Theology Versus Morality, Part 3

Shepherdandsheep_1298569I ended Part 2, Theology Versus Morality by suggesting that there was perhaps more than one reason some readers want stories that show a “complete conversion”–one in which the protagonist apparently stops sinning.

The problem, of course, is that the story generally ends when the character conquers whatever problem he’s been plagued by, often by making a commitment to Christ. The implication is that ALL is solved and the character will never face the problem again. I suggested some read or write these stories because they put morality ahead of theology. Essentially they’re saying a moral life is the measure of a person’s relationship with God. It’s the same argument Job’s friends made.

But in the stories I’m talking about, the reward God gives is victory over sin.

And the truth is, God does give victory over sin. However, a new believer isn’t always free from addiction at the moment of conversion. Some people struggle. In fact, my guess is that more people identify with Paul’s statements in Romans 7 about the war between what he wants and what he does, than identify with what he said in Romans 6:

our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin. (vv 6-7)

Freed from sin, Paul says, but still struggling. Our fiction, however, seems to tell only the first part–freed from sin. Almost automatically. Almost magically. And those stories don’t ring true to readers who struggle with sin in their own lives.

Writers might be penning these stories because they have elevated morality above theology, but they also might write them because they have a philosophy of storytelling that values creating a model for readers to emulate.

A couple years ago I did some study for an article at Spec Faith and discovered that the novel in its earliest forms had two distinct purposes. One was “to invite the readers to mirror the virtues of the story heroes” (“The Point And Purpose Of Reading Fiction”).

I suspect this goal is still the desire of many writers. After all, we as a society copy those we look up to. That’s how fads and fashions catch on. That’s why ad companies use slogans like “Be like Mike,” a popular phrase back in the day when Michael Jordan was at the top of his game.

The key for Christian writers, I believe, is to show a character struggling, wrestling, working to turn away from evil and do good. After all, the Bible says a lot about morality. It would be one sided to pretend that God only cares about what we believe concerning Him, not what we do as a result of our belief.

But we must see morality as an outgrowth of our belief, not a means to gain right standing with God. And the depiction of morality in fiction must not confuse the two.

Some writers, however, believe that, rather than giving a model for readers to emulate, fiction should be a means to understand the world–natural and supernatural. To accomplish this, the writer must accurately and truthful reflect the world, warts and all.

This last approach creates stories that are in line with ones you can find in the book of Judges, involving such things as gang rape and murder, idolatry, betrayal, thievery, abuse, war. The idea is to discover and understand, “to expose life and society for what it is” (“The Point And Purpose Of Reading Fiction”).

These stories, then, subjugate theology to morality, but not for the sake of establishing right morality per se. Rather, a reflection of society, especially an unrestricted look at the underbelly, which exposes or critiques, is the goal.

Here are the two views, both holding theology at bay:

If we understand reading to be a mechanism by which we learn how to be or as a means for personal growth, then we probably want books that call us to godliness or at least to ethical behavior.

If on the other hand, we see reading as a reflection and critique of society, then we want stories that push our awareness of the world, including the seamy side of society. (“The Point And Purpose Of Reading Fiction”)

What I wonder is why those who want to “push our awareness of the world” don’t see as paramount the need to push our awareness of the spiritual side of the world. And by this, I’m not suggesting we need more stories about demons or angels in the vein of Frank Peretti. Rather, there seems to be a great desire to show cursing construction workers and women who sleep around, and not so much a desire to show a loving God who will tend His people like a shepherd, who will carry us with His arm, or hold us close to His chest, or gently lead us.

This is the picture God gives of Himself in Isaiah 40:11. Do we fiction writers think it’s unimportant for the world to understand God as He has shown Himself? Or do we give verbal assent to it but doubt in our hearts that He really shows Himself as He described?

That, I think, might be the key question Christian writers should ask of ourselves. Maybe that all of us should ask.

(Here are the links to Parts 1 and 2.)

Published in: on February 14, 2014 at 6:42 pm  Comments (4)  
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It Takes Work

No one likes to talk about it when they’re starting out, but it’s true — relationships take work. Friendships, business associations, marriages, sibling or any other familial connections, neighbors, and more — if the bond is to become strong, then the people involved need to work at getting along.

Perhaps the first and most important part of this work consists of getting to know the other person.

