Living in the Shadow of the Mosque

What causes a church to die?

One of the more celebrated churches in the book of Revelation is that of Philadelphia, a community of believers commended by Jesus as those who “kept my word and have not denied my name” and who will therefore be kept “from the hour of trial that is going to come on the whole world” (Rev. 3:8, 10).   Yet little today remains of the ancient church of Philadelphia. 

Church of St. John the Theologian, Philadelphia, Turkey by author

Church of St. John the Theologian, Philadelphia, Turkey by author

In fact the only historical remnants are three pillars from an 11th-century Church of St. John the Theologian and these pillars rest in the shadow of a mosque.  Standing in the ruins of this church it is possible to hear the Muslim call to prayer and observe faithful adherents quickly walking without a glance past the dead ruins of this ancient church in order to participate in a living faith beckoning them to active worship.

What caused a vibrant faith to now lie as little more than a curious tourist attraction in the shadow of a living mosque?

After all at one time the churches in Turkey were part of the leading luminaries of the Christian faith.  Much of Paul’s missionary ministry occurred in Turkey.  All seven of the first great ecumenical councils took place in Turkey.  In the Hagia Sophia and Chora Church, Istanbul is arguably home to one of the world’s greatest church buildings and some of the most spectacular mosaic art.

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul by author

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul by author

 

Though rich in an historical Christian culture and ethos, according to Operation World, Turkey, a country of 75 million, is today only 0.21% Christian.

Mosaic in Hagia Sophia, Istanbul by author

Mosaic in Hagia Sophia, Istanbul by author

 

This was nowhere more evident than when I met with a local ministry leader who has only been a Christian for four years and yet is already serving as one of the pastors for his community.  For safety we met in a large and open park where we would be freer to directly discuss the realities of ministry in the shadow of the mosque.

Another believer in a different city hundreds of miles away told how families of believers were harassed by local police officers and the ongoing anxiety, fear and worry that griped some Christians.

How did this happen?

Though primarily referencing churches in North Africa and the Middle East, in his book The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia – and How it Died Philip Jenkins offers several intriguing insights.

He notes that churches in this region slowly died over a number of years in part because of:

  • Preoccupation with internal church maintenance rather than external outreach and welcome
  • Distraction caused by church conflict and division
  • Disconnection between the language utilized and priorities emphasized by the church and the broader culture and actual lived reality of the people in churches’ neighborhoods
  • Slow abandonment as more robust churches in the west became internally-focused and over time simply stopped responding to the needs of brothers and sisters who were increasingly living in the shadow of the mosque.

None of these reasons directly relate to Islam itself.  Certainly some would have chosen Islam out of specific faith rationales.  However, Jenkins rightly argues that churches themselves often bear much of the responsibility for their own decline.

There are many Christians and Muslims around the world who live in healthy contexts of mutuality.  Islam is not an inherently antagonistic religion.  However, at least in Turkey, many Christians face challenges and difficulties as they seek to minister in a land of mosques.

If churches can grow they can also die. (Click to Tweet)

This is a cautionary message worth repeating for these causative factors are all too often also present in other churches where what seems like today’s inevitable cultural strength can fade away altogether.

For the Christians of Turkey, there is far more immediacy.  All too often they continue to remain isolated from and ignored by brother and sister Christians residing elsewhere.  It would be a travesty to celebrate the ancient Christian heritage of Turkey without also considering contemporary realties.  Would you therefore:

  • Support churches in Turkey today
  • Pray for Christian believers in Turkey living in the shadow of the mosque
  • Consider the extent to which the causative factors of church death may be present in your particular community of faith?

Prayercast | Turkey from Prayercast on Vimeo.

- EMB

Be Careful What You Wish For

On Sunday mornings at my church, I’m currently teaching a class called “The Story of the Church” where we look each week at what our brothers and sisters in Christ have been doing since the close of the New Testament.

We’ve seen some good days and some not so good days and we’ve definitely seen a whole host of leaders march across the stage of Christian history in the process.

Last week, we took a look at the Crusades. While I won’t go into all the (bloody) details, I will mention just a few of the disasters left in the wake of the Crusades:

  • The massacre of Jews in the Rhineland
  • The wholesale slaughter of men, women, and children as the Christians entered Jerusalem
  • Intensification of the split between the Eastern and Western church

And it all started with a sermon.

Well, perhaps that is a bit of an understatement.  The history leading up to the Crusades is nearly as messy as the Crusades themselves.  But Pope Urban II’s sermon seems to have been a tipping point.

Christianity Today reports his words as follows: “A horrible tale has gone forth. An accursed race utterly alienated from God … has invaded the lands of the Christians and depopulated them by the sword, plundering, and fire.” In his “altar call” he plead, “Tear that land from the wicked race and subject it to yourselves.”

