I suppose your thinking is that it is suffering and sin that make this world less than perfect. But then your question makes sense only if the best possible worlds contain no sin or suffering. And is that true? Maybe the best worlds contain free creatures some of whom sometimes do what is wrong. Indeed, maybe the best worlds contain a scenario very like the Christian story.
Think about it: The first being of the universe, perfect in goodness, power and knowledge, creates free creatures. These free creatures turn their backs on him, rebel against him and get involved in sin and evil. Rather than treat them as some ancient potentate might — e.g., having them boiled in oil — God responds by sending his son into the world to suffer and die so that human beings might once more be in a right relationship to God. God himself undergoes the enormous suffering involved in seeing his son mocked, ridiculed, beaten and crucified. And all this for the sake of these sinful creatures.
I’d say a world in which this story is true would be a truly magnificent possible world. It would be so good that no world could be appreciably better. But then the best worlds contain sin and suffering.
- “Is Atheism Irrational?” Interview with Alvin Plantinga in The New York Times.
Here’s a lightly edited version of this past Sunday’s sermon at New Community Covenant Church.
As a church we say that, “We desire to listen and submit to the Scripture, God’s revealed Word for His beloved children.” There are at least two important assumptions within this statement. The first is that God reveals himself through the Bible. God, being God, is so different from us that anything we know about God must be revealed by God. And though we don’t believe God has showed us everything about himself, as Christians we believe he has revealed enough for us to know him and experience his love and salvation. He has done this most importantly through his son. John’s gospel records Jesus’ praying,
“Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.” [John 17:25-26]
Jesus, we believe, reveals God’s love and destroys every barrier to our knowing that love.
In addition to revealing himself through Jesus, Christians also believe that God is revealed through the Bible. Now, before describing what this means it’s important to note what this doesn’t mean. I said before that there are two assumptions within our statement about Scripture. These are not proofs. Attempting to objectively prove the Bible as God’s revelation can quickly devolve to a circular logic that may comfort the convinced but does little to convince the skeptical. History, archeology, and biblical studies can make the case the Bible should be taken seriously, but none of these can prove definitely that it is in fact God’s revelation. And for most of Christian history this hasn’t been a concern. It’s only in the more recent decades that Christians have felt the pressure to play on the field of enlightenment skepticism. In the past, and hopefully still, Christians were mostly concerned with living the sorts of surprising lives that made plausible the Bible’s claim of revelation. So again, as we consider the Bible as God’s revelation I’m not setting out to prove anything.
In 2 Peter 1:20-21 we read,
Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.
Christians use different words to talk about the dynamic Peter is describing, but the critical thing to see is the presence of the Holy Spirit. We simply cannot talk about the Bible without talking about the Holy Spirit. The authors of Scripture, says Peter, were carried along by the Spirit. The Spirit inspired their writings. And the same Spirit inspires our reading.
Yale professor of history Lamin Sanneh has pointed out that one of the unique attributes of the Christianity is how its holy scriptures are so frequently translated. Few of us are fluent in the Bible’s original languages, and that’s OK. Sanneh points out that Christian translation of the Bible into people’s indigenous language is what allows the Bible to speak particularly to that people. The Spirit translates the Bible – whether it’s into an entire language or into the context of our lives.
One of the many historical accuracies represented in 12 Years a Slave is how the slave masters (or the pastors on their payrolls) used the Bible to preach a message of submission by the slave to the master. Professor Brian K. Blount writes about this in Then the Whisper Put on Flesh.
“Their owners wanted them to perceive reality as they had constructed it; the slave lot in life was not only mandated by law, but was foreordained by God. God backed the bonds that held their lives in check. God made white folks free and gave them stewardship over any and every black person they could afford. In an attempt to draw God’s role as an accomplice even more sharply, slave owners and the theologians who supported them offered the Bible as the state’s primary piece of evidence for the secondary status of black Africans and, therefore, the divine prerogative of white Americans.”
