The day I was Walter Brueggemann

Last week, I took part in a day-long conversation about the Bible with 20 or so biblical and theological scholars. And by “took part,” I mean I was there to listen, observe, and soak it all in. The conversation revolved around two main questions: what is the Bible? and what should we do with it? Because our gathering included participants from evangelical, mainline, and Catholic traditions, we didn’t all come (or leave) with the same answers. But the conversation was good, really good.

Walter Brueggemann was supposed to discuss the importance of genre in the Hebrew Scriptures. But as we had the good sense to hold our event in the Midwest in January, adverse weather in Chicago kept him on a tarmac in Cincinnati (thus leaving my plan for getting a selfie with Brueggemann in tatters).

It’s just as well. I’ve been told that Brueggemann does not suffer fools, and more than a few of us (scholars included) would have been in full-blown geek-out mode if he’d been there.

Still, we had Brueggemann’s paper. And his blessing to read it in his absence. So for 20 minutes, I got to pretend I was Walter Brueggemann.

I can’t share his paper with you, but I will share a couple of key points I took from my experience impersonating one of the world’s most admired Old Testament scholars:

1. Neither fundamentalism nor rationalism are equipped to deal with the Bible.

For Brueggemann, reading the Bible well requires navigating between two extremes: the literalist impulse of fundamentalism and the historicist impulse of rationalism. One treats everything as literal, historical fact, imposing modern expectations of “accuracy” and “precision” on ancient texts. The other denies any meaningful connection between the text and reality.

Both reflect a reductionist approach to the Bible. Both fail to consider the importance of genre when reading scripture—the codes, if you will, through which the authors described (and critiqued) reality for their audience. We all use codes to explain reality to members of our respective communities. Learning these codes is part of the initiation process into a new community. These codes shape the way parents speak to their children (in the stories they tell), the way churches speak to parishioners (in their liturgies), the way businesses speak to their target audiences (through advertising).

If this didn’t make things challenging enough, we also have to recognize our anachronistic habit of importing our genres into the Bible, when ancient literature had its own unique genres—something Gregory Mobley, author of Return of the Chaos Monsters, noted in his response to me… er, Brueggemann.

One thing we can draw from this without getting too deep into the weeds of genre analysis is that the biblical writers were not mere reporters or scribes taking dictation from God on high. Nor were they simply making stuff up. They were poets and artists, skillfully crafting a story. They weren’t giving a dry report of who did what, where, and when so much as they were envisioning a new, God-soaked reality.

2. We must rediscover the artistry of the Bible so we can read with our imaginations.

Artistry was one of the recurring themes of Brueggemann’s paper. It’s not a word you’ll find in many commentaries or Bible studies. It’s not one I heard often in seminary. The text was something to be parsed, analyzed, and systematized into concrete theological propositions.

But how do you dissect a work of art without robbing it of its power? According to Brueggeman, this is exactly what we’ve done with the Bible. In a 2013 interview with Krista Tippett, he said:

What the church does with its creeds and its doctrinal tradition is flatten out all the images and metaphors [of scripture] to make them fit into a nice little formulation, and it’s deathly. So we have to communicate to people: if you want a God who is healthier than that, you’re going to have to take time to sit with these images and relish them and let them become part of your prayer life and vocabulary and conceptual frame—which again, is why the poetry is so important. The poetry just keeps opening and opening and opening, whereas the doctrinal practice of the church is always to close and close and close until you are left with nothing that has any transformative power.

Acknowledging the artistry of scripture is essential to understanding its impulse toward justice. The “prophetic imagination,” a phrase that might as well be synonymous with Brueggemann’s name, is the creative envisioning (or perhaps summoning) of a new, more just reality—long before one exists, when the existence of one seems impossible.

Prophets, Brueggeman says:

…are moved the way every good poet is moved to describe the world differently. Those who control the power structures do not know what to make of them, so they try to silence them. And what the powers finally discover is that you cannot silence poets.

It never occurred to me to think of prophets primarily as poets, even though most of what we label “prophecy” is poetic in form. As Brueggemann reminds us, we pay a heavy price for neglecting the artistry of scripture.

