The Bible + Me: It’s Complicated

If you’ve been wondering about my relationship status, it’s complicated.

Despite what many streams of Christianity teach, there’s just no such thing as a “pure,” “plain,” or “simple” reading of scripture. Scripture is anything but plain and simple.

Regarding the Reader

In this age of information everywhere and worldwide connectivity, there’s hardly anyone who can come to the Bible with a blank slate–never having heard a thing about it, Jesus, or God. When we crack open the Bible, we bring our biases, assumptions, experiences, beliefs, expectations, and baggage which, along with other aspects of our identity, collectively make up the unique lens through which we read and interpret Scripture.

Regarding the Text

Considering the history of oral transmission (for centuries), eventual recording by scribes (and resulting scribal errors), translation which always requires interpretation, and all of the layers of history, culture, tradition, religion, and other influences throughout the ages up through today that are brought to bear on this ancient, sacred text, it’s easy to see why my (our) relationship with the Bible is justifiably “complicated.”

And yet…

I believe it’s the inspired word of God. There are timeless truths, archetypal stories of human struggle, failure, and progress. There are specific rules that most of humanity has continued to agree upon to this day (don’t murder, don’t lie, don’t commit adultery, etc.). There are cautionary tales, wise sayings, and wild allegories. And of course there are stories about Jesus.

The issue for me is not so much with the text itself or what it claims to be, but with all that we impose upon it. The history of Christianity along with some biblical writers themselves have said it is the inspired word of God. So far, so good.

But then…

Christian tradition throughout the ages has layered on several other claims such as: infallible, inerrant, has self-evident meaning, the complete and last word of God, the only way in which the Holy Spirit speaks/spoke, a rule book, the only guide you’ll need to answer every question of life, among others. These are not things the Bible teaches about itself; these are the claims of biblicism.

And this is where we’ve gone astray.

The sort of biblicism we see nowadays is selective in its literalism, denies inconsistencies, and twists meaning where necessary to support the biblicist reading–and in these ways is not even able to support its own claims.

On most significant issues the Bible is actually quite unclear and provides a plurality of teachings and viewpoints. Moreover, the Bible is replete with problematic texts–those that even the most stringent biblicist would not actually live by–confusing texts, and those that are culturally irrelevant.

But we want clarity and information and guidance!

Consider this: perhaps God is uninterested in giving us rules about church government and practices, detailed information about the end times and the afterlife. Maybe God wants us to figure out, together, how to live.

“Perhaps God wants us to figure out how Christians should think well about things like war, wealth, and sanctification, by thinking christologically about them, more than by simply piecing together this and that verse of scripture into an allegedly coherent puzzle picture” (Smith, 112-113).

We aren’t totally in the dark—among lots of other revelations and teachings, God has revealed that God is love. God is always on the side of truth, kindness, generosity, hospitality, peace, and wholeness. And Jesus told us what was more important than anything—love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.

You mean we have to just ask WWJD???

Not exactly. Rather than a trite slogan, interpreting and applying Scripture in light of Jesus, with Jesus as the lens through which we read, is both radically freeing and incredibly demanding. It is not enough to simply follow the letter of some law; rather live by the spirit–not just the spirit of the law, but also God’s Spirit. This calls us to a much higher standard than simply adherence to a set of rules (which is perhaps what we desire in our youth and adolescence).

Although we’ve known this for a long time, the comfortable draw of strictly rules-based living is strong. And things have been a hot mess in Christianity for a while now because of differences of interpretation and disagreements about the nature of the Bible itself (particularly what parts are prescriptive of how things should be, versus descriptive of how things are). We’ll have to get into that some more later.

This is more complicated than I thought…

Yep, sorry about that. Sort of. If this is the first time you’ve heard this stuff and you want to explore it more, check out The Bible Made Impossible by Christian Smith.

I do hope you’ll continue to rumble with Scripture and engage in healthy dialogue when the Bible doesn’t seem to give clear guidance on a particular issue. That’s certainly going to keep happening. And we need to lean in to discern the way together.


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Just Give Me The Rules

As a teenager, I remember wishing the Bible had given us all of the “rules” for living. I know some people and churches teach that it does, but I mean specifically.

Like, what did God think about dating, dying your hair, wearing certain clothes, or listening to secular music? How would God answer every teenager’s question of how far is too far? What about other issues that seem to have conflicting teachings in the Bible?

Of course as an adult I understand and appreciate how the overarching principles and values are meant to guide us. The overall message of the Bible and true nature of God as LOVE are intended to stand the test of time in shaping how we approach decisions in any context.