We understand this abhorrent tactic. The ones with power manipulated a supposedly holy book for oppressive means. Yet, as Blount goes on to recount, something else happened. The message heard by the enslaved women and men was different than the one they heard preached.
“Jesus is an even closer companion to the slave believer because Jesus suffered as the slave suffers; Jesus can understand the pain, the tragedy, the hopelessness, the sorrow, and most important, the hope. Only one who has suffered as much can hope as steadfastly, and, if given the power that Jesus has been given, drive that hope toward a transformed – that is, liberated – reality. All of a sudden, Jesus’ monumental death on the cross and his resurrection from the grave, while continuing to signal human liberation from sin, take on the added significance of breaking the authority of the principalities and powers who preside over the institution of slavery.”
Despite the slave master’s best attempt to use the Bible to keep the slave in her place, history shows a different result: the slave encounters a liberating God who once led the Hebrew children from slavery in Egypt and who, through the power of his crucified and resurrected Son, would lead her from this new Egypt. Here we see Gods promise in Isaiah 55:11 come to miraculous fruition:” [M]y word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”
It is the Holy Spirit who inspired the biblical authors and the Spirit who makes possible our reading and understanding. Which brings us to the second assumption: The Bible is for our good. We can see this in Paul’s letter to the younger Timothy. ”All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” [2 Timothy 3:16-17]
To be clear, the Bible doesn’t always seem that is for our good. The Bible is God’s story; one that has many twists and turns, one that we won’t always understand. It is a collection of books of ancient history, epic poetry, and narrative set within contexts that could not be more different than Chicago in 2014. It is a book that contains multiple perspectives on the same events, perspectives on God that make us squirm, and literary genres that have little comparison in our day. Despite the attempts by some to make the Bible a handy collection of answers to hard questions or inspirational sayings to help get you through a hard day, the Bible is ultimately not about us; it is about God. It is his story and is as surprising, beautiful, complicated, frustrating, and convicting as any story about God must be.
Despite the discomfort, squirming, and confusing bits, the Bible is still for our good: teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training. And there is an end to this good. Paul writes that we are equipped for every good work. In other words, the only proper Bible study is one that leads to righteous action.
So what is our action – our response – to these two assumptions about the Bible? As a church we say that we desire to listen and submit to the Scripture. Here we find at least two right responses. First, we listen to God’s story together. Hear the language Paul uses in Colossians 3:16
“Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.”
There are many ways people respond to the Bible. Some attempt to master its content. Others pull it out during a spiritual emergency. Many of us simply feel guilty for not reading it enough, whatever enough might me. In contrast to these responses we use the word listen. After all, Paul’s language is relational: the word dwells among us; we respond to this word with words of our own: teaching, admonishing, and singing. Given our two assumptions, we expect God to speak through the Bible, so we listen. And we listen together.
Fifty years ago Rev. Martin Luther King wrote is now-famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail. He was responding to group of white clergymen who had publically questioned King’s tactics and – though they may not have realized it – his theology. In response to their criticism of his presence in Birmingham King wrote,
“But more basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.”
What if those white ministers had regularly sat around a table with their African American colleagues and simply listened to the Bible together. They never would have written that letter. Their understanding of what God was doing would have been very different. They would have realized that their singular translation of the Bible was missing some critical elements.
Baked into the a Christian understanding of God’s revelation through the Bible is the implication that we will always have a fuller understanding of God’s revelation when we hear others whose backgrounds differ from our own read and interpret the Bible.
But here’s the challenge: In America it has been assumed that the readings and interpretations of the majority culture – typically white, male, and middle class – is the normal way to read & interpret the Bible. This has many implications as we’ve seen already. One of those is that those of you who are not white, male, and middle class have been told that your reading of the Bible must conform to mine. That’s a lie! For our church to be fully whom God has called us, we need you to listen to the Bible from the particularities of your own story: our experience of gender; race; cultural foundations; the length of time you’ve been in this country. All of these matter and we need you to speak from these places. Lord knows we don’t need more white, male perspectives unless – like me – you are a white man. In which case – like me- you’d do well to listen well to your sisters and brothers who have experienced the world in very different ways.