If we read everything literally—flattening the Bible, as Brueggemann says…

Or if we read everything skeptically…

If we dismiss everything as ahistorical fabrication…

Or if we treat prophets like sanctified fortune tellers, divorcing their message from its original context so we can look for signs of “fulfilled prophecy” in our day…

…then all we’re really doing is reading the Bible on our terms, rather than its own.

By reading the Bible this way, we’ve managed to do what the ancient powers could not do: silence the prophets and poets of the Bible.

Reversing this trend will take a mighty act of imagination. That’s what I learned when I spent 20 minutes being Walter Brueggemann.

Well, that and one other thing: if you should ever be called upon to present one of Brueggemann’s papers for him, give it a read beforehand. He’s got one heck of a vocabulary.

Photo by Westminster John Knox Press

A former Mars Hill pastor’s resignation letter

Via William Throckmorton:

Dustin Kensrue, the worship pastor at Mars Hill’s Bellevue campus, has resigned. That makes four out of nine Mars Hill pastors and elders who signed a letter calling for Mark Driscoll’s removal who have either resigned or been forced out.

If you want a picture of what’s going on at Mars Hill, read the letter he shared on Twitter this week.


Some excerpts…

While the nine signers of the letter that was leaked last week have been met with gratefulness and an outpouring of prayer from the people of Mars Hill, internally we have been dismissed and defamed as “immature” among other epithets…

One pastor was already removed from eldership for his part in signing the letter…

As for the 5 the signers who were at Bellevue, it was made clear we weren’t going to be fired at this point (I am assuming for PR reasons) but it was also made equally clear to us where the door was, and that it would be just fine if we chose to walk through it.

What executive elder Dave Bruskas revealed about governance at Mars Hill in a meeting with Kensrue last week:

He went so far as to say that if 61 of 63 elders across Mars Hill all shared the same conviction that something needed to change, it simply wouldn’t matter.

On the consolidation of power in the hands of Mark Driscoll and a handful of his closest allies, which casts serious doubt on the ability of the church’s Board of Advisors and Accountability to investigate with any integrity:

In the last 2 major revisions of the Mars Hill bylaws, the ability for the FCE [Full Council of Elders] to do anything has been all but completely taken away. The two things that the FCE can still do is to approve a change to the MH statement of faith, and to approve the slate of nominees for the board of BOAA [Board of Advisors and Accountability]. The problem with approving the slate is that it provides only the illusion of accountability since the FCE cannot nominate people for the slate, and if they did choose to vote a slate down, the current BOAA remains in power until the FCE approve a slate that the BOAA provides. At this point, continuing to even call the FCE a council is essentially a ruse and a farce.

Power is consolidated in such a way that the government of MH can only be described as an oligarchy which does not reflect the mutually submissive view of elder governance in provided in the Bible. And this theological shift points to the likelihood that this consolidation of authority through the revision of the bylaws is not, as it has been presented, an oversight or an unintentional byproduct of solving some other set of problems, but rather a deliberate and deft grab for power.

On the powerlessness of pastors and elders to lead Mars Hill out of this morass:

So, what’s the answer to the question “what can your elders do?” Simply put, sadly not much. This is why we’ve looked pained when you’ve have asked us what we are going to do about all of this…

Your pastors, who are on the ground with you, who know you, who care for you, who pray with you, and in whom you trust—these men have essentially no voice and no vote in what happens with your church as a whole, and the leadership is actively trying to limit the voice that they do have.

Read the rest here.

Image via Facebook

When Christian compassion goes wrong (and what to do about it)


“It is impossible to change a dirty, ignorant savage in a few months or years into a cultivated Christian gentleman, but progress is being made.”

          — S. Hall Young, 1920

S. Hall Young was a missionary to Alaska in the late 1800s and early 1900s. He established the first Presbyterian church there. He explored the southeastern wilderness. There are mountains and islands named after him. President Woodrow Wilson nearly picked him to be governor of the Alaskan territory in 1897. Young spent a decade doing missionary work among the indigenous population—a population he evidently despised.

