My Kind of Christianity

As I follow the flame that consumes me, that fire of knowing God as he wants to be known, I have been confronted by many and varied paradigms. My blogging buds (John, Jason, Yael, and Luke) have really provided some great mental stretches for me, and we continue to wrestle with each other as we also wrestle with God and how we each believe he is manifested in this crazy life. One of the things that has hit me rather squarely in the face is how arrogant and offensive Christianity can look as we discredit the beliefs of other faiths in our claim that only Christianity contains truth of any value. I don’t see Christ as having behaved that way, and a message of offense does not seem to be the best way to approach the interfaith dialogue table. One of the things I like about the emerging thought movement within Christianity is how it seeks to evaluate just about every corner of the faith in an attempt to understand if we have gone off in an errant direction. One of the people doing this, and really stretching my neurons, is the Irish philosopher, Peter Rollins. I have recently been reading his two books, How Not To Speak of God and The Fidelity of Betrayal, both of which challenge me on just about every page. I would like to share a bit from the second work today. He is quickly becoming one of if not my favorite author. I think I should have gone into philosophy or law instead of medicine sometimes. These guys mesmerize me.

One of the things the Rollins really seems to like to do is turn things on their heads. I find myself spinning as I read him so much so that I think I will have to read each of these books 4 or 5 times to really get all the stuff that’s there. One of the themes that I see throughout his work is that God is found in the searching, not in the result of the search. This idea is again expressed in his second work on page 133: ” As we attempt to understand our faith, we will develop ideas and practices that help us. Yet the point is that we must always be ready to critique these ideas and practices, for they are forever provisional. To display our fidelity to them we must always be ready to betray them.”  I love that. It really is at the heart of my search for God, and I believe is at the heart of the emerging movement.

Within this willingness to betray, Rollins includes our interpretations of scripture. He is not suggesting that we just throw out everything, but he is suggesting that we challenge and refine and adjust as more is revealed to us. Perhaps one of the largest sacred cows in our Christian institutions is our various interpretations of passages of scripture. It is this, after all, on which all our fracturing of Christianity into denominations is based. I am myself presently in the infancy of my own project to reread the bible straight through and to read it differently, as if discovering God for the first time without any of the previous biases that I have inherent. In a sense I know this is impossible, but I certainly at least hope to attain a cleaner reading.

Rollins gives, in his discussion of Christianity critiquing itself, a different interpretation of a common parable. Jesus is discussing the kingdom: “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It is like the mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.” The more standard interpretation here presents Christ as the founder of Christianity, starting a movement that will grow until it becomes a great institution, providing shelter for all who seek it, a religion that will offer salvation to the world.

But, and as I am finding is true for much of my understanding of the bible, there is a much different way to look at it. What if the birds do not represent the innocent taking shelter? What if, as in other parts of the bible where birds are described as stealing  God’s seed, they represent evil? The interpretation then speaks of a religious movement  that will one day grow into a vast institution that will house much evil. An amazing contrast that contains much truth. Both interpretations offer truth about the church today, about Christianity today, about Christians today. And Rollins, as is true of much of his work, believes that we need to stand in the tension between the two which is a place where one cannot adhere strictly to one system of thought about their faith in God. There is truth all over the place, and as Rob Bell would say, God is responsible for it and I am to claim it.

I really like this way of thinking about my faith. Closing myself in a theological box for too many years suffocated me. It was turning me away from God. This journey of discovery, on which I am finding many companions, is reviving me. Thanks for reading.

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20 responses to “My Kind of Christianity

  1. freestyleroadtrip

    Karmen here, writing under your name, Doug—

    This brings to mind the passage about ‘…having eyes to see and ears to hear….’ Maybe there is something more in what we’ve been reading that people have been too afraid to investigate for fear of being labeled a blasphemer, backslider, or just generally stupid. I’ve felt like a stupid sheep for far too long and decided to put a stop to it. It is difficult for me to even read the Bible right now because of all the filters through which I read it. The main filter being,’ my interpretation is the right interpretation.’

    These last few years have been the most freeing and liberating of my entire life. The past has been filled with shame, guilt, countless revival services and countless trips to the altar. If love was preached…somehow I missed it due to all the ‘your going to hell,’ yammering. And sadly, while some may think I’m a whacko, for every one of me and my experiences, there are about a hundred more where that came from.

