Delio DelRio, PhD

of Pathos, Ethos, and Logos

The Pathos, Ethos, and Logos of my life are shaped and driven entirely by the call of God toward the glory, purpose, nobility found in Jesus Christ.

Theology and the “How to” Culture

In our corporate worship today, the crowd is sovereign not the text. As I observe much of the modern evangelical preaching, I am reminded of something one of my former preaching professors once said, “it’s good stuff; it’s just not God stuff.” I call this style of preaching “how to” preaching, and it is largely the product of the cultural values of the day. In other words, “how to” preaching is an acquiescence to the demands of the crowd more than the demands of the Bible.

I recently made the statement from the pulpit that “The Bible is not really a book of good advice.” Though it does indeed contain plenty of good advice, this is not really God’s goal with the Bible. We have grown accustom now to think of the Bible as nothing more than a manual or set of instructions for “our best life now,” which betrays a subtle and yet central worldview facet that at best obscures and at worst opposes the Gospel of the Kingdom of God. And so, we pillage the Bible, looking for “the three easy steps to a better me.” I would challenge this understanding of the Bible’s purpose and role in our lives. I would suggest that the Bible’s purpose is actually to reveal God . . . who he is and what he does . . . theology not “how to.”

On the significance of theology N.T. Wright wrote, “Prayerful reflection on God, God’s ways, God’s work, God’s purpose, and ultimately God’s faithfulness – that task we loosely call ‘theology’ – had (for Paul) quite suddenly to take on a new role . . . The Messiah’s people, he often insisted, were to be ‘transformed by the renewing of the mind.’ Thinking clearly about God and his purpose was not just an intellectual luxury, an indulgence for long winter evenings. The renewed people of God were to be renewed in their minds, learning to think in a way that was given, for the first time ever, the task of sustaining a worldview. My point here is that in order for the worldview to remain in place, Paul believed it was necessary for the Messiah’s people constantly to explore and think through the actual object of their faith, in other words, God himself, his purposes and his promises. Wisdom prior to this a luxury for the leisured, was now offered to the slave, the shopkeeper, the housewife . . . Theology is the lifeblood of the ekklssia (i.e., church) . .  Without it, as any church will discover, to this day, if theology is ignored or marginalized – the chance of the central worldview-symbol standing upright and supporting the rest of the building will be severely decreased” (Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 403–404).

When we supplant a pursuit of God by surrendering the sturdy value of a hard-earned, thick, and load-bearing theology for the flimsy, counterfeit convenience of a mile-wide, inch-deep, googled praxis, we do so to our own peril and more importantly to the diminishing of our missional effectiveness. On one occasion Jesus was challenged by a group of religious leaders with a question that was designed to trap him. Jesus response? “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God” (Matt 22:29)  . . . and the two are always connected.

Beyond Christmas Card Theology

And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” ––Luke 2:7 (ESV)

Just as it is pictured on many a Christmas card; Jesus lying in a barn with animals away from people, because Motel 6 didn’t leave the light on and the Holiday Inn had no vacancies. Isn’t this correct? Actually, no.

When the Greek language of Luke 2:7 and the historical and social context of the Luke’s birth narrative are examined more closely, quit a different picture emerges. For example, the Greek word often translated "inn" (κατάλυμα) actually refers to the upper living area of a house and should not be equated to a modern hotel. In fact, it is the very same word used in Mk 14:14 and Luke 22:11 in reference to the "upper room" where Jesus held his "last supper" with the disciples. When Luke does mention an "inn" in a parable in reference to the modern sense of a hotel (Luke 10:34), he uses a different term (πανδοχεῖον).

When the social and historical context is considered, a much different picture than the one portrayed on many modern Christmas cards develops. According to the cultural practices of hospitality as well as the honor and shame expectations of ancient Mediterranean culture, the far more likely scenario, and one in keeping with Luke’s word choice, would be that Joseph and Mary stayed in the home of relatives. That most ancient Mediterranean families lived in one-room houses that included a lower level for the animals as a part of that one-room living space along with a second guest room also should be noted. As a result, due to the unusually high number of family guests, Mary had to deliver Jesus in the main family room, where the animals were kept at night rather than the front guest room. In other words, the family guest room was full. Jesus was not born ostracized from humanity welcomed only by the donkeys and cows (of which neither is technically in the text either), but rather, and more inline with Luke’s larger narrative theology, right in the midst of downtrodden humanity. Jesus is never remote from the hustle and bustle of life but always in the thick of it.