A few years before his death, Young wrote about his first trip to Alaska, during which he met an executive with the Hudson Bay Company.

As we were nearing the wharf, upon which squatted a score of blanketed natives, most of them with faces blackened and tousled hair, he laid his hand upon my shoulder and said:

“Let me give you a bit of advice. Don’t become an Indian.”

I was nettled and I have no doubt my face flushed. Waving my hands toward the natives, I replied:

“Do you think I am in danger of becoming like those creatures?”

Young wasn’t sharing this scene from his past to highlight the naivete or arrogance of his younger self. He fervently hoped other missionaries would follow his example. To find anything good in native culture—that was naïve, according to S. Hall Young. To accommodate indigenous people in any way was to yield to what he called a “backward pulling.” It was “the most dangerous thing” a missionary could do.

Time—along with a justifiable sense of guilt over our ancestors’ colonialist tendencies—have rendered Young’s words less palatable than they were a century ago. Yet before you dismiss him as a crackpot or an outlier, it should be noted that Young was no fundamentalist. In the same article, he wrote approvingly about the work of Catholic, Episcopal, and Congregationalist missionaries in Alaska. He was not atypical. His writings reflect the attitude of many in his day.

We may wince at his reference to the “dirty, ignorant savage.” We might want to congratulate ourselves for eschewing such terrible language today. But Young’s sentiment is still very much alive.

Whether it’s evangelism or humanitarian work or some combination of the two, Christians have a tendency to see themselves as “coming to the rescue.” In other words, we’re still shaped by the same worldview that Young took to Alaska.

We tend not to think of those we serve as having something to offer, something to contribute. We tend not to think of ourselves as having something to learn from them. In which case, we’re not that different from S. Hall Young.

We may not use his offensive words, but we perpetuate his legacy in other ways.

I saw it in the pastor I met when I was representing a humanitarian relief agency at a youth ministry conference. He marched up to our booth and announced he only wanted one thing: to find out how to get himself on a trip to Africa. He wasn’t interested in the lives of the poor. He was after a bit of poverty tourism. It was just another notch in his youth ministry belt.

I saw it in the youth group on the flight to Haiti last spring. The kids and their adult chaperones wore matching shirts that read, “Showing mercy to the people of Haiti.” I don’t think they even considered what this conveyed to our fellow passengers—the majority of whom were Haitian. What made this group think the people of Haiti needed our mercy—let alone that putting this on a shirt to be worn in Haiti was a good idea? In light of that country’s troubled history (and our part in it), maybe it’s the other way around. Maybe we’re the ones who need mercy for our misdeeds.

I’ve seen traces of S. Hall Young in myself, too. The patronizing, condescending attitude toward those in need. The assumption—rarely stated in the light of day—that the end goal of compassionate work is to make others look and behave more like us.

Sometimes it makes me wonder if such endeavors are doomed from the start.

But then I see glimpses of another way. Reminders that we don’t have to perpetuate the legacy of S. Hall Young in order to serve.

I see it in Cindy Brandt’s article, “How I Kissed Evangelizing Goodbye.” She points out that we’re often so busy “evangelizing” others that we don’t see our own need to be “evangelized”—to sit at their feet and learn:

What I came to discover is how much the world craves a listening ear. The biggest problem I have with evangelizing is that you enter into a relationship with a prescribed intention, and that stands in the way of listening well.

You can’t listen well when you are carrying an agenda.

You can’t listen well when you are looking for ways to fortify your own position.

You can’t listen well when you are searching for what is broken in your conversation partner, in order to introduce the solution.

On the other hand, if you are wanting to be evangelized, you learn to listen deeper, because you are trying to uncover truth. You search for the beauty in your neighbor to find points of connection — you are seeking to be saved by them. You become the student, longing to learn from, instead of preach at. You voluntarily place yourself in the inferior position of need and find that your own vulnerability compels others to shed their masks. Your courage to admit uncertainty disarms, until all that is left is raw honesty and frailty of our common human condition.

