Looking at Leviticus

Recently, I have been reading and listening carefully to the book of Leviticus. For most of us, this book does not rank high on our favorite Bible book list.  It is also the subject of unnecessarily heated debates about biblical authority. I’m not one whit interested in the debates.  I simply want to share some fairly surface-level observations from my recent experience.

In a powerful way, Leviticus applies Deuteronomy 6:4, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone.”  Yahweh is the Lord’s name.  There is no other god and Israel will have no other gods.

The Lord’s people, obviously, belong to the Lord.  Whatever else we might conclude about specific statutes on particular situations or conditions or relations, Leviticus makes clear that one of the central purposes of those regulations is to remind Israel of who is the Lord and that they belong to him.  Some harsh language is reserved for the ones who prostitute themselves with other deities, like goat demons.  The same vision applies to us.  However we work out how to understand the Law in relation to the New Covenant, Leviticus reminds us, “Remember to whom you belong and don’t slip into looking like all the surrounding nations.  If you’re going to enter into covenant with the one true God, then stay focused on God’s mission and don’t fall prey to aping the nations.”  This exhortation seems especially apt for us Christians in this season.

Being God’s people means absolute loyalty to God because being God’s people means serving God’s mission.  Idolatry is not simply a breaking of some arbitrary rule.  It is a repudiation of our identity.  It quite literally points to the impossibility of saying that we are God’s people then acting like we’re just like all the other nations.  If there is no discernible difference between God’s people and those who are, as Paul says, “earthly minded,” then we fail God’s mission and deny our identity.  One gets the sense, as one reads Leviticus, that so much about purity and impurity, clean and unclean, have to do with loyalty to the covenant.  There is always the danger of aping the practices of pagan nations.  God’s people need to be set apart to serve God’s purposes and the more we look like everyone else the more serving the mission becomes impossible to maintain.

Justice is proportional.  We find the famous lex talionis in Leviticus – an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and so on.  If you read that verse in context, you get a very clear picture that this law limits justice and seeks to eliminate revenge.

The Lord is a forgiving God.  This is a major feature of the book and it is easy to overlook in all the trying to figure out the meaning and significance of all the instructions about sacrifice.  Various kinds of offerings are enjoined precisely so that the people experience forgiveness.  God seems determined to stay in relationship with a people who are known to be stiff-necked wanderers, just like us.  We may find the specific instructions strange or hard to understand, but that forgiveness is the goal is unmistakeable.

I recommend careful, prayerful reading (and listening) to Leviticus.  Of course, I would say that about every book of the Bible, but it seems like an extraordinarily good time for Christians to re-visit the Torah and to meditate on these statutes.  In so many respects American Christianity has lost its way.  We are not “a peculiar people,” as we are supposed to be or, maybe it’s better said, some of our peculiarity is downright sinful.  Being God’s set apart people in the right way is of utmost importance.  If we give it time and space in our hearts, Leviticus helps to light the way.

Resurrection Realism

“So we do not lose heart.  Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.”

You can find this statement in 2 Corinthians 4:16. It’s relevant for thinking about the meaning of Easter. As several of my pastor/scholar friends have pointed out recently, Easter is not just one day.  It’s a season that goes until Pentecost (when things really heat up).  The season gives us opportunity to think slowly, to dwell on the Easter story, to ponder anew what the Almighty can do.  Has done.

A common problem appears when reading a verse like this one from Saint Paul’s writings.  “Outer nature” is thought to refer to the physical body and “inner nature” is thought of as something spiritual apart from the physical.  This view is deeply entrenched in popular thinking, partly because it seems to make so much sense. The physical body’s decay as people age is empirically demonstrable.  What remains after the physical body dies?  The spiritual part, or so it seems.  To think this way, however, is to miss the Gospel promise.

“Even though our outer nature is wasting away…” is how the New Revised Standard Version translates the Greek text.  How about other versions? The New English Bible says “outward humanity.”  The NIV simply says “outwardly” and the ESV matches the NRSV, “outward nature.”

“Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day,” says the NRSV.  The NEB says that we are being “inwardly renewed.” The NIV balances its adverbial expression with another, “inwardly.”  And the ESV again matches the NRSV with “inner nature.

These English translations render two words in the Greek text: “exo” (ἔξω) for “outer” and “eso” (ἔσω) for inner or within. “Exo” we recognize in scientific language, such as “exoskeleton.”  Some animals have their skeletons on the outside. It’s paired with “endo-“(endoskeleton, on the inside) rather than our word here, “eso.” Notice the nice alliterative parallel, exo and eso, outer or outward and inner or inward.

