The Heart of the Christian Faith

Moana’s lyrics in the movie’s climactic scene better represent Christ’s words on the cross than most strands of Christian expression today.

I’m going to try and tie several things together to express what I think is deeply lacking at the heart of those expressions. I don’t have the time to do justice to the kind of post this topic deserves, but the notion herein is so central to what I believe is at the heart of Christianity that I feel compelled to share at least this disjointed set of thoughts that may in some way point toward the message we, the church, so desperately need to hear and proclaim.

  1. An Article – I recently read an article connecting healing from a history of abuse with the message of the movie Moana. The entire article is well worth reading, but the point that stuck out to me so profoundly was the recognition that naming and accepting the trauma of our past is an absolutely vital part of finding healing and wholeness. If we cannot look into the eyes of our past as it actually happened rather than how we desire that it would have been, we will never be able to find joy in who we are and will become. The article closes – “You are not defined by your darkest hour. You are greater than what has been stolen from you. It is never too late to heal. It is never too late to make a fresh start. It is never too late to have your heart restored.” Great movie, incredible article.
  2. John 3:14-16 – “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” I can’t recall a single person ever quoting John 3:16 while adding what comes just before as opposed to what comes after. I’d also be surprised if you could change the nuance of a message any more deeply than by reading two verses ahead of 3:16 as opposed to the 2 following verses that are so often quoted. I preached a sermon a while back on the passage in Numbers to which verse 14 refers. Far from the “believe your way into salvation” message that is so easily implied by 16 and following, the imagery of 14 forces us to see that salvation comes in the confrontation with our most profound brokenness. When we stare into the heart of darkness, sin, betrayal, trial, and tragedy we find the love by which we are created and made new.
  3. Vulnerability – Brené Brown is one of my absolute heroes. Her research gives language to express aspects of the faith that we do not even begin to address in the Christian circles in which I’ve taken part. I wrote a far more thorough post about why I find her work so valuable as it relates to faith, but I’ll summarize the relevant point here. Most of the church-y words and slogans we use are a means to hide as much as they reveal. We put words up as a shield so that we don’t have to experience the vulnerability of exposing our wounds and feeling powerless over how others respond. To claim that the cross is the center of our faith is to claim that God’s vulnerability is the source of and model for our lives. Jesus Christ became vulnerable so that we might find life in Him. For our lives to give witness to a cruciform life is to expose the imperfections that we so desperately want to hide from the rest of the world. We are restored when we are truly seen.
  4. Parable and Truth– The human mind has absolutely no meaningful grasp of truth or how to tell if a particular message guides us toward the truth or steers us away from it. I don’t mean that to be a critique of any particular strand of Christian thought – more an indictment on virtually everyone’s inability to have the conversations we think we’re having and our lack of appreciation for modern day parables. Something profoundly important happens when we know we’re listening to a story that isn’t supposed to report on events that actually happened – we are forced to give up the illusion that we have a truly objective and common way to speak of God or the world as they are. The stories we tell ourselves quite often define the reality we see at least as much as anything coming from the outside world. To know truth, sometimes we are required to hear it through the lens of unfamiliar or uncomfortable stories.
  5. Stories that Form – Americans right now are seeing with unprecedented clarity that the stories that wrote us form us in ways that make it very difficult to change our perceptions. This reality leads us to act in ways that harm others and even our own self interest. The way to overcome the faulty and problematic narratives of the world is not to prove the objective problems within a given narrative, but to offer a more compelling and truthful account of what life is and what life is for. To do so can’t happen with simple truisms or catchy slogans. Change only happens through the authentic, vulnerable relationships by which we come to see our lives in the light of a different story.
  6. Sin and Evil – Sin and evil are two sides of the same coin. Sin is the way we have broken the world. Evil is the way the world breaks us. To speak of sin and evil primarily from a perspective of ‘punishable offences’ or ‘punitive justice’ or ‘criminality’ never creates the space to see that before we are or do anything, we are God’s children. There are no individuals and thereby no actions that can be objectively and meaningfully defined as sin or evil until after we understand ourselves to be a particular part of the created world and human community. How we are formed by God’s creation is more basic than who we are as an agent of change. Therefore, what actually makes a difference is whether our lives and actions embody the relationship that God is or become sin that breaks the world and evil by which we are broken.
  7. The goal of modern medicine is to get out of life alive – Stanley Hauerwas has shared a variation of this quote in a multitude of writings and interviews, one of which can be found here. With getting out alive as the increasingly common understanding of our goal in life it becomes impossible to come face to face with our greatest source of vulnerability – our own mortality. If any of what I have shared about vulnerability is correct, then the quest to live forever cannot help but entail the rejection of being fully embraced as the imperfect, broken, struggling self that we all are. Rejecting that embrace means rejecting the story of God’s quest to know and redeem our broken bodies. To even fight the darkness of sin and evil is ultimately to refuse to accept our mortality. The way to salvation is not by combating that which makes us imperfect but by experiencing a love that is far more powerful than anything we could think, say, or do.