Our second response to God’s revealed word in the Bible is that we submit. In 2 Peter 3:14-16 the church is told, in response to the Scripture, to “make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him.” Because this is God’s story we can expect to be challenged by it again and again. So Peter writes that we are to make every effort as we respond to the Scripture, despite the difficulties and challenges we encounter.
It’s one thing to acknowledge the Holy Spirit’s role in the Bible’s writing and even our understanding. But when it comes to applying – to submitting – we act as though this is up to us, on our shoulders. But it’s not and this is why even a hard word – submit – a word few of us like, is a good word. For it is God who gives us the wisdom, strength, and stamina to live new and better lives in response to the Bible.
The Bible is for our good, so we can trust that our submission to it leads to healing, joy, and abundant life. Submission to the Bible by those women & men of African descent did not mean submission to the slave master’s twisted theology. Submission to the Holy Spirit-fired scriptures meant dignity; it meant resistance; it meant subversive songs; it meant escape; it even meant revolt.
The call to submit our stories to God’s story should not overwhelm us. After all, the same Spirit who inspired the writing of the Bible and our reading of the Bible is the Spirit who inspires our action, our response, and our submission.
Where is God’s Word calling you to submit to God’s Story?
I’ve seen very few new movies this year but I suspect that even if I’d seen a bunch more I’d still think 12 Years A Slave was the year’s best. Here’s a short reflection provoked by the film that I wrote last week for our church newsletter.
“Daddy, are we getting close?” I won’t even try to guess how many times Eliot asked me some version of that question during our nine hour drive to (and from) Tennessee for Thanksgiving. Waiting is hard for active little boys.
Of course, much waiting is far harder – more painful – than a long card ride to visit people who love you. On Monday I was finally able to see 12 Years A Slave. Of the film’s many powerful themes I was especially struck by the pervasiveness of waiting, of enslaved and oppressed people who had little recourse but to wait. Their waiting was overseen by lying preachers, paternalistic plantation owners, and sadistic overseers. But more than the unimaginable waiting, what overwhelmed me was the presence of hope among many of the enslaved women and men. Despite the attempts by those who claimed ownership over their bodies to dehumanize them, these individuals anticipated an end to their suffering, to their waiting. A shared cup of water, a song sung in the field, a letter written in secret all pointed to an end beyond the waiting. In so many different ways they bore witness that the insufferable waiting would not have the last word, that their lives could never be defined or reduced by the so-called master.
Thanks be to God that we are not forced to wait in similar ways. The longings and anticipations most of us know are so far removed from those portrayed in 12 Years A Slave we could almost overlook the places of waiting in our own lives. That would be a mistake. Waiting is a trait of our cracked humanity within an unjust word. To ignore our longings for restoration, completion, and fulfillment would be to miss something essential about our lives… and our futures.
The Advent season is the reminder that we wait. The world portrayed in 12 Years A Slave may have changed, but suffering and injustices are as pervasive in our world now as they were then. On Christmas we celebrate the Messiah’s coming; during Advent we remember that we await His return. We remember that we live in the gap between how things are and how they will be one day. We remember that we are a waiting people and that our waiting has an end, that a day will come when waiting no longer has a place in our lives. Until that day, let us live as hopeful people whose lives – even during the waiting – are claimed and defined only by the God who who patiently waits for us.
My friend Stephen Woodworth has written tenderly about a subject too easily avoided. Subject isn’t quite right; suicide is an experience, a moment, a tragedy, an ending and beginnings. Last week I heard that a former coworker had taken her life. It’s a confounding event that most of us have brushed up against and Stephen has written personally and insightfully about it.
