On the Bible and Tradition

I distinctly remember sitting in my ‘Introduction to the Old Testament’ class one day, during the Fall of 2010. We were discussing ancient creation myths and other Mesopotamian mythologies that seemed eerily similar to the accounts in Genesis 1-4. I don’t recall what exactly we talked about regarding the 1st or 4th chapters of Genesis, but I do remember talking about Genesis 2-3.

I was absolutely awestruck. Dumbfounded, even.

We were exploring the views of ancient Egyptian stories, Canaanite religion, Babylonian myths, and Sumerian epics. It was incredible the amount of similarities between these narratives and the Scriptural accounts. What struck me, however, was that all of these stories predated the Hebrew texts. Some by several thousand years.

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Marduk vs. Tiamat in the Enuma Elish – just before Marduk creates the expanse called “Sky” to separate the waters, and creates dry ground

I simply didn’t know how to handle what I was studying. Surely if the ancient accounts of Scripture were to be historically true, as I had assumed, then the earliest chapters of Genesis should predate every other telling of the stories.  However, if traditional interpretations are to be correct, then Moses wrote down the texts. But, therein lies a problem… Moses didn’t exist until around 1450 BCE, with the oldest surviving copies dating to around 400 BCE. These other ancient accounts existed well before 1500 BCE, with the earliest surviving physical copy of a creation myth dating to 1600 BCE (The Eridu Genesis of Sumerian origin). So, either Moses didn’t write parts of Genesis, or oral traditions survived hundreds (if not thousands) of years without change, or there’s something else going on here…

I want to pause for a moment, because I don’t want to get into interpretive methods of Genesis 1-4. That’s not the point of this post. The point of this post is that I struggled, for years, on how to reconcile the authority of the Scriptures with the fact that the Scriptures mirror ancient mythologies.

That was a serious crisis point in my life. My faith was built upon the notion that the Scriptures are wholly unique, and stand unopposed by any other religion or anti-religious movement. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what I have come to see as a very weak foundation for my faith.

It’s a funny irony, I’ve noticed, that Protestant traditions tend to look down on catholic practices. We – speaking as a generic protestant of the American variety – say, “Look at those catholics and their traditions! They worship ancient practices that serve… what purpose? Don’t they know that traditional practices for the sake of traditional practices is pointless? Our faith isn’t built upon the Church! They need to stop worshipping tradition!” And so, when we explore new thoughts about church practices, we tend to embrace them.

At the same time, we stick to our own traditions. Mainly, traditional interpretations of Scripture. We can apply the same criticisms to our hermeneutical methods: “Look at those protestants and their traditional interpretations! They worship the church fathers, and even figures of the Bible, and what they said about Scripture! Don’t they know that clinging to traditional views of Scripture for the sake of those traditional views is pointless? Our faith isn’t built on the Scriptures! They need to stop worshipping traditional interpretations!” And so, when we explore new thoughts about Biblical interpretations, we feel threatened by them. Oh, wait…

And here I want to make my first point: If the Bible is what we believe it is – the inspired word of God – then we shouldn’t feel threatened by scientific, anthropological, or archeological findings. Could these discoveries have an impact on our Scriptural interpretations? Absolutely! Would studies in language, ancient cultures, and biblical criticisms challenge our traditionally-held beliefs about Scripture? Quite possibly, yes. But why should we be afraid of that? Just like we shouldn’t be afraid to switch-up the practices of church, or explore alternate structures to a worship service, we can apply the same logic to our treatment of the Bible. After all, our church services and Scripture fulfill the same role: to be a vehicle for communicating the Gospel.

Now I want to awkwardly shift to my second point.

About a year ago, I was asked if I believe the Bible to be true. My response needed clarification, so this was how I answered: “Do I believe that the Bible is true in that it points to Jesus Christ, and accurately portrays his character, and accurately tells of the necessity of being in right relationship with our Creator and how we do that? Yes! Absolutely!  But, do I believe that the Bible is true in that every claim it makes about every subject is 100% scientifically, historically, and philosophically accurate? No.”  (I’m paraphrasing, but that was essentially my answer. And I stand by it).

