Is doubt a sin? Doubt it.

 

When I drive in the car, I usually have WAY-FM (think K-LOVE but less sappy) on in the car. I enjoy most of the radio personalities and they play semi-recent Christian music. To be honest, though, I have it on for background noise most of the time. Occasionally, I do listen to the songs, what the radio hosts are talking about, and whatever else may be part of their programming. One of the station’s regular spots is called “Reaching Your World with Luis Palau.” If you don’t know who Palau is, you can read up on him here. To save you time, he is a well-known radio evangelist. And to be quite clear, that’s not a bad thing. Not at all. Most of his radio spots are quite good (as far as radio evangelism is concerned). It was a few mornings ago now when, in a strange moment of interest, I started listening carefully to one of Palau’s clips – and I could not believe what I was hearing.

To keep from spoiling the surprise, here’s the actual clip:

“Repenting of Doubt”

I hope that you’re as shocked as I am. In case you aren’t able to listen to the clip, I’m also including the transcript below:

“Did you know that doubt is a sin? Yet how often do we doubt God’s faithfulness along with His direction in our lives. We doubt He has a plan for us and doubt that He hears our prayers. But He does. Often we struggle with doubt when it feels like God isn’t coming through for us in the way we want Him too. Our human nature is all too keen to envision the perfect solutions to our problems when only God knows which solution is really the absolute best. ‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’ When doubt comes we must repent of this sin as soon as we recognize it. God doesn’t respond to need He responds to faith. When we doubt him there is no room for faith. And the bible clearly states, ‘Without faith it is impossible to please God.’ My friend, when we aren’t receiving our human desires and doubt God, remember to repent. Let’s remind ourselves of His faithfulness and trust his plans. As we reach our world we must encourage those around us to do the same.”

Before I charge headlong into this, some concessions need to be made. Palau and I are probably approaching this word – “doubt” – from differing angles. This will inevitably produce different interpretations. Also, Palau and I have different agendas. From what I can discern, Palau wants to instill security and urgency in people; I, on the other hand, am much more apt to arouse questions and critical consideration. With that said, let’s begin.

I dislike it when a person in power (the speaker) immediately plays his cards in the first two seconds. The rhetorical question “did you know that…” is an underhanded way to begin an argument about something like doubt. He then describes normal behavior – doubting faithfulness, plans, whether or not God hears prayers. Palau reminds us that God does, in fact, hear our prayers. Jeremiah 29:11 makes a predictable-yet-still-inappropriate appearance and then we’re hit with the bottom line: doubt is a sin. Why? He doesn’t give an explicit answer, but if we read between the lines, we can figure it out. The sin seems to be more tied to faithlessness than to having doubt. Doubt is symptomatic of lacking faith. What’s so incredibly frustrating is this sentence: “God doesn’t respond to need He responds to faith.” Doesn’t respond to need? I understand that, in context, Luis Palau is speaking about our own personal desires, things that might not necessarily align with God’s will/plan. But then he should have said it more accurately: “God doesn’t respond to want…” If God doesn’t respond to my needs, then Luis and I serve very different deities. What’s so funny about the following statements is that he sets up a Catch-22 (if we’re going to ride this literal merry-go-round): Without faith, we can’t please God (Hebrews 11:6). But isn’t faith a gift from God (Ephesians 2:8-9)? To be fair, that last comment was a bit biting – but I think you can see my point. Proof-texting is never a good option, and while I’m not accusing Mr. Palau of employing such a method, his argumentation teeters dangerously close to doing so.

Let me be clear about something: faith is far too large and complex to be parsed into a simple equation pertaining to doubt and trust. There are too many levels of rationality, emotional engagement, and physical expression to make faith basic enough to be reduced to “doubt is bad” and “faith is good.”

Perhaps most troubling is that this is radio evangelism. If the main trajectory of this clip is to “reach our world” – a world full of doubt, uncertainty, and confusion – shouldn’t we be careful about using such polarizing language to describe how doubt and faith should work together? If I was a non-believer and I heard this, I’d probably say, “Well, if even Christians can’t doubt without getting in trouble, there’s no way I’ll ever make it.”

I do understand that Palau is trying to urge Christians to cast aside doubt when we are called to have faith, to trust when it is difficult, and to understand that any plan of God is far superior to anything we could ever dream up. However, his language is too general and his scope far too broad. In what should be a specifically targeted message, his comments cover too much ground and it seems he condemns any type of doubt in a believer. The whole reason I’m writing this post is because it angers me that, in order to reach the world around me, I am being urged to quell the very state of mind that many people have when they seek questions, unsure of what the answer will be. Do I doubt God? No. Do I have doubts about who God is? No, but I am confused sometimes. Have I ever had doubts? Yes. Double yes. Triple yes.

We must be careful in how we speak. Though doubt is not something a believer should actively practice, the topic of “repenting of doubt” probably isn’t the best evangelistic message to broadcast to a world that needs us to sit, to listen, and to help each other seek answers to terrifying and painful questions – through doubt, hope, joy, loss, and everything else.


Jesus and Lazarus.

Jesus and Lazarus

I normally refrain from Lenten reflections primarily because so many blogs spring up (see what I did there?) during Lent. My own reflections, for the most part, would only add to the noise. However, there are these rare times when I am compelled (perhaps by the Spirit) to speak what has been revolving around in my brain. I would like to present to you a slightly different reading of the well-known Jesus and Lazarus story.

