Tag Archives: the Bible

Is There Truly an “Original Design”?

Let me tell you a story that’s been passed down in the church of the West for centuries. If you’re at all familiar with Christian religion, it’s a familiar one. It goes like like this.

God made the heavens and earth and called it good. The crowning moment of creation on the last day, Day 6, was the creation of humanity, male and female. God looked at everything he made and said that it was (note the past tense “was”) very good. Everyone and everything lived happily, wholly, and in perfect harmony within the Garden. Everything was flawlessly perfect.

But then… [cue the da-da-dum music], Adam and Eve disobeyed God by eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, whereupon they unleashed the curse of sin, reducing all humanity and the rest of creation to a fallen, less-than-ideal state, separated from God, from one another, and from themselves. Sin corrupted everything from its original, idyllic condition.

Skip ahead to the New Testament. To fix the problem of sin, God had to send his Son Jesus Christ to die on the cross so sinful humanity could be redeemed from the curse of sin. All who believe in Jesus and repent will be restored to a heavenly Paradise upon their death or at the return of Christ, whichever comes first. In the meantime, we live as sinful, less than ideal beings in a cursed creation. But all that will go away one day when all of God’s saved people will be gathered with God in heaven. The End.

For many of us, this is the story of the Bible. It’s the traditional narrative construct that frames the whole biblical cannon into roughly five distinctive parts: creation, sin, fall, Christ, church.

Frameworks like these, often called narrative constructs, are necessary tools. They serve to hold together the massive amount of literature— story, poetry, worship psalms, books of wisdom, prophesy, and letters— that makes up the Bible. Without it, it’s hard to see how the whole thing hangs together.

However, every narrative construct is bound to have its flaws, and this one has some major ones, a few having proved to be downright deadly. Here are several of its more problematic flaws:

  • It assumes that God’s use of “good” to describe humanity and creation means “perfect”, as in fully whole, complete, flawless, sinless, and deathless. I would argue that this is a Platonic usage of the word “good”, implying perfectly ideal. But that is not the Hebrew understanding of goodness, which points more to something’s God-given, good purpose, value and blessedness.
  • It totally skips over the role and purpose of Israel, i.e. everything else in the Old Testament between Genesis 4 through Malachi. It’s simply not mentioned, back-burnered as non-essential to salvation history. This is very unbiblical, literally, since the authors of the New Testament continually pointed to the whole cannon of the Hebrew Bible, only occasionally quoting from Genesis 1-3. I would also argue that this elimination of Israel from the narrative construct is the product and one of the root causes of Christian antisemitism.
  • It reduces Jesus’ incarnation, death and resurrection to God’s Plan B. In the Plan B presumption, Adam and Eve screwed up. That doomed the rest of us to screwing up. So God resorted to sending Jesus to clean up our mess. However, Christ’s incarnation, death and resurrection is not a Plan B. From the very beginning, he is the epicenter of creation (John 1:1-4; Colossians 1:16-17), the one who brings unity to it all (Ephesians 1:10) and the herald of the New Creation (Isaiah 65:17). His death and resurrection is part of God’s continuum of Creation and New Creation.
  • It assumes that the goal of God is to fix a problem by getting everything back to the way it was. (Milton wrote of Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained.) Meanwhile, the Bible tells a different story. It always points forward to something new and better— a new covenant, a new heavens and a new earth, an Eden-esque garden within a new City of God (Revelation 22:1-3). Neither we nor creation will be what we once were. We will be transformed into something new (2 Corinthians 5:17). That’s what the resurrection of Jesus points to, as well.

But to me, the most insidious error of this traditional narrative of the Bible is its notion of “original design.” It implies that a good creation is equivalent to an idealistic perfection, and that we, as as fallen creatures, are sinfully imperfect.

I was recently in an online conversation with a friend of mine who argued (as many others have before him) that defects, disabilities, or a non-straight sexual orientation is less than the ideal norm, and is therefore the result of sin. We’re defective in a variety of ways because we messed up or someone else messed up. God can’t be blamed for a creation that is less than perfect, so somehow, somewhere, the error is within us. We’re the culpable ones.

What bothers me— strike that!— terrifies me about this line of thinking are the implications and unintended consequences.

For example, my son Jacob has Down Syndrome. This is caused by a mutation of his 21st chromosome whereby he has one extra chromosomal part, resulting in the condition of Down Syndrome. (You could argue he’s got more substance than most of us do!) Nevertheless, something like this is scientifically labeled a genetic anomaly. Jacob is classified as having a cognitive disability along with physical abnormalities.

