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Asking the right questions

12 March 2010

In an earlier post I remarked that I found Brian McLaren’s “ten questions that are transforming the faith” disappointing. Some other people seemed to agree, and I’ve suggested that an interesting topic for a synchroblog might be to try to come up with better questions.

But that’s not what I’m trying to do here. I haven’t actually formulated a different set of questions yet, but I’m thinking aloud about why I find at least some of Brian McLaren’s questions disappointing. In the case of some of the questions, my own answers, or those of some others, implied what was wrong with the questions, but I think some things need more elaboration.

So here are the questions, with my comments and half-baked thoughts about them, and as always, I hope others will comment and so help me to bake them.

1. What is the overarching story line of the Bible?

I think that is a fairly good question, if perhaps a little “churchy”. “Overarching” seems to be a word that verges on being Christian in-group jargon, and secular people sometimes find it strange.

But it’s a good question for Christians to be asking because we so often fail to see the wood for the trees. In church we hear snippets from the gospels and epistles, which tend to become isolated from each other, so we can miss the whole. In the Orthodox Church the hymns often relate these themes to the whole theme, but if they are sung in a language we don’t understand, it is easy to miss that. Among Protestants, preaching on a text, or “proof-texting” can also fragment the message.

I rather like Ralph Winter’s description: the main message of the Bible is “The Kingdom strikes back”. Genesis 1-11 describes how God made the world good, and evil entered into the good creation. And the rest of the Bible, from Genesis 12 to the end, is the story of how the good came back.

2. How should the Bible be understood?

Huh?

No doubt in the context of his book Brian McLaren explains what he has in mind in asking this question, but on its own it seems fairly pointless.

But for me it calls to mind something a friend of mine, John Davies, said, in a paper with the title Religion versus God:

So we come to the other half of the title. We have attempted a definition of religion – how about defining God? I cannot. The two terms are not comparable at all. I can really no more talk about `Religion versus God’ than I can about `Beetles versus Calvinism’ or `The breast-stroke versus polarized light’. What can I say about God? That he is Father, Son and Holy Spirit? Yes, but this is no definition – it gives no account of God as a thing or even a concept, but only in terms of relationship. This is all he has shown us about himself. All heresies were, and are, religious attempts to say about God what he himself has refused to say, to soften the paradox, to make attractive fiction out of intractable truth. Truth, as Chesterton said, is always stranger than fiction, because fiction is a product of the human mind and therefore congenial to it. The Catholic Church has said, in effect: God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit; what that means, we can’t say. It’s all we know and we’ll have to make do with it. We cannot understand God, he stands over us.

Let us see how this works out in God’s word. First, we must treat this word as the word of God. At the end of the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 7:24) Jesus shows us that he gives us his word only on condition that it holds unconditional power over us. We are not to select, interpret, apply, test or consider this word, nor are we to make it an aim or ideal. We are only to hear and do it. It also is not for us to understand — it stands over us. The Bible does not depend on our opinion for its importance; it is important because it is God’s judgement. Either we decide about the Bible, or in the Bible Christ has decided about us.[1]

The Bible is not for us to understand — it stands over us.

But we prefer to discuss and talk about the Bible rather than listen to what the Bible is saying about us. Fundamentalists insist that the Bible is inerrant, and this insistence on inerrancy makes what we decide about the Bible more important than what Christ in the Bible says about us. It makes the Bible depend on our opinion for its importance. Others, as C.S. Lewis said, claim to be able to able to read between the lines of ancient texts, but seem to be incapable seeing what the lines themselves are saying.

3. Is God violent?

Huh? (again).

This may be explained in the book, but taken on its own it really does seem a pointless question.

4. Who is Jesus and why is he important?

This might be an important question for Christians to answer, since much else depends on it. If you are following Jesus, who is it that you are following?

