Are You a Literalist or a…?

When researchers are trying to explain the factions among Christians, they often use views on the Bible as a way of finding the faultlines. Some people take the Bible “literally,” others symbolically.

“Literalists” and (I don’t know of one word, so I’ll make one) “metaphorists” usually don’t travel in the same circles. In my experience, the literalists proudly tout their literalism (although, having heard sermons from preachers in this camp, I know that they often interpret the Bible quite symbolically) while the metaphorists vociferously insist that they are NOT like the literalists.

I refuse to issue a “pox on both your houses” because I think it is too easy – even cowardly – to run to the middle and say “I’m a moderate” just for the sake of position. However, in the interest of full disclosure, I’ll position myself. I found help in Scot McKnight’s fascinating “Hermeneutical Personality Test” in the Winter 2008″Leadership” Magazine. I discovered that I’m on the conservative side of moderate. So now you know. I’m a moderate – sort of.

What are you? Does it matter? I think it does and I think we could stand for a little more literal interpretation, especially these days. I think so because the mood of our culture has swung far to the metaphorical side, with serious consequences. The trend in attitudes toward the Bible (especially among younger people) is not toward violent literalism, but toward empty symbolism. “The Bible can say pretty much whatever you want it to say,” is an increasingly prevalent attitude.

We need to quit talking so much about the dangers of a literalist interpretation of the Bible (forget the fracus over Genesis and evolution) and we ought to start considering the dangers of an overly symbolic, metaphorical reading. The pendulum is swinging the other way and we ought to pay attention.

The Evil Side of “Peace of Mind”

Here’s a thought (and be prepared to wince): “Christianity is not a therapy for those who wish never to be upset.” It comes from Robert C. Roberts in his book, Spiritual Emotions: a Psychology of Christian Virtues, (Eerdmans, 2007). You’ll find it in the chapter on peace. It reminds me of a comment John Wesley once made about people wanting “a pillow for the soul.”

We rarely admit it so candidly, but isn’t this sort of peace pretty close to what we really want? Isn’t this desire what we have in mind when we talk about the “peace” that Christians have in Christ? Isn’t this why we memorize and quote verses like, “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything…and the peace of God which surpasses all understanding…”?

Now, I want peace of mind, too. Who goes around saying, “I want to be mentally tormented?” One of the blessings of walking with Christ is peace – a sense of settledness, even rest – that one feels even if one’s circumstances are not peaceful.

But when we turn peace of mind into the ultimate aim (to see how much we want peace of mind, think about how much we talk about stress), we take what is good and twist it into something evil. The Christian’s peace of mind starts to look suspiciously like “therapy for someone who wishes never to be upset.” On the contrary, the follower of Jesus is supposed to share the sufferings of Christ. How else do we feel compassion – which literally means “to suffer with” someone? Consider the implications of Philippians 3:10, for example. I often think of what Bob Pierce, the founder of World Vision, prayed: “Let my heart break with the things that break the heart of God.” Now that is a truly dangerous prayer.

Dare we assess the health of the Americn church on this question? Go to a Christian bookstore and see what is being published. Ask the manager which books sell the best. Check a Christian bestseller list. Are more people reading Joel Osteen or Shane Claiborne? (I hope you’ll google for book titles.) Listen to sermons preached. How many times have you heard that God loves you no matter what, which is true, to be sure? How many times have you been challenged to risk sharing in Christ’s sufferings?

If we truly take the biblical God seriously, then we have to ask, how long will God permit this Christian self-indulgence to go on?

Requiem in Pacem, Dan

The news of Dan Fogelberg’s death at age 56 was a real blow to me. Admittedly, although I love music, I’m not a real devotee of any person (I get close with Michael Card). I confess, I owned only one album and it was a “greatest hits” compilation.

Still, certain of his songs I absolutely love. My favorite (one I learned to play on the guitar) is “Leader of the Band.” It makes me think of my father, who was a Methodist/United Methodist preacher, an old school cowboy from western Kansas. I became a United Methodist preacher and I learned a lot from Dad. I’ve long felt something of a parallel, then, between Fogelberg’s relationship to his father – assuming that the song reflects real family relationship – and mine with my dad. When I began learning the song, I had to sing it about fifty times before I could make it through without crying. My father had died back in the early 1980s.

And now, Dan’s music has stopped. He was so young and, worse, he died of a cancer that is one of the more curable kinds. I’m mourning.

I surfed the net for awhile after hearing of his death and read some of the reports. They say how he died – gracefully, full of appreciation and wonder for the fans who loved his music. His wife talked of his peace and courage through the horrible suffering.

The old Methodists used to talk of dying a good death. Doing so was a particularly difficult challenge, because death could take a long time and the suffering could become unbelievably intense, with little in the way of palliative medicine available back then. To put it bluntly, in dying, people just had to gut it out. And Methodists wanted to die well.

Dying well for them meant that one could give testimony to the witness of the Spirit right up to the point of death. One could honestly say that God was one’s all, that one had assurance, that no doubt or fear of death troubled. These testimonies were powerful witnesses to the living of the goodness and power of God, even in the momentum extremis.

By the accounts I read, Dan Fogelberg died a good death. I know nothing of his faith in Christ or otherwise and I won’t presume to draw personal inferences. Whatever else one might consider, this death shows that God’s heart is clearly good, full of mercy and love. God gave Dan the grace to die well. That is a comfort.

I want to die a good death. And in the meantime, I want to live – in the full Christian sense of that word – a good life. God give me grace.

My Dirt Doesn’t Bother Me

In my haste to get out of the office shortly before Christmas, I left a quarter-full coffee cup sitting on my desk. A week later when I went to the office to climb back in the work saddle, there was the cup with a thick slab of dried coffee in the bottom. Off to the bathroom I went to clean things up.