And his listeners set out to do just that…for several hundred years.

Was that what Pope Urban II had intended? I suppose we cannot read his mind from our viewpoint and I’m not even sure that with hindsight we can see with 20/20 vision in this case.

But I think as leaders, Pope Urban II’s story leaves us with a heavy burden.  We must be careful what we ask our followers to do. It can be easy to underestimate the influence of mere words when our title, position, actions, or character have granted us the trust of followers, listeners, or employees.

We have the power to shape the culture of our organizations, businesses, and teams.  Research from Edgar Schein says that a leader has several (embedding and structural) mechanisms for shaping culture among those mechanisms:
•    Attention
•    Reaction to crises
•    Role modeling
•    Criteria for allocating rewards
•    Criteria for selection & dismissal
•    Stories, statements, and rituals

Our stories and statements help to shape the culture where we serve. And as leaders, we must carefully consider all of the implications of an action we ask our followers to take. We carry a heavy responsibility as we call people to action.

As Schein has pointed out, sometimes we don’t even need words to call people to action.  The ideas that gain our attention or our rewards, the things we measure and evaluate, the things we model for others.  All of these actions send a signal that these are the things we want people to do. We are calling people to action. Even if we never open our mouths.

And the results can be long-lasting.

So be careful what you wish for.

The Bible: it’s not what you think it is

It’s quiz time again. I promise this one is easier than the Shakespeare quiz from the Reading the Bible as Literature post.Bashaw

Identify the type of literature from which each of the following are excerpted:

1) Pierce squash 5 to 6 times with tip of a sharp knife.  Place on a paper towel in microwave oven; microwave at High for 10 minutes or until soft, rotating once.  Let stand until cool enough to handle.  Cut in half lengthwise; scoop out seeds.  Scrape strands of squash with a fork into a bowl.  Keep warm.

2)  It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness…

3) Hope” is the thing with feathers -

      That perches in the soul -

      And sings the tune without the words -

     And never stops – at all –

4) Oeuvre — (noun) The total output of a writer or artist (or a substantial part of it). Synonyms: body of work. Usage: The musicologist studied the entire Wagnerian oeuvre.

I assume it was fairly simple to identify the kind of writing each of these represents, even if you were not familiar with the exact work.  Cookbooks, novels, poetry, and dictionary entries represent just a small portion of the many kinds, or genres, of writing we encounter every day.

We are socially conditioned and taught in school to read each of these genres of literature differently. Each genre has its own set of rules and expectations to which we adapt when reading.

In a cookbook, we expect measurement short hand like tsp. and we anticipate direct and terse descriptions.

In a novel, we unconsciously translate metaphors and other figures of speech and we are trained to notice plot, characterization, and irony.

In a poem, we look for rhyme and rhythm and meter we often enounter purposeful brevity.

In a dictionary article, we read bare facts, synonyms and antonyms, and do not read expecting to be moved emotionally or challenged ethically.

As 21st century readers we have become experts in interpreting a wide variety of genres with their separate rules and expectations.

If that is the case, then why do 21st century readers tend to read and interpret the Bible without distinguishing between the various genres found within it?

I think it is because we have been neither socially conditioned nor taught in our churches to read the Bible for what it is–a collection of many types of genres, each with their own rules and expectations.

For example:

Genesis is an ancient narrative that makes use of several sub-genres such as genealogy, mythology (before you stone me, note that mythology need not imply fiction or falsehood!), and short story (Joseph’s narrative is one of the earliest examples of a well-crafted short story)

Exodus is a mixture of the genres of law, narrative, and poetry

Proverbs, Psalms, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, and Job are wisdom literature fused with bits of poetry and song

The rest of the Old Testament is an amalgamation of prophecy, history, and narrative

The New Testament includes the diverse genres of gospel (which is a unique genre in literary history), epistle, homily, and apocalyptic literature.

Sadly, though, when the typical Christian sits down to read the Bible or hears it read in church, he or she has no clue what genre they are reading, much less which rules or expectations to apply in interpreting it. We display more literary intelligence while reading a cookbook with all its specialty terms and abbreviations, than we show when reading the word of God, the collection of books we claim as authoritative in the life of the Church.

Donald Miller, in a recent blog post, describes our contemporary misuse and misreading of the Bible in this way:

“Imagine reading a newspaper article from a century ago, bound with a series of love letters and the score of a musical and then trying to interpret that compilation as a comprehensive guide for living life, studying science and establishing a democracy. That’s what we tend to do with scripture but that’s not what God intended for the book.”

Miller gets to the heart of the matter—we are not reading the Bible for what it is. Instead, we cram this multi-faceted, multi-cultural, multi-voice symphony of writings into whatever little box gives us the most peace of mind.

