Category Archives: Fiddler on the Fence of the Fold

Weekly thoughts, questions and rhetoric from a funky faith tribe leader.

Incarnation – Do You See What I See?

It was about a half hour past bedtime when my 5 year-old son Elias asked me the question. “Is Santa real Daddy?”

We had already been through this the year prior but apparently Elias had new ‘intel’.

“My teacher told me Santa is real” he continued, “not pretend real but really real! So is he? Seriously, I want to know.” I could see the desire to believe and yet know the truth no matter what shimmering in my son’s bright blue eyes. (How accurately does this describe many of our own faith journeys?) I tried an evasive tactic telling him it was fun to believe in Santa Claus at Christmas time but he would have none of it. “Knowing the truth changes things.” I warned him. “Do you want to change Christmas?” He insisted. So I told him the truth (for the second year in a row).

Well I guess the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree as they say. Like my son, I have always needed to know the truth – or in more appropriate postmodern language – to know with expanding perspective and greater understanding. I recall my own questions that changed Christmas for me around 10 years ago. These were not questions about Santa but about the birth of Jesus.

I can’t say I ever remember believing Jesus was actually born on December 25th but it wasn’t till my late twenties before I began wondering why we celebrate Jesus’ birthday on December 25th.

We do not know when Jesus was born. Some Biblical scholars speculate it was likely mid to late September but this is only an educated guess. Historical records indicate that most Christians may not have celebrated the birth of Jesus at all before the 3rd or 4th century and it was likely around 324CE when the church began celebrating the birth of Jesus on December 25th.

Why did they choose this date in particular? It seems during the three hundred years between Jesus’ death and resurrection and Christianity becoming the official religion of the Roman empire, the Christian church began adopting or was influenced by certain pagan practices, rituals, beliefs and observances.

In the Roman Empire, December 25th was the day worshippers of Sol and Mithras celebrated the sun god’s birthday. December 25th was known as Natalis Solis Invicti or the “birth of the unconquered sun”. December 25th was also the winter solstice according to the Julian calendar, the day the sun starts pushing back against the threatening darkness. (It is December 21st according to the Gregorian calendar we use.) December 25th was also the last day of the Roman winter festival Saturnalia comprised of general merry making and gift giving.

When we look into history we find most of our Christmas traditions have pagan origins; from Christmas trees and gift giving to yule logs, hollyberry and mistletoe.

There are a number of other similarities between Mithras and Jesus in addition to many curious parallels between Christianity and Mithraism. One noteworthy commonality is our day of worship. Mithraists worshipped on Sun-Day as Mithras was a solar deity. At some point the early church stopped observing the Sabbath and began worshipping on Sun-Day, sharing the same “day of our Lord” as the Mithraists. Saint Jerome commented on this controversy in the fifth century “If it is called the day of the sun by the pagans, we willingly accept this name, for on this day the Light of the world arose, on this day the Sun of Justice shone forth.”

When I first discovered these pagan origins and influences it shook my faith a little. Now I see this assimilation as evidence of the incarnational approach of the early church. Incarnation means “embodied in flesh”. When the early church saw God’s story of love embodied in other cultures, religions, rituals and practices – they saw Immanuel (God with us) and celebrated it. This is what the apostle Paul did in Acts 17 when he saw the statue to the unknown God and celebrated it as a statue to Christ.

I have started practicing an incarnational approach myself. Whenever I see or hear something that reflects God’s story – I see Christ, Immauneal – I see God’s love embodied in the “flesh” of that culture, religion, practice or person. I am surprised at how often I see Christ these days in “unchristian” people and places. I am starting to see what Paul meant when he said “Christ is all and in all.” Jesus said even the rocks will reveal the truth of Immanuel (God with us).

Truly the story of God’s love is weaved into the very fabric of the universe if we have eyes to see and ears to hear.


May 21 – The End of What?

Well it’s almost here kids – the beginning of the end of the world! I’m referring of course to Harold Camping’s bold prediction that Judgment Day will begin around 6pm (Pacific time) this Saturday evening. The big question for me as a follower of the way of Jesus is how should I respond to this kind of nonsense?