In commenting on the reasons for the persistence of the wrong interpretation of Luke’s birth narrative in modern western culture, Dr. Ian Paul wrote: "In the first place, we find it very difficult to read the story in its own cultural terms, and constantly impose our own assumptions about life. Where do you keep animals? Well, if you live in the West, away from the family of course! So that is where Jesus must have been. Secondly, it is easy to underestimate how powerful a hold tradition has on our reading of Scripture."

To Paul’s comments I would add that deconstructing Christmas card theology is an uphill battle largely due to the cultural climate of the modern evangelical church itself. As I have often said, "If I could only teach one subject in church, it would be hermeneutics" (i.e., interpretation).  Because we are naturally prone to read the Bible through our own cultural and social lens, we tend to get much of the text incorrect. Unfortunately, I have found that church life, practice, and expectations are structured in such a way as to make historical and cultural explorations of the biblical text as a community difficult. These sort of historical, language, and cultural details just don’t fit nicely into “three easy steps to walking closer with Jesus” type sermons and studies. The Church as the people of God is called to move beyond Christmas card theology as she wrestles deeply with the profound historical narrative of God’s holy writ.

(Thanks to Dr. Ian Paul for his more detailed blog post on the subject, which can be found here: Ian Paul Blog Post)

Rapid Changes in Worship Services?

Recently, Thom Rainer posted a blog entitled, "Nine Rapid Changes in Church Worship Services" in which he briefly reflected on nine rapid changes in the modern evangelical church. His nine observations are partially based on The National Congregations Study by Duke University. I have summarized Rainer's 9 observations in parenthesis and followed them with a few of my thoughts: 

 

#1. (Choirs are disappearing)– Ah, ok I guess. I'm not against having or not having choir. I just think that choir is ok but not necessary.

#2. (Casual dress is increasing)–I have mixed thoughts on this one. Those of you who know me, known that I wear a tie (most of the time), when I preach. I actually have a missional reason for that, and that missional reason is why the casual dress trend is not for me right now. I must say though that I don't think that dressing casual at church is any great sin.

#3. (Screens are normative) Again, no big deal for me. Though I will say that Neil Postman (author of Amusing Ourselves to Death) would say that the presence of screens is quite unfortunate, because it is a manifestation of our dumbing down, need for visual stimulation, and insatiable appetite for entertainment.

#4. (Preaching is longer)–This is shocking to me, and I am highly suspect of its accuracy. If it were true, I would applaud this change. I'm not a fan of the shorter, sound bite, simple, “how-to,” fluff-oriented sermons that dominate the church culture today. Just read a sermon by John Wesley or Johnathan Edwards (not to mention any of the pre-Enlightenment preachers) . . . We in the modern church age just don't have the passion for knowledge or fortitude for pursuit of the truth that is required for their kind of preaching.

#5. (Multi-contexts are normative)–This is unhealthy on soooo many levels.

#6. (Diversity is increasing among attendees)– YES! AMEN! AND AMEN! This trend represents the Gospel. Just read Paul's letter to the Romans.

#7. (Conflict is not increasing)– This could be good or bad. Conflict is a part of life and family. So, conflict in a church is expected and normal. In fact, I would say that it is ESSENTIAL for growth and discipleship. Some of the most productive times in Church history involved a great deal of conflict in the Church. (Hello? The Reformation anyone?) Of course, we must remember that there is unhealthy conflict and healthy conflict, and I am in favor of the healthy kind. It all depends on what the conflict is about. So, a decrease in conflict may not necessarily be good . . . it may mean that we are just comfortable and complacent.

#8. (90% of attendees are in churches of over 400 in attendance)–Again, this is an unhealthy and alarming trend. I think it absolutely reflects our franchised and consumer driven cultural mindset, and unfortunately it is deeply entrenched in the church.

#9. (Sunday evening services are disappearing)–Doesn’t bother me. I'm not against having or not having Sunday evening worship. Like Choir, it's ok but not necessary. The real question that we should ask is  . . . What is it accomplishing in reference to discipleship? Just for the record . . . Where again in the Bible does it say, “Thou shalt have Sunday evening worship service”? . . . Right.