This is no less true for Christians getting to know the God with whom we’ve entered into relationship. Yes, relationship. One of the descriptions used a generation or so ago of someone redeemed by Christ’s blood was that he had a personal relationship with Jesus. That’s accurate, though coming to Christ might best be understood as meeting God. How strong the relationship, how deep the friendship, seems to depend on what happens next.

“Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you,” James says. But how, precisely, are we who are mortal and finite to engage the immortal and infinite? We couldn’t apart from His initiation of the relationship. For one thing, He’s revealed Himself in the world and in His word. We can go looking for Him in both.

Recently author friend Wayne Thomas Batson started a series of blog posts about knowing God. He’s making his way through the book of Matthew and one of the things he’s asking is, What do I learn about God from this passage?

It’s a great question, a great way to read Scripture, and a great way to learn more about God. Reading Wayne’s posts brought to mind a variety of ways I’ve approached Bible study. By far my best experiences have been studies without the filter of some other teacher or writer. Don’t misunderstand. I’ve done studies, and benefited from them, designed by a Bible teacher. But the ones that have impacted me most were the ones similar to what Wayne is doing.

The first one I did was when I was just starting out as a teacher. I got involved in a small group Bible study in my church, and we did a study of Romans, I think. It was unusual, to me. We had to commit to regular attendance, as I recall, and the structure of the study was to outline ahead of time the passage we’d be looking at. Outline! Fortunately I’d had a high school teacher who had been a stickler for outlining, so I didn’t shy away from it. And what I found was connection. I started seeing how one verse related to another, one thought illustrated a larger concept, how the parts all fit into the whole.

The key, though, was that we were to formulate an application based on our study, and that was to become the thing we asked the group to pray for us that week. Effective! So much so that when I went on a three-year short term mission, I ended up finding a small group willing to try the same study approach with the book of 2 Corinthians.

When I returned to the US, I initiated a Bible study with my class (I taught in a Christian school and the subject was Bible!) using a different method similar to what Wayne is doing. We studied three or four verses a week, first paraphrasing them, then answering five different questions, and finally making a personal application. The questions were (1) what do these verses teach me about God, (2) what sin do these verses show or teach me to avoid, (3) what command am I to obey, (4) what example am I to follow, (5) what promises do these verses give me to claim.

At some point, when I was having a hard time connecting with the Psalms, I decided to take the first question and write down in list form what each Psalm taught me about God.

Later there was a Bible study method a former principal had given us teachers which I found helpful, in particular as I prepared lessons for my high school Bible class.

The point is, there are lots of different ways of studying the Bible, but one thing I found to be true about them all. Well, two things. One, they took work. Two, I drew closer to God.

How can we not, if we spend significant time in Scripture?

In our relationships with other people, as we spend time with them we get to know facts about them — where they went to school, where they were born, what flavor ice cream they like, and so on. We also get to know their character — are they honest, do they gossip, are they funny. And we get to know their dreams and desires — what do they hope to do or become.

We can learn all those same things about God from what He’s told us about Himself in the Bible. Sure, He doesn’t give us His favorite color or food — probably because He likes them all equally, seeing as how He made them all — but He does tell us what He loves, what He’s passionate about, what He wants to see happen, what His character is like, what He’s done in the past, what He’s planning to do in the future.

Some things He comes right out and says (e.g., God is love) and some things He illustrates. Some things we have to deduce. (e.g., God created the universe, therefore God is creative).

The point is, God is a person, and as in any other relationship, if it is to grow, if it is to become strong, it takes work — a lifetime of work. That’s OK, because when we draw near to God, He draws near to us, and that makes it worthwhile.

Published in: on April 20, 2012 at 5:40 pm  Comments (3)  
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Clinging to God

A few weeks ago, a friend and I got to talking about the image that best characterizes our relationship with God. For me it was one of my arms wrapped around God and holding on for dear life, even as He in turn holds onto me.

I think this image is a result of several things. For one, I heard a story years ago about a dad with two disobedient children. He took the first by the hand and explained how the child’s actions earned him a spanking. But instead of submitting, this little one pulled against his daddy’s hold. As a result, the spanking was long and much more hurtful—the further the child strained from his father, the more sweeping and powerful the stroke of the paddle.

The father approached the second disobedient child, but this little one threw his arms around his father’s knees, sobbing out his sorrow for what he’d done. The Dad, faithful to his word, still spanked the little guy, but his strokes were short and the episode was over quickly.