  • Those who want to live their lives (or want others to live their lives) adhering to a strict, black-and-white set of do’s and don’ts…read the Bible as a rule book, ignoring the rich stories depicting the complicated relationship between God and humanity.
  • Those who would like to experience clarity in the practical, everyday matters of life…read the Bible as a self-help book or a how-to manual, ignoring the fact that the Bible does not address every problem known to humanity and is not designed to be handy guide to life.
  • Those who would like to have univocal answers to every theological question we ask today… read the Bible as a propositional treatise that lays out a philosophy of Christianity, ignoring the fact that very few of the biblical authors intended to explicate theology and those that did wrote to a particular audience at a particular time addressing their particular problems.
  • Those who want to feel warm fuzzies about God and people and the church…read it like a “Chicken Soup for the Soul” book, searching for nuggets of “feel good” wisdom and ignoring the laments and clear promises of persecution in the Psalms, the Prophets, the Gospels and the Epistles.

The Bible is not any of these things we make it out to be. It is something wholly other, something we do not expect it to be, something we could never dream up on our own. It is so complex and so diverse that it can speak to people living in any time in history and any place in this world. It is a messy, human-narrated, human-tarnished, living, God-breathed, God-designed, masterpiece of mismatched literature.

And until we learn to read it for what it is, learn recognize the variety of genres and know what rules and expectations to have for each, we will continue to miss the prismatic beauty of its truth.

jgb

Darkness into Light

Warning: The following post may contain material of a sensitive nature. But please read and discuss it anyway.

I haven’t visited a Halloween costume shop in a while but my boys wanted to dress up like Star Wars characters for our church’s Trunk or Treat this year, so we paid a visit to a local Halloween store.

I have to say I was surprised and appalled by the merchandise we found there and I am not a prude by any stretch of the imagination.

At least three-fourths of the Halloween costumes they sold were for women, which seemed strange to me at first. But about 90% of those women’s costumes were more appropriate for strip club attire than for public display. Every costume seemed designed to be slutty sexy, from the more obvious ones like Nurse Knock-out or Sexy Lioness, to the absurd ones like Sexy Robin (who knew Batman’s sidekick could be seductive?) and Sexy Chucky (yes, that is the murderous doll turned femme fatale–see image). These costumes were not only being purchased by adults, but by teenagers, young adults, and even pre-teens.

Whatever happened to the days when we dressed up like princesses, fairies, angels, or Little Bo Peep? When did dress-up become less about putting on a persona and more about taking off our clothes?

I have been thinking about it and researching it and I have come to the conclusion that these hyper-sexual Halloween costumes are one of many side effects of the culture of pornography that is surreptitiously invading our society.

The porn industry, which is a 15-billion dollar a year industry in America, obviously glorifies many evils–commercialized sex, lust, greed, exploitation, and self-gratification. But the subtle evils it propagates are far more dangerous than we realize.

Dr. Annette Lynch, professor of textiles and Apparel and author of Porn Chic, recognizes the insidious influence of pornography on fashion, especially costumes.  She writes this about teen and tween attire:

“When a little girl shops for a Halloween costume, she is bombarded with choices and poses that flirt with and attract sexual attention, teaching her to self-objectify and court the male gaze in advance of the blossoming of her own sexuality… what is most damaging is the normalization of this patterned response, with girls taught to shop, dress and behave while imagining the response of a male audience… this patterned response to these messages become ingrained and natural to these girls, who then carry the patterns into adulthood.”

So girls who have not even viewed pornography are “patterned” to dress for men, specifically men who are porn users, without even knowing it. The porn look is so ingrained in the media and culture of our country that it does not need to be overt to affect change in all segments of society.

Jessica Bennett, in “The Pornification of America,” wakes us up to the overwhelming impact the porn industry is making on our everyday lives.

“In a market that sells high heels for babies and thongs for tweens, it doesn’t take a genius to see that sex, if not porn, has invaded our lives. Whether we welcome it or not, television brings it into our living rooms and the Web brings it into our bedrooms.”

When we weren’t looking, the subculture of pornography, which claims to affect only workers and users in that industry, became part of our mainstream culture, affecting everyone from fashion designers to pop stars (do I even have to put a link to a Miley Cyrus’ example?) to young girls shopping for Halloween costumes.

How did our society succumb so easily to such a destructive problem?

Robert Jenson, a professor of journalism who wrote a book on the porn industry in America, believes that the popularity of pornography in our country “is a reminder that, for all the progress of contemporary social movements, we still live in a world structured by patriarchy, white supremacy and a corporate capitalism that is predatory by nature. Pornography is consistently cruel and degrading to women, overtly racist and fueled by the ideology that money matters more than people.” (from an online interview)

So, it is not that pornography has corrupted our moral, just, and equality-driven society (read with sarcasm) but vice versa—the deep-seated, and often downplayed, American obsession with power, sex, and money has produced our current porn culture.