Abraham, Faith, and One-Ended Sticks

When building a biblical theology, how one understands key biblical concepts is extremely important. A habit of too narrowly defining key biblical concepts due to various historical and personal reasons (e.g., historical theological debates and plain old personal laziness just to name a few) has plagued the modern evangelical church, and this has not been without significant negative impact on her health and theological depth.

Take the common evangelical understanding of the concept of “faith.” Many in the evangelical church understand “faith” as mental action, an intellectual agreement with core theological doctrine. Perhaps the most common verse that comes to mind for most would be Eph. 2:8–9, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Here many get the most often understood expression of “faith” as an intellectual act and as an opposite of “works.” But while “faith” does contain some aspect of intellectual belief or agreement (such as is seen in Eph. 2:8–9) and while doctrine is important, the Bible actually expresses a more multifaceted and nuanced understanding of "faith." For example, in Hebrews 11, the author offers a lengthy exegesis of Old Testament narrative in an effort to define “faith.” One inescapable conclusion concerning his argument is that he sees faith and the action of obedience as closely tethered. “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out” (Heb 11:8). Over and over again in Heb 11, faith, which is defined as an assurance and conviction in Heb 11:1, is the driving force for obedience and action.

R.W. Moberly in his book The Bible, Theology, and Faith: A study of Abraham and Jesus, reflecting on the story of Abraham and its exegesis in Hebrews 11, wrote, “This is what true religion entails: a trusting obedience of God which means relinquishing to God that which is most precious; a self-dispossession of that on which one’s identity and hopes are most deeply based; a recognition that response to God may be costly, or even more costly, at the end of one’s life as it was earlier on; a recognition that the outcome of obedience is unknown and can not be predicted in advance; a recognition that the religious community to which one belongs and which tells this as one of its foundation stories can only become complacent at the expense of the essence of its own identity. This is to say that to the extent that the institutional forms of a religious community, whose purpose is to enable and preserve openness and responsiveness to God becomes devoted to maintaining their own existence at the expense of the very qualities they exist to foster, they deserve no less than the full critical impact of their own identifying charter.”

The story of Abraham and his demonstration of faith is indeed a dangerous story to have at the center of one’s theology. Then again, the story of Abraham’s faith is a prime example utilized by several New Testament authors. This thankfully doesn’t leave the evangelical Christian with much choice concerning the central place of Abraham’s faith in one’s construction of the concept of faith. Biblical faith is a faith that leans into the future of God’s promises through Jesus Christ, that flows from a place of assurance in Jesus Christ, and that manifests in actions of conviction from Jesus Christ. This is biblical faith. This is true religion.

In the end, Abraham’s story of faith leaves me with the conclusion that trying to define “faith” in God apart from actions of obedience to God is kind of like trying to think about a one-ended stick. Lord, may my faith in you reflect a level of assurance and conviction that moves me toward radical acts of obedience to Jesus Christ my Lord.

Montoya’s Prophetic Call

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” –Montoya

In the 1987 movie, The Princess Bride, one of the main characters, Inigo Montoya, delivered what has now become an iconic line. After one "inconceivable!" too many from Vizzini, Montoya looked at him and said, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Is it so “inconceivable” that Montoya’s now iconic line could be applied to some of the most common Christian lingo in modern evangelicalism? When one’s ears are tuned to the New Testament, much of the conceptual meanings carried in the linguistic universe of the modern evangelical church seem strangely out of tune.

For example, the word “salvation” understandably lies at the center of the church’s linguistic universe. Questions like “Are you saved? or “When were you saved?” are often used as means to gauge one’s spiritual testimony. Some of the most common responses to questions like these include concepts such as praying a prayer or inviting Jesus into one’s heart. But how does the Bible define this word? What is the Bible’s conceptual meaning of the word “salvation?”

While an investigation of the Bible’s conceptual meaning of the word “salvation” from just one Gospel passage does run the risk of over extrapolation, the story told in Luke 18:18–30 can offer valuable insight on this issue. In Luke 18:18–30, Jesus interacts with a rich ruler, who is inquiring of him about how one obtains eternal life. Jesus’ response, which was a directive to the rich ruler to give everything away to the poor, has caused some controversy and interpretational angst in the church over the course of her history. A cursory reading of any modern commentary on Luke reveals the debate concerning the meaning of Jesus’ response. But lest one run the risk of divorcing Jesus’ directives to the rich ruler from the concept of salvation, the disciples’ response in v. 26 should be noted. In the midst of a conversation about “eternal life,” “treasure in heaven,” and the “kingdom of God,” the disciples invoke the language of “salvation.”