First, let me say this: I don’t take issue with most of the sermons/blog posts/commentary about this passage. It’s a rather long passage (John 11:1-44), so I won’t post the entirety of it here. I hope that what I have to say will not add to the noise surrounding this piece of Scripture but instead bring about a different way of engaging with the story.

My only complaint with most sermons/blog posts/commentaries about this passage is how they treat Jesus. What do I mean by that? In my view, Jesus, in this passage, is often made into some kind of stoic who cryptically waits for Lazarus to die, shows up, weeps with Mary and Martha, and then performs the miracle. What I’d like to suggest is that we may be reading past a critically important word that could shift the emotional canvas of Jesus: the word is ἐμβριμάομαι and it’s often translated as “deeply moved” (in context: “…he was deeply moved in his spirit”). Here’s my problem with that translation: what does that mean? Perhaps more importantly – what does that translation make you, the reader, think about? How do you feel when you read those words?

For me, I can’t accurately articulate what “deeply moved” conjures up in my brain. Maybe that’s why I’m writing this post. “Deeply moved” can range from gratitude (“I was deeply moved that you listed me in your acceptance speech”) to the bitter and sorrowful (“Her death deeply moved me”). Imprecision in language is a given, it seems, when we try to import an ancient language into our modern understanding. When I looked up ἐμβριμάομαι (embri-MA-o-mai), I found the clarity that could enliven this passage: to be moved with anger, to be very angry, to be moved with indignation (Thayer’s lexicon). If we, then, believed that Jesus did empty himself to an extent and was not able see into the future, we might see more of Jesus’ humanity in this passage through his anger-filled sorrow.

Rather than reinterpret/paraphrase the entire passage, I want to start at John 11:20. I hope that this dramatic reinterpretation is as helpful for you as it is for me.

———————————————–

A messenger rushed inside, dodging the mourners who filled the house, and found Mary and Martha, weeping in a side room. “Mary and Martha,” he said breathlessly, “our Lord is here.” Martha bolted upright and flung herself out of the house. Mary, unable to move, remained in the room. There, ahead of her on the path, Martha saw Jesus and his disciples. She walked quickly until she reached Jesus. “Lord, if you had been here,” she choked out, “if you had just been here, Lazarus would not have died.” She then broke down, sobbing there alone on the road. Through her tears, she managed to blurt out another thought: “But, I know – I know that God will give you whatever you ask.” Jesus, tears welling up in his own eyes, looked at her and said, “Martha, he will rise again.” She looked into his face and said, “I know, Teacher, that he will rise again. He’ll rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me, even though they will die, they will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this, Martha?” Tears still streaming down her face, she said, “Yes, of course, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

She took her leave of Jesus and the disciples and went back to Mary. Martha knelt beside her sister and said, “Mary, Jesus is here. He wants to talk with you.” Suddenly, Mary snapped back into reality and hurried out the door. The Jews with her who had been mourning saw how quickly she had left the house. Thinking she was going to mourn at the tomb, they followed closely behind her as she ran out to meet him. Jesus had not entered the village yet, so Mary rushed to where he was and fell at his feet, weeping. “Lord, if you had just been here, my brother would not have died,” she said softly, her tears also streaming down her face.” When Jesus saw her weeping, along with the Jews who were also weeping, he became furious in his spirit. Tears fell freely from his face as he asked: “Where did you lay him?” Mary gestured toward the tomb but could say no more. The others said, “Come, Lord, this way. Come see where he is.” And Jesus wept, both in anger and in deep sorrow, at what had happened.

Jesus angrily approached the tomb. He could see it was a cave, and that an enormous stone was blocking the entrance. He looked at those standing near the tomb and he said to them, “Take away that stone!” His voice was fierce, like a mother bear clawing her way back to her cub. Martha approached him and said, “But Lord, he’s been dead for four days! There is no way he’s still alive!” He wheeled around and said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” At this, they moved the stone away. Jesus looked up and prayed out loud, “Father, I thank you for hearing me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of everyone standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” His voice trembled with a pained power. He refocused his gaze on the open tomb. With a vehement shout, Jesus cried out, “LAZARUS! COME OUT!” After a moment, a figure emerged at the mouth of the cave. The crowd gasped at the sight of Lazarus, fully bound in grave clothes. Jesus, his eyes still wet with tears, said, “Go and unbind him. Let him go. He doesn’t belong in there anymore.”

———————————————–

I do not know why Jesus waited two days to arrive at Bethany. I do not understand many things about Jesus. But I do know that he cared deeply for those around him, and I know that he could have been moved to anger about what happened to Lazarus. We often focus on Jesus’ divinity (which we should), but I wonder how often we focus on his humanity. This passage seems to capture equals parts divinity and humanity, his ability to conquer death and restore life as well as his capacity to be angry about death, experience loss, and act within that pain and sadness.

Perhaps resurrection reflects the pained and angry heart of a God who hates death and loves life – a heart, broken on the cross, so that all of creation might find a new life in Christ.

 


Seminary should come with a warning label.

Image

This should be on the first page of the packet at orientation.