This question, which has even been dignified with its own theological name (Christology) was very important in the fourth and fifth centuries, when various people came up with wrong answers to the question. To the extent to which that still happens today, the question remains important. And sometimes the answers given in the fourth century remain just as important today. Some people still argue, sometimes quite vehemently, over whether the virgin Mary is the Mother of God. And this, as Samuel Huntington points out in his book The clash of civilizations is one of the fault lines between Islamic and Christian civilisations.

5. What is the Gospel?

This question also has a fancy theological name — soteriology. And the answer will perhaps sift Christians. Is the gospel the good news that God thumped his Sinless Son and took out his anger on him so that his sinful sons could escape his anger? That is the penal substitution theory of the atonement that dominated Western theology for a thousand years after Anselm.

Or is the good news rather that sin and evil are not so much something that God punishes us for as something that God rescues us from and that Christ has risen from the dead trampling down death by death?

So I think yes, this is quite an important question.

6. What do we do about the Church?

Again: huh?

My answer is that we are not called to do anything about the church. We are called to be the church.

If any elaboration is needed, I think Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it quite well:

Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream… He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and ernest and sacrificial.

God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions the visionary ideal of a community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with
his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and himself accordingly. He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of brethren. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together. When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes, first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.[2]

7. Can we find a way to address human sexuality without fighting about it?

My answer to this question in the earlier post contained the implicit criticism of the question itself.

In this case I do have an alternative question: Why are Christians so obsessed with sex that they find it easier to discuss and argue and fight about human sexuality than to face up to human greed and the ideologies and policies that exalt and promote it?

8. Can we find a better way of viewing the future?

Perhaps this question, like some of the others, is meaningful in the context of the book, but as it stands it simply raises another clarifying question: better than what?

Though perhaps it could be reworded to be similar to question 7: Can we find a way to address climate change without fighting about it?

And for “climate change” one could substitute any number of things that seem likely to shape our future — toxic waste, fossil fuel depletion, nuclear proliferation and so on.

It reminds me of a song sung by Jeremy Taylor back in the 1960s:

Well one fine day I’ll make my way to 10 Downing Street
“Good day,” I’ll say, “I’ve come a long way, excuse my naked feet.
But I lack, you see, the energy, to buy a pair of shoes
I lose my zest to look my best when I read the daily news,
’cause it appears you’ve got an atom bomb
that’ll blow us all to hell and gone
If I’ve gotta die then why should I give a dann if my boots aren’t on?
Three cheers for the army, and all the boys in blue
Three cheers for the scientists, and politicians too
Three cheers for the future years, when we shall surely reap
all the joys of living on a nuclear rubbish heap
I would fight quite willingly in the forces of Her Majesty
But not at the price of sacrificing all of humanity.”

Is there a better way of thinking about the future?

Try this:

The day God gave thee, man, is ending
The darkness falls at thy behest
who spent thy little life defending
from conquest by the East, the West

The sun that bids us live is waking
behind the cloud that bids us die
and in the murk fresh minds are making
new plans to blow us all sky-high.

9. How should followers of Jesus relate to people of other religions?

A Roman Catholic priest from Indonesia told the story of how a group of his parishioners came to him one day, very excited. They had just been to an ecumenical meeting with various Protestants and for the first time ever they had all found themselves in unanimous agreement.

“What did you agree about?’ asked the priest.

“To go and burn down the mosque,” was the reply.

Go to Question 10.

10. How can we translate our quest into action?

As someone else put it, what is our quest? Have we defined it yet?

___________

Notes and references

[1] John Davies, Religion versus God, a paper read at the 2nd annual conference of the Anglican Students Federation of South Africa, Modderpoort, 1961. In this section, he cites Werner Pelz, Irreligious reflections on the Christian Church.

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life together.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. 12 March 2010 8:42 am

    The more I think about these questions the more I think they are very appropriate to the post-evangelical/evangelical experience. I just don’t have a horse in that race.

    Brian and I wouldn’t share enough vocabulary to have a conversation. Though I’m sure we could learn to love each other if someone asked us to sit in a coffee shop together for a few hours.

