I have been reading Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth and have found a tremendous amount of material that I disagreed with. While I will address Aslan’s work in a future post, I wanted to offer a thought I had while reading his thoughtful book.
What is more damaging to the Christian faith: a book aimed at knocking out the divinity of Christ or a pseudo-Christian work like Your Best Life Now by Joel Osteen?
Think it over for a second and I’ll give my opinion.
It is definitely the latter. Before you throw your tomes at me, let me unpack my bombastic statement.
Christianity in History
Historically speaking, Christianity grew and flourished in a hostile environment. Amid the religiously diverse environment of the Roman Empire, Christianity stood squarely as monotheistic, evangelistic, and Trinitarian. It spread across social categories rather quickly, even if persecution ran rampant across several different leadership regimes. Both Jew and Gentile alike attacked the Christian faith from the first century on; however, it withstood the storm.
Christianity in Debate
Whether it was rooted in the Enlightenment or in secular Communist regimes, intellectual questions have not and will not decimate the Church. For every skeptical voice, there are able statesmen and women who can answer the charges (For example, NT Wright’s work easily handles the issues raised by Aslan).
On the other hand, the Church from its infancy on has been susceptible to the allure of false teaching from within. I distinctly recall the moment when I realized this. I was in my New Testament Survey class at Vanguard University when I was confronted with the textual truth that many of the letters in the NT were addressed to confront the false beliefs creeping into the Early Church. Racial tension, gnosticism, abuse, and so many other terrible things poisoned various churches across the Mediterranean. To put it differently, the churches died of a thousand internal cuts instead of one major assault.
Danger of Pseudo-Christianity
Pseudo-Christian works will come along arguing for material blessing if we only follow Jesus [and pay the author millions of dollars]. They will come along revealing expanded narration of near-death experiences when all we need for salvation can be found in Scripture alone. False teachers and snake oil salesmen alike will come along and tell you that you have to do more, be more, try harder, and put on a good show in order to earn good feelings.
I will gladly prefer the Church to be bombarded with New Atheists, ex-fundamentalists, skeptics, and angry comedians instead of the rampant pseudo-Christian works that are passed off as orthodox. Again I’ll say: show me a challenge to the deity of Christ and take away the hopeless work of televangelists! The latter category enslaves the people of Christ in order to add one more cheap car to an already crowded garage.
How do you handle theological controversy?
Do you run away from it by agreeing to disagree, or do you see every different viewpoint as the proverbial hill to die on?
I usually am naturally bent to agree to disagree and not come into conflict. However, I have found it is also important to express your convictions without coming across as an “angry” Fundie. As the Apostle Peter wrote,
“But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect”
Did you catch that last part? “…yet do it with gentleness and respect”
Peter’s words should not be used to justify your trolling habits online or the propensity to chew out relatives at family gatherings. That’s how good religious people do it, but that should not be how a follower of Jesus, and someone steeped in the gospel, should act.
We need strong convictions that are articulated with charity and kindness. Richard Mouw would say we need convicted civility, and I would happen to agree with him. We need humility in our conversations that is connected with a deep understanding of our own faith.
Know what you believe and why you believe it. Then articulate that belief with clarity and civility.
I received the incredible privilege of speaking on Church History to a group of college students at Berkeley. While I was preparing for the lecture, I stumbled upon several great ideas that I had forgotten about and will share them over the coming weeks. One of those ideas came from one of the earliest gatherings of Christians at Nicaea.
In 325, the Council of Nicaea was called to settle a dispute over the nature of Jesus. At that time there was a man named Arius who made the audacious claim that Jesus was of similar substance to God, instead of being the exact same substance as God. In essence, his argument boiled down to Jesus was like God, but Jesus was not completely God.
This view, found in the Jehovah’s Witness group today, asserts that there was a time when Jesus did not exist. And that view, simply cannot stand within the Christian faith.
Athanasius, a young church leader, confronted this head-on in his defense of the divinity of Jesus. His (condensed) argument came down to this: God alone forgives sins. Jesus forgives sins. Therefore, Jesus is God.
What we believe matters. If we view Jesus just as some great teacher, then he has no authority to forgive sins. If he is God though, then that is a different situation all together. If he is God, then we ought to listen up to what he has to say.
Friends, know what you believe, and why you believe it.
