Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Christianity's 'Favorite' Heretic? You?

Christianity is a boiling cauldron, frothing over with the ideas of myriad well-meaning people trying to explain an ancient text in a present context. We’ve apparently forgotten, or intentionally neglected the need to have a pleasant and respectful conversation, understanding that not one of us has a monopoly on wisdom.

The firestorm surrounding Rob Bells latest book, ‘Love Wins,’ has put us back squarely in the middle of yet another pointless and un-objective debate in which no one wins, and a watching world simply sits back and reaffirms their contention that Christianity is outmoded and irrelevant. Why can’t we simply agree to disagree without being disagreeable like most civilized people do? Yes, Rob’s book is controversial and admittedly, has some portions of really suspect theology, but does that make it all wrong?

Make no mistake about it; I like Rob Bell and I like much of what he has to say. And while I admit that some of what he has to say makes me squirm, am I ready to consign him to the scrap heap as an irrelevant heretic? Resoundingly, no! Alas, it seems though, that the usual suspects (the self appointed arbiters of Christianity) have quickly labeled him as such yet again. One would think that there’s nothing substantive in the message that he’s trying to communicate.

Indeed, if we labeled Rob a heretic, in order to be impartial and objective, we’d have to apply the same label to just about every pastor who’s ever stood behind a pulpit on any given Sunday. I daresay that at one point or another, every pastor has ‘embraced’ a doctrine or idea that has brought them precipitously close to the all too familiar label of heretic.

Ranging from Obama’s beleaguered former “pastor” spewing his hate rhetoric, to the over zealous non-user of birth control that has 15-kids and counting, and everything in-between, we’ve all found ourselves on the wrong side of heresy at one point or another. And why not? Aren’t we all on a journey in which we’re hopefully learning more and more? As you learn more doesn’t your paradigm shift along with your new understanding?

So as to dispel any notions of contention or argument, let’s define ‘heresy’ so that we’re at least playing in the same stadium. According to the Cambridge Advanced Learner’s English Dictionary, heresy is: (the act of having) an opinion or belief that is the opposite of or against what is the official or popular opinion, or an action which shows that you have no respect for the official opinion. One who practices heresy is considered a heretic.

By this definition, Martin Luther was a heretic! Interestingly enough, his ‘revolutionary’ idea that grace and not indulgences rescued people from eternal damnation, didn’t sit well with the Catholic Church at the time. Today, that indisputable truth forms the bedrock of Evangelical Christianity. What if Luther had caved to the critics, preferring instead an easier life of acceptance and reverence over a life of controversy and criticism?

In reading Rob’s book, it seems entirely apposite that, as the Church, we should be asking some of the deeply troubling questions he has raised instead of throwing out the proverbial baby with the bath water. I like the way Don Miller puts it in a blog he wrote inspired by Brian McLaren’s A New Kind Of Christianity. He says,

“When theologians throw out anomalies that threaten their paradigms, they respect their interpretation of truth more than truth, or worse, believe their interpretation of truth is actually truth. They use terms like Biblical and heretic to convince themselves and others that their interpretation is the real truth and others are a threat to “the gospel” or to God Himself. This sort of language isn’t helpful or respectful of anomalies, not to mention its behavior indicates a genuine intellectual threat that should be taken seriously, not dismissed as heresy.”

The truth is, the further removed we are from the actual historical accounts of the Bible, the more subjective our interpretations become. Why, you might ask? Because our interpretation and understanding of Scripture is viewed through the filter of culture, the lens of personal experiences, the limitations of our cognitive abilities, and various other very individual factors. If that were not the case, we would have no need for denominations. The photograph at the beginning of this article speaks volumes more than words could say, to buttress my point.

We all have our subjective interpretations of what we believe the Bible is saying and thus we establish churches built on the context of ‘our revelation,’ with particularly strong leanings toward whatever it is we’re passionate about. Does that make us all heretics? After all, Jesus’ doctrine about His Church wasn’t at all ambiguous. He stated, “I will build my Church….” Evidently, we thought adding an “s” to the word Church wouldn’t really matter much to Jesus. One Church, many Churches, it’s all the same isn’t it?

Yesterday I received an interesting e-mail from a young friend of mine in Lagos, Nigeria. I’ve removed any names to protect this friend’s identity, and I’ve also slightly edited the text of the e-mail while maintaining its full integrity:

Hello Sir

How are you and the family?

Sir, I wanted to ask a Question that’s bothered me a lot...People attach a lot of funny meanings to African art work and art festivals, saying they’re fetish. A preacher said Nigeria hosting FESTAC '77 (Festival of African Arts and Culture) was Idol worshipping, which accounts for why Nigeria is still so backward.... I STRONGLY disagree even though I didn’t tell him so....