We got ourselves in this mess, but how do we get out?

We could push for more legislation against the porn industry, for more oversight and higher levels of censorship, but many Americans would cry, “First Amendment Violation!” and anyway, the porn industry has well-paid lobbyists and spin doctors to halt change on that front.

We could sit around and complain about the problem on blogs and social media, blaming Hollywood or the fashion or music industry. Oh wait, we already do that and it is certainly not working.

Or, we as the body of Christ can stand up and attack the problem at its root.

Because the root of every evil associated with pornography, from greed to lust to infidelity to exploitation, is the same. The problem is the darkness that we humans carry around inside us. The only way to fight the darkness is with the light. And when we hide the deeds of darkness, and the dismiss the effects of that darkness, we will slowly become overwhelmed by darkness instead of the light.

And the Word, the Gospel of John tells us, was not overcome by darkness but overcame darkness with light.

So we need to bring the deeds of darkness into light.

We need to talk about this uncomfortable, shameful problem in our churches and in our homes and in our schools and on our blogs.

We need to love and support those who are in bondage to all kinds of addiction, especially sexual addiction and pornography.

We need to talk to our children openly–about the gift of sex within marriage, the perils of internet pornography, and the lies society spreads about freedom and the body.

We also must ensure girls and women that they are loved for who they are and who Christ is making them to be, not for what they wear or how they look. We need to teach them to live to please God and not the opposite sex.

We need to address the issues of self-worth and self-respect and self-control. Every day. In every venue. Until people start to listen.

For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light— for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, ‘Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead,and Christ will shine on you.’” (Ephesians 5:8-13)

jgb

A Woman Called to Ministry

As a child, I sat in the pew of a typical Southern Baptist church, hearing strong male voices reading the Scripture, leading the hymns, preaching the Word.  As a teenager, I began to notice that those male voices were never broken by lighter female intonations, that the godly women who taught me in Sunday School never prayed, much less preached, in the vast holiness of the sanctuary.  I began to look around me and realize that everyone looked alike; the black children with whom I went to school never darkened the doors of our church.  I did not understand then why my church seemed so segregated, so exclusionary.  After going to seminary and hearing similar testimonies of the Southern Baptist students around me helped me realize that my church was not the only institution holding desperately to the patriarchy of the past, living out the perfect fifties sitcom within its hallowed walls.  Yet I still could not figure out why, when the world around them had changed and grown, progressing ahead of much of the oppression of the past, so many churches had remained frozen in a time when white men ruled society, government, and especially church.

Having been reared in a loving, Christian home, I came to know Christ at an early age, earlier even than seems possible to me now.  I heard about Jesus from my kindergarten Sunday School teacher, Mrs. Foster. She talked about Jesus’ love and about the sin of humanity and though I probably did not understand everything she told me, I remember feeling both gratitude for God’s love and remorse at being a sinner. I have a clear memory of kneeling by my bed one night—I could not have been more than five years old—and crying, asking Jesus to forgive me. It is actually the first clear memory I have from my childhood. As I look back on it now I understand how remarkable it was that God reached out and showed me love as a small child and that I embraced that love even before I could read the Bible. I consider it an immeasurable blessing that God has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember.

Since I grew up in an army family, we moved several times before settling in Fort Hood, Texas, the largest military base in the world. It was there that I made my faith in God public, during Vacation Bible School at Memorial Baptist Church of Killeen, TX, and I was baptized at that church in 1987 at the age of ten. Church was always a part of my life, so much so that I often tell people that the church raised me. I have always loved hearing and reading Bible stories, even as a teenager, and the Baptist churches that I attended in adolescence helped plant in me a love for the teachings of the Bible and a desire to know more and understand more about God.  I think I always felt a persistent tug toward ministry in the church. When I led Bible study groups and went on Mission trips during high school I sensed that God had gifted me in the areas of teaching and ministry. However, because the Southern Baptist tradition does not embrace the equal gifting of men and women, I never knew exactly where I would fit in ministry. The options that were open to me—children’s ministry or missions work—never clicked as the calling God had for me.