Have you ever seen those “Believe” bumper stickers or vague, kitschy church signs about belief and wondered what they meant? Theologian Karl Barth succinctly unpacks what believing in Jesus means for us today:
Believing is not something as special and difficult or even unnatural as we often suppose. Believing means that we listen to, we listen as God’s speech. What moves us is not just our own concern, but precisely God’s concern. What causes me worry, that is God’s worry, what gives me joy is God’s joy, what I hope for is God’s hope. In other words, in all that I am, I am only a party to that which God thinks and does. In all that I do it is not I, but rather God who is important. Imagine if everything were brought into this great and proper connection, if we were willing to suffer, be angry, love and rejoice with God, instead of always wanting to make everything our own private affair, as if we were alone.
Just imagine if we were to adapt everything that gratifies and moves us into the life and movement of God’s Kingdom, so that we personally are, so to speak, taken out of play. Simply love! Simply hope! Simply rejoice! Simply strive! But in everything, do it no longer from yourself, but rather from God! Everything great that is hidden in you can indeed be great only in God.
Karl Barth, Watch for the Light
Trusting in Jesus more than just putting something down on your resume, it has real world impact.
How does believing in Jesus make sense to you?
If you are trying to wrap your head around God, what I suggest the first things to do is to not imagine a perfect human being. Don’t picture a big Gandalf in the sky as I used to do.
Why? Because God is not like us.
He is entirely other, so far from our own preconceived thoughts and emotions.
While we can write about how God is a father or a mothering hen or a warrior king or a tender bridegroom, we simply are grasping at straws. For the God who brought Israel out of Egypt and raised Jesus from the dead is so much greater than our imperfect metaphors. He made us in his image and our language can only describe a small portion of the original image. Let me give you an example to this point.
Men and women were made in the image of God and we reflect his image much like the moon reflects the light of the sun. But while the moon lights up the dark of night, it is not nearly as bright as the radiance of the sun.
The moon can only reflect the light given by the sun. Similarly, humanity can only reflect the light given by God to others and our reflection is much like the metaphors we use to describe God.
So with this in mind, when we communicate to others about the grandeur of God, bring an element of humility to the conversation. We are all looking through a window covered in dust and dirt, but one day we will see it clearly.
God is wholly other than our metaphors. As Karl Barth said, “One cannot speak of God simply by speaking of man in a loud voice.” God is God and not a better version of humanity— no matter how loudly we might speak.
Any other theologizing tips?
I am in the middle of preparing a brief message on the crucifixion scene in the Gospel of Mark and it reminded about the author’s style in the composition of this account. During my preparation, I was reading in a commentary about the questions surrounding when to date this particular gospel. It ultimately comes down to the rebellion of the Jewish people against the Roman forces and the resulting destruction of the temple in 70 A.D. Due to the lack of comments about the destruction of the temple and other clues, scholars place the composition of this book during the Jewish rebellion or before. 50s-60s A.D. is a safe bet for the earliest gospel account (Paul gets the earliest writer of the New Testament award).
Placing the context of the gospel is important for the preacher and leaders within the church (lay-leaders, not necessarily those on staff at a church) because questions will come up. There will be questions concerning the Gospel of Thomas or Judas. There are fragments that seem to imply that Jesus had a wife and there will undoubtedly be many more compromising documents surfacing. I am convinced by the likes of NT Wright that we need to know not only God’s Word, but the context surrounding it.
We need to understand the context and dig into that first century so that we can enrich our own faith and defend the faith when National Geographic runs stories on the Gospel of Judas. Knowing what we believe and why we believe it is not just our pastor’s job or the job of a seminary professor. No, it is our job as the Church. It is your job as the faithful member of your local church and as a leader within the community. There are so many tools at our disposal now, I beg you to consider to dig into the depths of the Christian faith.
What has helped you explore the depths of the faith?
Last week I mentioned how the Lord provides us his Spirit as confirmation of who we are and whose we are. I want to take it a step further and relay that he not only gives us his Spirit to confirm that we are in fact sons and daughters of the King, but also so we can know God.
Paul reminded the church at Corinth that the Holy Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. This same Spirit that searches the very mind of God is also promised to those who are in Christ. Incredibly enough, this Spirit helps us understand the things of God. (stay with me here)
As a Christian, I believe that the God of all things (the one who created the cosmos so long ago) was revealed to us through creation. But he didn’t stop there! Instead, he revealed himself to us through his Word.
Through the long and winding narrative recorded in Scripture, we see who God is a bit more clearly. And in these last days, as the writer to the Hebrews would pen, he revealed himself through Jesus. In short, if we want to know who God is, we need to look to Jesus.
“Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God.” (I Corinthians 2:12)
If we have placed our trust in the completed work and words of Jesus, we too can grab onto the promise relayed by Paul. You and I both can be assured not only of our own standing before a holy God, but also that we can begin to understand the gifts he has given to us.
