This is an excellent excerpt from a book I read sometime back called, The Year of Living Biblically. Check it out here for more info. In context with the book this article might make a little more sense but it can also be understood as a standalone piece.
There’s a phrase called “Cafeteria Christianity.” It’s a derisive term used by fundamentalist Christians to describe moderate Christians. The idea is moderates pick and choose which parts of the Bible they want to follow. They take a nice helping of mercy and compassion. But the ban on homosexuality? They leave that on the countertop.
Fundamentalist Jews don’t use the phrase “Cafeteria Judaism,” but the have the same critique. You must follow all of the Torah, not just the parts that are palatable.
Their point is, the religious moderates are inconsistent. They’re just making the Bible conform to their own values.
The year showed me beyond a doubt that everyone practices cafeteria religion. It’s not just the moderates. Fundamentalists do it too. They can’t heap everything on their plate. Otherwise they’d kick women out of church for saying “hello” (women should keep silence in the churches for they are not permitted to speak (ICor. 14:34)” and boot out men for saying “Tennessee Titans” (“make no mention of other gods” Exodus 23:13)
But the more important lesson was this: there’s nothing wrong with choosing. Cafeteria’s aren’t bad per se. I’ve had some great meals at cafeterias. I’ve also had some turkey tetrazzini that gave me the dry heaves for 16 hours.
The key is choosing the right dishes. You need to pick the nurturing ones (compassion), and the healthy ones (love your neighbor), not the bitter ones. Religious leaders don’t know everything about every food, but maybe the good ones can guide you to what is fresh. They can be like a helpful lunch lady who…okay, I’ve taken the metaphor too far.
Now this does bring up the problem of authority. Once you acknowledge that we pick and choose from the Bible, doesn’t that destroy its credibility? Doesn’t that knock the legs out from under it? Why should we put stock in any of the Bible?
“That’s the big question,” says one of my rabbis, Robbie Harris. I asked Robbie as well as every other member of my advisory board. There’s no simple or totally satisfying answer. But let me offer two interesting ideas from them.
The first is from the pastor out to pasture Elton Richards. Here’s his metaphor: Try thinking of the Bible as a snapshot of something divine. It may not be a perfet picture. It may have flaws-a thumb in the lense, faded colors in the corners. But it still helps to visualize.
“I need something specific, ” says Elton. “Beauty is a general thing. It’s abstract. I need to see a rose. When I see that Jesus embraced lepers, that’s a reason for me to embrace those with AIDS. If He embraced Samaritans, that’s a reason for me to fight racism.”
The second is from Robbie himself. He says we can’t insist that the Bible marks the end of our relationship with God. Who are to say that the Bible contained all the wisdom? “If you insist that God only revealed himself at one time, at one particular place, using these discrete words, and never any time other than that-that in itself is a kind of idolatry.” His point is: You can commit idolatry on the Bible itself. You can start to worship the words instead of the Spirit.
* Taken from The Year of Living Biblically by A.J Jacobs.
I’ve been reading a book by Frank Viola and George Barna entitled Pagan Christianity. Now before you sign off wait till you hear what I have to say about it. I’ve read another one of Frank Viola’s books and I was underwhelmed at the lack of understanding and overwhelmed at the vehemence that he defended the house church. However this new book chronicles the “fall” of the church from its glorious small beginnings to the alleged monster that it has become with sprawling mega-church campuses.
Barna and Viola make every effort to go down the categorical list of things that we do every Sunday in church and show how they are cultish, pagan, or used is some other form of ungodly worship. In the first chapter alone they list just about everything that my father-in-law does at his liturgical Anglican church where he presides as a pastor. Things from candles, stained glass, the bishops chair, the altar, the rails, incense, clothes, order of service and a whole host of other things. The point that Pagan Christianity makes is that Constantine incorporated all these things into the Christian church either out of ignorance or a desire to please all sides. The book stresses that these practices of having a pastor, a building, elder board, programs, etc. are all evil and by practicing them we are syncretic in our worship and misguided. I do my best to not exaggerate the claims made by the book, if it sounds a little outlandish I assure I am not taking liberties with text.
