You Are Not Alone

I have had some mixed responses to my last post.

Thankfully most have been positive. Those of you that write will know how incredibly vulnerable it can feel to write honestly about something that has been painful to you, and then to hit the ‘Publish’ button. So it is gratifying when people can say positive things about a post even when they don’t agree with everything in it.

A few responses have been less positive. Some have spoken of alarm bells (presumably about some ‘dangerous’ opinion), others have questioned whether it is helpful or necessary to write about such things. It is this second point want to address today.

My response it that it is not only necessary, it is essential. That is, essential for me to say it, and essential for others to hear it.

When one has been through a significant experience it can be difficult to make sense of what has happened. Speaking things out, writing them down, listening to others, discussing with others; these are all ways of processing life experiences and are all the more important when these have involved a measure of pain. These have been an essential in dealing with my life journey over the last decade. Very few people would begrudge me doing these things. But the question is (and it is a good question): ‘why do you need to publish this stuff online?’ Behind the question is the implication that it is uncharitable to some people and unhelpful to others.

I readily concede that it is difficult to write about experiences of church without being seen criticise others, especially church leaders. I have struggled with this and one reason I have not written about these things sooner is that I have needed to be sure in myself that I am not writing out of hurt or resentment. For the record, I did not leave my former church because of some disagreement or falling out with anyone. The church is a good church and the people are good people, many of whom I still count as friends. My posts are not directed at individuals but at a belief system and culture, which was my home for many decades and helped me in many ways, but ultimately become something I could not stay in any longer.

So why say these things publicly? Why publish them in a blog and then promote them on Facebook and Twitter. Why not quietly and privately grieve the passing of one season of life, and then move onto a new chapter without hurting anyone’s feelings or challenging their comfortable beliefs? The answer is: I know I am not alone. There are many people who are right now going through the same unsettling, bewildering, questioning of faith, of what they have been taught, of God. This might even be you. And because of the culture of your church, you find it impossible to express these thoughts without disapproval, condemnation, or worse, pity. You do not need to have verses quoted at you, exhortations to have more faith, to pray more. You do not need treating like a sick person, whose contagious disease could fatally infect others. You need to know that it is okay to think, to question, to grow. You need to know it is okay to not have all the answers, to challenge certainties, to embrace mystery. You need to know it is okay to be disturbed, to be angry, or just plain tired of struggling with it all. You need to hear this stuff, and hear it from me.

And that is why a write this stuff. It is not for the certain, the faithful, the sure. It is not for the confident, the zealous, the radical. It is for the nervous, the shaken, the bewildered. It is for the hurting, the wounded, the reeling. It is for the doubters, the unstable, the exhausted. You are not alone.

Faith Shift


faith-shift-663x1024When once faithful followers begin disturbing the status quo, instead of honouring their spiritual evolution they are often labelled as rebellious, divisive, and even heretical. We attend church less often or leave church altogether. Sometimes we’re asked to leave. The anger and guilt can lead us to disconnect from God. Lost and without a map, many of us end up on the fringes of all we once knew – alone, disorientated, and disillusioned.

Faith Shift – Kathy Escobar

Many Christians encounter what is often described as a crisis of faith. Some supress it and just carry on. Others leave the church and faith entirely. Escobar describes this as a faith shift. In this book (also entitled Faith Shift) she offers a description of the journey many find themselves in and offers hope that this might be a good thing.

She describes the early stages of the Christian life as Fusing. We begin with belief, add to this learning, we work hard for God, and find security in belonging to our tribe. There is security in affiliation, conformity and certainty. Many stay at this stage for all their lives.

But for many this stage is followed by Shifting.  When the foundation of faith begins to crack there are often common ingredients. Disengagement with the worship, the sermon, the church and others. Uncertainty with what seemed so sure. Longing for a more authentic faith, a faith that is bigger than the rules, regulations and certainty of our infancy. A faith that is more about redemption than judgement, more about restoration than condemnation. A faith that is more about this world than the next. At this point do we turn back to safety or push on into uncertainty?