What other things does God promise?
Facebook comment threads are a lot like a really bad freeway accident. As much as you know you shouldn’t be looking, you simply cannot tear your eyes away from the wreck.
I fell victim to “rubbernecking” by reading all 30+ comments on one picture that descended into absolute argumentative chaos. For the Christians and the non-Christians alike it all boiled down to love. God loves love, so therefore I’m right.
It is entirely true, God is love. The Christian who denies this point needs to sit with the letters and gospel account written by John to absorb the beauty of this truth.
God is love. God is also a judge.
The New Testament (in addition to the Old Testament) is clear on the point that Jesus is a judge who will ensure justice. One of the great creeds of the Christian faith encapsulates this when the saints from throughout the ages proclaim,
For our sake [Jesus] was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory
to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.
The judgments of God are not like a kangaroo court and they certainly are not like the injustices that occur in the name of justice. If you can wrap your mind around it, God is righteous and his ways are pure, good, and true. Keep in mind that his ways are not like our ways, he is not cruel or vindictive. I know that this is a common issue raised by the “New Atheists,” and the ruthless violence done in the name of God is rightly condemned as evil. However, when we read in Scripture about the judgments of God we need to read that from the starting point of God as being a just judge.
Admittedly, it is tough to grasp that it is possible for someone to be both loving and just. The imperfect image of a kind father and a wise old judge do not have to be at odds when it comes to the God revealed in Scripture. Instead, this God who is so far above our comprehension and is vastly beyond all measure can embody both love and justice.
God is love.
God is also holy and just.
In fact we can see this when God demonstrated his love for us by choose to pay for the lamp that was broken by our hand. The beautiful message revealed in Scripture is that God is both gracious and just.
While I am out bonding with my beautiful daughter, I have the great privilege of bringing a dear friend to the blog. Johnny Rocha has helped shape my story, as he tirelessly reminds me of our part in the story of God righting the world. Learn about him more following this post, on his blog, and in the Twittersphere @JGRocha . So without further delay, take it away, Johnny!
Growing up I had two very different church experiences. When I was in elementary and middle school, I attended a more traditional Lutheran church, and then when I was a freshman in high school I switched over to an Assemblies of God church in town. Looking back, I see how both handled the idea of sin very differently.
When I was in the Lutheran church, we didn’t talk about sin very much. We talked about church history, learned the books of the Bible, and talked a lot about loving people like Jesus did, but we didn’t spend too much time focusing on the sin and death He saved us from.
Consumed by Sin
The Assemblies church, on the other hand, talked a whole lot about sin. Anger, lust, sexual impurity, drug addiction, gossip, stealing – the list just kept going. We talked a lot about what we shouldn’t do and what we needed to stop doing. We talked about how Jesus came to save us from these things, and we lamented that we kept putting Him back on the cross by making the same wrong choice over and over again. I remember spending so much time feeling bad about the choices I made, wondering if Jesus still loved me or forgave me. If you’re in the same camp let me tell you this: He does and He has.
Healthy View of Sin
I think a lot of us make the same two mistakes when it comes to sin: We either totally ignore sin in our lives, or we focus on it night and day letting it consume our thoughts.
I’ve come to realize that both of these mindsets, though often rooted in good intentions, are dangerous and ultimately selfish. Why? Because they both revolve around me instead of Him.
Let me make this clear – sin is a cancer. We cannot tolerate it. Not even a little bit. It is pure death; the exact opposite of the abundant life Jesus intends for us. We cannot ignore it and let it fester because it will rot us from the inside out. At the same time it does us little good to let our mistakes and shortcomings consume our thoughts and energy. Instead of dwelling on our past mistakes and shortcomings we need to seek the life of freedom and joy God desires for us both now in and our future.
The mis-focus of sin is that we often look to ourselves when we should instead look to Him! Does our selfishness know no bounds? When we’re wrapped up in the shame and guilt of our pasts we are unable to live in the freedom of unencumbered love that Christ Jesus died to give us. Let us come to a place where we look at our past, at the world, at all the things that are so tempting but ultimately meaningless, and instead look onward and upward, grit our teeth, and say to ourselves, “It’s not about me, it’s about Him. Today I choose to follow Jesus.”
Johnny is a speaker, coach, and creative consultant empowering people to discover who they are, whose they are, and use their God breathed gifts and passions to change their world. He has been privileged to speak at camps and churches in California about God’s furious love for His people and what it looks like to be part of His family.