“Hey, Look! It’s an elephant!”

“A personal relationship with Jesus.”
It’s the elephant in the room.
It’s a piece of theology requiring an explanation. It is seen as central to a whole arm of modern Christianity. It is, perhaps, the most single most important chunk of theology that the evangelicals have got.
It’s an elephant because it does not appear in the bible. Worse than that, the phrase is only something like 100 years old.
It’s easy to hear the “elephant in the room” thing as a cliché. But before over use robbed the words of their sting, it was quite a powerful statement. Perhaps this goes with out saying. But a person who pretends that an elephant isn’t in the room with them, that person would have to be pretty stupid. Or at least, deep, deep, deep in denial.
So if we’re going to assert the importance of a personal relationship with Jesus, we owe an explanation to the skeptics, to the curious, to anybody who might not see this as valuable. There are a smattering of challenges that will have to be met when answering that question. Specifically:
1) How did the first 95% Christianity miss this important doctrine?
2) Why would God allow the first 95% of Christianity to miss this doctrine?
3) What makes us so special, that we would be among the few people who got it right?

I think that a satisfactory answer to these questions can be given. I think we can admit that there is an elephant in the room. I think we can explain why he is there. And then we can… I don’t know. Pretend it is a zoo and invite people to come see the elephant. (There’s no real metaphorical meaning there. I just wanted to say that we can explain this thing and then it will be better.)
I don’t think it’s helpful to address those 3 questions separately. I think they can all be addressed together.
I don’t actually think our ancestors, our mothers and fathers in the faith, needed this piece of doctrine. In many cases, it wasn’t necessary for them to have a personal relationship with Jesus.

Did I get your attention yet? I’m trying to be a little provacotive here. But bear with me for a minute.
It is all about that word, “personal.” The idea that we need to be engaged in a relationship with Jesus is thoroughly biblical. I don’t know if Jesus specifically said, “You need to have a relationship with me.” explicitly but I do know that he said we were his mother, brother, sisters, friends; he said that he was the vine and we were the branches, he said he was the way (i.e. path) and we are the journeyers.

I want to spend a little bit of time on that last one. Jesus said he was the way.
Usually, we quote Jesus on this one to people who aren’t following him. Usually, we make great importance of the implication that Jesus is the only way.
I am not interested, today, in debating whether or not their are other ways to salvation.

I am very interested in debating what Jesus meant when he said, “I am the way and the truth and the light.”
He had just mentioned that he was leaving. His followers were worried that they would not find him. Jesus said these words to them, his closest friends: I am the way. He didn’t say it to practioners of some other religion. He didn’t use it as a fear-tactic to scare people into converting to Christianity.
He offered it as an encouragement to those who already followed him. He was, in effect, saying, the very act of trying to find him, the very path which lead to him, was also a part of him.
It might seem that I have wandered away from my original thought, but here is where it all comes back together:

There are certain places I know intimately. I have visited them over the years and across the seasons. I have the joy of watching the ways they change, and of marveling at the ways they do not. In short, there are places that I have a relationship with.
It isn’t really a personal relationship. Because these places aren’t persons. But this does not make the relationship less valid or less valuable than my personal relationships.

In the modern era, I suspect we have narrowed down the list of things we might engage in relationship with. We have engaged in a kind of chauvinism, where our relationships with other people are assumed to be more important, to run deeper, to have more value.
The idea that we would qualify our relationship with Jesus as one which might be personal has some value. It is valuable because we are products of our age. It would be hard for us to value this relationship if it were not personal. It embraces the humanity of Jesus.

But I think that something is lost. Because the idea that Jesus was wholly and fully human is utterly true. And yet, at the same time, it is only half the story.
Jesus is so much more than a person. It follows that our relationship with him would be much more than merely a personal relationship.
At best, this idea that we must have a personal relationship with Jesus is a concession to our times. We moderns/post moderns can grab a hold of the idea of the importance of personal relationship. At worst, it is an act of heresy and idolatry. It limits The Unlimited and it attempts to tame That Which Can Not be Tamed. (Apologies to Ms. Rowling for any rhymes with her creations.)nc__elephant_in_the_room_by_bthomas64-d4s05d9

“Set apart” and “by God”

I recently read an accusation which stuck with me.  I think the reason that it did is because there is truth to it.