There are many reasons for turning back: we may be concerned about the effect on our family our children, we may miss the inspiration we used to receive, we want to avoid the pain and turmoil of moving forward, we miss the certainty of our old faith. Escobar is clear: it’s OK to go back, and it’s OK to go forward.

For many going back is not an option. The forward path leads to Unravelling. Each unravelling is different. But negative feelings are commonplace, including sadness, anger, confusion, fear, and shame. Escobar offers soul care for the unravelling: expect the unexpected; come to terms with negative emotions; consider the possibility that your soul is not at risk; accept that some relationships will fall away; make time for safe, life-giving friends; try experiencing God in new ways; be selective in what you read and what events you attend; resist the temptation to compare yourself to others; avoid big triggers if possible.

Fortunately there is hope. Unravelling is just a stage in the journey. You can move on to Rebuilding. What seems like an ending can become a beginning.   Drawing on her own personal story and that of dozens of others, Escobar offers compassion, hope and tangible practices for rebuilding a new and authentic faith.

kescobarKathy Escobar co-pastors the Refuge, a Christian community in North Denver. You can learn more about her work and writing at www.kathyescobar.com. Faith Shift is published by Convergent Books.

Inspiration and Incarnation

Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament 

pete-ennsFor most evangelical Christians it is a given that the Bible (by this is meant the canon of scriptures recognised by the early church fathers, minus the books dismissed as ‘apocryphal’) is infallible and without error. The reasoning goes something like: scriptures are ‘God-breathed’ (2 Tim 3:16) and God does not lie; therefore we can treat the Bible as if God himself spoke every word, and every verse is perfectly true. Some allowance is made for simile, hyperbole and interpretation, but within strict limits. If someone’s opinion or a scientific discovery are found to be conflict with the Bible, well they must be wrong.

The problem with this stance is obvious. If one single verse of the Bible can be proved to be false, then the whole belief will collapse under its own weight, taking with it our confidence in the scriptures and our faith in God. In my view this stance is fundamentally disrespectful to the scriptures and to Christ. It treats the Bible as so fragile that a smallest question will undermine its authenticity and also leads to a faith centred on the Bible instead of on God.

In this book Enns aims to demonstrate that is it possible to hold firmly to an evangelical position that the Bible is ultimately from God and is God’s gift to the church, but at the same time acknowledge that the Bible bears the weaknesses and flaws of its human authors and the cultures in which they lived. Moreover this is the way that God meant it to be. Just as God incarnated himself as a man who took on sin, suffering and disgrace, so the Bible itself is an incarnation in which God can be found revealing himself through the lives and writings of people who had some very bad ideas and practises. This view is radically different to a ‘liberal’ dismissal of divine inspiration and should in fact result in a greater respect for the scriptures.

In around 170 pages Enns considers a few aspects of the issue:

  • Similarities between the Old Testament and (earlier) near eastern literature, covering creation and flood stories, history and civil and religious law. If the Bible is directly from God, then why do these parts draw so heavily on earlier non-Jewish literature?
  • Theological diversity in the scriptures themselves; parallel proverbs, histories and even versions of the Ten Commandments that differ and in some cases contradict each other. If all these scriptures are infallible and inerrant, then why the differences. Granted some are fairly minor differences, but some are opposites (God requires complex ritualised animal sacrifices; God never required sacrifices…).
  • The treatment of old testament scriptures by new testament writers. Paul for example often takes OT passages and totally subverts their meaning. Jesus himself regularly does the same, reflecting the way that contemporary Jewish theologians treated the OT scriptures.

That these issues are problems at all are a symptom of the way that evangelicals use the scriptures. As Jonathan Sachs has recently observed, ‘fundamentalists and today’s atheists share the same approach to texts. They read them directly and literally, ignoring the single most important fact about a sacred text, namely that it’s meaning is not self-evident’ (Not in God’s Name, p218).