What’s the point of all this? . . . Jesus and the rich ruler are talking from the start about this issue of “being saved.” Absent from Jesus response are the commands to pray a prayer or offer him entrance into his heart. Rather, when Jesus talks about “being saved,” he utilizes phrases like “follow me.” This conversation between Jesus, the rich ruler, and the disciples indicates that in Jesus’ conceptual universe words like “salvation” and “follow” belong in the same galaxy, because they revolve around the same central definition of “eternal life” and the “Kingdom of God.”

With the voice of the New Testament now echoing in our ears, the common usage of the language of salvation in today’s evangelical church betrays a faulty definition. We keep using these words. I do not think they mean what we think they mean. And so here, Montoya’s iconic line becomes a prophetic call to the church to reexamine closely her central theological concepts against the conceptual context of the New Testament. As Dr. David Platt once wrote, “Our attempt to reduce this gospel to a shrink-wrapped presentation that persuades someone to say or pray the right things back to us no longer seems appropriate.” The pastor and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, once called out similar incorrect definitions of salvation when he identified them as “cheap grace.” Lord, may the voice of your Holy Word echo so loudly in my ears that it challenges and corrects any cheapness or incorrectness that I might place upon the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

of DUCKS, GOSPEL, and AMERICAN CHRISTIANITY

“ . . . most reasonable people will admit that their own experiences have a fair bit to do with their respective theological emphases, not least those touching on the relationships between Christians and unbelievers.” –D. A. Carson, Christ in Culture Revisited

In 1951, Christian theologian H. Richard Niebuhr published the book Christ and Culture, a discussion of the ethical issues raised when Christians engage the cultural world around them. In 2008, the discussion was advanced by Christian theologian D.A. Carson in his published work, Christ and Culture: Revisited. One significant conclusion that can be drawn from both works is that when it comes to the Christian engagement of culture, one size simply does not fit all. The nature of the New Testament gospel itself, demands critical-thinking from those who claim allegiance to it. When it comes to following Jesus, a lack of  critical thinking and reductionistic approaches simply will not do.

One cannot adequately read the New Testament without coming to the conclusion that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is at its core counter cultural, and an allegiance to Jesus demands counter-cultural commitments. Perhaps, what is most interesting about American evangelical christianity is how “counter-cultural” is most often understood and practiced. Take for example, A&E’s  recent censorship by way of suspension of professed Christian Phil Robertson. The reaction made by American evangelical christianity has been widespread and fervent. A simple google search or facebook scan reveals the common American evangelical christian expression of Phil’s plight with one of two motifs: persecution and violation of free speech . . . both of which betray a flaw in the all too common American evangelical understanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The cry of “freedom of speech” as the major violation in the censorship betrays a too closely wedded Gospel of Jesus Christ to the American narrative, which has resulted in an expression of Christianity in terms of constitutionally protected rights. In short, contemporary American evangelical christianity is too often more “American” than “Christian.” Freedom of self-expression is not the call of the New Testament Gospel of Jesus Christ, rather freedom to serve is. On the other hand, the cry of “persecution” betrays a too closely wedded Gospel of Jesus Christ with the American cultural identity of consumerism, which has resulted in an expression of Christianity in overly soft, safe, and comfort driven expectations. The suspension of a self-professed millionaire Christian, who doesn’t really relish being on t.v. or being a reality star, from the widely popular Duck Dynasty t.v. show by a secular company is hardly the plight of persecution the likes of which Jesus spoke about. According to Jesus, it’s simply par for the course, and a mild version of it at that.

As Carson wrote in Christ and Culture: Revisited, “We need to be reminded that the only human organization that continues into eternity is the church; we need to remember that even cultural gains are often followed by losses, that sin rears its head sometimes in violent persecution and sometimes in subtle deception (Revelation 13!), that biblical narrative itself shows us how often a good king is followed by a bad king and vice versa. It is unwise to speak of “redeeming culture”: if we lose the unique significance bound up with the redemption secured by Christ in his death and resurrection, we lose the ongoing tension between Christ and culture that must subsist until the end.” 

