Monday, December 17, 2012

God Did It (November CT)

What follows is my most recent Christianity Today column (from the November issue)--addressing the creation debate and some fundamental issues concerning the way we read Scripture..  It was a piece I resisted writing for a long time--I knew it would trouble several of my close friends and quite possibly my mom--but I eventually decided the stakes around these matters are too high to not try to at least have some dialogue about them.  The column generated "dialogue" indeed ... from enthusiastic endorsement to heated denouncement.  I'd love to know what you think.

God Did It

But I don't know exactly how the world was created.

Carolyn Arends

Recently, my 14-year-old son announced he was leaning toward attending a Christian university, which sounded good to me. But I was troubled by his reason: "I don't want to sit in some biology class in a secular school and be told I descended from apes."

I was surprised. Although I was a keen young-earth creationist as a teenager, my understanding has evolved (pun unavoidable) to the point where the notion of gradual creation over eons isn't a threat to my faith. "Have you considered the possibility that God may have used evolutionary processes in his creation of the world?" I asked.

"No! Mom! I believe the Bible!"

"Me too," I assured him. "But I think it's possible that Genesis 1 and 2 are more about the who of creation than the how."

Later that night, I read him something Billy Graham wrote in 1964:
I don't think that there's any conflict at all between science today and the Scriptures. I think … we've tried to make the Scriptures say things they weren't meant to say …. The Bible is not a book of science. The Bible is a book of Redemption, and of course I accept the Creation story …. I believe that God created man, and whether it came by an evolutionary process … makes no difference as to what man is and man's relationship to God.
"Maybe you're not a total heretic," said my son.

After we both exhaled some relieved laughter, I whispered, "I believe God created the world and holds it together. Just how he did that is up for debate, but whatever conclusions you come to about the earth's origins, God did it. Okay?"

I've since been able to explain that it wasn't science that changed my position on creation. I know there's consensus in the scientific community regarding the age of the earth and the importance of genetic variation, but I also know there are many areas of contention. Besides, if I believed that the Bible truly asked me to reject the scientific consensus, it would be the end of the debate.

But it's actually been biblical scholarship that has convinced me that Genesis does not prescribe any particular scientific view. A significant number of Hebrew scholars who affirm the authority of Scripture argue that the biblical creation accounts simply are not concerned with the science of creation at all, having been written long before the dawn of enlightenment empiricism.

These scholars affirm two important principles. First, although the Bible is written for us (and for all people in all times), it was not written to us. Thus, we must understand what any particular passage meant to its original audience before we can know what it means for us. Second, the Bible is not a book; it's a library containing books of many different dates and genres. That's why it's not inconsistent to read Genesis 1 and 2 as an (inspired) ancient Near Eastern cosmology that poetically declares Yahweh to be the Creator, while reading the Gospels as (inspired) first-century, biographical-historical eyewitness accounts of events.

In 2009, Answers in Genesis published Already Gone, in which they link a reported exodus of young people from the church to a variety of factors, including and especially doubts those kids have about the literal accuracy of Genesis. They conclude that it's critical to affirm the "authority of Scripture" by teaching children that six-day creationism is the only faithful understanding.

Of course, there's a different way to interpret that data. If we've misread Genesis when we've taken it as a scientific account, and if it turns out God has used millions of years and evolutionary processes to make this world, then we've asked our children to believe something untrue as part of accepting the gospel. Couldn't that lead them to leave the church, when the cognitive dissonance between the empirical data and what we're asking them to believe becomes too great?

Granted, allowing the possibility of evolutionary creation is fraught with difficulty. It requires a hermeneutic more nuanced than reading every genre of the Bible as a postenlightenment textbook. It demands a careful delineation between the theory of evolution (which describes a process) and a philosophy of naturalism (which assumes that the process is all there is). And it brings up all sorts of new issues of theodicy.

But there's no point in hiding these difficulties from our children. The world—and our understanding of God's ways within it—has always been full of mystery and challenge. Our task is to raise up believers willing to affirm the authority of the Bible in all its fascinating and culturally situated complexity. We need kids who are unafraid to ask the sorts of tough and exciting theological, philosophical, and scientific questions you can only ask when you know that, however this world came to be, God did it.