What we don’t have here is “physical” or “material” set off from “spiritual.”  And we should not think in such terms. If I could, I would open up every Christian’s memory bank and expunge the idea that “outer” means “physical” and “inner” means “spiritual.”

Reading scripture closely, noticing details, helps to re-wire our thinking. Notice that 2 Corinthians 5 finishes what chapter 4 started. “We know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” (2 Cor. 5:1).  I love the contrast between “tent” and “building.”  Paul’s Jewishness is probably showing here, with an allusion to the distinction between tabernacle and temple, which helps us ponder the difference between the temporary and the permanent, between the tent’s transitory nature and the solidity and stability and glory of the building.

In using these terms, we know that we are dealing with metaphors. In 1 Corinthians 15, we have agricultural metaphors to point to the same reality.  We are sown, like seeds, a fleshly (sarkikos) body and we are raised, like the plant sprouting from the ground, a spiritual (pneumatikos) body.  These metaphors point to something real.  A real body though different from anything we now know.

Jesus’ resurrection body is not a metaphor. Through Christ, in the resurrection life, God peels off our sin-damaged bodies and clothes us with a gloriously alive body.  That is what 2 Cor. 5:1 says by “a house not made with hands.” By God’s power, we leave the temporary tent and move into our eternal home, a building made for us by God.

On the third day, he rose from the dead…

O death, where is your victory?

I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.

The Bible is very realistic about life’s troubles. It also boldly bears witness to the resurrection promise. It’s real.

“His Winnowing Fork is in His Hand”

(I wrote this post, as you can see, two days ago.  I felt like I should sit on it and let it simmer before I hit “publish.)

It’s Palm Sunday afternoon, 2020.  We have never seen a Holy Week like this one.

I’m holding Sunday School classes via Zoom, which is a wonderful gift in the stay-at-home world we inhabit.  I “attended” worship online and am grateful for all the dedicated pastors and staffs putting together a modicum of a worship environment online.  Many of you are regularly putting thoughtful and encouraging words in social media.  Thank you.

And I’ve been thinking, praying, reading, and thinking some more.

This morning as I was reading the Bible, a scripture-laced thought – from another passage that I was not reading – came to mind: “His winnowing fork is in his hand.”  These words come from John the Baptizer (Matthew 3 and Luke 3) as he called people to repentance in preparation for the Lord’s coming. He proclaims, “One more powerful than I is coming…He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat…”

“His winnowing fork is in his hand.” When this word came to me as I was reading/praying, I thought of the sinister implications, of a future time of final judgment.  Doomsdayers and others who seem to revel in speculating on God’s final reckoning use language like this.  I am not and don’t want to be understood as though I am.  Still, this pandemic affords us an important moment for self-reflection. We can stop looking for scapegoats as to the cause of the virus.  Whatever else God might be doing during this time, he is calling us to penitent reflectiveness.  We should be doing it anyway.  It’s Lent.

“His winnowing fork is in his hand.”  I come from farming country and I always enjoy scripture’s agricultural metaphors.  This one, as many know, relates to harvest, which is always an exciting and rather nerve-wracking time.  Having gathered the crop, farmers in ancient days used wind winnowing  to separate the wheat from the chaff.  The wheat berry is surrounded by a sliver of dry husk that has to be separated from the wheat.  After threshing, which got most of the big stuff out of the way, harvesters used either a fork or a basket to toss the wheat up into the wind.  The wind blows through the tossed wheat and the chaff, which is very light, dislodges from the wheat in the action of winnowing.  The wheat falls to the ground into a nice pile of relatively clean, useable grain.

Winnowing separates the good and useful from the worthless.  It cleans.

“His winnowing fork is in his hand.”  The metaphor is perfect for what Christ does.

There will come a time when God does this work of separating in a final sense, those whose names are written in the Book of Life from those whose aren’t.  I gladly leave that work to the Divine Lawgiver and Judge.  I am interested in the separating that God is doing right now.  “His winnowing fork is in his hand” applies to us now and to the contents of our hearts.  Some separating needs to happen.  The chaff (sin) needs to go.  The good fruit needs to emerge.  The world needs Christians to be more like Christ.

“His winnowing fork is in his hand.”  Winnow away, Lord.  Winnow away.