American evangelical christianity far too often views and practices a counter-cultural expression rooted in personal freedoms, which is verbalized in demands for status, recognition, and comfortable treatment. Biblical counter-culture is expressed in terms of love, sacrifice, and service. This view of the operation of the Kingdom of God in the world is perhaps best expressed in Jesus’ statement, “But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:39).

The recent intersection of Ducks and American Christianity resulting in the evangelical expression of plight betrays the presence of a Gospel that is alien to the New Testament. The simultaneous reality of the lack of critical thinking and the presence of reductionistic thinking has resulted in a very narrow, and at times outright unbiblical, view and practice of “counter-cultural.” Paul Washer once said, "If [following Jesus Christ] doesn't cost you anything, it's because you've bought into 'American Christianity.'" To which, I would add, if one finds the concept of a cost associated with following Jesus Christ as shocking, unsettling, and outside the norm, it’s because one has bought into American Christianity. O’ Lord, guard me from constructing a gospel that effectively bulwarks my right to “self” and is powerless in bringing your life to the world.

SUPERMAN, the PASTOR, and the CHURCH ETHOS

 

What makes Superman a hero is not that he has power, but that he has the wisdom and the maturity to use the power wisely.” ––Christopher Reeve

In order to follow this blog post, a brief article and short video found here (http://www.paultripp.com/articles/posts/do-you-know-your-pastor) will be necessary. In the article and video interview, Paul Tripp raises some salient, biblical, and necessary points concerning the pastor-congregation relationship in the modern evangelical church. I encourage you to pause here watch the video, and read the article then return to this blog post.

Most pastors that I know have to go outside the congregations that they lead in order to develop an ethos for personal accountability, spiritual growth, challenge, confession, and inspiration. The modern church ethos shouldn’t be this way. While I am sure that  a number of issues lead to this reality, I would point specifically to two that considerably shape this unhealthy ethos between pastors and congregations. 

First, pastors are partly to blame. Unfortunately, we pastors too often think we have an “S” on our chest, which results in an attitude of spiritual self-sufficiency at best and arrogant pride at worse. While pastors are indeed important leaders within a congregation, they are not intended to be the only leaders. And Second, congregations are partly to blame. The modern American evangelical church is largely made up of consumers, who are at church to “get” rather than to “give,” which violates the very core of the definition of the Gospel of the Kingdom of God. Simply put, consumerism is antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus' Kingdom. Furthermore, the modern church ethos seems to be devoid of any sense of “community” as a serious and indeed necessary part of the Gospel. As a result, the average evangelical church member expects the pastor to have an “S” on his chest, jump into a phone booth, change outfits to reveal that “S,” and swoop in to “save the day” concerning whatever issue one might be having. After all, Superman was there to serve the city of Metropolis not the other way around . . . right?

So, where does the modern evangelical church and pastor go from here? 

First, I would say that I don’t intend to belittle the importance of the pastoral role in a congregation. Pastors are an important part of the leadership of the church. Pastors do need to give thought and action to the significance of their role in challenging and inspiring the church they serve. Second, I would argue that transparency and leadership as pastoral qualities are not mutually exclusive, though many think they are. An authentic transparency of weaknesses as well as inspiring leadership can exist in the same person. We pastors may simply need to recognize that we are not the best thing since sliced bread when it comes to the church. We are less like Superman and more like Clark Kent; an honest, sincere, passionate, intelligent, loyal, quite strength of a guy who is simultaneously weak, at times fearful, clumsy, and wears goofy glasses. Clark Kent already has within him what is needed to lead, challenge, and inspire; he doesn't need the suit. And finally, church members need to remember the King and the nature of the Kingdom that they claim to follow. Which is to say, they need to stop building an ethos of Christian consumerism and start building an ethos of Christian service. The result may be that they apply Tripp’s questions as necessary and valid questions for themselves as much as for their pastors. Yes, Superman was to serve the city of Metropolis, but so also the city of Metropolis should serve Clark Kent.

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. ––2 Corinthians 12:9

The Gospel: a Commodity or a Call?

 Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” . . . And Jesus said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” ––Mark 1:14–17

The word “gospel” derives from an ancient Greek word indirectly through Latin, which when translated means “good news.” Of course, the next logical question that should be raised when one proclaims “a gospel” is “good news about what?” How does the New Testament answer this question, and is the contemporary evangelical church giving the same answer? What really is the Gospel of Jesus Christ?