The idea for this post has been revolving around my mind for the past few months. Conversations, my experiences, and the experiences of others have played into what I will say below. My deepest hope is that they are read by churches, current seminary students, past seminary students, and those considering going to seminary. I need to stress that this is based exclusively on my interactions. I am sure there are many congregations that did very well in preparing their members for the trials of seminary. This post seeks to target communities that did not prepare/understand what lay ahead for their prospective seminarians. With that said, let’s talk about “seminary.”

Let me set the stage. For the sake of this post, we will pretend that you’re a senior in college, contemplating what to do with your imminent degree (This is only one group of seminarians, as the mean age for seminarians is somewhere in the neighborhood of 38-years-old). Your friends have affirmed a calling in you to preach, to minister, or to be in some kind of active service in the Church. And you feel it, too. Urged on by seemingly every part of your life, seminary seems like the obvious next step. The next level, a Master’s degree, appears to be part of the progression you’ve been living your whole life – middle school to high school, high school to college, and now college to a Master’s program. Shouldn’t be too bad, right? Unfortunately, this thought process is all too common in many people I’ve met in my programs. For Christians who want to serve in some capacity, seminary just seems like a logical place to be. I’m not saying it isn’t, because it is entirely logical. What I am saying is that seminary should come with a warning label because it is not the place you think it will be. But in order to understand why our expectations will come back to haunt us, we need to investigate the root of the problem: our theological education in churches.

From what I can tell, many congregations/communities of faith strongly emphasize and respect the call to seminary, the call to learn more about God, to call to teach – the call to be “set apart” for a while to be trained in many ways to then go back out into the world. But do we – those who participate in those communities – understand what the students are signing up for? Based on my interactions with friends over the past couple years, I submit that the answer is a resounding “no.” Churches are not providing the basic foundation necessary to thrive in a seminary environment.

“But Zac, I love Jesus and I know the Bible really well! Isn’t that enough?”

Yes, that is enough, but you may surprised that you do not know that Bible that well. In fact, in the two institutions I have attended, the first semester’s information load has crushed (and nearly crushed) students. I’m not even talking about how professors interact with students, the strain of student loans, or anything other than sheer content and engagement with Scripture and other texts. There is so much about Church History and theology that is never mentioned in most churches prior to seminary.

“But isn’t that stuff only for seminary, you know – the place where you’re supposed to talk about those kinds of intellectual things?”

This quote kills me. Yes, seminary is where Christians get Gnostic-like training because they’re the only ones who can comprehend such mystical truths (/sarcasm). While Sunday School/Adult Education instructors may not have the training to dive headlong into such topics as the Great Schism of 1054 or the Hypostatic Union, it is a fallacy that seminarians are the only ones capable of understanding the deep truths about our faith. The reason that teaching in the Church becomes watered down is one of two reasons: 1) The teachers are lazy; 2) They feel that the people can’t understand what they would teach them. Both reasons are flawed, but if #2 is true for a community, the next step would be to teach the community at whatever level they can. Do you see where I’m heading? If God calls a woman or a man to seminary, but has this kind of lazy/watered down training as their foundation for comprehending the faith, what do you think will happen when they encounter new truths – truths found in Scripture that were never taught to them? Bad things happen. I know a man who, after finding out that his entire perception of God was wrong – all based on what he had been taught growing up – he became an alcoholic. He could not handle how wrong he had been, and how fundamentally the new truths rocked his world.

Is this what we want for seminarians? “Here, sign up for this school – it’ll be one of the hardest things you’ve ever done, you’ll wonder what you learned growing up, and you’ll certainly need to readjust how you read Scripture – sounds great, right?” I am NOT advocating that seminary should be easy. Don’t hear me say that. I think seminary should be hard, at least academically (and even spiritually). My problem is that the difficulty level should not be determined by the inadequate preparation of the home church. Just as parents want to send their children off to college with the best preparation possible, why should we do any less with seminarians?

If could boil down what I’m saying here into two things, it would be this:

  1. If you feel called to seminary, know that you are entering into something incredible. It will be incredibly hard, but incredibly rewarding and transformative. Seminary is not for the weak, and it is not for the faint of heart. You are being called for a reason – but you will need to leave behind any comfortable theology you’ve acquired along the way (because you could discover that some things you believe are not found in Scripture).
  2. Churches need to seriously step up their education – for future seminarians and for the congregation as a whole. In the case of the seminarian, does it make more sense to coddle the future leader with comfortable-yet-somewhat-false theological foundations rather than expose them to the truth of the Word? Take it from someone on the inside – it would be better to deal with faith-shaking questions in a trusted community instead of reeling with major questions when you barely know your new church members, neighbors, and professors.

Please do not hear any elitism in this post. I am in no way saying that only the smartest Christians are capable of seminary. It is only the strongest Christians who can complete seminary. If you feel called, buckle up and hang on. It will test you more than you expect. If anything, pray for those who lead churches, those friends you know in seminary, those friends who are looking for ministry after seminary, and those considering seminary. Personally, I have been broken several times throughout my time in seminary. Although transformation is desired, it is extremely painful at times. This, then, is compounded by the lack of support seminarians can feel from those church communities who continue to sugarcoat theology, sending new students who are not prepared for what they are about to encounter.