Carolyn Arends


Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Taste the Soup (October CT Column)

Taste the Soup

Sometimes understanding follows obedience.

A man goes into a deli, orders the matzo ball soup, and motions the waiter back to his table.

"Taste the soup," says the man.

"Sir, is something wrong?" asks the waiter. "I can get you another bowl right away."

"Taste the soup," says the man.

"Sir, is there something you want me to tell the chef?"

"Taste the soup."

"Fine," says the waiter, exasperated. "I'll taste it. Where's the spoon?"

"Aha!" says the man.

Sometimes you have to do what's being asked of you before you understand why it's required. You have to be willing to taste the soup in order to discover the spoon is missing. In religious parlance: "Understanding follows obedience." It's an axiom every bit as true as it is vexing. Psalm 111 observes that "all who follow [God's] precepts have good understanding"—not the other way around.

Lately, for me, the command to "taste the soup" has been about attending church. Trouble is, I just haven't felt like going.

I've been sliding into pews (or modern equivalents) from infancy; my vocation has taken me to hundreds of churches around the world. I've met some of my dearest friends and endured some of my darkest betrayals in youth rooms, foyers, and sanctuaries. I've cried, sung, prayed, committed, disconnected, recommitted, scribbled sermon notes, doodled, been wounded, been healed, encountered the Mystery, and dozed off—sometimes all in the same service.

There are seasons when Sunday can't come soon enough. The gifts church has given me are too numerous to list.

But there are also stretches of disillusionment. Times when the songs that once ushered me into a profound awareness of God's presence seem suddenly schlocky and manipulative. Mornings when I can't find anyone I know during the "greeting" time, and a previously cozy ritual morphs into a caricature of superficial community. Those are the Sundays I struggle with the sermon and feel my theological earnestness hardening into elitism, discernment distorting into self-righteousness.

Like anyone who has logged serious pew time, I've got reasons to be jaded. I've seen churches split over trivia while they trivialize glaring immorality amongst their leaders. I've encountered gossip posing as prayer, and bullying masquerading as "spiritual guidance." I've watched the realignment and reduction of the gospel into a business plan for membership growth or personal improvement.

Most damaging of all, I've looked into my own heart and known that if my pew-mates are anything like me, church is composed of frail humans, each of us an unreliable, potentially dangerous mess of conflicting motives and wavering intentions.

People who complain that church is boring have no idea. Church is scary.

So I sell myself the half-truth that church is something we are rather than something we do. I stay home with my theology textbooks and Bible and enjoy a dissension-free congregation of one. I console myself with an online network of enlightened individuals who share both my convictions and my cynicisms. We satirize the excesses of organized religion, feeling cleverer than we ought about shooting the fish in our own barrels. We create a virtual but significant community. And for a while, it's enough.

There's just one problem. Beneath my rhetoric of antilegalism, enlightenment, and self-protection there remains a still, small—but increasingly insistent—voice. And it's telling me to taste the soup.

The biblical witness indicates that when God gets hold of people, they almost always work out the implications in groups. This has never been an easy process. The Israelites praise, squabble, fail, and repent together in a seemingly endless cycle. The Christians in the apostle Paul's churches alternately thrill and break their pastor's heart over and over again. But they keep at it, and with every try Paul grows more passionate about the ragtag crew of notoriously fallible humans who so thoroughly are the church that they can't help but do church together. Striving to convey the profound connection between Jesus and the people who gather in his name, Paul employs only the most intimate metaphors—we are Christ's bride, or his very body.

The triune God has always been into community. And community, I am forced to admit, ultimately requires meeting together with flesh and blood folks I cannot "block" or "unfriend" should they become annoying. It means getting close enough to hug and to arm wrestle, to build (and sometimes hold) each other up, even as we risk letting each other down.