In college, I began to feel that God was leading me to study the Bible in a more formal way; I thought that God was calling me to go to seminary. Some of my fellow students at our Christian college heard that I was considering going to seminary, and they decided it was their duty to remind me that seminary was a place to train pastors, and since women could not be pastors, there was no reason for me to go. It is difficult to point to the most significant spiritual event in my life, because my life has been a continuous series of spiritual events through which God has slowly and adeptly molded me, but I think that the moment I was told that God did not want me to be a minister was a huge moment for me. I heard the words and I understood how the men who spoke them could read the Bible that way, but I sensed something was wrong with their interpretation of the Scriptures. I was sure that the Holy Spirit had spoken to me and called me into the ministry and was prodding me to go to seminary and even though that calling did not seem to be compatible with what Scripture said, I was going to follow the Spirit and work out what the Bible said about that along the way.

In seminary, I began to read the Bible for the overarching story that it told about God and humanity. I learned that the way I had been taught to read the Bible—merely picking out verses here and there and piecing them together into an unorganized system of belief—did a great disservice to the message of the Bible. There was a bigger idea behind the stories and principles of the Bible that was greater than the sum of their varied parts. God loves us. We live in rebellion. God sent Jesus to bring us into a close, communicative relationship with the Triune God. God has gifted people for many different works of love and service. The Holy Spirit helps us learn about those gifts. And finally, God calls the most unlikely people. Regardless of whether Paul said women should not have authority over men or should keep silent, the bigger message of the Bible was that in Christ, there is no male or female, and God used women to do all kinds of ministry during Jesus’ life on earth and in the earliest years of the Christian church.  I knew that God wanted to use me to do whatever it was that the Holy Spirit led me to do. And though I was scared because I knew it would not be easy, I was ready to go where the Spirit led and do what God would call me to do.

God revealed the call on my life slowly but purposefully. The people who had the most influence on my spiritual journey were my religion professors.  Though I learned much from the ministers under whom I grew up, the Christians who truly modeled a servant lifestyle and the sacrifice and love of Christ were my professors.  They gave tirelessly of themselves in order to teach others how to interpret and appreciate the Bible then, in their spare time, they prayed, comforted, and encouraged their students in all of their life challenges. It is their influence that awakened in me the desire to teach and preach.  My worldview was shaped because of how they taught me to read the Bible.  I have come to understand through their instruction that the Christianity that Jesus initiated is a lifestyle of love and sacrifice, not a list of rules that exclude people who do not follow them from the kingdom. Now I believe God wants me to do for others as my professors did for me…teach people how to read and interpret the Bible so that they can carry out the purposes of God in this world faithfully and completely.

Reading the Bible as Literature

photo (2)I have an exercise for all of you today. Read the following quotes from Shakespeare and try to determine what the phrase means in the play, using your memory of the literary context. I tried to pick plays that have been made into movies so even if you have not read them, you may be familiar with the context.

 “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.”

                                                                          From Hamlet (V, i, 203-204)

“Then must you speak
Of One that lov’d not wisely but too well.”

                                                                          From Othello (V, ii, 343-344)

“Out, damned spot! out, I say!”

                                                                          From Macbeth (V, i, 38)

“Oh, I am fortune’s fool!”

                                                                          From Romeo and Juliet (III, i, 141)

If you were familiar with even a few of these quotes, you probably realized that the literary context is a vital key for determining what the phrase means. In the Othello quote, you may be able to ascertain that the speaker had trouble in his love life, but without the full story, you miss the anguish and irony in the statement Othello makes before he kills himself in guilt because he has suffocated his innocent wife Desdemona. We lose much of the artistry and significance of the lines without a clear idea of the overarching story and context.

The same is true of reading the Bible without paying attention to the literary context.

In the last 30 years, many Bible scholars have begun to realize the value of applying the principles and  methods typically used on literature to the study of the Bible. It makes sense that the Bible, which is a collection of various types of literature, should be studied as literature. There is much to gain from this enterprise. Literary criticism of the Bible (or studying the Bible as literature) makes many positive contributions to our understanding of the biblical text:

  •  Literary criticism takes seriously the narrative qualities of the biblical literature, which is especially helpful in the Gospels because each author narrates the life of Jesus using  various literary styles and unique story-telling techniques.
  • Literary criticism pays attention to the author and audience of each book, which help us to better appreciate the writer’s message and the situation of the first recipients. For example, when reading Philippians, it is important to note the tone that Paul uses because it alerts us to the strong, long-standing relationship he has enjoyed with that church and further deepens our understanding of his message to them.
  • Literary criticism appreciates the creativity and skill of the human author. As Christians, we recognize the divine and human authorship of the Bible. As a rule, we tend to emphasize the divine part of the authorship (“What is God saying?”) and ignore the human part (“How is the author saying this?). But the fact is that God chose some very talented communicators to pen the Scriptures and when we appreciate the artistry of an author, we can discover new and exciting dimensions to the biblical narrative. How many of us notice that Matthew brilliantly structures his Gospel in five sections in order to make a connection between Jesus’ teaching and the five books of Moses (the Pentateuch)? Only those who pay attention to that literary technique.
  • Literary criticism emphasizes the importance of reading a book as a whole unit rather than dissecting it into pieces. Understanding the themes, plot, characters, and structure of a book highlights an author’s overarching message, which is key to understanding the separate parts! In the church, however, we tend to miss the themes and structure of a book because we like to rip Bible verses out of their context. How many plaques have you seen with verses like, “For I know the plans I have for you…” and “I can do all things through Christ…”? We love our biblical sound bites! However, we are in great danger of biblical misinterpretation when we divorce a verse from the paragraph it appears in or the book in which it is found.