The truth is this: The Bible contains contradictions. It even points some of them out (see Daniel’s conversation with Gabriel in chapter 9, where Daniel asks, ‘Hey, you told Jeremiah “70 years until Judah’s restoration.” It’s been 69, so what’s going on?’ and Gabriel says, ‘um… that was a mistake. It wasn’t 70 years. It’s actually 70 times 7 years.’  Jeremiah’s scroll autocorrected, I guess.).

In all honesty, I’m not concerned about how anyone interprets the Bible for themselves. If you want to read everything literally, and treat it all as historical, political, scientific fact – go right ahead! If you want to believe that the Bible has no contradiction and interpret your way around ‘supposed contradictions,’ be my guest. I won’t question your faith, nor would I want to. What I struggle with, however, is the historic failure on the part of clergy and church leader to help us develop solid views of Scripture that do not devolve into worship of the 66 books.

I know this, because I experienced it. I experienced having a relationship with God that was based on words instead of the Word (and I don’t mean the Bible with that, I mean Jesus Christ).  I experienced having a crisis of faith because of challenges that were posed to a book – not challenges that were posed to my Creator himself. Yet, I had intricately woven the two together. I had confused the medium with the message; the Scriptures with the point of the Scriptures; the Bible with the Lord. Our faith isn’t built on the Bible. Our faith is built on Jesus Christ, whom the Scriptures point to. But the Bible is not Jesus Christ.

It was a long road to unravel and differentiate the two, but it was a road well worth embarking upon.

 

End note:

This is something I’ve been meaning to write on for a while, but unfortunately this type of conversation is one that can quickly get a minister ‘black-listed,’ either by members of a local church community or  other clergy.

Some may wonder, then, why I chose to write on this when it poses some risk. My answer is simple: I have always seen it as a responsibility of the minister to not simply maintain a status-quo of beliefs. If we are to grow in our faith, we need to face challenges and experience dissonance. What I try to do, then, is help people encounter those dissonances and process their way through them. What they conclude is up to them. This is one of the functions of my blog, after all.

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In Ministers and Trust (Part 6)

I did my March budget today. That may have been a bad idea.

Fortunately, I have a decent sized tax refund coming in either this week or next week. Thank goodness, too, because otherwise the next couple weeks would be pretty difficult to get through.

I won’t lie. Transitioning into a volunteer pastor position has not been an easy one by any stretch of the imagination. Mix together the search for employment, the stress of feeling a need to meet unrealistic expectations, financial difficulties, and all the little stresses that go along with being a leader in a local community you are still trying to becoming a part of, and it’s no wonder to me why so many people leave the ministry.

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To be fair, there is always an opportunity in ministry to complain either at the beginning or after multiple decades. But,  I’m not saying all this to promote an attitude of complaint. Instead, I am saying this in an attempt to paint a picture of what serving the Lord can be like for those entering into ministry.

I was in God’s waiting room for a year, and now I’ve been graduated into a “standby” room so to speak. Similar to why I turned down other ministry opportunities, I moved here out of obedience. I moved here because I sensed this is where God wanted me to be. And now, I am still here because this is where I sense God wants me to be. And until I hear from Him that He wants me to move somewhere else, this is where I will be.

But I won’t be surprised if I get my first grey hairs before the end of next month. Obedience to the call is not without its share of difficult times. Doubly so when one has to shoulder those burdens alone. I wake up, and they’re there. I go to bed, and they’re there.  The problems we face in life and ministry will never go away.

In truth, I wish that issues I face were due to my own irresponsibility that I’m in the situation I am. At least in that case I could point to something and say, “Here it is! This is why I can’t buy my own food. If I only fix this issue I will be okay!”  But I can’t say that in honesty. Instead, what I am forced to say is, “I have no idea what I’m going to do. All I can do is trust that God will provide.”