It was amazing how many rinses it took to get all the sludge out of that cup. And that’s when I thought, “You know, if I were in someone else’s office watching this process, I’d be a little grossed out.” Then came the next thought, “My dirt doesn’t bother me nearly as much as someone else’s dirt.”

Last Friday, Joni and I met halfway between our work places to pick up a part for a home bathroom project. We decided to make it a date and go for dinner. Now, you need to know that I’m culinarily challenged. I eat what’s put in front of me. I like pretty much everything I eat. I’m not very picky or discriminating. And I promptly forget what we just had after we eat. I’m a happy, but quite dull, don’t-notice-much eater. Sadly (for my wife), I’m married to something of a gourmet cook, who loves to try new things and who really, truly gets the chemistry of cooking.

OK, back to the date. Joni suggested that we go to a new Japanese Steakhouse that she had spotted not far from the national chain home repair/building/supply store we had just frequented. So off we went. The restaurant was brand new, so new, in fact, that they didn’t have their liquor license (ergo, no saki after dinner). We sat, as people do in Japanese steakhouses, with total strangers, at a big cooking station with seats surrounding it.

That’s when we started noticing – the place wasn’t very clean. The cook station was slightly dirty from the previous meal: little bits of rice back up under the edge of the grill, a stray pea, a sticky spot on the floor under my feet. Our cook was good. He was funny. (He was also Mexican, not Japanese. I love this country.) But somehow, the food just didn’t taste quite right. We didn’t relish the meal like we would have had we gone to the other place where we’ve been before. As we left Joni said, in that philosophical tone, “Well, I’m glad we tried it, but the next time we want Japanese, I probably won’t recommend we come here.”

My nasty coffee cup didn’t bother me at all. A less than perfectly clean restaurant made my gullett a little jittery.

I don’t really mind my dirt. Now yours…? Hence, my problem. I’m so thankful Jesus isn’t squeamish like I am.

The Dilemma of Christian Citizenship

As I, like you, watch Pakistan crumble, I pray for them and silently give thanks for the democratic tradition of our own country. We don’t suffer from coups. We don’t watch our political representatives come to blows on TV. Yes, we’ve got our problems, but I’ll take our problems any day.

That said, I think we Christians face a serious dilemma. There is plenty of pious talk about the power and importance of faithful Christian witness within government, but how do we do it? How are we doing? We have at least three presidential candidates all being questioned about the extent to which their religious convictions affect their politics. And there’s a certain amount of gaming going on. What does it look like to the world when we Christians carry on this way? More importantly, what does God think?

In the second chapter of Ephesians, we read these words: “For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one…that he might create in himself one new humanity in the place of two…” (Eph. 2:14-15, NRSV). There is something special going on in the Ephesian church. The power of God is being demonstrated in what would have been a pretty hostile Ephesian environment. That power has been made manifest in the formation of a new people. In other words, against the odds God is doing something politically unprecedented. In Christ, people who are hostile toward each other are becoming fellow-citizens.

A new people. Christ empowers us to be something different; to embody the realities of God’s kingdom; to provide a world-changing witness. This is our mission. The way we live matters to the world. It isn’t just what we profess about Jesus as Lord that counts. In Christ we are new creatures. In Christ, the world which is still to come has come. Christ’s followers embody that new creation world. It absolutely must show in the way we live.

So, what happens when we American Christians slip into the way of all flesh by succubming to the political game? What happens to the world – far beyond the church – when we Christians live like the rest of the world in politics? In government? What happens to the world when they can’t tell any difference between the way Christians behave politically and the way the rest of the world behaves?

For starters, let’s be willing to tell the truth about ourselves. This means that “spin” is really lying. I’m one of nine people in our (United Methodist) jurisdiction, “running” for bishop. We all want to remain Christian throughout the process even though we know it’s a political one. To do so, I must tell the truth about myself. I must not fudge on the facts. I must not inflate my accomplishments, even slightly, in order to position myself strategically. I must err to the side of truth and avoid exaggeration.

Likewise, I must always remember and demonstrate my conviction that all the episcopal candidates are my brothers and sisters in Christ. We are of the same Body, fellow citizens of God’s reign. I must trust God and the church to arrive at the right conclusions. When it is all said and done, the integrity of Christ’s Body and the mission of the church are far more important than whether or not I get elected bishop.

Ecclesial politics are not world politics. The stakes are higher by magnitudes for people running for offices such as the presidency. Nonetheless, for Christians, there are still boundaries – ecclesial or worldly – that we must not cross. Yet we do, to our shame. When we do, we need to humble ourselves and repent. True repentance itself is a witness to the power of God to change lives. When we make excuses for ourselves, we lose the chance to make a powerful witness.

I am bothered when Christians cross this line at any level. We use the rhetoric of responsible citizenship, but employ the tactics of political gamesmanship. Worse, to put it lamely, God is bothered. The Bible is replete with prophetic criticisms of what we jadedly accept as “inevitable” compromises.

Christian citizenship means ultimately believing in God’s providential guidance, no matter how disappointed or elated I may be with the outcome of any political process. I know that this value seems naive, but it really matters.

So, Christian candidates of all kinds and levels: run enthusiastically. Run vigorously. Run honestly. Run humbly. But remember the larger realities at play. At the end of the day, we will be judged by the Righteous Judge. Please, Christian friends and colleagues, keep me honest. And God give me the grace, when I err, to repent and return to the way of Jesus. Most of all, may the Church in every place offer a living witness like the Ephesian church. To the extent we are able, may we be responsible citizens of the world. But when push comes to shove, may we be found clearly identifying ourselves as citizens of God’s kingdom.

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