To be honest and fair I am not the biggest fan of the church in the way she’s run. Without delving into to much I would make the case that when a church is run by pastors instead of the apostolic (Apostle, Prophet, Teacher, Evangelist, Pastor) government you fashion an environment ripe for spiritual abuse. Most people who have stepped out (or stepped up) with honest questions or a direct challenge to established church leadership have found themselves at the crap end of the stick. The system, the way it is run and built, effectively shuts down so-called antagonists and dissenters. Honest people with honest questions and issues are rarely given an opportunity to voice them and be heard before they are ostracized and silenced. I know this is not the rule in every case but I would say the vast majority of pastors would squash something deemed disorderly or heretical rather than hear the person out and/or examine the claim with an open mind and heart.
However, with that being said I am finding this book grinding on me. I, for one, don’t think that the church needs the massive overhaul that Barna and Viola propose. I do think that it needs a leadership shift not because I don’t like pastors but because the way that it was done in the new testament empowered the people, not the institution. When apostles and prophets are in their right place everything clicks.
When the book rags on cathedrals for being built only to show God as transcendent and awe-inspiring I wonder, “What’s wrong with that?” Is He not transcendent? Is He not Creator-Of-The-Galaxies?” Is it so bad to create a building to honor Him and to show that facet of His character? I for one LOVE my father-in-laws church. Situated over an old gold mine, you can find a traditional Anglican church service there every Sunday morning. I love the formality and soberness of the Eucharist, I love the stained glass windows and humble architecture. However I also love getting whacked in God’s presence and not be able to get off the floor. I love when the Holy Ghost shows up and there’s chaos everywhere (read Holy Spirit order). I wouldn’t want to dedicate my life to being a priest in the Anglican church but I do appreciate them and what they stand for. Now do I feel the demonic presence of ancient pagan rituals sneak up on me as I breathe the incense? No, not really. Do I think that those things should be done away with? I don’t know but I don’t know if it really matters either.
My biggest issue with any of it is getting off track. Frank Viola and George Barna are famous for their staunch views against the organized church. I get that, I really do. I’ve been hurt by the church too. But I’m not sure we can make that our one mission in life. When all someone has to say and are known for is pushing the agenda of a home church and dismantling the institutionalized church, I have cause to worry. My first thoughts are, don’t you care about the orphan? What about the poor? Are you praying for the sick and bringing restoration to all areas around you? Is this message the most important thing in the world to you? Is this your hill worth dying on?
I think every other mission should be secondary to that of loving Christ and loving the broken. If something begins to eclipse that we should pause and reevaluate.
Perhaps someone has a vision to see a total reformation in the church, moving us back to house churches but I know I don’t. I would rather work with what I have for the most good now. We have big churches and small churches, rich churches and poor churches, impacting churches and useless churches, but it’s all the church. And this is all we have right now.
I’m not against speaking about the church and its shortcomings. There has to be a delineating line between Bride-bashing and healthy circumspection. One is usually consistent in its negative and angry attitude towards a group of people. It’s usually born out of hurt, control, discouragement and spiritual abuse. I feel that those who are hurt by the controlling and illegitimate leadership must go through a time of healing. Healing often includes a lot of hurt and anger rising to the surface. It takes time for a healing from stuff like that, it could even take years. But once the healing is more or less complete I feel there is a call to maturity. We would need to step out of negativity and into understanding. Yeah, the church is jacked up, yeah there are some crazy people running it sometimes, yeah people who don’t fit in perfectly get steamrolled but we can’t sit and be victims forever.
My wife and I don’t go to an institutional, organized church anymore. I was heavily involved for years before you-know-what got real. After being misunderstood, slandered, and ridiculed I’ve walked the road of church hating. Now that stuff is getting back to normal for me I still don’t go back to church. Why? For the same reasons a wife shouldn’t go back to her abusive husband. I have realized I need to protect my heart from offense and the only way I can do that is to stay away from the most offensive place I know. Normal church.
I guess the bottom line falls to 2 things.
1. Big Church is not for everyone. Home church is not for everyone. One body; many parts and uses.
2. Church-bashing is not the same as healthy circumspection. One can be identified by its poisonous, divisive attitude and the other by its honesty and love.
If we fail to realize the mistakes and weaknesses of our “body” they won’t get fixed and we will continue to limp along. If we punish and destroy other parts of our body in the name of doctrine, protection, or beliefs then we will travel even less. It’s a tight rope to walk, we’re not always going to get it right but that’s what grace is for. The tension is meant for our balance.
I say, bring out the ugliness, make a triumph over the control and manipulation, walk in grace, soak it all in love, be patient and understanding, and we just might make it out alright.
