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. Fascinating comments. Two thoughts:

    1) Okay, Dan, you are the one studying family systems theory. What do the comments about the alcoholic father mean for us?

    Are you getting in the middle of a triangle between Josh, his Dad, and the Bible?

    2) Josh’s comments (I’m writing in the third person since he stated he had no more time for the conversation) underline the difficulty of dialogue when people come from fundamentally different starting points. Both Dan and Josh can write “the Bible is important” but mean radically different things by it.

    • Without over analyzing, I think it is clear that Josh’s experience of his father is formative. It would be weird if it wasn’t. I think, though, that many factors contribute to his view of the Bible. Triangles are in every relationship — all that’s happened here is we know what one of them are. If I read Josh right, I don’t think he operates by an “either/or,” but a hierarchy. If Josh were to list all the things that a critical for an “authentic” (my word, not his) Christian life, I think he would list prayer, experience, service, community, relationships, meditation, and worship all ahead of reading the Bible. I also think he has indicated that given limited time and resources, focusing on the top of the list leaves little time for the things at the bottom — there are more valuable things to do than Bible study (not that reading the Bible isn’t important). I also feel like he sees a difference between reading the Bible, exploring the Bible, and studying the Bible academically. He sounds fine with the first two, a bit contemptuous of the second. I think the reason Josh doesn’t want to respond directly to all this is that he’s fine with the discussion, but doesn’t see it going anywhere and has other things more important to do. I won’t read anything more into that — I opened this can of worms, not him.

      Bottom line personal opinion: I like Josh and think he is a passionate Christian who holds a very different understanding of the authority, role, place, and purpose of scripture than I do. He makes some very good points, and I think he does a good job of articulating the reasons he feels as he does (even though I disagree with many of them).

  2. I have to agree with Josh. As people of faith we can not continue this way – the Bible is a leaping off point to be people of faith and action – but the only way we are going to do this is to get out of our comfortable homes and worship spaces and be the Body of Christ in action…otherwise, faith is tasteless.

    John, why do you immediately leap to analyzing Josh and family systems? I don’t think that is fair…in my work in the church folks are yearning for experiences to articulate their love of God…sitting on their bottoms mulling over scripture is not what they have in mind. The Bible is rich with texts about doing…Jesus is all about action – “pick up your mat and walk”….”drop your nets and follow…”. If we wish to be relevant in today’s world we need to be out there as well… what we as pastors and Christians can offer is a lense through which to see and frame Christian action – otherwise its a great community service project and we will be left on the curb.

    • Deborah, see my response to John on the family systems thing.

      Josh’s passion for being doers of the word and not hearers only is strong. He makes several good points, but I don’t think it boils down to an “either/or” issue. He is right in pointing out that many people use Bible study as a way of avoiding service. But one cannot deny that most of our modern saints, crusaders (in the positive meaning), pioneers, apostles, etc., all came to faith through an engagement with the Bible. The scriptures form as well as inform, and there are many examples in history of groups who abandoned the Hebrew and Christian texts and ended up fractured, fragmented, or extinct. I believe the Bible is a means to an end and not an end in itself — if our focus is only on the Bible, then our focus is wrong. I question, though, whether without the Bible as a touchstone we wouldn’t drift away and find ourselves abandoned on the curb as well.

  3. I agree with an emphasis on experience and relationship as the ultimate point of Bible teaching. I am reminded of the words attributed to Jesus: “You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life. ” (John 5:39-40, NIV)

  4. Deborah,

    Your question is fair. All I can say is that it struck me as quite interesting that Josh brought that up himself. His argument and case stands on its own. There is obviously a great deal of energy for him in the case of his father who spoke one way and acted another. Of all the things in the universe he could have written, he brought up this fact. So, I wonder how that fact plays into his overall view of matters of faith.

    Josh’s words – and all I know of him is what is written above and what Dan wrote before – set up black-and-white dividing lines that do not exist.

    He writes that he worships Jesus not the Bible. I’d be willing to go out on a limb and say that Dan would heartily affirm that as well. Believing it is valuable to understand the Bible as fully as you can does not constitute Bible worship. Josh writes that he believes in sin, but does not believe it can be taken away by sitting in pews. Neither do Dan or thousands of other people who deeply value Bible study.

    Josh suggests that Bible study and good works are at odds. Do you think that is true?