If asked the question, the majority of evangelical church goers today would most likely offer something akin to the “Romans Road:” all men are sinners, Christ died for our sin, and by accepting Christ’s free gift of salvation one can go to heaven. This understanding of the Gospel basically reflects a theological thinking that has been shaped by a number of cultural and historical influences over the last few hundred years that weren’t always reflective of the New Testament Gospel proclamation.

In the wake of the prodigious work of E.P. Sanders, New Testament scholars like James D. G. Dunn, N.T. Wright, and many others have worked diligently to evaluate and apply Sanders’ observations to our understanding of the New Testament Gospel proclamation. What has emerged from all this work over the last few decades, though not without much controversy, is a realization that the contemporary evangelical view of the Gospel of Jesus Christ may be more than a bit skewed. What many New Testament scholars have been arguing for quite some time now is that we have been reading the New Testament through a clouded “western” lens, and we need to recapture the New Testament’s perspective, which will be a “new perspective” for many of us, on this thing called “The Gospel.”

The “Romans Road” example of the Gospel offered above illustrates the prevalent contemporary understanding of the Gospel as a set of doctrinal beliefs. Though the “Romans Road” or the doctrinal understanding it expresses is not technically incorrect, it does betray too narrowly a constructed thinking. In part, this is perpetuated by our contemporary misunderstanding of the biblical use of the word “believe.” The result has been the view that an acceptance of the Gospel means an adherence to a set of doctrinal bullet points. When this view of the Gospel as a doctrine is coupled with the contemporary western understanding of self-identity as a consumer, the result is a too narrowly defined gospel as a good news concerning the reception of a gift. As a result, the Gospel of salvation becomes nothing more than a commodity. 

This is reflected in the common enunciation of an invitation to the Gospel with words like “accept,” “receive,” “believe,” and of course the all too often repeated “ask Jesus to come into your heart.” This linguistic universe reveals the metaphor of commodity as the central and exclusive understanding of the Gospel salvation. 

But when Jesus descended upon the scene in Galilee proclaiming a Gospel as told in Mark 1, he described it as the arrival of the Kingdom of God. For Jesus, the Gospel was a narrative about God doing something, which is more than just the revelation of doctrine. The Gospel is the good news that God has become King of his people again, and this narrative includes a call to follow after his Kingdom. 

At its core, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is historical and participatory in nature not doctrinal. While doctrine is a valid and indeed necessary way to talk about the Kingdom, it is not the Kingdom itself. The real invitation is not just to accept but to enter into, not just believe but to follow. The Gospel is not a commodity, it’s a call. Lord, may I not treat the grace of your Gospel simply as a thing I possess but as a noble and divine call that I answer and live out.

of Hubris, God, and Men

A man who is eating or lying with his wife or preparing to go to sleep in humility, thankfulness and temperance, is, by Christian standards, in an infinitely higher state than one who is listening to Bach or reading Plato in a state of pride.” –C.S. Lewis

In the Divine Comedy (Purgatorio Canto XI), Dante describes the first ledge of purgatory, which is just a notch above hell, as a place where the prideful walk the path while carrying large stone weights upon their backs, forcing their faces and hence their gaze toward the ground as a means for teaching humility. While I don’t subscribe to the theology of Dante’s Divine Comedy, I do think the image is a powerful one and well worth pondering. 

Perhaps the most dire condition for the human soul is the condition of pride. Among all the sins of men, God seems to be most concerned with the sin of pride.  In reflecting on the gravity of pride, the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas once wrote, “In order to overcome pride, God will punish certain men by allowing them to fall into sins of the flesh, which though actually are less grievous than pride itself, are outwardly more shameful  . . . From this indeed, the gravity of pride is made manifest. For just as a wise physician, in order to cure a worse disease, allows the patient to contract one that is less dangerous, so that the sin of pride is shown to be more grievous, by the very fact that as a remedy God allows some of them to fall into other sins” (Summa Theologica II q.162 ad.3). I think Aquinas is on to something here; but if Aquinas is correct, why is pride so grievous? 