A far too brief attempt to tie these thoughts together and express the heart of the gospel message – whatever we have done and whatever has been done to us, we are defined not by the failure of our humanity but by the embrace of our God. God became sin so that we might see nothing can separate us from the love that is stronger than death. We are loved. We are accepted. We are enough. There is no other foundation on which to stand. There is no more important aspect of our relationship with God and one another. There is no hope, no life, no joy; no justice, no mercy, no mission; no holiness, no salvation, no redemption without God’s radical embrace of exactly the frailty and failure we fear most; without God’s radical embrace of death itself on the cross.

Our greatest problem is not that we are too sinful or evil. Our greatest problem is that we have no idea what it means to know and be known by a love that has no bounds and never ends. Until we experience the embrace of community as God is in Trinity and desires in creation, we’ll never know what sin and evil break or how to then seek forgiveness and healing. In the climactic scene, Moana sings these hauntingly beautiful lyrics that might as well be Jesus’ words from the cross:

I have crossed the horizon to find you.
I know your name.
They have stolen the heart from inside you.
But this does not define you.
This is not who you are.
You know who you are.

To look upon the cross is to confront our greatest shame and deepest wounds; and to hear the voice of God respond: I am yours, you are mine.

The reason we cannot know God without scripture is not because scripture is or contains God. We cannot know God without scripture because scripture is and defines the identity of God’s people who are the means by which God chooses one for the sake of all. To know God is to be God’s chosen people and to be is to both embrace and transform that which made us what we are. If we are who we have been made by the history that actually happened, knowing anything clearly is accepting and rejecting the stories that wrote us.

The problem with a typical definition of faith as something we think is true but can’t prove is the implicit assumption that there exists anything that could be proven true in a more objective way than a statement of faith. Consistency and coherence within a given set of expectations and rules is all anyone can hope for, whether it’s a statement of faith, a claim of science, an historical recollection, or anything else. Faith is the assumption upon which knowledge or doubt is possible. Faith is the desert in which we name the stakes we think we’ve found.

Historical Accuracy and Biblical Truth

I had a discussion with a friend one day that centered around our understanding of history and what it means for a historical account to be ‘true.’ Our discussion started because of a lecture in Old Testament class about biblical history. We both agreed that in some sense, you have room to deny that the Bible presents a literal and completely accurate depiction of events. Perhaps the Bible is making a theological interpretation of events and not intending to present an objective account. A possible example is the battle of Jericho. Archaeologists and most scholars agree that the city was likely uninhabited at the time the Bible states that the walls were brought down miraculously. It would be irresponsible to simply claim that everyone but the Bible is wrong and Joshua presents an unbiased and objective account of history. At the same time one cannot be too quick to dismiss any historical significance of the events described; one can still find an understanding of the Israelite views on the power of God and their call to inhabit the land near the Mediterranean. Even if it is not precisely in line with archaeological evidence, one will still find that a group of people known as the Israelites were recognized in the archaeological and historical record at about that time.