Clearly, studying the Bible as literature can introduce a world of new meaning and application into our study of the Bible. But recognizing this fact is only the first step. In order to begin practicing literary criticism, we have to dust off skills we learned in high school English. Here are a few of my own practical strategies that may help you start reading the Bible as literature:

1. Keep the themes of the book in mind when studying a passage (for example, as you read the Gospel of John, you will notice that he uses the themes of light/darkness, life/death, belief/unbelief, and blindness/seeing)

2. Look at people in the story as characters, formed and described with a purpose (one good place to start is to look at the disciples in the Gospel of Mark—how does the author describe them?)

3. Pay attention to the immediate and overall context of a passage— What comes before? What comes after? Where does it fit in the larger context of the book?

4. Put yourself in the place of the first-century reader and try to notice devices like conflict, irony, and point of view.

5. Look for symbols, patterns, and references to culture or other literature of the time (this is called intertextuality)

My challenge for you is to read a passage of Scripture this week and try to read it using  some of the strategies I described above. For some, this will be difficult because it is not how many of us were taught to read the Bible. For others, who enjoy literature and have practiced this on Shakespeare or American novels, it will be easier. But try it and let me know how it goes.

If you are interested in reading more about literary criticism, here are some good sources:

Mark Allan Powell. What is Narrative Criticism? Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990.

Joel B. Green, ed. Hearing the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 1995

David Alan Black and David S. Dockery, eds. Interpreting the New Testament. Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2001.

David Rhoads and Donald Michie. Mark as Story. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982.

R. Alan Culpepper. Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983.

Jack Dean Kingsbury. Matthew as Story. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986.

Robert C. Tannehill. The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts: a literary interpretation. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986.

The Thinking Church

Why are so many young people in America leaving the Church? church-sign-antigay--300x210

A wide array of answers have been suggested lately. The Barna research group conducted eight national studies with teenagers, young adults, youth ministers and pastors in order to shed light on the issue. They found that young adults in the millennial generation find churches to be overprotective, shallow, antagonistic to science, inadequate in their teaching on sexuality, too exclusive, and unfriendly to those who doubt. Millennials themselves have expressed their own perspective, identifying the church’s hostility towards homosexuals to be the main reason that young adults leave the church (see the recent, overwhelming response to “An open letter to the church” blog post from Dannika Nash).

It is hard for those of us in the older generations to understand such harsh criticism. Sure, the church has its problems, but we have experienced it as a place of comfort and belonging, of worship and love. How can there be such a discrepancy between our experience and theirs and, more importantly, what does the younger generation need that the church is not giving them?

Several months ago,in a much-discussed CNN blog post, Rachel Held Evans suggested that what millennials (herself included) need from the church is authentic worship, theological substance, an end to the culture wars, a truce between faith and science, a moratorium on divisive politics, and a challenge to live holy and sacrificial lives like Christ.

I want to suggest that all of these needs can be expressed in one foundational need: The younger generation needs a thinking church.

For most of the church’s history, the leaders of the church–pastors, priests, and other clergy–were the most educated people of their times. Even into the twentieth century, it was common for pastors to read Latin, Greek, and Hebrew and to have attended the most prestigious schools on earth. Today, we study the sermons and letters of preachers from the past to learn from the clarity of their thought and the beauty of their prose.

However, in the last century, key movements swept across the landscape of the church and changed it drastically. The holiness movement, the first and second Great Awakening, the growth of the charismatic church, the birth of evangelicalism, and the rise of fundamentalism all shifted the focus away from matters of the head to focus on the importance of the heart. With these movements, the church began to seek revival rather than research, to value the work of the Spirit rather than the work of the scholar, to emphasize the importance of conversion and morality over education and tradition. These were all welcome and important changes and they could have enacted a healthy balance in the church.

But as is common with the human practice of religion, we went too far. Churches that emphasized the Holy Spirit became suspicious of seminary and theological education. Churches that valued the Scriptures above all else began to exalt the Bible to a place of idolatry, worshipping the literal words of its pages rather than the living message it conveyed. Churches that centered their services on fear-inducing sermons of the hellfire and brimstone type started to lose the practices of reflective worship and repentant prayer, of intellectual inquiry and cultural engagement.