It is important to remember that "tasting the soup" is not the same as "drinking the Kool-Aid." We are not required to unthinkingly remain in toxic or abusive environments, or even to follow a particular structure or meet on a certain day. Obedience in this area is simply intentional proximity with a group of people who love Jesus and each other. It is coming together to his table, if only because that is what he asks us to do. And it is trusting that he'll show us not only the spoons we're missing, but also the feast he has in store.

Monday, July 2, 2012

In On the Joke of the Bible (June CT Column)

In On the Joke of the Bible

Why we can't get the New Testament without the Old.

Carolyn Arends | In the June 2012 issues of Christianity Today, posted online 07/02/2012

My kids finally saw The Princess Bride, a movie their dad and I have loved since our college days. There is something wonderful about watching your favorite people watch one of your favorite films. In this case, the added bonus was observing the light come into their eyes as they discovered the origin of several quirky things their parents routinely say. "Hey!" they shouted with a shock of recognition when Westley first said, "As you wish"—a line they've heard their father utter hundreds of times. Vizzini's "Inconceivable!" produced a similar response. By the time we got to the ROUS (Rodents of Unusual Size), our kids were grinning with the particular delight of cracking a previously mystifying code. They were in on the joke, and they liked it.

Language is much more than grammar and syntax. It is layer upon layer of collective memory and shared meaning, so that simple phrases like, "Houston, we have a problem," "Et tu, Brute?," "Remember the Alamo," or even "Yada, yada, yada" can carry worlds of meaning. You can't master a dialect without also learning the culture in which it is embedded.

In my quest to learn the "Gospel Language," I have often been oblivious to the shared experience assumed by the biblical writers. Jesus and his earliest followers were Jews; they held in their collective memory a particular story of a particular people, loaded with mutually understood points of reference. When I've read the New Testament only dimly aware of the symbolic world of the Old Testament, I've barely skimmed the surface of an ocean of meaning.

Certainly, I've grasped that Jesus' choice of 12 disciples has something to do with Yahweh's calling of the 12 tribes of Israel. But until recently, I remained oblivious to the way his baptism and desert temptation evoke the foundational story of the Israelite Exodus through Red Sea waters and into the wilderness. I've been duly impressed with the Lord's ability to command the stormy waters to be still (Matt. 8:26-27), but I've missed the Israelite shock at this man from Nazareth doing something that, according to the Hebrew Scriptures, only Yahweh can do. And although I've understood some of the significance of Jesus' transfiguration right before the eyes of Peter, James, and John, I've forgotten that the Israelites had been waiting since the Exile for the Shekinah—the visible glory of the Lord—to return.

Maybe the most significant reference I've missed has to do with Jesus' final words on the cross. That awful cry—My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?—has haunted my struggle to understand exactly what transpired (Matt. 27:46; Mark 15:34). Was Jesus, for a devastating moment, utterly alone and without hope? How that cry is processed has all sorts of implications for theology—not least for the way we conceive of the Atonement and of the relationality of God's triunity. More personally, it shapes the way I perceive my own experiences of abandonment.

I've known, in a vague way, that with his cry Jesus was quoting the beginning of Psalm 22, a passage so familiar to his friends that to utter the first line would have been tantamount to reciting the entire thing. Psalm 22 is an anguished prayer of David, spoken as a godly sufferer awaiting deliverance. It's the most frequently quoted Psalm in the New Testament. And its parallels to the Crucifixion are chilling:

A band of evil men has encircled me,
they have pierced my hands and my feet.
I can count all my bones;
people stare and gloat over me.
They divide my garments among them
And cast lots for my clothing. (vv. 16b-18, NIV 1984)

The psalm is so shot through with suffering, it's hard to imagine any more appropriate reference Jesus could have made. But it's essential to know that the only thing in Psalm 22 that runs as deeply and vividly as the speaker's pain is his unshakable hope:

You who fear the Lord, praise him! …
For he has not despised or disdained
the suffering of the afflicted one;
he has not hidden his face from him
but has listened to his cry for help. (vv. 23a, 24, NIV 1984)

Both Matthew and Mark note that some of the onlookers misunderstood Jesus' cry, mishearing the Aramaic word for "my God"—Eloi—as Elijah. I wonder if, in including that detail, they aren't cautioning us to pay attention to exactly what Jesus is saying.