The Twentysomething Soul #4 – Nones (Don’t Believe Everything You Read about Them)

In this last installment on my little series of reflections from Tim Clydesdale and Kathleen Garces-Foley’s book, The Twentysomething Soul, I focus on that oh so slippery demographic category, The Nones.  This cohort of emerging adults has suffered a good deal of misunderstanding in public opinion.  I’ll summarize a few of the chapter’s most important findings and offer a thought or two along the way.  Because there is so much confusion about the Nones, I will quote from the book more extensively than I did in previous posts.  Forgive the length.  I rather wish I could just quote the whole chapter.  Better to read the whole book.

“Nones” make up somewhere around 30% of the Twentysomething age cohort.  As careful readers of these studies recognize, and as Clydesdale and Garces-Foley point out, the numbers do not support the standard secularist narrative about the decline of religion, even though there has been a significant shift in identity:

The rise of the Nones, especially among Americans under age 30, has been a popular news headline, but this label is widely misunderstood.  Though Nones indicate no religious affiliation, it does not mean that they have no religious beliefs or practices.  Religion is a complex phenomenon with individual and social dimensions, including affiliation, belief, and practices.  While some Nones are ardent secularists, a solid majority of Nones hold beliefs in a supernatural or transcendent reality, and some appear quite conventional in their beliefs. (p. 143)

To sort out the 30%, Clydesdale and Garces-Foley use four sub-categories:

  • Unaffiliated Believers (17% of the 30%) – these Nones often pray, read their Bibles, and, on occasion, attend worship.  Why are they unaffiliated?  There are several relevant answers, but I am convinced that the main two are: (1) we did not properly catechize and disciple them, because (2) we ourselves are not properly catechized and discipled, therefore have not properly passed on our faith.  “Properly” is a very important qualifier.
  • Spiritual Eclectics (17% of the 30%) – they borrow beliefs and practices from a number of faith traditions and philosophies.  One out of three Nones view God as a “spiritual force” (p. 155).  While we label them with “spiritual,” “the term ‘spiritual’ or ‘spirituality’ did not appeal to most Nones, a finding that runs counter to characterizations of today’s young adults, especially Nones, as a ‘spiritual but not religious generation” (p. 156).  This observation emphasizes the need for us not to impose a misleading interpretive grid that drives a wedge between spirituality and religion.
  • Philosophical Secularists (12% of the 30%) – “reject religion or spirituality in any form” and choose a philosophical explanation of reality as a rival to religious views (see p. 145).  We could put here the young people influenced by the so-called militant atheism of Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins.  (Secularists in the academy misleadingly love to generalize about Nones under this banner.)  They think about the meaning of life very or fairly often (p. 156), so they are at least somewhat engaged with faith-related questions.
  • Indifferent Secularists (54% of the 30%) – these young people “express no interest in any type of worldview” (p. 145).  I would add, though, that expressing no interest in a worldview does not mean that they don’t have one.  I would also argue that their apparent lack of interest in spiritual questions can be mostly attributed to the dominant pedagogy in American education.  They have (mostly) learned to mimic the attitude of indifference.  We teach by what we talk about all the time and we teach by what we never mention.

Let’s add some approximate numbers to these percentages.  If there are 42.7 million people aged 20-29 in the United States, how would these sub-categories appear numerically?  (I hope I did the math right.)

  • Unaffiliated Believers: +/- 2.2 million
  • Spiritual Eclectics: +/- 2.2 million
  • Philosophical Secularists: 1.5 million
  • Indifferent Secularists: 6.9 million

These identities can be fluid (p. 145).  The authors give the example of “Joe,” who was initially labeled as a Philosophical Secularist, but shifted his thinking and practice, which prompted the researchers to move him into Spiritual Eclectic.  Remember, these conclusions come from personal interviews.  That these identities can be fluid is directly related to the fact that we humans are social beings who are influenced by our contexts:

We do want to draw attention to the role that context plays in shaping these changes.  Universities, where our first interviews with religiously unaffiliated twenty somethings occurred, are on the whole more welcoming settings for Nones than other settings–such as family homes, neighborhoods, community organizations, and workplaces, and these latter contexts can foster exploration of religious and spiritual resources by post-college Nones…Our point is this, when Joe’s context changed from secular-and-spiritual-friendly to religious-and-spiritual-friendly, Joe changed with it (p. 146).

I find encouragement in these observations.  Based on my reading over the years, as well as my experience working with college students, the vast majority of them are unfailingly interested in “life” questions.  They want to talk about their God questions with trustworthy people.  They are not the aversive skeptics that they are often made out to be.  I have made the appeal many times to churches simply to offer friendships and transparency to college students. Start there.  (It takes time.) Don’t throw more programming at them.  They are over-scheduled, as it is.  They need models and exemplars from among ordinary Christians whose lives show that they are committed to the way of Christ.  Don’t worry about being perfect (flawless). They already know that we aren’t and they don’t really need or want us to be.  They want to see how real, honest-to-goodness Christian discipleship looks.  And works.

