Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Scot McKnight - Is the Sermon on the Mount Gospel?

Scot McKnight has an interesting blog on how we should read the Sermon on the Mount -- Is the Sermon on the Mount Gospel?  I have heard so many folks come up with vastly different approaches to how we should read the Sermon on the Mount.  McKnight suggest we approach it through the lens of Jesus as the Messiah who invites us as followers into his kingdom.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Ghosts Upon the Earth, Gungor – A Review

Speaking of Theology through the arts…

Recently I came across another great example of a band that is not just producing good songs of faith but songs that are filled with well-thought-out theology.  While Gungor has released great albums in the past their most recent offering shows both musical and theological growth.  One of my biggest challenges when writing songs  of faith is how to catch some of the more epic themes from the Bible in a song that is only 3-4 minutes long as well as how to communicate these ideas not simply in words but musically as well.  Gungor’s Ghosts Upon the Earth deals with this challenges by arranging a collection of songs into the narrative flow of scriptures.  The resulting album is built around the themes of creation, fall, redemption, and new creation.  This approach has worked as well as anything that I’ve heard before. 

As for the music these songs are really creative in their instrumentation, arrangements and styles.  Gungor’s layering of diverse instruments from banjoes, acoustic guitars, cellos, and xylophones is reminiscent of Sufjan Stevens yet this is no Sufjan rip-off project.  In fact, Gungor actually succeeds where Stevens, in my opinion fails sometimes, by creating more depth and dynamics in their arrangements.  There are also moments on this album that seem heavily influenced by Nickel Creek, but again without coming off as a band with an identity crisis.  For all of their stylistic meanderings, Ghosts on the Earth is a much more cohesive set of songs than their last album—Beautiful Things.   

What I find fascinating is the compelling way that Gungor presents narrative theology (the understanding of the Bible as one cohesive story that finds it fulfillment in Jesus) throughout this album.  Since Ghosts Upon the Earth was more of a concept album there was no rush to get to the more hopeful and upbeat songs too early, rather Gungor takes their time in exploring all aspects of the narrative from creation to fall to redemption and beyond.  The resulting work rings with authenticity throughout and brings the listener gradually into a hopeful place of worship as restored people in a new creation.  While there are great moments throughout, this album is best appreciated as a complete work rather than as individual songs.  I would recommend setting aside a little time to get quiet, put some headphones on, and just listen.  You won’t regret it!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Theology Through the Arts

Here is a great video clip Jeremy Begbie on theology through the arts.  I have a few books from Begbie that discuss theology and the arts but I had never actually heard him play piano until I heard him play a piece by Frans Liszt to close out a theology symposium at Wheaton College on the work of Bible scholar N. T. Wright.  I was caught off guard by how the piece he played seemed to say something abut God and theology that the words of all of those amazing scholars couldn't.  I have really wrestled over the past few years with how bring to bear well thought out theology in the worship songs I lead and the songs I write and perform outside of church.  I see this as one of the most necessary pursuits of musicians of faith in our modern context.  The truth is most folks that walk into a church don't really care for wrestling much with theology and won't really respond that well to lectures on theology.  But music has a way of connecting with anyone at a heart level.  The truth is that folks who attend church likely experience as much or more spiritual formation by the songs sung in worship as they do by listening to a message from a pastor.  Begbie has some great thoughts here on music and theology that would do a lot of worship leaders and musicians some good to check out.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Ability to Choose Well

Radiolab has become one of my favorite podcasts in recent years with its variety of interesting stories on science.  Of particular interest to me have been the various episodes that have looked into the workings of the human mind.  One such episode entitled How Much is Too Much? looked at how our ability to make healthy decisions is greatly compromised when our minds are trying to hold on to too much information at once.  On the podcast they interviewed Baba Shiv of Stanford University who conducted a simple experiment which illustrates this phenomenon.  In the experiment subjects were asked to memorize a number and then walk down the hall to another room to recite it.  Unbeknownst to the subjects some were given a 2 digit number while others were given a 7 digit number.  But on their way to the other room they passed by a person sitting at a table who offered, as thanks for participating in the experiment, either a piece of chocolate cake or a bowl of fruit salad.  Those who were trying to remember a seven digit number were more than twice as likely to choose the chocolate cake as those who had memorized the two digit number.