I think of that popular passage in Philippians 4:13. I’m sure most people know it: “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” I find it interesting the verses leading up to this are Paul reflecting on his moments of both prosperity and need. But this verse doesn’t speak to a truth of acquiring higher status or achieving great things. Instead, it is about being content in all situations. How? Because through Christ we find the satisfaction of our needs.

I know that probably sounds very churchy and inadequate. However, being someone who is (in my humble opinion) as close to the heart of this passage as I’ve ever been, I have discovered that sometimes in life that is all you can say…

“Ben, how can you remain at a church that can’t pay you? How can you keep living in someone’s basement without a job? How can you…..”  Honestly, I really don’t know. Except to say that I am still here, and I am continuing with this mission, because Christ is strengthening me.

This is one of those posts that doesn’t have a very uplifting message. Young ministers, ministry is really tough sometimes. Especially in the finance department. And it can be very tempting to get up and leave in order to pursue a more fiscally advantageous opportunity. However, if we are obedient to the call God has placed upon our lives, I can promise that He will take care of our needs. And, in the process, we will learn what exactly our needs are because, in most cases, I’m willing to bet that what we think we need is a lot more than what we actually need..

On Ministers and F.O.M.O. (Part 5)

I was watching a movie review of Woodlawn, a movie that came out not too long ago. In the review, they cut to a clip of the director discussing how they wanted to instill a sense of F.O.M.O. among the non-churched group. It was then that I learned what F.O.M.O. actually means: Fear Of Missing Out.

A couple months ago I was driving to Ohio and began to listen to Catholic Radio (or All-Catholic Radio… I don’t remember what it was called). The hosts were discussing how our culture is built off of two primary emotional reactions: fear, and hype. Fear comes into play a lot in consumerism. We are fed ideas that we need to have something, or need to live a certain way, and this incites a sense of fear that drives us to make really ridiculous and illogical decisions sometimes simply because we have been taught to fear certain things. Credit Card companies are great with this, by the way.

The other reaction is Hype, and it plays out in a similar way to fear. It causes a drastic level of excitement out of acquiring or the possibility to acquire something new, revolutionary, or unique. It could be an idea, a product, or an experience. Hype works pretty well. This is a big reason why a lot of people spend upwards of $600-$700 a year on a phone they’ll use mostly for calling, texting, and a couple apps until the next model comes out.

The hosts went on to explain that these two emotional reactions are what many American’s go through every week (if not every day). We have a fear of missing out on the next big thing, or we are overly excited about participating in it.

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Unfortunately, this bleeds over into ministry as well. I have seen pastors guide churches on this principle of F.O.M.O. They develop programs, copy mega-church paradigms, and go to drastic measures out of a sense that they would otherwise have their church miss out on some new church fad that God is using to change people’s lives (or increase buildings and budgets… it’s hard to discern the two sometimes). Sometimes, I have even seen churches run themselves into the ground because they were changing so drastically and so often that they became victims of an ultra-consumeristic approach to ministry and they simply couldn’t sustain it.

Although many of those who are entering into the ministry may not have an opportunity to fall victim to the”Fear Of Missing Out” on that scale, it is still a great temptation that ministers face. A new church opportunity in a growing city. A possible promotion in a bi-vocational position. A much better paying full-time job. Or even just the opportunity to pastor in a church at all.

I lament the fact that no one really prepared me for the temptation that comes with this “Fear Of Missing Out”. It was expected that once I graduated from college I would be the pastor of a church that God clearly called me to within a month or two. After all, this is pretty typical if our attitudes about entering into ministry are accurate.

But for me, and for many others, this isn’t the case. We wait, and we wait. And at some point we would be happy to be a janitor in a church or at least have a paying job. So, out of fear, we jump at the first opportunity that comes our way without a second thought.