Aquinas suggested, “pride has extreme gravity, because in other sins man turns away from God either through ignorance or through weakness, or through desire for any other good whatever; whereas pride denotes aversion from God simply through being unwilling to be subject to God and His rule” (Summa Theologica II q.162 ad.1). Most usually think of pride in this way, as a sin that has at its root a refusal to submit to God’s authority. Thus, I am reminded of James’ words, “Therefore it says, ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’ Submit yourselves therefore to God . . .” (Jam 4:6–7a). Certainly, rejection of God’s authority is serious; but unlike Aquinas, I do not think a rejection of God’s authority is the primary reason for its grievousness.  A clue to the reason for the grievousness of pride can be found in Deuteronomy chapter 8, specifically in the connection God makes between pride, humility, the wilderness, and his provision.

In Deuteronomy chapter 8, God warns Israel of the destructive nature of pride and the need for humility in saying, “Take care lest you forget the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt . . . who led you through the great and terrifying wilderness, . . . that he might humble you . . . lest, when . . .  all that you have is multiplied, then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the LORD your God . . . Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ . . . And if you forget the LORD your God and go after other gods and serve them and worship them, I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish” (Deut 8:11–19). Humility, as the opposite of pride, is that realization that I am not omni-sufficient for a divine and noble life. More to the point, humility, as the opposite of pride, keeps me not just from rejecting God’s authority but also from rejecting God’s provision. 

The theology reflected in God’s warning affirms both Aquinas’ and Dante’s concern with the gravity of pride as well as their suggested antidote of humility, but it also serves as a correction to them both concerning their view of the nature of pride’s destruction, why it is so grievous, and just who actually grieves. 

I am reminded that man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God (Deut 8:3). Pride is most grievous not simply because it says, “no” to God’s rule but because it says, “no” to God’s bread, and the two are always linked. When I reflect on my life as of late, I am most challenged by the understanding of my pride as a rejection of God’s bread when sometimes I just don’t want the wilderness path. Far too often, I give in to hubris, because I look toward that which has been multiplied, lift up my heart, and forget that the Lord my God is the only one who is omni-sufficient for a noble and divine life.

As theologian and philosopher Ravi Zacharias has suggested, when we sin and push God away, God indeed grieves; not because he has lost something . . . but because we have lost something. O’ Lord, when hubris encroaches upon my soul, may your grace be set upon my back as a large stone weight forcing my face and hence my gaze toward the ground from whence I came. Help me to know that your bread is what I need.

Reading the BIble: A Disorienting Dilemma

As Christians, why do we read the Bible? What are we after really, when we open the pages of this centuries-old sacred writ?

Jack Mezirow, professor of adult education theory, has argued persuasively that pervasive transformative growth happens rarely and only when “critical self-reflection” is present. The key starting point to this process is what Mezirow called “the disorienting dilemma.” According to Mezirow, a disorienting dilemma is a particular experience in which a crisis of thought is brought on that previous problem-solving strategies prove incapable of solving. 

What does this have to do with how and why we read the Bible? I believe . . . everything.

When I contemplate the many encounters between God and his prophets recorded in the Bible, I am struck by a particular similarity. When the prophet hears the Word of God, it is almost always a jarring, frightening, and unsettling word. I think of the prophet Habakkuk, who is shocked at God’s answer to his inquiry concerning his plan for a wayward Israel. I remember Isaiah, who while seeking God in the temple, finds that he has bitten off more than he can chew, when God actually shows up. I recall the puzzlement of twelve disciples around a table who sat in stunned disbelief, all asking, “Is it me?,” when Jesus pronounced his coming betrayal. In all of these and many more biblical examples, what I see are individuals confronted by the voice of God and the consistent result of a disorienting dilemma. After all, should we expect anything less of an encounter between the infinite God and his finite creation?

Far too often in the church today, our reading of the Bible reflects our domesticated and safe view of God and what it means to follow Jesus. We do what I describe as reading to reinforce. A consuming, taxing, and contemplative investigation of the Scriptures is almost alien to the average church context, and is sometimes even deemed “unspiritual.” What is missing is critical thinking, and this lack of critical thinking has lead to an absence of critical self-reflection. As a result, our practice of daily “devotional” glances at the Word have served only to reinforce already held theological beliefs that too often have been shaped and constructed largely by a random gumbo of cultural influences. 