The reason given for this phenomenon is that the rational part of the brain that would keep a person making healthy decisions is greatly compromised once a number committed to memory is seven or more digits.  When that happens the emotional mind takes over which is more concerned with immediate gratification.  This phenomenon can be seen in any area where humans are offered more than 7 choices at once because human working memory is only capable of holding up to seven numbers or ideas at once (this is one reason that phone numbers don't exceed 7 digits).

I can't help but wondering if this further illustrates why trying to live a deliberately simple and uncluttered life might not simply be better in financial terms but also concerning the emotional, physical, and spiritual aspects of a persons life.  It also is no wonder why stress often creates such a hospitable environment for sins of the flesh.

Check out the podcast when you get a chance...

Monday, November 07, 2011

How Did the First Christians Read the Bible?

I love watching a good movie particularly when a movie involves an unexpected twist in the plot.  When the plot heads in a sudden and unexpected direction it causes the viewer to look back on the whole of the story up to that point in a completely different way as some of the basic assumptions held are turned up on their head.  A great example of this can be seen in The Matrix.  When Neo, a computer hacker living out a mundane existence in the corporate world discovers that what he thought was the real world was really an elaborate computer generated reality it becomes a pivotal twist in the plot that neither Neo or the viewer could see coming and it completely alters the way Neo will live his life from that point forward.  From that point on Neo can never be the same as that revelation has fundamentally changed his view of both reality and his own purpose.

One aspect of the scriptures that is lost on most folks in the modern world is just how unexpected the coming of Jesus as the Messiah was to the disciples in first century Palestine.  The authors of the New Testament whether Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Peter or even Paul had been raised in a religion that had saturated their imaginations and hopes in the story of God’s faithfulness to Israel.  They had grown up year after year with the rhythms of Judaism shaping their spiritual formation from Sabbath keeping (based not only on the Mosaic Law but on the creation story where God rested on the seventh day) to the festivals throughout the year such as Passover, the Festival of Booths, Pentecost (Festival of First Fruits) that celebrated how God had heard the cries of his people and intervened to rescue them.  On top of this there was the expectation and hope that God would send the promised Messiah who would set Israel free from here oppressors (at that time the Romans)—Someone like Moses to lead Israel on a New Exodus, one from the line of David who would rule in righteousness a kingdom without end.  But that hope for the Messiah was for a mere man who would likely lead an earthly rebellion against their oppressors.  Sure enough in the years prior to the first century there had been many would-be Messiahs, men who lead revolts and rebellions to set Israel free only to be crushed by the firm fist of the Empire. 

And it was in to this environment that God sent the Messiah.  Yet he was not anything that they could have ever expected.   A man?  Yes, but so much more than a mere man!  As the Apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 2:7-10

This is the wisdom God prepared ahead of time, before the world began, for our glory.
None of the rulers of this present age knew about this wisdom.  If they had, you see, they wouldn’t have crucified the Lord of Glory.  But as the Bible says,
Human eyes have not seen,
Human ears have never heard,
It’s never entered human hearts:
All that God has now prepared
For those who truly love him.
And that’s what God has revealed to us through the spirit!

What Paul is saying here in these verses is that no one saw this thing coming.  Even though there had been a fervent expectation for the Messiah, everyone had been caught off guard by the wisdom of God in sending his own son into the story as the Christ.  While Israel had awaited someone who would set them free she got a much bigger Messiah with a much bigger mission coming to set not just Israel but the whole world free! 