    Josh writes of his own spiritual filter being the most important thing. (Again, why I think his raising his father’s example is worth noting.) Many Christians would argue that part of what God and the Holy Spirit are attempting to do through Scripture is get us to adjust our spiritual filters.

    Josh seems quite concerned about people who use the Bible for bad purposes – whether that is terrorists or hypocritical pastors. I understand that. But I find his rejection of Bible study an over-reaction. Indeed, while few in the pews will ever be Bible scholars, millions of Christians for thousands of years have found Bible study and close reading a helpful way to adjust their spiritual filters and come to know God.

    Those commentators he will not deign to read just might have thought of something or glimpsed a bit of wisdom that could help someone at his church or help him understand God and their own lives better.

    Why is that a bad thing? And why is his father’s alcoholism and hypocrisy an argument for or against the kinds of careful reading of the Bible that Dan was advocating in his early posts?

    These questions are behind my earlier post. I was trying to be brief in that one. In this one, I clearly am not.

    • Yo, John, I’m not anti-Bible. I’ve plowed through a number of commentaries in my day, and I stopped when I stopped finding helpful information to tell people who are eating out of grabage cans and who beat their wives. My experience from my dad shaped me big time, but not only in negative ways. I read the Bible. I tell others to read the Bible. We talk about the Bible. But the one we read and talk about is The Message and I get tired of people like Doroteos telling me it isn’t a translation so I should get a real Bible. Most of the real Bibles I have are no more accurate historically than the Message, but I really don’t care about what the Bible had to offer then, I care about it now. I care deeply about the Christian message of hope to transform our world today. I am no longer United Methodist because I got tired of constantly talking about what we should do instead of doing it. I got physically ill watching our denomination dump millions of dollars into television commercials that talked about how much good we were doing in the world when we couldn’t do good in the world because we didn’t have the money because we spent it all on television. UMs talk faith, and I want to live faith. That doesn’t come from my dad, that comes from me. This whole Bible discussion is all a part of that. For some of you, time with the Bible is time with God. For me, time with God’s people is time with God and I don’t have enough time to do both, so I choose to spend my God time with people.

      • Josh, thank you for the response. I’m sorry for the third person. My impression was that you had checked out on the talk.

        This is very helpful to me. I appreciate your time in posting it.

        I find it difficult to believe that all these categories are mutually exclusive. But you are the one living in your shoes, not me.

        May God bless and guide your ministry.

  5. I agree with one thing wholeheartedly: “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.” In fact, I’d go a step further and point to many many people I know for whom Christianity = going to church — nothing more (and nothing LESS, of course).

    However, and maybe this is my “literary” bias (see my post in the original thread), I don’t think the “solution” to the above-stated problem is an abandonment (or “practical” rejection) of Bible study. I think the solution is BETTER Bible study, study (like DISCIPLE at its best) in which “response” is an understood (part-and-parcel) component of study–a study which self-understands that Bible study is a means (of grace!) and not an end in itself.

    That means (dare I say it, Dan?) RETHINKING Bible study.

    But here again, “rethinking” cannot be allowed to become just another empty end in itself; it must lead to RE-ACTING. I seems to me that Our Doctinal Standards (we who are UMs) connect scripture with “faith AND PRACTICE.” We’d do well to bear that in mind.

  6. I am grateful for the posts. I had never heard of The Message and found it on-line. Looking at the last part of Matthew 25, one can see written “someone overlooked and ignored” in place of “one of the least of these” (English Standard Version). I suspect considering both of these offers an opportunity to learn. I am a volunteer in Mexico and much more oriented to physical labor than scholarly study of the bible, much more oriented to the right-now issues in the colonias populares than first century Palestine, for example. Still for those like Dan who have studied the Bible in languages other than English and written of that time and others time past, I give thanks, especially in the way they educate and inspire all of us. Josh may have left this thread already, but I will still write how thankful I am for his presence with those who suffer or struggle. Peace,larry

  7. Josh said: “The same Bible that I read telling me to be a peacemaker tells someone else to pick up a rifle and kill Middle Easterners”

    and of course it is all about what the Bible means to the individual and how they are individually inspired so by your own logic both you and the rifle toting murderer are correctly understanding the bible and acting under personal revelation, right?

    wrong.

    Jay – another 28 year old from the coast… of Lake Erie

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