The Cross is a mystery, and no human should expect to understand it fully. But if we want to be conversant in the language of the gospel, we need to be able to say at least this: At Calvary, Jesus felt the deepest level of anguish ever known, and yet he could still, in his Psalm 22 declaration, point to the presence, faithfulness, and anticipated deliverance of his Father—the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the God of our salvation.


Friday, May 25, 2012


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Sunday, April 1, 2012

Defending Scripture. Literally (April CT Column)

Defending Scripture. Literally.

Not everything the Bible has to say should be literally interpreted. But that doesn't make it less powerful.

Carolyn Arends | In the April, 2012 issues of Christianity Today, posted online 04/01/2012

I attended a Christian university in the long ago days of acid wash denim and Commodore 64s. One of my classmates, Ken Jacobsen, had a gift for impersonation. He was renowned for his imitation of Bono on the U2 song "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For." "I have spoke with the tongue of angels," he'd croon when he got to the fourth verse. "I have held the hand of a devil." But then he'd alter the lyric and sing, "N-o-t literally. It's only a metaphor." That always got a huge laugh.

It's been decades, but I still remember the joke. I realize now it was humorous not only for its inherent silliness, but also for the way it held up a mirror to something funny about ourselves.

Most of us were earnest, sincere evangelicals. We weren't biblical studies majors, but we saw the defense of the Bible as our sworn duty. Against the onslaught of those who sought to undermine Scripture's authority, we committed ourselves to upholding it as the reliable Word of God.

One of the unintended side effects of our fervor was that we took almost everything literally, at least in spiritual matters. Generally, we weren't very good with oblique metaphors and analogies. And if, like Bono, you talked about spiritual things in a seemingly unorthodox way, well, we worried.

There was much that was good about our impulses, and maybe they were necessary in a time when the "battle for the Bible" was raging. But for me, and, I suspect, others like me, our "literalist" convictions left us confused in significant ways—not only about song lyrics, but, much more tragically, about Scripture itself.

All these years later, I'm learning that understanding the literal meaning of the Bible is a more nuanced adventure than my college friends and I imagined. We'd been blithely unaware that there is more than one genre in the Bible, or that literary context profoundly matters to meaning. We didn't understand that when we read ancient Hebrew prose poems (like Genesis 1), wisdom literature (like Proverbs), or apocalyptic literature (like Revelation) as if they were science textbooks, we were actually obscuring their meaning.

For me, the most negative consequence of all that well-intentioned literalism was the conviction that Yahweh, having given us his straightforward Word, was completely comprehensible. This paradigm both diminished my perception of God and set up my faith for crisis when I discovered aspects of God that remain stubbornly shrouded in mystery.

If you'd told me back then that the language we have for God—even (especially) much of our biblical language—must be understood analogically, I would have prayed for you and backed away slowly. I wouldn't have understood that there are no words that can be applied to God exactly the same way they are applied to creaturely things, no language that can be used "univocally."

When I say that I am "alive" and God is "alive," the word "alive" is analogical, not univocal—it does not apply to me (a temporal creature) the same way it applies to God (who is eternal). The same goes for words like "good" or "powerful." Connotations of imperfection or limitation must be deleted from any word when it is applied to God, and the notions (as best as we can conceive them) of total perfection and completion must be added.

Understanding this sooner would have helped me with biblical descriptions of God's "wrath." I can only get a glimmer of what God's wrath looks like when I divest the word of the human implications of self-centered, reactionary anger, and condition it with the unchanging goodness that must clarify all of God's attributes. Or take the word "Father." The claim that God is our heavenly "Father" can ultimately mean something wonderful, even to my friends who had terrible human dads, because the word is not used univocally when it's applied to God.

J. I. Packer likens our relationship with God to that of a two-year-old with a father who has a brain of Einsteinian proportions. To make relationship possible, the father will have to accommodate himself to the toddler he loves. The child will know her daddy, but she won't completely comprehend him. What the father reveals to the daughter will be true, as far as it goes. But there will always be more.

