Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Reclaiming the Bible

Here's another short excerpt from my book, Reframing a Relevant Faith. This portion is part of the chapter on the Bible. You can purchase the book from the publisher at http://direct.energion.co/reframing-a-relevant-faith or through Amazon at http://www.amazon.com/Reframing-Relevant-Faith-Drew-Smith/dp/1631991213/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1418159944&sr=1-1&keywords=reframing+a+relevant+faith. An e-version is also available at http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=reframing%20a%20relevant%20faith%20kindle.

Regardless of which Christian tradition we call our own, the sacred texts of the Bible are always central to that tradition.  While we may affirm different canons of scripture, all families within the Christian faith have great reverence for the scriptures and view them as having a vital place of authority in shaping Christian belief and practice.  Yet, we must realize that the texts of scripture never stand on their own. The Bible does not interpret itself, but must be interpreted by those who read the text; those situated in various times and places who seek to grasp what these texts say about God.
         
There are many reasons people may read the Bible, e.g., historical or literary, but the ultimate and constant reason for reading the Bible is theological. Most who read the text, or hear the text read, believe it to have something to say about God and God’s engagement with humanity.  Indeed, the Bible exists, both in its parts and in its whole, not primarily for historical or literary purposes, but because both the parts and the whole of the Bible offer the historically situated authors’ views on God and how God relates to humanity.  In other words, the authors of the different books of the Bible present primarily a theological perspective of life from their own world. 
         
But the very existence of the Christian sacred texts from any and every tradition indicates that the stories of the Bible are not just about the events, characters, and times of their own era.  These stories extend beyond their own frame of reference to communicate a belief in God’s good future in which each generation can find hope in the midst of the challenges of human existence.
         
So, if the primary purpose for writing the books of the Bible and for reading these books is theological, then how should we read these ancient texts that were written by historically situated humans who would not have envisioned the world in which we live?  Do we take what they say about God at face value, or should we be open to fresh understandings of God?  Answering these questions fully would take more space than allotted here, but I want to offer at least a rudimentary approach to reading the scriptures theologically.
         
One important step to reading the Bible theologically is to embrace a critical approach to biblical interpretation.  In other words, we can extend our critical approach to the Bible past simply asking questions about the history of the Bible, to asking questions about what the Bible says.  A critical approach to reading scripture is not only appropriate, it is also necessary when one is seeking to develop relevant theological thinking.
         
A critical approach involves several components that contribute to viable and meaningful interpretations.  Reading the Bible critically means not only giving close attention to the literary nature of the text, and to the genre of a specific text, but also to the historically conditioned nature of the biblical texts and the authors who penned them. These authors, and the texts they produced, reflect a different worldview than ours.  They viewed the cosmos differently, history differently, and the experience of the divine differently.  Thus, any faithful readings, and the theology that develops from those readings, must take into account the assumptions these authors had that we no longer have. While developing our theology from the scriptures must demonstrate integrity with the historical meaning of the text, our readings are not bound by those original meanings as we seek to bring theological relevancy to our own context.
         
Yet, as we read and interpret the text of scripture to this end, we must also recognize our own presuppositions.  Each of us reads from our own ideologies that are often culturally transmitted to us.  We approach the biblical text with these ideologies, which often leads to our reading our presuppositions into the texts of scripture without realizing it.  Our gender, our race, our sexual orientation, our socio-economic class, and even the various events we have experienced and continue to experience all contribute to the assumptions we have about what the Bible says and means.  Moreover, we often do not recognize such ideologies and presuppositions, and not doing so can cause us to cling consciously or unconsciously to misunderstandings and misinterpretations of biblical passages that are not true to the text or a critical approach to its interpretation. 
         
Indeed, such misinterpretations may be so deeply embedded in our cultural locations that they may be hard to set aside altogether.  They are often like a pair of old spectacles that have become a part of who we are and through which we see everything.  To be sure, we would be uncomfortable and untrusting of what we read without them.  But, if we are to read the texts faithfully in order to shape a more relevant and meaningful theology and practice, we must take them off, at least for the purpose of seeing the text differently.
         