I have to wonder . . . should I regularly walk away from my Bible reading without ever feeling somewhat jarred, frighten, or unsettled? Is the purpose of my Bible reading simply to reinforce my present spiritual posture and current level of biblical knowledge? How many times have we walked out of a sermon, church Bible study, or personal devotion time with exactly the same insights, knowledge, and self-view as we had before we walked into it? This just doesn’t seem to match up with the disciples’ experience with Jesus that I read about in the Gospels. Their entire three-year journey with him reads like one giant disorienting dilemma. 

Perhaps, we need to abandon our safe and domesticated practice of reading to reinforce and adopt an approach to the Scriptures that results in the experiencing of the disorienting dilemma.

For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.  No creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account. (Hebrews 4:12–13)

Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up?

To put the matter personally; on the one hand, however loyal one judges oneself to be to Jesus, it is difficult to see how such loyalty is a mark of Christian thought if the Jesus so invoked is domesticated and selectively constructed that he bears little relation to the Bible.”–– D.A.  Carson

I often am painfully aware of how easily and quickly I can make idols in life. As the Church theologian John Calvin once wrote, “there is scarcely an individual to be found without some idol or phantom as a substitute for Deity. Like water gushing forth from a large and copious spring, immense crowds of gods have issued from the human mind, every man giving himself full license, and devising some peculiar form of divinity, to meet his own views . . .The human mind is, so to speak, a perpetual forge of idols” (Institutes Book I.V.12 and Institutes Book I.XI.8-9). Though in context, Calvin was speaking of man in general and focusing on non-believers, I believe this reality is also continuously threatening the Church and individual Christian believer. 

I am reminded from the Scriptures of the story told in Exodus 32. In the story, the people grow impatient with Moses’ delay on the mountain, which leads them to ask Aaron to make them gods who will go before them. In what probably should be quite unsurprising to us, Aaron responds by leading the people to fashion a golden calf as an idol. He says to the people, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” While standing in front of this golden calf, he then declares that they will have “a festival to Yahweh.” 

Did you catch what happened there? . . . Aaron makes an idol, points to it, and then calls it "Yahweh." Aaron and the people basically squeeze God, Yahweh, through their preconceived mold of divinity. They simply revert to their cultural way of thinking. In short, they fashion Yahweh to their own understandings, preferences, and likings. 

In the original context of Calvin’s quotes above, Calvin further argued that ignorance of God is a forerunner to idol making. I think this holds true for the Church as well. When we are ignorant of who Jesus is and what his Kingdom is really about, we will fashion idols after our own likings and then slap the name “Jesus” on them. In the Church today, we are far too ignorant of who Jesus is and what he is all about; and as a result, we indeed are constructing Jesus' that bear little relation to the Bible.

In his book, The Barbarian Way, Erwin McManus lamented, “Jesus is being lost in a religion bearing his name.” In the cultural of Christianity where widely varying Jesus’ are being fashioned continuously and in my own mind where the temptation to fashion idols after my own liking is always looming . . . may the real Jesus please stand up!

 

of Gutter, Mundane, and Noble Things

“The American church is also not immune to the influence of today's culture of celebrity and speed . . . We ignore meaningful content if it's boring . . . We sacrifice contentment, care and thoughtfulness in order to quench our insatiable desire for social interaction and cheap entertainment.” ––from an article by Stephen Mattson recently posted on Christian Today

I have thought often about the things we pursue with our minds and with our time as fitting into one of three categories: noble, mundane, or gutter. Gutter describes those things in life that are morally bad, in biblical terms one might say “sinful.” Most of us have little difficulty spotting gutter. We sort of know it, when we see it. Noble, on the other hand, describes those activities and thoughts in life that are good, worthy, and valuable. When you think about it, the vast majority of things we pursue with our minds are neither gutter or noble but rather mundane. They are not necessarily good or evil in a moral sense; they are just, well . . . morally neutral and ordinary. For example, last night I watched a little t.v. (The Discovery Channel) before going to bed. Now, most people would not call that gutter, but I seriously doubt anybody would call it noble. 

We usually don’t pursue the noble, because its costly. Noble things in life require sacrifice, care, and thoughtfulness. As a result, we live the vast majority of our lives in the mundane, while trying to fend off the gutter. The problem is that when we live the majority of our lives in the mundane, its just a short slip to the gutter. Instead, we should spend more time pursuing the noble, the divine. 

In Philippians 4:8, the Apostle Paul writes to the Christian, “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

If we would flood our mundane with things that are noble, we would find the gutter less often.