I’ve been on a journey the last week or so. It came to me in the form of a well-worn brown book. I found this book in the musty cellar of a local soda fountain shop. The price tag was a bit steep but when I saw it was only the second printing of this American literature masterpiece from one of my favorite authors I had to have it. I’ve saved it for a couple years since then, waiting for the right time to read it. I feel like books are often like wine. It has to be the right book, at the right time, speaking to the right things in your heart right when you need it. Sometimes I will start a book and realize it’s not the right time and put it down for a month, a year, or sometimes not pick it up again. A book at the right time can be the key for breakthrough in that season of your life.
I read a lot and it is rare that a book will break me. However I was barely ¼ through my current book before my heart was mush. I’ll go through seasons, usually when I am physically and emotionally drained where every story really grips me. I find myself in a vulnerable place and it doesn’t take much to push me over the edge. Whether it’s a book, a movie, a song, a sermon, whatever. For whatever reason I have been in this place lately which has only added to the intensity of my current quest through these thin brown pages.
The Grapes Of Wrath starts off with a family looking at their destitute farm jointly destroyed by the Dust Bowl and the advent of tractor driven farming. Already in poverty the story follows them as they make the decision to go to California where, “you can just reach your yer winda and grab any old orange you want. Oranges laying on the groun’ theys so many”. They begin on Highway 66, an American icon, and make their way west. Truly the idea of Americano is forever stained in my mind. Chrome, burgers, checkered diners, hot rods, Route 66, James Dean, and swing. I never realized it was built on the backs of broken, homeless families migrating west for a new start at life.
Along the way they find themselves getting into a new rythem of life, life on the road. They begin to hear of rumors that the promises of milk, honey, and oranges out west are not as great as they sound. The family begins to fracture as different ones die, others leave unable to handle the pressure. When California finally fills the panorama it truly does look as beautiful as the stories tell. However when they talk to people they find that there is no work to be found. In fact families are starving and are in a constant state of malnutrition. Large farms and ranches take advantage of the massive influx of workers and drop wages to absurdly low amounts. Read 15 cents an hour and less, barely enough to live on.
You watch helplessly as the family walks through hell, slowly starving to death, desperate for anything to keep them alive. And so the family dwindles to its core members. The book finishes with a heart-breaking flourish as only Steinbeck can do. It is only the second book that at it’s end, I wept.
I have been reading every spare moment I can find. Half awake during breakfast, lunch breaks, late at night. This book demands your full attention. After I come out of a session stuck in this book I find myself disoriented, almost dizzy. Steinbeck has an amazing way of putting you in the story so when you stop you feel as if you are waking up or coming up from a deep dive, lungs screaming for air.
I can’t help but think, what if it was my wife that wasn’t lactating for her soon to be born baby because of her own malnutrition? What if it was my little one’s that rested on death door because of worms? What if it was my family that was swept away by a flood? It’s crushing to realize that families actually went through these kinds of things. I drive on our fancy roads and look at our fancy signs and experience a culture shock similar to returning from a foreign country. I realize that it was these kind of people that our society was built on. We can do what we do today because of the sacrifice they made. Millions have paid the price of back breaking hard work, hunger, death and pain so that we could move forward as a society and as a nation.
With all of our problems as a country we can look forward with hope because of the price that has been paid for our freedom and our comfort. I can look at my future with hope because my dad cared enough to remove himself from the cycle that his family had raised him in. My father and mother took great pains to be free from drugs, alcohol, controlling religion, and poverty. All so I could look at my future and say, “What do I want to do?” Or more importantly, “Where does God want us?” I realize that any greatness we could achieve in our life can only be directly attributed to all the people that went before us and whose backs, accomplishments and sacrifices we stand on.
It’s memorial day weekend and I am remembering that I am only here by the grace of God. His sovereignty has placed us here. All of time has brought us to this point, our parents, our grandparents, their parents and grandparents all compounded with the whole of history supports us as we reach a little higher. Every sacrifice, every tear in the night, every hungry belly suffered so a future childs wouldn’t have to. It’s all for us, it’s all for right now.
We have a massive, unpayable debt to the whole of humanity. There is a clarion call out to break from mediocrity, apathy. Soldiers didn’t die for us to live in the cookie cutter existence. Our ancestors didn’t face ocean, disease and hunger just to see us lackadaisical. They suffered so we could go for the higher prize, the far unreachable thing. The thing that, in their day, was unimaginable. Yet we’ve found comfort. We’ve found a nice little lukewarm pool to soak our fat feet in. We’ve forgotten about the world. We’ve forgotten about the broken, the hurting, and the starving. We don’t really care about the 27 children killed in Syria this week. We skim past the reports of children being tortured to get to the entertainment news. So quickly we forget that we’ve been given everything so that we can give it away. Being American we take for granted the ease of life that is so subtle to our culture. We have whatever luxury our hearts desire within reaching distance, lest we have to get out of our recliner.
