Jeff Maxin on (Re)Imagining Christianity

This post is part of an ongoing blog series on Pomomusings entitled “(Re)Imagining Christianity.” To read about the series, as well as get a full schedule of participants, click here.

What is one belief, practice or element of Christianity that must die so that Christianity can move forward and truly impact the world in the next 100 years?

As many have stated in this series already, there are likely many things which ought to die so that the faith can move forward in an impactful way. Some of these things deal with the organization of the church; others with the beliefs of the people who make up the church. It is of the latter that I think a monumental change must take place.

What I am going to say may sound frightening. It may even sound a bit heretical. Obviously, I believe it is neither overly frightening nor heretical, although I certainly anticipate that some who read this will question it. Good. We need more questioners in the church.

My idea is that we need to let our worship of the bible die. Completely get rid of it. Burn it to the ground. What is this worship of the bible, you say? Well, simply put, it is the deification of the scriptures which has taken place in American Evangelical Christianity. The notion that the bible is “the very word of God”, elevated to the same level as Jesus (who, if we recall, is the Word of God incarnate); created to be a sort of fourth member of the Trinity.

We have God the Father, we have Christ the Son, and we have the Spirit. Well, we also have the good book. And the problem is the good book has taken on a role of being something that is Holy, magical, powerful on its own accord. Some look for special meanings in the way the verses are written. Others seek a connection with God through study of the scriptures and memorization of their words. Vastly more simply read the words and ask people to do what is written in them. After all, if Paul says he likes turnips and dislikes carrots that must mean we all need to dislike carrots, right? Or more likely, if Paul tells a group of believers in a struggling young church how to go about disciplining wayward members, which means we too must discipline our wayward members in the same way, correct?

Lots of churches hold this sort of view. A very large church here in Seattle says they are a “bible believing church”, and they read the gospels with a black and white mentality. If it’s in the bible, it must be “true”, whatever that means. There is no room for dissenting opinions. No area to question. The church needs more people who question.

This calls to mind another of the great Abrahamic faiths; Islam. In Islam, the Quran is the literal word of God. You can’t translate the Quran from the Arabic, because God’s word is found in the Arabic documents, and God’s words don’t change. You can get an English version of the Quran, but it ceases to be the Quran to some degree once it has undergone this translation. Neither can you interpret the Quran (I know, I know, anyone reading anything is interpreting it through their own hermeneutical lens, but lets just assume that the great Imam’s of the faith aren’t actually interpreting it). The point is that Muslims believe the Quran is the word of God. Anything God wants to say to humans is said in the Quran.

Christians, on the other hand, generally believe something else entirely. The faith holds that Jesus Christ is the Word of God. Everything God wants to say to humanity is said through the incarnation of Christ, affirmed through the Holy Spirit. The scriptures are the accounts of God’s people written down, through history, of how God interacts with a particular tribe and people. The scriptures hold meaning and relevance, and they are a wonderful tool that point us to the living center of the faith; Christ.

The problem then becomes when various churches and religious leaders open the scriptures and read them as law. It’s tough to relate to a God that is abstract and at times aloof, so instead we like to open the Bible and relate to God in a simple, black and white way. It’s a temptation, and for a lot of people, it makes being a Christian much easier when you feel like you just have to follow a set of rules or guidelines. This can create a unified mentality in a church, but it stifles creative expression and differing opinions, and eventually leads to groupthink.

My challenge to the church in the next 100 years is to begin to imagine what it would be like if we didn’t have a simple answer to many of life’s questions. It is tempting to flip open the Bible and seek out the answers in its pages. The God of the universe has come to us incarnate, given us the Spirit of life, and is unfettered. We should celebrate the scriptures and learn from them, use them as our guide and as a wonderful tradition of the church, consult them and allow them to create the prayers and the language of God’s people. But the Word of God is Christ, and that is exciting.

Jeffrey Maxin: Jeff is a case manager on the Inpatient Psychiatric Unit of Seattle Children’s Hospital. He attended Seattle Pacific University, and later graduated from Princeton Seminary with a Masters of Divinity in 2008. While not working with hurting adolescents and children, Jeffrey enjoys gardening, watching baseball, and exercising. You can follow him on twitter @jeffreymaxin

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Comments

  1. says

    well said. this truly is a discussion that needs to be had. I believe in an open canon. What makes the early church leaders, mostly men, any more right to select what should and should not be canonized? We’ve beaten a living faith out of people with the very book that helps people understand that the Word is alive and lives within.