My initial reaction to Family Radio’s “fire and brimstone” announcement plastered on the imposing billboard overlooking St. Paul Street West was experiencing a flashback to the time I lived in the southern United States. You just don’t see these kooky apocalyptic proclamations in Canada very often. My second response was one of curiosity. Was this for real? Or was this a hoax, prank or some artist’s satirical concept piece on religion?

Once I realized this was serious, the foreboding forecast raised some sobering questions for me.

How did Harold Camping’s inane prophecy based on sloppy numerology and dubious Biblical interpretation spread around the world so successfully and quickly? How did this 89 year-old civil engineer’s end-times calculation come to be posted on over 2000 giant billboards across the planet and broadcast nonstop in over 40 languages on his international radio network with over 150 outlets in the United States alone? How did his Family Radio ministry accrue tens of thousands of followers, accumulate over 120 million dollars in assets and find the resources to launch this audacious “Judgment Day” campaign?

The answer: an enormous amount of time, money and labor from true believers. May 21, 2011 would have quietly slipped by like any other Spring day if not for the thousands of volunteer hours and millions of dollars donated by his followers.

I don’t understand how people continue to fall for “prophetic” preachers like Harold Camping. Especially given his previous erroneous prediction that the world would end in September 1994. But even more disturbing to me is that most Canadians today associate Christianity with people like Harold Camping and his undiscerning herd of sheeple.

It’s characters like Camping and the Reverend Terry Jones and his small Qur’an burning congregation that unfortunately represent Christianity to the world instead of the countless Christians who have devoted their lives working for peace and justice. It pains me that the loudest and most mobilized Christian sects have made the words “Christian” and “church” synonymous with anti-gay, anti-science, judgmental self-righteousness rather than compassion, peace, hope and joy. It angers me that we’ve allowed a few bigoted Bible bullies to so passionately and arrogantly claim to speak on behalf of Jesus, that they have drowned out the actual voice of Jesus who taught that his true followers would be known principally by their love. (John 13:35)

I don’t know when the world will end but it’s definitely time this current state of the world shaped by hatred and violence, archaic tribalism, segregating ideologies, and antagonistic relationships between world religions, faith and science and spirituality and reason, came to an end.

It’s time for Christians to stop fueling these negative energies and focus on making the earth a more Spirit filled place, by seeking to develop peace and unity with all people rather than judging or proselytizing them.

It’s time for the way of Jesus to be known as the way of peace and hope again.

It’s time for Christians to stop wasting time on distractions like eschatological speculation and start investing our energy and money into making the love of God an experienced reality for all on this planet.

It’s time to once more make the Christian message about the ridiculous unconditional love of God, not what Camping and company make it out to be – merely ridiculous.

It’s time for a different brand of Christianity to rise and represent to the world around us what following the way of Jesus is really about.

It’s time for us to see the end of a paradigm (where authentic spirituality was replaced with religion) as a good thing – as a beginning of a new thing God is doing in the world.

I hope May 21 is the end of the world as we know it.

Blessed Are The Iconoclasts

In my past series of posts, I have strongly suggested the future of the church and Christianity in Canada will be markedly different than the conventional forms we have become accustomed to. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you what the future holds for faith in the postmodern shift, as I have misplaced my urim and thummim and it turned out my crystal ball was not dishwasher safe. As I have repeated – we are in new history now – and only God knows what the future holds.

What I can tell you with confidence is that it will be the iconoclasts and innovators who will lead and shape the next wave of Christian faith in the emerging paradigm. It will be the courageous, non-conformist, entrepreneurial pioneers, who are inspired by God – and inspiring to the disenchanted and disenfranchised spiritually hungry souls around them – that will be the radical reformers of our day. Why? Because they always have been.

The current faith crisis the church and Christianity are experiencing will require 21st century Peters and Pauls, Sattlers and Simons, Wesleys and Luther Kings – leaders who are in tune with the hearts and minds of the ‘common’ people as well as the heart and mind of God. Radical, risk-taking lovers of God and humanity will again be the ones to mobilize and empower faith communities with fresh teaching, new perspectives, reckless openness to God’s Spirit and love for all.

Today’s reformers and revolutionaries, like yesterdays, will be the daring iconoclasts.