    I’ve been encouraged by you and others that we have come into contact with, and who continue to come out of the wood work. And although I have know clear picture of where my faith is right now, I know that I’m not afraid and for the first time I do believe that I’ve begun to experience just a taste of God’s love for me. I think God’s big enough to handle my questions, my anger, etc.

    Signed,
    No longer a stupid sheep!!!

  2. Karmen. You are a courageous girl, and I love you. Thanks for behind my companion on the battlefield. I have a picture in my mind of you and me as King Arthur and Guinevere, especially as portrayed in the most recent movie. That’s a cool picture I have in my mind. I am certainly not implying that I am a king or anything, but any inference at you being a queen are certainly justified. I look forward to more of the same. We are in a really good place.

  3. “To display our fidelity to them we must always be ready to betray them.” This is at the heart of Chesterton’s Orthodoxy. I posted this on Wheatland’s blog (I think) some time ago, but I’ll post it here again because I love it so much:

    -begin quote-
    Let us suppose we are confronted with a desperate thing — say Pimlico. If we think what is really best for Pimlico we shall find the thread of thought leads to the throne or the mystic and the arbitrary. It is not enough for a man to disapprove of Pimlico: in that case he will merely cut his throat or move to Chelsea. Nor, certainly, is it enough for a man to approve of Pimlico: for then it will remain Pimlico, which would be awful. The only way out of it seems to be for somebody to love Pimlico: to love it with a transcendental tie and without any earthly reason. If there arose a man who loved Pimlico, then Pimlico would rise into ivory towers and golden pinnacles; Pimlico would attire herself as a woman does when she is loved. For decoration is not given to hide horrible things: but to decorate things already adorable. A mother does not give her child a blue bow because he is so ugly without it. A lover does not give a girl a necklace to hide her neck. If men loved Pimlico as mothers love children, arbitrarily, because it is theirs, Pimlico in a year or two might be fairer than Florence. Some readers will say that this is a mere fantasy. I answer that this is the actual history of mankind. This, as a fact, is how cities did grow great. Go back to the darkest roots of civilization and you will find them knotted round some sacred stone or encircling some sacred well. People first paid honour to a spot and afterwards gained glory for it. Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her…Now, the extraordinary thing is that the bad optimism (the whitewashing, the weak defence of everything) comes in with the reasonable optimism. Rational optimism leads to stagnation: it is irrational optimism that leads to reform. Let me explain by using once more the parallel of patriotism. The man who is most likely to ruin the place he loves is exactly the man who loves it with a reason. The man who will improve the place is the man who loves it without a reason. If a man loves some feature of Pimlico (which seems unlikely), he may find himself defending that feature against Pimlico itself. But if he simply loves Pimlico itself, he may lay it waste and turn it into the New Jerusalem. I do not deny that reform may be excessive; I only say that it is the mystic patriot who reforms. Mere jingo self-contentment is commonest among those who have some pedantic reason for their patriotism. The worst jingoes do not love England, but a theory of England. If we love England for being an empire, we may overrate the success with which we rule the Hindoos. But if we love it only for being a nation, we can face all events: for it would be a nation even if the Hindoos ruled us. Thus also only those will permit their patriotism to falsify history whose patriotism depends on history. A man who loves England for being English will not mind how she arose. But a man who loves England for being Anglo-Saxon may go against all facts for his fancy. He may end (like Carlyle and Freeman) by maintaining that the Norman Conquest was a Saxon Conquest. He may end in utter unreason — because he has a reason.
    -end quote-(emphasis mine)

  4. Teason. Good to hear from you. You and I think alike it seems. Rollins talks some about this very idea, loving something as an object instead of for what it is. He talks about loving God in the sense of falling in love with God rather loving God out of selfish gain. Glad to see you are keeping it real.

  5. I begin to see more and more why we have been able to interact in spite of many differences. Tensions and turning things on their head? You’re talking my language! Law and philosophy as interests? Absolutely. I find both fascinating.

    Great post. I’ve always liked looking at the same story from different angles. In seeing both the good and the bad we see reality. Cool.