I see it in my friends Nathan and Abby, who are getting ready to move their whole family to the border between India and Nepal (where Abby grew up). They’re going to offer counseling for at-risk women and young people, as well as leadership development and theological training for indigenous ministry leaders. A few weeks ago, they shared their vision with our church. It was very different from the one that drove S. Hall Young. To paraphrase what Nathan and Abby shared:

We believe the people we’re going to serve are good. Their culture is not bad; it’s good. We’re not going halfway around the world to bring light where there isn’t any already. God’s glory fills the earth. It’s already there.

No, this isn’t feel-good pop psychology masquerading as ministry. Abby and Nathan also observed that the region they’re moving to is affected by high rates of human trafficking, illiteracy, and violence against women. But they know this is only part of the story. There’s also a deep hunger for justice, a rich and vibrant culture to be honored instead of dismantled. They know the people there understands things about God and the world that we don’t. They have as much to teach us as we have to teach them.

Abby and Nathan are committed to a very different story than the one S. Hall Young told. Or maybe they just have a different starting point. Young began his story at Genesis 3. At least, that’s where he started whenever he looked at the indigenous peoples of Alaska. “Savages,” as he called them.

People like Cindy and Abby and Nathan begin the story at Genesis 1, with creation. The world as God made it is good. Very good. And not just the part of the world that looks like us. ALL of it.

Yes, there is sin. Yes, there is brokenness. But that’s not the whole story. That’s not where the story began, and it’s not where we should start, either. To quote something Nathan wrote a few years back:

God’s first speech-act of creation is what sets the trajectory and establishes our foundation for viewing humanity and doing theology… it establishes that we are to view all of humanity primarily through the lens of their creational goodness.

When you start with S. Hall Young’s view of the world, otherwise compassionate endeavors end up looking more like a conquest. When you start with a view of the world that’s framed by God’s act of creation, you understand that all you’re doing is discovering—and perhaps amplifying—the good that already exists. It exists because God put it there.

In the end, I believe this is a much more life-giving model for Christian engagement with the world. To quote Cindy Brandt, it’s time we “listen to other people’s stories as if [our] salvation depended on it, because it might.”


Note: If you’d like to learn more about Abby and Nathan’s work in India and Nepal, watch the video below and go to their website, Under the Banyan Tree. They could use your support.

The week I broke my blogging resolution…

At the beginning of the year, I made a resolution to write something at least once a week. In the past, I’ve aimed to write something everyday, but it’s always proved too much. So this year I decided to try for once a week — in order to keep me in the habit of writing, while giving me an achievable goal.

Last week, I broke that resolution. But I like to think I had a good reason — all 7 pounds, 15 ounces of it:

IMG_0513 - Version 2

Oliver James was born at 9:34 a.m. on April 1. Plus side: his birthdate, 4-1-14 (or 1-4-14 for my international friends) will be easy to remember. Downside: no one will believe him when he says it’s his birthday.

Oliver, his brilliant mom, and his extremely proud big sister are all doing well.


I’ll get back to writing more soon. For now, I’m preoccupied enjoying the miracle that is my newborn son.

We’re going to screw up our kids (and we need to be OK with that)

When I announced my book presenting the gospel for kids, I said we need to do a better job introducing them to our faith. I said the prevailing method of passing down our faith — getting kids to make some kind of decision before they’re old enough to question or doubt — isn’t right and it isn’t working.

I’m writing this book to give parents (including myself) another way of taking about faith with our kids. A way of telling the story of our faith, instead of just issuing them a checklist of beliefs. A way of honoring our kids’ natural curiosity, instead of (to paraphrase Rachel Held Evans) giving them answers before they’ve even had time to wrestle with the questions.

I wish I could say this alternative way is guaranteed to work. That I could promise your kids will grow up to be lifelong, committed Christians.

But I can’t. There are no guarantees. There are no perfect ways of doing this. Our kids have wills and minds of their own. They’re not ours to control. We can either choose to accept this while they’re young, or we can be forced to accept it when they’re older, when any illusions of control have long since evaporated.

Trischa Goodwin wrote a beautifully honest piece expressing the doubt that lurks in the heart of every parent who’s trying to do right by their kids…

What if… I’m just screwing my kids up in a different way than the way I was screwed up?