My friend pointed out to me, however, that there do seem to be some events that are not open for the same type of loose interpretation. It does seem like the shaping of the Israelite people at Sinai, the presentation of the law, and the real, objective action of God in the lives of the Hebrew people all require historical certainty because they have so greatly shaped the formation of the church in theology and practice.  In the New Testament, the Incarnation and Resurrection of Christ are two events that seem to require absolute historical certainty lest the very foundations of the faith be shaken. How then should we read the Bible? The following is a discussion of historical accuracy in general and its relevance to finding biblical truth. I hope to shed a little light on the nature of recorded history and the implications for discerning truth in the biblical narrative.  

The main obstacle to establishing a common understanding of biblical truth is that everyone takes huge presuppositions into a debate about what history is and how it is, was, and ought to be recorded. It’s clear simply from the technological innovations that have occurred and prevalence of books in our society that the amount and style of information being recorded has changed significantly over the years. One might attempt to understand the meaning of biblical history by first looking at how history was recorded at the time of the Bible and then comparing that to the present. By making this comparison, one finds that the idea of ‘objective’ history was something not even considered much less valued in ancient documents. The histories of Herodotus were recorded in nearly the same time period as parts of the biblical narrative and will serve as an example of the historical genre of its time.

There are several famous stories in Herodotus that almost no one would claim are factual accounts. The presence of fanciful details does not mean that we should discard all that is in the histories, but it does present an example of how we might expect history to be presented differently in ancient documents. The key distinction between Herodotus and present historical documents is the unashamed way in which the author attempts to draw out key points through the use of narrative. The ‘objective’ details of the stories are subverted by the significance of the events depicted. It is difficult if not impossible to determine what exactly was meant to be taken as fact and what is added to drive home the point. We now have more accurate methods of capturing historical data (though the efficacy of such methods will be considered later) than those available in the ancient times and this has, at least in part, lead us to value the ideal of an objectively recorded account of the facts rather than a biased or partisan telling of the story. A history that matches archeological, geological, and parallel historical accounts is nearly always considered the most accurate and truthful. Thus, reading Herodotus as history in a modern context is always done with a blind eye to the exaggerations and fanciful details that seem impossible or contradict physical findings. The stories are still used in understanding the history of the time period, but many details are read only as creations of the author rather than facts.

Making the claim that biblical history ought to be read in an analogous fashion to Herodotus is fairly standard in biblical research but this approach has not done much to engender support from anyone seriously considering the meaning of biblical truth. The agnostic/atheist tends to make the assertion that since the details are inaccurate, the bible is flawed. The evangelical mind tends to say that the bible is perfect, therefore the details must be correct. People are rarely willing to accept the possibility that the bible might contain inaccurate details and still remain perfect. Peter Enns develops this predicament more in his book Inspiration and Incarnation.

I think a stronger statement about the nature of historical accuracy is needed as a foundation for the argument over biblical truth. To this point I have used the terms truth and accuracy interchangeably. In so doing I have attempted to draw out some of the ambiguities and difficulties in understanding the correlation between accuracy and truth. At least in modern times, the words tend to be used interchangeably. The truth of an account is treated as the extent to which it accurately corresponds with archaeological, geological, or other historical data. For a moment, I will set these words aside to consider whether or not there is an appropriate distinction to be made between truth and accuracy. To do so, it will be helpful to look at a particular misunderstanding of history that came about from the publishing of a picture.

Screenshot 2017-06-28 at 1.45.48 PM

Photo copied from http://www.slate.com/id/2149675/

 

In lecture (11/30/07), my O.T. professor Dr. Chapman discussed the reliability of recorded history by the analogy of a picture of 9/11. The picture (shown above) appears to have several people sitting calmly with the towers in the background emitting huge clouds of smoke. The photo was the subject of numerous news commentators who said that it was an outrage for people to be so calm in the midst of such a tragedy. Indeed, a classmate from New York spoke up immediately and said the photo had to be fake because of her experiences that day. One of the people photographed responded to the papers saying that they were actually in shock and awe of the situation and deeply deliberating its significance. What appeared in the picture as a calm day by the water was in fact a horrifying moment that those people will never forget.