The first major iconoclast movement in Christendom was initiated by Byzantine Emperor Leo in the 8th century. The second major one occurred in the 16th century during the Reformation. Both of these movements were primarily focused on physical iconoclasm – which is the deliberate destruction or riddance of religious icons and other symbols, usually for religious or political motives. What I am referring to is spiritual iconoclasm (or conceptual iconoclasm). Spiritual iconoclasm is eradicating or letting go of mental concepts that limit God. Meister Eckhart (13th century German theologian and priest) succinctly articulated this type of iconoclasm in his curious statement, “I pray to G-d to rid me of God”, meaning I open myself up to the God who is, as I let go of the God I have constructed in my mind with human ideas and doctrines. He believed it is only as we empty our minds of finite preconceptions about God and how God works that we are able to perceive and participate in the eternally new thing God is doing. As Jesus said, “New wine requires new wineskins.” To be continually open to God requires a perpetually renewable mind.

Revolutions always have and always will frighten the majority – from the original Jesus movement to the Radical Reformation of the 16th century to the postmodern faith renewal happening today. It is not surprising that the majority of churches and Christians are confused by, concerned with or committed to fighting the emerging spiritual paradigm shift. I do not judge people for carefully considering something before jumping in headfirst. As the saying goes, “Angels fear to tread where fools rush in.” So the questions I hear cautious Christians asking contemporary iconoclasts are very important and we need to pay attention.

Questions like:

What are you iconoclasts letting go of? The Bible? Jesus? Truth? And what are you still holding on to?

What the iconoclasts are letting go is the illusory assumption that any of us were ever holding onto the Bible, Jesus or Truth in the first place. Iconoclasts realize we are always holding onto our own versions of Jesus, God and the Bible and that notions such as – our interpretation of the truth is the truth   and              our thoughts and assumptions about God is who God really is –are wrong. Dangerous. Idolatrous even.

Meister Eckhart said the physical iconoclasts missed the point when they destroyed physical art, symbols and images of God. (Art is usually not the problem. In fact, good art often opens us up to the mystery and inconceivable glory of God.What we need to smash are our mental images of God. We need to rid ourselves of our theological pictures of God painted with finite words and dogmatic concepts. If we don’t, we become idolaters, substituting the infinite God who is bigger and beyond our loftiest mortal comprehension, with a God we have created in, and constrained to, our human minds.

All our ideas and images of God are at best incomplete and provisional and we are wise to hold them loosely, constantly humbling ourselves beneath the transcendent mystery of the great “I Will Be Who I Will Be”. It is only as we let go of the ‘God we know’ that we are able to be led by the ‘God who is’.  And to be open to the “God who is” that consistently appears and moves outside the boundaries our beliefs have limited “God” to – we must become spiritual iconoclasts. Or at least get to know one. And let them blow our minds open so we can catch a glimpse or two of the God who dwells outside the cage of our finite dogmatic assumptions.

Future of Faith Part 2: Upside Down Wisdom

Future Faith in Canada Part 2 – Upside Down Wisdom

I’ve often wondered why the vast majority of Jesus’ contemporaries rejected him as the Messiah. Why a community filled with longing for the Saviour that God had promised them, refused to believe Jesus was the one they were waiting for. How did they miss what seems so obvious to us? Were they less intelligent, moral, religious, or Biblically literate than us? No, it was simply that Jesus did not fit their assumptions and expectations.

How often do our assumptions and expectations hinder us from seeing what God is doing in our midst?

The Gospels tell us it was the most educated, moral, religious and Biblically literate who most vehemently rejected Jesus, for they had the most rigid assumptions and expectations about what God’s salvation would look like. Jesus was God’s unexpected plot twist and those who knew the old plot line the best opposed him the most. Jesus was a spiritual paradigm shift for the first century Jewish community. They were entering new history and it was only the few who were able to let go of their assumptions and expectations regarding how God moved and worked in the world, that were able to develop eyes to see and ears to hear the new thing God was doing.

I believe the same applies to us in our present paradigm shift. It will only be the few who are able to let go of their assumptions and expectations regarding how God moves and works in the world that will be able to perceive the new thing God is doing in our midst. As in Jesus’ day, letting go will be more difficult for church folk advanced in the areas of morality, religiosity, education, and Biblical literacy, but if Biblical history teaches us anything, it is that those who have the least capacity to be surprised by God, will be most surprised by God in the end!