All of creation is groaning for the Sons of God to be revealed. How long till we realize our heritage? Our identity? What is it going to take to remember all that have gone before us? Their blood cries out for more, to go farther, deeper. Not materialistically but in view of a global impact. Our lives are full, ready to be emptied at need of the broken. And yet we feed on our own fatness, forgetting our wealth is not for us.
We have a chance to step into the beauty of the incarnational Christ. Stepping out of a world of everything into a world of the deepest need. Let us not forget the sacrifices, the pains, and the hardships that have been laid down for our path. It’s a beautiful road that leads away from our homes, our places of comfort and familiarity into the dry and hurting places of the world. We can stay in our houses of luxury only at the expense of wasting all the effort put forth for us. The road will crack from disuse and the weeds will push through, and before long we will have forgotten our history, our heritage, and our destiny. Let it not be said of this generation. Let us not forget the road of sacrifice.
“There is no question that Jesus cannot handle, no discussion too volatile, no issue too dangerous. At the same time, some issues aren’t as big as people have made them. Much blood has been spilled in church splits, heresy trials, and raging debates over issues that are, in the end, not that essential. Sometimes what we are witnessing is simply a massive exercise in missing the point. Jesus frees us to call things what they are.” from Love Wins
I approached Love Wins with none of the feelings of intrepidation that most did. Rather I was excited to see what all the fuss was about. For years I have enjoyed reading the books that my ultra-conservative church social circles decried. I skipped all the Wednesday night videos that articulated how The Da Vinci Code was poisoning the world. Instead, I went to the library and borrowed The Da Vinci Code and read it for myself. On a missions trip.
So I have no fear when it comes to approaching the heretical fringe. A great pastor I admire recently said, “Heavens greatest revelation often hides behind the doors of heresy”.
As I started the book I couldn’t help but notice the vast amount of questions. It seemed every line was a question. Chapter 1 opened questioning the foundation of what we would call Salvation. Bell goes through an exhaustive list of every time in the New Testament where it talks about someone being saved. And if you think it is as easy as saying a prayer, you’re in trouble.
What I never really noticed was the vast amount of different ways that people, in the Bible, achieved or received, their salvation. From being born into the right family (Timothy) to what you are saying you are going to do (Zaccheus) the list Bell composes is daunting and discouraging to say the least. I found myself asking and waiting for the definitive statement that tied them all together. There was none.
This reader was left with an overwhelming sense of confusion as to what the “right” way to be saved was. Bell made no effort to throw the audience a life line but quickly moved on to question other foundational truths.
Obviously if someone with questions came to this section without a proper knowledge of things it could be very discouraging to reconcile all that was said.
As the book continued I realized that Bell was writing how he would speak from the stage.
Sometimes with only.
“Gah!”, the (self appointed) sophisticated writer/reader in me screamed. “Write like a human being please!”
Bell would not oblige. He continued to insult my intelligence and God given gift of systematic logic. Many of his core arguments were based off shifty logic that could have a dozen different outcomes. I’ll try to explain.
If I say Labrador retrievers are yellow you would agree. But then if I said all Labs are yellow you would probably respond with, “Wait just a minute, not so”. But before you had a chance to to say anything, I ignore all other logic and move on with, “We can trust that all the Labs in the world are yellow and because of that they are the best dog in the world.” You can’t move onto deeper levels of truth without first establishing the foundation to be true. The dog example is a poor one, I’ll try to use one from the bible.
Moses’ law stated that it was illegal to sleep with another man’s wife and to kill anyone. When Jesus came He added onto that by also saying you cannot even look at any women lustfully without committing adultery in your heart. The same is true for murder. Before you had to physically take the life of another man (or woman as the case may sometimes be) to be guilty of murder. Jesus took it another step and said that if you were angry with your brother you were guilty of murder. Later He takes it even deeper by saying that if you broke one law you were guilty of breaking the whole thing.
There are three levels of truth there. The very first one is not wrong it’s just that there are two more levels of truth above it that supersede it. The upper levels exist but can have a hard time being understood without the foundational truth. This is sometimes called progressive revelation. This is also something that Rob Bell does poorly in his book.