Of course, we could read the Bible critically in isolation, but that may only lead us back to our presuppositions.  A more fruitful practice of reading would be to read the text of scripture in a community that may offer challenges to our individual understandings.  A text of scripture does not have a single meaning limited to authorial intent, and no one person has greater authority in interpreting a text of scripture.  Certainly we can be helped by those trained to read these ancient texts; those committed to the study of their original languages, settings, and purpose, but we need not all be biblical scholars to read, appreciate, and live out the meanings of the biblical texts. 
         
Each of us approaches the texts with different experiences and thus each of us has different presuppositions.  When shared in a community of textual readers, however, such experiences can enrich one’s faith and lead one to be more faithful in his or her discipleship.  The richness of the biblical texts cannot be limited to authorial intent or authoritative interpretation.  Rather, the Bible contains a multiplicity of valid interpretations, and reading in community can help us see other meanings and other ways of assessing the Bible.
         
Yet, while we can read the scriptures in the communities we call our churches, this may only reinforce the same presuppositions.  Others from our community wear similar glasses, for we typically associate with those who look like us, talk like us, and are from the same social and economic situations.  There is nothing inherently wrong with this practice, and reading in likeminded community is an exercise in biblical and theological interpretation that can shape our discipleship.  But, reading the text with people from other races, other cultures, other social and economic conditions, and other ways of thinking about God and humanity can help us recognize our presuppositions and assist us in seeing the text vastly different.  And such a practice may help us to see God differently by offering the Spirit a way of leading us to fresh interpretations that shape our theological thinking.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Repenting Toward God: An Advent Reflection



In following the Gospel of Mark’s opening, what I have called Mark’s Advent story, I have suggested that the story calls us to wait on God and listen for God; two disciplines we ought to practice during the Season of Advent.
But after a time of waiting, however long it might be, and after listening for God through the multiple and diverse ways God may speak, we are confronted with the choice of either ignoring or acting. If we ignore the messenger and message of God, then we cannot fully embrace the gospel of God. To enter God’s rule means that we must act in response to both the messenger and message of God. Such actions are defined by two simple, but interrelated terms: repent and believe.
Much like the term sin, the idea of repentance is often pushed aside as unnecessary. Because we are told we should never admit that we have failed, often intentionally and horribly, there seems to be no need to admit our sin, and thus we believe that there is no need for the successive action of repenting from our sin. But this way of thinking is foreign to the gospel’s message.
Indeed, at the very heart of the gospel is the idea, the command, and the action of repenting. In fact, a careful reading of Mark’s prologue shows that the call to repent is there from the beginning. the words, “Prepare the Way of the Lord,” spoken through the prophet, is a declaration from Isaiah 40 that God will come to God’s people and the people must respond by preparing their lives for the visitation of God.

Such preparation involves recognizing that we are finite humans who are in need of the love and grace of God. This recognition is indicated through the act of turning from our self-serving lives and turning to God and to others in service and love.

Mark follows this declaration with the introduction of God’s messenger, John, who preaches a baptism of repentance and to whom throngs of people come to confess their sins and be baptized in preparation for God’s coming.

But John is only the forerunner to the one who comes in the authority of God; the one who is proclaimed as the Beloved Son by God. In the coming of Jesus, we see again that at the core of the gospel is the idea of repentance. Jesus declares, “The rule of God is near. Repent and believe in the good news.”

Thus, at the heart of Israel’s ancient prophet’s preaching, the proclamation by the one sent as the messenger of God, and Jesus’ announcement that God’s rule was near is a call to repent.
But two important questions come to mind regarding the idea of repentance. What does it mean to repent and from what should we repent?

We can find assistance in answering these questions by looking at the Greek word behind this English rendering to garner a definition of the word repent. Simply put, the word means to turn around or to change one’s mind. But this dictionary meaning does not help us much.

