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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.

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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.

sdc11359I’m trying to decide what to do for the thesis I have to write for my honours in theology. I would love anyone’s comments on what they think would be worth reading and writing (mostly reading). I have three basic ideas:

1) “Personal Worship on a Collective Scale – the dangerous teaching of religious lies in popular worship writing today”

The basic idea is that modern worship is written from the personal experience of faith of the worship leader. It is then arranged so that it can be sung by a variety of believers from many cultures and in many different stages of their personal walk in knowing Christ. This is not a good situation for two reasons:

(1) It is not in agreement with our heritage (where the vast majority of songs used in worship were for the teaching of sound doctrine or focussed on scriptural truth about who God is).

(2) It promotes a religious approach to God because believers are essentially shamed into singing “promises” that are insincere and adopting the worship writer’s personal revelation of God as their own.

The thesis would explore these two ideas and conclude with possible suggestions for worship leaders and writers.

2) “The Scriptural and Historical Foundation for the Doctrine of the Separation of Church and State”

This thesis would explore the validity of this doctrine from a scriptural and historical perspective, and conclude with principles which should be taught to all believers to help them avoid the mistake (possibly??) of marrying religion (not faith) to politics.

3) “Are We Teaching Faith or Religion? – An Investigation into the Practice of Child-Discipleship”

This thesis would begin with an investigation into the differences between religion and faith (or Christendom and Christianity), establish principles to distinguish between practices which promote religiosity and those which promote discipleship to faith, and investigate one or two commonly used “manuals” or methods used in Sunday school classes, and “Christian” schools.

These ideas are now only beginning to form in my mind, and are really just expressions of my own personal questions with regards to what it means to follow Christ. I will probably move on after this short thesis to explore it in more detail for my masters thesis. I would love to hear what anybody thinks regarding these ideas, especially regarding how they might be refined to be more focussed and appropriate for research.

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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