Or, and what is probably more accurate, we see our friends taking on churches of their own and doing well. We see them living their lives, getting married, having children, and then we look at our own lives and realize that our situation hasn’t changed in years. In fact, for some, it has even gotten worse. We are less sure of our calling, less stable in our life situation, less confident of our abilities, and less in love with the Church than when we started this journey. Add to that a ticking clock as we need to fill our “years in pastoral ministry” requirements for ordination within a certain amount of time, and you have a recipe for a “take whatever you can get” attitude that can lead to a lot of pain, and a lot of burnout.

Waiting for God to do his work in his time isn’t easy. Believe me, it’s not even close to easy. I can’t tell you how many times I have tried to jump-start something or open a door myself only to have it beat me down and leave me worse than how I was. However, and I know this is similar to the previous post about patience (but I felt it was needed to look at it from a different angle), but sometimes the best thing you can do for your ministry and for the future God has called you to is to wait.

On Fools and Disciples

About 8 years ago I was attending a church in another state for about 4 months. During that time, the pastor of the church was caught in a scandal and subsequently left town. I remember having conversations with different people about the details behind the incident, and I as not too surprised by the events that transpired, but I remember saying, “His sermons leading up to this big mess were really good!” After I said that, someone else spoke up and said, “It’s interesting that the sermons get better the closer they hit home for the pastor.”

It’s true, you know. As a preacher, I often find that when I preach on things I am going through (while not abusing the pulpit by using it as a place of personal confession, and not revealing personal information) my sermons seem to have more of an impact.

[Disclaimer: I am fully aware that I am just a tool God uses to communicate His truth, so I am not trying to take credit for anything good that comes from what I preach.]

Recently, I have been obsessed with the Gospel of Mark. In particular, I am most interested in how Mark portrays the disciples. In Mark chapter 4, Jesus seems to set up a distinction between people who are “on the inside,” to which the secrets of the Kingdom of God are given, and those who are “outside,” who do not understand God’s Kingdom nor Jesus’ parables. However, in at least 20 instances throughout Mark’s Gospel, the disciples are the only ones who either a) don’t understand something Jesus says, b) appear clueless as to who Jesus is, c) don’t believe Jesus can do what he says he can do, or d) outright deny things that Jesus says will happen.

Only once does a disciple say something right: Peter’s confession of the Christ. But immediately after that, Jesus says, “Get behind me, Satan!” because Peter refused to accept that Jesus was going to suffer.

In contrast, everyone else Jesus encounters throughout Mark’s Gospel either a) have faith that he can heal/forgive, b) believe he is the Son of God, or c) react completely opposite to how the disciples react to Jesus’ teachings. Characters such as the Samaritan woman, Blind Bartimaeus, and even the centurion at the foot of the cross exhibit more faith and understanding than the 12 disciples who spent every day with Jesus over the course of 3 years!

I still have a hard time wrapping my head around this, because it doesn’t make any sense at all! How is it that people who barely know Jesus exhibit more understanding than someone who has daily conversations with the man, listens to his sermons, and watches him perform miracles? And how is it that those ‘on the outside’ seem to know more about God and His Son than those who are ‘on the inside’?

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In truth, I have often found myself in the shoes of the disciples. I have been a Christian ever since I can remember, and there was never a time when I did not know who Jesus was. Yet, I frequently wonder who in the world this man is. I am confronted with the question: ‘Who is the Christ?’ more often than I care to admit, because the more I reflect on it the more I notice how little I know of Jesus. I read the Bible, and the more I do so the more contradicted I feel because how God acts and speaks simply does not make sense to me.

Maybe it seems strange that a pastor would admit that, for him, having faith is difficult. Sometimes I struggle to know what God’s plan is for my life (or even if he has a plan for me life. Maybe He just wants me to pursue whatever is in front of me…), or whether or not He is who the Bible makes Him out to be. And much like the father in Mark 9, I find myself repeating this prayer in my head: “I do believe, but help my unbelief!” Referring back to what I said earlier, it seems that the power of the content of my preaching has changed a bit since I began writing sermons on this very topic.