    I can’t even disagree with him since I don’t know if we disagree or agree (my assumptions, while I carry them around with me, are merely descriptive not normative).

    • 12 March 2010 7:01 pm

      I’ve heard Brian speak on two occasions, and I think he came much closer in speaking than in writing books. But that is easier when the audience is is front of you — you never know who is going to read books.

      I’ve written my reactions to hearing him speak here, so I won’t repeat all that. But you might like to have a look at it and see if it helps to see where he’s coming from.

  2. Dion Forster permalink
    12 March 2010 9:13 am

    Hi Steve,

    As always your insights are clear and provoke a great deal of reflection and thought. I am ashamed to admit that I must still read Mclaren’s new book. It is on my rather lenghty ‘to do’ list!

    What I do know is that Mclaren is writing from a particular context (predominantly North American Christian) for a particular context (bridging the gap between the Christians of that context and the sceptics of that context). In some senses this book (and ‘A generous orthodoxy’) are appologetic in nature.

    Thanks for the post – let me read the book and the & then come back with something sensible to post!

    Regards,

    Dion

  3. 12 March 2010 4:25 pm

    I’m busy reading Brian’s book at the moment (borrowed Nic’s copy when he finished with it) and I agree with Deon that the context in which Brian is writing determines the questions he raises.

    What he makes clear over and over is that these questions have emerged from his years of speaking, travelling, ‘conversing’ and the thousands of emails he receives. So they are not just his questions and they are not just North American questions, but are shared by many people struggling with their evangelical backgrounds, now trying to make sense of their faith in a postmodern and increasingly postchurch context. (Hence, for example, the functional – read American – question, “What do we do about the church”.)

    It therefore makes sense that you don’t identify with many of them. Because I come from a mainline, liberal (with smatterings of evangelical) background there are some I don’t identify with either. But I think that in reading the book you will see that, in the above context, it is an accurate reflection of what his audience (and his detractors) are dealing with.

    I would strongly differ with you, for example, on the relevance of the question of God’s violence. I can see why that is very important in the US context (Bush, neo-cons, Iraq…), but as an Afrikaner who grew up with the myth of Blood River and the justification of murder and violence in the name of a violent, tribal OT God, I also think it is an important question to wrestle with. I think many South Africans of all hues and creeds still have violent, vindictive God images, justified by simplistic readings of Scripture, and this feeds into the violence of our still predominantly Christian nation.

    Methinks I should also respond further in a full blogpost…

  4. 13 March 2010 12:27 am

    Brians questions certainly come from a post-evangelical/evangelical context. They all simultaneously make sense and nonsense to me.

    For example: 6. What do we do about the Church?

    The phrase ‘the Church’ has so many different meanings one can guess from the question and a knowledge of Brian’s background what the question means, but it could mean loads of different things to different people.

    Your answer ‘that we are not called to do anything about the church. We are called to be the church.’ is one of the first answers I would give, because I am understanding the church to be the body of followers of Jesus worldwide.

    However, since some people from a traditional evangelical background would understand ‘the church’ to be a specific congregation or all the congregations in a specific area and others from a post-evangelical background would accept their use of the word but not their definition, the question could really be re-phrased ‘What should followers of Jesus who gather together informally do about the structural organizations with rigid and exclusive ideas about meetings?’

    Actually I suspect ALL of the questions could be re-phrased:

    1. What is the overarching story line of the Bible?

    Could be re-phrased as ‘In what ways is the Bible a record of the story of how God is dealing throughout history with mankind contrasted with the Bible being a manual expressing sound and unsound theology?’

    2. How should the Bible be understood?

    See question 1, I suspect they overlap.

    3. Is God violent?

    Could be re-phrased ‘Throughout history people have been violent in the name of God. Within the last decade people calling themselves Christians violently attacked another country, claiming to have prayed about it and believing this was God’s will. While others believe they are called to be peacemakers. Which group reflect the nature of God?’