He will take one point and before you have the chance to settle it or determine its truth he will move onto the next point which expounds upon the previous. This really bothered me because a lot of his first points had many different conclusions and/or answers. It seemed that Bell simply went with the first and easiest conclusion available. At other times he seemed to take the answer that best served his grander scheme, err theme. I’m not a theologian or philosopher by any means but I know when an argument can have more than one side. Many of Bells foundational points, the pillars of which he built his argument on had way too many possibilities to consider structurally sound. This alone caused me to question the majority of what he had to say. I found myself thinking, “Well what about this side of it and this side, and what about this?”
Bell was found of shooting off loaded questions. He would ask something that clearly had an answer that supported his point but sometimes the answer wasn’t as simple as the question.
For example, one question was “Did God create every person in the world only to send them to hell when they die?” The obvious answer is a resounding “no“ but on deeper investigation you realize the whole premise itself is wrong. God doesn’t send anyone to hell. The wages of sin is death, sin sends you to hell not God. When your premise is wrong everything else, sooner or later, will end up wrong.
There was a gross abundance of questions like this. Questions that body-checked you logically and theologically, forcing you into a corner where you had to face this vague, gray, shifting entity that wouldn’t stop asking questions without a proper discussion and review of the facts.
With his questions he forces you into thinking a certain thing about heaven, hell, or eternity. He does this without ever stating his point. He won’t come out and say, “hell is temporal and everyone still has a chance even when they are there”. However, he will do everything but say that, leading you to think that is the only logical conclusion. For me personally I would have much rather had him say what he thought and believed which I understood to be Christian Universalism, instead of dancing around.
However, Chapter 7, The Good News Is Better Than That, rocked me. It spoke about the two brothers in the parable of the prodigal son. Bell went in depth about identity and the character of God. Reading on my Kindle I wanted to highlight almost every line. I had to stop myself and just remember that the whole chapter (and the next to some degree) were amazing. Here is a portion of text that surmised most of the chapter.
The younger brother believes that he is cut off, estranged, and no longer deserves to be his father’s son, because of all the terrible things he’s done.
His badness is his problem, the thinks.
He’s blown the money on meaningless living until he was face down in the gutter, dragging the family name though the mud in the process. He is convicted that his destructive deeds have put him in such a bad state that he doesn’t even deserve to be called a son anymore.
Now, the older brother believes that the reason he deserves to be a son is because of all the good he’s done, all the rules he’s obeyed, all the days he’s “slaved” for his father.
His goodness is to his credit, he thinks.
The younger brothers wrongs have led him away from home, away from the family, deep into misery. This is true. His sins have separated him from his father.
The second truth one that is much more subtle and much more toxic as well is that the older brother is separated from his father as well, even though he’s stayed home.
His problem is his “goodness.
His rule-keeping and law-abiding confidence in his works has actually served to distance him from his father.
What we learn in his speech to his father is that he has been operating under the assumption that his years of service and slaving were actually earning him good standing with his father.
He thinks his father loves him because of how obedient he’s been
He thinks he’s deserving because of all the work he’s done. He thinks his father owes him.
Our badness can separate us from God’s love, that’s clear.
But our goodness can separate us from God’s love as well.
Neither son understands that the father’s love was never about any of that. The father’s love cannot be earned and it cannot be taken away.
It just is.
I love that! I love anything that takes on the task of combating self-righteousness and striving. Unfortunately those two chapters didn’t have much to do with the rest of the book.
At the end of it all I really wanted to know what Bell thought. From the beginning I wish he would have laid out his viewpoint and let me decide for myself instead hemming me in with cheap questions and twisted logical arguments. Instead I found myself trying to reconcile all Bell’s loose ends before jumping to a truth that he was trying so hard to coerce me into. Many people have asked, “What is Bell really saying?”. After reading it I have to say, “Possibly nothing but I really have no idea.”
I think this book is good for people who aren’t easily coerced into something and know the voice of the Holy Spirit. Without His enlightening Truth this book would be very confusing and possibly detrimental. It’s great for a conversation and it really presents some great questions. Like I said Chapter 7 was amazing.
As for the book as a whole I don’t not like it for the same reasons that the mainstream Christian flood, but rather the unfairness and lack of depth that was brought to a deep subject. I’m sure this book will soon blow over and people will find something else to overreact about. In the end I do believe that Love wins, there is no doubt about that in my mind but I’m not so sure if it happens in the way Rob Bell suggests.
*If you’ve read the book tell me what you thought of it in the comments, good, bad, or ugly.