But as a teenager, all that discernment was more than I was equipped to handle. So instead, I wanted an exhaustive and specific list of everything that was off-limits. Let’s be honest: I wanted to dabble and experiment and have fun without risking my salvation (because that’s what I mistakenly thought was at stake).

The desire for specificity in rules and laws is as old as humanity. Where the Bible lacked such minute detail, our Jewish ancestors erected walls (rules) around the law, and then more walls (rules) around those walls to avoid transgression. Their efforts were well-intentioned, but resulted in legalism.

As Christianity was born, that legalism was rejected by Jesus who said we’re not intended to be slaves to the rules. Instead, the rules are meant to serve us – helping us to establish a healthy society, build strong families, and flourish as a community.

In what ways are we clinging to legalism? What are some examples of the freedom we have in Jesus?

How [Not] To Be Christian: Us and Them

There’s us. And there’s them.

At a young age I stopped saluting the flag and saying the pledge. It wasn’t out of disrespect for America or a lack of gratitude for the countless sacrifices that provided our freedoms and opportunities. It was because I didn’t want to pledge my allegiance to a country.

In my primitively-developed mind, I knew enough from attending church that I should devote myself to God, God’s kindom, and God’s work – first and foremost. I could have other interests and pursuits, but my allegiance? That was reserved for God.

Moreover, I had reservations about what I knew of our American history. From teachers and history books I learned that we were “the good guys” who “won” our battles for truth and justice, the wars for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But there had to be other versions of the story.

When I was growing up, the K-12 years were largely about indoctrination and depositing knowledge, not about encouraging independent thought. But something in me was unsettled.

I couldn’t have put words to it at the time, but I felt discomfort and dis-ease every time we were asked to place our hand over our heart and pledge our allegiance to the flag.

As I’ve grown, I realize the issue isn’t the flag, it’s nationalism. Nationalism pits us against them. Nationalism says “we’re better than you,” “we deserve more than you,” “we’re worth more than you.”

We puff ourselves up with how awesome, educated, talented, wealthy, advanced, or progressive we are compared to others. It’s one more label to attach to our identity, and one more box to put someone else in. And it’s a particularly dangerous one—because it can carry us into bar fights, hillside battles, and nuclear wars.

As soon as we draw a line between us and them, we license ourselves to defend against, seek to control, and attack the other (up to and including the use of deadly force).

I’m not saying you shouldn’t say the pledge of allegiance, that’s up to you. And nationalism isn’t the only “ism” or ideology that’s guilty of creating an us and them. If our devotion to something is leading us to “other” someone, we’ve got a problem.

There are no easy solutions, but we’ve got to do better than this. We have to dig to the root of what’s causing the us-them division and do something about it.

God isn’t putting us into categories like this—declaring some as better, more deserving, or more worthy than others. In fact, we’ve been repeatedly encouraged to consider others above ourselves.

Is Christianity compatible with nationalism, then?

Leaving Church: What I’m Learning (Part Two)

“Come and help us learn to be the people of God in the neighborhood where we find ourselves.”

That was the call.

Last month I shared here about my departure from paid congregational ministry. Unsurprisingly, I’ve found that many of the practices I engaged as a paid minister were things I could still do after I left:

  • BLESSING There are lots of people outside the church walls who are in need of blessing. So I don’t hesitate to write a blessing in my co-worker’s birthday card.
  • SHOWING KINDNESS I still show kindness cashiers and gas station attendants and janitors, asking them how their day is going and making sure they feel seen and heard.
  • NEIGHBORHOOD I’m still involved with the neighborhood association—but now it’s the one where my home is located, rather than the one the church building is located in.
  • CEREMONIES A friend from the neighborhood recently asked if I do funerals because his ex-wife is on her deathbed. Yes, I can do that for you.
  • SPEAKING I accept speaking opportunities as they arrive, but I also preach through my blog, reaching friends near and far with words of hope and solidarity and challenge.
  • INVITING We still invite people into our lives and home, listening for God’s movement and looking for ways to bless others.
    Living missionally and extending hospitality – these things don’t require a paid ministry gig. Of course.

No longer tethered to a Christian institution (which has positives and negatives), I consider myself a minister-at-large.

I don’t draw a paycheck from a church anymore. But I know who God has created me to be, and I’m living into that calling wherever my feet are planted. The affirmation of a church ordaining and blessing and paying me as a “minister” was a beautiful gift. But also…

I was a minister long before anyone paid me to be—and I will be long after as well.

Still, beyond how I live and move and work in the world, there’s something critical about Christian community. Although attending Sunday services doesn’t totally fulfill this need, we wanted to be growing together with a body of fellow travelers. We wanted to continue sharing communion weekly. We wanted to keep singing the hymns that have been etched into our hearts through decades of singing them with our church families.