Enns finishes by tentatively suggesting approaches to understanding scripture that incorporate both its inspirational (God-breathed) and incarnational (born out of human persons and culture) nature. We must remember that that it is impossible to divorce the Bible from the cultures from which it emerged, and also impossible to divorce our interpretation of the Bible from our own culture. In considering diversity in the scriptures, we can trust the Bible not because we can ‘argue away’ its diversity but because we believe, by the gift of faith, in the one who gave scripture to us. We trust God, not our conceptions of how the Bible ought to be.

This view is radically different to a ‘liberal’ dismissal of divine inspiration and should in fact result in a greater respect for the scriptures. It is Enns’ conviction that, ‘The primary purpose of scripture is for the church to eat and drink its contents in order to better understand who God is, what he has done, and what it means to be his people, redeemed in the crucified and risen Son.’ The Bible is not a fortress that we defend, it is a path that we walk. Conversations about interpreting scripture in a changing world are therefore essential and must be full of humility, love and patience.

I recommend this book to all who love the Bible but are troubled by the way it is still used to justify beliefs and practices that would otherwise be self-evidently wrong, for example, young-earth creationism, discrimination, patriarchy, misogyny, homophobia and even genocide (although of course all that’s in the past!). You are not faced with a binary choice: accept that good is evil, and evil is good; or reject the Bible outright. There is a third way, viewing the scriptures like we might view men and women, flawed but nevertheless bearing the image of God, revealing the nature and purpose of God, and bearing witness to Jesus. Isn’t this like The ‘Word of God’, who not only took on human nature but also took on all the flaws and sins of mankind on the cross, the greatest revelation of God?

Pete Enns is the Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University (St. Davids, Pennsylvania). You can read more of his work at http://www.peteenns.com/. Inspiration and Incarnation is published by Baker Academic.

 

Benefit of the Doubt

doubtBenefit of the Doubt by Greg Boyd is a book for those Christians who are afraid to express doubts, afraid to question the Bible, and afraid to talk to others about these doubts for fear of judgement and condemnation.

It is Boyd’s contention that certainty has become an idol in the church, especially in the evangelical, pentecostal and charismatic wings. For some, unquestioning affirmation of a set of beliefs has become the hallmark of Christian faith. Doubt and questioning have become the enemy, unequivocal allegiance to doctrine is a precondition of fellowship, and certainty is elevated to that of a demigod. The result is the church lacks the tools to grapple with uncertainty and many faithful Christians end up leaving the church through shame and condemnation.

Boyd invites us to embrace a faith that doesn’t strive for certainty but rather for commitment to Christ. He argues that wrestling with God and scripture, ‘screaming at the sky’, and giving up a commitment to certainty are all healthy and necessary parts of our spiritual journey. He contends we can have a rich and fulfilling relationship with Christ even with unresolved questions about the Bible, theology and ethics.

Boyd’s views on the role of doubt are part of his ‘big picture’ in which open theism plays a big part. However there is much that can be gained from this book without having to subscribe to this. I don’t always enjoy his writing style but I’m glad I didn’t stop me completing this thought-provoking and ultimately hopeful book. I read this at a time when many of my long-held ideas about faith were becoming just too heavy to keep carrying round. This book didn’t exactly challenge my faith but did help to articulate some of the thoughts I was having. In brief, subscribing unwaveringly to certain beliefs is not faith; faith is trusting in a loving God, demonstrated through the self-giving sacrifice of Christ, even when you aren’t really sure of anything at all. Following this journey might be unsettling and we may well be misunderstood. But it might just transform us in a way that worshipping at the altar of certainty never can.

Greg Boyd is senior pastor of Woodland Hills Church, St Paul, Minnesota. He blogs at ReKNEW (http://reknew.org/). Benefit of the Doubt is published by Baker Books.