We often think of repenting as telling God that we are sorry we committed this or that sinful act and we will never do it again. Yet, what we find is that we do those things again and again no matter how serious we are in our repentance. But is repentance simply a turning away from our private and favorite sins?

While we should continue to repent of those individual habits that afflict us, the idea and practice of repentance is much bigger.

Repentance is when we allow our lives to be bent continually away from our self-interests and toward the will and purposes of God, particularly as they relate to our intentions and actions towards others. It is not a magical formula we use to get in right relationship with God; it is a yielding of our lives to the will and purposes of God and God’s just rule on earth.

And this helps us answer the question concerning from what should we repent.

We are to repent from our sinful lives of selfish living in which we have failed to love our neighbors and our enemies, failed to practice justice and mercy, and failed to side with the weak and vulnerable.

We are to repent from our neglect to protect the most defenseless of our society, whether a child in poverty, a homeless adult who hungers, a person facing loneliness and depression, or a school full of innocent children who are gunned down.

We are to repent from allowing our politics to become divisive, from allowing our culture to have a love affair with violence, from allowing an ever intensifying disregard for human life, and from allowing bigotry, racism, religious intolerance, sexism, and homophobia to continue to exist.

But more than repenting from these evils and many more, we are also to repent and turn toward the rule of God. In doing so, we embrace a new life of love, justice, compassion, and mercy toward everyone. This is the heart of the gospel and the hope of Advent and Christmas.

For Christians, the Season of Advent is a time when we are once again reminded of the coming of God in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. In our celebration of this coming, we relive the story of God’s visitation with God’s people by preparing the way of the Lord in our own lives by repenting of our self-serving actions that neglect the needs of others, that degrade the humanity of others, and that wound the heart of God, and by turning toward the rule of God.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Reframing a Relevant Faith


The following is an excerpt from the first chapter of my book, Reframing a Relevant Faith. You can purchase the book from the publisher at http://direct.energion.co/reframing-a-relevant-faith or through Amazon at http://www.amazon.com/Reframing-Relevant-Faith-Drew-Smith/dp/1631991213/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1418159944&sr=1-1&keywords=reframing+a+relevant+faith. An e-version is also available at http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=reframing%20a%20relevant%20faith%20kindle.
           