We would be ‘Pharisee-ically’ foolish to assume an infinitely creative God only weaves plot twists into ancient history. I believe God is doing a new thing in our time and culture and our need for spiritual leaders with humility, flexibility, and Spirit tuned senses has never been greater.

Speaking of faith leaders, I confess I have often wondered why Jesus chose Peter to be the leader of his revolution after he was gone. The Gospels certainly don’t imply Peter was an A+ disciple who was always ‘with the program’. So why him?

I believe it was connected to Peter’s capacity to let go of assumptions and expectations and remain open to God’s mysterious ways of working in the world. If anyone had a solid notion about what would happen to someone who jumped out of a boat in the middle of the sea, in the middle of the night, in the middle of a raging storm – it was a born and raised Galilean fisherman! But Peter radically and recklessly let go of those assumptions and expectations and hopped out of the boat to try to walk on water with Jesus. This risky openness to a God beyond his understanding was core to Peter’s qualifications as an early church leader. Jesus was looking for someone with upside down wisdom, the kind Socrates described this way, “Wisdom is limited to one’s awareness of one’s ignorance.”

At times Peter’s awakening to his own ignorance was painful. For instance, his assumptions about his own loyalty and courage quickly dismantled after he abandoned and denied Jesus repeatedly a few hours after boldly proclaiming publically that he would never forsake Jesus, that he would die with Jesus if need be. Less than a day later he was forced to let go of the core belief he had staked his entire theology and future upon – that Jesus the Messiah would reestablish the throne of David and Reign of God on earth – as Jesus was now dead and nothing had seemed to changed.

When the risen Jesus appeared to the disciples in the closing chapter of John’s gospel, Peter is a broken, naked and hopeless fisherman who couldn’t catch a fish – surprised yet again by another plot twist. Jesus is alive! However, the most unexpected thing of all to Peter is that Jesus still wants him to lead his church!

I believe this is the moment of Peter’s rebirth, preparing him for Pentecost and church leadership. Like Scrooge at the end of Dicken’s “Christmas Carol”, Peter’s soul awakens with upside down wisdom, realizing “I don’t know anything! I never did know anything. But now I know, that I don’t know anything!”

We are all ignorant when it comes to the mysterious ways of God. What we need are leaders like Peter who are aware of their own ignorance to lead us through the paradigm shift.  I am convinced it will be the present day Peters with upside down wisdom that will shape the future of faith in postmodern Canada.

To be continued…

Future of Faith In Canada (Revised) – Part 1

The Future of Faith in Canada

When economists were asked about the future of free market capitalism during the global economic meltdown of 2008, I repeatedly heard them responding, “We don’t know. Nobody knows. We are in new history.” I think the same could be said about the future of the church and conventional Christianity given the current paradigm shift we are in. A paradigm shift is most simply defined as one predominant worldview being replaced by another. This is clearly happening in Canada. Look at the numbers:

  • In 1901, 98% of Canadians identified themselves as Christian.[1]
  • Over the past two generations the number of Canadians identifying as non-religious has increased from 1% to 23%.[2]
  • If recent trends continue non-Christians will outnumber Christians in Canada around 2023.[3]
  • 30% of Canadians do not believe in God[4]
  • 36% of Canadians under the age of 25 do not believe in God.[5]
  • 84% of Canadians between the ages of 15 to 44 don’t attend church regularly.[6]
  • Protestant Christianity is the only major religion currently in decline in Canada. This decline began in 1921. The growth of all other major religions is due primarily to a shift in immigration patterns in Canada.[7]
  • Wicca, Neo-paganism and Native Canadian Spirituality experienced the highest percentage of growth over the last decade.[8]
  • Secular humanism* had the greatest numerical growth by far increasing by 1,463,080 individuals over the past decade.[9]
  • Secular Humanists* represent the second largest “religious group” in the country now.[10]
  • Over half of the active population of Canada has obtained a post-secondary university or college degree or diploma, the highest of any OECD country. And over 1 million people in Canada have a Masters degree or higher. This trend will only continue as the education levels of Canadians continue to increase. For instance, between 2000 and 2006 full-time university enrollment increased 31% (even higher in Masters and PhD programs).
  • According to StatsCan “The higher the educational attainment of Canadians the less likely they are to report any kind of religious affiliation.”

