Archive for July, 2007

Velvet Elvis pgs. 61-66, “Real Real Real”

July 24, 2007

I agree with the overall goal of Bell here.  We need to read the Bible contextually.  The practice of citing verses out of context and trying to tie them together in a way that was never intended and isn’t true to the larger truths of the Bible is just dangerous.  As he notes earlier, the Bible can indeed be made to sound as though it advocates just about any course of action.  However this is not the case, and this is what Bell wants to get at.

However in the pursuit of this goal, I get a bit uncomfortable.  Because at times, Bell makes the Bible sound too much like just another book.  A book written by lots of people, but written by people all the same.  And this is true at one level.  However Christianity (and Judaism before it) holds that these books are also inspired by God.  So it becomes more than just people writing.  It becomes God working through people to ensure that certain things get noted, written down, passed on.

I have no doubt that the writers of each particular book had no idea how their writings would be sustained over time.  I have no doubt that few of them had much idea the greater import of their words.  But we can’t simply treat these words like we do other books.  They aren’t subject to *all* of the same limitations and critical approaches.  Yes, that’s a stance of faith.  But it’s one we have to either take or reject.  Either this book is different from every other book ever written or ever to be written, or it’s not. 

So yes, context is important.  Yes, Christians should be taught and encouraged to be more knowledgable about the contextual issues of the Bible.  Yes, it enriches the reading so much more.  But context is not everything.  It’s part of the mix.  It’s part of a mix where we don’t know the ratios, we just know a few of the ingredients.  But to ignore the Holy Spirit – who doesn’t play by our rules of literary criticism – is a dangerous move.  I don’t believe Bell intends to make that move here, but in his eagerness to

Velvet Elvis pgs. 58-61, “Alive Today”

July 24, 2007


Agreed and right on and well said and good job and all of that. 

With one caveat.

The Bible isn’t simply true because it makes sense to our experience.  Of course, this is a huge validation for the truths the Bible contains. If they conflicted with how we experience the world, we’d be much harder pressed to identify with them, obviously.  If someone tells us the world is one way, when it clearly seems to be something very different, it would be hard to come to terms with that.  But in the Bible, we see experiences that mirror our own, as Bell points out. 

However, it *does* matter that what is said in the Bible did actually happen.  It’s not just allegory or metaphor or pleasant wishes or happy thoughts or nightmares or whatever subjective term you might prefer.  The stories ring true, but they are valuable because they *are* true.  They are eye-witness accounts to the workings of God in time and space and human history.  They are snapshots in words of various people and how they have experienced the truth of the reality of God.  We ground our experiences of God in their experiences.  We validate their experiences, but they also validate ours. 

If somebody just made up the story of some other aspect of human experience and history – let’s say the biography of George Washington – how would that affect us?  Of course, there might still be object lessons we could draw from the stories – to be brave, courageous, to stand up for what is right, whatever.  However, these concepts are grounded in the real example of a real person in time and space.  The reality of Geogre Washington is what gives credence to the object lessons – if he experienced/did it, so might/can we.  If George Washington hadn’t existed, the moral lessons would lose some credibility.  The value of Aesop’s Fables is only in the moral lesson, since the fables aren’t real.  Therefore, the truth of the moral lessons are only and totally validated by whether or not our personal experiences agree with them. 

George Washington existed and we’re relatively certain that what is recorded about him is true to a certain extent.  Therefore, even if I have never felt the compulsion to be brave or resolute or inspiring or heroic or anything, my experiences are mitigated by his.  Because he *was* brave or resolute or inspiring or heroic, I can’t simply deny these things exist because I haven’t experienced them.  I have to conform my understanding of reality in such a way as to take into account these things because of Washington’s reported experience/demonstration of them. 

So while we do validate the Bible through our own experience, that is not the only direction things work.  We must allow the Bible to validate our experience as well, to shape our perception of ourselves and the world and God.  The only way to avoid this is to write off the Bible as pleasant or unpleasant stories.  Nice ideas, good moral lessons, but not actual records of actual people, places, and time. 

So Bell is right – the Bible rings true with us because of what we experience.  But the Bible is not made true or untrue by what we experience.  It works the other way around – the Bible is the one forming us, teaching us, helping us to interpret what is happening in our lives and the world around us.  Kudos to Bell for pointing this out…

Velvet Elvis pgs. 50-58, “Our Turn”

July 17, 2007

Another great section.  I also have been fascinated with the first Church Council described in Acts.  And I agree, their humility was a fantastic model that we all too often don’t follow.