My son Jacob

Do you see where this is going? Because of the pervasive attitude in our culture of idealistic perfection, he is seen as less than ideal, less than a whole, complete person. He’s seen as disabled, as in less-than-ideally-abled. People have called him, by words and actions, a “retard.”

My friend tried to argue that he is this way, and the rest of us are flawed the way we are, because of sin. If that’s the case, then one would have to conclude that my son’s life is less blessed than my own, since he has been inflicted with more of the consequential damage of sin than typically-abled, chromosomally “normal” people.

One would have to further conclude that Jacob is less in the image of God than most of us since his condition is further removed from the ideal of God’s “original design.” After all, is God disabled, too? Does God have Down Syndrome? Why, of course not! Jacob’s “less than ideal” condition, is by God’s judgment on our collective sin. Some have even hinted and implied that my wife and I must have sinned somehow. It’s our fault that Jacob is disabled!

Here is the truly terrifying part. (I haven’t even gotten to that yet!) This whole notion of “original design” is more than a coffee house, abstract theological discussion. It’s been acted on quite often— and still is!— to horrific consequences.

In the not-so-distant past, people like my son were left uneducated and institutionalized, completely marginalized from “normal” society. In Nazi Germany, people like Jacob were experimented upon, tortured, and murdered, all because they they were less than the “perfect” Aryan humanity that Hitler claimed to be the superior human race. People like Jacob are still excluded from mainstream education and society. If they cannot adapt to the dominant “more ideal” typically-abled culture, then they are left behind and left out from opportunities that most of us take for granted.

All of this kind of thinking is a direct result of the terrible theology of “original design,” which has its roots, not in biblical thinking, but in Platonistic idealism.

The truth is, there is no biblical notion of the “perfect ideal.” Everything is always being transformed and renewed. And even if there were a perfect “original design,” would we know what it is? Do imperfect beings such as we have the capacity to grasp what is truly perfect and ideal?

And what if, in some dramatic reversal, people we have labeled as disabled ended up being more abled, more ideal and closer to God’s goodness than typical people? Who is to say they are not? Didn’t Jesus say that to enter the kingdom of God, we must become like children— less sophisticated, less developed, weaker, and far more vulnerable than us adults? Could this be an invitation to become “less than ideal”?

His mother Mary sang of this same reality! In a great, dramatic reversal of power and value:

“[God] has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.”

Luke 1:52-53

And speaking of Jesus, he said something which flatly dismisses any notion of a sinless “original design.” Look at this:

As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.”

John 9:1-3

Did you see it? There’s no sin! In fact, this man’s blindness is not a liability or a fault. It’s the other way around. His blindness would be the very thing through which God would be glorified!

Yet every time I read this story, especially the disciples’ questions, I can see the source of all human shame. Shame is a diminishing blow to our worthwhile-ness and value when somehow we don’t measure up to a plastic world of idealized beauty, power, finesse, and wealth. When we don’t— and we never do because the “original design” of perfection doesn’t exist— we shame ourselves or we allow others to shame us into believing that we’re not good enough, not valuable enough, and hopelessly flawed. It’s a fault. It’s a sin, even.

Please hear the truth: Nothing in us is inherently bad. Nothing. God created us and called us good. That does not change. Ever.

Is there sin within us and the world? Of course. Sin mars and distorts our God-given image and separates us from our full communion with God, with others, and with ourselves. Christ’s death and resurrection gives us the freedom to be our true created goodness and to be resurrected into a new glorious body- the New Creation.

Still, we are who we are. God can work in and through anything, no matter how weak or strong, to bring about wondrous good. (See 1 Corinthians 1:27 and 2 Corinthians 12:10). Everything God does, especially within the painful, weaker parts of ourselves, is amazingly glorious.

In God we move from our created good to infinite glory. That is the nature of Christ’s redemptive work. God created us as good. And then, by the merit of Christ’s death and resurrection, we and all creation become a New Creation, resurrecting all of us, including our shadowy, weaker parts, into absolute glory. By his blood, Christ reconciles to himself all things (Colossians 1:20).

True glory will always outshine shallow notions of idealistic perfectionism. That’s because God doesn’t need our delusional notions of perfectionism. I’m convinced it never really existed, anyway.

All of us— abled and differently-abled, weak and strong, gay or straight— shine with the light of God once we realize that it’s been there all along. When we see ourselves as God sees us, then we shine so brightly. We illuminate the presence of God in all people and in all things. God transforms us from our created goodness to divine glory. And the best is yet to come.