These numbers indicate the spiritual paradigm shift in Canada is quickly approaching the tipping point. Canadians are converting in much greater numbers today than at any other time in our history. The difference is they are now converting from Christianity. One of the most striking profiles implied by these statistics is that the majority of people who are converting in Canada are:

  • between the ages of 16 and 44,
  • with or in the process of getting a post secondary education,
  • moving from a Protestant faith to a secular humanist worldview.

Millions have already made this conversion but there are even more who find themselves in transition between conventional Christianity and secular humanism. Consider this statistic.

  • The percentage of those with a religious affiliation never attending a religious service increased from 24% to 41% in the past twenty years.

This is a huge number of people. Almost 10 million! So why is it that nearly a third of our population still shares an affinity with Christian faith but never goes to church? I believe for the majority of these people church is not the primary problem. They are not merely looking for new and improved churches with polished pop rock worship and more technologically advanced sermon presentations (at least not most of them). The real problem for these folks is conventional Christianity itself.

As a result of my research and my own experience in connecting with those on the “fringe of the fold”, I am convinced the majority of ‘Christians’ who no longer go to church (not to mention the many more who are still attending out of a sense of guilt, duty, loyalty, community or family pressure) still resonate with certain aspects of their Christian faith but are finding the scientific secular humanist worldview as more credible in making sense of the world in which they live. I believe more and more Canadian ‘Christians’ are not merely looking for an updated church so much as an updated worldview that integrates their faith, education and experience of reality.

What does this mean for us – the church?

In my opinion, to deny, ignore or fight against this paradigm shift is futile. I don’t believe this shift has surprised or angered God or is at heart against God. I believe this movement is at its center a genuine pursuit of truth and will therefore lead to greater understanding and deeper experience of God, even if it means taking two steps backwards to take three steps forward.

I believe what we need, more than ever, are eyes to see God’s presence in the midst of all the change and confusion and ears to hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches today. We also need courageous pioneers of faith to help shape this new history.

To be continued…

Taking the Bible Seriously but Not Literally

“Taking the Bible Seriously but Not Literally”

This is becoming an increasingly popular attitude towards the Bible. It is also the subtitle of Marcus Borg’s book entitled “Reading The Bible Again for the First Time.” I really value Borg’s thoughts on the Bible and I definitely recommend his books to anyone interested in a fresh approach to Christian faith. But I do not think this statement of taking the Bible seriously but not literally is particularly helpful. I certainly take parts of the Bible literally because it seems obvious they should be (“love your enemies” for instance. I also find it interesting that many Biblical literalists don’t always take Jesus’ messages like “love your enemies” literally!)

I agree there is a great deal of demythologization that needs to happen with most Biblical passages in order to, in the words of Rudolf Bultmann, “lay bare the kernel of truth” in the text. But I do not believe the entire Biblical narrative is merely mythical nor do I believe all the individual stories ought to be received in a purely metaphorical manner. For the record, this is not what Marcus Borg and most other “Jesus Seminar” scholars believe or are trying to communicate either.

Borg actually encourages the historical-metaphorical approach to Scripture. He claims we need two lenses through which to read the Bible, a historical lens and a metaphorical lens. By “historical lens” he means all the methods that are relevant to discerning the ancient historical meanings of biblical texts. By “metaphorical lens” he means most broadly a non-literal way of reading biblical texts. The historical lens focuses on answering this question “What did this text mean in the ancient historical setting in which it was written?” The metaphorical lens does not confine itself to the literal, factual, and historical meanings of a text. It moves beyond to the question, “What does this story mean as a story, independent of its historical factuality?”

Borg proposes that the historical and metaphorical approaches to reading the Bible need each other. The historical needs the metaphorical so that the text is not imprisoned in the past. The metaphorical needs the historical so that it does not become subjective fancy. With the historical-metaphorical method, Borg offers us yet another responsible approach to the Bible with an attempt to balance the objective and subjective elements incarnate in the interpretive process. I certainly employ this method when I’m studying the Bible.