The reference to higher education in the block quote is telling and requires a little detour.  In the studies that I have read, students attending overtly Christian schools (often called confessionally Christian, with chapel and other requirements like a Bible or theology course) often report crises of faith at higher rates than their counterparts at public or so-called church-related non-sectarian schools.  Why?  Because their Christian professors introduce them to challenging content.  This fact does not fit the many prejudices about Christian schools as places of narrow indoctrination.  Ironically, at church-related colleges and universities, students almost never encounter this sort of experience in the classroom.  It is relegated to campus ministry groups or some other place where “faith” is allowed.

At public or non-sectarian, church-related colleges and universities, the default position is too often “secular-and-spiritual-friendly,” as noted by the authors.   To the degree that a school’s ethos sees overlap between spirituality and religion, then the positive role of religious faith is generally acknowledged.  To the degree that spirituality is lifted up as the superior alternative to religion – that is, where faculty and staff frame spirituality in positive terms and religion in more restrictive and even negative terms – then a default position of pluralistic spirituality characterizes the school’s ethos.  This is particularly ironic for church-related schools who claim a relationship to the Christian faith but generally suppress that faith out of a desire to be open and welcoming to people of all faiths and no particular faith.

Let me drive that point home a little more strongly.  Church-related colleges that function so as to avoid the purportedly negative aspects of a strong Christian identity – as if that identity promotes narrowness, exclusivity, and the loss of academic freedom – easily slip into a different kind of narrow dogmatism.  The dominant faith is one that fits nicely with American civil religion.  Whatever that religion is, it is not Christian.

Back to the Nones.  After looking at a number of factors such as civic engagement and registering to vote, the authors note that Nones share several characteristics with the religiously affiliated, but also differ  with the religiously affiliated in one very important respect (other than the obvious one about religious affiliation).  They “are more privatized in their outlook and behavior than religiously affiliated Twentysomethings” (p. 160).  They “appear to tolerate institutions rather than seek them out and join them” (p. 160).

They keep politics and social institutions at an arm’s length, preferring the periphery of American public life.  Not only is our republic the worse for these citizens’ disengagement, life at the periphery is challenging and marked by frequent turnover (161).

How, then, should churches respond to the Nones?  Certainly, we interact with Twentysomethings with attentive care.  We listen to them.  (I have failed at listening too often.)  Mainly, we invite them into relationships.  We have conversations.  We share from our hearts.  We draw from our stock of doctrinal understanding and experience as we share our hearts with them.  (If you need to grow in your knowledge of Christian doctrine, get busy!)  That’s it.  It is not rocket science.  It is witness, pure and simple.

The final chapter in the book is titled “Practical Postmoderns.”  It is a rich summation and provides more nuance than my generalizations in these four posts could include.  I do hope that what I have shared has prompted thought about the church’s ministry with/to Twentysomethings, especially with college students.  I have said many times over the years that college students are among the most talked-about and least understood group of any that the church targets for mission.  It’s time to up our game and use the resources provided by scholars like Tim Clydesdale and Kathleen Garces-Foley, and others they name.  It’s time to get serious (again) about reaching the rising generations.

The Twentysomething Soul #3 – Evangelical Protestants

We have entered the Advent season, so this post comes with the prayer that your Advent preparations bring blessing to yourself and others.

I continue to mull over the findings of Tim Clydesdale and Kathleen Garces-Foley in The Twentysomething Soul.  Let’s look at what they say about Evangelical Protestants, described as “church-committed [and] theologically conservative,” and who “share an unwavering commitment to Jesus Christ as Savior and to the Bible as God’s revelation” (p. 114).  The authors are sociologists and don’t explore or evaluate these theological characteristics, but we see that doctrines serve as distinguishing factors for Evangelicals.  No surprise here, but still very instructive.

Evangelicals in American Protestantism comprise 30%  of young people. The authors use the same three sub-divisions as they had done for Mainline Protestants: Active, Nominal, and Estranged.  47% of Evangelicals are Actives, while 50% are Nominals and only 3% Estranged.  For comparison purposes, 19% of Mainliners are Actives, 64% are Nominal and 17% are Estranged.  These percentages identify stark differences:

“The proportion of Active Evangelicals is more than twice the proportion of Active Mainliners or Active Catholics, while the proportion of Estranged Evangelicals is at least six times smaller than the proportion of Estranged Mainliners or Estranged Catholics” (p. 127, italics in the original).

