Salvation? Yes, please….

So if you like some of the other stuff I’ve posted recently, you may love this. If some of that stuff makes you a little worried about me, well this may just push you over the edge. So consider yourself warned! As you can tell from my other posts, I’ve had the opportunity to converse about and work on some pretty cool stuff that’s really important to me lately. Some of this work has been happening with the folks in the house church that we’ve been connecting with recently. Some of it is stuff I’ve been wrestling with for a long time. Anyway, I had the opportunity to share my thoughts on salvation recently, and what follows is what I said:

You asked me about my thoughts on salvation, and as maybe you can imagine I’ve been wrestling with how to respond. I know you said you were just wondering for your own thoughts, but I’m honored that you would ask and wanted to give you the best "answer" that I can.


I’m tempted to simply say, " I’m for it," but I know I should flesh that out a bit.


Actually "fleshing it out" might be a good direction to go in, because that’s really what it’s all about, right: God-in-the-flesh in the person of Jesus? My trouble with responding to your question has to do with the other questions that are wrapped up in the question of salvation. To ask about salvation, as far as I’m concerned, is to ask some of the other "big" questions, like "What is the nature of the world as we find it? What is truth, and how are we to know it? What place does the Bible have in our knowing what is true and what isn’t? More importantly, in my view- what is the Bible for? What about creation? What is it for and what is humanity for? What about God and his nature? What about sin and ‘the fall’? What about human pain and suffering?" Maybe I could sum all those up by asking, "If we are to be saved, what are we being saved from?"


A lot of what some of us have been talking about lately has to do with postmodern philosophy and the role that it has to play in our understanding of much of the above. As I understand it, in a postmodern approach to things story-telling is vitally important; so I will use that approach in what I have to say below. I think that using stories to access some of these big ideas is very helpful, at least in my experience.


One of my mentors, Bart Campolo, used to talk about having a relationship with Jesus. He would say that he’s not as interested in how you came to have a relationship with Jesus, whenever that was, as he is in why you still have one. Why do you stick with Jesus? Why are you still trying to follow him today? This has always been a powerful approach for me, and I think it has something to say regarding what we’re talking about now.   I think Bart’s question speaks to our current discussion because, like I said above, I really have to keep coming back to Jesus to get at any of the issues above. As I mentioned several weeks ago on a Tuesday, Jesus is my "hermeneutic" of the Bible. Jesus is the lens through which I read the Bible and interpret everything I find in it. I’ve been to seminary, ya know, and on the (much-hated, by me) liberal-conservative spectrum, the seminary I went to- Luther Seminary- I would say is probably just a little bit to the left of the midline (closer to liberal than conservative, but not too liberal- they’re Lutherans, after all. By the way, if you ever get a chance to listen to "A Prairie Home Companion" on NPR, I highly recommend it. Of course, I spent three years immersed in the world of Lutheranism, but I think Garrison Keillor is witty and hilarious, and much of what he says about Lutheranism and the Christian world in general is telling, and again, hilarious.) Anyway, I suspect my father and those who knew me from the Assemblies of God/Pentecostal upbringing of my youth might have been concerned about my choice to go to Luther. I also had a chance to go to Bethel Seminary (Baptist) but was advised, basically, that Luther would train me in

how to think about God rather than what to think about God; so I went for the former approach, obviously. So, as fate would have it, if those folks from my youth were concerned that my seminary training would cause me to question all of my assumptions about God, faith, the Bible, etc. and possibly lose my faith along the way- well, they were right! As one adult from my youth said during a heated debate with me about being open-minded (among other things, including Harry Potter), "Well, don’t be so ‘open-minded’ that everything falls out!" In any case, I did question many of my assumptions during seminary, though this is a process that started much sooner as you may remember from me telling my "story." Especially in the aftermath of my summer spent doing Kingdomworks in inner-city Philly in 1995, I really had to go back to the drawing board with God and ask, "Who are you and why should I want to follow you?" As I also often say, during that summer doing Kingdomworks I was able to "build a bridge between my own personal suffering (from my abusive upbringing) and the suffering that’s out there- in the world." This led to great empathy on my part for the "least of these" and a radical shift in my understanding of what Jesus’ ministry was/is about and how I am to respond to it. Of course, as I later discovered, my metaphorical bridge can be traveled in both directions: my encounter "in the world" with the suffering other can take me back to a sense of brokenness about my own suffering, sometimes in incapacitating fashion; so in this, as with everything else, I must trust and rely on Jesus.