During my second year of my undergraduate studies, when I was confronting many challenging questions about my beliefs, I was having a conversation with my mom where I admitted that there are many questions I am hesitant to ask because I have no idea how to answer them. It was then that I began feeling like the blind man whom Jesus healed in John 9 who said, “[Who he is] I do not know. One thing I do know. I as blind, but not I see!” Sometimes that is the only thing I can confidently affirm.

Surely God exists and has been active in my life, because I have seen evidence of that fact. Surely His Son lived, died, rose again, and His spirit dwells inside of me because I have felt the power of that truth. Beyond that, I have many questions and even some doubts. But, I think that is okay. If Jesus’ disciples had such a hard time figuring out who Jesus was when they literally walked with him every day, then certainly Jesus can use me even if I haven’t a clue what is going on.

I am sure many of us have found ourselves in similar situations, or perhaps we are currently in that place of doubt. While it is easy to doubt, perhaps our seasons of doubt help to strengthen our Faith in the end.

On Bait and Switch

Can I confess something with you? This might be a small thing, but it is something that has started to irritate me a little bit, and I feel the need to get it off of my chest. I am starting to get annoyed with certain Facebook posts. Now, I know we all have our own preferences on what types of Facebook posts we like or don’t like, and I’ve made mention of Facebook posts before, but this particular type of post is quite aggravating. I’m talking, of course, about what I call the ‘bait and switch’ posts.

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You all know what I’m talking about. The posts that have the eye-catching titles that seem to be communicating a summary of an article but it turns out the article says something completely different. For example, the post titled, “This Man Is Dating Someone Even Though He’s Married. Sounds Disgusting, But I’m On His Side.” [SPOILER ALERT] After reading the article, I found out that the man in question is actually ‘dating’ his wife and the article is about how married people need to be constantly pursuing their spouse. But, the title of the article draws you to conclude something entirely different than what the content of the article is. [end of spoiler alert]

There are other articles similar to this, but you know what I’m talking about. I’ve stopped clicking on them simply because I hate being tricked. I don’t trust those provocative links anymore; the one’s that shout out, “This is a different view on something and should spark controversial conversation, click on me!” I’m beginning to wonder, however, if we tend to do the same thing in our Christian lives.

I’ve been to several different churches, and I’ve read about several more. It is always amusing to me to listen to a pastor talk about how ‘hip,’ ‘different,’ or ‘loving’ his/her church is, and then when I step in the door I’m confronted with an entirely different story. The ‘hip’ church just plays a different genre of music while the people are stoic and wear jeans, the ‘different’ church is unorganized and doesn’t really communicate a coherent message, and the ‘loving’ church has a lot of hand-shakers but no one will sit next to you in the sanctuary. I will admit that this is a gross generalization, but it has happened enough that I have given up trusting what pastors have to say about their churches. Let the actions of the people in the church speak for themselves.

On a more personal note, I have come to realize that we tend to do this in our own lives. The way we act, the way we talk, and the way we treat others all communicate a message of who we are. But, do we really communicate the reality of who we are? Or are we performing our own bait and switch on people?

“I love people! (except those who think differently than I do.)”
“I’m not judgmental (unless I see you drinking alcohol)”
“Anyone is welcome into my home (but you have to nice to me first)”
“Of course I don’t look down on you (until you start talking about abortion)”

We carry around this notion of a God who loves all people and has his arms open wide to even the most vile of persons. We shout this message as loud as we can, but when someone starts to respond to this we turn the tables and assimilate them into a mindset that looks down on everyone that looks different, thinks different, and acts different than ‘we’ do. We talk about how Jesus offers forgiveness, and yet we don’t forgive. We talk about a God who hates gossip and yet we spread rumors all the time. And we talk about a church that welcomes any and all, but will shun someone if we see them in a bar.