6 Comments

Filed under Bible, Spiritual Growth and Practice

When Quoting Scripture Inflicts Harm

Please note— the contents of this post will elicit one of three responses from you: 1) “What a bunch of misguided garbage;” 2) “Thank you for saying that;” or possibly… 3) “I had never thought of it that way.” Reader’s discretion is advised.
Check this out:

Chris Owens says, “I love to wear sandals in the summer months. There’s something about the freedom of open air on my feet that gives me an extra boost.”

Now, you can isolate that first sentence and make some rather strange, false assumptions:

  • Chris Owens dislikes and condemns closed-toed shoes. (Untrue. I’m wearing some right now, since it’s really cold outside.)
  • Chris Owens prefers summer. (Untrue. In fact, I love snow and changing seasons.)
  • Chris Owens would be happier further south so he could wear sandals more often. (Well, maybe. But choosing to live further south would be for reasons other than living in a more sandal-friendly climate.)

You can see how pulling a statement out of context can lead to some far-out untruths. So consider this…

I have a very dear friend and colleague who recently quoted this verse on social media:

“Haven’t you read,” [Jesus] replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
‭‭Matthew‬ ‭19:4-6‬

Reading that passage truly hurt me, and to others I know, it would have been an excruciating gut punch. On the surface, that may sound extreme or even ludicrous. But in this case, context and purpose is everything.
84226A50-58E5-47D8-8855-C5FF5317C601During our agonizing United Methodist Church General Conference session which centered on our 47-year debate over homosexuality, my friend quoted this verse. It’s been bantered around ad nauseam over the years. Knowing my friend, it was used to make an argument that God establishes marriage between only one woman and one man. Therefore, Jesus is upholding traditional marriage, which by proxy condemns homosexuality. Thus, the church should follow Jesus’ teaching and keep our ban on homosexuality, same-sex marriage, and self-avowed “practicing” lesbian and gay Christians from ever becoming clergy.

Depending on your views on homosexuality, hearing a scripture quoted like that might rouse you to shout a hearty “Amen, Lord!”

Or, if you’re of a different mind, you might walk away wincing in pain.
So why on earth should a passage like Matthew 19:4-6 elicit a negative response? It’s the Bible, after all. It’s God’s Word! It’s God’s timeless truth! Don’t I believe in the truth and authority of the Bible?

Of course I do. In fact, I have joyfully read this passage while working with almost every couple I have ever married, inviting them to recognize and treasure the sanctity and permanence of their marriage vows.

But let’s take a more careful look at the passage in question. Remember, context is key. Jesus was asked by the Pharisees, the popular religious teachers of the day, whether it was lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason. There were Jewish laws being codified, based on scripture (see Deuteronomy 24:1-4), establishing that a Jewish man could divorce his wife under any circumstance, as long as he issued her a certificate of divorce.

(On a slightly tangential note, I had lunch yesterday with a very good rabbi friend of mine who reminded me that there is an entire tractate of the Talmud which establishes the stipulations and procedures for divorce. He told me this while sharing about an Orthodox Jewish friend of his who is about to be married for the fourth time, all in faithful observance of Torah. But I digress.)

So to the problem of an easy, no-fault divorce, Jesus went all the way back to Genesis 1:27 and 2:24 to remind them that it is God who has created male and female for one another. In the sacred, mystical bond of marriage, God joins them together to make, in effect, a new creation— a man and woman who share in one flesh. Therefore, divorce is the destruction of God’s good creation.

That was Jesus’ point. He was not making an argument against homosexuality. He wasn’t even trying to establish a heteronormative standard for marriage. In the travesty of divorce, Jesus was upholding the holy, divine origin of the marital bond.

That’s why I was so hurt by the usage of this passage. It was being terribly misused to condemn the humanity and the relationships of my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. And by the way, if you think it’s over-the-top to say that condemning homosexuality is akin to condemning gay and lesbian humanity, then think more deeply about the nature of human sexuality. It is a core aspect of who we are. To condemn somoene’s full embrace of their sexual identity is to condemn a significant part of their personhood, since we are all created by God to love and be loved— sexual intimacy, both emotional and physical, being one of the most profound sharings in God’s wonderful gift of love.

Back to how we quote the Bible… We’ve talked about context. Now let’s mention purpose.

We Christians have a holy obligation to read and share the Bible’s message with profound humility. We must read Scripture in a spirit of self-emptying respect for God, all creation, and ourselves. We faithfully read the Bible with a constant openness of mind and heart, in ready expectation that as we study scripture, it’s for the primary purpose of changing ourselves, even when it hurts, and especially when scripture challenges our tightly-held attitudes, assumptions, and behaviors.

