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So I’m studying for yet another exam. Religion education.

One of my probable exam questions will be: “explain the hindu conception(s) of God”. The lecturers have been pretty clear about their liberal views, so I’m pretty certain about what they want. The broader and more inclusive the answer the better. My answer should be something like:

“Hindu conceptions of God are incredibly diverse and enigmatic. Elements of pantheism, panentheism, polytheism and monotheism are evident…”

This would be followed by long explanations which I wont bother you with, except to make some observations about the nature of ‘holy’ texts:

The Upanishads depict God in Pantheistic terms in a few places:
“Now if a man worships another deity, thinking that the deity is one and he another, he does not know.”

Panentheistic:
“He who is this (Brahman) in man and he who is that (Brahman) in the sun, both are one.”

Then, in the Bhagavad Gita, we have statements strangely similar to the sort of ‘jealous’ monotheistic God expressed in the Judeo-Christian traditions:
“Give up then thy earthly duties, surrender thyself to me only.”

Finally, especially in the rural areas of India, there are many hindu devotees who jealously worship only their own deity among all those they recognise in the hindu pantheon. Theological and apologetic approaches to explaining the relationship between the deities and Deity itself matter very little to them.

Now, all this is very interesting from an external reference point. I’m sure my lecturers will be very happy with the breadth of my conceptualization of hinduism… I’m not so sure that practicing hindus would be so enthusiastic.

Which brings me to my point:

If I asked a hindu student to have a quick, inclusive study of Christianity, using only the biblical text, what would they come up with to answer the question: “How do Christians understand God?”

The answer to this question might make proponents of evangelical conceptualizations of biblical sufficiency a little uncomfortable.

Here’s what I think: I love the bible. I believe that the bible is inspired by God… But I’m starting to doubt that the bible is sufficient to bring us to knowledge of the full story of God’s story. Christ is the one who reveals God to mankind. Only a personal disciple-relationship with Christ can bring us into a meaningful knowledge of God. He is God’s Word to humankind. The life, words, and continuing ministry of Christ is the foundation of the church. Not the Bible.

I like Moses.

Many Christians are not particularly interested in this great Patriarch (because, let’s face it, he’s just not our guy). We like to create a hard line in the sand between the law (and Moses) on the one side, and faith (and Jesus) on the other side. But I think that’s a bum rap. Moses displayed amazing faith. In fact, I think he displays exactly the kind of faith that teachers need. The kind of brave faith that inspires.

First there was the burning bush. Now, apart from the obvious possibility that everyone who heard the story recounted (including Moses himself) would very likely have assumed it was the result of mild sunstoke combined with the inhilation of too much ‘sheep gas’ (methane being known to do all sorts of terrible things to the brain as well as the atmosphere), a bush burning in the wilderness is hardly everyone’s image of Deity. I mean, if God had appeared in a burning pillar of fire (wait… didn’t that happen later?) or even a burning baobab, that might have been a little more convincing, but a burning bush is not so amazing is it? And yet, off goes Moses, back to the country he had fled from in terror years earlier… following a burning bush.

Then there was the burning mountain. It must have been quite incredible. Certainly impressive enough to scare the idolotry out of the Israelites (no wait…?!). The people were so terrified that they begged Moses to speak to God on their behalves. At this point I would have looked up at the pyrotechnic peak and replied: “…sod off!” But Moses, man of great faith that he was, terrified as he was, climbed the Mountain and met with God. Well… strictly speaking, he met with God’s back. Apparently God’s front is a bit deadly to the uninitiated, so God hid Moses in the cleft of a rock, covered the cleft with his Great Hand, and then passed by, removing the obstructing limb in time for Moses to glimpse him leaving. Having climbed the fiery mountain and survived the near death encounter with God’s back, I think it’s safe to say that if I was Moses, I would have more than enough stories to tell my grandchildren. But not Moses…

Because, then we have the burning heart. Amazingly, Moses not only doesn’t stop associating with Burning Manifestations, he actively seeks them out (or rather, he seeks Him out). The Glory of God comes to settle in the Israelite camp and Moses makes a habit of meeting with God (in the aptly named ‘Tent of Meeting’) for the rest of his life. He spends so much time in the presence of our fiery Diety that his face acquires a distinct glow, which Moses has to cover with a veil so as not to freak the rest of the camp out. Moses face is burning.