But what exactly does Borg mean when he says taking the Bible seriously but not literally. I believe what Borg is saying is that we take the message of the Biblical texts seriously but not as the literal words of God. And this really takes us to the heart of the matter. “Are the words of the Bible the words of God or the words of humans?” This question of Scriptural origin is the central underlying issue that establishes the foundation of our relationship with the Bible.

Another way of asking this is: “What does it mean to say the Bible is inspired?”

Here are two ways of viewing Biblical inspiration (there are others).

The first way is to see inspiration as God writing the Bible through human authors by somehow having them write God’s exact words. The Bible is thus autobiographical – it is God’s self-revelation. It is God’s story about God and humanity.

Another way to understand divine inspiration is that humans wrote the Bible in response to being in the Spirit (inspired literally means in spirit), using their own words to describe their encounters with God, relationships with God, understandings of God, etc. Thus the Bible is a product of humans putting into language their experience of God who is beyond words (certainly an infinite God defies finite limitations and language is the epitome of finite limitations.) This view sees the Bible as biographical – that a particular group of humans, who encounter God and being in the Spirit, write their story about God and humanity for the time and place in which they live.

The first question that probably jumps out to the critical thinking skeptic with respect to this second view of inspiration is: “What do you mean by in the Spirit?” I agree that I may very well be making the issue more complicated (or copping out) by bringing in the nebulous notion of Biblical authors being in the Spirit. This discussion will be a very lengthy one as this is a very important subject for me and will unfortunately have to wait for another post.

The question that immediately jumps out and scares most conservative Christians away from this second view of inspiration (or something akin to it) is this: “If the Bible is biographical, a human production, how can we trust it?” Or put another way: “Why trust it more than any other holy book or my neighbour Jim’s thoughts on God for that matter?” I have already addressed the question of the Bible’s reliability in an earlier post. In short I will respond to this question by saying this:

We cannot trust the Bible without first encountering and being awakened to the reality of the God to which the Bible points to. You can’t get the story till you become part of the story.

We cannot get around the fact that Christianity is a faith domain that must be plunged or waded into. To trust the Bible is really to trust God’s Spirit to guide us and teach us (see my earlier posts for more on this theme). Any attempt to prove that the Bible is the autobiography of God, or God’s self-revelation, is impossible and boils down to faith. The belief that the Bible is biographical or a human story of God (a real God not just a mythological one) is also impossible to prove and requires faith. Both are faith-based positions. The only question that remains to be asked is: which kind of faith do you find more reasonable? I have chosen the latter .

Now I realize this means I can no longer convincingly tout the Bible as being more authoritative than the Quran or the Tao te Ching or Chicken Soup for the Soul. But I don’t think conservative Biblicists can either, at least not to anyone who is not a conservative Biblicist!

It requires no more faith and bears no less credibility when one believes the Bible to be a human product that reveals who God is (in part) and points us to this real and revealed God, than it does to believe the Bible is the very Word of God – meaning God’s self revelation.

I realize my position may seem to undermine the authority of Scripture but as mentioned ad nauseam in my earlier posts in this series, I believe in the supreme authority of the Holy Spirit not the supreme authority of Scripture.

The point of this series is to demonstrate that as followers of Jesus we are not discipled to trust that the authors of the Biblical books were Spirit led but that we can be Spirit led!

I should emphasize that being Spirit led individuals is not the primary objective as followers of Jesus but rather to be participants in loving, Spirit led communities. With regards to spiritual understanding and growth we are called to be Spirit led individuals in relationship and ongoing conversation with other Spirit led people. This would include the authors of Scripture.

I do believe the authors of the Biblical texts were inspired by God, meaning their writings were Spirit led. (Yes, I promise to explain what I mean by this in a later post!) However, I also believe their writings were restricted by their many finite human limitations including their context (ancient worldviews), their conditioning, their ability to articulate their experiences and insights, etc.