To my seminarian friends, graduated and current – thank you for the examples you have been to me. Thank you for demonstrating what it means to live honestly and allow raw nerves (both emotional and theological) to be exposed. And thank you for being part of a generation that will hopefully reverse some of what I outlined above.


“To fail is to die.”

Since many of you enjoyed my metaphorical allegory post about the Traveler and the Sage, I decided to have another go at the genre. Hopefully you find some meaning within my own struggle for meaning.

————————————————————————————————–
Grain field.

The wooden carvings sat on the shelf, slowly collecting dust as time continued to pass, moment by moment, hour by hour, day by day, and even year by year.
Jorge sat at the window, staring out at the lush, amber fields of waving grain. It seemed – for a brief second – that the fields were waving to him.
“What a silly thought,” he muttered.
He turned his gaze back to those carvings. Hundreds of them. Some of musicians. Others of bicycles, carriages, balls, instruments.
There were carvings of carousels and roller coasters. He had even carved some of the Seven Wonders. “I always wanted to see those pyramids…” His voice trailed as his gaze fell on his desk.
It was littered with books, scrawls of nearly incomprehensible “chicken-scratch,” and grammars of languages long forgotten to the bustling world.
Jorge’s eyes settled on a book and he sighed yet again. “I had wanted to learn that language before…”
He couldn’t finish the sentence. He couldn’t think about it.
“I can’t believe I tried so hard yet achieved so litt-”

The man’s commentary was cut off by the most peculiar of events.
To his utter surprise, there, in the corner of his bedroom, sat a rather tall, serious looking man. He wore a blue suit with a matching blue tie. The worn eyes of the Carver noted the blue shoes, blue socks, and even light blue shirt under the jacket. The curious part of this stranger’s appearance was his hair – jet-black and somewhat wild. It was long and fell on either side of his face, reaching down to his shoulders. Perplexed, Jorge sat there – stunned – at the arrival of his unexpected guest.
“Aren’t you going to say ‘hello’?” Jorge inquired.
The Stranger just stood up from his chair and strode to the window.
“You look out this window quite often, don’t you, Jorge?”
Even more confused, Jorge got up to confront the intruder. “Yes, I do,” the old man stammered, “and I don’t know how you know my name, but I think I have the right to kno-”
The Stranger motioned for Jorge to be silent and then gestured for him to sit back down. Jorge complied.

“You do not have the right to know anything, Jorge, but my real identity, which is what you were going to ask me, does not concern you.” The baffled look on Jorge’s face made Stranger roll his eyes and chuckle. “Alright, alright. Fine – if you must know – is Azrael.” He paused a moment, as if waiting for some grand reaction.
Jorge just continued to blankly stare and scratch his head.
Azrael sighed. “You humans are just so dull. The legendary Angel of Death appears in your room and you don’t even draw back in terror? How ridiculous.” Jorge, finally apprehending the situation, recoiled in his chair, fell backward, and knocked over a lamp.
“Oh, now you react. Why does no one know my name? Anyway – as I said before – who I am means nothing as to why I am here.”
“Y-you mean…you mean, that this is it? This is the end of my life? I knew it, I always knew that I would be taken before I could finish my work…” Jorge began pacing and fumbling in his pockets.
“Jorge, n-no, stop, stop, STOP!” Jorge looked up from his pacing. “Just…stop. Please. I’m not here to take you. It’s not your time yet.”
The Carver slumped down in another chair. The angel began to walk toward the shelf of wooden figurines, studying each shape carefully.

“No, it’s not your time yet. But, really, what does it matter? You’re practically dead.”
Silence hung in the air like a wet cloud.
“What on earth do you mean ‘you’re practically dead’? I feel alive – doesn’t that mean I’m alive?” Jorge shot back.
“Depends on what you mean by ‘alive,’ Jorge. Do you mean to tell me that your life as you live it now could be considered ‘alive’? You don’t talk to your friends, you don’t seek new things, you just sit around, reading books of bygone languages, pouring over memories, carving your memories, and bemoaning that infernal field that you look at every day through that infernal window,” Azrael declared.
Jorge’s mouth sat agape.
“Why is this a surprise to you? Sure, your blood pulses, your synapses fire – but are you alive? Or are you in some kind of state between life and death, longing for the lives of others, the success of your brother – who owns the field you stare at every day – and all those whom you deem ‘alive’? You achieve so much, yet do you share it? Do you risk putting all that you are into what you love?”
Again, the silence stung. “No,” Azrael muttered. “No, you don’t. You fall back on native talent and shuck the rest of your time into the fire. You died a long time ago, Jorge, and I have come to tell you this truth.”
The angel strode toward the shuddering artisan, eyes burning as he focused on Jorge’s quivering visage.

“Do you remember what you told yourself in your youth, Jorge?”
Jorge shook his head, unable to remember much of anything by this point.
“You said, let me get this right…” Azrael produced a small notebook with a blue cover from his pocket. “Ah, yes – you said, ‘To fail is to die.’ Do you remember now, Jorge? Do you remember that day when you told yourself that if you failed, you were as good as dead. You did not realize it then, but you died at that moment. You have been dead all these years – dead to the world, to what you could have been, to everything you wanted to be. The irony is that the very thing you feared – failure – was not brought on by some external force. It was you, Jorge, who brought that failure on your own ambitions and desires. Again, you said, ‘I will never be as good as him.’ You also said, ‘I’ll probably just fail, anyway, regardless of how hard I try.'”
The notebook snapped shut. Azrael returned to his chair and sat down, eyes still burning.
“You decided that you had failed long before failure could even reach you, you silly man. You were doomed from the start. Who knows what you could have been? It has been lost to time, Jorge. I have been watching you for years now, and I cannot stand to watch you wallow in your self-derived pity any longer; this is why I have come. That is why I have told you all that I have. You are dead.”