The title of this book, Reframing a Relevant Faith, was developed with great intention.  As intelligent humans who are constantly receiving messages and signals through various mediums and experiences, we process these messages through our own frames of reference.  These frames of reference are formed by our own histories, our own cultures, and our own beliefs, whether religious or not. In terms of religious beliefs, many people use religion as the primary way to understand life. Theology is always formulated in context, whether the theology that is shaped is formal or personal. While the Bible and our Christian traditions have significant influence on shaping our theology, our experience will eventually play a major part in what we develop as our theology. This may happen on a personal level when one experiences something good or something tragic that alters his or her understanding of God and life. But it can also take place on a wider scale.
The theology that has been passed down from generation to generation, whether based on the Bible or tradition, or some combination of both, becomes ours, but only after we have re-framed it to our own world and our own experiences. This means that we must take seriously the texts of the Bible, the creeds and confessions of the church, and the historic theology and liturgy of our Christian heritage. But it also means that we need not transfer all of this to our own context as if the Bible, the creeds and confessions, and the historic theology and liturgy of our Christian heritage were stone tablets. We have to re-frame these in order that theology becomes relevant for every context. 
This may not be an easy process, and it is certainly not a willy-nilly method. Moreover, we may hold out as long as we can before we embrace such change and re-frame our understanding. Indeed, those who are fundamentalists are called this for the very reason that they do not accept these changes to their fundamental understandings about the Christian faith, and thus they will refuse to re-frame religious beliefs, choosing instead to hold on to what they see as revealed and unchangeable truth. Yet, even those who identify themselves as liberal have their own traditional beliefs that will be difficult for them to reframe.
But those who do embrace this change, whether joyfully or reluctantly, must somehow re-frame their understandings of their beliefs about God, the Bible, and the Christian faith to fit their own context.  Re-framing can mean minor adjustments to what we believe about our faith, or it can be major paradigm shifts in the way we think and believe.  This is not a haphazard or insincere approach to theology and faith, for we must remain in dialogue with the scriptures and the traditions that have been passed on to us.  In re-framing our faith, we may not completely throw out the old in order to make room for the new.
This book is my attempt to re-frame how we think about the central ideas of Christian faith and practice as a result of the cultural and religious changes of our modern world. In a sense, what is contained in this book, at least to some extent, is how I understand progressive Christianity. My proposals in part or in total are not exhaustive interpretations of progressive Christianity; they are merely my contributions to what I perceive as a growing conversation about the meaning of progressive Christianity and the future vitality of this movement.
As I stated above, if the church is to do more than survive the current and inevitable changes that are occurring and to remain relevant in the midst of these shifts, then we must re-think and re-frame Christian belief and practice. Therefore, in the chapters that follow, I will discuss how we might rethink the Bible, Jesus, and the life and mission of the Church. By stating that we should rethink these Christian tenets, I am not suggesting that any of these are outdated, or that any of these important theological ideas should be thrown out. Indeed, what we believe about these is vitally important to Christian identity; without any of these we cease to be Christian. Nor, am I suggesting that my ideas will be accepted by all. I am not so bold as to claim to have definitive ideas on these topics. My reason, indeed, my hope, for writing this book is to contribute to the ongoing conversation about Christian faith as it is shaped by the beliefs and practices of changing Christians living in a changing world. I also hope to engage believers from all persuasions in this ongoing conversation.
While I am trained in biblical scholarship, I have not written this book primarily for scholarly consumption. Theology and theological thinking are not owned by the academy. I do believe that many Christians have mistakenly rejected the work of very fine academic scholars and theologians, believing that somehow because they work in the academic world, they are focused on deconstructing the Christian faith to make it seem untrue or illegitimate. Simply rejecting ideas about the Bible and theology just because they are formulated in an academic setting seems ill-informed at best. Indeed, our reading of the Bible and our understanding of church history and theology will be much better informed if we pay attention to what scholars and theologians are saying.
But most theology and theological thinking takes place within churches at the grass roots level, and scholars who dismiss this reality are only fooling themselves. Thus, I seek to be in dialogue with both sides of the conversations, but especially those taking place at the grassroots level. Yet, as one who holds a Ph.D. in New Testament, and one who has been trained in history, biblical studies, philosophy, and theology, I also seek to provoke a deeper theological thinking from these churches. Too many Christians do not want to put the intellectual effort into thinking about faith, and this is a problem that must be remedied. I hope that this book is my small contribution toward calling Christians to think seriously and critically about their faith.
I have written this book not only as a book to be read by individuals, but also one that I hope will be used in groups. Indeed, reading this book in community may bring great dialogue about the issues raised here. Theological thinking and faithful discipleship does not happen when individuals uncritically consume information. Rather, good theological thinking happens in conversations between persons who think different and who come together from different back grounds to pursue questions. Thinking, discussing, and debating issues and ideas in community leads to more faithful churches that seek to follow Christ in authentic discipleship.
My hope is that this book causes folks to think critically about their faith. Therefore, to this end, I have provided questions at the end of each chapter that I hope will spur on critical thinking and good conversations. Moreover, I hope that these questions will lead to both individuals and groups creating more questions. The pursuit of truth is always an endless pursuit, and this often requires new ways of thinking. Or, as St. John of the Cross stated, “To come to the knowledge you have not, you must go by a way in which you know not.”[1]
To take this journey we must continue to ask probing and sometimes uncomfortable questions. Such questions, perhaps uncomfortable, and maybe even frightening to ask, can help to lead us down the never-ending path of pursuing the truth. May we continually ask such questions about our faith, individually and together, in an effort to reframe a relevant faith.