So as I said, starting in 1995 and continuing through my seminary years and beyond, I really did question all of those ideas about God that I grew up with. As I sometimes say, even though I grew up largely in a mobile home in Texas (so my family wasn’t exactly well-off by American standards), I was shocked to learn that "God isn’t a white, anglo-saxon Protestant who votes Republican, lives in the suburbs, and shops at the mall." AND, echoing those fears about what my seminary experience might do to me, I did finally "lose my faith," in a manner of speaking. I found that everything I was experiencing and learning simply wouldn’t permit me to go on thinking of and relating to God and those around me as I always had. Something had to give. Something had to change, and so of course, I did (I changed).


Speaking of some of those assumptions that were challenged, notable in my mind is the lecture in my Pentateuch class that began with my professor asking, "So….the story of Jonah- is it a story of a whale, or a whale of a story?" We then began to do what, in postmodern terms, would be some basic deconstruction of the Biblical text. We looked at some of the "problematic" passages in the Bible that under the lens of modern science (no pun intended) appear to be just flat-out wrong- factually incorrect. If you’re really, really, really interested, I could dig out my notes and give some examples, if you’d like. Beyond that, there are cases like the story of Jonah that involve miracles or appear to be fantastic which also have been challenged under the rigors of the scientific method. As we went through all this, I learned a lot of interesting stuff, like the fact that historically the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture (which is not explicitly stated anywhere in the Bible itself) arose apparently in response to the Roman Catholic doctrine of the infallibility of the Pope. It looks a lot like a knee-jerk, juvenile response, with Catholics saying "We have an infallible authority for our faith!" and Protestants sticking their tongue out and saying, "Oh yeah, well we do too!" Naturally, it’s a bit more complex than this, of course, as prior to the Reformation(s) the institutional church held all the power in a largely illiterate society. The folks couldn’t read and, to make matters worse, mass was conducted in a language that many of the people couldn’t understand; so the only thing they had to go on was what the priests told them, naturally leading to much abuse, of which the sale of indulgences may be only the most notable example. So one of the cries of the Reformation(s) was "ad fontes" ("back to the sources"). That’s why one of the most revolutionary things Luther did was, at great personal risk, translate the Bible into German. The people wanted to know what Scripture said for themselves. Hence this is also a part of the primacy of Scripture for Protestants, quite understandably, of course. However, as is often the case, in reacting to the neglect (suppression even) of Scripture for the masses up to that point, the pendulum swung to a place of what I like to call "bibliolatry"- making an idol out of Scripture and treating it as so important that it becomes an end in itself rather than a means (one of a number of) to the end of right relationship with God, one another, and the world. So the question that grew to be of central importance to me in terms of the Bible is simply "what is the Bible

for?" In other words, it’s not a science textbook and is not meant to answer the questions posed by modern science, and while it is "inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, (and) for training in righteousness," I would argue that it is not primarily a "rule book," etc. I have come to believe that the Bible functions primarily as a story (the "greatest one ever told," though in a world of competing meta-narratives, this bears further elaboration in another long-winded diatribe, if you want such elaboration from me).