We shouldn't be surprised (or worried) that in his overtures to us God uses every kind of language available—straightforward (but culturally lensed) historical narrative, analogy, metaphor, parable, poetry, apocalyptic vision, and, hallelujah, the Word made flesh, Jesus. The best way to receive his Word is with the humble conviction that not only can we find what we're looking for, it (he) will be more than we could hope for, imagine, or fully comprehend. That's the best news there is.


Copyright © 2012 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Other Prodigal Son (New CT Column)

Wrestling with Angels
The Other Prodigal Son
The Prodigal's coming-home gala was for both sons.
Growing up in Sunday school, I was very familiar with the Prodigal Son—at least as he was rendered in flannelgraph. I disapproved of his behavior with righteous indignation; as the first-born child of a Baptist household, I empathized with the older brother. How was it fair that the bad boy got a party and the good one didn't? It wasn't until I was much older that I realized the story was infinitely more about the father's love than the prodigal's misconduct.

Only recently, however, have I begun to discover that the older son in Jesus' story is every bit as lost as the younger one. In his book The Prodigal God, Timothy Keller points out that the two brothers represent the two basic ways people try to make life work. The younger son pursues "self-discovery"—he's on a quest to find and fulfill himself, even if a few people have to get hurt along the way. The older brother is committed to a more socially respectable way of being in the world—the way of "moral conformity." He's on a program of self-salvation, earning the approval of his community and the favor of his father; when he feels the terms of this deal are violated, his good attitude evaporates into resentment.

Kenneth Bailey is a theologian who spent 40 years living in the Middle East, striving to resituate Jesus' stories in their original Palestinian context. He points out that for Jesus' audience, respect for one's father is paramount; the younger son's request for his inheritance from a still-healthy patriarch constitutes an unthinkable offense. It amounts to saying, "I wish you were dead."

But the older son's conduct—refusing to join the party for his brother and arguing with his dad in front of the guests—is no less egregious. Hospitality was of supreme value in 1st-century Palestine. The entire village would likely have been invited to the party, and the oldest son would be expected to co-host the proceedings. His refusal is another round of humiliating rejection for the father. But the father actually goes out looking for this son, entreating him to come join the party, and Jesus leaves the story unfinished. Will the son abandon his own plan for making life work and accept the extravagant gift of his father's love and inclusion? Or will he stick to the terms of his deal and exclude himself from his place in the family?

I was discussing this story not long ago with a Bible study group made up mostly of "older brothers" and "older sisters." We'd played by the rules much of our lives, but we were beginning to see that our good behavior had been at least subconsciously a form of self-salvation—an attempt to earn God's approval and maybe even obligate him to do what we wanted. When we considered the fact that Jesus told this story to the Pharisees (older brothers if ever there were some!) in response to their outrage over his association with "sinners," we realized the parable is primarily about the father's relationship with the older son. "How did this story about two sons ever even get called 'The Prodigal Son'?" one of us asked. "An older brother must have named it!" was the answer.

As we pondered the implications, one of the women confessed, "Still, it doesn't seem fair that the father had never thrown a party for the older son." ?Several of us admitted that we, too, related to the son's complaint.

We moved on to another of Jesus' stories: the parable of the Great Banquet. I began to wonder if, from Jesus' perspective, having a feast thrown in one's honor is a blessing, but being invited to help the father host the banquet is a vastly greater gift. My husband and I love holding pool parties in our backyard. When things go well—when lots of people come and the food is tasty and there is laughter and music and good conversation—there is a particular satisfaction and intimacy we share as we debrief together over the cleanup.

Maybe the father in Jesus' story felt he could honor and bless his oldest boy more by inviting him into the deep relationship of mutual service than by merely giving him a party of his own. Maybe becoming a Christian is not only accepting Jesus into my life, but also accepting his incredible invitation to be a part of his life—to participate missionally in the triune God's cosmic plan of redemption.

As Jesus tells it, the Father is hosting a lavish banquet, and we're invited—not because of our own merit, but because he loves us. And there's more. He's invited us to help him throw the party—neither as servants nor as guests, but as family.