And so the scales tipped. Suddenly, churches were not encouraging Christians to be educated and articulate, to study science and literature and art along with Scripture, or to search for deep, thoughtful answers to the world’s most pressing problems. Instead, churches began to discourage difficult questions and academic interaction with the world. They felt challenged by—and consequently became hostile to—new ideas, new technology, and new ways of thinking, speaking, and ministering. The chasm I described in my earlier posts began to grow–that chasm between the intellectual pursuit of God exemplified by the pastors of the 19th and 20th century (also by Paul at the Areopagus in Acts 17!) and the religious practice of the 21st century church characterized by fear of scholarship and distrust of the academy.

When the younger generation looks at the church of today, they realize that as the church, we might feel passionately, protest loudly, and correct indiscriminately, but we do not think deeply. And at the end of the day, our young people need A THINKING CHURCH.

A THINKING CHURCH would be able to converse with the fields of science and literature and business and  education, to find truth in them and speak truth to them as well;

A THINKING CHURCH would interact with culture and the arts, infusing more creativity in its worship and more cultural relevance in its message medium;

A THINKING CHURCH would train its people in apologetics, the art of defending the faith with articulation and compassion;

A THINKING CHURCH would be willing to talk with people who are from different backgrounds—whether different religions or cultures—to  learn from other beliefs while remaining firm in the tenets of their own faith;

A THINKING CHURCH would be eager to discuss answers to the difficult theological questions that many millennials ask, like:

  • How does the message of the Bible fit with the principles of science?
  • How can so many Christians read the Bible and come up with different interpretations?
  • How can I love my neighbor (who may have different beliefs from me) while remaining strong in the ethical teachings of Scripture?
  • How can a sovereign God of love allow so much evil in this world?;

A THINKING CHURCH would be prepared to offer compassion and support to those who doubt, who find themselves stuck at the uncomfortable intersection of faith and reason;

A THINKING CHURCH would be willing to change, ready to grow, and open to admitting when they were wrong.

Critical Thinking at Church picWhat the millennials really need is for the church of history, with its intellectual prowess and curiosity about the world, to meet the churches of today, with their passion for Scripture and ethics and service and Spirit. They need to see the body of Christ, in action, engaging soul and heart and strength and mind in order to change the world with the love of God.

Are we, as the church of today, ready to become the thinking church that our young people so desperately need and, if so, how do we do it?

The Chasm, part 2: The People of the Chasm

In my last post, I lamented the wide chasm that separates the church and the “academy” (biblical scholars and their scholarship), a separation I have noticed since the beginning of my theological education and that I am consistently reminded of as I teach New Testament to college students in the Bible belt. In an attempt to transform my fruitless complaints into conversation, I want to use my next couple of posts delve deeper into the chasm and discuss the people who contribute to the chasm, the problems or symptoms that result from the chasm, and the possible solutions we can work toward to eliminate the chasm.

The People of the Chasm:

Are you kidding me?

Group #1: “PLAIN SENSE” CHRISTIANS

These are the devout believers in local churches who can quote Bible verses (out of context), list the books of the New Testament in order, and proof-text better than an inspirational greeting card company. Although many in this group truly desire to understand what the Bible says, they know (or care) little about the literary themes and historical contexts of the Bible, the major doctrines of Christianity, the principles behind responsible biblical interpretation, or even the overarching “big story” the Scriptures are telling. Often, individuals in this group become confident that their interpretation is the only right interpretation of scripture, that their reading, the “literal” or “plain sense” reading, is the only way to read the Bible. This group is suspicious and even fearful of theological education, telling young ministers things like, “Don’t go off to seminary unless you want to lose your faith!,” or, “You do not need anything but a Bible and the Spirit to interpret God’s Word.” Of course, I affirm that the Holy Spirit can speak to any reader of Scripture, regardless of their education or background; however, we all need to acknowledge that understanding the Bible is sometimes a hard task and we would all do it better if we did it as a well-equipped, well-informed body of Christ rather than individuals who confuse Bible knowledge with Bible understanding. When we fail to grasp the complex beauty and depth of the biblical literature, reducing it instead to folksy advice and empty platitudes, the true message of Gospel can be obscured or misapplied in a way that hurts others.

Group #2: OUT-OF-TOUCH INTELLECTUALS:

These are the well-educated Bible scholars who have studied the Scriptures for decades, have a good grasp of its background and content, and have the skills necessary to do responsible biblical interpretation. Unfortunately, the vast majority of this group spends little time teaching people in the churches what they know, instead choosing to write specialist books on specialist topics with specialist vocabulary that no one in a typical church would ever want to read, even if they could. This group is on the other side of the chasm from group #1, although occasionally a few of its members will lay bricks to start the bridge to the other side (the scholar-pastors).