[1]
          John of the Cross, The Ascent to Joy. Marc Foley, ed. (New City Press, 2002), p.68.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Listening to God: An Advent Reflection




The fundamental statement of belief from ancient Israel’s history is found in Deuteronomy 6:4:  “Hear O’ Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is One.” This confession begins with a command to hear; a command that Jesus often reiterated through his well known statement, “Let anyone who has ears to hear, listen.” Indeed, we find many references to the act of hearing throughout scripture, implying that God has something to say to God’s people.

But the act of hearing need not be limited to the physiological act of hearing a sound that enters the ear. Rather, the call to listen is a call to give full attention and adherence to the Word of God. When we are commanded in scripture to listen, it is a call to silence the noise of our self-interests and listen intently to the voice of God.

In the opening of Mark’s Gospel, Mark’s Advent narrative, we hear various voices speak. First, we hear the words of Israel‘s prophets echoed as a way of declaring that the coming of Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s age-old promises. Second, we hear the words of John the Baptist, the voice in the wilderness, who prepares the Way of the Lord.

We also hear the very voice of God, speaking through the rip of heaven to the Beloved Son; an event through which Jesus understands his mission as God’s envoy. And in the verses that close Mark’s prologue, 1:14-15, we hear that same Beloved Son speak with the authority of God, declaring that God’s rule was near. Indeed, in the very act of reading the narrative over and over, we continue to participate in hearing not only this story, but the various voices that proclaim the gospel to us.

Yet, despite the clear commands to listen, we face various obstacles that deafen our ears to God’s voice. One obstacle we face is the noise of life; noise that can drown out the voice of God to us.  Another challenge to our hearing God is the fear we have that God will call us to be different than we are. Not knowing what God may say to us if we were to enter a time of intense listening keeps us comfortable in our status quo relationship with God. We are safer if we do not hear.

But another significant problem is that we staunchly maintain assumptions about what we think God says. The catch phrase that captures this sentiment goes something like this; “The Bible says it, so that settles it.” The assumption behind this way of thinking is that our way of reading scripture is always correct, and the interpretations we have maintained can never be challenged or altered. 

While we must take scripture seriously in our act of hearing God, and the sacred text of the Bible should form a basis for the church’s faith and life, clinging to our assumptions about what the Bible says can prevent our hearing God and can lead us to continue our cultural and political ideologies that ignore what God may actually be speaking to us.

Jesus himself faced such attitudes and he challenged them by saying, “You have heard it said, but I say to you.” While Jesus was not negating scripture, he was offering new meaning and understanding; a new way of understanding and hearing God in the here and the now. This way of listening embraces the past of God’s revelations, but also looks for what God is saying in the present. 

Thus, we must not treat scripture as a stagnant text that reiterates our culturally transmitted presuppositions about God. Rather, we must reverently approach the text with open hearts and minds, allowing God to challenge our way of thinking; even change our way of understanding scripture itself.

One significant way of allowing God to challenge our way of thinking is to listen to others. Listening to what others say about God and life, particularly those who are of a different faith, can help to test and shape our own way of thinking to the extent that though we may not change many of our ideas, we can at least value how others have heard God speak to them. Allowing the divine in someone else speak to the divine in us can help us hear God more fully.

A personal story may help clarify why I think listening to different people is necessary for our hearing God. A few years ago an African-American gentlemen came to my home asking to do some work around the house. He and I had many conversations. He could not read and he was often in and out of jail. He and I came from completely different worlds, and yet when we talked, I could not help but hear God speaking to me. Indeed, he represented the voice of God to me more than most sermons I have heard.

But this should not surprise me at all. A careful look at the life of Jesus shows us very clearly that he heard God in the voices of those forgotten by the world. While the religious establishment held onto their assumptions about what God had said, Jesus was hearing the new Word of God through the voices of those outside that establishment; those who struggled to live life as God intended. Thus, Jesus was not simply the bearer of God’s truth, he was also the receiver of God’s truth; a truth shaped by his listening to others.
 

In hearing again the story of Advent and Christmas, may we silence the noise of our lives, turn away from our fear of what God has to say to us, and hear God, not through listening to our own assumptions about what the story says and means, but through the voices of pain and suffering that God continues to hear.