If we are to be true students of the Bible we must ask the question, “How did the first disciples of Jesus read the Bible?”  The answer to this question would be similar to the way anyone reading a story or watching a movie is compelled to understand the story once there has been a major twist in the plot.  With the coming of God’s own Son Jesus as the Messiah, these thoroughly Jewish disciples could no longer view the story up to that point in the same way.  The disciples had to reconfigure their whole understanding of the story of Israel around the person and work of Jesus. 

For most of my Christian journey I have been encouraged to read the Old Testament and New Testament as distinctly different stories but this is not how the first disciples and the authors of the New Testament read the Bible.  The books of the New Testament are chock full of references to the Old Testament scriptures as well as parallels with Old Testament stories.  The disciples did not throw away the Old Testament because Jesus came on the scene, rather all of the sudden they began to see the story of God’s faithfulness to Israel with a whole new set of eyes—The story of Israel was a series of signposts pointing to an ultimate fulfillment in Jesus. 

Why is this important to understand?  Because we must learn to view the Old Testament the way the early disciples did, to see it through the lens of Jesus the Messiah, the resurrected King of all!  Apart from this understanding of scriptures we can make the Bible say all kinds of things that it was never intended to say.  The more I am coming to understand this way of looking at the scripture the more I see the Bible as a rich and layered story about Jesus.  What’s more is that this way of reading the scriptures draws one more into relationship with Jesus while keeping one from the pitfalls of both proof-texting to back pet agendas as well as a liberalism which would seek to make the Bible a set of inspirational stories only.  The Bible must be understood first and foremost as the story of Jesus.  My prayer is that this becomes more and more the way that the people of God learn to read the scriptures.

Note: I discuss some of these issues in a recent podcast from Northshore Vineyard entitled The Word that Transcends the Story   You can also download the audio from Northshore Vineyard Church

Friday, November 04, 2011

The Bible Made Impossible - A Review

“God said it, I believe it, that settles it!’
“BIBLE—Basic Instruction Before Leaving Earth”
“Vote responsibly—Vote the Bible!”
“Confused?  Read the directions [picture of the Bible].
“Have you read my #1 best seller [picture of the Bible]?  There is going to be a test.—God
“Have truth decay?  Brush up on your Bible!
“Got scripture?”

You have likely seen one of the above slogans on a billboard or church sign at some point in your life.  While these sayings are no doubt a little cheesy, author Christian Smith sees them as symptoms of a problem that has become entrenched in the modern evangelical church—biblicalism.  Smith defines biblicalism as a theory about the Bible that emphasizes together its exclusive authority, infallibility, perspicuity (clearly expressed and easily understood), self-sufficiency, internal consistency, self-evident meaning, and universal applicability.  As Smith sees it, this approach to the Bible makes the Bible impossible to understand or apply and many times makes an idol of the very book that would point us to the God.  Smith takes on this subject as well as what, in my opinion, is a much better way to approach the scriptures in his new book, The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicalism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture.

When I first became Christian I was taught (both by the words and actions of the Christians of whom I was around) that the Bible is the highest authority, that it is infallible, and that anyone can read it and hear from God with little outside help.  So… I jumped right in to reading what I could, which was usually a few verses here, and a few verses there.  Sometimes I even tried the method of asking God to show me something and then seeing what random page I would land on when I opened my Bible.  This worked particularly well one time when the Bible fell open to a passage from Isaiah 55:12 that said, “You shall go out with joy…”  Well, I did my best as a single college guy to follow the prompting of scripture by asking a girl named Joy out on a date.   

While this approach to reading the Bible seems kind of silly now, it was actually quite normal at that point in my journey.  Heck, I was just doing what I saw others do on a regular basis.  It was quite a regular occurrence to bump into people who had a real gift of taking obscure passages from the prophetic books of the Bible and turning them into personal prophecies of success, prosperity and healing.  I even have cassette tapes with many such words that were given to me personally. 