Bible Scholars

Group #3: PROBLEMATIC PASTORS

These are the pastors, both educated and uneducated, who do not take the time to prepare themselves and their people for the challenge of reading and applying the Bible. Pastors could be the largest part of the construction crew to build a bridge over the chasm, but many instead contribute to it. Some do not realize how much time it takes to study and compose a biblically-sound sermon. Some cannot accept that although the Spirit does speak, hearing the Spirit well takes time, thought, and preparation. Some were not properly trained in biblical interpretation, so may need to humble themselves and seek more education. Whatever the problem might be, it is not a solely personal problem because it affects the people in the church who trust and rely on the exegesis and wisdom of their preachers. Although it is true that pastoring is a hard, time-consuming job with high demands, it must be so because the people in group #1 need to be guided to participate in the chasm solution instead of being part of the problem. We who are pastors and teachers must strive for excellence because people depend on us.

OTHER GROUPS?

Have I missed any groups that contribute to the chasm? I would like to hear from you. Leave a Comment.

NEXT WEEK…the problems the chasm creates in our church and society.

The Chasm

bridge over chasm

I admit I am nervous every time a new semester starts and I get up in front of a room of college students (many of whom have been in church their whole lives), and proceed to teach them the Bible. To calm myself, I remember the advice that seasoned professors have given me over and over:

“Oh, don’t worry! Just remember that you know so much more than they do!”

This is true.  Sometimes I take great solace and even pleasure in that fact.

But should I really be pleased that college students living in the Bible belt, raised in the church, who have heard sermon after sermon and studied Scripture in Sunday school and in their quiet times and in their youth groups, still know so little about reading and interpreting the Bible?

No. I should be shocked and saddened.

I give a “what you know” quiz on the first day of Introduction to the New Testament. These questions only cover basic content, order, and historical background, nothing analytical or interpretive. My students fail miserably. Take the quiz yourself as see how you fare:

1. How many books are in the New Testament?

2. Who wrote the book of Acts?

3. Around what year was the first NT book probably written? If you don’t know a year, give a decade or even a century.

4. Which Gospel was probably written first?

5. What was Paul’s name when he met Jesus on the road to Damascus?

6. Who ruled Israel at the time of Jesus’ birth?

7. In the New Testament, which book comes after Jude?

Invariably, question number 5 yields the most right answers. Why? Saul/Paul is a popular topic in Sunday School literature, repeated at least every year if not more often. The next two questions that students tend to answer correctly are #1 and #7. These are both bits of information a child would learn in Bible Drill but have little to do with the interpretation and application of the Bible.

Only a handful of students ever answer the four remaining questions right, the ones that concern the background, context, and authors of the New Testament. Tragically, without the knowledge of issues such as these, right and responsible interpretation of the Bible remains difficult and out of our grasp.

After all, how would we know to read Acts as the second part of the Gospel of Luke if we did not know that Luke wrote it? We would not know to look for similar themes and emphases and patterns that unlock many important undercurrents. Such ignorance does a great disservice to our interpretation and application of the story of the early church.

What about being aware of the time and historical context during which the epistles and Gospels were written? The language, customs, religious practices, political structures, and societal norms of the biblical times are foreign to those of us living in 21st century America. If we did not know that the New Testament authors wrote in the first century, in a world ruled by the Romans but heavily influence by the Greeks, surrounded by Jewish and pagan religious traditions, how could we ever decipher its images and symbols, the turns of phrases or the metaphors employed? We couldn’t.

So when I grade my students’ quizzes on the first day of class, I am staring into a great, yawning chasm. It is a chasm that represents the great distance between what Christians should know about the Bible and what they actually know. It is a chasm that represents the insurmountable division between the academy (religion scholars who have the training to read the Bible well but do not pass that knowledge to the people in the pew) and the clergy (pastors and teachers in the church who have not been trained to interpret the Bible in its context but still pass on their interpretations as truth). It is a chasm that separates dangerous and irresponsible interpretations based on intuition (such as those that fuel Westboro Baptist Church or result in snake-bitten believers) from edifying and responsible interpretations based on solid hermeneutics.

It is a chasm I am working to bridge when I teach my students all the things they did not learn in church. It is a chasm I hope my students will help bridge when they go on to teach what they have learned in their churches. It is a chasm that I hope, one day, with many of us in the church and the academy working together, will be bridged once and for all.

Answers to the quiz: 1) 27; 2) Luke; 3) I would accept any date around 45-55 AD or just the first century AD; 4) Mark; 5) Saul; 6) The Roman Empire; 7) Revelation