpants. (OK, bad example; some of you still want that.) Do you still hate your vegetables, or do you suddenly find yourself ordering carrots when you go out? Sure, you wanted to be president, but then you noticed how rapidly the Commander in Chief seems to age while in office, and now you’d rather give it a miss. As a matter of fact, you’ve abandoned a thousand dreams about various vocations. Your tastes have changed numerous times — not just your taste in food, but in music, clothing (we all had a goth phase), movies, significant others, books, you name it.

You’ve done what you swore you’d never do — and loved it. You turned thirty, forty, fifty, with great aplomb. Your temper gained a longer fuse with different triggers. Your mind began analyzing different points of view and recognized their value and validity. You reformed your ways, gave up your vices. Or perhaps you grew cold, bitter, distant, arrogant, aloof, calculating, and hedonistic. Sometimes change is good; sometimes it’s bad; it’s always different.

So whether you’ve said it yourself or someone else has said it for you, the fact remains: you’re not the person you used to be.

Odds are, you’re not at present the person you will be in the future, either. We constantly change, constantly grow, constantly morph into a different person.

On the negative side, as comic books teach us, all it takes to turn us for the worse sometimes is one bad day. Some trauma with which we simply cannot cope can send us over the edge, make us a darker person.

To make us an entirely new creation of light and holiness and goodness, however, takes the power of the Holy Spirit. Whether they deliberately borrowed the term or not, the early writers of Doctor Who chose the same word to describe the Doctor becoming a new person as theologians use for the moment we become new creations in Christ: regeneration. Through regeneration, the Holy Spirit makes us a different person:

“You have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.” (Colossians 3:9b-10)

“Therefore if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: the old has gone; the new is here!” (2 Corinthians 5:17)

“You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” (Ephesians 4:22-24)

What does this mean for us? It means when we become Christians, we do away with our old sinful ways. We turn from addictions, chains, hurts, habits, and hang-ups. We instead bear the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. We are no longer who we once were. We’re different people, new people, better people, forgiven people.

That’s the true gift of regeneration.

The Reluctant Political Blogger

I tried. I really did. I even solidly succeeded until now, a mere four weeks out from Election Day. The last thing the American people need right now is a thirty-year-old minister writing another political blog about the Christian view of this wretched campaign, but an article began circulating today from another blogger, and it demands a response. As you know, I have criteria for this sort of thing, and anything I write of this ilk must meet three requirements: 1) it needs to be said; 2) it needs to be said by me; 3) it needs to be said by me right now. This meets those criteria.

And so . . .

As much as I love political theology, I’m an abstract thinker. I like talking in generalities more than nuts-and-bolts specifics. That’s why I deeply enjoy reading theological critiques of political systems and ideologies but remain loathe to tell people how to vote at times. Sometimes the choice is clear, and I can unabashedly support a policy or candidate because of my interpretation of the Bible. Other times it’s so murky — and I take so seriously my role as teacher and its associated stricter judgment — that I can’t tell people to vote one way or the other without great reservations. I don’t want to endorse the wrong candidate or position and falsely lead others into error. (That’s true for everything I do, but particularly applicable here, in a realm of deep division and ambiguity.) Where the Bible is clear, we are bold; where it is silent, we are cautious. I fully believe Scripture can give us a proper answer to any proper question, but sometimes that’s more a matter of digging and induction than it is a thing of citing chapter and verse.

This is one of the former moments. And yet it’s a monumental decision to make. The future, the fabric of our country will depend on the candidate who makes it into the White House. Don’t get me wrong, though: any president has limited power, and so those possible futures also depend largely on literally hundreds of other people. But the president leads the way. The president, too, has checks on the power of those people, most notably in the veto and the appointment of Supreme Court justices. All of these factors must be considered when weighing our options and evaluating the (inevitably false) promises of the ones running for our land’s highest office. So let’s keep our heads about us and remember we trust in God, not the president, for the good of our nation.

Short of some delightful deus ex machina rolling around in the next twenty-eight days which will remove both major party candidates from the running, one of the two of them will be our next president, the next face and voice of the American people. I say “one of the two of them” because, well, let’s face it, this is America. Our first-past-the-post, zero sum game of a political system makes it nigh impossible for a third party candidate to win. Third party candidates are extremely important, however, because they help gauge the attitudes of the public. The more votes a 3PC gets, the more the other two parties think about the platform of said third party and why so many people support it. In this election, the Johnson-Weld ticket is garnering support simply because many see it as a more morally acceptable choice than Clinton-Kaine or Trump-Pence. (I don’t, but that’s because I find the social policies of libertarianism are biblically indefensible.) Votes of conscience aside, we will have either the next President Clinton or the first President Trump come January.