    8. Can we find a better way of viewing the future?

    Could be rephrased as ‘Many Christians believe they have a scriptural mandate to support the modern state of Israel towards a pending cataclysmic war against the Arabs, but interpreting Revelation in terms of historical prediction. In what ways could the perception that the book of Revelation was actually a vision of a pastor for his flock in a time of trial more appropriate understanding of this book?’

    I think the problem is not the questions, but the underlying assumptions of context into which these questions are the burning issues between followers of Jesus from very different perceptions.

    Of course, I could be very wrong… but that’s my take from the post-evangelical perspective.

  5. 13 March 2010 9:52 pm

    Steve, It’s probably because I come from a different experience than you do but I felt you were inappropirately dismissive about some of the questions. For instance, “Is God Violent” – for me that is a very valid question as I read through scripture and try to come to terms with some things in the old testament. And it is obvious to me what Brian refers to when he asks how can we do it better in the future. I guess I am a little put off because most of these questions are questions I have either struggled with or am still struggling with.

    • 14 March 2010 4:42 am

      Gracerules,

      I suppose one answer is that of The Evening of Kent: “Yes. Is it His prerogative to be violent? Yes. Is it ours? No.”

      I say I find it pointless because there is no answer. Well, yes there is, if you accept the answer of the anti-Christians who say Yes, God is violent, he promoted wars and genocide and killed people in fits of pique. They seem to think that violence is a bad thing, God is violent, therefore God is a bad thing.

      My question to them is: where do they get the idea that violence is a bad thing? Is it a humanist idea? Humans are pretty violent. From the universe? The universe is pretty violent — consider earthquakes and supernovas, for example.

      So I find questions like “Is God violent?” pretty pointless. But when I read the story of Noah, it seems that the problem that God saw with the world was its violence. And at one level you could say that God’s solution to the problem of violence in the world was more violence. The world is violent, therefore let’s violently destroy it. A bit like “I burnt the cake, so let’s toss it in the bin.”

      So what stands out in the story for antitheists is God’s violence. They entirely overlook the point that it is God’s judgment on human violence. It is much easier to accuse God than to accuse ourselves.

  6. 14 March 2010 3:53 am

    I guess for me “Why am I violent?” or “Why am I not kind to those I love?” or “How can I be a peacemaker?” occupy my mind more.

    I don’t mean to discount the other questions. But like Job I find questioning God to end always in my humiliation.

  7. 14 March 2010 9:45 am

    The question ‘Is God violent?’ and the relationship to the question ‘Should we be violent?’ is a core question today and one that led to be being thrown out of a church Bible study that met at our home. I contended that God only told the people He was working to redeem mankind to be violent for a relatively short period of time in history. Others in the group contended that He encouraged all of His people for all time to be violent (in the sense of defending themselves, which would include invading another country pre-emptively to protect your country if you believe it might help) and ‘sleeping with a gun under your bed’ is the Christian way. The discussion got heated.

    The question about violence – and man’s authority to use violence in the name of God – is a hot topic today. The actual wording of the question is less important. The issues will come out whatever…

    Richard

    • 14 March 2010 5:15 pm

      I agree that man’s use of violence is an important topic. But I disagree that the wording is unimportant. The way the question is worded makes itn all to easy to blame God for violence, and thereby evade responsibility for our own. The question as it stands makes us responsible for God, and not to him.

      • 14 March 2010 10:33 pm

        In principle I agree with you. But I have ended up having ‘vigorous fellowship’ with a number of people (aka arguments where I feel challenged/unhappy with the way it is going) fighting over wording. Sue tries to persuade me that the actual words don’t matter. Some of the time I agree, some of the time I don’t. It depends on which side of the bed I got out of that morning! Actually I wish I could ignore so much of the way people express things and just let it roll over me.

        I agree with your understanding of the question. From the people I meet the real problem is not that they blame God for them being violent, but that they believe He has given them a license to be violent on His behalf.

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