Yet if any of us, conservative or progressive, open up the Bible simply to carve out self-justifying talking points or a handy sword to advance our causes, we are well on the road to spiritual blindness and deafness. We shut off the Holy Spirit’s guidance, “…having a form of godliness but denying its power…” (2 Timothy 3:5). At that point, our actions do great harm, especially when laced with our pet Bible verses.

Certainly, the Bible has been used quite prophetically to address evil and injustice. Some of our greatest leaders have lived and taught the scriptures in the heat of their struggles. The Bible has given definition and direction to the cause of life over death. Yet in all these cases, the Bible’s purpose was to bring the good news of liberation, freedom, justice, and righteousness for the greater good of our shared humanity. That’s a far cry from using the Bible to subjugate, exclude, condemn, and repress whole groups of people in the name of tribal, group-think “truth.”

I don’t believe my friend was attempting to harm anyone by quoting scripture. That was never the intent. That said, I think we all have a serious responsibility to pause and ask ourselves a few questions before quoting scripture:

1) Am I truly honoring the context and intended meaning of the verse I am quoting?
2) What kind of impact will I leave on those who hear my message? Will it do good or inflict harm? Will it bear any fruit?
3) How well am I mirroring the presence and love of Christ, even when confronting an evil?
4) What kind of accountability is in place to keep myself from self-deception?

It’s my firm belief that if more of us slowed down, calmed down, and exercised the James 1:29 principle— “…everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry…”— we would do less harm to one another with our words, especially with God’s Word. God has always purposed his Word to be life-giving, not life-taking. That’s the nature of genuine, authentic Truth.

1 Comment

Filed under Bible

Something Was “Raptured” on May 21: Fundamentalism

Fundamentalists themselves are not gone. We certainly haven’t heard the last from them, either. But any remaining sliver of Christian Fundamentalism’s influence was effectively “raptured” in the waning hours of May 21, 2011. This was the day Harold Camping predicted a worldwide judgment day and rapture of a faithful few Christians.  The day came and went with barely a fizzle. And now, incredulously enough, Harold Camping has announced yet another prediction… well sort of. You can read all about if you care to.

Now I know that it’s all the rage today– certainly a politically correct must— for Christians like me to distance ourselves as far from Fundamentalism as we can by publicly trashing it when the occasion suits us while using the stupidity of May 21’s failed apocalypse as a chance to say, “See there? What a bunch of simple-minded, radical kooks… Oh, and by the way, for the record, let it be known I am not one of them.” Well, as much as I’d love to jump on the bandwagon, that’s not my goal, especially when the vast majority of Christian Fundamentalists I know were just as adamant, many of them far more vocal than the rest of us, denouncing Camping’s May 21 predictions as a fraud, well before the actual day.

Even then, disturbing behaviors like the the May 21 Doomsday shenanigan, the repugnant Westboro Baptist Church and Pastor Terry Jones jeapordizing our national security with his Koran burning have thoroughly demonstrated that any lasting value of Fundamentalism has been “raptured” away and is no longer any good for the Church, Christianity, or for anyone else. All that’s left behind is a liability. When pastors like me have to spend increasingly more time and effort dispelling the damage done by Fundamentalism in recent decades while not coming off as self-righteous jerks ourselves, then I think it’s safe to say in the memorable words of astronaut Jim Lovell, “Houston, we have a problem.”

Fundamentalism as a movement has run its course.

Still, I do believe that in its heyday, Fundamentalism had a degree of value and place within Christianity, even if the majority vehemently disagreed with its teachings. And to be fair, Fundamentalism has been apishly caricatured by those who do not understand what it is and why it came to be. So as a eulogy for Fundamentalism, perhaps a brief, non-partisan description would be helpful.

Fundamentalism began in the early 20th Century as reactionary movement to the rising influence of new science and biblical criticism, i.e. Modernism, that was vastly reshaping the Protestant church. Darwin had famously challenged previously unquestioned assumptions about our origins in a way that radically departed from a face value reading of Genesis 1. Literary and historical criticism began to take a more critical view of the Bible’s authorship, historicity, and divine influence. As a result, Protestant church leaders, especially in the Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Anglican churches began to question the necessity or relevance of the more supernatural, “mythical” elements of the Bible and Christian doctrine, taking a step back from theology that now seemed to be too primitive and unnecessary in light of new scientific, literary, and historical findings.