The claim was that we emergent/post modern types tend to engage in questionable behavior and actions that are questionable, and that part of our motivation to do this is simply to show off how hip and free we are. 

I think that the context was around drinking, but really, there are dozens of examples that might apply: swearing; Pg-13/R/NC-17 films; listening to music that seems to glorify ungodly things; engaging in expressions of our sexuality outside of marriage… I’m sure we could all add on to this list.

Over the short term, all these things have their appeal.  Obviously, one reason we do them is simply that they are “fun.”  And there’s probably something to the claim that we need to understand the world’s ways, we need to be relevant, we need to be in the world but not of the world.  (Interesting, though, that we rarely seek out ways of emphasizing with others that are less enjoyable.)  

All this notwithstanding, I think that there is something to the claim that it’s also a way to establish ourselves as not legalistic, old-fashioned, pharisee-like. 

What Paul says about not abusing our freedom in Christ is incredibly important.  But it’s not the direction I want to go in today.

There is of course the opposite extreme.  Our little Christian ghettos.  Ruled by laws that are not in the Bible.  They are rigid places.  The word “Gosh” is a no-no, because it sounds so much like saying the word “God” and this would be taking the lord’s name in vain.  A restaurant that served alchohol would never even be entered.  Again, you probably know the drill that these well-intentioned folks live by.

The word “Holy” means “Set apart by God.”  Only four words.  But both extremes only get about half of it right, I think.

The emergent crowd gets focused on the latter half of the definition, and more specifically on aspects of God that are often forgotten.  When we engage in questionable activities we say that God is endlessly loving, radically inclusive, present everywhere.

The ghetto crowd set themselves apart.  Sometimes they aren’t very consistent with who it is that is setting themselves apart.  But they are quite good at setting themselves apart.

The ghetto crowd looks silly.  The emergent crowd looks… identical to the world they inhabit. It’s true that we gain credibility by being understanding and culturally relevant.  But we lose it just as quickly.  On the whole, people aren’t stupid.  When somebody claims that Jesus has revolutionized there life, but they are doing all the same stuff that others without Jesus are doing, there is a disconnect.  People wonder– as they should– just where is this radical change?

The aspect I have been wrestling with is this: how can I transcend this whole question.  Jesus often operated this way: the world makes assumptions that somehow you are on a spectrum in all sorts of areas.  Choosing a place anywhere on that spectrum has limitations, problems, challenges.  Jesus, through out the scriptures, made himself bigger than the obvious options.

I believe that there must be such an option.  There are problems and advantages to being part of the emergent crowd.  There are problems and advantages to being part of the ghetto crowd.  Finding a spot exactly half way between the emergent and the ghetto crowd, will carry half as many advantages and half as many problems. 

I know that Jesus wants more for me.  What do you think?  Can we step beyond the ghetto and the emergent paradigms?

Luke 12 and the church parking lot

I noticed some things that never occurred to me before in Luke 12.  I thought I’d share some of them. 

“1Meanwhile, when a crowd of many thousands had gathered, so that they were trampling on one another, Jesus began to speak first to his disciples, saying: “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. 2There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. 3What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs.”

I’d always thought this was Jesus sharing little pieces of happiness and joy with us.  And as always, he partially is.  If we are saying things we should be proud of in private, we can look foreward to these coming true.

But there’s a different spin to all this.  I don’t think it’s an accident that Luke observes that the crowd begins to trample on one another.  And then the first thing out of Jesus mouth?  Call it encouragement, call it a warning, whatever.  But it’s a promise that who we really are on the inside will be known. 