  6. The human hunger for certainty reflects our basic anxiety about our independance from God and wanting to control life. Some sell us on the idea that Scripture offers us certainty if we “claim the.promises” or study it deeply enough. We read Proverbs as if it guarenteed outcomes if we do it right.

    Opening our eyes shows us that the story of Scripture is not certainty (control of results) but the steadfast faithfulness of God. One of my fav authors suggests that Job was included a protest against Proverbs suggestions of certainty. He feels that the end of Job was added later to reduced anxiety about how uncertain life can be.

    Rollins is another clear voice reminding us that our faith is not a key to certainty but a response to God’s faithfulness in the midst of uncertainty.

  7. My feed reader sent me to this blog.
    Actually at first I was kind of skeptical about reading it, because of the font-size, and black background (ohhh I am too shallow)

    And I am proven shallow. I liked this post. Which may mean I also like this blog.

    I have always loved to hear, or read a different approach on something, and you didn’t fail me.

    Hope to see more of this. :)

  8. Can we really claim that there is a ‘the story of Scripture’? If so, why is the main story I see so different from the one Paul sees?

    What does it mean that God is faithful? What would that mean to someone who has the beginning of Job as their life but not the ending, which I agree seems quite contrived? If my family is all killed, my livelihood lost, my home destroyed, my friends and neighbors turned against me, what would it mean that God is faithful? How would my life be different in this scenario if God wasn’t faithful?

    I don’t know who Paul is so hope no one thinks I’m jumping down his throat or anything. I’m just curious, because I think this is one of those overused phrases that seldom gets defined in anything but the most superficial of ways, IMO of course.

    Torah speaks of God remembering Sarah, remembering Israel enslaved in Egypt. Did God forget for awhile? If not, why use the term remember? I’ve been reading Jeremiah where God threatens horrible things which then happen. Afterward it says God regretted. Didn’t God realize in advance what it would be like?

  9. Paul Scarcia. Thanks for checking me out. I admit that I too am shallow. In order for me to fully enjoy a book, the cover and font and paper all has to be just right. I guess I am the same about blogs too, although I picked the current theme because it feels clean, organized, and warm to me. But, I like darkness (not evil but the abscence of light). It feels like a warm blanket to me. So the dark background feels good to me. Maybe it is time for a change though. I’ll think about it.

    As for the material, thanks for the kind words. I really have pushed the boundaries and challenged the status quo on what I believe to be true in recent years. I guarantee more of this.

  10. Yael. I think there can be “the story of scripture” just like there is “the story of Macbeth.” Our interpretations of each may be very different however. And all those interpretations should receive validation. Knowing Paul F. like I do, I think he would agree with that, and I think he would love your Jewish take on scripture.

    Your questions about God as faithful are fantastic, and I think many Christians would think it somewhat blasphemous to even consider them. The Chrisitan God is one of absolute power and absolute love and absolute perfection. Suggesting that God would not remember something or that he wouldn’t know ahead of time that he might regret something he did screams against those ideas. I think I am learning from you that the Jewish community does not necessarily view this same God in that manner. I think both communities have something to learn from each other on this. Or at least something to listen to each other on.

  11. The human hunger for certainty reflects our basic anxiety about our independance from God and wanting to control life(Paul Fitzgerald)

    Isnt this your hunger talking? Afterall there is no actual evidence that proves God. The best you can hope for is that it(Scriptures) points in the direction of something unknowable. Wouldnt it be grand if people used their holy books to live better, rather than proving their idea about God?

  12. Ah, Yael is correct to question my use of the generic singular “story of Scripture.” There are many stories with varying points of view and they are often knit together by editors over many generations. While I may find a common core theme that runs through the stories, others may not, and there is no outside source to appeal about the rightness of any particular view. (Two creation stories, various writers in the Torah and then Isaiah has at least two authors)

    My view of Scripture has emerged from my more conservative training that made it almost a product dictated from God about God. Now I read it as a reflection of how people experienced God through the filters, social conventions, etc. of their time. It says more about how they experienced God and their projections upon what God must be like or feeling than an accurate description from the side of God. Some had a liturgical agenda to empower the priesthood and Temple, others were nationalistic and others thundered against both the religious and political institutions. Similar themes can be found in the Christian Scriptures as well.

    For some Christians that will seem to throw out all “inspiration” but I don’t find that is a necessary result. Maybe seeing Scripture as a faithful expression of writers in a long-time group blog works.