Jorge blinked a few times, his eyes falling on a manuscript he had worked on for years.
“Can a human change?” he asked.
“What do you mean?” Azrael replied.
“Can a human change if given the chance?” Jorge now met the angel’s eyes. “Can a person change if they decide to?”
Azrael thought for a moment. “I suppose so, but if you’re suggesting that you could change, I don’t believe that is even remotely possib-”
Jorge was the one to cut Azrael off this time. “But what if I could? What if I dedicated my remaining days to living to the fullest?” the Carver questioned, gaining strength with each word.
“Why should I be relegated to mistakes I have made? I decided to die by bringing failure upon myself; could I not reverse this decision to seek success and life? I am the product of my experiences and decisions, so if I decide that I was wrong, wouldn’t that render me ‘alive’?”
The angel stood and faced the window. “Yes. It would. But, do you think you can do that?”

“Yes, I think I can. But to do so, I need to get rid of all these things that have pulled me down.” He grabbed scrawls from his desk, filled with the same lament written over and over.
Jorge shoved it into the trash bin.
“And this – this depressing picture needs to go,” he said as he took down a dark purple painting.
“All the things I have used to support my failures – my own death – need to go. They have no place in the life of a living person.”
He suddenly knew what to do.
“I haven’t opened that window in years, Azrael. It’s time to let in some fresh air. I haven’t felt the summer breeze in years.” He turned to open the window but immediately stopped.

Azrael was gone. As quickly and strangely as the being had come, he had departed.
But this only deterred the old man for a moment. Regaining his composure, he leaped at the window and opened it. Warm air rushed into his bedroom, filling it with the scents of a summer evening.
He closed his eyes and deeply breathed in the air. “To fail…is to learn, not to die. And to learn is to live. So, to fail is to live.”
In an instant, Jorge slipped out of his room, ran down the stairs, and sprinted out the front door, eager to run his hands through the waving grain.

From a distance, two beings talked in hushed tones.
“You didn’t have to tell him that. You could have let him finish his existence with his memories,” one said.
“Yes, that’s quite true,” Azrael nodded his head, watching the old man run through a field.
“So, why did you tell him?”
Death shrugged. “You know, I am not quite sure. Perhaps, with all the death that people bring upon themselves, I wanted to help someone see that life is about living, trying, risking…and failing.”
“You’re too kind for your post, Azrael,” Raphael said, turning his gaze toward Jorge.
“Perhaps.”
“As the Ender of Life, is it possible you understand that failure is not the end? After all, it is you, of all beings, who have seen the agony of people dying, knowing that their failures imprisoned them while alive,” Raphael offered.

Azrael shrugged yet again. “That is for Jorge to decide. May he discover the bitterness and vitality found in failure, because there is no death there.”


Snarky Comments About Internet Christianity!

Please, please don't do this. I'm begging you.

Please, please don’t do this. I’m begging you.

Ever since chain letters were invented, unfortunate pieces of communication seem to find their way from one person to another.
Now, don’t get me wrong – some communication should be passed along from person to person. In fact, much of the picture above could (and should) be discussed with other people.

What I want to briefly write about is why it should not be shared in this way. (Warning: Snarky language ahead.)

1. No one cares about what you post online (except your employer).
Yes, yes, I know I’m implicating this blog post in my assessment, but hear me out. Your online “voice” is not nearly as influential as you think. You might be surprised to find out how many have blocked you from their news feed because you just couldn’t stop posting about election stuff (but who could blame them? You were posting it for a full YEAR before the election). Of course I kid, but the point is valid – most of the people we interact with online simply do not “listen” to what we say. When the subject matter is anything but half-naked women and funny cat pictures, people just click onto other pictures, funny memes, or other distractions. They don’t want to hear what we have to say if it will make them think. This leads me to my next point…

2. The Internet is a shaky place to make your stand.
If you are going to take a strong stance on something online, you had better back up your facts. Or make sure you have a convincing argument. At least have a nice looking site (I just can’t stop jabbing at myself, can I?). Anyway – we live in the age of “factivists”; as residents of this age, people want compelling evidence and a show of effort. For myself and many of my friends, sharing controversial images about a particular stance (abortion, religion, politics, etc.) doesn’t scream, “Look at my strong opinion!” It screams, “I’m lazy and don’t wish to argue my position so I’ll share this person’s image (whom they shared from someone else)!” When a person shares an image like the one above, I audibly sigh. Not because I’m mad (well, I am a little) but because I know most people are going to scoff at it or just ignore it. Which brings us to…