Fundamentalists slammed on the breaks and insisted that there are “fundamentals” of the Christian faith that cannot be abandoned. In fact, a pastor/evangelist named A. C. Dixon published a series of essays called The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth that upheld what he considered to be several fundamentals of the Christian faith including:

  • the verbal, plenary inerrency of Scripture
  • the literalness of the gospel accounts, especially Christ’s miracles and resurrection
  • the Virgin Birth of Christ
  • his bodily resurrection
  • Christ’s physical return
  • the substitutionary atonement of Christ on the cross.

These were all essential beliefs that Fundamentalists claimed were being compromised in the wake of modern scholarship. Since those days, I believe that Fundamentalism served as a direct, or most often, an indirect counterweight to the rapid pull of Modernism.

For all their faults and follies, I believe that at a bare minimum Fundamentalists challenged the Protestant Church to not give up on several things, namely three things: 1) the central importance and uniquely divine inspiration of Scripture; 2) a vigorous confidence in Jesus’ miracles and his actual, historic resurrection; and 3) his promised return as a definitive future historic event. I get the sense that at one time much of the mainline Protestant Church was tempted to reshape these three historic doctrines to be mere allegories or even a fanciful fiction.

But somehow, enough of the Protestant Church has been kept from sliding away on these “fundamentals” of our faith. Even though I’ll get slammed by some people for saying this, I believe we have Fundamentalism to thank for part of the conservation effort. And for that reason alone, Fundamentalism has had its place as a vocal counterweight to the more unhealthy sways of Modernism.

The main character flaw of Fundmentalism– and granted it’s a big one– has been their failure to be self-critical and adaptive. That’s the fatal flaw of any movement whose inception is a reaction to circumstances it sees as a threat.

They become a self-pronounced and appointed “faithful remnant” whose job it is to zealously guard the faith against unfaithful incursions while ceding no ground doing it. The defensive nature of Fundamentalism has made it nearly impossible for them to self-critically evaluative their assumptions and methodology. While the cultural landscape has continually changed, offering new challenges and opportunities for the Church, Fundamentalists ardently entrench themselves while denouncing what they claim to be further spiritual and cultural backsliding.

Only now they have dug themselves in too deeply to see and understand their own shortcomings and damaging behaviors, and that’s why Christian Fundamentalism in the Protestant Church has met its functional end.

When a Fundamentalist like Harold Camping horse-blinders his understanding of the Bible to mean that every single word of Scripture is the the literal, historically, scientifically (and apparently mathematically!) infallible Word of God and then turns around to rebuff any honest critique of his organization’s teaching, even from other like-minded Christians, the results are the failures of May 21 and the embarrassment he causes the rest of us. Worse still, people got hurt, and Camping has taken no personal responsibility for it. I think of those who believed Camping and threw away their jobs, lifesavings, and reputations to “sound the alarm.” [Brief time-out…. Before you proudly regard yourself as smarter or wiser than they are– for you would never fall for such an idiotic thing as that— think about this: how many times have you found yourself wronged because you honestly believed in something or someone that didn’t live up to their promise?]

Aside from even the far extremism of Harold Camping, the biblical literalism of Fundamentalism flatly ignores and rejects any reasonable way to read and honor the Bible as God’s Word in any other way than strict literalism. That makes it nearly impossible for Fundamentalism to inform and be informed by ongoing scientific, historic, and cultural awareness while still upholding the Scriptures as God’s Holy Word. In effect, that has rendered this movement a dead sect which does not produce enough good and far too much bad to justify its continued existence. Harold Camping and crew proved this beyond any reasonable doubt this past Saturday. Not only that, but Christian Fundamentalism has been implicit in propagating attitudes within the Christian community that are sexist, homophobic, racist, and anti-scientific. Please note: I’m not saying that all my Fundamentalist brethren are themselves all those terrible things. However, Fundamentalism has aided and abetted  these attitudes, and that has become a black eye on all of Christianity. I have personally worked with too many victims of these unchristian attitudes espoused by “good, loving Christians.” Therefore, while Fundamentalism may have played a role in Christianity at one time, it does no longer.

So to honor whatever contributions Fundamentalism has made in its storied past, let’s give it some dignity and say, “You’ve been raptured!” The rest of us are still here, trying to build the kingdom of God with as much Christ-like integrity as we can. I only hope my Fundamentalist brothers and sisters will acknowledge this “rapture” and join in on building the kingdom of God’s righteousness here on earth as it is in heaven while joyfully anticipating the return of our Lord in glory and power!

6 Comments

Filed under Church Culture and Leadership, Cultural Quakes