This illustrates the problem with conflating truth and accuracy. Is truth really found in the word for word depiction of a third party observer who sees the entire event with their eyes, like the photographer? Or must it be the first person perspective of one who is actually involved, like one of the people in the photo? Is it more truthful to capture the facts of an event or the essence of an experience? Just because we have a scale representation of the exact way light would have reflected and refracted to form an image in our mind representing a moment in history does not mean that we have a truthful account of history. One cannot, then, assume that history is best recorded as a precise rendering of those movements. The truth of an historical account is the extent to which it is able to elicit a response from its audience that mirrors the original experience.

In the example of the picture, perhaps a more truthful representation of the historical event would have replaced each person’s face with that of the face in the infamous painting entitled The Scream. You would certainly lose the precise matching of the colors and lines that were experienced in the visual field, but one might gain a sense of the horror felt by the individuals in the picture. It would become far more obvious that what was occurring was not simply a group of callous and indifferent people sitting in the park during a national tragedy, but that these persons were dealing with immense internal anxiety and the situation was far more trying and difficult than any ‘objective’ account of the moment could represent. By allowing the details of the picture to be altered, the audience’s knowledge of the event is not diminished, but greatly increased.

Narrative history functions in an analogous way. Just because precise details of an event are recorded does not mean that one will receive an accurate portrayal of how that experience affected the people involved. I propose the following distinction between truth and accuracy. Accuracy refers to the one to one correspondence of an account to events in the past by means of empirically verifiable facts. This might take the form of a correlation with archeological or geological findings. Truth refers to the meaning of an event as its effect on one who experiences it. This is correlated with the psychological, spiritual, mental, or physical effect on an individual or group. Whereas one might think that books like Herodotus’ histories have clearly lost some of their truth by the inclusion of such fanciful details, it’s really a societal and modern bias about properly recorded history rather than an objective loss of information that has taken place in those writings. Accuracy is in fact lost, but far more truth is gained by shaping a story in such a way that one might experience the significance of history rather than read the precise facts. In fact, unless one could find some way to represent every detail of each event, there would still be some shaping present in the decision of what details to include and which to ignore. It is entirely impossible to accurately represent an historical event in a way that elicits objective meaning (a meaning that is the same for all who read the same text). Simply because we are unable to supply and comprehend the entirety of information involved in any event, the process of narrative shaping is involved in any and all recorded history.

To what extent then is it beneficial or even meaningful to find precisely accurate history? More specific to the question of biblical truth, to what extent must there have been a literal Sinai event in which the people of Israel were given the Law by God through Moses? I would argue that it is entirely unimportant that this particular event happened with any of the details presented in the narrative. The necessary truth in the story is that God interacted with humans in such a way that their lives were then ordered around worshipping God. It’s possible that the people could have actually experienced God in any number of other ways, but it might be impossible for someone in the Ancient Near East to recount the significance of the event in another way that would elicit a common response of awe and reverence at the power and holiness of the Lord.

One immediate response is that what I have just argued implies God might have no real power in the world. It seems to mean that we only ‘think’ we experience something when in reality it is a psychological exercise in justifying our desire to be in control. That is how we tend to think with the influence of modern psychology. Without hard and fast empirical evidence to the contrary, experiences are thought to be just a mirage created by the desire to believe. To take that stance is to miss the point of the narrative. The Israelite people had an experience of God so powerful, in whatever form it took, that they very truly and objectively did change the way they lived and the laws they followed and the way they worshipped. You can no more argue that it was just in their minds than you could that every religious experience you have had or witnessed was a psychotic break. The truth of these experiences is found not in the empirical alterations of the world but in objectively distinct changes in one’s behavior, thinking, and interaction. What, then, does it really mean to search for the precise historical event that took place in lieu of the way the people recorded it? Would we gain any particular meaning by figuring out a more objective account of history or would it cause people to make the same false judgments about the events as those made about the 9/11 photo? I would argue that the latter is the more probable outcome.