If we’re the sort-of person who behaves himself even in the annyonomity of a crowd: it’ll be known.

If we’re the sort-of person who jostles and tramples others: that too, will be known.

It seems to me that there couldn’t be a more direct paralell to that thing so many of us (myself included) wrestle with, where we leave the church, and we’re not even out of the parking lot, and we’re already starting to struggle with acting Christ-like.

It’s like Jesus says “Today, you can hide behind your tinted windows.  But some day everybody will know.”

I’d always taken these verses to indicate that the docrtinal statements we hold in our quiet little meetings will someday be broadcast to the world.  The more I read, pray, and understand, though, the more I see this pattern.

We have this tendency to presume or project that the important thing is head knowledge.  We emphasize the content of our thoughts.  Over and over again, it seems to me that Jesus’ real intent and meaning was about heart knowledge.  There’s probably a whole lot in this realization about the modern/post-modern split, but that, I suppose, is another post.


Topic #3 I’m wrestling with God over: faith vs. works

I’ve been exploring the topics I really struggle with: things that I know my explanations come up short in explaining. It’s tempting to down play these issues. Part of me wants to just ignore them, and pretend that I don’t see that there is something I’m missing. In general, I think it’s hard to admit that we don’t things. To be a person of faith, it’s even more difficult to say “Well, I haven’t worked that out yet.” Part of this might be because there are things I am sure of; things I know I have worked out. At some point maybe I’ll ponder why that is. Today, I think I’m going to go in a different direction.

There is one side which says the bible is really clear. If we accept Jesus as our Lord and savoir, we are assured of Heaven. These people rely heavily on formulas. Say this prayer and your eternity is settled. Try to convince other people to say the same prayer so that there eternity is settled. Look foreward to hanging out with them all in heaven. That’s the meaning of it all.
There are reasons that this perspective is convincing. One of the reasons is that there’s a good ammount of scripture backing it all up. In some ways this is an easy position to take, because there are a handful of pithy verses that are easy to quote.
Additionally, I love the idea that in Christ we are assured of our salvation. That it’s so simply done, that it’s something we can rest in, this is beautiful.

In what I say next, I do not want to discount that it’s all about faith. Faith is an act of courage. It’s a difficult act, to believe. I do my very best to put Jesus at the center of what I do. This is not about de-emphasizing him.
The reason I struggle with this is not only that it’s hard to see how this makes sense in terms of salvation… I’ve heard all the arguments about how none of us can earn our way into heaven. I can accept them, as far as they go. But is anybody really comfortable with the idea that a Christ-confessing torturer in the Spanish inquisition is going to spend eternity in heaven while a Budhist who dies in Burma fighting for others’ freedoms is going to spend eternity damned?
Furthermore, there aren’t as many pithy verses but there’s lots of stuff at the level of chapters in the gospels that express Jesus’ contempt for legalism. The whole “salvation as a 3 step process that fits on the back of a business card” mentality feels like modern-day phariseeism.
Jesus spoke so often about the way we treat others; he told his followers to feed his sheep; he told us whenever we deny those in need we are denying him… God speaks, too, in the old testament, about how we treat the widow, and the orphan.

I find some solace in the book of James. I haven’t got it all worked out yet, but I think that this tension gets resolved in whether or not our proclamation that Jesus is Lord really touches us… Works are never, ever, ever a substitute for faith. But a faith that doesn’t spur works is a contradiction in terms maybe.

Looking foreward to your responses,

Hannah Montanna and post modernity

There is nothing redeeming for the show and sad, probably bordering on creepy, that an adult would even be giving it much thought. But here’s the thing: That annoying Hannah Montanna show actually brings up a handfull of questions about idenity, metafiction, and post modernity.

For those who don’t know about the show: It’s about a fictitious teen aged singer whose stage name is Hannah Montanna. Apparently the stress and travails of being famous become too much for her; she assumes the identity of an ordinary kid and wants to keep her life as a famous rock star secret.