At the close of last week I dressed early in the morning in order to attend the funeral of a friend who took his own life. The event causes me to come to the keyboard confused this week, feeling as if I have been turned inside out, my soul and my body somehow switching places. I dare not say I am feeling “sad” or “depressed” or even “melancholy” for that matter. Suicide has a way of giving a truer value to those words much in the same way Westerners are apprehensive to call themselves persecuted after hearing about the martyrs. I will, however, admit that I do feel quite vulnerable and fragile, like a sailor who has emerged from his cabin after a storm to find that the mast has been ripped from the deck. Disoriented. Not because I don’t know the right answers, but simply because I know that now is not the time for them to be given.Stephen Hightower was a pastor, a husband, a friend and a fellow brother in the faith that we both share. And despite the fact that the news of his suicide was given to me a week ago, the words still seem to hang in the air like a thick fog that has no intention of lifting.I have been confronted with suicide before. I have even written about it previously through this blog. I studied it during my years in seminary, read books and articles dedicated to it throughout my time as a pastor and I have counseled numerous people who had either attempted it in the past, or would attempt it in the future. Academically, I can interact with it. Theologically, I can wrestle with it. Emotionally, suicide leaves me feeling stripped and crushed, the weight of its darkness almost too much to bear.
Last week brought disheartening news from white-evangelical-church-world. A well-publicized men’s conference was reported to have used both women and gay people as punchlines to jokes told from the stage. And, in An Open Letter from the Asian American Community to the Evangelical Church, a group of influential Asian American Christians pointed out a bunch of instances of racial stereotyping by different evangelical conferences, publishing houses, and pastors. For those paying attention – and/or on the receiving end of these offensive and marginalizing stereotypes – it seems impossible that these things keep happening. How is it that many Christian leaders of the evangelical-ish variety are continuing with language, images, and assumptions that are so unloving? It’s crazy, right?
Well, yes, except that I get it. The white men who lead these conferences, publishing houses, and – yes – churches are steeped in privilege. This is the sort of privilege that comes when ones (my) race, gender, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status place a man at the top of the heap. And for these men (me) it’s almost impossible to imagine what it feels like to have something fundamental about yourself reduced to a punchline. Of course it is theoretically possible to stereotype white men, but there is no real sting in such stereotypes because the power differential remains unchanged. This is why a white man’s claim of being a victim of racism (or that mythical thing, reverse racism) rings hollow. Perhaps he has been prejudiced against, but racism requires that added element of power, something he still retains more of within our society.
Deeply ingrained, subconscious privilege makes it really hard to imagine what it’s like for something elemental about yourself to be co-opted and reduced for someone else’s purposes. I get it. So, from one white man to other white men here’s some unsolicited advice. Don’t do it. Don’t use someone’s race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender to serve your purposes, whether that’s getting laughs or selling a book. Just don’t. Here’s the thing: If your message is good enough (and if you’re a Christian leader than your message damn well better be more than good enough) than there is absolutely no reason to resort to stereotypes or marginalizing tropes. When you resort to these things you not only appear prejudiced and tone deaf, it also seems like you don’t trust the quality of your own message, as if it has to be propped up on someone’s disenfranchized back.
Another thing. We white men will say and do stupid things. We are, in so many ways, products of our privilege and despite our best intentions we will harm others with our words and assumptions. Time spent submitted to diverse community holds a lot of promise for our own spiritual formation, but we will still mess up. The point can never be for us (or, for that matter, any Christian) to always get it right. Impossible! The point is, however, to be quick to repent and ask for forgiveness when we do get it wrong. When we do hurt those we mean to love. And if the Gospel of Jesus is true for us, than we can really repent and really ask for forgiveness. None of this non-apology if-I-offended-anyone baloney. No, Christians are meant to be an always repenting and always forgiving people so we need not be devastated or evasive when confronted with our sin.
One last thing for my white, male comrades. It won’t be long before we see another well-known leader or pastor goof up in this area. It’s absolutely going to happen. When it does, if at all possible, we need to speak up. We’ve got to call this stuff out even while acknowledging our own blind spots. We can tell our diverse Christian family that we’re not OK with stereotypes and sanitized prejudices. We can contact the offending party and, gently but directly, point out the damage that has been done. And we can do all we can to make robust reconciliation an ever-increasing reality.