For the better part of a year we spent Sundays at home or traveling, with a dozen or so spent visiting a handful of churches.

We found churches that met some, but not all, of our priorities. We weren’t trying to be picky (although admittedly we are), things were just so complicated after working for a church. Our disenchantment with the ways we’ve institutionalized Christianity was stronger than ever.

While we worked through the grief and healing, hopeful for a day we would once again be regular church-goers, we spent that season focusing more on Christian community outside the walls of a church building.

We chose to be more intentional about getting to know our neighbors, and eventually doing life together with some neighbors who became close friends.

Together we celebrate birthdays and anniversaries and successes. We share struggles, carry burdens together, and check in with each other. We cook and eat together, vacation and play together. We’re last-minute friends. We’re “can you pick up my kid and hang onto them for a bit” friends. We’re “let’s go for a walk around the neighborhood” friends. We’re “hey dinner’s ready, do you want to come over and eat?” friends. We’re friends like family.

It’s life-giving, and deeper than relationships we could build just by being with people on Sunday mornings. Although we have different denominational backgrounds, we share a common faith in Jesus and often pray before sharing meals together. But we don’t sing. We talk about hard things and our faith undergirds our conversations, but we aren’t opening up the Bible and exploring how it speaks to our lives.

It’s taken a little over a year of healing to reach the point where we’re ready to commit and engage with an institutional church again. We’re almost settled on our church home for now. I’m sure we’ll keep talking about planting a church, and exploring non-traditional ways of doing church, but for now—things feel settled and sustainable. We’re still doing Christian community in our neighborhood, but we’re adding a layer of institutional Christian community in the form of a church near our home.

As a family, we’re “learning how to be the people of God in the neighborhood where we find ourselves.” There have been long seasons of questioning that call—not the call to ministry generally, but this specific call we heard to a particular church. And in a curious turn of events, the call persists although the context and faces have changed. God is faithful.

Time To Get Woke

Our familiarity sometimes blinds us to things that are out of the ordinary.

“Jesus is Coming Soon” is a favorite song among many in my tradition—Churches of Christ. Its cheery, catchy tune matched with lovely harmonies will embed itself in your brain and have you humming it throughout the week. It’s super familiar to me because I grew up singing it often, but I was a full-grown adult before I consciously processed the troubling lyrics we were singing with great vigor “Jesus is coming soon, morning or night or noon, many will meet their doom, trumpets will sound!” Whether or not you agree with that statement, the tone is all wrong. But my familiarity with the tune blinded me to just how out of place the lyrics were.

Those of us who have been in church for a while run the risk of being too familiar with the stories of Jesus’ earthly ministry to see how radical and counter-cultural he was. Moreover, already knowing how these stories end, we see them in the rear-view mirror (with Jesus as the victor) and are no longer scandalized or surprised by the outrageous ways in which he transgressed norms.

First, consider his ethnicity and resident status.

It’s too easy to miss the Jews being an ethnic minority and the implications of hearing their stories through that lens. Their prophets continually spoke harsh truths to those unjustly wielding their power—not unlike our rulers today. Jesus’ ministry was to those on the margins of the margins.

We ignore the fact that the Jews, and later Jesus, were immigrants and refugees at various points. Coming from a long line of nomadic immigrants, Jesus was a dreamer in Egypt as his parents fled the slaughtering of children in their homeland.

We overlook it when Jesus describes himself as homeless. He was not a homeowner with comfortable roots in a sleepy suburb. Rather, he was always on the move, depending fully on the hospitality and kindness of strangers and friends alike.

Second, consider his way of life.

We fail to see just what a revolutionary leader he was when his feet carried dust from town to town. Yes, he had a ragtag band of followers, but his resistance to systemic injustices made him unpopular among the rich and powerful. He was an activist, agitating for change.

Jesus broke all kinds of social and religious rules. He chose to dine with those of ill-repute, those who were regarded as less-than and living-in-sin by those in the middle and upper crust of society. He even had people like that among his followers!

He did not acquiesce to societal, governmental, or religious expectations if they stood contrary to God’s heart and Kindom.* Not only did he resist those expectations, he spoke openly against them. He called out misunderstandings and misinterpretations, pointing us to a better way to live, a freer way to be in the world.

Friends, we need to get woke and discover who Jesus was and is. He doesn’t toe the party line and he probably participates in some marches. He doesn’t fit neatly into our rich, white, American, consumeristic, patriotic lifestyle. So let’s stop trying to squeeze him in, and instead start following our revolutionary leader who pursued the Kindom at all costs.

*I recently received an education in why we should be using “Kindom” instead of “Kingdom:” The former highlights our kinship and community, while the latter still assumes and requires a monarch.