Bell’s point about interpretations and baggage is crucial.  Congregations nearly come to blows at times because they can’t see that this is what is happening in their midst – devoted Christians getting together but coming to different understandings of what Scripture is saying on a particular topic or issue.  The importance of Scripture as mediated in community is essential.  Our concept of ‘personal faith’ is really a dangerous one on a variety of levels.  We need the input of others, the validation, the edification, the correction that can only be had by submitting our ideas and interpretations to the community for feedback.

Of course, there is no guarantee that any sort of concensus or agreement will be reached.  Otherwise, we’d have just one Church still

Velvet Elvis pgs. 47-50, “Rabbis”

July 17, 2007

This is a great section with a good historical approach to some interesting images that are painted in the Gospels.  Very helpful for understanding Jesus in his context, and how his hearers would have interpreted his words. 

Sand Dollars

July 17, 2007

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For the record, sand dollars are just the coolest thing.

As a lad visiting my grandparents in Carlsbad, I thought these were just magical.  I always hoped to find an intact one on our visits to the beach.  But apparently the public beaches in the area were not ideal for finding intact shells.  Or they were picked over too well. 

Today however, I found *two* intact sand dollars.  Unfortunately, after returning home, I think one of them actually had its inhabitant still inside it when I found it.  Having consulted Wikipedia, apparently whatever was inside was already long dead by the time I found it, but certainly still stinks.  

I can’t imagine how something like this could just naturally, spontaneously evolve.  I mean, look how intricate it is, and look how beautiful it is in death.  Just phenomenal.  What a creative God we have! 

Velvet Elvis pgs. 41-45 “It’s Difficult”

July 17, 2007

Yes, it is difficult.

Someone could devote their entire life to the Bible and understanding and applying it and living it and still not have it all together, still not have all the answers.  I tend to believe that God did that on purpose.  Yes, we have to interpret the Bible, and that requires a lot of work and a lot of effort and a lot of failures.

Interpretation has been going on for a long time now.  Sometimes the interpretations are better than others.  The Crusades were a form of interpretation.  We can say that they were off-base, but we also have to admit that at a certain level, key people really thought that this was God’s will.  I imagine that someday someone will find our attempts at interpretation to be just as faulty – probably just as dangerous in some respects.  I tend to view prosperity theology as infinitely more dangerous than the Crusades, for example.

We also need to make some distinctions in what Bell is saying here as well.  What the book of Joshua describes sounds a lot like what we know and have seen and heard of as *ethnic cleansing*.  However, we have to accept that if God orders something to be done, then it can’t be wrong, no matter how awful it may look and sound to us.  God’s purpose was not ethnic cleansing, but the subjugation of a rather ill-defined geographical area.  We have to maintain a distinction between our sinful actions of hatred and murder, and God’s directives for God’s purposes – no matter how similar the two may appear to us.

We also need to draw distinctions between things that we have decided are proper or right, and what may or may not be actually proper and right.  Yes, the Bible was used to defend slavery.  Popular opinion holds slavery to be an inherently evil and bad thing.  I would personally argue that there are people today who are ‘free’ but infinitely worse off and more deeply enslaved than some actual ‘slaves’ in the past.  Slavery is an economic system of sorts.  We can decide that it is an unjust and evil one.  But that’s based primarily on the abuses and exploitations that tend to accompany it.  Theoretically though, slavery could be done properly, I suppose, without abuses and exploitation.  The Bible does not advocate a particular economic system over another.  I believe that in God’s eyes, a slave-based system where people are treated properly and fairly is far superior to a free-market system where people are exploited and taken-advantage. 

Otherwise, Bell makes some very valid points in this introductory section.  I like it.

Velvet Elvis pgs. 35-36, “Joy”

July 16, 2007

A short, beautiful section.  Our joy and God’s joy are intended to be one in the same.  That’s a concept we seem to have all but given up on.  In our insistence that we know best, that we deserve whatever it is we think will make us happy, in our determination to remain rulers of our relativistic universes, we insist that what we decide will make us happy must be what will make God happy. 

And this is true, if what we choose to make ourselves happy with is in line with our design according to God.  God doesn’t contradict himself.  Ever.  So if God says, ‘sex outside of marriage is not a good thing’, then we can be guaranteed that just because we happen to enjoy sex a lot as a single person, it isn’t going to ultimately lead us to happiness.  If God says ‘don’t steal’, then we can bet that cheating on our taxes, or shoplifting, or racking up massive credit card debt and then trying to claim bankruptcy really isn’t going to make us happy.

That’s the crucial issue here.  Our joy is God’s joy.  But we only find joy through following the guidelines that God has provided for us.  Regardless of how ‘unjoyful’ they may appear at first glance.  Most people just assume that they could never be happy living by God’s rules.  The sad thing is, most people won’t ever be happy unless they do.