Looking at it through the lens of Jesus, I would say that the Bible is the story of God’s wooing of humanity throughout history. Everything before the Incarnation points to Jesus, and everything after the Incarnation can only be understood in light of it, as "Jesus is the ‘yes’ to all God’s promises." A last note about Scripture- part of my journey has involved becoming aware of the Modern bent to our notions of understanding what is true and what is not, etc., which includes having a good sense of how stories work and what their function is too. Does a story have to be factually verifiable in order to be true? In the Modern view, yes. Did the ancient Hebrews think this way? Not necessarily, and truly, do we even always think this way? Pick a compelling movie you’ve seen or book you’ve read, for example.
One of my favorites is High Fidelity. In the movie version of the story, the main character wrestles with his relationship with the primary love interest in his life and his dating history, finally coming to the conclusion that he’s not so interested in the illusion of love anymore and would rather have the real thing. He’s learned that dynamic, interesting, attractive women will come into his life over and over again and as infatuation develops with these women all those euphoric feelings of excitement will come too, leading to an uninformed belief that they can do no wrong and life with them is imagined to be ideal, but that’s the illusion- it never works out that way over the long term. Once you have your first fight and see them with all their faults after the "honeymoon phase" is over, only then do you have the opportunity to really love them, and that is a choice that must be made day after day. Of course, I’m reading into (interpreting) the movie a bit, but is that lesson any less valuable because John Cusack is only portraying that person in a movie? I would argue, No! Biblical lessons are no different, and in all of this I’ve said nothing about the variety of types of literature contained in the Bible, the fact that all reading of the Bible involves interpretation because language is symbolic, etc. In short, it’s complex stuff, and all of this is why I don’t believe Jesus because of what the Bible "says" about him. I value what the Bible says because I first believe Jesus, the living God with whom I have a relationship. "On Christ the solid rock I stand." Jesus is the firm foundation of my faith- nothing more, nothing less. Does this make my faith somehow subjective, relative to my experience of my relationship with God, etc.? By all means, yes! It’s not "safe" at all to attempt to follow Jesus in this way. I have to actually try to keep up with him, to listen to him as best I can, to be loved by him and love him in return, and such a life is full of ambiguity and doubt, to be sure ("Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief!").

 But I believe, as another of my mentors likes to say, that "doubt is not the enemy of faith, but its partner." Or, as my favorite writer, Frederick Buechner says:


" Humanly speaking, in fact, who can say for sure about anything? And yet there are some things I would be willing maybe even to bet my life on. That life is grace, for instance- the givenness of it, the fathomless of it, the endless possibilities of its becoming transparent to something extraordinary beyond itself…That if we really had our eyes open, we would see that all moments are key moments. That he does not love remains in death. That Jesus is the Word made flesh who dwells among us, full of grace and truth. On good days I might add a few more to the list. On bad days it’s possible there might be a few less. Beyond that, all I can do with real assurance is once more to echo my old teacher Paul Tillich to the effect that here and there even in our world, and now and then even in ourselves, we catch glimpses of a New Creation, which, fleeting as those glimpses are apt to be, give us hope both for this life and for whatever life may await us later on."


So following Jesus isn’t about lending intellectual assent to a series of (rational, scientific) propositions about God; nor can it be reduced to a checklist of do’s and don’ts (do read your Bible every day; don’t smoke, for example), all of which- I would argue- is really about taking the work out of one’s relationship with God. Such checklists allow one to hide from God and relate instead to "the rules" rather than to the living Christ. They become the arbiter of one’s faith (another "way to the Father") rather than Jesus. They also work nicely if you want to justify your standing with God over/against somebody else’s (all those nasty people who don’t "play by the same rules"). That’s why I say that "rules are for relationship." They’re a means to end of right relationship with God, one another, and the world- they are not an end in themselves (which is why the adulterer was far more important to Jesus than the rule that she must be stoned- and why Jesus takes so many of the "rules" in the Sermon on the Mount and turns them on their head, making them so absurdly impossible that they can’t be relied on anymore to bring one to God).


Well, I see I’ve digressed just a bit, and if nothing else, I hope you’ve learned not to ask such questions of me unless you want to risk getting such a (long-winded) answer, but I know not how to do any better! So what’s my take on salvation? Well, because I know Jesus and trust what Scripture says about him because it resonates with my experience of him, I know that he is the only way to the Father, and that’s enough for me. How does that work? Well, you tell me- how did it work for you? How did it work for the thief on the cross? How does it work for those well-intentioned followers of Tash (rather than Aslan, the Christ-figure) in C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle? In all of this I speak best only when I speak for myself, and the rest I must trust Jesus for, knowing that it is God’s will that "none should perish." What about the "mechanics of salvation," getting at some of those other questions noted above (What about sin and ‘the fall’? What about human pain and suffering? What are we being saved from?) Well, maybe I’ll save that for another long-winded email, or even better, we could talk about it over a meal….


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