For some Christians this approach to Scriptural inspiration is just too ambiguous and messy! I agree that believing in the Bible as the perfect and clearly communicated Word of God would be simpler in some ways. But that doesn’t make it correct! The easy path is rarely the right one. Besides that, perfectly clean and clear doesn’t accurately describe the way God does much in my opinion! Life is messy. Relationships are messy. Birth is messy. History is messy (including Christian history.) The Bible is messy! The canonization process was messy! Community is messy. This is just the nature of reality: chaos and order. As one of my African American pastor friends used to tell me “The mess always comes before the message!”

I have no trouble admitting that learning to discern between our inner light (the indwelling Spirit of God) and the voices of our selfish desires and unbridled ego is an ongoing baptism by fire and muddy waters. Without a doubt it is a gradual process of trial and error. But the more I learn and experience, the more I come to appreciate that nothing in life is perfectly clear or certain. The more I accept this, the more realistic, healthy and spiritually mature I become. (Note: I do not hold onto the belief that the Bible is not the very Word of God with certitude! But it will take some coaxing!)

As I grow older I realize there are certain things that can only be learned with age – with the passing of time. One of those time induced realizations for me has been to slowly see the pervasive mystery of life as a gift to be treasured not a problem to be solved. The mystery keeps life interesting. It means there is no end to my learning and experiencing newness. That is good news! I would argue that is an essential part of the good news Christianity proclaims! The mystery surrounding the Bible’s inspiration and revelation is also a gift. I no longer pine for certainty and categorical clarity in my theology. I no longer need it. I truly believe the process of divine revelatory unfolding is something I am a part of not something that was wrapped up 2000 years ago and remains only to be correctly understood and adhered to today.

The way of Jesus is a life of faith not a life of certitude.

Modern Biblical Criticism Methods

Modern Biblical Criticism Methods: FYI

How we approach the Bible has a huge influence on what we see when we read it and how we interpret what we see. Many Christians are not aware of their particular approach to the Bible or that they even have one for that matter. To give you an idea of some of the various methods of engaging Scripture, here is a list of some modern scholastic approaches to Biblical texts. (I have omitted several like historical-metaphorical, dialectical and postmodern criticism as I will be addressing those in greater detail in other posts.)

  • Textual criticism is a branch of literary criticism that is concerned with the identification and removal of transcription errors in the texts of manuscripts.
  • Source criticism is the search for the original sources which lie behind a given biblical text.
  • Historical criticism is the attempt to verify the historicity of and understand the meaning of an event that is reported to have taken place.
  • Socio-scientific criticism seeks to understand the sociological backgrounds of a text. It is a multidisciplinary criticism drawing on the social sciences, especially anthropology and sociology.
  • Redaction criticism considers the “collection, arrangement, editing and modification of sources” frequently used to reconstruct the community and purposes of the authors of the text.
  • Form criticism breaks the Bible down into sections that are analyzed and categorized by genres. Genre criticism studies texts according to the literary genre to which they belong.
  • Narrative criticism seeks to restore the sense of story within the Bible treating the text as a unit, focusing on narrative structure and composition, plot development, themes and motifs, characters and characterization.
  • New literary criticism ponders the “world of the text.” It derives meaning solely from the literary impressions given by the text itself devoid of its historicity or factuality.
  • Critical realism approaches the text objectively with the belief we can know the meaning of the text as it really is even while it acknowledges the limits of our ability to understand the text objectively. It denies naive realism that believes the meaning of the text is as it is perceived, believing one can only acquire knowledge of the text by critical reflection on perception and the text.
  • Rhetorical criticism seeks to understand how symbols and methods of communication act on people. It studies the techniques and devices, which went into crafting the biblical narrative as it was heard (or read) by its audience, and the effects it had on its audience.

I think it is important to at least be aware of these various methods and the complexity of understanding and interpreting Biblical texts even if it is not expected (or even beneficial) for most Christians to utilize any of these while interacting with Scripture. I would strongly recommend to anyone basing their worldview on the Bible to invest enough time and energy to understand as best you can, at whatever academic level is appropriate, the basis and basics of Biblical criticism.

I also believe an imaginative and interactive reading of the Bible is as important if not more important than approaching the text scholastically. By imaginative and interactive I mean: lectio divina, devotional, Ignatian Meditation, etc. More on these approaches in a later post.