California Dreamin’

July 11, 2007

Well, I got California plates today.  I can’t express adequately enough how happy I am to get rid of the Missouri plates.  It’s an interesting symbolic act, shedding one role, one time, one place, one identity, and stepping into another.  And yet, the car spans both.  We never fully leave behind a previous chapter, but we’re free to begin writing on a new page with a new chapter heading whenever we have enough ink in our pen.

Or something like that. 

Tomorrow I have Verizon FiOS installed in the house, and I’ll be reconnected to the world again.  At least, I will be as soon as I can get my laptop serviced.  Technology is *such* the mixed blessing.

Velvet Elvis – pgs.28-35 – “Questions”

July 3, 2007

This is a really good section   He’s dead on about the necessity of questions, and the dangers of not having any.  Jesus praises child-like faith in Matthew 18, and if you’ve spent any time around children, you know they ask a lot of questions.  They’re inquisitive. 

At the top of page 32, I disagree that we can’t – in a limited way – put God into words.  After all, God has allowed himself to be put into words – not completely and totally, but to a certain extent.  He’s revealed himself to us in actions as well as language.  He’s dialogued with us, both directly as the Bible attests to in countless stories, as well as more indirectly, to those of us reading it now.  So attempting to say *something* about God is not inherently evil or wrong.  We just need to be aware of the limitations of our words and ultimately of our ability to conceive of the infinite.

He wraps up this section on pages 34-35 by railing against intellectualized Christianity that never touches our hearts or our lives.  I can’t agree more.  It’s why I’ve named my site ‘living apologetics’ – how we actually apply our faith in the real world when things get rough is our only effective witness to anyone else.

But it’s also important to remember that while jumping is all that is necessary to begin with, this is not where we are expected to stay.  The New Testament talks often and vigorously about the need to mature in our faith.  This means both in our understanding, as well as in our committment to applying this understanding to what we do every day.  To what we watch on TV.  To the types of music we listen to.  To the styles of clothing we choose to wear.  To how we treat our spouse, or children, or roommates.  Everything. 

By all means, begin jumping.  You won’t ever have all the answers, and that’s not necessary.  But once you’ve started jumping, you’re going to begin learning more about the springs.  Why they’re there.  What their limitations are.  How far they can be stretched.  Because others do want to know.  Because there are plenty of people out there selling rides on knock-off trampolines that will cause serious harm and injury once you start to trust in the flimsy springs. 

Velvet Elvis – pgs. 26-28 – “Bricks”

July 3, 2007

I actually had entered this three days ago, but MySpace lost it when I attempted to post it, and I was so frustrated that I couldn’t bear to do it over again.  I think I’ve recovered.  Mostly.

I find this section to be a fundamental aspect of Bell’s theology.  That’s both a positive and a negative thing.  The analogy of the springs works well, but it has limitations, and this is where I think Bell begins to exceed some of those limitations.  Not because he necessarily intends to, but because, in the interest of keeping the conversation fairly accessible, he chooses not to go into a lot of the finer points of distinction that are necessary when you pursue this analogy any further than he does here. 

First off.  There’s the issue of Scriptural integrity and authority.  If you don’t like the issue of six 24-hour days for creation, the question I want to ask is ‘why’?  Is it because that doesn’t jive well with the common (current) scientific methodology that indicates the earth *must* be millions of years old?  Is it because we don’t believe that God could do it all in six days?  Is it just a little too specific?  Would we prefer it to be vaguer and less defined, so that we don’t have to struggle with it?  Questions are always great – Christianity is a faith that welcomes exploration and questions.  However, as interesting as the questions themselves may be, what is of real value is what motivates the questions.  That’s the rabbit hole that I always want to jump down first.

Because if you don’t believe that God could create the universe in six 24-hour days, then you have put limitations on a God.  A God that the Judeo-Christian religious traditions hold to be all-powerful.  So you have to decide *why* you don’t think he could do it.  Or perhaps it’s because science has worked so diligently to insist that the *theory* of evolution is actually, in fact, The Truth, and our limited understandings of atomic structures and how they might be used for dating purposes are in fact adequate enough to trust.  That’s fine.  Considering how strongly this set of beliefs is being pushed, it’s not surprising that the reader may be uncomfortable with anything that contests them.  But we need to be honest about what our reservations are with the whole Genesis account of creation.

If you know what your hang-up is, then you’ll need to be aware that the hang-up will probably show up elsewhere in the Biblical narrative, when things start to get a little less than rational, or beyond our scientific ability to recreate, prove, or defend.  And if you want to toss out one portion of the Bible because you don’t like it, then what else are you going to throw out?  Christianity holds that the Scriptures have been given by God, and therefore work together.  Throwing out one piece weakens all of it.  The same doubts that disassemble one story or chapter or book will eventually want to disassemble all of it. 