3. Faith needs to be lived and not “liked.”
"Fish Magnets"
This comic strip hits the head of the nail clear through the door. Plastering your opinion on some kind of visible surface does not tell us anything about what you really think or believe. Many well-intentioned Christians have bumper stickers, Facebook images, and other similar items to demonstrate that they are a Christian. Which, on one level, is fine – you can totally show your faith any way you want to. I just want to be very, very clear about something: it does not matter one iota if you “like” every Jesus status and image on the Internet if it only drives people away. I want to kill “hip Christianity.” If you want to be hip and follow Jesus – wonderful. But the subculture of Christianity reflected in the above photo does nothing for the Church. “If you deny me in front of your peers, I will deny you in front of my Father.” Reality check: You’re not in front of your friends. We all say and do things online that would never jive with what we do and say in person. We make snide comments, we hide statuses so others can’t see us talking about them, but THIS image – this is what we have to prominently display on our timeline so that every single friend on Facebook knows that we will not “deny Christ” in front of our friends? Perhaps we should be more worried about how we actually engage with Christ and in what ways we engage with our friends rather than be so concerned about reposting something emphasizing fear and a lack of authenticity.

You can hear how angry I am about this. There’s a reason – this needs to stop. There is absolutely no reason this kind of “evangelizing” should ever happen.
-It does nothing for people who know nothing about God.
-It promotes some kind of warped, inclusive mentality among Christians (because name-dropping is how we get to heaven, right? Which, by the way, is totally the main goal of a Christian). /sigh
-It presents an incredibly false pretense – that we are somehow able to witness to the living Christ in this random Facebook image – which seems to be indicting us if we don’t repost it.

Though I haven’t read the book yet, a couple years ago I remember seeing the title, “Not a Fan: Becoming a Committed Follower of Jesus.” The premise of the book is that in the age of social media’s fandom, we have “liked” and become “fans” of Jesus online, but we have not seriously undertaken the call to be a follower. Do we understand that being a fan has no risks (posting images while hiding behind an LCD screen) and almost no commitments?
Do we realize that if we follow Jesus we risk loss, pain, confusion, loneliness, doubt, and even death?

The image at the top does not prove that you follow Jesus. It proves that you’re a fan of Jesus.
My question to everyone (myself included) is this: are we fans of Jesus? Or are we followers?
If we’re followers, what does that mean for our lives (and our posts)?

For me, it means that I don’t “like” or repost these images.
Glory to God if this image starts a conversation; to be fair, I am sure some people who post this image do “walk the walk” in their offline interactions.
Just make sure you’re posting this stuff because you truly do take a stand for Jesus every day – online and in person – not because you want to appear like you’re a follower.

Harsh words for you, and harsh words for me.
May we never deny Christ and live as though he is always present. Which he is.


Questions, Paths, and Mountaintops.

This is a brief excursion into how I process events in my life.
I use metaphorical allegories to not only think through what I am experiencing but to also allow others to engage with my story. Perhaps you will find a point of contact in your own life.

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The traveler struggled to find his footing as he ascended the rugged face of the howling mountain.
The wind tore at his cloak, tightly wrapped around him and his garments.
The snow bit at the holes in his shoes – holes from all of the jagged outcroppings that had been traversed.
He paused, bracing against the frozen rock, and looked up. White. It was all white. Just swirling, white, empty sky.

But he knew the peak was near. He had been climbing for days, and he wanted more than anything to reach the summit.

The mountain worked against him. With every step, the storm increased, driving snow and sleet into his face, tugging at his clothing, jeering at him and his feeble body. But the traveler continued, climbing, pausing, resting, and then climbing again.

Finally, after what seemed like hours, his hands shakily clasped the summit, slowly pulling his frame up and onto a patch of level ground. With his last ounce of strength, he heaved his nearly-frozen body to his goal and closed his eyes.

I made it. I have arrived. I can ask my question.

And just as his guides had told him, the Sage was there, crouching near a fire.
The wind didn’t howl as loudly here, the traveler thought.
“It almost feels a little warmer up here.”
The Sage looked over, smiled, and beckoned him to come closer.
There was a small log opposite the stout and aged man. The traveler crawled over and sat on the log, huddling near the crackling fire pit.
“Have some tea, you look frozen!”
Grateful, the traveler took the cup and began to drink its warmth back into his body.
“I don’t see many travelers up here anymore. Too stormy for most folk,” the Sage said.
“Well, this is a little out of the way for most folk. If I hadn’t had a proper guide for most of the climb, I doubt I would have made it,” the traveler replied.
“I am glad you are here.” The sage drank from his cup and stared down the mountain.

They sat in silence, listening to the snow encircle the peak above them.
After a time, the Sage spoke. “Do you know why you have come?”
Puzzled, the traveler answered, “Shouldn’t that be my question to you?”
The little man laughed. “Oh, I know why you are here. What I want to know is if you know why you are here.”
“Of course I know, Sage. I came to seek your wisdom as all people have for generations untold.”
The Sage remained silent as if to beckon him to continue.
“You know all things, Sage. You have guided our people since we can remember. I have come far to ask you the most important question I could ever ask.”