What I’ve Been Reading

img_0009Some readers might be aware I have undergone some changes in my faith recently. To a non-believer these might seem trivial – I still very much identify as a Christian – but from my perspective some of the shifts in my belief have involved a significant realignment. Part of my story has been the influence that reading has had upon the re-forming of my faith. The charismatic network I spent the last 30 years in, with all its wonderful people and vibrant witness to the goodness of God, was nevertheless somewhat of a mono-culture in relation to beliefs. It distinctiveness was for a large part in a set of beliefs, one of which was that these beliefs were the right ones. In such a context questioning and debate is only possible within very narrow limits. Thank God that we live in an age of mass publishing and the internet.

So I present the following five books as a sample of some of the reading I have been doing these past few years, some so called ‘Christian’ books. Just as significant have been the fiction and nature writing that I return to over and over, but those will have to wait for another time. Let’s be clear, these books are not all well-written, not equal in significance, and certainly not the only books that have made a deep impression on me. But they have all challenged my thinking, nourished my soul, fuelled my prayers and left me more awe-inspired and in love with the God who revealed himself as a carpenter from Nazareth.

The books are:

I’m publishing these reviews as separate posts over the next couple of weeks starting off with pure gold from Jersak (click here).

 

A More Christlike God

jersakI’m kicking of this series of posts with a review of A More Christlike God by Brad Jersak. If I were to recommend just one of these books, this would be it. I was immersed in a legal model of salvation from an early age but have done some serious questioning about this in recent years. Jersak articulates much of what I have come to believe.

What if we conceived of God as completely Christlike: the perfect Incarnation of self-giving, radically forgiving, co-suffering love? What if God has always been and forever will be ‘cruciform’ (cross-shaped) in his character and actions?

‘God is like Jesus’ is the simple thesis of this book. Jersak contends that the statement ‘The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being’ (Hebrews 1:3) is actually true. Few Christians would disagree. But many beliefs and whole systems of theology held by Christians are actually the antithesis of this statement, and lead to many harmful beliefs and practices.

Jersak begins by discussing ‘What is God really like?’ and examines several un-Christlike images of God, for example, the doting grandfather, the ‘deadbeat’ dad, the punitive judge, and Santa Claus. He examines the fundamental nature of God and concludes he is a God of Love not a God of Will, that is, the will of God does not make a thing loving, rather the love of God finds expression in his will.

Jersak goes on to explore the Word made Flesh, God as revealed in Jesus. He argues that the cross is the ultimate revelation of the love of God. This was not a legal transaction but the self-emptying love of God, absorbing all the sin, hurt and brokenness of humanity. The cross did not pit the Father against the Son, but ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself’ (2 Cor 5:19).

This leads to a conclusion which may be disturbing for some, that where God is portrayed as acting in a way (or sanctioning actions) which Jesus clearly taught or showed were unloving, then this portrayal of God cannot be true. It is God incarnated in the person of Jesus that is the true revelation, not the scriptures whose whole purpose is to point us to Christ.

This ‘unwrathing’ of the cross leads into an unwrathing of God. Jersak dismantles models of atonement and salvation which are characterised by an angry or wrathful God intent on punishing sin, arguing instead that God’s heart from the beginning of the human story has always been to save, to heal and to restore. This all leads to a more ‘Beautiful Gospel’; one that is truly good news for all of humanity, not merely for an elect few. God has not turned his face from sinners, but has come to us in human form and taken on all our sin, suffering and even death itself, in order to restore humanity to loving fellowship with him.

Jersak has succeeded in producing a very readable book which is both thought-provoking and inspiring. I highly recommend it. It might just change the way you think about God,

Brad Jersak is an author and teacher based in Abbotsford, BC, where he attends Fresh Wind Christian Fellowship and serves as Reader at All Saints of North America (Orthodox) Monastery. You can read more about him at his website www.bradjersak.comA More Christlike God is independently published on CreateSpace and is available from Amazon in paperback and Kindle formats.