[Brief Aside: your vote is a vote for your candidate, regardless of probability of success. Don’t succumb to the bully’s tactic of “a vote for not(X) is really a vote for Y.” It’s not. Your vote is counted for your candidate. By this failed logic, any vote for not(Y) is a vote for X, and so everyone is actually voting for every other candidate on the ballot other than the bully’s preference.]

If, then, I cannot support the Libertarians as a biblically and morally acceptable candidate, who can I? No one, as sad and as terrifying as that is. I realize we vote for both candidates and parties; both are factors in how we decide to cast our ballots. I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating here: Christ is nonpartisan. You will not see an elephant, nor a donkey, behind the throne of God. Policies on both sides are frankly appalling from a biblical viewpoint, and we thus cannot delude ourselves into saying Jesus votes Republican/Democrat/Labour/Tory/Monster Loony/Green/etc. We are free, then, to say we align with a majority of a party’s beliefs, and perhaps even Scripture does as well, and that majority suffices to secure our endorsement/affiliation. For some, party allegiance is enough to make them vote for anyone the party puts on the ticket. For others, like me, party is a consideration, but it ultimately comes down to the personal policies of the individual running under the party banner. Sometimes the opposing party’s candidate seems more theologically sound, and thus my vote goes to him/her.

In terms of this election, well, it’s rough. Democrats stand in opposition to God on such things as abortion and marriage. Republicans oppose God in their treatment of refugees and promotion of private business above clear public good. The candidates themselves make the decision no easier. On the one hand, we have a hateful, egotistical pathological liar, and on the other hand, there’s a hateful, egotistical pathological liar. One candidate has committed indefensible atrocities and promotes horrific policies; the other has said indefensible statement and promotes something akin to the early stages of a nascent fascism. Godlessness abounds on both sides. Most Americans — and virtually all Christians — speak of voting for a lesser of the two evils. I’ll leave that logic to your own conscience, but remember this: the lesser of two evils is still evil, and your vote is an endorsement of that evil.

I think the most common Christian argument I hear for Mr. Trump (I’ve only heard one for Mrs. Clinton) is that “The Donald” has the potential for good. This sort of utilitarian “greater good” argument typically refers to the nomination of future Supreme Court justices. It’s true that a Court populated by Clinton nominees would have disastrous consequences, literally resulting in untold numbers of deaths (via expanded abortion) and a massive push to privatize religion in every way. But is the possibility of a more conservative Court, the hope of staving off these things worth a guaranteed Trump White House? Is the damage he is also likely to potentially cause a worthwhile price to pay for the potential good he could do? I’m not one for utilitarianism myself, and I quite doubt the ends always justify the means. Since I rather lack the gift of prophecy, I can’t tell you what the man would do; I can’t even guarantee what Mrs. Clinton would do. All I can say is I personally don’t believe nebulous possible futures are a sufficient reason to vote for an evil candidate — and the more idyllic, the more utopian those futures seem to be, the stronger my skepticism grows.

The enraging article serving as the proximate impetus for this blog called Mr. Trump a Christian far above the likes of a pastor/writer I admire deeply. Mr. Trump may now be a baptized Christian; he may not. I can’t judge his soul. But until I see the fruit of the Spirit displayed in his life — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control — I will have my doubts. (For the same reason, I am skeptical of Mrs. Clinton’s claims to biblical Christianity.) And to play the “holier than thou” game with a deeply devout Christian makes me fear for the souls of some of Mr. Trump’s followers as well. I’m not sure of the criteria for holiness they used, but they are flatly unbiblical.

Similarly I find it difficult to digest the comparisons made between either candidate and some of the more colorful biblical figures such as Samson, Jacob, and Simon Peter. Does God use imperfect men and women to accomplish His divine purposes? He has to if He want to involve humans, as there are no perfect men and women to carry His standard. But each biblical figure who did great things did so in the name and fear of God, proclaiming His holy work in power and humility. Can anyone tell me either candidate is doing the same — that they will do the same? No. You can’t. Because they don’t and they won’t, regardless of whatever evangelical leaders endorse them for their thirty pieces of silver. Frankly I consider both candidates to be evidence of God’s judgment upon this nation, wicked rulers, not a hero(ine) in the name of Christ.

I apologize if I’ve seemed harsher with Mr. Trump, but more Christians endorse him. They make arguments in his favor, whereas most Christians recognize Mrs. Clinton is impossible to endorse from an orthodox Christian paradigm.