The wise one smiled and nodded.
“Yes, what you say is true. That is why you have come. And I know that this has been a question on your mind and on your heart for many years. You have struggled with this question, and you have consulted others – but they have not been able to help you. So, here you are – to ask me your most important question.”
The traveler nodded. He produced a small sack of gold coins. Immediately, the Sage shook his head.
“I take no money. I do not provide my wisdom for profit. Your presence is your gift to me.”
The traveler nodded and placed the pouch back in his satchel.
“Sage, this is my question: which path before me will give me the greatest meaning in my life?”
Silence again enveloped the peak, the two men, and the snow that now fell softly around them.
“This is hard question, young man,” the Sage began. “This is not a question one enters into lightly. Are you prepared for my answer?”
Eagerly, the traveler nodded, his eyes earnestly yearning for the answer he had sought since his childhood.
“The greatest meaning for your life, my young friend, is not something that can be attained by profession or by a sum of deeds. Truly I tell you, if you did enough magnificent deeds to fill this entire mountain, your life would still be barren of meaning. Deeds, professions, and relationships will not close the void you seek to fill.”

The traveler nodded a bit impatiently.
“I know all of this, wise one. Please tell me, what can I do to make the most of my life? What direction should I seek? I have so many paths to choose, and all seem good. I want to choose the right path so as to ensure that my life will find fulfillment.”
The Sage smiled. “There are many paths you can choose that do seem good. But make no mistake, goodness and happiness will not fulfill the desires of your spirit.”
By now, the traveler was becoming irritated. “Sage, I know these things. I want to know from you – tell me, please – what should I do with my life?”
“Do you really want to know?”
“Yes, of course I do!” The traveler’s voice nearly shouted.
“Your life will have meaning when you are no longer concerned about who you are or what you do because you seek to enrich, to save, and to uplift the lives of everyone around you. In whatever you do, the love you give to those who surround you will, in turn, teach you how to love yourself. The opposite is true as well. You cannot love others if you do not love yourself. You cannot and will not forgive others if you do not first seek forgiveness for yourself. Your life, my young traveler, will have its fullest meaning when you seek to love others like the Creator loves you.”
Stunned, the traveler sat in silence.
“I have always taught this to our people. In whatever you do, there is nothing greater than love, regardless of who you extend it to or in what profession you may occupy. You could very well choose any of the paths in front of you, traveler, but if you do not love, then you will still feel the longing you feel right now.”

The traveler stood, and bowed, thanking the Sage for his wisdom.
“Was your spirit not prepared to hear such words?” The little man inquired.
“It was not. I sought an answer for which path would bring meaning and life. However, I have learned and I now know that my life’s meaning will not be bound to which path I take.”
The warmest of smiles filled the Sage’s face.
“This is good, then. The first step to teaching is to be the best learner one can be.”
The traveler paused, mulling over these words, but offered no reply.
Again, he thanked the robed, sagacious man whose beard glinted with snowflakes in the filtered sunlight.

“I will remember this day for many years to come, Sage.”
“I will remember this day as well, my friend. May you grow and live well.”

And with that, the traveler slipped down into a cleft, beginning his descent down the mountain.
The Sage continued to smile.
When the traveler was out of earshot, the Sage uttered, “If only more people would realize they are not identified by their path but in how they walk on that path.”


The Scribe: Then and Now

And we thought practicing on the dotted line was bad...

And we thought practicing on the dotted line was bad…

The word “scribe” can mean a lot of things to us today. For most, we imagine some man, probably with a long beard, hunched over a dimly-lit desk, surrounded by musty books, dipping his quill in some ink and carefully copying a manuscript. And that image is not totally incorrect. Since the inception of written language (circa 4th millenium BCE in ancient Sumer), scribes have been recording, copying, transcribing, and “publishing.”

While most of us are accustomed to the scribe I described above, I wanted to take a moment to talk about what life would have been like for an ancient scribe of cuneiform (pictured above). The “language” of cuneiform is the oldest form of writing known to humanity. It originated as a set of pictographs which eventually came to be understood as proto-alphabetical. In fact, the one of the first “alphabets” discovered was that in Ugarit, a coastal kingdom on the Mediterranean (present day Syria).

Scribal works are fascinating not because of what they wrote but because of who controlled the writings/records: the kings. Even in the time of the Bible, “publishing” any kind of material would have been overseen by a king or some other type of affluent authority. Even the redactions (“edits”) of texts by later scribes/editors would have also been overseen by these people in power. And what types of “documents” were published? Largely economical, actually.

I do not have a figure in front of me, but most of the ancient world’s texts are receipts – copies of transactions, property exchanges, and other types of economical activity within a region or empire. Yes, religious writings played their own role in the King’s Publishing Company, but they were far from the most important texts. Written language appeared because the mental capacity (which was impressive, to be sure) of the ancient peoples could not keep track of all that was happening – especially regarding trade between persons and nations.

Take another look at the image. Those imprints would have been made with a stylus – a thin, wooden and chopstick-like rod with a fashioned edge for making the imprints. Earlier this semester in my Ancient Near East and the Bible course I had the opportunity to try my hand at being a scribe. Unfortunately, the results were so bad that I decided to let the sands of time erase my failed clay tablet from human memory. But the exercise had a point: Dr. Nam had us reflect on what it would have been like to be a scribe in the Ancient Near East. How many years would it take to become proficient at this task? How many years would it take to copy whole archives of tablet data, preserving it for future scribes to read and learn from? The answer: a long time. A scribe would have had to practice for many, many years in order to become proficient in this line of work. It truly would have been a lifelong career.