What if embracing their questions and not forcing them to accept my answers leaves them wishy-washy and completely unsure of anything?

What if not insisting they attend church with me every Sunday leaves them without a love for the Body of Christ?

What if allowing for discussion and not expecting immediate, unquestioning obedience undermines their respect for authority?

What if teaching them to respect other religions leads them away from Christianity?

What if I’m doing it all wrong?

I’ve asked these same questions. Sometimes it feels like it’s not a matter of whether I’ll screw our kids up, but how. And how hard they’ll have to work at disentangling the mess.

I think each generation tries to parent a little differently than the one before. We hold on to things from our upbringing that were good, and we leave behind (or try to, anyway) those that weren’t. Corporal punishment was a big part of my parents’ generation’s experience, a lesser part of my childhood, and it will have no part in my daughter’s upbringing.

The truth is, there are no true “parenting experts” out there. We’re all just trying to figure things out as we go. The “what if” questions that Trischa asked are important, because they reflect an awareness that we can’t make our kids turn out a certain way. We can’t write the ending for them.

As Trischa suggests near the end of her post, maybe the best a parent can do is:

Keep raising them in the most loving way I know how and continue to confess Christ and Incarnation and Resurrection and all the other mysteries in my daily life.

I think she’s onto something powerful. I would add just one thing: we also need to be willing to tell our kids we’re sorry when we do screw up.

A few weeks ago, my three-year-old threw a tantrum over something I had asked her to do (or stop doing). So I gave her a choice: start listening or sit on the step for a few minutes.

She declined both options and chose instead to escalate said tantrum. Which caused me to lose my patience as well.

I hate shouting, even brief outbursts, whether I’m on the giving or receiving end. So the minute I lost my cool, I regretted it. What most likely started as a three-year-old’s simple frustration at the difficulty of expressing herself, I had now blown out of proportion.

So I got down to Elizabeth’s eye level and told her I was sorry. I asked her to forgive me for losing my cool and raising my voice. I suggested maybe we both ought to sit on the step for a bit. I tried to show her that I was not “above the law,” so to speak.

The funny thing is, what was meant to be a time-out (now for both of us) turned into one of those cherished moments of conversation with my daughter.

It may seem trivial, but I tell my daughter I’m sorry because I want her to know that it’s safe to come to me when I’ve let her down. I want her to know she doesn’t have to fear the counterattack, that I’m not going to come roaring back at her with a laundry list of grievances which I’ve been storing up for just such an occasion. I want her to know she can tell me when I’ve screwed up.

Because I will screw up. I may try hard not to make the mistakes of others, but I’ll end up making mistakes of my own. Whether it’s in how I try to nurture my daughter’s faith or in some of the more mundane, everyday aspects of parenting, I will screw up.

I believe one of the most important things I can do for my daughter is being OK with that — and letting her know it’s OK to tell me when I’ve failed.

How not to be a theological bully

“I’m not saying you’re a heretic. Just that you’re a heretical promoter of heresy.” 

That, in a nutshell, is the gist of Ken Ham’s latest post addressing Pete Enns. (You might say Enns is Ham’s theological arch nemesis.)

[Background: Enns is an evangelical theologian who accepts the scientific consensus on evolution and has written extensively about its implications for the Christian faith — namely, the possibility that Genesis 1 is not a literal, scientific depiction of human origins and the overwhelming likelihood that the human race did not originate from a single primal couple, i.e. a literal Adam and Eve. Ken Ham is a longtime advocate for young earth creationism (YEC). He believes the very integrity of the gospel is at stake if you dispense with a literal, 6-day creation and a literal Adam and Eve.]

Ham is no stranger to controversy. In his recent post, he reminds us how a couple years ago he was disinvited from a homeschooling conference for being uncharitable toward Christians who disagree with him. (That was the explanation offered by conference organizers who largely share Ham’s interpretation of Genesis.)

But more damaging is Ham’s use of the nuclear option to shut down any honest conversation. He does so by forcing an impossible (and false) choice on his audience: either you accept what I tell you about creation, or you undermine the gospel. Sure, Ham won’t quite say you’re going to hell if you believe in evolution. But who wants to be accused of “undermin[ing] the authority of God’s Word and the gospel,” as he puts it?