  2. says

    Jeff, well put, and a breath of fresh air. It’s so encouraging to see that your faith allows you to learn from the Bible, but that your learning doesn’t stop there. God has so much more to teach us through relationship with Christ and others: if we use the Bible to insulate ourselves from others it certainly becomes an idol as you say. Great to see your words and your passion coming through them!

  3. says

    Hello Jeff -

    As I read your post, my first inclination was to praise it. But the more I reflect on the matter, the more inclined I am to think that you’re unwittingly playing into the hands of those who commit another error, namely, that of discounting Scripture and its relevance to how we live our lives.

    But back to your contention: Have conservative Christians made of the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments a “fourth person of the Trinity”? As we worship Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, do we likewise worship the Bible? Truth be told, I am hard pressed to think of even one example of bibliolatry, of ascribing worship to the “good book” or even attributing to it magical powers.

    I can’t speak for everyone, but speaking for myself, I’ve never addressed a prayer to Scripture, though I’ve used the words of Scripture to address prayers to the Triune God. Furthermore, I’ve never said to a sick person, “In the name of Scripture, get up and walk!” though like Peter, I’ve prayed for the healing of individuals by invoking the name of Jesus. Right down the line, try as I might, I can’t find examples of this Scripture worship of which you speak. Yes, I’ve heard the occasional story of people who were spared death because a bullet was stopped by a Cross around their neck or perhaps were protected from a stabbing because the knife was stopped by a Gideon New Testament tucked into their shirt pocket. Yet even those who told these stories did not give glory to the Cross or to the New Testament. Rather, they clearly gave all the credit to God, who merely used these objects as instruments of protection.

    As you are aware, the Protestant tradition has seen in the Scriptures a rule of faith and practice. Yes, it is possible to overdo the “rule” side and live a life of legalism, but I sense that the spirit of the times, at least in North America, is far away from this “ditch.” If anything, we are careening toward the ditch on the other side of the road, ready to throw off the timeless guidance of the Bible as “culturally bound” or outmoded. We seem ready to do this even though our parents and their parents before them let God’s words in Scripture guide them and (where necessary) correct their attitudes and behavior. Do we now think that we’ve outgrown Scripture? Oh, vain conceit!

    Naturally, proper Scriptural interpretation is a must, and by-and-large most Christian communities of faith have done a decent job of laying out those principles and passing them on from generation to generation. To now disdain this rule of faith and practice and make of it only inspiring literature read in church on Sundays is surely a mistake of colossal proportions.

    Do we worship Scripture? Hardly, but we do hold it in high regard. It is tried and true, and those who would relegate it to the sidelines or make it merely an object of historical curiosity are misguided. I am NOT at all saying, Jeff, that your essay has done so. On the other hand, I would caution that in avoiding the (improbable) error of deifying Scripture, we must guard against another far more likely and widespread error, namely, discarding the Bible and its relevance for moral living.

    Greg

    Gregory Crofford, Ph.D.
    Director
    Nazarene Theological Institute
    Africa

    FaceBook: Greg Crofford

    • Rob Thar says

      Greg & Jeff,

      One of the issues that we deal with in Africa is that of the Bible as fetish. In several Scriptue Use surveys I’ve done believers are using God’s Word as an important form of spiritual power. People will put the Bible in the doorway to chase off bad spirits or put incoming letters into their Bibles to “purify” the contents. These are extreme examples of what Jeff is talking about but we can fall into the same sort of “form workship” of the Scriptures if our relationship with God feels empty or unfulfilling.

      I was involved with the Navigators in my high school and university years and memorized large portions of the Scriptures. My becoming more familiar with the Scriptures definitely was a factor in my willingness to be used of the Lord “wherever He wanted me to go and whatever He wanted me to do.” There was a tendency at times to impress others with my knowledge of the Scriptures rather than to be focused on my relationship with God but for the most part I grew in my relationship with Him.