When I heard that story, I knew I wanted to be that second child.

But here’s another factor that has given me this mental picture of me holding tight to God. Once when I was reading in the book of Deuteronomy, I saw this verse: “You shall follow the LORD your God and fear Him; and you shall keep His commandments, listen to His voice, serve Him, and cling to Him” (23:4).

The verse struck me so forcefully, I presented a staff devotion about what it means to cling to God. I tried to think of what in my world clings. One thing stood out above the rest—plastic wrap, the kind used to cover glass bowls to keep food fresh.

In my devotion I did a comparison. Wax paper might take the shape of a bowl as long as someone exerts pressure on it, but when left to itself it falls away. Aluminum foil gives the appearance of adhering, often even when it has been removed from the bowl. Plastic wrap, on the other hand, clings to the glass even when nothing is holding it in place, even when the bowl goes upside down.

This image had such a powerful effect on me, I turned the devotion into an object lesson for my Bible class.

Is it any wonder I see my relationship with God the way I do? 😉

Imagine how delighted I was a few days after the discussion with my friend, when I found Psalm 63:8 – “My soul clings to You; Your right hand upholds me.”

This one was especially cool because it contains both parts—me clinging to God and God holding me up. What a safe place to be.

Published in: on July 12, 2010 at 2:47 pm  Comments (3)  
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The Problem with Salvation

When I was a kid, growing up in a Christian home, I attended Sunday school regularly. My first recollection of an explanation about sin and salvation is tied to heaven and hell.

Later I attended a Bible club and received a Wordless Book that reinforced the concepts.

Clearly, I did not want to go to Hell. If Heaven was the only alternative, then that’s where I wanted to go, and if Jesus could get me there, then I wanted to accept Him “into my heart.”

I had to get past the idea of a shrunken version of Jesus fitting into my heart, and one Sunday school teacher was able to explain, it was actually the Holy Spirit who would live in my heart.

Why didn’t they just say so, I thought. I had a vague understanding of the Holy Spirit because a lot of hymns called Him the Holy Ghost. Ghosts didn’t sound holy to me, so I had already asked my parents about that one. I don’t remember what they told me, but it must have been adequate for a child’s understanding because I wasn’t troubled by further questions until much later.

But I digress. From my own experience, from listening to others tell their testimony and to some venting about unhappy religious backgrounds, I see confusion when it comes to the issue of salvation.

In part I think this is because some of us never grow up in our understanding of God. But another contributing factor, I think, is that I had an experience of being saved from Hell rather than an experience of being saved to God.

Any teacher, coach, and most parents will tell you that part of training involves laying out consequences. God deals with us the same way. He tells us what the wages of sin is, just as He warned Adam what would happen if he ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

So Sunday school teachers who spoke of Hell were not inventing something or using scare tactics. They were telling the truth.

However, escape from Hell isn’t all that great in and of itself. For years I worried about boredom sitting on those clouds, playing a miniature harp for all those years of eternity.

Eventually my understanding began to grow and my relationship with God began to develop, but it took years.

I had one friend in college who had serious questions about God, in part because she had questions about eternity. My answers were woeful and unbiblical, and she dismissed Christianity in the face of them.

That experience drove me to ask more questions.

Here’s what I’ve learned so far.

  • Salvation seems to be less important to some people than their efforts to earn it.
  • Salvation is much more about being in God’s company than anything else. The real terror isn’t Hell. It’s separation from God. Conversely, Heaven is only great because God makes it great.
  • Christ provides the only access to God.
  • Because salvation is really a relationship, it is dynamic.
  • I don’t have to wait for “later” to experience the joy of my salvation.
  • The relationship I now have with God grows like any other relationship. If I spend time with Him, I am close to Him. If I don’t, I’m not.
  • Right now, my relationship with God is more like an Internet friendship. I know Him in part, in the ways He’s revealed Himself to me. Someday, I’ll know Him in person.
Published in: on August 11, 2009 at 10:31 am  Comments (9)  
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God and Fiction – A Look at The Shack, Part 5

Business first. Our May CSFF Top Tour Blogger Award poll ended without identifying a consensus winner, so we’re holding a run-off between the following:

The Run-off Poll will be open through next Tuesday.

– – –

On to The Shack. Without a doubt, my biggest concern about this book by William P. Young is its portrayal of God.