How then should we read the narrative history of the Bible? At least in my mind, the great travesty of source and historical criticism is that these fields have taken our eyes so far off the canonical shape of the Bible that most students (myself included) know more about the documentary hypothesis than about the content of the Bible. However, as Wenham stated in The Story as Torah, it is the final shape of the Bible that we believe to be divinely inspired and not the original source documents. It is easily accepted that the meaning of a word or phrase in the bible derives a deeper meaning from the surrounding sentences or paragraphs. It is far less recognized that the overall structure of the bible is intentionally shaped to infuse even greater meaning and theological significance to the particular books and stories. Two examples will help to elucidate this point.

The first is drawn from the controversial content in the narrative of Judges. The pages are filled with murder, deceit, and plenty of actions that seem abominable to a modern audience. I don’t intend to take a stance on the morality of any particular action, but to point out two structural clues to help interpret the book. The first is the repeated phrase “And the Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.” This phrase appears again and again signifying the chaos and anarchy of the time period. There was a very distinct ebb and flow to the righteousness and evil of the people and perhaps the author was intending to elucidate some of the confusion they experienced rather than represent a perfectly moral character. The second structural clue is the transition from Joshua’s leadership to kingship. Though the book does not explicitly pronounce a king over Israel, the author interjects that “In those days there was no king in Israel” as though it is clear that a king would bring order. In some sense, then, the chaos is structured as an argument for the establishment of a monarchy. The implication is that perhaps a king would bring stability and thus righteousness to the people of Israel. More could be said about the effect of the structure of Judges on meaning, but these two examples suffice to show how the narrative shaping of this book can help elucidate and add meaning to its content.

The second example involves the shaping of the entire Old Testament. The order of the books in the Jewish bible places the law books first, the prophets second, and ends with the writings. This has the effect of beginning with the creation of the world and ending with the Jews on the brink of returning to the land of God after the exile.  Most Christian bibles break the books up slightly differently and end with the prophets. This makes for a nice transition into the New Testament because Jesus is considered the fulfillment of those prophecies. Neither of the arrangements is explicitly chronological by date written or by content. The purpose of rearranging the books is to make a theological statement about the content of the bible rather than matching some preexisting sequence. Thus, neither arrangement is exactly ‘correct,’ but both emphasize the importance of a particular theological statement.  

As seen in these two examples, the meaning and truth of the bible is explicitly shaped by the formation of the text as a whole. The shaping of the text both in form and detail is the method by which the bible elicits an experience of the Lord, God of Israel. It is the avenue by which the reader is able to move from putative facts to enriching and life changing participation in the community of God. Analogously, seeing the picture of 9/11 gives only a mental image of what the NY skyline looked like one day, but to relive the moment the towers fell, whether you were there or not, can change your life forever. The reason the Bible is considered an active and living book is precisely because it has been shaped to facilitate our experience of the kingdom of God through and within the written Word. Whether or not the people of Israel did in fact meet God at Mt. Sinai just after leaving Egypt, the presence of God in their lives was so powerful that they were forever changed. It is that reality, the presence of God, that we are able to find in the pages of the Bible not through a perfectly accurate account of objective details, but through the truth of God’s action in the world. We experience the action of God not as past history, but as present reality.

 

*Written in the Fall of 2007. 

Truth and Love aren’t separate. Relationship is the context in which truth is possible and love is the bond that makes relationship real. Emotional connection is the means by which actual humans enter relationship and the shaping through which truth comes to be capable of meaning anything in particular.

Love without Jesus is like Spiderman without a universe

To speak of love or forgiveness or mercy or grace apart from the story through which they take their form, shape, and meaning is like speaking about a character in a movie as though that character has significance apart from the stories in which he or she is known. It’s like speaking of Spiderman without first deciding which comic universe you are referencing. There will be recognizable elements across all universes – such as the name and the ability to shoot webs. But to think of Spiderman as a good or a bad guy, to define his normal disposition, to ask if he is emo or romantic – the answers are not the same in different comic universes. In the same way, love and grace and mercy and forgiveness will all take a different shape depending on whether the stories of Jesus or the stories of hollywood or any other stories supply the context in which each concept comes to life.