But what about the burning heart? Well, actually, that belonged to Joshua rather than Moses. You see, Joshua used to sit quietly in the corner whenever Moses and God had their smokey pow-wows. He never said anything. He never voiced an opinion. He just sat quietly. Burning in his heart to have what Moses had: a face to face friendship with God. And God saw Joshua sitting in the corner. He saw his burning heart. And that’s why God chose Joshua as Moses’ replacement when the Israelites entered the Promised Land. He saw what Moses’ faith had inspired in Joshua.

And that’s why I like Moses so much. He spent his whole life actively and publicly seeking after God, and in doing so, inspired Joshua to do the same. As a teacher I think we can learn a lot from Moses about faith and discipleship.

Years ago, a friend and I were discussing classic theology at the Tattered Cover in downtown Denver when I happened to mention that I really appreciate Yancy. He replied, “Oh, I don’t read any of the newer stuff – it’s all crap”. It is as easy now as it was then to dismiss this dismissal as irrational snobbery, but I have to admit that, deep down, I have a tendency to approach anything modern and popular with some weariness because there is always the risk that it is a product of something commercially tainted.

This is not entirely irrational either, since any amount of time spent perusing the best-seller lists of cd stores or bookshops with your brain fully functional will teach you that what’s great and what sells are seldom the same thing. On the subject of the insidious dangers of trusting commercial Christian products, check out this link – it’s worth the read! In terms of what we read and listen to, the Church’s devotional and/or theological diet often consists of a four-course meal at Burger King – more and more of the same thing, and not much of it any good for you.

And yet…

This knee-jerk reaction must be kept in check if we are not to miss some fantastic truth. Recently, the ‘Nooma’ teaching series from Rob Bell has been the victim of my own snobbery. A few days ago I found myself staring at the shiny CUM-books display shelf dedicated to the series, and arranged in eye-catching colour-coded rows, with a mixture of guilt and disgust. I felt guilty for judging the man. But I felt disgusted that theology could be packaged and displayed like sugary breakfast cereals. I abandoned the shelf before hypocritically succumbing to a disconcertingly glossy-looking book by Mr Bell and Mr Golden (great commercial names!), with the worryingly sexy title: “Jesus wants to save Christians – a manifesto for the Church in exile”. With an air of skepticism I settled down to begin working through the 200-odd pages yesterday morning. I finished it this morning.

It was absolutely brilliant.

Basically, it’s really accessible New Exodus Theology ala Tom Holland (to whom the authors give a shout-out in the introduction). It spells out the message of the Gospel more clearly than anything I have read in recent memory. So… let down your anti-commercial guard for a couple of hours and read this fantastic book if you get the chance.

There is a natural human drive to define things and describe everything in complete working systems. All systematic theologies are the result of this drive. We can’t help ourselves… we want things to make sense.

The way most of the Church reads scripture is a case-in-point. The traditional evangelical rendition of the doctrine of the inspiration has as its key convenient ‘truth’ the idea of innerancy. For example, consider this statement by J. Adams (War Psalms of the Prince of Peace 1991:2)

“Some people have found it so difficult to understand these prayers [the imprecatory (curse my enemy) Psalms] that they have concluded that these segments were mistakenly included in the Word of God. But our doctrine of inspiration must lead us to expand our knowledge of God and his ways as we seek solutions to these deep questions”.

He then goes on to do just that by insisting that the imprecations are actually the prayers of Christ against his enemies and the psalmists were speaking (albeit unwittingly) prophetically.

The author wishes us to adjust the natural reading of the imprecatory psalms to fit with his inerrant view of scripture… which he supposedly derives from scripture. Hmm…. ? You see the problem with this sort of circular reasoning, and I bet if we could question him face to face, Mr. Adams would have to admit that he sees it too. The fear of letting go of the convenience of inerrancy is, however, too much for most of us to bear. It provides eas(ier) answers to many contemporary doozies: homosexuality, war ethics, the death penalty, the nature of salvation, the purpose of the Church… nice, easy systematic answers.

But convenience and truth are not always the same thing.

God is not simple.
Life is not simple.
Why should the Bible be anything other than a mystery wrapped in a paradox and seasoned with contradictions and misrepresentations (for extra flavour)?