The authors make a couple of other important generalizations.  First, “the Evangelicals we interviewed were born and raised in Evangelical churches.  [T]hey have not been away from churches for any extended period of time…when many Catholic and Mainliner young adults…’took a break’ from churches” (125).  Second, Active Evangelicals “have little difficulty finding a young-adult-friendly church, especially if they live in or near a city…” (126).

Let’s put some rough numbers to these percentages and proportions.  About 6 million twenty somethings identify as Mainline Protestant.  About 12.6 million identity as Evangelical Protestant.  Of these divisions, 1.1 million or so Mainliners are Actives.  Of the Evangelicals, roughly 5.9 million are Actives.  For those of us in Mainline churches, these numbers should sober us.  They remain consistent throughout the literature.  Simply put, Evangelical churches hold their young at a much higher rate than Mainline churches.  When a young Evangelical moves away from home to take a job or attend school, they most often find an Evangelical church to attend.  We Mainliners are tempted to grasp at every instance of a young Evangelical ditching their faith and joining the Mainline, but this is small consolation.  The larger reality tell us something much different.

Another major difference between Evangelical and Mainline young adults relates to preaching and teaching versus the aesthetics of worship or shared values/mission (see #2 Mainline Protestants).  Evangelical Protestants speak consistently about their conviction that God is personal.  They testify, for example, that God actively led them to the church in which they participate.  (Remember that 40% of Mainline Protestants think of God as an impersonal force.)  Secondly, when asked what they liked most about their churches, they spoke about preaching and teaching (pp. 118-119).  Teaching topics often are very practical (e.g. emotionally healthy Christianity), but Evangelicals share a strong commitment to core Christian doctrines.

The chapter offers a number of other interesting nuances showing diversity among Evangelical Protestants, for example, racical/ethnic makeup, married or single, education level, and income-bracket.  These characteristics offer fine-grained analysis on topics more narrowly-scoped than the focus of my posts, but deserve strategic reflection.  Unfortunately, Evangelicals generally are still racially segregated, even though the authors interviewed young people active in large, high-profile multi-racial churches, found most often in large urban areas across the country.  But in one important way, Evangelical young adults agree: they do not like the judgmentalism associated with Evangelicalism, especially from high-profile (dare I say, celebrity?) Evangelical leaders.

This study has made one point especially clear, one that many Mainline Protestant leaders seem to want to avoid.  Doctrine matters.  Evangelical young adults remain committed to what Jude calls the faith once delivered to the saints, albeit with many American cultural colorings.  Again, don’t let the exceptions you know hide the general truth.  Evangelicals believe in Christ as Savior, in the scriptures as authoritative divine revelation, in the atoning work of Christ and his bodily resurrection.  For Active Evangelicals, these doctrines matter in the way they live.

To be sure, that Evangelicals express adherence to orthodox doctrines does not mean that all is rosy.  There are many Evangelical Nominals.  There is plenty of heterodoxy to concern us.  Nevertheless, by comparison to Mainline Protestant young adults, we see clear and consistent patterns of belief and activity much more in line with what anyone in a pastoral and teaching role should consider the norm for Christian discipleship.  Whatever our differences may be on specific matters like sexuality, if you claim to hold to the faith once delivered and you have teaching responsibility in the church, the contents of these chapters in The Twentysomething Soul should concern you.

Because doctrine also matters to Mainline Protestant young adults.  Yes, it does.  They have a view of God, of the church, and of what matters in life.  Their understanding of human nature is much more individualistic than Evangelical Protestants.  When they talk of God as love, they have some view of God and of love.  We should hope that these views are based on thought-through theological convictions learned through our discipleship efforts.  If they are not – if our young people have picked up their theological beliefs willy-nilly – then we who are called to the teaching office should be embarrassed.  My guess, though (and notice the irony), is that Mainline young adults have been taught to downplay doctrine for the sake of other values.  We teach what we take to be important doctrines in all sorts of ways.

Methodist pragmatism has taught young United Methodists that the specifically Methodist parts of being Methodist aren’t all that important, as long as you love God, love your neighbor, and work for justice in the world.  Methodists can lay no special claim to these commitments as somehow characteristically Methodist.  As the chapter on the nones will show (my final post of this little series), most of them come from the nominally-affiliated Mainline and Catholic portions of the twenty somethings.  Let’s face facts.