      I think the main challenge we face as disciples of Christ making others disciples of Christ is to help make God’s Word a vital part of people’s everyday lives. I’d like to see a lot more people involved in Bible Study and Scritpure memorization (singing the Scriptures!). We do face challenges of error and misinterpretation, but we can trust that our God is big enough to handle these issues.

      The Jews came back from captivity in Babylon with a renewed and somewhat fanatical commitment to the Torah. Their fixation on the text and its oral interpretation actually made them blind to the Messiah when he came among them. I hope we never get to the point that we become so fixated on the interpretation of the Scriptures that we miss Christ right in front of us.

  4. says

    Thanks, Rob, for the excellent contribution.

    Since you’re a “front line guy” on Bible translation issues, it’s good to see your perspective. Is your example of the Bible being used to ward off evil spirits frequent? I suppose it would be hard to put a percentage on it, i.e. 30%, 50%, 70% of Beninese/Togolese Christians use the Bible magically. In any case, it’s a sober reminder for theological educators like myself that we need to be pointing people beyond the Bible (as important as it is) to the One to whom the Bible bears witness, the only One who can release them from fear. I think you’ve given me some food for thought for a seminar I’m preparing for the DRC in a few weeks!

    All the best,

    Greg

  5. Jeff says

    Rob and Greg,
    Thanks for the great input from both of you. I think at the base of my thinking is the idea that Greg touched on when he wrote:
    “We seem ready to do this even though our parents and their parents before them let God’s words in Scripture guide them and (where necessary) correct their attitudes and behavior. Do we now think that we’ve outgrown Scripture? Oh, vain conceit!”.
    I too think our generation, and each generation that has come before it, has been too quick to cast out the recommendations and learning of our elders. In doing so, we have some hard lessons to learn. I’m not sure this is a bad thing overall though, as sometimes hard lessons are the only way we can really learn something. I think for me, the issue is more around what we do when the the particular person writing a section of what we now consider the scriptures is just plain wrong. Each writer of each letter in the good book brings their own beliefs and culture to the table. Paul, while great in a lot of things, is mired in a deeply patriarchial, sexist culture. When you read about his notion of gender roles, of husbands and wives, is your proper response to say “ahh, Paul says this, so this must be how it is!”, or is it more honest to say “Paul was great, but he can’t realize that what he is saying in unnaceptable in this day and age”.
    In short, is there a time and space to say “on this, Paul (or whomever), is wrong”? Does that make someone a bad theologian, or a bad christian? I don’t think so. And frankly, I am glad that people have challenged the attitudes found throughout the scriptures as we seek to use the lesson of God’s grace to make the world a better place. I remember a post Adam wrote on this blog many years ago about homosexuality. At some point we need to stop arguing about whether the bible was opposed to homosexual activity, or whether it allowed it. That isn’t really the issue. The issue is that there are homosexuals who need to be loved unconditionally, and its time we “forget” what the bible says about homosexuality, because it doesn’t really matter. I don’t know, that still sticks with me to this day.

  6. says

    Jeff,

    There’s much more that could be said (of course) about questions of the formation of the Canon and why we consider biblical books normative for our faith and practice. Even here, it is clear that we as Christians give priority to the New Testament, or to use the words of a rabbinical student I met while in seminary: “You Christians read your Bible backwards!” I think he was on to something. Even Wycliffe Bible translators start with the NT and only later add the OT in the target language.

    As for your comments on Paul:

    Paul was actually quite progressive for his day, or I would prefer to say that the Holy Spirit used him to bring liberating words of Gospel to an oppressive time. How else are we to interpret Gal. 3:28 and its clarion call for people from numerous socio-economic levels and walks of life to be “one in Christ Jesus”? Or how abut his appeal for husbands and wives to practice mutual submission (Eph. 5:21)? And let’s not forget his decidedly revolutionary attitude toward Onesimus in Philemon. All this to say that the charge of Paul being patriarchal and oppressive overlooks evidence to the contrary. As for his comments on homosexual sin in Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6, they are consistent with the analogy of faith, i.e. the larger biblical narrative regarding God’s intentions for human sexuality that begins in Genesis and that is affirmed by Christ. And what is that narrative? God has made woman for man and man for woman, the one flesh union of opposites designed for procreation and marital solidarity. I see nothing then in Paul’s teaching on homosexuality that is discordant with what John Wesley called the “whole tenor of Scripture.” By the way, Dennis Hollinger has written an excellent book on Christian sexual ethics in general entitled THE MEANING OF SEX. It’s a 2010 work (published by Baker Academic) and he uses it in his classes at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. I highly recommend it as the best and most coherent treatment of its kind laying out a traditional view on everything from premarital sex to adultery and homosexuality.