In actual fact, God has revealed Himself in His work of Creation and His Word—prophetic, written, and Incarnate. The latter is often referred to as “special revelation,” I assume because God did something that wouldn’t be considered the norm. Consequently, when He appeared to Moses in the burning bush, bushes didn’t become sacred, nor did lighting them on fire become a way to communicate with God. 😉

The thing that is most notable is how people reacted to special revelation. Here are a few examples (emphasis in each of the verses is mine):

  • Abram (later named Abraham by God) when God came to establish His covenant with him – “Abram fell on his face” (Gen. 17:3a).
  • Jacob, when God appeared to him in a dream – “He was afraid and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven'” (Gen. 28:17).
  • Moses at the aforementioned burning bush – “Then Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God” (Ex. 3:6b).
  • Samson’s parents when the angel prophesied his birth – “So Manoah said to his wife, ‘We will surely die, for we have seen God'” (Judges 13:22).
  • The people of Israel at Mount Sinai – “The Lord came down on Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain … All the people perceived the thunder and the lightning flashes and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they trembled … Moses said to the people, ‘Do not be afraid for God has come in order to test you, and in order that the fear of Him may remain with you, so that you may not sin'” (Ex. 19:20-20:20).
  • Isaiah in response to a vision of the Lord – “Woe is me, for I am ruined!/Because I am a man of unclean lips,/And I live among a people of unclean lips; For my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts” (Is. 6:5).
  • Ezekiel in response to his vision of God – “Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. And when I saw it, I fell on my face” (Ez. 1:28b).
  • Daniel in response to his vision, of an angel or of the pre-incarnate Christ – “Now I, Daniel, alone saw the vision, while the men who were with me did not see the vision; nevertheless, a great dread fell on them, and they ran away to hide themselves. So I was left alone and saw this great vision; yet no strength was left in me, for my natural color turned to a deathly pallor, and I retained no strength” (Dan. 10:7-8).
  • John, Jesus’s beloved disciple, when he saw the vision of the resurrected and glorified Christ – “When I saw Him, I fell at His feet like a dead man. And He placed His right hand on me, saying, ‘Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living One'” (Rev. 1:17-18a).

I’m belaboring this point for a reason. Consistently, throughout Scripture, when people had an encounter with the Living God, they responded with fear and trembling. That’s because God shows Himself to be Almighty, Glorious, Majestic, Holy. He is transcendent, unsurpassable, unique, beyond all we can imagine. His presence left people speechless. All they could do was fall on their faces.

Does the god of The Shack remotely resemble God?

She “messes with Mack” (p. 219); says she submits to him (rather than the other way around – p. 145); is unpredictable on purpose (p. 128), apparently because there’s more fun in mystery (“Who wants to worship a God who can be fully comprehended, eh? Not much mystery in that.” p. 100); refers to being perpetually satisfied as a “perk” for being God (p. 99); tells crude jokes; shows love without showing justice (pp. 161-163)—in other words, appears as anything but He Who is high and lifted up.

My impression, from Mr. Young’s imaginings, is that God the Father is more like a comfortably kind nanny; Jesus, like one of the good ol’ boys; and the Holy Spirit, like an ethereal sister.

Where is worship? The closest comes when Mack stumbles around to say thanks for his meal.

I understand that Mr. Young wants to stress God’s love and the relationship we can have with Him. But I believe this Shack view of God damages the true understanding of our relationship with God. Because He is the ruler of the universe, Creator and sustainer of all that has being, AND He loves me … how can I do other than fall to my knees in amazement and submission.

Seeing God in His glory, recognizing how unworthy I am to be in His presence, let alone be held in His hand, then realizing He sent His Son to bleed and die so I could know Him, astounds me.

Does The Shack help me see a kinder, gentler God who I’d want to hang with? Not at all. While God is infinitely kind and gentle, He is also just and holy. To ignore some of His traits is not to know Him as He has revealed Himself, putting into question the very existence of any true relationship.

Can I imagine chumming with God, as Mack apparently does for several days? Sort of. Like a child does with his dad. But If a child no longer sees his dad as a rightful authority in his life, then he’s no longer relating child to father. The Shack basically ignores God’s authority, His position as King and as Lord. Whatever relationship it is advocating, it is not the one God offers us.

Series continued in Part 6.

Published in: on May 29, 2009 at 1:06 pm  Comments (7)  
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