Allender and Longman (The Cry of the Soul 1994:32,34) provide a different solution to the problem of the imprecations:

“All dread is related to the question, ‘Is life predictable?’ All anger is related to the question, ‘Is life fair?’ Change the word ‘life’ to ‘God’, and the questions become personal. ‘Is God predictable?’ ‘Is God just?’ The psalmist’s jealousy surfaced in the horizontal context of human circumstances, but it was rooted in his underlying question, ‘Is God fair?’ The psalms help us understand that every emotion is a theological statement… [When we doubt] we shudder with dread that we will suffer terrible consequences for our inner rebellion. Precisely at this point, the psalms surprise us. They not only help us articulate and understand what we feel, but they dare us to struggle. Even more, they give us words to vocalize our desperate struggles with God”

You decide which approach is more honest about the human condition, more in keeping with what we know about the character of God as expressed in Christ, and more useful to the reader? Forget which makes for a neater system of interpretation.

Because the inconvenient truth is that perhaps it’s time for us to abandon the convenience of inerrant scripture.

The wonder of the blogosphere strike again! Like a massive electronic “staff suggestion box”, guaranteeing virtual anonymity and a rapt, impersonal audience just begging us to vent. It’s theraputic for the writer and helpful for exposing “the secret thoughts of men”. Consider this beauty of an Evangelical Creed by “w. dennis griffith” (check the udderblogger link):

“I believe in God who once was Almighty, but sovereignly chose not to be sovereign; and in Jesus, my personLordandSavior, Who loves me and has a wonderful plan for my life, Who came into my heart when I asked him to, and is now seated at the right ventricle of my belief in him, Who walks with me and talks with me along life’s narrow way, and tells me I am his own, Who shall come again with secrecy to rapture us outta’ here, Whose kingdom shall last exactly one thousand years; And in the Holy Ghost, who did some weird stuff at Pentecost, but doesn’t do much more anymore except speak to the hearts of individual believers.

And I believe in this local, independent, and powerless church, insofar as it is in line with my personal interpretation of the Bible and does stuff I like; in one Believer’s bpatism for the public proof of my decision for Christ; and in giving my personal testimony for soul winning.

And I look for the identity of the Antichrist, and know that the Last Days are upon us.

– Ay-men”

Obviously Mr. Griffith is not an evangelical [this hasty assumption was later proved incorrect – please see the comments section]. I am. Pity me… so misunderstood!

What does it mean to be an evangelical?

Wikipedia (“Evangelicalism”) points out that “While most conservative Evangelicals believe the label has broadened too much beyond its more limiting traditional distinctives, this trend is nonetheless strong enough to create significant ambiguity in the term.[4] As a result, the dichotomy between “evangelical” vs. “mainline” denominations is increasingly complex (particularly with such innovations as the “Emergent Church” movement).”

In response to the ambiguity and the unfortunate association with American Fundamentalism, many young evangelicals are becoming “Post-evangelical”. We are “Emerging” in our thousands, even before most of us know what “Emergent Church” even means. Is it right that we should surrender the “Evangelical” tag so passively to the fundamentalists? I’m not sure that I’m ready to surrender just yet.

Let’s get back to basics: what are the central elements that define evangelicalism?
According to the Institute for the Study of American Evanglicals, four specific hallmarks of evangelical religion are: 1: conversionism, the belief that lives need to be changed;
2: activism, the expression of the gospel in effort;
3: biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible; and
4: crucicentrism, a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.

What’s so bad about that?

The salvation experience, the great commission, the revelation of God in Jesus as recorded in scripture, and the Christ event as the defining moment of history. Yes… I can live with that.

So I’m happy to stay Evangelical for now. Perhaps we need to redefine ourselves. If you are an evangelical, please submit your own attempt at an Evangelical Creed. My own will follow shortly.

About Me

Ecstatically married to Leane. Studying Theology and Teaching. Working as a worship leader, teacher, coach, guitar teacher. Living in the Mighty City of Mkondo in the sunny province of Mpumalanga, in the blessed country of South Africa.

Favourite Thoughts – Outbox

Religion is to be defended - not by putting to death - but by dying. Not by cruelty, but by patient endurance. - Lactantius (c.304-313).
What is essential Christianity? From first to last it is scandal, the divine scandal. Every time someone risks scandal of high order there is joy in heaven. - Soren Keirkegaard.
Where there are two Christians, there are three opinions... [Actually a Jewish saying, but at least as true for Christians]

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