Also consider that the scribes were not self-motivated authors. These were inscriptions that the king (or someone else) was dictating. No one “blogged” back then. No one wrote quick notes to people. Scribal work was incredibly valuable and important; there was not an opportunity to write one’s own thoughts. The onset of private scribal work occurs much later in history.

So take a moment today and realize just how “privileged” we are. Here I am, finishing up this post in a coffee shop, sipping a beverage I do not need on a computer made from glass, sand, and metal to type these words so they can be sent to the “cloud in the sky” for you to read – probably at your leisure. We can publish anything to almost anywhere; we do not need the approval of a king or wealthy patron in order to produce a work of words. And while this has watered down the literary interaction in some circles, it is overwhelming to think about the immense volume of published work over the last two millennia. Think of all the books in all the languages you will never read. Think about all the information you can never know because there is just so much of it.

Be thankful that all of you are scribes – text-ers, tweeters, Facebookers, bloggers, authors, and scholars – and you have the power to influence the world with your words.

I hope we do not mistreat the privilege we have in our ability to write and to share knowledge.


What is “history”?

I give you - "history."

I give you – “history.”

The subtitle to this post should be: “And by whose account?” In my reading this semester, I have been exposed to a number of different authors writing about the current assessment of our knowledge on Ancient Israelite religion/history. To save you many, many hours of what would probably bore you, I’ll give you the quick version: most of what you know is probably wrong. At least, that’s what the “experts” have said about the matter. And on a historical level, I have to agree with them.

The problem with the “traditional” or “conservative” view of antiquity is simply that we did not live in that period of history. There are so many artifacts and aspects of a 4,000-year-old culture that cannot be known outside of its time. This means that the assumptions held prior to 1970 are probably wrong. Some of this is not a shock to anyone who has studied the Bible. We are aware that Moses probably did not write the Pentateuch. We cannot be truly certain about dates or redactions to various texts. On top of all of this, there is the fundamental truth that even what we read as “objective” truth in Scripture is being read through an interpretative, subjective lens: our minds. Now, before you change the name of this site to “Heretical Scribe,” let me defend myself. I do believe we are predisposed to reading the Bible subjectively since it is not possible for a human being to read from a place of objectivity. What I do believe is that the Spirit can illumine our minds to hear and see the words and connection as they ought to be seen. Yet even this gift of cognition does not change what archaeologists are discovering about idol worship, goddess worship, and the amounts of cultic (meaning localized rather than widespread [like “religion”]) division between different areas of Israelite settlement.

A student of nearly any discipline will inevitably have some trouble understanding that history does not necessarily mean “all the events of the past.” It should not be a surprise that any given history was written because of a particular agenda. A casual search of YouTube reveals that many videos concerning the acts of the “Presidents of the United States” do not list every event or act that each president undertook while in office. Most only recall civil activities, wars, policies and other notable (yet positive) markers of a president’s tenure. We don’t read about how many slaves Thomas Jefferson owned. In this particular arena, “history” usually conjures up the more dramatic and pivotal moments in the lives of the men who helped lead the U.S. through time. The same is true about our working knowledge of the ancient Syria-Palestine dwellers. Many believe that all truth can be found through the literary text of Scripture. While I agree that the Bible is the truest thing you and I will ever read, there is more to consider than only the Bible – we must also see what archaeology and other documents from the Ancient Near East (ANE) have to say in relation to the texts of Scripture.

The example I will use is the difference between the account of the book of Joshua and the account in the book of Judges. In Joshua, we have one of the few depictions of a faithful Israel found in the Old Testament. If there was ever a time the Israelites “got it right” – it was in Joshua. The covenant renewal. The victories. The sacrifices to God. The attitude of the people. Everything seems great. God gave the land of Canaan to his children, the Israelites, as promised.

Enter the book of Judges. There is no faithful Israel here; in fact, Judges 4:1 illustrates the core behavior of the Israelites: “The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, after Ehud died.” When a judge was not in control (read: living), the Israelites instantly snapped back into old habits. This truly was not a faithful Israel. Judges records how the “Conquest” was more of a struggle than a rapid succession of victories (as Joshua seems to indicate). So, we are at an impasse: two books recording the same or similar events yet differing on how these events came to pass. Which is true? Can both be true? Are neither true?

Without getting into too much detail, the archaeological survey seems to favor Judges. There does not seem to be evidence of a rapid conquest of the land of Canaan. Jericho also appears to have been sacked prior to the time the Israelites would have been present in Canaan. Again, I ask, what do we make of this? Do we bury our heads in the sand and cry out, “I’m not listening! I want to choose what I believe!”?

Sadly, I do not have an answer for you. I do believe that every piece of Scripture is inspired – one way or another – and that there had to be “some kernel of truth” (to borrow Ziony Zevit’s language) as to why someone would record a conquest that did not seem to happen the way it was written. Yet I am conflicted as to why such “history” exists in the Bible. It is true that Scripture is a collection of “faithful stories” and should not be subject to our quasi-Greco-Roman examination of some imagined standard of authenticity. But the question returns: what is Joshua doing in the Bible if the narrative about the Conquest – the main, centralized focus of the book – is not as accurate as we would like it to be?

What do you think? What is the role of history as it relates to the Bible? If you believe the Bible to be true, how do you wrestle with Joshua v. Judges v. archaeological data?