Yes, humans want to think in terms of bricks.  We don’t like ambiguity.  We don’t like the tension of thinking we know something but not being able to prove it.  We’re wired to want to know the answers to things.  That’s why the trampoline analogy is great when applied to those who are new to the faith, but ultimately difficult to maintain for very long.  Pretty soon, people want to start nailing down some specifics.  Pretty soon, people want bricks.

That’s not inherently sinful or evil or wrong, but it does pose problems in that the Bible seems to give us a lot more springs than it does bricks.  God doesn’t seem too concerned about ensuring that we have all the answers to all our questions inside the covers of the Bible.  As creatures, we’re never going to have all the answers regarding the mind of the Creator.  But that doesn’t mean we don’t try.

His example of the virgin birth is an interesting one.  It posits that science could one day disprove the veracity of a Biblical assertion about something that happened.  In which case, we’d be taking science’s word over God’s.  Problematic from a faith perspective, but not an ucommon dilemma, either. 

He throws out some interesting linguistic herrings to chase after.  Suddenly, the problem of a virgin giving birth when we *all* know that’s not possible is made easier to deal with by changing the definitions of ‘virgin’.  It’s true, most words have more than one meaning, or different shades of meaning that range from subtle distinctions to bizarre opposites.  Greek and Hebrew are no different in this respect.  The problem I have with what Bell does is two-fold. 

Firstly, and most importantly, he isn’t allowing Scripture to guide which definition he might choose to use.  Secondly, he’s tossing out land-mines that he claims he doesn’t really believe himself.  Playing devil’s advocate is always dangerous, and almost always benefits the devil more than anyone else.  Don’t build an argument for something you don’t believe in.

But most importantly, he’s ignoring Scripture as a source of guidance about what the definitions should be.  What are we to make of Matthew’s distinction of not listing Joseph as the father of Jesus, but rather as the husband of Mary, the mother of Jesus (Matthew 1:16)?  What are we to make of Matthew’s explicit explanation that Mary and Joseph had *not* been united sexually yet (Matthew 1:18)?  What of Matthew’s description of Joseph in 1:19 as a ‘righteous man’.  Would you describe as righteous a man who disgraces his betrothed and then seeks to ditch her – however discretely he hoped to go about it?  What about Matthew’s reiteration in 1:25 that Joseph had no union with Mary until after Jesus was born?  What about Mary’s response to the angel Gabriel in Luke 1:24?  “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”  Mary clearly seems to understand the cause and effect nature of sex and pregnancy.  She clearly seems to be asserting that she hasn’t had sex , and therefore can’t be pregnant.  Do we just ignore Gabriel’s explanation in 1:25?

When  we have questions or doubts about one aspect or section of Scripture, when we suspect that we may have a spring instead of a brick, we need to search Scripture for clarification.  Just because a virgin birth is not unique to Christianity does not make it any less true.  The problem is not with the spring or brick, but with our desire to examine one spring or brick in isolation from all the others.

The unfortunate state of affairs is that there are a lot of people who interpret the Bible differently from one another.  So as long as there are people professing that the Bible is true, there will be people arguing and fighting over what that Truth is, or how it plays out in our lives today.  Shifting to a different analogy doesn’t eliminate this.  Yes, faith is an experiential thing, a relationship thing, not a head-game.  But we also want to have as good an understanding as possible about who we profess to be in relationship with, and what sort of experiences are legitimate and what sorts may be erroneous.  Sooner or later, we grow tired of springs and start reaching for bricks.

We need to remember that the springs analogy is good, because what we are called to in faith is not a matter of intellectual assent or understanding, but rather a relationship.  And like any relationship, we can never fully understand the other person.  But we can learn things about them based on what they tell us, and how they act towards us.  To ignore what they say or what they do is not really to be in relationship.  It ends up with us creating what we would like for them to say and do, while ignoring what they really are saying or doing.  Our relationship is not with that person, but with our conceptualizations of that person.

God, just like a spouse or a friend, can be known somewhat, based on what he has told us about himself, and what he has done.  That’s the purpose of Scripture, to provide us with that kind of material.    And at some point, I’m going to have to tell someone why I think they might be wrong in their understanding of God, if it clearly conflicts with what God has told us about himself or demonstrated about himself through his actions.  This can be done while still jumping – I don’t need to push that other person off of the trampoline.  But it is inevitable at some point that differences of opinion about the strength of any given spring, or the proper number of springs, will be a source of contention – both between well-meaning believers as well as trouble-making miscreants.  There are both in the Church, you know.

Jesus does invite everyone to jump, and we need to remember this.  We need to remember that this is what we are called to do – to tell people about our experience of jumping and invite them to join us.  We’re not to cudgel people about the head when they start jumping out of synch with us.  But we are going to want to help people learn when they might be jumping on fragile springs, or not enough springs.