    Yael, as for “remembering” perhaps you can help me here. My Western, Greek-influenced thinking has remembering as something we recall as a historic fact – “it happened.” Some suggest that a more Jewish view with be like “re-membering” – that is, pulling the past into the present and re-experiencing it first hand. Maybe that’s off base but that seems to come through Israel’s liturgy, worship events, etc.

    The “faithfulness of God” is for me fundamentally about a source of hope. Much of the Tanak was compiled in during Israel’s exile in the 6th century BCE. It was a time of hopelessness and the stories were an appeal to not lose hope. Unlike the NT, the Tanak includes major sections that are poetic and it was an appeal to re-imagine a new future.

    Some have compared what has been happening the past 8 years in our political situation to Israel’s situation – exiled in a strange land and little imagination of the future [Who said that was was a failure of imagination?] Fundamental to what Obama has done is rekindle our national imagination by helping people “re-member” our national stories (Washington’s appeal in his inaugural speech; Lincoln in various way; MTL’s Dream, etc.).

    Just some random thoughts.
    A lurker to your discussion.
    Blog on

  13. Paul,
    Thanks for your comment and questions in return, in the same style of what does it mean! This makes me curious as well, what might the writer have been trying to convey when he said ‘God remembered’. I’m off to do some digging and see what I find.

    Doug,
    Kind of sad that a person can be accused of blasphemy merely for quoting something from Torah and pondering what it might mean. I’ve had Orthodox Jews accuse me of the same thing.

  14. great post! COEXIST is always a good path to follow and interfaith dialogue is core. i met with Dr Ali El Samman while in Egypt, and wow! what a great dude. Furthering interfaith dialogue from his own Muslim tradition with the other “faiths of the book” meaning Christianity and Judaism.

    thought of y’all and the canon and how we always challenge each other and do so lovingly.

    dialogue can be done.. and when we do it, we are sharing our souls with one another.

    RAWK

  15. God is always bigger and greater than what we know and can comprehend. So we will always be learning about him. And sometimes the learning of something new necessitates the unlearning of something previous. So our understanding of God is always in formation and growth. But knowing Him and knowing Him better is the path of life.

  16. Back my remembering comment and Paul’s question. As far as how we Jews view remembering as re-membering, that is obviously a take on the English word which likely has some merit. We do place a great emphasis on remembering our history, our traditions, our covenant. We live with a sense of that history, of belonging to a people. So, for us to remember would indeed be an act of reconnecting.

    But, these uses of remembering in Torah are translations of Hebrew words so it’s not always valid to project our modern understanding of this word into the texts. In fact, two different Hebrew words are used for God remembering Sarah, and God remembering God’s covenant. And since hermeneutics was my favorite class in seminary, I am curious about the different connotations of these words, connotations obviously lost in translation.

    Genesis 21:1, where God remembers Sarah, uses the Hebrew word ‘pakad’. In looking through my various Chumashim and Tanakhim, I see this word translated as: remembered, took note, now remembered and had remembered. In other passages this word is also translated as: inspect, examined, attend, punish.

    There are numerous uses of this word in Tanakh, other passages including:
    Genesis 50:24, “I am about to die, but God will surely remember you and bring you up…”
    Jeremiah 29:10, “After 70 years I will attend to you and fulfill for you my favorable promise, to return you to this place.”
    Psalm 65:10, “You paid heed to the earth and watered it.”

    From this I would define pakad as not just noting someone or something, but also taking action, sometimes for good, sometimes not. One Chumash noted that this word is often used to describe God’s intervention in human affairs.

    On to Exodus 2:24. The root word used for God remembering God’s covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is zachar. Everywhere I saw this word used it was translated remember.
    Leviticus 26:42, “I will remember My covenant…”
    Jeremiah 14:21, “Remember, do not annul Your covenant…”
    Nehemiah 1:8, “Remember, please, the word that You commanded Your servant Moses.”

    Other uses of remembering included remembering people for good or for punishment, remembering the afflicted, the land, people’s distress, mercy, extenuating circumstances, sins, idolatry.

    To me the difference is that zachar isn’t something ‘miraculous’ but is instead more ordinary. Action is still the result of the remembering, however. One Chumash pointed out this is a sharp focusing of attention on someone or something, embracing concern and involvement, always leading to action.