Also, a lot of pastors and leaders... encourage reading as a part of life and learning. Recently though, I was confused all over again...when a preacher said... reading books by non-Christian authors is an error.... So I ask, should we limit reading to books written by church folks only??....

I’ll spare you the boring details of my response to the questions and ask one of my own: Is this pastor who tells his congregation (because of an apparent lack of cognitive skills), that reading anything written by non-Christians is error, a heretic? How many pastors and leaders do you know who’ve written books about every imaginable interpretation of the Scriptures while peddling their version as the “gospel truth”? Are they too heretics? Why is Rob Bell a heretic? Because he has questions, and answers them differently from the way others do?

My very dear friend, Alex McManus, has written copiously about the idea that the Bible is a great piece of human literature. I guess in most people’s eyes this makes Alex a heretic, right? But let’s look a little deeper at his simple but obvious contention.

Alex cites Genesis and the creation story. He asks the question (this is my paraphrase), if no one was around to actually record creation, isn’t it fair to say that it is not God’s account, but simply Israel’s account of creation? Even if you contend that God revealed it to Israel, and Moses documented it, the further question has to be asked, did God personally sit with Moses and dictate word for word what he was to write down? Moses gives no such indication in his writings and I imagine that’s a detail that one wouldn’t leave out. Since no one is alive to verify exactly how it happened, why do we argue the point as if any one of our perspectives would be the definitive truth?

Does it in any way minimize the validity of the Scriptures if we simply accept that the creation story is Israel’s interpretation of what God revealed to them, written through the lens of Moses’ culture, abilities, and paradigms? Further more, if we accept this, then how accurate is it to say that the Scriptures are all “God’s word to humanity” since nobody was literally present at creation to draft the account of God word for word? Since Moses wrote the creation account in Genesis, isn’t it Moses’ word as revealed by God?

Misunderstanding Alex’s reasons for making this claim, critics respond rather aggressively to such pondering as they feel a need to protect what they consider the sanctity of the Scriptures. The truth is the Scriptures don’t need protecting, least of all from men who profess Jesus as Lord. If men were so inspired by God’s interaction with them so that they penned the accounts of that interaction(with no concept at the time that their accounts would one day become part of holy Scripture), Alex’s contention is that that is an even more powerful testimony to God’s amazing work amongst His creation.

This reasoning is further strengthened by the fact that, at different points in history, groups of men like you and I sat down, took counsel amongst themselves, and decided which ‘books’ to canonize as Holy Scripture. Over time some books that were not initially accepted as Biblical canon, came to be accepted. As it stands, what has been canonized as the Catholic Bible is a far cry from what we’ve come to know as the Protestant Bible. The books of Baruch, Tobit, Judith, Book of Wisdom amongst others, which are considered part of the Jewish and Catholic Canon, are not part of the Protestant Bible.

So, with that in mind, is a Christ-following Catholic a heretic when he quotes from those books which he firmly believes are part of Holy Scripture, but which are not acknowledged by Protestants? Who is right? Who has exclusive authority to be absolutely certain that they are the ones with the true pipeline to God? Besides, what about those who accepted the Bible as the authoritative and exclusive word of God before the books of Hebrews, James, 1 & 2 Peter, 2 & 3 John, Jude, and Revelation were included as part of Scripture, are they heretics? For that matter, are we the heretics for adding those books subsequent to what was originally canonized as Scripture?

The truth is the Rob Bell’s and Alex McManus’ of the world are in many ways the real heroes. They constantly put themselves in front of the sharp blades of the critics, giving voice to the questions that many of us secretly ponder, not with a view to undermining the veracity of our faith, but in an attempt to better understand how it applies to us in our context. After all, it is an ancient text being made applicable in a present context.

Truth isn’t subjective and it isn’t changing anytime soon, just as it hasn’t changed since the days when Jesus Himself walked terra firma, and these men are not attempting to subvert the truth, they are simply trying to interpret it in the light of their own cultural context. After all, when’s the last time you sacrificed a goat at the temple to cleanse your sins? Or for that matter, when was the last time you celebrated the feast of Sukkot (Tabernacles)? Never, right? That’s understandable because you never lived in hastily put together tents while wondering in the wilderness for forty years. So how do we understand the value of Sukkot in light of who we are today as Christ-followers? While truth isn't changing, our understanding of truth is changing and it takes guts and strength to accept and acknowledge that.

I imagine very few Christians of his day wanted to sit down and have lunch with Martin Luther as he pondered the ‘new’ truth he’d ‘discovered’. The truth is though, that he hadn’t discovered anything “new” at all. He had simply come into a better understanding of a truth that had always been there, and had somehow been lost in translation as the emperor Constantine tried to merge the political aspirations of Rome with the Christian faith he’d supposedly embraced.

Often times, we discover that the most vocal critics of those who are simply trying to make a difference in other people’s lives as they interpret and practice their faith, are the ones who’ve made little or no impact on their environment with the message of the gospel.