Flexibible (Josh’s Turn)

I shared some thoughts from an email exchange with a young pastor on the west coast (Open to Interpretation), and he sent me a short response to post.  So here it is, Josh’s response:

Hey, I’m Josh, I’m single, I’m twenty-eight, I have an M.Div. from Illif, and I now serve a nondenominational church in Washington State.  There are about 250 of us any given week at the church, mostly people under forty, mostly single, a lot of low-income people.  We don’t have our own building but meet in the community playhouse, except when there are shows, then we meet in a community center.  We would meet outside at this great nearby park if it didn’t rain so much.

I started writing Doroteos/Dan after a few times he talked about how important scholarly Bible study is and how we need to read it in the Greek, and learn what the authors really meant — the same stuff I was fed in seminary.  But what I learned there I think is valid and true: it doesn’t matter if Mary was a virgin or not — Jesus is still Jesus.  Knowing which of Paul’s letters Paul actually wrote will not feed one single starving person.  Memorizing scripture verses and naming all the books of the Bible won’t save our world from our greed, corruption, or insanity.  The Bible is a tool, not the reason we believe.

I just want to say three things my own way that I base my teaching and preaching on.  Some of what Doroteos/Dan said and some of the comments make me think I am not being clearly understood.

First, the Bible is important.  But for what it says today, not what it meant 2,000 years ago.  Today’s people need to engage it in today’s language.  So what if Peterson doesn’t do a good job translating the actual text of the Bible?  It’s readable, it’s inspiring, and it captures the gist of what the Bible is trying to say.  Isn’t that basically what a good sermon tries to do?  I only use The Message and I don’t notice anybodies eyeballs melting or their heads exploding.  What I do notice are people listening and trying to figure out what the Bible has to do with their lives.  Which of the four resurrection stories is the “true” story?  Don’t know, don’t care, doesn’t matter.  We don’t have time to waste debating it.  I haven’t cracked a commentary since I graduated Illif, and I don’t see any reason to.  There are so many great stories and instructions throughout the Bible, that I can preach every week til I die and I won’t get to them all.  And even if we didn’t use the Bible, there are so many life lessons from our faith that we can get by.  I am not against the Bible, I just don’t think it is as crucial that we analyze it the way we do.

Next, I am a Christian (but not a Biblian).  I worship Jesus Christ, not the book about him.  I do believe in the physical resurrection but do not claim to understand how a human afterlife will work. I do believe in conversion experiences, more than a lot of people I know who are Bible scholars.  I do believe sin is a problem, but not one that can be fixed by sitting in pews on a Sunday morning.  I believe that a church is a gathering of Christians who figure out together what God wants them to do, and then they do it.  I think Christianity is less about what you think and more about how you live.  My dad was a pastor and a closet alcoholic.  He was especially strict about living a righteous life then drank himself comatose every night.  I learned a lot from that — your life is your witness, not your words.

Last, I hate labels and the whole “post-modern” thing is stupid. I don’t know if I am modern, post-modern, or post partum.  What I believe is that I am as God created me to be in relationship with God through God’s Spirit.  This offers a filter through which I live my entire life.  Regardless of what musicians or artists or authors mean, I interpret things through my own spiritual filter, and what something means to me is what is most important.  And everybody does exactly the same thing, though most people don’t think it through.  The same Bible that I read telling me to be a peacemaker tells someone else to pick up a rifle and kill Middle Easterners.  The same Bible that tells me that if I’m not feeding the hungry and not housing the homeless I’m not a Christian is telling some yo-yo in Texas that good Christians are rich Christians.  And followers go where they hear what they want to hear.  If that’s post-modern, fine, but I just think it’s human.

I believe each individual is an entire faith.  People are like snowflakes, no two alike.  I have yet to meet any other human being that believes everything I do exactly the way I do. It is not my role as pastor to impose my beliefs on people who come to my church.  Ninety-nine percent of the people that come to our church will never be Bible scholars and they really don’t need my narrow interpretation for them to live good Christian lives.

For too many people the Bible is an excuse not to be Christian.  If we sit around a table every week for a year talking about who Jesus really was, we don’t have to actually try to be like Jesus.  If we fill our Sunday schools with big groups talking about Christianity, then we won’t be bothered having to be Christian.  Studying the Bible and having small group discussion is the best, easiest, most painless way to avoid following Jesus.  We have had hundreds of years of scholarly study, and it hasn’t really made much of a difference.  Wasting time reading the Bible in the original Greek doesn’t seem to me to be taking us where we need to go.

I appreciate all the well-meaning comments, but a lot of them jump to some pretty huge unfair conclusions.  I love God, I love Jesus, I am a Christian, and I wouldn’t be a pastor if I didn’t love people.  It’s just for me, none of these relationships are defined by a book.

Josh isn’t giving his last name or email because “I’m kind of done with this now?  I need to spend my time on other things.”

18 replies

  1. Josh,

    Thank you for your clarification. The impression I had at first was that you were totally dismissive of the Bible (in my comment on the first post of this discussion). While I would personally not make the choice to rely on “The Message” version for preaching and worship, I am a lot more comfortable with your overall reasoning provided here. Thanks for putting it all into your own words (and Dan, thank-you for giving Josh the forum to do it).

  2. “I worship Jesus Christ, not the book about him.” AMEN! Martin Luther said that the Bible is “the cradle in which the Christ child is laid.” While I personally think accurate translation of the ancient texts is quite important and am not a fan of Peterson’s version of the Bible, I also think that relating Scripture to life today, and using what we glean from the Bible to make a difference in the world now by sharing that Good News in word and deed is quite important.

    The debates about biblical inerrancy, which variant reading is to be preferred, the correct translation of certain Greek words, which biblical text is historically accurate when two or more texts give different versions of events, and whether or not Jesus actually spoke all of the words attributed to him may be useful in academic settings or make for interesting conversation among colleagues, but I agree with Josh that what really matters is how we live our lives. Sadly, even within the Christian community, there is often a lack of civility and respect for differing perspectives, and we end up shouting at each other and denying the faith of those with whom we disagree.

  3. I am thankful for the Dan’s and the Josh’s in the community of faith and their ability to see what they hold in common as more important than where they disagree. It strikes me that in Christian Community there must be those who engage in the scholarly study of scripture and those who emphasize living out what the community has come to understand about God’s challenge for our lives in the world due to that same study. Most of us have some balance of the two, but we all lean more or less in one direction or the other.

    The community must also challenge (as Josh has) those who use study as an excuse for inactivity, and (as Dan’s blog constantly does) those who use activity as an excuse to not rigorously look and listen for God’s leading to direct our acts.

    With regard to the message, Dan, I am sure you have already figured out that it is “the official bible of the Wisconsin Annual Conference.”

  4. I, too, think we need Bible study, reflection and action. We have to be fed spiritually in order to serve. Listening to the letter of James in recent weeks underscores the relationship of faith and action. To me (a lay person), knowing verses or memorizing them can be helpful in grounding my understanding of how God is working in my life and to what I am called. Bible study informed by others’ experiences can sometimes be very rich. Dorothy Watson Tatem notes that Jesus sent disciples in pairs — for support and accountability; the same could probably be said for Bible study.
    I have twice heard very compelling witnesses about what happens when people are able to read scripture for themselves. In one instance, an African was amazed to read in her own language a Bible that was more liberating than the version that had been read to her. The other instance was a young woman in the Ukraine who was shocked (and honored) when she was asked to read from the Bible — something that until then in her life could only be done by a priest.

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