In short, Ken Ham is a bully.

The irony is that Ham’s false choice is almost certainly doing more to drive people away from faith than toward it — because fear cannot nurture faith.

But Ham isn’t the only one who’s tried this tactic. I used to be that guy… constantly getting into arguments with my more moderate college friends over evolution, women in ministry, homosexuality… trying to make each disagreement a “gospel issue” so they’d have to choose between agreeing with me and renouncing the gospel.

I was never big enough or strong enough to be a physical bully. But theological bullies can do just as much damage.

Now that I see things from a different vantage point, I can appreciate what I put my friends through. (And, quite frankly, I’m amazed they put up with me.)

So for all those who’ve been bullied into conformity by threats of denunciation, allusions to some inevitable “slippery slope,” and declarations of heresy . . . let me say:

Human origins is not a gospel issue.

Women’s ordination is not a gospel issue.

How you vote is not a gospel issue.

Homosexuality is not a gospel issue.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying it doesn’t matter what you believe. Believing certain things about God is part of the Christian experience, which is why many of us reaffirm our faith every Sunday using the words of the Nicene Creed (while others do so in other ways).

And I do think the gospel has profound implications for how we see the world, for how we vote, and for how we treat women, gays, lesbians, and other historically marginalized groups of people.

But when defenders of the theological status quo try to make you choose between their view on [insert hot-button issue here] and apostasy, they are getting the gospel wrong.

There is something that can undermine the gospel. But it’s not evolution. It’s not questioning the church’s posture toward gays and lesbians.

For the apostle Paul, the only thing that could undermine the gospel was this:

If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile…

Not “if the earth is more than 6,000 years old, your faith is futile.”

Not “if there was no historical Adam and Eve, your faith is futile.”

Not “if you let a woman preach, your faith is futile.”

And not “if you welcome gays and lesbians into your church, your faith is futile.”

Christianity is so much more than a belief system, but the one belief it does hinge on is resurrection — that is, belief in Jesus’ resurrection, which makes possible the resurrection and renewal of everything else.

To make the gospel dependent on anything else is to get the gospel wrong. And to do so in order to advance your own agenda and to pressure others into conformity is to become a theological bully.

The thing is, most people won’t sit around and take the abuse. They’ll just walk away.

Which is a pretty high price to pay for “winning.”

Kyrie eleison, Boston (and Iraq)

Today, as officials comb Boston in search of answers and in search of justice, may we remember that there is only so much we can say . . .

And so very much that we should not say.

Let no one say that 8-year old Martin Richard died yesterday because “God needed another angel in heaven.” God is not a sadistic collector of human specimens. There was no sudden shortage of angels in heaven precipitating yesterday’s carnage and devastation.

Let no one talk of “God’s plan” as if this were somehow part of it. To do so is to mistake God for some kind of cosmic terrorist. To suggest that we ought to bow down and worship such a God is spiritual abuse of the worst order.

If we talk of God, let us talk of the God who grieves with Boston. The God who grieves over death and violence — much as Jesus grieved at the loss of a friend. Let us see God through the lens of Jesus. In him we meet a God who renounces violence, who is making war on war, who despises death, and who beats swords into plowshares.

And let us not talk of Boston without also remembering the dozens killed in multiple car bombings in Iraq yesterday. The attack in Boston is closer to home, so it’s natural to feel it more acutely. But let it sensitize you to the dangers that millions face on a routine basis. Let it strengthen our resolve to work for peace, both here and abroad. Let us remember that every life is precious to God.

At the end of the day, all we can say is kyrie eleison.

Lord have mercy.

For Boston and Iraq.

How it’s a journey, not a treatise

This is something Preston Yancey wrote on his blog yesterday:


Preston has articulated something I think a lot of us feel at times.

Some of us think better when we think out loud.

Sometimes you have to start telling your story before you know exactly where it’s going.

Sometimes you need to give voice to unfinished thoughts in order to know how to finish them.