In my years as a Christian I have been around folks who have used the Bible to make a case that God intends that we all be vegetarians and others who say that God doesn’t want us to eat wheat (I guess we have to modify that part in the Lord’s Prayer about “gives us our daily bread”).  I have heard scriptural justifications for why we need to pay taxes as well as scriptural reasons as to why we don’t need to pay taxes.  I have heard those who use the Bible to say that America is the New Israel and others using the same Bible to make the case that America is the Whore of Babylon.  I have heard messages, again based on scriptures, on why dating is wrong as well as messages on why dating is perfectly acceptable.  These are just a few things that I have encountered personally but let’s not forget world history. 

Not to long back in our history some folks in the United States who owned slaves had very scriptural reasons for doing so (and not just from the Old Testament mind you) while others found a basis for freeing slaves in the same holy book.  There have been folks who have found reasons to take up arms and go to war as those who see passivism as the only scriptural option.  I could go on but the point I am making, which is made quite well by Christian Smith, is that Biblical authority isn’t nearly as cut and dry or black and white as many assume. 

Smith points to all of the division in the church over scripture to make the case that biblicalism is not only an erroneous way to approach the scriptures but also causing the fragmentation of the church.  In other words, if the scriptures were as easy to understand and as universally applicable as we have assumed then there should be less fragmentation and much more unity throughout the church.  And yet the biggest champions of Biblicalism seem to be the ones causing the most division.  Perhaps the problem has to do with the basic assumptions that people bring to the scriptures that don’t come from either the scriptures or from the authors from which they were written. 

Smith argues for a much more Christ centered and Trinitarian reading of scripture that grounds everything from the Old and New Testaments in the person of Jesus.  In other words, everything in the Old Testament is pointing to and finds its ultimate fulfillment in Jesus.  This certainly seemed to be what Jesus was getting at in John 5:39 “You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me!” (NLT)  In fact, as Scot Mcknight points out in The King Jesus Gospel, this is exactly how the early disciples learned to view the story of Israel as recorded in the Old Testament.  Though Peter, James, John, and Paul had all grown up with certain ideas about God from Judaism they ended up viewing them through the lens of Jesus Christ and his work.  For the early disciples this meant that everything from Passover to the Exodus, from the Law to the Temple was fulfilled in Jesus.  Sure this didn’t solve all the problems for how to read the scriptures but gave them a new framework on how to begin asking questions of what it meant to live as followers of King Jesus.  This helped the early disciples particularly when it came to matters of whether believers needed to be circumcised, keep Sabbath and issues of table fellowship (as presented in Galatians).  Christian Smith makes the case that far from being a “liberal” approach to scripture this approach is actually much more faithful to the intent of scriptures and much more evangelical (at its best).  

It was quite helpful reading this book on the heals of finishing Scot McKnight’s latest work, The King Jesus Gospel, and while in the middle of reading Simply Jesus by N.T. Wright (I would highly recommend reading all three together).  Reading these three books simultaneously is almost like sitting at a round table discussion with each author sharing their unique perspectives which are all united by both a highly Christological and narrative reading of scriptures. 

While this book was very insightful, I wished it had been a bit more concise and to the point (Smith certainly included a lot of research which made it thorough but a little too dense of a read for my taste).  Looking back on my own journey I really wished that someone would have given me a few of the simple tips mentioned in this book for how to approach the scriptures.  It would have saved me a lot of silliness and would have maybe gave me more clarity when I encountered Biblical abuse in the church as well.  It is refreshing to read the words of someone who, while believing in scriptural authority, also understands that the ultimate authority resides in JESUS THE MESSIAH.   

Continued Musings on Mumford and Sons...

So I was reading a blog post this morning on Mumford and Sons and got about halfway through only to realize that one of my past blogs Musings on Mumford and Sons and a Vineyard Conference was quoted quite extensively.  I had written that post shortly after being introduced to Mumford and Sons at a live gig in Phoenix, Az. and so the post was more of a first impression of an up an coming band.  So it was great to read A Deliberately Spiritual Thing today, an article that delves a bit deeper into the lyrics and spirituality of Mumford and Sons.  Check it out when you get a chance.