I’ve said this before to people, and I believe it is true. If I were not born into the Christian faith, I would most likely outright reject Christianity. I look at how we talk about ‘the world’ and I see the ‘Christian’ movies we tout as being life-changing, and I honestly don’t see much that is very warm or welcoming in those.

If we’re critical of ourselves, then I think we would see that we often pull a bait-and-switch on people. The way I see it, we need to either look at ourselves objectively and realize that we are messed up people who don’t have it all together and stop trying to make ourselves seem perfect, or we need to start taking our faith more seriously and start living out what we believe (which is not intolerance, hate, and judgment as many would claim). To be fair, I think we need a little bot of both; We ought to be real with who we are and recognize that God is still working in our lives, and we should also see that we are called to live a life that we cannot live on our own.

If the Gospel is manifesting itself in our lives, then there is no need to perform some elaborate marketing campaign. Our lives becomes testimonies in themselves of who God is, and our God is a God who accepts us where we are in spite of our flaws. But, do we accept others in spite of their flaws or do we only say that?

On Failure and Hope

I feel a little awkward right now.  It’s one of those moments when I feel a need – a burning desire – to talk with someone on a personal level, but at the same time I have no idea what to say if I did engage in a conversation.  It’s a mix of fear, dread, worry, and surprise.

I was grading papers today to try and get everything done before Fall Break began this weekend, and I noticed a remark a student made on their paper.  Ever since I read it, I’ve been feeling quite off.  My thoughts seem a bit disconnected and I can’t really focus on anything other than what this student said.

This student came to Olivet from a Christian background.  Suffice to say that I was not expecting to read what I did on his paper, but perhaps I should have seen it coming.  He mentioned that, throughout the course of this semester, he has been gradually falling away from his Christian faith.  Through discussion in class on Christian theology, having to write papers on various topics such as Biblical interpretations and Sin, he is beginning to follow a path of atheism.  He is not there yet, but he recognizes his movement in that direction.

I read something like that, and I cannot help but wonder what part I had to play in that.  At first, it was easy to say, “well, we all have to grow and struggle.  It’s just that he is landing somewhere else than I did.”  Now, however, I am beginning to feel responsible for this.

Was it something I said? After all, he did mention that during a certain discussion in group he was about to storm out of the room because of what was being talked about and how it was being talked about.  But, was I being offensive?  Was I unknowingly pushing him away from God?  When I engage the group in discussion and ask probing questions am I coming across as disingenuous Christian? One thing that the professor who overseas the Teaching Assistants said was, “It’s not what we say that should scare us.  it’s what they hear that should scare us.”  What has this student been hearing me say?

It’s possible that I have stumbled into a place where many teachers find themselves and this is nothing new to some of you.  For my part, however, I have never been confronted with a situations like this since High School.  Am I pushing one of God’s children away from Him?

One thing that gives me comfort in all this is that there is always hope.  During discussion group tonight, I broke up the students into multiple small groups and had them discuss various areas of what Christians would call sins, such as profanity, lust, divorce, homosexuality, and abortion.  Afterwords, we came together and talked about them.  One of the questions I asked at the end of each group’s presentation was, “is there a hope of redemption/restoration for people who participate in this?”  The point I was trying to help them realize was that, no matter how deep in sin some people may be, there is always hope.  After all, the good news of the Gospel is that sin, death, brokenness, and pain are not the end of the story.  The good news of the Gospel is that there can be forgiveness, new life, restoration, and healing.

In regards to this student who is gradually walking away from the Faith: maybe I will see him in Heaven after all, even if I never see him leave his path towards atheism/agnosticism.

As for my part, does this student’s faith development reveal an inherent flaw in who I am as a minister of the Gospel? Is there something I need to change about how I talk, how I teach, how I treat students that God is trying to show me?  Or is this simply revealing to me the fact that the fate of my students’ souls are not in my keeping?  And if that is the case, then what exactly is my spiritual responsibility to these students – or do I even have one?

Is it even healthy to dwell on something like this?