For those who don’t know about the nature of identity, metafiction, and post modernity:
A major branch of philosophy is concerned with questions of who we really are… metafiction is when a fictional work is aware of the fact that it’s fictional, or plays with this in some way; post modern fiction is interested in issues of identity and often engages in metafiction.

So where do these two connect? Of course there are the obvious thematic elements of reinventing one self, the private vs public self, etc. But there’s stuff much more overt.

For example, the fictious singer– Hannah Montanna– does real-world concerts and releases C.D.’s under that fictious name. Of course, it’s the actress playing that role. But it’s as if the audience is pulled into the world of Hannah Montanna, where she is in fact a real pop star… It connects the concert with the show, in some way… It’s not unlike the scenes in Phantom of The Opera which take place in the Opera House… the audiance is of course the audiance, but they are also invited into playing the roles of the audiance in the performance going on within the narrative. In Hannah Montanna, the audiance is simultanously playing the role of a fictitious audiance and actually being an audience.

The duality of famous vs not famous and real vs fictional takes a few other twists if we step back a bit. First off, the role of the singers dad is played by a real-life country singer. On the show, he is not famous. On the other hand, the actress playing Hannah had no particular notieriety before the show.
In short: there was this ‘tween, who was not famous. She took on the role of a person who was famous. This famous character decided to take on the role of a person who was not famous. The role of her father was taken on by a person who was, in fact, famous before the show began. However, the role he is playing is the role of a person who is not famous.

Wow… Kind of dizzying for entertainment aimed at ‘tweens.

Why I am an emergent, post-modern kind-of guy

The fact that I am a follower of Christ is way more important than the fact that I identify myself with the emergent and post-modern movements.  But some of the reasons I am a Christ-follower are beyond words; on the other hand, the reason that once I enter the country of Christianity that I choose to go into the state of emergency and the county of post-modernity are a little easier to explain.

Some of the reason that these descriptions are so controversial is because they mean so many different things to so many different kind-of people.  When I describe myself a post-modern, when I proclaim the power of the emergent church, here is what I mean:

I: post-modernity

By proclaiming myself a post-modern, one thing I am doing is subscribing to a certain view of the history of ideas.  This view states that once we were ancient, ruled by superstition.  This gave rise to the modern era.  Modernity worshipped a shallow kind of rational thought, and ideas divorced of their context.  The modern era was time of domination, and man-centeredness.

I believe that it is a good thing that we are working at transcending this.  Modernity gave us electricity, but it also gave us the inquistion; it gave us space travel but it also gave us nazis.

Post-modernity emphasizes the relational and the contextual.  Taken to far it can be relativistic.  But modernity taken to far can become manical.   

I believe that Post-modern Christians help recover the importance of relationships to Jesus.  When I’m feeling provacative and fiesty, I proclaim that post-modernity does a much better job of taking the Fall seriously than modern Christianity does.  It’s an ironic thing about traditional Christianity (traditional meaning Christianity circa 1650-1950): One of the most basic doctrines is that man made himself broken, fallible, disconnected from the source of wisdom.  These broken, fallible, disconnected men then went on to proclaim with arrogant surety every little thought that popped into their brains.

Post-modern Christianity I think takes seriously the image of wrestling with angels.  It is characteristic of post-moderns as a whole to recognize tensions without always having to resolve them.  Sometimes, this leads to inaction, and that can be a bad thing.  However, the alternative is to almost arbitrarily to decide which side of an issue to come down on, to ignore the values of the other side… where modernity tends to identify what it isn’t, tends to oppose and fight, post-modernity looks for a synthesis.  

There are dangers in both modernity and post-modernity… I think the church, though, is in desperate need of post-modernity… Conversely, I think our culture as a whole, the secular world, is in desperate need of modernism, I think that the pendulum in the outside world has swung too far away from surety and objective truth.


The very title emergence evokes the idea that God is working through us… he is transforming us as he transforms the world.  He is not done with us yet.  We recognize that we are the clay, and we are open to His moldings…