    By the way, I’m open to reading books from the revisionist perspective that treat Scripture as carefully as does Hollinger, but so far I’ve been disappointed to see that revisionist treatments depend largely on appeals to emotion or presuppositions that we are living in more enlightened times….to which I say: “Oh really?

    Enjoying the conversation,

    Greg

  7. says

    ” appeals to emotion or presuppositions that we are living in more enlightened times….to which I say: “Oh really?” I get that but do you say the same to presuppositions that those selecting the canon writings were living in more enlightened times? I don’t advocate removing texts previously selected but I do take issue with teachings that refuse to accept that writings outside the current canon cannot be just as God inspired and sacred as those now within. To me that’s idolatry that has built a temple around text and frozen spiritual growth for the entire Church.

  8. Jeff says

    Yeah, I long ago gave up the idea that our current canon is special compared to the non-cannonical books. I think it shows less about the ideas written in the books themselves, and more about the philosophy of those who picked the books for the canon.
    Be that as it may, I just don’t find the argument that Paul was progressive for his day to be meaningful in conversation. I agree that Paul was often much more progressive than his counterparts, although certainly not always so. Its like saying a racist in the 1950′s is probably much more progressive than a racist in the 1860′s. Who cares? I used to think that this meant that God was inspiring Paul’s writings to show the inclusionary character of the grace of Christ- now I think the much more likely explanation is that Paul was Paul, a Hebrew writing 2,000 years ago about his experience with what he perceived as God, doing his best, but still being mired in his culture and biases. Don’t even get me started on his constant need to convince all the churches that they need to stick to his theology rather than following the wicked theology of his preaching competitors. It’s exactly what happens today in fundamentalist churches that try so hard to convince people that their way of seeing things is more truthful and valid. It usually isn’t.

    • says

      Jeff and Matt -

      Some quick responses:

      1. The concept of the Canon of Scripture being complete in no way precludes the moving of the Holy Spirit in the Church today. To think it does would be to deny that the Spirit has moved at all in the past 1,500 years, the approximate amount of time elapsed since Revelation was accepted as the final NT book. That the Holy Spirit still moves believers and guides their lives in sometimes very miraculous ways (i.e. via dreams or through a word spoken by another) is an everyday phenomenon that exists alongside a completed Bible. Of course, God also guides us through the words of Scripture.

      2. The Christological analogy may be helpful. C.S. Cowles sees in Scripture an analogy to Jesus Christ, i.e. both Christ and Scripture are “fully human and fully divine.” I believe it is possible to use the whole of Scripture as a guide to weighing Scripture in its various parts. When Paul gets angry, that’s no divine sanction for anger. Most Christians understand that Paul was fully human, as you (Jeff) have alluded to. Yet if that human element were not in Scripture, I doubt we would be drawn to it. It is because we identify with the Psalmist’s desire to smash the Babylonian babies on the rocks (Ps. 137:9) that the Bible resonates with readers. We’ve all been there at some point or another, yet this does not disqualify David (or any psalmist) from becoming channels of divine communication. Scripture is a word from the Lord as we understand it in its main thrust. We can overlook Paul’s culturally bound comments about long hair (1 Cor. 11) in part because it’s an outlier when compared to the overall message of Scripture. With all due respect, I don’t think we can do the same with his teachings on sexual ethics (for example) which are consistent with Scripture in its various parts — i.e. the analogy of faith.

      3. Beware a Jeffersonian approach. My wife and I recently saw “Jefferson’s Bible” at one of the Smithsonian museums in Washington. He had gone through the four Gospels and cut out the ethical teachings of Christ that he found attractive and pasted them over into another book. You could tell what he rejected by laying the volumes side-by-side and seeing what was left of the now Swiss-cheesed Bible! I would rather leave the Bible in its entirety intact and wrestle with how to interpret and apply its harder teachings than end up with what Jefferson had. I suspect most Christians prefer a Holy Bible to a holey Bible.

      Grace and peace,

      Greg

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