Where does this leave us? Well, I’m not telling you who to vote for. I’m not saying a specific wunderKandidat will singlehandedly keep Christianity out of the shadows (because they can’t, and the Church is healthier when it is costly). But I do ask you to examine Scripture — all of it. Search it and get a feel for the will of God for the world. Take the gospel of Jesus Christ to heart and openly apply it to all facets of the public sphere, including this election. Discover how the Holy Spirit would have you vote to seek the good of this land, our nation of captivity.

And may God have mercy on us all when we go to the polls.

Theological Mongrelism

In my own words, I’m a theological mutt. I was raised in a Christian Church congregation with a Missionary Baptist pastor; I attended a Southern Baptist university; my M.Div. is from a nondenominational Wesleyan evangelical (read: United Methodist) seminary. For a time, I attended an Episcopal cathedral, and I was once three months away from becoming a Roman Catholic priest, having attended Mass for some time and fallen in love with it. At the end of the day, I returned to my roots, convinced of the doctrine of the Restoration Movement (although I took a detour through a Disciples of Christ congregation on my way back to the ICC/CoC branch of Restorationism). My faith journey is the church equivalent of “I’ve Been Everywhere.” A seminary friend dubbed me the most ecumenical man alive, and I once frequently answered to “Anglo-Baptist” and “Catholo-Baptist.” I’m a mix of many different breeds, and so I call myself a theological mutt.

But there’s much to be said for theological mongrelism. It gives you the sampler platter of denominations and worship styles. You get a feel for differences in dogma, and those discrepancies force you to reevaluate your personal beliefs. It’s impossible to live an unexamined faith amid so many different interpretations of the same. And why would you want to? Only the proverbial ostrich buries its head in the sand, and only stereotypically insane fundamentalists and patronizing Orthodox refuse to ever question their adiaphora. (Those are jokes.) Do we question the divinity of Christ or the efficacy of the atonement? Absolutely not. But what about weekly Communion? Entire sanctification? The role of the magisterium or polities in general?

Let’s talk about all of those things. Let’s find out what the Bible says and how pertinent passages have been historically interpreted. And if there isn’t Scripture addressing a concern, let’s reason together to formulate a Christian paradigm for it. In short, let’s pull from the best each denomination has to offer and go for it.

And I do believe each faith tradition has value. It may turn my stomach to realize there are over 3,000 distinct denominations in the world, but each of those 3,000+ groups brings something unique to the theological banquet. We may not agree in particulars, but we can recognize their wisdom in generals. For example, I wholeheartedly disagree with the distinctive Wesleyan doctrine of entire sanctification, but I deeply appreciate the emphasis on personal, scriptural holiness which stems from it. I don’t subscribe to transubstantiation, but I love the reverence of a Roman celebration of the Eucharist, an awe impossible if one did not truly believe one were in the presence of the literal body and blood of Jesus. We all should look at our brothers and sisters of other denominations and learn from them, appreciate their unique contributions to our faith.

Of course, the reverse is also true. If every denomination gets something right, we all also get something wrong. Most of these errors are precisely that: error, not heresy, a problem in adiaphora, not a misunderstanding of diaphora. Heresy we are quite correct to condemn. I can’t imagine a true Christian willing to believe in Arianism, for example, nor unitarianism, gnosticism, Montanism, polytheism, or that the Bible is a work of fiction. Minor things can be left alone; major things never can. And before we rebuke an entire faith tradition just for a minor issue about which we happen to disagree, let’s look at our own denominational dogma and see what error we may have secretly slipped into, shall we?

So while my call is to learn from each other, to become theological mongrels, we must do so judiciously. We can’t just accept something in toto without a certain level of biblically-based scrutiny. As The Incredibles might have said it, if you stand for everything, you stand for nothing. But there’s nothing wrong with adopting the beliefs of others if such beliefs are biblical (or at least not unbiblical). Maybe an ecumenical spirit, a listening ear of this nature will open the door to greater interdenominational dialogue and cooperation.

That’s the ultimate ecclesiological goal, isn’t it? To lay aside our differences, heal our schisms, and restore the integrity of the Church Catholic. It’s a pipe dream, and I know it, but it’s still a dream. We cling to our respective distinctives too tightly to ever recombine into a single denomination. But we are always one Church, a single body of all baptized believers, regardless of doctrinal disparities. We all share the same God, the same Christ, the same salvation, the same baptism (Eph 4:3-6). We all are charged with the same holy commission (Mt 28:18-20). We all strive to win the crown of eternal life and to see others join us in that race. We are truly “one brotherhood united in service and love.”

Therefore, sisters and brothers, let us be one even as God is one. Let us work together, worship together in spirit and in truth, and learn from each other.

Let’s commit a bit of theological mongrelism.