    (Zachar is the root word in Yizkor, the service we have four times per year to remember our loved ones who are now gone from us. We remember them and pledge to do things in honor of their memories so I think it makes sense to use this particular word.)

    I’m not sure if this word study helped me any in understanding what it means for God to remember. I think this is one of those things that will slide to the back burner and be added to as I run across other words that might be translated remember, as I think about this more, read more verses where these words are used.

    The main thing I take from this is how deficient translations can be. Can you imagine? In one instance the word is translated punish, in most other cases it is translated as God intervening for good. So, why is this one case rendered punish? Perhaps because WE think the action deserves punishment? Maybe our judgment is wrong and God really wasn’t bothered at all, yet with just the English, some might get quite dogmatic about God’s punishment in this case.

    I find it all quite fascinating. And I keep plugging away with that Hebrew…..

  17. Yael. I am impressed with the depth of your investigation here. I find as I read scripture, that my brain is full of presuppositions or biases that I have, and I kind of fill in the gaps with those when what I really need to be doing is reading it like I am reading it for the first time without all the baggage I am carrying along. It would be impossible for the translators of our various bibles not to put their own biases in there. For that matter, it was impossible for the orginal writers of the scriptures to not put their biases in there too. When I think of all that, it is amazing that so many fundamentalist denominations take the view of scripture as each and every word being completely inerrant and as God wants it to be. By doing that, you accept all the biases of those who came before you as truth. I think the narrative and the meaning behind it is often the point, not the individual words.

  18. Thanks. I’m a rabbi wannabe so I love digging in those studies.

    Actually, although I mostly agree with what you’re saying, I would disagree about the individual words not being important, not because they’re the direct words of God, but because they were chosen by the authors for a reason. I always enjoy the little word plays and connections that can be found in the Hebrew. Torah is an incredibly rich text, but if one just looks at general themes and narratives much is lost and much can be taken the wrong way, IMO at least.

    I’m copying and pasting something I wrote over 2 years ago now about Torah as poetry. It relates to what we’re talking about plus you’ll see I once struggled with the same thing, trying to overcome that fundie mindset. I think I’ve come a long ways since I wrote this but still have a ways to go I’m sure!

    As usual it was an interesting Parashah study this afternoon. Moses is told to write a song and teach it to the people. So, what exactly is this song? Some say just the song included in Parashah Haazinu, others say it is all of Torah. Could all of Torah be considered poetry rather than prose? It sure doesn’t seem all that poetic!

    To illustrate how Torah might be considered poetry, Rabbi contrasted writing a sermon with writing poetry. With the sermon lines can be left out here and there and the sermon will still makes sense, but with poetry if words are left out the poem no longer makes sense since every word of poetry is important and thus carefully chosen. Poetry is also different in that the meaning may not be at all what it seems on the surface and new meanings may be found each time it is read. It makes sense then that Torah be considered poetry rather than prose. With Torah there are many levels of meaning and each time we read it we can find things we never noticed before; with Torah every word is important and used for a reason.

    I really liked one statement in the study by Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin (the Neziv) in Ha’amek Davar, Introduction Genesis:

    It is obvious that one who is aware of the background of the allusions and figurative expressions of poetry can better appreciate its character than the man who has only an external appreciation of the immediate literal meaning of the words, which may lead him to misunderstanding the poet’s intention.

    This is a great thought to carry with me into the High Holy Days. Coming from a fundamentalist Christian background I’m still looking at things too literally. If I can keep from taking offense at the literal meaning of Torah and look deeper instead, that would be a really good thing. How many times have I heard Rabbi say the sages also had difficulty with some of the things in Torah? Torah is the foundation; Talmud is what teaches us how to live as Jews. I suppose the problem is I know so little of what the sages taught. Oh well, this year I am to focus on one thing and get studying. I’m hoping by this time next year I will have accumulated a year’s worth of knowledge and this same thing will no longer trip me up.

  19. Too bizarre. I was just thinking about a post on poetry and its relation to scripture. Yael, you beat me to it. ;)

  20. Love the post Doug – I find my self on a new battlefield in this current moment of my life – but your view speaks to where I am also with regards to scripture and it’s use (meaning).

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